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Addiction

esteban

Damian Esteban was just another thirtysomething hipster-looking teacher at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design until he got called in for jury duty last fall… and was arrested for allegedly bringing 20 vials of heroin in a cigarette pack into the courthouse with him.

The misdemeanor criminal charges against Esteban were eventually dropped when he attended a one-day (one-day?!?) rehab program. But the damage had been done: he was fired from his teaching job as a result of the arrest and ensuing publicity.

Fast forward to this week, when Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez ordered the NYC Department of Education to take Esteban back (or at least, overturned the DoE’s previous decision, I’m not clear which). Judge Medez stated that the firing was “unduly harsh… [and] excessive and shocking to this court’s sense of fairness.”

According to the New York Observer, Mayor Bloomberg was “not amused” by the court’s decision.

“We could not disagree more strongly with the judge’s decision to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling terminating a teacher for possessing 20 bags of heroin,” the mayor said in a statement this afternoon.

“The judge ruled that the termination ‘shocks the conscience,’ which shows a callous indifference to the well-being of our students,” he added. “That truly shocks the conscience and boggles the mind.”

What do you think? Should drug offenders (in this case, ones who haven’t been convicted of a crime) be allowed to teach children? And if not, does that mean we should institute random drug testing for schoolteachers — or do you think Esteban shouldn’t get his job back because of the sheer publicity of the case alone?

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oral historyWell, the final episode of Intervention aired last night, and of course I cried and felt very sad, just as I expected I would. It’s been such a compelling and insightful and inspiring show for so many addicts (current and former), as well as family members and friends of addicts. Such a shame that the show has been supplanted by absolute trash like Duck Dynasty, but that’s the way it goes in the entertainment business, I suppose.

Anyway, I had to share this wonderful Buzzfeed piece, which is an “oral history” of the show from the perspective of the producers and interventionists Jeff VanVonderen, Candy Finnigan, Ken Seeley, and Seth Jaffe, as well as the subject of “everyone’s favorite episode,” former computer duster huffer Allison Fogarty, whose interview I’ve excerpted below. These compassionate, brave people are truly heroes for the work that they do, and I applaud their eight years of braving the cameras to bring the issue of addiction and recovery to the American consciousness. Thank you.

UPDATE: Vulture published another Intervention oral history today, which I initially thought was the same thing, but turns out to have different quotes. So here it is, it’s excellent as well!

Allison Fogarty: Jeff [VanVonderen] and my family had my cat taken away. My cat was the catalyst for me going to treatment. It was so easy for me to be mad at everyone, but my cat didn’t deserve any of this, so I spent the next day just hanging out in a bank because cameras can’t go in banks. It was stupid because every five minutes I would sober up again so it was hijinks after hijinks. I finally came home, and they stopped by and they were like, “This is your last chance, yadda, yadda,” and I was like, “Fuck off.” Then the next morning Jeff said, “We’re leaving, do you want to come with us?” And I just gave up and said, “OK, yeah, I guess so.”

VanVonderen: After we called animal protective services on Allison’s cat, and she agreed to go treatment, she wanted nothing to do with me.

Fogarty: At that point it wasn’t even that I wanted to get better, I just wanted to punish everyone else. Like, “I’m leaving forever!” We drove right to the airport.

VanVonderen: She has her little hoodie over her head, her cloak of shame. We get to the airport. And I’m purposely not talking to her ‘cause I don’t want to blow the gig — so I went to the gift shop and bought her a stuffed cat and I walked up to her, handed her the cat, and we didn’t say anything to each other the whole plane ride to rehab.

Fogarty: At rehab, word had gotten around to the staff and clients that I was being brought in by Intervention. So when I got there, one of the clients was like, “Oh, you’re the new girl from Intervention.” And I was like, “What the hell is Intervention?” The first night I was there, the clients showed me an episode of the show and I was like, “FUCK MY LIFE.” And that was the first time I ever saw an episode, my first day in rehab.

VanVonderen: Six months after taking Allison to rehab I got an email from her apologizing for being such “a dick” and thanking me and hoping I forgive her. I wrote her back and said of course, and I’m glad she’s doing good, and I asked how’s the cat doing in treatment. And she said, “Cat VanVonderen is doing really well.”

Fogarty: Obviously I’m grateful. I did the work and things turned out right. But it was a giant trauma. I wish I could have gotten to where I am without having to go through that experience. I don’t feel like things are 100% fixed with my family, and it’s embarrassing when I go on dates and the guy knows who I am. When I go out and people are like, “Oh my god, you’re that drug addict! That was the funniest hour of my life!” It happens a couple times a week. I still have 100% shame when that happens. But some people approach me in a really positive way, like this woman at Pinkberry started to sob next to me in line and she hugged me and told me that her brother saw my episode and it saved his life because he got into treatment. And I hugged her and said I was so glad, but it was still very awkward.

[Executive Producer] Dan Partland: Sometimes the tough part is after addicts get clean and the reruns come on and it’s traumatic for them. And when we learned of that, we would ask the network to suspend use of their episode, and they did that every time.

Fogarty: When my show is re-airing, someone from the show generally tells me they are re-airing. But there was a recent promo that featured my episode that I didn’t know about and I just cried and cried when I saw it. At this point, I just launched my own business and feel like, enough already, it’s been five years, I’ve done my time. I feel like it’s time to let me go.

Hard to watch? Yes.

A still from “Intervention.” It may be over, but the problem isn’t.

It’s a sad day in TV land, at least for me. Today marks the first of the five final episodes of A&E’s reality show Intervention. Since the show debuted in 2005, I can honestly say I’ve seen every single one of the two hundred or so episodes, some more than once.

A&E made the announcement about a month ago that Intervention was coming to a close this summer, but didn’t give a reason. True, the show’s premise (in which a documentary crew follows an addict around for a few days to chronicle the horrifying extent of his or her illness, then rounds up friends and family to stage an intervention and hopefully sends them to rehab) is unrelenting in its depressing documentation of its participants’ downward spiral from week to week. So perhaps formula fatigue was setting in for the network and crew. Perhaps declining ratings were an issue as well.

But given skyrocketing rates of overdoses, drug-related crime, and the critical need for addiction treatment in the U.S., I think the show should be kept on as a public service (though of course, such a thing doesn’t exist in television, “The More You Know” nonwithstanding). As an MSW student in addictions and mental health, spreading awareness about the topic and reducing stigma is something I feel passionately about.

I was just reading today, in a recent South Bend Tribune series, that heroin and opiate prescription drug-related arrests increased by 600 percent between 2008 and 2010 in LaPorte County, Indiana.

Did you catch that? SIX HUNDRED PERCENT.

Here’s an excerpt from the series, which has appeared in various incarnations in just about every single regional newspaper in this country over the past few years. (Here’s a link to the Denver Post‘s amazing contribution, which recently earned an Edward R. Murrow award.)

Just a few years ago, perhaps one or two heroin addicts per year walked through the doors of Life Treatment Centers, 1402 S. Michigan St., looking for help, said Deborah Smith, vice president for clinical services. About five years ago, the visits by heroin addicts increased to one or two per week, she said.

“In the last couple years, at least the last year and a half, we’re seeing about one (heroin addict) a day,” Smith said. “We probably serve about 1,000 people a year. I believe the epidemic with heroin and opiates is really taking over.”

John Horsley, director of addiction services at Oaklawn, said heroin addicts were a rarity at Oaklawn’s South Bend location when he started with the organization in May 2011. So rare, in fact, that some staff members would become uncomfortable when they encountered a heroin user who took the drug intravenously using a syringe, Horsley said. But in the past two years, heroin users have become so common that they now account for about 25 percent of the clients enrolled in substance abuse programs at Oaklawn, he said.

Horsley said he has seen weeks in which as many as four clients died of heroin overdoses while enrolled in Oaklawn treatment programs.

One could also make the argument, as I did in this paper I wrote for a media ethics class back in 2009, that Intervention exploits the privacy of its participants, all of whom are undoubtedly in a compromised mental state at the height of their addiction. On the flip side, though, there’s an awful lot of good that comes from documenting successful interventions (and there are many!) as well.

On a related note, this New York Times profile from last Sunday about Dr. Drew and his well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts to bring addiction into the forefront, via reality television, is definitely worth a read.

sheff

David Sheff is the parent of an addict and the author of Beautiful Boy, a memoir about his son’s addiction to meth. (That son, Nic, wrote a couple of books about his addiction, too.) Sheff’s latest book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, was just released and is reviewed in the New York Times today by Dr. Abigail Zuger.

Dr. Zuger’s review is somewhat mixed. She agrees with Sheff’s thesis:

Addiction must be considered a disease, as devoid of moral overtones as diabetes or coronary artery disease, just as amenable as they are to scientific analysis, and just as treatable with data-supported interventions, not hope, prayer or hocus-pocus.

… but she points out that the author “bludgeons” his readers with it. Still, she concedes, there’s a definite need to reinforce the addicts-as-chronically-ill-patients attitude, given that a number of people in this country apparently still regard addicts as merely weak-willed losers.

Wrapping the mind around this formulation requires an enormous act of will, and it is Mr. Sheff’s foremost achievement that his arguments are likely to influence even the angriest and most judgmental reader.

She’s not kidding, either. Yesterday, Sheff published an op-ed in the NYT titled “Calling 911 Shouldn’t Lead to Jail,” and what struck me most wasn’t its argument (that those who report overdoses of their friends/peers to 911 shouldn’t have to decide between saving a life and potentially going to jail themselves), but rather, the comment section of the page. Here’s an example:

If someone reported an accidental shooting, they would be subject to prosecution for gun possession. Why should the law be different for drug use?

Oh, wait. It gets better. Here’s another comment:

The best thing is NOT becoming an addict. Some members of our species, however, are unable to do so, especially in the atmosphere of forgivness [sic] and tendency to ‘explain’ the addiction.

And then, my personal fave:

a get-out-of-jail-free card for their enablers – now way… no how.
If their basic moral compass is so askew – better they reside in prison or far away from me and my family.

So, I guess that what I (and Dr. Zuger) are saying is that yes, while Sheff’s “manifesto” blasting the war on drugs and advocating for the serious and comprehensive treatment of addicts may be redundant and self-evident for those whose lives have already been upended by addiction or who work with addicts as a career, there are still many, many ignoramuses out there who would benefit from sitting down with a copy of this book. As Dr. Zuger concludes,

“Clean” is a reference work and a manifesto, an annotated map of the same frightening territory where dragons still lurk at the edges.

I have it out from the library right now, but haven’t read it yet. I’ll be sure to update this post when I do.

diane

This is a topic that maybe doesn’t fit conveniently into the theme of this blog, but I wanted to share it anyway. Have you ever read a newspaper article about a horrific accident and wondered to yourself what life is really like behind the headlines for the families involved in the tragedy? (I mean, maybe I’m just nosy or something, but I do, all the time.)

Well, Liz Garbus’ HBO documentary “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” explores exactly that. It’s a look at the complicated and heartbreaking aftermath of a car accident that killed eight people, half of them were children under the age of 8. Some of you might remember the news story, which was dubbed the “Wrong Way Crash” and the “Taconic Tragedy.”

Brief synopsis: Long Island mother Diane Schuler gets into a minivan to drive five kids (two of them hers, three of them her brother’s) back home from a weekend at an upstate campground one Sunday morning in July 2009. Along the way, her niece calls her father from a cell phone, insisting that “there’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.” Family members frantically call Diane’s cell, which goes straight to voice mail. A short time later, witnesses call 911 reporting a minivan traveling at high speed against traffic on the Taconic Parkway. Schuler’s minivan hits an oncoming SUV, killing all three men in that car, as well as herself, all three of her brother’s kids, and her daughter. Her five-year-old son is the only survivor.

Everyone’s initial reaction is that Schuler had suffered a stroke or some other medical emergency that would seriously compromise her judgement. She loved her kids fiercely, as well as her nieces, and would have never in her wildest dreams wanted any harm to come to them. Besides, everyone insists, she was a control freak and a perfectionist who would never let her emotions or any substance use spiral out of control.

Several days later, an autopsy reveals that Schuler had a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit, plus a high concentration of THC (marijuana) in her system. The film also reveals that she was prescribed Ambien, a known cause of strange, unconscious behavior.

So Diane Schuler is now apparently some sort of crazed suicidal addict, a demon who recklessly killed her family, and several strangers  and that’s exactly how the media portrayed her.

But in the film, as well as in an excellent New York article by Steve Fishman, Schuler’s husband adamantly denies that his wife was either an alcoholic or a drug addict; in fact, he even disputes the results of the autopsy (his protests are eventually put to rest by a second one). His family sticks by the stroke/medical emergency theory (which they say could have been brought on by a chronically abscessed tooth), and maybe consumed alcohol/drugs in that extremely compromised, desperate state to try to alleviate the pain.

But both Garbus’ and Fishman’s investigations revealed a deeply troubled woman who had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and suffered social and emotional problems well into adulthood. Though she was a high-functioning working mother by any account, there was clearly a private side to Diane Schuler that makes drug and alcohol addiction seem like less of a farfetched notion than her husband would care to admit.

Here’s a quote from a public television interview with Garbus when the film was released in 2011. I think it captures nicely the way our criminal justice system often tries to simplify the reasons people commit criminal behavior: namely, that they are just plain criminals.

Everyone had different stories, different visions of what happened that day. Because there was no trial for Diane Schuler and because there was no judicial process. It just hung out in people’s lives like this terrible terrible wound — an open, gaping wound in the lives of all the people affected that day. Walking around in their world required great empathy. These were people in crisis and when you walk into those worlds and turn your lens on them it’s a huge responsibility.

One of the experts talked about how so many small things lead up to this terrible hole. And we want it to be one bad thing like she was committing suicide or she found out some horrible thing, but what if it were just  a dozen small things that were not terrible, but add up to a terrible whole? And I think that’s what we can’t understand.

No, she was not a saint, but no she was not an evil person. And I think there is a tendency to put people in these black and white squares but sometimes they don’t fit. And then when they don’t fit, or when the pattern of the crime doesn’t fit, there’s denial and disbelief.

I’m not saying a more nuanced approach would work (or even matter), in our American pursuit of “justice,” but it’s certainly interesting to think about. I’m constantly surprised by how vehement the public’s desire to “find the culprit” and “put him behind bars” is without any consideration (or at least, curiosity) about the psychology or circumstances behind manifestly criminal acts.

I suppose it’s worth noting that Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law Jackie Hance, who lost her three daughters in the crash, has a memoir, “I’ll See You Again,” coming out next week, and an interview with Ann Curry on “Rock Center” this Friday to promote it. Sigh.

Listen to the story here.

Click to listen to the story.

Another day, another noteworthy NPR piece, this time from national correspondent Ina Jaffe, about one mother’s fight against California’s ludicrous “Three Strikes Law” after she unwittingly helped put her son in prison for life.

Shane Reams, now 44, was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1996 after he was found guilty of being involved in the sale of a $20 rock of cocaine. (See, I told you it was ludicrous.) This was his third and final “strike” because he had two prior convictions for burglary– not because the police nabbed him, but because his mother, Sue, had urged him to turn himself in when she found out he was a thief.

But Sue had no idea what she was getting her son into. She says she was concerned with getting Shane help, not putting him in prison.

She told him: “Maybe you’ll get a drug program. You need a drug program.”

Yes, he probably did. And he got it– that is, if you count seventeen years in state prison “treatment.” Shane admits that it was only when he saw a glimmer of hope for his release that he concentrated on getting clean.

(You don’t say! The prospect of a life sentence doesn’t necessarily motivate people to get clean on their own?)

In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown wisely approved a new sentencing guideline that gives convicted criminals the chance to participate in alternative rehabilitative services in lieu of prison time. And in the 2012 elections, voters passed Proposition 36, which, according to the NYT, “authorizes the courts to re-sentence thousands of people who were sent away for low-level third offenses and who present no danger to the public.”

From that NYT piece (which, I should add, is actually an op-ed by Brent Staples):

Three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants. Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check. In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.

Yes, yes, and yes.

RELATED: “California was required to ‘come up a plan’ two years ago and it clearly has failed to do so, “ (article/quote from The Atlantic)