I had never heard of Nelsan Ellis when he was alive, but his death from alcohol addiction has touched me in a painful way. I think of my family members (and myself) and our battle with alcohol. I recall bloated faces, smiles that don’t hide physiological or psychological pain. The struggle against alcohol, a substance that is prevalent, socially accepted and imbedded into our culture is ever present is daunting.
Imagine being a movie or television star , like Ellis, with the world wanting to toast you. How do you say “no” to the champagne at the Emmys or your cousin’s wedding or Uncle Charlie’s wake? Difficult. Yet, we minimize the struggle of alcohol addiction. We as a culture are not educated to the harm alcohol poses to our bodies, nor do we appreciate the danger of going “cold turkey.” We fail to acknowledge and most of us don’t even know that often times withdrawing from alcohol requires medical supervision.Worse than all of the above is both the self-imposed as well as society’s stigma in its failure to understand that 70% of most addicts relapse. We shame our family members and others with statements like, “Why didn’t he just stop drinking?” Why didn’t he just seek help?”
I imagine what it must have been like for Ellis, having failed at rehab so many times, choosing to withdraw, hide away and deal with withdrawal privately. Perhaps, he simply did not want the production company to know that he had started drinking again. Most studios insist that their stars meet physical and psychological tests, since millions of dollars are being invested in a star’s continued ability to perform. These were perhaps good reasons to tough it out alone in withdrawal – a decision that perhaps led to his death.
I also appreciate the family ‘s openness and honesty about Ellis’s struggle with addiction. I hope that Ellis’s life and his untimely death are not in vain. I hope that the dialogue around his death will open our eyes and create empathy, education and compassion.
Nelsan Ellis died alone, no one should have to do that, especially at 39 and a media star. Hopefully someone who reads this will think twice before they shun the addict or former addict. I hope that someone who reads this will go beyond the shame and stigma and seek professional help. I hope someone out there reading this will reach out a helping hand, rather than a cold shoulder to a family member or friend who is an addict in need of emotional and perhaps medical and or psychological help. Please don’t turn away. Please don’t hide, you are not alone.
- #addictionisadiease #caringsaveslives
photo credit: `James Wheeler <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/24128704@N08/9767233194″>I’m Being Followed by a Moonshadow</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Yesterday Carrie Fisher’s autopsy revealed a series of drugs from cocaine to heroin along with methadone- “the cure” for heroin addiction. Fisher was a woman who had everything from wealth to fame and beauty, yet she couldn’t overcome her drug addiction. Her life and her death are a testament to the hook of addiction. Yesterday, the face of addiction hit closer to home where one friend- a week out of in-patient rehab was stopped and charged with a DUI and taken to the hospital. Another friend 6 months into recovery allowed former friends to derail her plans, leaving her stressed and vulnerable. My heart ached for these beautiful, talented women who have become ravaged by drugs and alcohol.
One of these women 5’9- model beautiful tests high-end ski equipment, the other is a medical doctor. One is Caucasian the other African American and both struggle with the “stinking thinking” of addiction and both returned to the environment from which their addictions spiraled out of control. In a perfect world there would have been transitional housing, wrap around therapy, medical treatment, medication and financial support, but the world is far from perfect.
When, I talk about recovery the number one thing recovering addicts can do to maintain their sobriety is remove themselves from the people and places where and with whom their addiction spiraled. This is hard to do especially if you are married or you are a parent or a minor. If someone you live with or with whom you are related to by blood or marriage, that person must also seek support and education in order to support their loved one’s recovery. Often times well meaning spouses, boyfriends, parents and children who are unaware of the psychological as well as physical aspects of addiction think “Why don’t you just stop using!” It’s simply not that easy- witness Carrie Fisher.
Drug addiction therapists now believe that to cure addiction one must heal the user from his or her adverse childhood experiences. Unless, this is done the rate of recidivism is high at about 70%. Experts say that the higher the number of adverse childhood experiences the more difficult it is for a person to cure thier addiction. About 64% of Americans have at least one adverse childhood experience which could include sexual or physical or emotional abuse, living with a parent with a mental illness, an incarcerated parent, poverty or divorce. People who have 4 or more of these adverse childhood experiences are 1200% more likely to abuse substances or commit suicide are 470% to suffer from mental illness,
Addiction is a complex subject encompassing both psychological and physical components. Put in a simple way, addiction is using a substance or behavior for reward or relief to the detriment to the addict’s entire life- social, psychological, spiritual, physical, financial and relationships.
Today this country is facing an addiction crisis which has caught the attention of the media because the new addicts are young white people ages 18-25 who earn less than 20 thousand dollars a year and white suburban women. At this time when so many are dying and suffering from addiction our Republican Congress is seeking to remove the coverage for mental health and substance abuse- one of the hallmarks of Obamacare. Most of this world’s tragedies stem from two things mental illness and substance abuse. If this Republican Congress wants to make America great again let’s provide the necessary services to those suffereing from addiction and mental illness which often times go hand in hand.
Many of us were fans of Carrie Fisher. I was not a Carrie Fisher or Star Wars fan where Fisher became a household name, but she is my contemporary. I would not trade my freedom from substance abuse for anything she might have had. None of what Fisher had eased her demons. I hope that her passing and it’s association with mental illness and addiction will allow people to see how addiction and mental illness can touch the brightest and best of America.
Photos by dmitryzhkov <a
The Civil War had always been portrayed as a moral clash between a divided America. I did not know what I would see when I arrived at the battle field of Gettysburg. Nothing I knew about the Civil War had prepared me for what I saw and felt there. I had always imagined the battle field to be about the size of a football field with steep hilly inclines of hundreds of feet. In every movie about the Civil War I had ever seen, the politically incorrect Southern Army, sabers raised, proudly entered the battle field “to defend their way of life.” The Northern Army, “the moral compass of America” would march through a hail of cannon fire and struggle to take a hill where the heavily armed South was perched.
No where in any history class or law school did I ever learn about the real forces that led to the Civil War. No, it was not initially about abolishing slavery, that did not become so until two years into the war, in 1863 when slavery became the cause that ignited the North who up until that point had been losing the war. In January of 1863 Lincoln, under pressure from northern abolitionists signed the Emancipation Proclamation.What the Emancipation Proclamation did besides ignite the North, was that it lured 200,000 slaves into the Northern Army. 40,000 of those slaves died during the course of the war where the war’s total death toll was 650,000.
As I walked the ridge which must have been a half a mile, and not a football field, every 20 feet there stood a cannon. The ridge that I thought was hundreds of feet in the air was at its steepest, maybe 12 feet high, but 12 feet is a huge length to climb when cannon fire is raining down on one’s head. I wondered how this heavily armed Southern Army had lost this battle.
Feeling conspicuous as the only woman of color and driving a luxury foreign car, I drove the two miles, yes two miles, to where the North would have been encamped. To my surprise there were no more than a dozen cannons spread atop a hill that was hundreds of feet in the air.
It was another reminder that my mental imaging of the battle of Gettysburg was completely wrong.
I read on one of the information plaques that the Northern Army had utilized the physical terrain to protect them. Because they were out numbered and out gunned the Northern Army used sharpshooters to pick off the Southern Army as it engaged on the battlefield below. Below is a picture of me imagining what it must be like to fire a weapon from behind a rock:
The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, three days later on July 4, 1863 the Southern Army retreated to Gaithersburg, Maryland. 7,800 men lay dead on that day. The Battle of Gettysburg did not end the war which would continue for another 2 years, but Gettysburg marked the beginning of the defeat of the South which occurred at the Appomattox courthouse in Richmond, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Six days later President Lincoln would die of a gunshot wound to his head.
What might have happened after the end of the Civil War had Lincoln not been assassinated has been the subject of much intellectual speculation. What did happen would encumber the right to vote for 3 milion newly freed slaves and impoverish many poor non-land owning white people who became sharecroppers along side the newly freed slaves.
Today’s racial animosity of America’s poor white rural working class which led to a Trump presidency finds it roots in the years after the Civil War. Over the next months I intend to study the Reconstruction and how the ruling 1 percent pitted poor rural whites against 3 million freed slaves of which 90 percent were illiterate, but somehow would create a system of historically black colleges and universities. I will wrap these facts in a modern day novel, tentatively entitled Twisted”, where the story will take place in Baltimore. My intent is to entertain while I teach. I think understanding how America got the way it is today might shrink the racial gap when people realize that the issues of poverty have been hidden under the guise of race. Stay tuned.
At a dark and low point of time in my life, years ago, I pondered whether life was worth living. My then therapist suggested that I read Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl’s book is about the power of hope and the will to live no matter the circumstances.
Frankl a Jewish Austrian neuroscientist and psychiatrist during the Nazi persecution of 6 million Jews opted to go to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with his elderly parents.
Frankl, a prominent psychiatrist had been granted permission to immigrate to the United States with his wife. For some reason, the United States wouldn’t allow his parents the same right. Instead of saving himself Frankl accompanied his parents to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Frankl knew that his parents were likely to die in the concentration camp by one means or another, but he knew they had a better chance of survival with him being with them.
During his years in Theresienstadt Frankl worked with his fellow inmates urging them to never give up hope. Years after Frankl’s release from Theresienstadt he wrote and published his internationally renowned book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. The book inspired me then and still does today.
Oftentimes life events are staggering and we all try to sort out why horrendous acts of inhumanity occur. What I have learned is that the best in us as people make meaning from suffering by sharing the lessons learned from suffering.
I am no Viktor Frankl but the last year has brought me great joy as I share my experiences of childhood trauma as a means to create empathy for those suffering from addiction. I have created and earned the opportunity to share my story with policy makers in the areas of law, medicine and social services. I hope that sharing my story will provide insight and empathy for those suffering from addiction .
So, it will be with infinite gratitude that I will have the opportunity next month to speak with future Adolescent Counselors in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. With each such privilege I give meaning to my own suffering and hopefully relieve the suffering of family members, practioners and addicts.
Viktor Frankl reported that during his years at Theresienstadt the beauty of the sunrise eased his suffering and gave him hope. There is always a glimmer of light. It is never completely dark and the great resilience of mankind can find hope in the bleakest times. The sun always rises.
Day 24: My future is truly free or freer from my past no matter how glorious I thought that past to be.
My personal 30 day yoga challenge was not to end up looking svelte. ( I have been svelte.) This challenge was to explore my inner dialogue- for it is what has created my world, my life. I have spent hours in absolute silence. In that silence I have seen myself; the folly; and my desire to be authentically myself and finally honor my desire for service to mankind. I have been blessed with much and yet a lot of my life has been a discordant complaint. My future is truly free or freer from my past no matter how glorious I thought that past to be.
Dear Friends and Readers,
Life is moving at a seemingly fast and relentless pace, which is of course my doing. The last five months of work have been performed primarily to pay off a substantial debt which was created by my mismanagement of money.
I realized almost two years ago when I wrote my first blog about my grandfather who was a gambler who gambled away his white walking cane, the physical metaphor of his blindness, that I too was irresponsible with money. Even though I was not a gambler I was mismanaging my money and creating similar results. I thought that I had escaped his gambling addiction until I went on vacation to Paris and didn’t have any money to spend until half way through the trip when my paycheck was deposited. I then spent every penny that I had and came home to a turned off cell phone and a negative bank balance. I had to borrow $30 from my sister to turn my phone back on. It was an anxiety impoverished moment. That was late August of 2015. Two things happened since that trip to Paris. One was that I began writing this blog which was then named the “Addict Writes” and on September 12, 2015 my father died.
The blog has provided me an opportunity to share personal events with the intent of helping those in similar positions. The first blog that I wrote , Grandpa and Paris, was about my irresponsible, costly and impoverishing relationship with money. Many of the subsequent blogs were about my father and my feelings about him.
As some of you may know, my father sexually abused me when I was a pre-teen. His death in 2015 was a release and a bitter moment since he had never apologized for his abuse. I don’t miss him, since I had no relationship with him for years. My only regret was that I was not there during the years he lay sick and dying in a nursing home. I say this because I later realized that I not provided him the opportunity to say that he was sorry, but he had had decades to do so, but he never had. I did ask him 30 years ago why he had never said he was sorry and his response was, “I didn’t think it was wrong.” I wonder if he still felt that way as he was dying. I will never know.
This past Sunday was Mothers Day and I got to spend a little time with my mother. I was happy to see her happy. She has a sweet childlike disposition now that she is older. I too am now considered old and when I look at her I see myself and hope to learn something from her passage through time. I realize, hopefully not too late , that I have never really known my mother. We have never been close to each other for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because of what happened between my father and me. She took sides, and for numerous reasons chose to believe him and not me.
Through out our lives that division has broadened and narrowed, but never overcome. Now that she is almost 82 I wonder if we should have that discussion, but I cannot foresee it happening and I fear she will deny my truth until the day she dies. Perhaps it doesn’t and won’t matter. I don’t know. Nevertheless, I strive to derive something of value from my senseless and horrid years of abuse to help anyone who has suffered any form of parental abuse. Which leads me to the pictures of the foxes.
Over the past two months I have participated in a life transforming course conducted by Landmark Education. This course encouraged me to take full responsibility for everything that had ever happened to me, including my parental abuse. The course first established that I was living under the illusion that my happiness was a function of external circumstance. In fact it is not. Course participants were asked to look at how we had perceived a chosen experience and what story or meaning we had created around it.
All Landmark Courses stem from the premise that every thing in the world is empty and meaningless-until we add meaning or “story” to it. It’s those stories that direct our actions -our lives. Once you identify the story you have created around a particular event, each participant has an opportunity to analyze why they created that particular meaning or story about any incident or occurrence in their life-good or bad. Over the past 7 weeks I had many opportunities- through the Landmark Happiness Seminar to analyze my stories.
Every story about any experience is accompanied with bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and words. For instance, I saw that happiness for me was associated with accomplishment and when happy I say to myself “I got that right!” When happy, I also feel my eyes twinkling and my face muscles springing to life with an unsuppressable smile. Similarily when afraid, sad, anxious or irriated there are accompanying body sensations, emotions, thoughts and words. When I am afraid my fear is about the consequences. My heart beats rapidly and my breath is ragged and uneven. When I am sad, my body is bent forward and my head is bowed there is tension in my shoulders. My breathing is shallow and nearly non-existant when I am sad.
It was valuable to recognize the body sensations because, I saw that any combination of body sensations could trigger an emotion and vice -versa. More importantly, I could catch myself heading into an emotional break down and stop myself from doing so by simply accepting what was bothering me and choose to take action rather than take a downward slide or being revved up in anger. I could slow that breathing, raise my head, acknowledge what I was telling myself about any particular experience and choose another path.
Sometimes the stories we create are empowering, oftentimes they are not and here lies much of human suffering, including my own. One of my major stories surround my parents and their actions. Through this work and lots of therapy over the years, I can say despite my parents actions, that I know that they loved me. They might not have had good coping skills; they had their own unhealed traumas and their actions did not express love, but in my empowering story they loved me, because they also did a lot of very good things for me, like give me an exceptional education. They were “bad” parents, “damaged ” people but I maintain that they loved me. Any other “story” or belief leads me, has led me to dark places- like my addiction and other self-destructive behaviors.
During the past 7 weeks, I have completely owned that ” life ” is about perception of my experience. My perception maybe informed by my past, my education, but it need not be limited by it. This freeded me from my “heavily invested stories”and left me with full responsibility for how I percieve life. As a result, I am in awe and inspiration about my world.
On the day, that I internalized this life changing realization that my happiness was not dependent on external circumstances I was on the train to from Baltimore to D.C. It was very early in the morning and the sun had just begun to rise. I had been lamenting about how much trash and rubble was strewn along the railroad tracks, when all of a sudden I saw a family of foxes with two fox pups playing with each other. The mother fox looked on with what I interpreted as love. It was my sign that it was a brand new day, even on the same train that I take every day. I quickly created a new story “there is always awe and wonder everywhere” it just depends on one’s perception or story of what you are experiencing.
Ask yourself what stories are you heavily invested in? Do these stories empower you or disempower you? Is there an equally valid story or interpretation about the same experience that could empower? If so, choose the empowering story.
Thirteen years ago, after an epiphany which occurred on a ferry crossing the Puget Sound, I heard the voice of “God” and decided to move to Washington D.C. instead of San Francisco. The voice said “Go back home and see if the family you ran away from when you were 15 are the same “monsters” you then believed them to be.”
At the time, I heard that “voice ” I had been living in Nantes, France and had temporarily returned to Seattle to litigate a case. To lure me back to Seattle, my clients agreed to let me stay at their Bremerton, Washington beach house and use their spare Jaguar, and of course, a bunch of money. This was why I was on the ferry, in the first place.
That voice was heard in June. I returned to Nantes, France in August and left a month before my lease had expired. By October 03, 2003 I landed at Dulles Airport. I had a tiny amount of cash, no place to live and no license to practice law-nada. Needless to say, this was crazy, especially after my mother would not allow me to stay in an unoccupied home she owned in College Park.
Nevertheless, within hours of my arrival I had found a room to share in a ramshackle apartment building near P Street NE. I don’t recall where that apartment was because as I was walking up the stairs to my “new home” my niece, my mother and my Aunt showed up to take me in.
I lived with my Aunt for five months. During that time I was seeking non-legal work, a whole new career as a lobbyist or perhaps something completely outside the area of law, while simultaneously obtaining a license to practice law in Maryland .
These transcontinental and cross country moves were the result of needing to say goodbye. My first goodbye was to my second husband who left the day after Christmas in 2001 and has never been seen since that day. He was divorced in “absentia ” , a process that took two years and which bankrupted me.
Seattle, my second goodbye, my dream city was where two divorces, a drug addiction and the loss of the custody and visitation with my children had occurred. When 9/11 happened it awakened me to dreams and life issues which I had yet to resolve-like with my parents.
9/11 reminded me that death could come swiftly and unexpectedly and that I had better give up my illusion that I still had plenty of time. I had wanted to live abroad in France . A month after 911, I advised my employees of my desicion to close the practice , letting them know they had a year or less to seek other employment.
I physically moved from my office in downtown Seattle and took no new clients for a year. I literally walked away from a luxury condominium over looking the Puget Sound and a German automobile and flew to Paris in the fall of 2002 and then to Nantes where I pondered life.
During that time in Nantes I began writing about my life, which 12 years later resulted in a novel called “CRACKED ” and where I am today which is refining my book tour.
These days, and I mean recently, I am saying goodbye to the practice of law and easing into my last phase as author/ lecturer.
The road from Dulles Airport in 2003 to the present has been rich in life experiences. Some of these experiences have been painful like the deaths of my husband , two close friends and my father. Each experience has forced me to grow and to become wiser and resilient. I have been humbled and brought to my knees and I have been helped up and helped out.
Finally, (at long last) the puzzle is complete and I am ready for new adventures and more fun and I remind myself that detours from one’s passion or purpose for the sake of convenience or ease are usually costly and not worth the time, which brings to the photo in the blog.
In 2005, a large hospital group became interested in hiring me as their spokesperson. It was not the kind of position that I wanted, but instead of saying no I put myself through this poorly executed audition. It killed any hope of getting the spokesperson position, and my sloppy “what the hell” approach killed off any chance of a legal position.
Don’t do something you don’t want to do; if do it, do it well and know when to walk away and bid farewell.