Love Letters to the Surveillance State #2

Hi Bob,

I’ve decided you need a name so I am going to call you Bob. How was your day?

I have to say I am a bit disappointed that you’ve not responded to my first post considering the fact that I am, in fact, offering you free, personalized content. But perhaps it was because I neglected to tag my post. I’ve done that now so I certainly hope that you will send me some feedback. And of course I am looking for the big trade-off wherein I provide all the details you could ever want about what I’m doing every single day and you only have to help me find my glasses from time to time.

At any rate, I shall carry on.

I was indeed up until 2AM and wound up feeling sleep-deprived and a bit off my game today. The carrot cake after my healthy Amy’s did not help any. I really must be more careful with my gluten intake. A question for you, Bob – why do they always put nuts in carrot cake? It’s just wrong. They serve no purpose, Bob, and it ruins the texture of the cake which I feel should be uniformly moist and smooth. On a side note, I appear to now be constipated. You are probably too young to understand what us old folks have to go through to simply have a healthy bowel movement every day. My dad, may he rest in peace, swore by Grape Nuts. Have you ever tasted that shit, Bob? You might as well chew on a log. My dad, bless him, tried to make an end run around this conundrum by baking his own bran muffins. The only problem was is that they were dry – like the Mojave Desert – so dry that if you’d thrown one of them in the Gulf of Mexico, you’d have been able to drain the motherfucker overnight.

But once again, I digress. My day consisted of work and eating as it usually does. My evening consists of Pet Rescue Saga and YouTube. I did come across a video you might find interesting, Bob. It was a panel discussion led by Neil de Grasse Tyson and the topic was “Are we Living in a Simulation?” (as in a computer simulation). The panel consisted of several physicists and a philosopher. Of course they were some of the most brilliant minds in their fields and I am sure they know a bit about computers. Perhaps they even dabble in code. But the premise was that we may be able to prove or disprove that we were in a simulation by taking a look at anomalous data. Not the kind pumped out by humans, of course, but the kind pumped out by the laws of physics and mathematics. The thought was that maybe these were bugs in the code running our simulation and we could use them to “reverse engineer” the universe.

Now I don’t know about you, Bob, but I found it mildly offensive that they had no IT professionals on that panel. They are, after all, discussing computer programming. Where were the programmers? Where were the hackers? Why didn’t they invite you, Bob? I am sure you have some expertise in the area of reverse engineering. I actually was so upset that I left a message on Tyson’s website telling him that while the topic was compelling, they did not have all the right players at the table.

I am embarrassed to say, Bob, that the worst of the bunch Tyson invited to the panel was a woman. I want to see more women in science and technology and this woman – forgive me, but did not catch her name – made us look bad. She was 100% certain of all her answers which, of course, means she has absolutely no clue at all. Knowledge without wisdom. Ignorant and proud of it. Simply sad, Bob. Plus she had absolutely the worst case of Resting Bitch Face I believe I’ve ever seen.

I leave you with this. Tyson asked all the panelists to give him a percentage, a number describing how much of a possibility there was that we were, in fact, living in a simulation. Most panelists gave low percentages. But not Ms. Resting Bitch Face. She said, with no hesitation whatsoever, 0%. Now where is the logic in that? Where is the math? If we accept – as all the panelists did – that there is much about the universe we don’t know, how can we say 0%? We can’t say 100%, so we can’t say 0%. If we don’t know everything, even if the possibility is .01%, the possibility cannot be zero. And no one called her out on her bullshit, which quite frankly, was disappointing.

It is intriguing to think of ourselves as avatars, Bob. Just contemplate that. When you become predictable and boring, maybe the master programmers just knock you off. We must endeavor not to be boring just in case we are mere avatars. I think we need to do something surprising and amusing every day just to keep the programmers interested – you know – in case they are real and shit.

So there you have it. My day in a nutshell. And a few Deep Thoughts as well. Perhaps the tech exists to read my mind, but I am trying very hard to make your job just a tiny bit easier and hopefully a little more entertaining as well.

I hope you have had an absolutely brilliant day.

Your friend,



Love Letters to the Surveillance State

Dear Sir(s) or Madam(s),

You probably already know who I am so an introduction is unnecessary. And you can’t tell me who you are because if you told me you’d have to kill me (that’s a joke and I hope you will take it in the lighthearted spirit with which it was written).

I’ve recently come to understand that you have the ability to know everything about me, but of course you waste a lot of time analyzing all that data – not to mention the bazillion cat pictures I post – so I thought it might spare some time and effort if I just sent you the details of my day. You can corroborate them if you like. But that’s cool. I’m excruciatingly dull.

For example, I like to work. I mean really like to work. So I do it when I have to and I do it when I don’t have to. I think it may be an unhealthy obsession. Your thoughts? I used to get excited about going places on the weekend. Now I get excited about whatever project I’m working on and before I know it, I’m on line trying to figure out how to make my code work or I’ll think of something I forgot to do and next thing you know, the whole day is gone! Do you ever get like that? You know you always hear that government jobs are 9-5, but then the T.V. series and movies show you spy types working around the clock, no sleep, darkened rooms where there is no night or day. There is only the work. I wonder which is more real? If you do work around the clock, you may have the same problem I do. Do we need therapy do you think?

But I digress. By now you will know that I probably worked today. Well you could look that up, but it is unnecessary because I will tell you. I did. And I want to know who the sadistic fuckwit (hope you don’t mind a bit of cursing – I do have the tendency to use it like punctuation) was who created our software because I tell you, if you want to do something very complicated like a web service, it is easy to work with. But try to re-arrange fields on a screen? Hooo-boy! If you happen to know the answer to that question, just leave me a comment and provide some contact info so I can write the author of our software a strongly worded letter.

Let’s talk food. Today I had a piece of banana bread for breakfast, an Amy’s heat and eat for lunch (don’t ask me what kind – they all taste the same), a piece of cheesecake, a fruit and nut snack pack, three cups of coffee, and if you’ve turned on my web cam (God, I hope not – I look like hell today) you’ll have noticed I threw in a Hostess snack cake tonight. No sense hiding it from you 🙂 Now that I see my eating habits written down, I realize I must get better about eating healthy. See? You’ve helped me already.

In between eating and working I surfed a bit on my iPad. Did you all catch the Big Alligator video? I’ve watched it about 6 times and shown it to everyone I know. You know they spotted him in Lakeland at a preserve I am quite fond of. Such an awesome, prehistoric looking beast. Let’s see – I perused Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone – not too much there to write home about. Mostly stuff on Trump. Personally I am sick to death of politics and I skipped all that stuff. I also browsed the President’s pardon list but the only Big Name on the list was Chelsea Manning. Rather sad that she’s become suicidal. Now that they are letting her out, the big questions will – and remember, I predicted this first – is whether she’ll be gay or straight, who she will start dating, and when she will get her operation. She’ll be on Oprah. I am sure you are all worried about the data she leaked, but no one will remember that (except you guys, because you remember everything). The general public will just start salivating over her love life. Trust me.

Now the most interesting thing I found on the “interwebs” was the Top Ten Weird Sports. And of those Top Ten, my very, very favorite was the one about Extreme Ironing. It is where people take ironing boards, an iron, and a shirt and climb a mountain or skydive with it. Then they iron. They iron while skydiving. They iron on the top of sheer cliffs. They iron while white water rafting. There are photos. You should check it out.

Right now I am listening to Alex Winter talk about the Deep Web. It’s kind of interesting but not so much that I am going to keep listening to it. Usually when you get a good speaker and listen to a killer talk on YouTube, you go looking for more talks by that same person. Sadly, what I’ve found is that when there are more videos, the guy I loved so much the first time around, gives the same talk over and over. Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered via Mr. Winter is that he’s talking serious tech, but he was the guy that played in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Now what I am going to do after I finish this letter is go look up Mr. Winter to find out how the heck he went from being in “Bill and Ted…” to being a Deep Web expert. I’m very curious about that. How did that happen? You all probably know, but don’t tell me the punch line. I like to find things out for myself. The joy of discovery and all…

After I look that up, I will play Pet Rescue Saga until I find I’ve stayed up too late. I will get up in the morning and realize that I have yet again made a horrible judgment call regarding how much sleep a woman my age requires to function. Hence the three cups of coffee.

I do hope you have enjoyed this post. But be aware – this comes at a cost. The next time I lose my glasses (I do this about once ever few weeks) I’m counting on one of you to use your most excellent spy stuff to help me find them. Just leave a comment, send an email, knock on my door and say “They are right there dummy!” If you agree to these terms, I will continue to let you know about my day. Every day. Everything I can remember (oh, and I might ask you to look through your records and remind me of some of the stuff I forget – I’m old. Short term memory is not what it used to be.)

I hope you have a wonderful evening (or day or whenever you are reading this).

Your friend,


Open Letter to Rick Scott: Florida employee ‘punished for using phrase climate change’

Dear Governor Scott,
I would like to get some clarification on your unofficial policy regarding using the words “climate change” and “global warming” As a Floridian and an ex-English major, I am understandably concerned that your policy lacks the specificity required in order for it to be actionable. I am sure you will want to address these oversights as soon as possible.

For example, you do not mention context. According to the dictionary, the word “climate” may be used to describe either prevailing weather conditions or trends in “some aspect of public life.” Therefore, are state employees prohibited from stating, “The political climate change in Florida now favors tall, bald governors, whereas previously, governors with hair were preferred”? You also may be surprised to learn that many writers use “climate” to refer to emotional states. A highly literate and depressed state worker, may for example, complain that when you come into the office the climate in the office changes from friendly and innovative to stultifying and oppressive much like a hot, summer day in Florida. That’s called a simile, a very useful literary device for conveying mental pictures to a reader. In this case, almost everyone who has experienced August in Florida immediately gets a sense of what it feels like when you enter a room. Because August in Florida is hot. Very hot. Really, really freakin’ hot.

Now speaking of “hot,” I have to tell you, that you’ve left a huge loophole in your policy as I understand you have also forbidden the term “global warming.” You have not banned synonyms that I am aware of, so therefore a state employee could easily say “planetary heating” instead of “global warming” and now you have a problem on your hands. Nor have you addressed all the possible permutations of “global warming.” For example, does your prohibition extend to “The globe is warming” and “The climate is changing”? How about past tense? Say you have two state employees gathered around the coffee pot discussing what killed off the dinosaurs. One might say, “I read that scientists believe that the dinosaurs were killed off by large, roving herds of rabid chipmunks.” The other person may say, “No. I believe it is more nuanced than that. You see the climate changed which allowed for the rise of the Mammoth Chipmunk which exclusively ate nuts and dinosaur flesh.” Would this discussion violate the prohibition on the use of the term “climate change”? You leave this open to interpretation which is never wise, particularly from a law suit perspective.

And let us not forget our diverse population in Florida. Stunningly, you do not even cover whether or not the prohibited phrases are permitted so long as they are spoken in, say, Spanish or Yiddish or Vietnamese or Hungarian or Latin. Certainly the ACLU would have a field day with such discrimination. Personally I am quite surprised by your lack of cultural sensitivity in this area. Should you inadvertently hire a former Catholic priest who is environmentally conscious, he may run amok through the entire office shouting, “Global warming” and “Climate change” in Latin, and you would be none the wiser.

Nor do you address mocking. Should an employee who actually agrees with you state, “Global warming is sheer drivel” would that person be dismissed or not? This is a huge problem for those employees who are seeking to curry favor with your office by mindlessly agreeing with everything you say. You know the type. I am sure you are veritably surrounded by them. By banning these phrases at a global level, you deprive the upwardly mobile brown-noser from doing what he does best. If he cannot mock those things that you also mock, you are creating quite an impediment to his career growth and development. This may be his only marketable skill. His career hangs in the balance. No quality brown-noser will want to work for someone who prohibits mocking, but there you have it. Another huge gray area that may come around to haunt you if you do not promptly address it.

Finally you must be aware that by prohibiting the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” you actually had to utter these phrases yourself. Unfortunately this puts you in the awkward position of violating your own rules and you will have to call for your immediate resignation. Yes, I know this may look rather odd on television. People who talk to themselves in public are often suspected of schizophrenia and given large doses of Haldol on a locked ward. This is a situation I am sure you would wish to avoid. Unfortunately, I do not see an easy way out of that one for you, governor. Good luck with that. On the bright side, I did read that you ordered a mental health evaluation for the last person who used those phrases. Perhaps you could take advantage of this provision?
Carol Schiffler

Dear Electric Company

Dear Company Formerly Known as FP&L,
Recently I received a very touching letter signed by your State President. It was especially meaningful to me because I’ve known you since you were just a little tyke, long before you became The Duke. I know we communicate monthly via your heart-felt “Thank you for your payment” emails, but an actual letter, on company letterhead – well it almost moved me to tears.

I know I have been guilty of saying unkind and unappreciative things about you in the past. Particularly when my husband and I received notice about those rate hikes you so desperately needed to re-furbish and build new power plants. Clearly I was being short-sighted and was not considering the Big Picture. You were only trying to do what was right for us, after all.

And then when you requested more money to tear down the ones you had started to fix up? Boy did I get steamed about that! I believe I may have made an unflattering comparison to your policy, likening it to that part in the great novel Catch-22. You remember that book? A classic, eh? There was that section in there that talked about Milo Minderbinder’s father who was paid handsomely to NOT grow wheat. I remember the first time I read it and laughed until tears were rolling down my cheeks. It’s damn funny stuff when you are sixteen and don’t pay your own light bill, let me tell you!

But at any rate, please forgive my cheekiness. Clearly I am old and do not understand the world of energy and high finance. I am sure you have perfectly good reasons for not taking the original rate hike – the one for building things – and not applying it to the current project – the one for tearing down the things you built. I am sure you have perfectly good reasons for this strategy and I should not, as your State President pointed out, just carte blanche, accept the explanation I read in the very biased, Pulitzer Prize winning Tampa Bay Times. The media can be so cruel.

And yes, I did get a bit peeved when I recently had to fork out a second deposit to put the lights on for my grandkids and their mom who needed emergency housing. Yes, I know rules are rules, but in my addle-headed Luddite silliness, I guess I thought our long, very close relationship might entitle us to a discount on the second residence, especially since we’ve never fucked you over on the monthly bills we are paying on the first one. I did not for one second stop and appreciate the fact that you dropped EVERYTHING, just for me, and had the power turned on in that house the very next day! What is $500.00 compared to the peace of mind I get from knowing you are there for me when I need you the most?

But back to your letter. It just could not have come at a better time. Here I am, sitting with my childish resentments, and then the mail comes and I can hardly believe it! It is an apology for the inefficiencies you found in your meter reading routes. You actually said these words, (which literally caused me to weep openly): “We apologize for any hardship this may have caused you and your family.” And this: “We value you as a customer and are working to fix this and make it right.  A credit will be added on either your September or October bill.”

Obviously I have mischaracterized you as just another greedy corporation, and for that please accept my own heartfelt apologies. And with God as my witness, I promise to use that $5.62 wisely. In fact, I am planning to bless my grandchildren today with 1 ½ Happy Meals thanks to your selfless generosity.
Humbly yours,
A faithful customer

The Other

Over the past month, I have finished reading four autobiographical accounts written by people who suffer from mental illness. One suffered from schizophrenia, another bi-polar disorder, one from drug and alcohol addiction, and the last was a book written by the father of an addict. Technically, I suppose the last one is in a slightly different category, but the difference is merely one of perspective and in the end, that difference is trivial. The real theme here is suffering, the kind brought on by the alchemic transformation of biochemistry into madness.
Unlike what the world, (the untroubled world, the world of “normal”), defines as suffering, mental illness is a disease of one: one person, one demon, one battle. The individual at the eye of the storm is not living in a place where ebola, starvation, intestinal parasites, and bombs are the primary cause of death. (Here I must provide a rather banal disclaimer: yes, I know other cultures, including impoverished third world countries, have mentally ill populations, but that isn’t what this is about.) They live here. They live next door. They live, perhaps, in your house. They live, perhaps, in your own head.
We think of them as the “Other,” as in “Not Me.” Not Me is a place, as opposed to an actual person. Not Me is a country populated by your friends, family, and co-workers, all of whom are perfectly normal. Other is a place too, but it is populated by people who talk to themselves and smell funny and pick through the trash and have more cats than they do teeth. Other is a place populated by criminals, pimps, whores, drop-outs, the unemployed, and the unemployable. Obviously Uncle Bob doesn’t live in the land of Other – he just has “spells,” or is “sick again.” Obviously your beloved child doesn’t live there either – he is just going through a “phase.” And obviously your ‘til-death-do-us-part-teenage-sweetheart-made-for-T.V. spouse doesn’t live there either. He’s just having a “rough time” and is “under a lot of pressure.” Uncle Bob, your child, your spouse live in Not Me. Obviously.
Except…except when they don’t, but we don’t really talk about that, do we? Why? Well that’s pretty obvious too. Some people deceive themselves, true. Therapists love to talk about denial as if those of us who love someone who is broken have some sort of choice in the matter. We don’t talk about it because it is dangerous, and the danger is real. There is a danger that a person who has worked very hard to recover will lose a hard-won job if the word gets out. There is a danger that we will be kicked out of our home if our landlord finds we are caring for an adult alcoholic child. There is a danger that our neighbors will find out that we have a crazy person in our house and will try to force us to move. And that doesn’t even step into the emotional bullying pile of shit the good folks from Not Me will leave on our front stoop.
Now these books I read were brave and brilliant and raw and true, but the fact is that they were written by people with resources. Yes, I am sure they found more than one flaming pile of shit on their doorstep, but they had two things that most of us who deal with living in Other-world don’t have: access to treatment and environmental security. They had degrees, connections, families with money, someone in their life who could keep a roof over their head when they lost control. They had a physical safety net that your average, run-of-the-mill crazy person doesn’t have.
I do not begrudge them this and it takes nothing away from the immense courage it took to tell their stories. The fact that they had a safety net does not diminish, by a single iota, the suffering they experienced, and still do suffer, because mental illness may sleep, but it still dreams. My beef is not with these incredible authors who stood up and told their stories and in doing so, became advocates for all the inhabitants of Other, including – maybe, especially – those who are flying without a net, those who have been forced into hiding, and those whose symptoms are so conspicuous they cannot hide. No. My beef is not with them.
It is, instead, with a cultural norm propagated through the media, promulgated by politicians, and perpetuated by the inhabitants of Not Me. That cultural norm is unspoken because no one really has to say it. Everyone knows the mantra already. That mantra pretty much goes like this: Fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em because they are criminals who drive drunk, sell dope, and steal shit so they can drive drunk and buy drugs more often. Fuck ‘em because they lay in bed all day complaining that they are depressed and not contributing to the motherfucking Gross National Product and what’s up with that? Fuck ‘em because they are on disability because they can’t control their weird behavior from 9-5, 5 days a week. Is that so damn hard? Oh yeah, and fuck ‘em times ten because they aren’t…well, you know…normal.
Screw the 5.7 million Americans who suffer from bi-polar disorder. Screw the 2.4 million schizophrenics and the 23.5 million addicts and those 14.8 million people who lay in bed all day whining about how sad they feel. To hell with the anorexics and bulimics and agoraphobics and the 33,000 people who commit suicide every year. Besides, don’t some of these staggering figures just represent the same people? Aren’t we counting the drunk schizophrenics twice? That’s cheating, exaggerating, a gross misrepresentation of the numbers! It’s alarmist propaganda, it’s pandering, it’s…it’s… bad form. And besides, aren’t half those people faking it anyway? If you listen to psychiatrists, everyone has a mental illness.
Thank you very much. I have already heard these arguments and I am, to say the least, nonplussed. The number of people in this country who suffer from a serious mental illness that even a child (not a precocious child who has memorized the entire DSM-IV, but just, you know, a regular kid) could diagnosis is somewhere in the millions. It’s a big number even adjusting by some arbitrary factor to account for dual diagnosis and flagrant malingering. If we had millions of people suffering from plague or leprosy, you’d see people marching in the street, demanding action, storming Capitol Hill. There would be a sense of urgency and something would have to be done about it.
It is an old saw, often used when discussing national priorities, but I’m going to bust out the rusted blade here and start cutting. Based on the response of pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists, I am absolutely certain we must have had an imminent erectile dysfunction crisis on our hands at some point in time, else there would not be such easy access to Viagra, which flows, yea verily, like water from the fountain pens of our health care providers. As a society, we act swiftly when our boners are at stake. Where, then, is a similar response to mental illness?
I leave you with a question that, as of today, has no answer. And as long as we continue to ignore the question, the suffering will continue in deep, immense, and immeasurable silence.

Of drugs, denial, and disappearing teaspoons

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about drug addiction and stigma. I could go into an entire diatribe about how stigma impacts an addict’s ability to seek treatment and receive adequate treatment. After all, stigma informs our public policies and it is in the best interest of the bottom line for insurance companies and politicians to portray the addict as a leech, a moral reprobate, and a criminal. So the public takes the bait and we continue to let people suffer and die because of it. But aside from stigmatization of the addict, there is an equally as destrutive stigma associated with the addict’s family. There are many popular variations on this theme. If you are the parent of an addict, you’ve probably heard them all, or even used them to pummel yourself. Here are a few of my favorites:

“There must have been abuse in the home.”

“I’ll bet the parents are addicts too. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, you know.”

“They were too permissive.”

“They were bad parents.”

“They didn’t engage in their child’s life.”

When used as a tool for self-flagellation, it takes the form of:

“What did we do wrong?”

“How could we have missed the signs?”

“Was it because of the divorce?”

“Was it because I was stressed when I was pregnant?”

“Should I have done more snooping in her room when she wasn’t home?”

O.K. Let’s can the condemnation right now. There is no one single path to addiction, and if you are the parent of an addict, the path your child chose may have absolutely nothing to do with you. Sure there are absolutely things that parents do or fail to do that may elevate a child’s risk factor for addiction, and if your child was raised like a lab rat with no other influences besides parental ones, we could say definitively whether or not it was your “fault.” But real life is not that simple, (and if it were, face it, it would be brutally boring).

If you review the literature on causality, you find that even the experts can’t agree. After years of playing nature-nurture tug-of-war, researchers in the field found they had to make up a word to account for why people become addicted. That word is biopsychosocial, and it is a word that no one who isn’t applying for a research grant would ever use. The rest of us call it “life.” From conception, a child is exposed to environmental stressors in the form of anxiety hormones, environmental toxins, and sometimes they just don’t luck out at the swim meet in the gene pool. If there is drug abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse in the home, sure, the kid is at risk for a whole bunch of psychological problems, but addiction may not be one of them. Conversely, parents of addicts may be Ward and June Cleaver, living in the suburbs with a white picket fence and tasteful furniture. Children of police officers may become addicts. Children of clergymen may become addicts. Children of psychologists may become addicts, for fuck’s sake. And now that heroin is hitting the suburbs – and it is – we now see soccer moms and Little League coaches with addiction issues. The point is, if you are the parent of an addict, don’t buy the stereotype and don’t own the stigma.

Now of all the dumb-ass excuses I’ve heard people use to beat themselves up for their child’s addiction, number one on my hit list is, “I guess I was in denial.” This is probably true for a small subset of parents, but let’s look at what denial really is. Denial is a state of utter refusal to believe the facts even when they are staring you in the face. In other words, you walk into your child’s bedroom, see him with a needle dangling out of his arm, and say, “Oh my. When did you become insulin-dependent?” That would be denial. Or your child has just been arrested and he’s carrying several grams of heroin, a syringe, and a prescription for pain killers that doesn’t belong to him, and you say, “I’m sure someone snuck that into his backpack when he wasn’t looking.” That’s denial. OK?

Denial is not missing the subtle cues that might alert you to the fact that something is wrong. After having watched several documentaries involving interviews with parents who had lost children to overdose, the one question they were always asked was, “Were there any red flags that your child was becoming addicted?” Most parents, presumably after innumerable therapy sessions, had learned to say, “Um…not really…well yes, there were a few. I guess I was in denial.” When pressed for these so-called clues, one mother said, “Well when Sean came home from college for the holidays he looked like a wreck.” She put it down to stress and assumed he wasn’t eating right. He also told her he had just come down with the flu. The woman’s whole family had also just come down with the flu. If your child said he had the flu and looked like hell, you would believe him. And you would believe him not because you were in denial, but because your brain has no frame of reference for dope sick. Unless you have seen it before and had other reasons to think of drugs – and bear in mind, this young man had been away at college for a semester – your brain doesn’t go there. Has he looked like this before? Yes, when he was sick. This is your experience as a mom. Thin, unshaven, a little green around the gills, a bit shakey? You’ve probably seen the same look a hundred times when you were raising him (except the unshaven part because frankly, on a two-year-old, that would be weird). This is the context your brain has for this particular look. When your brain hears hoofbeats, as the old saying goes, you think of horses, not zebras.

Another woman said she should of known because her teaspoons kept going missing.  This was a lovely, British, middle-class woman in her sixties. She did not strike me as the kind of person who had spent a lot of time watching people inject illegal drugs in their arms (among other places). What was her brain to make of missing teaspoons? Probably not much. Her brain had no context for connecting teaspoons with heroin, yet she too called this denial.

Another woman had packed her son off to college with a credit card which he was to use for text books and living expenses. At first activity on the card was normal, but then it started to escalate. Unless her child had addiction issues before going to college, what is mom going to think? She’s going to get pretty angry and give him a stern lecture about not using the card to take a girl out to dinner, or buy football tickets, or purchase a bitching stereo system for his car. Why? Because moms with kids in college expect that these are the kinds of things a not-quite-financially-responsible college freshman spends money on. Her brain has no context for thinking otherwise so she imagines what other financially irresponsible young people usually do when given a credit card. That’s not denial, but that’s what she called it.

These are examples of contextual thinking, which is, by the way, how our brains operate when dealing with missing teaspoons and maxed out credit cards. It is our default mode for thinking about the mundane things in our lives. Yes, we all have swell imaginations and use them when the context calls for it. If we were decorating a room, reading a novel, watching a movie, or visiting a museum, we’d let that bad-boy imagination machine have at it. If we are dealing with misplaced jewelry (that our addicted child has stolen, but we assume we’ve put down in one of those infamous “safe places” that we never remember later) or a scruffy kid who looks exactly like he did when he had the flu ten years ago, our brain dispatches with these things in terms of what it knows. It cannot do otherwise. Biologically our brain is still on the primordial savannah. If our primitive ancestors heard rustling in the bushes, they knew from experience it was probably a lion. They did not wait around to see if it was a neighbor bringing over Sunday brunch and a pot of tea. The subconscious conclusions at which we arrive when dealing with ordinary life frees up our much over-rated pre-frontal cortex to contemplate the meaning of life, to do complex long-range planning, and to determine what the fuck James Joyce could possibly have been thinking when he wrote Ulysses.

Most parents today hit adolescence in the sixties and seventies. Our experience of illicit drug and alcohol use was scraping together enough change to get our older siblings to buy us a bottle of Boonesfarm piss-poor wine. If we didn’t smoke pot ourselves, we knew people who did. We snuck cigarettes now and then. Some folks dabbled with hallucinogens and everyone knew at least one person who had. It was a phase, we outgrew it, we moved on with our lives and settled into spectacular, blissful normalcy. If we knew addicts at all, they were almost all aging alcoholics. Most of us know what someone smells like when they’ve been drinking. We know what cigarette smoke smells like. Many of us could identify a bong if we found one in our child’s room. That is the only context we have for illicit substance abuse. How on earth are we to connect missing teaspoons to heroin? How are we to recognize early signs of meth addiction or cocaine addiction?

An addicted child, they tell us, becomes withdrawn and isolated. So what? All teenagers do. You don’t ignore it certainly, but you don’t automatically make the leap to addiction until it is so deeply dug in that the child no longer cares about whether or not you know. That’s pretty far gone. You have to watch who your child hangs out with, they tell us. We do, and we make rules and set boundaries, but unless you are willing to spend your child’s teenage years sitting his room every night (that’s every night for six years) with a shotgun, you cannot know what he does in the middle of the night or who he does it with. Also, bear in mind that many young people do not become addicted until they go off to college. If your child is accepted to Stanford and you live in Milwaukee, you are not in any position to monitor his behavior unless you can afford a private detective doing 24/7 surveillance for the next four years. And even that’s no guarantee.

So what does this have to do with stigma? Simply this. A parent will self-stigmatize by using the word “denial.” If it’s true, by all means admit it and work on that, but merely missing the “red flags” is not the same thing at all. And the more time you waste smacking yourself over the head for something you could not possibly have seen coming, the more guilt you feel, the more you begin isolating yourself, the more likely you are to begin the blame and shame game. The end result of this game is that pretty soon the whole damn family is dysfunctional. Everyone is sitting in their own darkened corner, nursing their own shame, and blaming each other. It is now not only the addict who hates himself. It’s you, it’s your spouse, it’s siblings, it’s grandparents, it’s the kid down the block who unwittingly introduced your child to someone who knew someone who was a dealer. That’s a zero-sum game folks.

There are no positive outcome guarantees for an addicted individual, but there are definitely ways to ensure negative outcomes. Asking yourself “why” is a road with no outlet – unless of course you want to emulate addiction researchers and make up a new word for it. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about linguistic confabulations at this point in your life. Leave that to the experts. If you wait long enough, they’ll come up with something. You have more important things to do. Trust me, if the only commitment you have this week is to drive your addicted child to an NA meeting, you have more important things to do.



How we’ve totally fucked up addiction treatment

I debated a bit before using the word “fucked,” but face it. No one is going to read a scholarly dissertation on the subject. Instead, we need some straight talk (no pun intended) because there are too many people dying, too many families suffering, too many people are lost. Show of hands, folks. How many people know an addict, have lost someone to addiction, have struggled with it personally? If there is even one person on my list who doesn’t know someone for whom treatment has failed, and failed multiple times, they are either lying or dead.  I shall presume the former since the latter would be a bit unsettling.

Now most of you will not listen to William White’s youtube presentation on Recovery Oriented Systems of Care because it sounds dull and it takes about three days to listen to the entire series. But you should. If you are an addict, you should listen to it. If you are a family member, you should listen to it. If you are a certified professional, you damn straight should listen to it. Let me give you a quick synopsis of why addicts don’t recover and I can do it in one word: treatment.

Here’s what happens in today’s enlightened age of addiction treatment. Addict comes in. Addict is de-toxed. Addict has thirty days to get his shit together. Addict has graduation celebration. Addict is released from treatment. Addict goes back to old neighborhood and scores before he takes his first shit as a free man. Why?

We know that addiction is a chronic condition, but in our culture, addiction is treated as if it were an acute disease, sort of like the flu plus or minus a felony charge. White puts it like this. It is like taking a dying tree, uprooting it, planting it in good soil and nourishing it, and the minute it starts to bloom, we say, “Awesome. This tree has recovered.” And we dig it up, put it back where it came from, ignore it, and it dies.

Do we use this model with diabetics? Lupus? High blood pressure? Fuck no. How about cancer? Nope. HIV? Nope. Statistics show that alcoholics stand a good chance of remaining sober if they’ve reached their fifth year of sobriety. So how long should we provide follow up care (at minimum)? Hint: If you have to think about that one too long, you’ve got the wrong answer. Opiod addicts take even longer. Just like with any other chronic disease, addiction has a point where it is stable and the patient is able to manage it, for the most part, by themselves. And just like any other chronic disease, there are periods of remission and a potential for relapse. Notice I said “potential.” Not everyone does, but you don’t hear about them. Why? Because a large majority of people who recover don’t ever go into treatment. We can’t identify them, so we can’t study them.

And why can’t we identify them? Stigma. Who in their right mind is going to risk their job or their friendships or their family by telling a well-meaning researcher, “Oh hell yes. Man, I spent a whole year of my life pawning everything I owned, pawning stuff other people owned, crawling through the rose bushes at 3AM vomiting my guts out, and every once in a while, wetting the bed. I was just lucky I never got caught. And dude, that describes about half the guys in my college dorm.”  Even more salient, what former addict who never got caught is going to lead the civil rights movement against the stigmatization of addicts? If you can go public with your addiction it is because you are in one of two positions: either you’ve got nothing to lose because you’ve already lost it all, or you are Betty-freakin’-Ford. Either way, someone who is looking for hope is not finding a role model who looks like them.

If you’ve been in treatment, you’ve got yourself one serious case of stigma. You have to lie on job applications. You’ve got to sweep your former self under the carpet and pray to God that one of your old dealers or drinking buddies doesn’t recognize you when you are on a family outing with your kids. And you sure aren’t going to stand up at the Rotary club and be an advocate for the ones that didn’t make it lest someone sees the ex-addict in you and decides its time your membership expired.

But back to the acute treatment model. We’ve got other problems in our thirty day, instant recovery plan besides simply the duration of treatment. Here’s the biggie. Administrative discharge. If you’ve not been around people in a program, let me define this for you. The client enters treatment straight out of jail or off the street and we are SHOCKED – simply SHOCKED – that he does not even have rudimentary social skills. He breaks a rule, which may or may not involve using. What happens? He’s kicked out of the program. Now I’m going to paraphrase White again but “in what other chronic illness do we find patients kicked out when they become symptomatic?” He uses this as an example: You go into a hospital for a heart condition. On Day 2 of your stay, you have a heart attack. In other words, you have become symptomatic for the condition that brought you to the hospital. Does anyone come to your room and kick you out of the hospital for being “non-compliant?” No. They move you to ICU because you need more care, not less. Do you see the problem here? The guy that really needs the help, who is seriously a danger to himself or others, is kicked out of a program for exhibiting symptoms of his disease. If you are his counselor, you will see him again. And again. And again. That is provided that your facility allows him back in your program and many do not, thereby causing another problem in that the person who knows your case better than anyone can no longer treat you and you have to start over in a brand new environment with a brand new counselor.

But there’s more. Counselors who really care are actually leaving formal treatment facilities because they feel they can do more good as a volunteer. Why? First of all, they spend more time doing mandatory paperwork than treating clients. Second, there are “boundary issues.” Ethically, if your client walks out of treatment and disappears, you are not permitted to go looking for him. You can’t go to his house, his shelter, his street corner and say, “Hey what’s up? Let’s go have a cup of coffee and talk about what’s going on with you.” If you do that, you will be fired. You can’t interact with the client’s family and invite them over for one blessed afternoon of normalcy doing a backyard barbeque or having a picnic. In the facility, you can’t hug the client or pat him on the shoulder or have any contact whatsoever. Presumably this excludes CPR, but I am guessing that most counselors would even feel uncomfortable  about that. It is such a pervasive concept that I had one instructor at school who said she will not even offer a distraught client a tissue, although of course they are free to reach for one themselves – or use their sleeves.

In one class, we were given the hypothetical situation of running into a client in a shopping mall. The client is doing well and is happy to see you. Bubbling with enthusiasm and gratitude, he or she rushes over to give you a hug. The instructor’s advice? Extricate yourself from the client’s embrace and gracefully slide into a politically correct handshake. Play that scene out in real life and think about how it feels to be a client who has just been stiff-armed by their therapist. To make matters worse, you cannot disclose the identity of this person to your stunned family members. “Who is that?” your hubby asks, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Uh…just..ummm…you know…some guy.” This does not exactly model functional social interactions, ya know?

There will be a follow up to this post. It is just a beginning. I’ve caught White’s vision and I get it. And if you are addicted or love someone who is, I can only encourage you to read my meager offerings and then go subscribe to William White’s youtube channel. Here’s the link:

You owe it to yourself, and to those you know who struggle with addiction, to understand the limitations of the current addiction treatment health care model in the United States. You need to understand why treatment is often a revolving door. You need to understand that there is a vision out there that could work and it needs advocates. Most of all, you need to know recovery is possible even for the most hard-core addict you know. Maybe that person is you. Don’t give up. Take action.