Zillion Dollar Misunderstanding

by Anne Lombardo Ardolino

This was originally written as a response to an editorial in the New York Daily News.

Dear Sir

Approximately two, maybe three years ago, you printed a letter from a Mr. Gerald Mac Oscar entitled ³The Addiction Excuse,² an essay if you will, on the ³wickedness of addiction,² and which included his opinions regarding what he felt was one very unfortunate remark made by Darryl Strawberry’s teammate, ³Dwight Gooden,² that being, ³Once you’re an addict, you’re an addict for life.² Mr. Mac Oscar took serious umbrage with this remark, stating ³I almost cried when I read this,² his reaction apparently NOT because of the devastating validity of this claim, but because he was in furious disagreement. He inferred that the taking of drugs is always the result of a ³lack of character,² and simply a matter of ³making the wrong choices at midnight in the garden of good and evil.²

As someone who has struggled unsuccessfully with drug addiction for over forty some years, I did cry when I read Mr Mac Oscar’s condemning words. I also feel I have the right to inquire – ³What qualifies Mr. Mac Oscar (as a Pennsylvania lawyer and not a pain specialist or scientist of brain chemistry) to pass this severely harsh and absolute judgement on Darryl Strawberry or anyone like him?

My intentions are not to be disrespectful or confrontational; I am as sincere as a country church supper when I say that it amazes me as to how naive and consequently merciless people can be when it comes to the subject of addiction. And although I can already hear the voices raised together in protest, I believe this is true and I am going to say it and that is ³Unless you’re an addict, you can’t even begin to understand the sad reality of Mr. Gooden’s statement. Just like I cannot comprehend what bizarre and savage sensations compel an individual suffering from ³Tourettes Syndrome to spasm uncontrollably and bark and growl and utter profanities at the most awkward of moments, neither do I believe that a ³normal² person can understand the unrelenting discomfort that drives someone like myself to narcotics.

There are scientific explanations for the following I am sure, but not being a scientist, I’LL have to beg for your patience as I am forced to make do with my own inadequate vocabulary; I compare this situation to the fairy tale about ³opening Pandoras box (you can never close it again). I believe that once an addict has developed a physical addiction, their entire brain’s chemical system (which was most likely good and screwed up in the first place) becomes even more and forever altered and never fully returns to home base – not ever. It can’t you see, because for one thing, it won’t be possible for this individual to completely eradicate the ³physical and emotional memory of what it was like to feel reasonably comfortable for maybe the first time in their entire, miserable, and ³endorphin anemic life.

People ask the addict over and over ³Why do you do it? Why do you take drugs?² And the addict replies ³Because without drugs, I feel bad.² People conclude ³Well, I feel bad on plenty of occasions, but I can’t go take drugs every time I get a little depressed.² And there it is – what I call the ³Zillion Dollar Misunderstanding.² It not ³feeling bad in the normal sense which drives an addict to drugs – it is the result of their brain constantly sending out the incorrect chemical messages to their bodies which results in a constant sensation of discomfort and they can only take so much before they¹ve just got to have some relief. Unfortunately, most addicts don’t know how to articulate this difficulty. They don’t know how to tell you that they have all the regular depression and sadness and anxieties that all people have – but in addition, they have a low pain tolerance due to a lack of endorphins, (which is what scientists have named the natural substance that everyone’s body is supposed to make at least some of).

Apparently these endorphins act very much the same as opioids, only without all the horrible side effects and it’s been said by the scientists who discovered them, that they are seven hundred times more potent any other narcotic. Mean while, I don’t know what is so difficult to figure out;  people are born with all sorts of shortcomings and disabilities – well, why isn’t understandable that this is just one more human inadequacy – a defect – addicts don’t have enough natural pain killer and as a result, they feel terrible in a way that other people don’t.

I truly believe that those of us with substance abuse problems were either born with or early acquired this physical defect, this ³anemia;² I do not believe that it came about as a result of making bad decisions, nor was it caused by ³hanging out with the wrong crowd.² When you’re an addict, you ARE the ³wrong crowd.²

It has crossed my mind that in addition to probably inheriting this disorder, maybe it can also be aggravated or worsened from a child being subjected to too much pain, say, an overload of discomfort at too early an age.

But however I may have acquired this problem, I can promise you this with my hand on the bible and from the bottom of my truest heart – I did not accept my sentence of addiction lying down. I fought hard, did everything I knew and then some trying to find a way to learn how to live drug free. I went to rehab after rehab, subjected myself to program after program – just to mention two, I voluntarily spent six months at Daytop Village in Staten Island, ³learning how to grow up was what they called it, which translated into going to endless group therapies where people screamed at each other for hours on end.

We all lived in a regimented environment, an atmosphere much like your regular old boot camps, including the doing of endless and mindless chores, such as, scrubbing toilets with toothbrushes while being forced to wear funny signs that proclaimed a variety of things, (most of them containing the phrase ³I am an ass hole),² and then there was this punishment for the females, which was being forbidden to wear cosmetics, then forced to place a stocking cap over one’s head ³to humiliate basically – ³knock you down a peg or two – this might be the penalty for anything from ³splitting,² aka ³walking out the door,² and then coming back begging re-admittance, to ³being negative and allowing yourself to daydream about your old drug days.

Next I went to Synanon for two and a half years of more of the same, except an even more psychologically strenuous and sophisticated program, (Synanon the grand-daddy of all rehabs). When that didn’t work either, I still kept trying – I tried everything I heard of, from spending three thousand dollars on a useless ³Ibogain treatment (I had to break the law to raise the fee for that one) to attempting a ³Native American Vision Quest,² where I stood on one leg facing the East until I grew exhausted and fell over, unable to complete the three day exercise.

I went the route – from organic, macrobiotic, all raw vegetarian diets and high colonic enemas to spending tons of money on psychiatrists, (self appointed ³experts² who knew less about addiction that I did) – from going to hospitals where I was attended to like a ³sick person,² to being thrown in jail and treated like a criminal of the worst ilk, beaten and left to vomit and convulse on the cold cement floor.

I’VE been to NA and AA where I ³surrendered to a higher power.² I’VE been to church where I ³died to the flesh and was born again.² I have ³stood on my own two feet and taken control of my life. I have ³let go and let God.² You name it; I tried it and gave it my all.

And guess what? I’M still a drug addict. I am fifty seven years old and whether or not I act on this reality changes nothing – I am still and always will be physiologically pre-dispositioned to substance abuse and narcotics addiction – all due to some sort of hideous and incurable chemical disorder in my brain that is probably genetic and was probably passed on to me in my DNA.

It is for this reason that I believe with absolute conviction and without exception that drug addicts should NEVER have children. The odds are just too great that they MIGHT pass along this imperfect gene, this hereditary disorder and that is a terrible thing to inflict upon an innocent child.

Let me use the following analogy (a favorite of mine) to try and prove to you with simple logic why I believe that addiction has nothing to do with a lack of will power or poor character.

I do not drink alcohol. For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated the taste, the smell, and most of all, I abhor the way it makes me feel. It is unpleasant and sickening to me, consequently, I have never had any desire to drink. In my case, where alchohol is concerned, there is no temptation and even stark, cold reality, hard as it might be to bear, is preferable to that state commonly referred to as ³being intoxicated.² I’D rather die than have to be drunk all the time.

I don’t believe for a second that this is any indication of my having made the right decisions in life; I just don’t like to drink and so I don’t. I couldn’t tell you why if my life depended on it. It’s simply that way I found things to be. Do I deserve some sort of reward or credit for this? Was it really a mark of my courage that I decided not to drink (since it made me feel so terrible)? I don’t think so.

Now, to get back to Dwight Gooden¹s remark. If I may be so bold and assuming, here is what I believe he may have been trying to say. ³Sooner or later an addict will goof up, even if only once in a while and/or a teeny bit. And when and if this happens, I don’t think its fair for people to react so severely. After all, when someone like Rosie O Donnel falls off the wagon and eats a couple of extra Twinkies, or inhales a gallon of ice cream, no one arrests her or plasters her name all over the front pages of every newspaper in the country. She does not have to go to court and allow some judge who may not be good enough to lick her boots to admonish her in public, speak down to and lecture her and threaten to ruin her career or fine her till she is broke and her life is in a shambles.

No one does this to a drunk when he falls off the wagon and takes a drink. Oh sure, there may be consequences, he may have to go to rehab; they may throw him in a hospital for a few months; his boss may fire him from his job, his wife may leave him and his family may turn their backs on him, but, he doesn’t have to go to prison and be run through the gauntlet of the criminal justice system right along with the serial killers and child molesters and thieves and bank robbers. Not unless he was drinking and driving perhaps or worse yet, got into some sort of an accident and killed someone while under the effects of liquor is there ever a prison sentence involved.

I’m not going to try and tell you that a tendency towards addiction is an excuse to let it all hang out. Of course everyone should always fight to rise above their circumstances and weaknesses. If one has a tendency toward child molestation, not even on slip up in a life time can be tolerated, but, I don’t believe it¹s fair or appropriate to make a comparison between difficulties with addiction and child abuse.

I have a friend who loves to pat himself on the back and take credit for the fact that he is fit and trim, even though it appears to me that it has required little effort on his part to manage this, I mean, he doesn’t diet or work out or make any special efforts to maintain his condition – it just seems to be his good fortune that he’s ³built that way.²

But oh God, you should hear him crow – insisting that being fat is only the result of weakness, nothing but a matter of a lack of simple, everyday will power. He says this often – his ³proof² and I quote ³They don’t have fat people in concentration camps.² To his limited scope, there the whole thing in a nutshell – that ³people only get fat when there too much food available. He grew quite annoyed with me when I mentioned that I felt he was missing the entire point, that being, that it wasn’t just a matter of ³who stuffed too much food down their gullet when given the opportunity,² it was ³who suffered more in between meals? Whose mind would give them no rest when they were feeling hungry? Whose tummy ached the most when it was empty and which of them would be the first to cheat to get an extra morsel of food? Which of them laid awake at night with their mouths watering?

In a situation like that, I’d be the one with all the character and ability to control myself. I don’t really care about food too much, never have, in fact, I consider it a bother and wish I didn’t have to worry about eating but could just drink something three times a day and be done with it. So, is this a mark of my good character? I don’t think so.

If you’re like my adopted mother), who simply abhors the way opioids make her feel (they give her headaches; they make her dizzy, nauseous and itchy) you won’t have addiction tendencies because just like in my case with the alcohol, when there is no pleasure, there is no temptation.

I myself am currently not using Heroin or Cocaine or street drugs or pills etc. For over seven years I have been successfully making do with a small daily dose of Methadone, and although most folks might not be impressed, I am overjoyed with my limited success; it was more than I ever hoped for. And guess what I attribute a great deal of this new found freedom from drugs to? Hormones. I am no longer driven by bizarre and overwhelming forces and desires that I cannot even understand – in particular, I don’t fall in love with idiots and get my heart broken and wind up love sick and unable to function. I don’t feel restless with the need to go out and prowl the streets, the nightclubs, the parties, looking for sexual company. I have a little peace now and can actually focus on other things (like writing this letter for instance).

I watch the hysterical young girls in the Spring time and other than a passing moment of nostalgic envy for their youthful energy and spirit and beauty, I find myself feeling rather sorry for them; they haven’t a clue, but I do, I know they’re under a spell and not really in control of their emotions and consequently their actions. They’re being directed by subconscious desires and hormones.

My urges to get loaded are nowhere as strong as they used to be since I went through menopause, no longer overwhelming and so now, ³Lo and behold, miracle of miracles (sarcasm intended) I find I am able to handle it and so I do. It makes me wonder if all of this time I’VE been blaming myself, calling myself names, believing I deserved to be spat upon by all of society…perhaps I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t fall my fault. Maybe it¹s a sin that I was judged so harshly and treated so badly.

As for Darryl Strawberry? Okay, maybe he’s not fit to be playing sports anymore. And no, he can’t be a good role model for young kids anymore. But, my goodness, he’s been though an awful lot lately, and maybe he deserves to be excused for his recent misbehavior. Just think of all he going through – his beloved career is done and over; he has colon Cancer and this is the second bout with this dread disease; he’s lost a kidney, and last but not least, he’s having to deal with the serious fears and depression related to chemotherapy treatments while away from his family and friends and loved ones and familiar surroundings, plus he fighting this addiction – and on top of everything else, he¹s having to do it all under enough stress and duress to drive anyone over the edge, since, as a public figure, he is held up to the highest and most unreasonable scrutiny.

One last thought – I wonder if those cops who busted Darryl that night with the tiniest little amount of Cocaine in his wallet went out later to celebrate the gold star they received from their Sergeant for doing such a good job. Wonder if they stopped off at the local bar after work to share a beer?

It must be nice to live in a country where your poison is legal, available, and reasonably priced.

Anne Lombardo Ardolino
Staff writer and in house poet of