Did I know right from wrong? Of course. Did I care? No. Did I know I was destroying my life? Yes. Did I care? Yes. Could I stop? No. Addiction overpowered my rational thought process to that extent. Clinical research and limitless anecdotal evidence tells us that my experience is not unique in that regard.
Different environmental factors may or may not trigger that predisposition. Genetically, there is no history of addiction in my family or extended family that I am aware of. I’m the middle of three children. The oldest, Mark, was always the outgoing entrepreneurial type. He was selling one thing or another as far back as I can remember. He became what the first born might be expected to become and much more, going on to become a billionaire, among other accomplishments. My younger brother Jeff, like many last born, had a little more freedom to just be who he wanted. He was a jock—a nationally ranked wrestler—and also popular with the ladies. I was the middle child, and like many middle children I was shy and withdrawn, a little less certain. I had an overblown need for acceptance. I was also someone who internalized every negative thing said to me and about me. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with my father, but, unfortunately, I had a volatile relationship with my mom. There was a lot of “fat shaming” between my mom and me. I remember coming home from school for lunch some days starving, so hungry I’d crank open a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli and eat it right out of the can. My mom would pop in between appointments as a real estate agent, and if she caught me, she’d say, “If you keep eating like that you’re going to be a fat pig.” It wasn’t just the fat shaming. If I did something absent-minded at home or received bad to mediocre report card grades (which was a regular occurrence), she would call me a “dumb bunny.”
What I didn’t know then, but do know now, is that this was the sort of thing her own mother would tell her when she was young. They were also things my great grandmother said to my grandmother. She was repeating a cycle of verbal abuse. Fat shaming in families is often generational. I’m not starting with this ancient history to blame my mother or great-great-great-grandmother for my alcohol and drug use issues. Parental dynamics can play a role as a trigger for addiction or in the progress of addiction (or, hopefully, the progress of recovery), but those relationships do not “cause” addiction. When I speak to groups, I always make sure they understand that correlation (which is complex environmental factors in this case) is not the same as causation.
But there was a time I did blame my mother for my addiction issues. In fact, for a long time, I blamed my mother for everything wrong with me. When I finally realized that she was not the cause of my problems and that she was repeating what was done to her, I understood. Then I was able to let go of anger. When I was able to let go of anger, I was able to forgive.
I forgave my mother, and forgave the little boy I’d been for the choices he made. I forgave the junior high and high school bullies who made fun of me and physically assaulted me because of my weight. None of those people caused my addiction. They all had problems of their own. Blaming them was one of the ways I avoided confronting my addiction problems, and forgiving them—and forgiving myself—was one of the first steps in my recovery. Today, my mom and I have a good relationship free of the anger of those early days.
However, when we’re young, this sort of perspective on past wrongs can be elusive. Episodes with bullies, and episodes with my mother would run through my mind often. Blaming others for my issues was a convenient way of justifying long boiling anger over my childhood and the choices I made. That anger was often a trigger for depression, which was often a trigger for the use of alcohol and cocaine.
My mental state as a teenager, in part, would probably be diagnosed today as clinical depression, though I was never diagnosed then. It was a different era. Depression and mental illness in general were not as widely discussed as they are today and not concepts your average baby boomer teen in suburban Pennsylvania would’ve been comfortable raising with, parents, friends, or teachers. Depression was something that was supposed to be handled in private. In silence. In loneliness, so you didn’t spread your “sadness” to others. And that’s how I experienced it for many decades. As something shameful. The shame was intensified as I watched my mother battle her own mental health issues alone. They were something to “just get over.”
Depression was still there when I walked through the doors of Pitt Law. It was with me when I studied. When I sat for bar exams. When I sought my first jobs, made my first friends in the city I’d come to call home, and fell in love for the first time. It was there every time I walked into a courtroom or mediation or wrote a brief. The feeling of depression was as familiar as my own distorted reflection, and yet, for most of my life, not something I ever acknowledged I needed help for. Depression was my “normal” long before alcohol and drug addiction. The feelings and behaviors became so familiar, even at a young age: a deep, gut wrenching feeling of loneliness. Feeling isolated, and crying in my bedroom. Apathy in my studies. Binge eating. Cutting school to drink and smoke weed. Feeling like I would never be accepted by my peers.
For some, depression can be triggered by addiction, but for me, it came first. And while I was ultimately able to stop using alcohol and stop doing cocaine and other drugs, the underlying pain of a shy, lonely, little boy remained into recovery and is something I still work on today.
Perhaps if the awareness of mental health that exists today had existed when I was a teen, someone might have reached out earlier. For instance, when I began to self-isolate for long stretches of time—my solace was my bedroom where I would spend long hours alone, playing my favorite board game, Strat-O-Matic Baseball with the family dog at my side. Or when seemingly pleasurable things—a trip to the amusement park with my grandmother, a nice word from a friend—would often leave me unmoved. The inability to articulate what I was feeling. But perhaps awareness alone wouldn’t have been enough. Even though there’s seemingly greater awareness of depression today, it can still be difficult for friends and family (not to mention teachers or counselors) to discern the signs of depression or other mental health struggles in teenagers. After I wrote Shattered Image a few years back, some people who knew me in grade school and high school reached out to me tell me they simply thought I was shy. Teens are natural experts at hiding feelings from others, often because they don’t yet understand their feelings themselves.
For me, the desire to pull away from others and hide my feelings was paired with a desperate desire to be accepted by others. To those close to me, it might have seemed like I was always eager to socialize, since I always wanted to fit in. And it was that desire to fit in that probably led to my first experimentation with drugs and alcohol.