Thursday, November 8, 2018

Two Letters to the Editor Re Addiction

Inspired by my wife, Margot Head, she alone and the two of us together have had two letters published in the New York Times this year. Follow the links below to learn what we had to say.

Margot Head 
Urgent Care Centers for Addicts

Margot Head/Bill Williams
Smarter Ways To Fight Opioid Addiction

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Storm Inside

Five years ago this essay ran in the New York Times.  I miss my boy as much still.  Our fight is not over,

Friday, October 19, 2018

Saving Our Children

The Addiction Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC and the Center on Addiction @CntrOnAddiction hosted a panel discussion on innovative approaches to treating addiction in young adults on 10/11. The two groups are joining forces to develop evidence-based screening, preventive practices, and treatment specifically tailored to young people. Moderated by Justin Luke Riley, president of Young People In Recovery, panelists were Dr. Yasmin Hurd, Director of the Addiction Institue of Mount Sinai, Dr. Charles Neighbors, director of health services at the Center on Addiction, and yours truly. Here's the video of the event. I was in the company of some very smart people. It's worth your time to hear what they had to say. Go here for the first part. Download for the full video.

Friday, September 28, 2018


The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) has selected my blog for inclusion in the Library’s web archive collections as part of its mission to collect, preserve, and make available to the public materials that provide information in medicine and public health, and document their histories. 

They published a post recently about the collecting effort in their National Library of Medicine Blog called Circulating Now. Take a look here:
Here’s the link to my blog: 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Thoughts on the Serenity Prayer

I was recently invited to be a guest speaker at an Al-Anon meeting.  No surprise, the meeting was held in a basement room, several stories below street level. 

As a father who lost his son, William, at age 24, to an accidental heroin overdose close to six years ago, I was perhaps a discomforting guest for people working to bring some calm to lives distressed by family members suffering from substance use disorder; people hopeful their loved ones find a path to recovery.

Yet, my message was one of hope.  I began and ended with a line from Shakespeare, “Action is eloquence.”  I shared our family’s story, including the promise we made to William at his memorial service.  “We promise to do everything in our power to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.”

I was able to share my own Al-Anon experience and to explain and answer questions about the advocacy work we’ve been able to accomplish since William’s death.  I suggested books to read, online resources that might prove useful, organizations doing remarkable work and providing assistance, answered questions, and provided my own contact information. I was subtlety, or perhaps not so subtlety, encouraging people to be enterprising in altering their personal dilemmas and the larger addiction epidemic that confronts our nation.  We can and must support one another not only in day-to-day difficulty but also in effecting change for the greater good.  The meeting closed with the Serenity Prayer.  “God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change….” 
 Despite after-meeting conversations and multiple offers to be of assistance, hugs and handshakes, I’ve yet to hear from anyone at that meeting other than a thank you from the leader/organizer.  

A few days later I had a revelatory talk with a lifelong friend.  His young adult son has had a self-defeating substance use issue for several years. Through reading, research and reflection, my friend has come to realize that parental drug testing and ever more harsh punishment were yielding nothing more than deceit and evasion while doing nothing to positively alter his son’s behavior.  My friend abandoned punishment as coercion, got his son to agree to counseling and attended sessions with his son.  Together they are now both learning how to work toward the son’s recovery from a stubborn but not insurmountable disease. I admire my friend’s loving and proactive response.  

While contemplating these two experiences I was drawn back to the Serenity Prayer.  I had difficulty with it as a parent at Al-Anon meetings and my misgivings returned.  I lean heavily toward the eloquence of action, as opposed to praying and waiting for a gift of serenity. I fear that the prayer invites passivity and dependence. It relieves one of responsibility. Serenity comes as a result of action taken, not as a precursor to action.  

When I think of the leaders I admire most in the addiction advocacy and recovery movement, I am struck first by how many are themselves in sustained recovery. Then I am impressed by the boldness, strength, dedication and persistence of the actions they have taken and continue to take in their work. They are shining examples of courage and wisdom; wisdom acquired no doubt through trial and error.

More recently I came across this sign from a demonstration.  I know not where nor the circumstances of its employment.  The message, however, is loud and clear. I am not alone in my thinking.  Is this not only a sign, but a signpost directing us ahead?

As we continue to combat the opioid epidemic and the larger addiction epidemic that surrounds it, we need to remind ourselves that change is an ongoing process. We need courage to initiate the process and wisdom to assess the results and guide our next steps.

For me that includes a personal prayer:

Grant me the courage to change the things I cannot accept, the wisdom to know how to go about it, and the fulfillment that comes with accomplishment.

As I mulled over my thoughts on the prayer, I conversed with one of the recovery/advocacy leaders I admire so much.  She responded this way:  “What I have discovered in my journey is that prayer keeps me from bulldozing my will onto a situation that may need a more nuanced approach. The Serenity Prayer doesn’t relieve me of personal responsibility. It calls upon me to be responsible in how I act. It opens up the door to clarity so that I am not bloodying my head by banging it against a wall that will not move. It allows me to look for ways around an obstacle in my path and find the way forward.”

Her wise response is a reminder to me that, just as there are many paths to recovery, so too are there many paths to bringing about lasting change. We each need to discover and arrange the mix of courage, serenity, and wisdom that works best for us.  It is not a fixed formula for all of us or each of us.  We need to be prepared to titrate the mix for given situations.  What we always need, the fragile vessel that contains us so we can be effective, is each other.   



Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Friends Of Recovery - New York

At the invitation of Stephanie Campbell, head of Friends of Recovery- New York, I had the chance to speak at their Stand Up for Recovery Day Rally, March 6, 2018 in Albany, NewYork.  Thank you Stephanie.  My remarks follow below:

Allow me to congratulate and celebrate those of you in recovery here today.  Our son, William, cannot be with us this morning to share his recovery story.  I’ll do my best in his stead– offering my two cents worth in three minutes. 
In October of 2012 William went with his bag packed to Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan.  William had been injecting heroin, using benzodiazepines purchased on the street, and consuming alcohol.  Aware and afraid he might die, he asked to be admitted to inpatient detox.  His insurers, Emblem Health and their Utilization Review provider, Value Options, quickly determined that inpatient detox was “not medically necessary.”

William is not here to share his recovery story today, because there is no recovery story.  Four days after he was denied treatment William accidentally overdosed.  His heart stopped beating. He was revived by an EMS team and hospitalized for six weeks, by which time it was clear that grievous damage was done.  Deprived of oxygen for too long, William’s brain had withered to a point of no recovery. He was removed from life support and died in our arms.

Laws exist which ought to have prevented William’s denial of treatment. Unfortunately we have yet to achieve full implementation of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 nearly a decade after President Bush signed it into law.  The Act requires insurers to treat illnesses of the brain, such as depression and addiction, the same way they treat illnesses of the body, such as diabetes and cancer.  In the State of New York Timothy’s Law, permanently passed by the state legislature in 2009, requires similar parity. Yet insurers continue to ignore these laws, or scheme to avoid the responsibility imposed upon them by the law. Dodge, delay, and deny is a prescription for profit, not for treatment.   

In 2014 New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement, an Assurance of Discontinuance, with Emblem Health for wrongly denying mental health and substance abuse treatment for thousands of New York members. A similar settlement with Value Options was reached in 2015.  These are but two of several such settlements reached by the Attorney General with insurers in the past few years.

Our family has an ongoing lawsuit against Emblem Health and Value Options due to their denial of treatment for William.  I tell you this, because as Friends of Recovery it is incumbent upon us all to be the foes of any and all who would deny recovery. All of us must engage in ways large and small to demand and ensure compliance that results in treatment and recovery for all. No one should have to hold their dying child.    

We are faced with the difficult process of changing hearts and minds.  That means talking to minds that have no heart, talking to hearts that have no mind, and talking to those who have neither but believe they have the best of both. It can be daunting.  We must not back off.

In our common battle with addiction our biggest obstacle is a wall.  It is the wall of stigma that confines us and blocks the path toward long overdue change.  It is a wall constructed of bigotry, discrimination, judgment, ignorance, shame, and fear, bound by the mortar of greed.  It is our responsibility to sound a clarion call, over and over, louder and louder, longer and longer, until – like the Biblical Joshua – we bring that wall tumbling down.  Tumbling down to reveal an enlightened path of compassion on the other side, a path that becomes a road to recovery for all.  Sound the call, loud and clear.  We WILL prevail.  We WILL

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Back to the Future?

In 1968 Trinity School, a private school in Manhattan, broke ground on its new Hawley Wing.  According to Trinity archives The New Hawley Wing brochure detailed sixteen modern classrooms, four science labratories (sic), seven music practice cubicles, and new research library, and a language labratory (sic). The brochure left out one interesting detail.  In the basement of the Hawley Wing was an approximately 75-foot long, 20-foot wide room.  On one side and one end the walls were formed by the cement foundation.  Cinderblock completed the remainder of the room.  The room was designed as a rifle range.  All through the end of the 20th century and well into the 21st a fuse box outside the long room provided evidence of the range.  Two circuit breakers remained clearly marked over the years with their original intent, “Rifle Range”.  When last I checked in 2008 this evidence of the range remained intact.
I have no idea whether any shots were ever fired there.  Apocryphal or not, I recall hearing that the social upheaval of the late sixties and early seventies helped set about the dissolution of the school’s rifle team, leaving the “range” available for other purposes.  When I arrived at the school in 1981 that meant an office or two and either a costume closet or a percussion rehearsal room.  The space has been repurposed numerous times, enough so that memory fails.
Sometime in the seventies an enterprising student engaged in a semester-long senior project undertook to convert part of the space into a black box theater, what became known as The Basement Theater.  It had a playing space of 20 feet by 22 feet, approximating Shakespeare’s Globe.  For decades it housed productions directed by faculty and students, as well as classes in theater, public speaking, and various other activities.  Most years it witnessed at least three or four productions at minimum.  Joan of Arc, Lizzie Borden, and Princess Diana have all done a turn in the Basement.  We waited for Godot.   
The creation of the Basement Theater was part and parcel of a roughly forty-year period of theater flourishing at Trinity.  There were musicals, an annual musical Cabaret, several faculty directed main stage and Basement productions each year, an annual student directed Shakespeare production, student directed one-act plays, student directed independent studies, and theater courses as electives in the curriculum.  It was possible for students to take a different theater class every year from seventh grade through graduation.  Trinity had a well-earned reputation for its excellent and diverse theater program. 
There is a legacy from this program still alive.  Alumni working in all aspects of theater and film:  actors, writers, directors, composers, producers, stage managers, teachers, managing arts organizations, board members, donor/supporters, (and apologies for any other capacities I’ve overlooked). 
There are times when the program received enthusiastic administrative support. Even at its height, those of us who taught and directed had to defend the value of the arts to administrators, faculty colleagues, and the community at large.  There was always a lurking concern that too much theater might make it harder to enter the Holy Trinity of Yale, Harvard and Princeton.  There were, alas, times when administrators were indifferent, inept, or intrusive.  Decisions to make cuts in the program caused the loss of courses in the curriculum, affected the number of productions taking place each year, and ultimately student participation.
More recently it was determined that the space that was probably home to over a hundred productions over the years was no longer needed as a theater space.  The small, intimate space where so many classes in creativity, where so many student actors learned what it was like to work close to an audience, where alumni would return for nostalgic visits at reunions, is now filled with exercise equipment, presided over by the physical education department.  It reflects a change in what Trinity and our society as a whole values. 
Now, as a society, we are faced with a proposal from our president that schools will be safer places if teachers are armed.   One hopes that saner minds will rule the day at Trinity.  One fantasizes that as we slide backwards, arming ourselves against our fears, that the onetime Basement Theater will be repurposed again, back to its origins.  Take out the barbells and the treadmills. What better use for the place than as a range where faculty can hone their marksmanship skills in house.  Range to artistic sanctuary to range.  Let’s hope the pendulum never swings in that wide an arc.