Monday, February 16, 2015

50th - Number 1

My 50th high school reunion will be this June.  Along with other classmates we'll be assembling a collection of reminiscences about our lives then and our lives now.  Below is my first submission.  All you need to know is that Kent School is in the northwest corner of Connecticut and that I began there in 8th grade.

Sunday afternoon of Parents’ Weekend, in October of 1960, Second Form year, I kissed my parents, stoically waved goodbye, and watched our 1953 robin’s egg blue and white Buick Roadmaster roll out of the North Dorm parking lot and cross the bridge into Kent.  I ran back to the window at the end of the Middle Dorm South hallway where I could look out across the river, beyond the wide field with a single barn sitting in the middle of it, and wait for a last look at the Roadmaster making its way down Route 7, tears streaming down my face. 
It’s taken years to realize how lonely and unhappy I felt during much of my early time at Kent.  Back then I played into the notion that I wanted to go away, unaware of my own feelings or too afraid to speak up and tell my parents I’d rather be at home.  How could I speak up given the sacrifices they were making to give me the best education they could afford, to give me opportunities they’d never had?  Sacrifices that included driving that old Roadmaster into the ground, until one Christmas Eve after a midnight service it refused to go into reverse in a snowy church parking lot and mastered roads no more.
For me the forced purchase of a new car prompted great relief.  I could return to Kent after Christmas break secure that the antique Roadmaster was no longer fuel for taunts. My family would arrive at Kent in something new and shiny.  One less chink in my armor for tormentors to exploit.  My relief was short-lived.  Tormentors continued unabated with clever new and recycled old material. 
Third Form remains the absolute nadir of my existence on this planet.  Having endured the prior year where I arrived as the smallest boy in the school (4’ 11” and 87 lbs.) and shouldered the eponym Embryo (earned while scriming for food – thanks Perry Wroth!), as well as sharing sufferings, humiliations and deprivations with all my classmates, I naively believed a new era would dawn, relieved from bullying and oppression.  For me, Algo’s haze was never rent that year.  Rather, as I waded through Pilgrim’s Progress in English class learning about the Slough of Despond, I never fully connected to my own hurt, angry, lonely, up-to-chin-level deep slough.  Yes, there were French fries at a soccer banquet, a kind reward for being a ball boy.  Yes, there was Junior hockey.  Most everything else felt like a re-run of the initiation rite we’d withstood the year before.  The sky seemed always grey, my mood always blue, no matter what I might have tried to pretend outwardly.  I recall one teary meltdown in a German class after lunch.  I’d just gotten the worst grades I’d ever received in my life, far worse.  I have no idea what comment, what rebuke, what slight set me off, but there I was – in front of Bill Kurtz, in front of Steve Alpern, in front of George Harvey, in front of Herr Cartwright, in front of the WORLD crying out of control until I got to leave class to pull myself together in a Schoolhouse bathroom.
Fourth Form Year I returned late from a hockey practice in a rush to clean up for Friday night inspection. Peter Lewine and I began to argue over who should do what, or who hadn’t done what. Failing the inspection was imminent.  Words turned to wrestling.  I remember rolling around on the floor when a thumbtack (which should, of course. have been swept up) pierced my back.  Then more thrashing around and my leg kicking the large blue and yellow Triple S Stamps sign that decorated our room.  It rang like a gong and crashed to the floor.  The hullabaloo attracted our floor inspector, George Bourne.  Sadist that he was, he stood there and egged us on for his own entertainment, baiting us while knowing full well we were forfeiting any chance to pass the inspection.   He’d get the double pleasure of watching a fight and then stinging us hours. In short order Phil Davis, Senior Prefect, arrived to inspect.  One more time my eyes welled to overflowing, as I couldn’t hold back my frustration while trying to reason with adolescent authority.  No luck.  But I’d begun the practice of speaking up and taking care of myself. These were neither tears of self-pity nor remorse, but pent up passion and rage breaking through.
Some of the worst moments of my life were at Kent.  How could they not have been, given adolescence?  I recently listened to a TED talk by the writer and lecturer, Andrew Solomon, about how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.  Solomon has led me to ponder how I, or we, may have forged meaning over the past fifty years from our experience at Kent.  He mentions avoidance and endurance, two tactics I employed generously in navigating my early Kent years.  Solomon says, “Avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning.   After you’ve forged meaning you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity.    You need to take the traumas and make them a part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt. “
Fifty years later we are clearly, and blessedly, not the same people.  I speculate on what Kent made out of us, and what we made out of Kent.  Never a chemistry student, I struggle to understand the molten amalgam that helped form us, may have galvanized us in some way, and created bonds between us.     
A little over two years ago Kent would bring me to tears again.  Our son, William, died of a heroin overdose.  I arrived early at the church where his memorial service was held.  As people began arriving, I found myself walking down the aisle to greet them, touched over and over by the outpouring of support.  My trips up and down the aisle became a reunion.  Classmates going to great lengths, in distance traveled, inconvenience put aside, or both, to be with us.  In a way life had come full circle.  A boy separated from his family. Only now I was the father, missing that boy so very sorely.  
As I rose to deliver a eulogy for William, there they were.  Dear friends.  Lifelong friends.  Kent friends, providing the comfort necessary to carry on.  We’d been through so much together, beginning with our dawn at Kent and on into the fullness of our lives.  As I began perhaps the most difficult task of my life, celebrating my son’s far too short life, there was no better support, no finer evidence of the better selves we’ve become than the compassionate faces letting me know how much they were there for me.      


Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Baby and The Bathwater

In late January Johann Hari wrote a piece on The Huffington Post titled The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered and It Is Not What  You Think.  Almost immediately several friends contacted me to see what I thought about it. Not a great deal, in short.  I fumed and fussed a bit, but didn’t write about it until I saw this essay by a friend of mine, David Cooke. Go here both to read David’s essay and to learn about his good work through 100 Pedals.  While you’re at it check out his podcasts.  I’m proud to say I was a guest of his recently.
Dave’s writing moved me to learn about Mr. Hari’s work and to respond to Dave.  There is a fair amount of reading involved here.  The original Hari piece.  Some well thought out responses by Dave and Peg O’Connor, plus my response to Dave below.  I think it’s worth your time as we continue to sort out what substance use disorder is, how it should be treated, and its impact on individuals and their families. 

 My response:

I am responding to Dave Cooke, a man I admire and consider a friend.  We’ve shared similar, if not congruent, journeys with our sons.  I write here to Dave, but also to others who have read any or all of the essays and articles mentioned.  I am NOT; repeat NOT attempting to start an argument with Dave here. 
If I understand Dave correctly, or Peg O’Connor, or Dr. Drew, their message in response to the Hari essay is “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Hari makes useful and valid points.  Unfortunately the title of his piece is ill conceived.  By stating that  “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered…” he both oversimplifies and misleads.  
As a father who has lost a son to heroin addiction, I can vouch from personal experience to the complexity of the disease.  No sooner had Hari’s article appeared in The Huffington Post than I had friends asking for my opinion of what Hari had to say.  In turn, I corresponded with more friends and family about the article.  One, Barry Walsh wrote the following, which I thinks explains nicely how Hari oversimplifies.  Barry wrote me:  Anything as complex as addiction is multi variate. People like simple solutions - especially the press because it's always move on to the next story... Some people have brains that are especially vulnerable to addiction and then there are all the psychological and environmental contributors. As a therapist for 40 years I've found people are more complex than rats ... Thank god...”
The key to what Barry is saying, as do Dave and Peg O’Connor is that addiction is multi variate.  Neither the cause nor the treatment for each and every individual is as simple or easy as we might like to make them.  My son has been dead for over two years and our family still wrestles with identifying the various causes and actions that led to his overdose death.  We’ll never know it all, but our attempt to gain clarity might help others.  We do know there are things he could have done differently and things he had no control over.  The same goes for his parents and those who treated him along the way.  We might gain easy satisfaction in assigning blame.  We do better to find out what we can learn from a personal tragedy, a tragedy becoming all the more common in other households in this country.   
Unfortunately the bathwater with Mr. Hari’s baby is murky.  He makes it difficult to spot the baby and hang on to it.  What do I mean?  He is a sloppy journalist.  An easy trip to Wikipedia yields this:  Johann Eduard Hari (born 21 January 1979) is a British writer and journalist who wrote columns for The Independent (London) and The Huffington Post and made contributions to other publications. In 2011, he was suspended from The Independent after charges of plagiarism. He was also accused of making improper edits to several of his critics' Wikipedia pages under a pseudonym. [2][3] The news led to his returning his 2008 Orwell Prize[4] and later was a contributing factor in his leaving The Independent.”  We all make mistakes, and Mr. Hari has worked hard publicly at atoning for his.  He says as much on the website for his new book Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs.  In particular he and his publisher go to great lengths to document all his sources properly.
That said, I believe he is making some new mistakes.  The Rat Park experiments were conducted and published in the late 1970’s.  To suggest “the likely cause of addition has been discovered” leads readers to perhaps believe that the discovery is fresh, not work done 35 or more years ago. The Wikipedia entry for Rat Park includes the following:  “The two major science journals, Science and Nature, rejected Alexander, Coambs, and Hadaway's first paper, which appeared instead in Psychopharmacology, a respectable but much smaller journal in 1978. The paper's publication initially attracted no response. [4] Within a few years, Simon Fraser University withdrew Rat Park's funding.”  To extrapolate from work done with rats decades ago to the likely cause of addiction is a leap of gigantic proportion.
Mr. Hari sidesteps mainstream science.  Or current science.  On his own website he refers to Bruce Alexander and Gabor Mate, both of whom he cites in his article, as “dissident scientists.”  Nora Volkow, the current head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) rejected his request for an interview.  I’d like to know more about that story.  I think it is safe to say that NIDA’s research over the span of time since the Rat Park experiments is exponentially wider and more sophisticated than the evidence Hari marshals to support his claim. There are many places to hear Nora Volkow speak on addiction science.  She recently spoke before the U.S. Senate Forum on Addiction and Collateral Damage.  Go here:
Hari does attempt to incorporate NIDA into his argument by consulting Robert DuPont, the first director of NIDA.  DuPont is a medical doctor, a psychiatrist.  He served from at NIDA from 1972 to 1978 and was also the second White House Drug Czar from 1973 to 1977 under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.  It was President Nixon who launched the War on Drugs, shortly before DuPont became Drug Czar.  It is also worth noting that much of the brain imaging capability now being used to help understand addiction either did not exist or was in its infancy during DuPont’s tenure. I have no idea how conversant Dr. DuPont is with current NIDA research or how wedded he may be to the prevailing ideas of his time.  It would be helpful to have some clarity in this regard.    
On his book’s website Mr. Hari states:  “I would be very happy to include the response of the current head of NIDA to these theories, alongside those of the previous head that are described here. I am keen to offer the fullest possible response, and to explore all sides of this really important debate about what causes addiction.”  I submit that the greatest failing of his article, and indeed his book, is that he has failed in his exploration or, at the least, jumped too quickly to a conclusion.  If we throw out the bathwater, we might want to give this baby a clean rinse.