Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November column -- addiction

Here is the column I submitted and which is likely (it's quite early around here just now) to appear in the local paper today. It's what I wrote; the editor tweaked one thing and probably found another title. I imagine I prefer my warts-and-all to his:


Last week, both of my sons attended a talk by former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren, who gave his first-person account of an addictive past -- from alcohol to pills and on into the lost-and-found universe of heroin.

If I had to guess, I'd say the talk blew their socks off.

This was not some TED talk about the vital ecological role of the warthog in Mesopotamia. This was not another virtue spiel from adults who wanted kids or other adults to be educated or somehow 'better.' This was intimate, personal and honest. And its subtext was quite simple: You can be yourself -- honest instead of employing a lot of social camouflage in order to be compliant and right. The road might be bumpy, but it was OK to be you.

I didn't attend the meeting held at Northampton High School, but was glad my boys had: The looks on their faces told me something important had happened.

"He was a straight shooter," said one son, without elaborating.

His words and the look in his eyes took me back to a time when my own sense of relief and epiphany rose up after I encountered some straight shooting that helped to unravel my own unspoken knots within.

Then in my early 20's, I returned from a two-year military stint in Berlin to find my mother sober.

It was 1964 and she had become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous during my overseas stint. She joined AA to address both her addiction to booze -- which to this day constitutes the biggest drug problem in the United States -- and her simultaneous ingestion of prescription drugs.

As someone who had lived in the hellish confusion that addicts can inflict on their loved ones, I was happy she was sober and said of course I would go with her to an AA meeting. But I was nervous about going.

At the time, drunks were categorized in my mind as self-absorbed. They, like any addict, were invariably and voraciously self-referential. Many were unwashed bums who lay rumpled and dirty in alleys. They covered themselves with newspapers. Their dripping noses went unnoticed in their self-induced stupor. The bottom line in my mind was a resounding and youthfully moralistic "ick!"

But the meeting my mother chose to take me to blew my socks off. First of all, I had never seen so many $1,000 suits or single-strand real-pearl necklaces in one place -- a church basement that reeked of very, very expensive perfume and top-drawer education.

More important, after the three speakers had said their piece, I knew that if church had been like that when I was a kid, I would have been in church seven days a week. This was unvarnished honesty.

Each speaker provided a sigh of relief -- the kind of relief I imagined I saw in my sons' faces last week: Here at last was someone who told a human truth that heretofore had been buried inexpertly beneath social niceties. By telling their own sometimes harrowing stories, these speakers provided me with a potential permission to be honest in my own life. Honest and human instead of just compliant and right.

As a parent, I have learned that some of the best lessons my children have learned did not come from me. Coming from someone in the 'real world,' the lessons I might long to transmit cannot be dismissed as "the old man off on a rant."

Neither of my sons has a pharmacological drug problem. But each is capable -- like anyone else at any age -- of fulfilling the old drug-addict mantram (cq), "if one's good, two's better." Money, clothes, cars, power, possessions, philosophies and religions -- each may provide a happier life in some instances and yet if that happier life relies on being "someone else," it becomes an addiction that is bound to be flawed at best and deeply debilitating at worst.

"Be yourself:" Two little words that are so easy to say and yet requiring hundreds of false starts, including, for some, the hellishness of chemical addiction. "Be yourself" poses a question I do not wish on anyone, least of all my sons, but it is a question that life imposes, like-it-or-not: How, exactly, do I "be myself" and live to smile about it?

No one can tell my sons and yet there are suggestions -- not some Tooth Fairy "the answer," but suggestions. Chris Herren provided a few suggestions and I am grateful to him and to all those who organized and made his speaking engagement possible. Straight shooters are educators in the deepest sense. Agreement and disagreement are not the point. Virtue is not the point.

Honesty is the point. Personal, intimate honesty.

There is an addiction potential in honesty, but as a starting point for a less uncertain life, it's pretty good.

So thank you Chris Herren and thanks to those who made his appearance possible. Any friend of my sons is a friend of mine.

And thanks to anyone who does what s/he can to break the downward spiral of trying to be someone else.

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