March 2006 / Issue No. 19

Welcome to the Thorburn Addiction Report. Each month, we bring you several sections, including:

1. Top Story-of-the-Month
2. Review-of-the-Month
3. Dear Doug in which a recent letter to "Dear Annie" or other "help" column is rewritten, with responses given from the unique perspective that alcohol or other drug addiction best explains the misbehaviors described
4. Alcoholic Myth-of-the-Month
5. Alcoholic Antic-of-the-Month

There is something for everyone!

Olympian Speed-Skater Chad Hedrick

ImageImmature—or over-achieving alcoholic?

The danger in tentatively identifying early-stage alcoholism is that alcoholic behaviors can easily be confused with immaturity in relatively young people, particularly if they are children of alcoholics. Such non-alcoholic young adults often drink and may even attempt to do so with reckless abandon. They’re used to the drinking, as well as the abusive behaviors of those they grew up with. They can easily learn misbehaviors, mimicking parents and, perhaps, alcoholic friends.

Such may be the case with Olympian speed-skater and gold-medalist Chad Hedrick. However, there is no public indication that either of his parents, married 33 years, have the disease of alcoholism. Unfortunately, as is all-too-common with those in the public spotlight, the rest of us see only what the handlers allow. Abuse is often covered up and actual drinking rarely makes news. As I discerned from Lucy Barry Robe’s Co-Starring Famous Women and Alcohol, the higher the social, business, financial or political status of the addict, the more enablers have to lose if the secret leaks out. This motivates enablers to protect the addict—the source of their own power, income, wealth and prestige—not only from consequences, but also from the negative publicity of obvious misbehaviors. Oftentimes, alcoholism is confirmed only decades later as relationships and lives slip away. In the extreme, we can see in Michael Jackson the long-term effects of enabling celebrity addicts and in Elizabeth Taylor the result of no one identifying a problem, until six failed marriages contributed to a decision to enter rehab.

One of the many threads running through the lives of addicts is a propensity to act compulsively. I began suspecting that alcoholism could explain the plusses and minuses of Hedrick, a world-champion in-line (roller-blade) skater, when I learned how he shifted to ice speed-skating. Watching television at a Las Vegas casino in 2002 as former in-line champions Tiffany Parra, KC Boutiette and Jennifer Rodriguez competed on ice in the Winter Olympics, he made an instantaneous decision to switch. I recalled a similar conversion some 25 years ago, when a long-time client brought his new wife in to have their taxes prepared. After carefully watching me for an hour, she suddenly proclaimed that she wanted to become an Enrolled Agent. I told her what she needed to do, which included sitting for a rigorous two-day examination on tax law that only about 30% pass. She passed the exam within a year and went on to build a 600-client tax practice within a few years. A decade later, she was President of a local society of Enrolled Agents and often stinking drunk at meetings.

Closer to our subject in terms of style, Olympian skater Tonya Harding had a very public feud with fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, which culminated in Harding being held responsible for her bodyguards’ attack on Kerrigan in the 1994 Winter Olympics. The recent feud between Hedrick and fellow skater Shani Davis has been compared to that of Harding and Kerrigan. There was nothing in public records at the time suggesting that Harding’s behaviors might be rooted in alcoholism, other than the behaviors themselves. Eight years later, she was arrested for DUI with a .16 per cent BAL.

As proven by countless athletes from Ty Cobb to Harding, being an extraordinary athlete doesn’t preclude alcoholism. In fact, as reiterated numerous times in these pages and in my books, alcoholism can impel one to overachieve. Alcoholism causes those afflicted to have a need to control and wield power. Overachievement is perhaps the most efficient way by which to control others, including fans, co-workers and family members.

Hedrick has been characterized as a brash, tough-talking, hard-drinking, fast-living Texan. According to one report, his coach noted, “He does come drunk at practice every now and then, but he still does his practice harder than anybody else.” On the other hand, he may not drink and drive: he’s reportedly a supporter of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) program. When he was five, his family’s car was struck by a drunk driver, with him in it. “Even at age five I can just remember how scary it was. It’s something that no family should ever have to experience,” he said. He donates his time each summer to the local area MADD chapter to help increase awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving. However, many recovering alcoholics attest to the fact that supporting MADD does not preclude one from being a practicing alcoholic.

Hedrick’s feud with fellow skater Shani Davis, who won the gold in the 1,000 meter speed skating race (Hedrick won the bronze), appears to be a result of Hedrick’s drive to win, regardless of cost. Accused of “poor sportsmanship and betrayal,” he refused to congratulate him. His only comment on Davis’ winning was, “Shani skated fast today, that’s all I have to say.” Hedrick is reported as “confident to the point of brash and appears to crave attention.” He bragged that his “heart is bigger than everybody else out there,” referring to skaters whom he had beat, and then boasted about his strategy. As Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke pointed out, “He seems to have confused his heart with his ego.”

The alcoholic’s need to continuously inflate his ego in an effort to stave off late-stage alcoholism impels power-seeking behaviors. Overachievement puts the addict in a position from which he can more easily control others. Hyper-competitiveness, the subject of January’s issue, often results. Descriptions of Hedrick are filled with references to such extreme competitive behavior, including one by his father, Paul Hedrick: “He's always had to win at whatever he was doing. We couldn't go bowling without having a knockdown drag out. If Chad wasn't winning, we weren't having fun.” ( Addicts, emotionally “stuck” the day they trigger addiction, don’t grow out of this childlike attitude.

Compare Hedrick with last month’s top story, Olympian skier Bode Miller. Miller was reportedly out late partying during the Olympics. However, he wasn’t angry about losing, nor did he blame others for his failures as would many alcoholics. Recall from the article that he would gladly share with others a new technique or technology out of concern over having an “unfair advantage.” Also, compare Hedrick’s attitude with the remarkable story of Bjornar Hakensmoen, the Norwegian cross-country coach. Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner was leading in the third lap of a six-lap sprint relay when her pole snapped. She lumbered on as a Finn, a Swede and a Norwegian passed her, along with the prospects for gold, silver and bronze. Hakensmoen, watching from the sidelines, held out his pole as she passed him. Although seven inches longer than her own, she ended her leg only 2.5 seconds behind the leader. Canada placed second in the relay—and Norway ended fourth, losing a medal. Hakensmoen said simply, “Winning is not everything…I was just helping a girl in big trouble. The equipment shouldn’t determine the winner.” Bode Miller would likely agree with this sentiment. One would be hard-pressed to imagine Hedrick in accord.

Grown-ups with immature behaviors are given the benefit of the doubt by assuming alcoholism. Unfortunately, the road to sobriety is often an extraordinarily long one. If I’m right, we can only hope he doesn’t run over too many non-alcoholics along the way.

Runners-up for top story of the month:

Robert Franklin Holcombe, 55, of Atlanta, Georgia, had an infatuation with strippers and whiskey that bled his savings accounts dry. He spent $110,000 from an inheritance and repeatedly refinanced his home, using the proceeds to woo young women. To get his hands on $300,000 in life insurance and retirement funds, he hatched a scheme to murder his wife of 30 years. First, hoping to cause an explosion, he broke a natural gas line to the water heater. His wife found a small fire in the basement and didn’t think anything of it. Then he connected a hose between the tail pipe of his car in the garage to the bedroom through a hole he drilled. After letting the car run for 30 minutes and failing to kill his wife, he went to check on the car. Apparently finding that the fumes hadn’t left the garage, he got dizzy and began vomiting. After two more failed attempts using drugs (Percocet and Benadryl), he asked their son, Robert Jr., to help. After realizing that his father was serious despite the fact that “most of the time he was drunk,” Holcombe Jr. reported the plan to the sheriff, who wired him and taped the conversation in which the plot was detailed: strike her on the head and stage a fall down the stairs. When Jr. said, “Hell, you’ve tried this before…taking her out,” Holcombe responded, “Not by this method.” Holcombe was arrested and, just before the trial with his son expected to be the star witness for the prosecution, pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated assault and one count of solicitation to commit murder.

Oklahoma State basketball coach Eddie Sutton, who ranks fifth in NCAA Division I coaching victories, taking a leave of absence after being charged with DUI. He entered rehab 20 years ago amidst a cloud of NCAA violations, after which he took Oklahoma to the NCAA tournament 13 times in 15 years.

Former Creed lead singer Scott Stapp, who married former Miss New York, Jaclyn Nesheiwat, on February 10 and was arrested for investigation of being drunk at LAX on February 11. In a day and age of terrorism, few non-alcoholics are likely to get obviously inebriated at airports.

Swedish playboy Stefan Eriksson, 44, who slammed his $1 million Ferrari into a power pole on Pacific Coast Highway near Los Angeles at 162 mph. See the antic-of-the-month, below, for the incredible details.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, up for the Academy Award for Best Actor in his portrayal of author Truman Capote in the recent movie, “Capote,” reporting on “60 Minutes” that he never would have reached such heights had he not gotten sober 16 years ago at age 22. However, Capote reached great heights in a state of insobriety, as is true with roughly 30% of Academy Award winning actors. One of the great ironies of alcoholism is that it often goes hand in hand with extraordinary achievement. The opposite of what worked for Hoffman profits far too many for far too long.

Under watch:

Grants, New Mexico resident Jennifer Sambarco, 44, who after being forced onto disability retirement by the postal service in 2003 for an “unspecified psychological problem,” returned to her former workplace in Goleta, California with a pistol, snuck in and murdered five employees before killing herself. Co-workers had reported that she “acted oddly, was difficult to deal with and inflexible.” Neighbors in New Mexico reported they had similar issues and some went out of their way to avoid her. A newspaper she wanted to start in New Mexico, dubbed The Racist Press, never got off the ground. While her behavior became increasingly erratic and unbalanced, one neighbor said that the possibility of violence never crossed his mind. It is unlikely that she was mentally imbalanced without the benefit of external chemistry, but unless her doctors speak out, we’ll never know.

Former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan, whose trial on charges of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for state business contracts is nearing a close. While he withdrew only $6,700 in cash from bank accounts from 1993 to 2002, he reportedly had a habit of carrying thick wads of cash, splurging frequently on steak dinners, purchasing expensive sporting events tickets and playing high-stakes poker on gambling boats. A former security guard for Ryan testified that he visited casinos several times a month on state time and that he routinely gambled with hundreds of dollars in cash at craps and blackjack tables. Ryan’s son-in-law told jurors he had received $55,000 from Ryan’s political war chest for consulting work he never did. While drinking was not reported with the fancy dinners or gambling excursions, journalists either don’t have a clue to its relevance or are too busy imbibing to notice. By the way, Ryan is a Republican and former pharmacist who, two days before he left office in 2003, commuted the sentences of all 167 men on death row in Illinois.

Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Vietnam War ace and eight-term congressman included in the “Under Watch” section in the December 2005 Addiction Report, sentenced to eight years in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and others. There is still no public proof of alcoholism. A lower-level politician, such as former Burbank, California councilwoman Stacey Jo Murphy, is easier to out: she agreed to rehab as part of her guilty plea for felony cocaine possession. If a year or two were subtracted from sentences in exchange for rehab while in prison, the public might become far more aware of cause and effect in the area of addiction and criminal behaviors. And, there’d be far fewer recidivists, particularly if regular testing for alcohol and other drugs was added as a requirement to remain free on parole.

Note to family, friends and fans of the above: the benefit of the doubt is given by assuming alcoholism (they are either idiots and fundamentally rotten, or they are alcoholic/other drug addicts—which would explain the misbehaviors). If alcoholic, there is zero chance that behaviors, in the long run, will improve without sobriety. An essential prerequisite to sobriety is the cessation of enabling, allowing pain and crises to build. Thus far, many have done everything they can to protect the addict from the requisite pain, making these news events possible. The cure for alcoholism, consequential bad behaviors and, ultimately, tragedy, is simple: stop protecting the addict from the logical consequences of misbehaviors and proactively intervene.

Review: Walk the Line

“The darkness was responsible for his work, but also for dragging him down.”

So said co-writer and Director James Mangold in his commentary on the film biography of country singer legend Johnny Cash. “Walk the Line” is an excellent portrayal of alcoholism and the grand dichotomy largely responsible for the conflicts in the work and lives of Cash, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Burton, Jim Morrison and countless other remarkable achievers. The portrayal of Cash’s father’s alcoholism and abusive behaviors is superb as well in this on-screen acknowledgment of the genetic roots of a disease to which he succumbs.

Since the cinema and addicts (the screenplay is based on Cash’s autobiography) can’t be trusted to accurately report real-life events, there’s no way to know whether there was heavy drinking before Cash’s popping of amphetamines and barbiturates began. But as soon as it starts, his demeanor dramatically changes, which we see in Cash’s facial expressions as portrayed by actor Joaquin Phoenix. He instantly begins illicit one-night stands with fans when on the road, while his wife Vivian stays home with their children. The drunken show of anger when he rips apart his dressing room after a scene with the woman he truly loves, fellow country star June Carter, is a classic by-product of his addiction which, as is true for addicts everywhere, serves as an excuse to pop more pills.

Carter, in an Oscar-winning performance by Reese Witherspoon, is the one person who is willing to draw the line, at least some of the time. In a vow to stop enabling after she sees Johnny and the boys in his band stinking drunk just hours before a performance, Carter says she will no longer be the Dutch boy with the finger in the dam. While she enables by beginning an affair with Cash after her divorce, she finally realizes what must be done and flushes his pharmacy down the toilet. Panicking, he cries that he needs the pills—they were prescribed. It’s a scathing indictment of doctors, who all-too-frequently play pusher.

The view of alcoholism as a “family disease,” the mal-effects on spouse and children, becomes apparent as his wife Vivian finally leaves him for good, children in tow. Self-inflicted financial abuse, as he tries to cash a $24,000 check in the 1960s, becomes apparent. Unfortunately, the film leaves to the viewer’s imagination any financial victimization of others.

The informal intervention that apparently inspired in Cash a need to seek sobriety started at Thanksgiving in his new home. Reacting to Cash’s indifferent attitude and reckless behaviors, his father Ray (portrayed by Robert Patrick) implied that drug use was at the root of Cash’s problems when he commented, “I quit drinkin’ a long time ago.” Indeed, Ray’s attitude had improved, although probably not by as much as if his son wasn’t an addict. The look in actor Joaquin Phoenix’s eyes was as close to one of, “Maybe I’ll try sobriety,” as any ever expressed. Do watch how Carter’s family protects Cash from his pusher after he has suffered through the pain of withdrawal.

With the drugs mostly out of his system, he begins to ask questions every addict in early recovery must deal with, including, “What have I done?” When he admits to having “hurt everybody I know…I’m nothing,” Carter points out that God “is giving you a chance to make everything right.” As is typical of addicts in recovery, he thinks he is fundamentally flawed. Cash’s favorite film was “Frankenstein,” because it was a story of someone made up of bad parts who tried to do good. “Frankenstein” was written by Mary Shelley, who may also have had alcoholism. Perpetuating this myth of addiction is the only serious flaw in an otherwise excellent movie. In case you’re new to these concepts, the truth is that addicts are almost always fundamentally good people who act badly as a result of a particular biochemical reaction to the drug. The goal of my work is to show how to identify addicts and assist them into recovery, before tragedy happens. June Carter just made it, even if Vivian and others did not.


Dear Doug: Pill Thief

Dear Doug:

A family friend, Anita, who has had drug problems and been diagnosed with a “chemical imbalance” she treats with drug therapy, recently stayed at our home. After she returned home to her husband and children, I found several empty bottles of medication, including strong narcotics that my husband used after surgery last year. No one other than Anita could have taken these drugs.

We have no idea what to do. We don’t want to tell Anita’s husband, who might leave her, but are concerned for the children. Should we tell her husband, confront Anita, or what?


Victim of a Pharmaceutical Addict

. . . .

Dear Victim,

Other columnists might suggest that you calmly discuss the missing medications with Anita, sympathizing with her over her addiction. They’d suggest you inform Anita that you are ready to help her and have the concerns of her children in mind. They’d warn you that Anita might become angry, but point out that it’s possible she didn’t consume the pills even if she took them. They’d tell you not to argue with her and simply offer information on support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous.

The latter is the only sensible information offered. Of course she’d tell you she took the meds with the idea of ingesting them but changed her mind and threw them out. Of course she swallowed them and went home to her apparently estranged family and continued to wreak havoc. If you even slightly slipped into the area of accusations she’d then turn against you with a vengeance you have never before seen. But bear in mind, you are the least of Anita’s victims.

She has likely been harming others for decades. She is an addict and you enabled her by giving her comfort and a place to stay after she’d likely been kicked out of her home for misbehaviors. The odds are very high that her “chemical imbalance” is a manifestation of her addiction, as are her family problems.

Note that your husband had gone a year without finishing the meds. This is typical of non-addicts, who often can’t wait to get off prescribed pills. Many non-addicts are willing to suffer in pain rather than take strong narcotics, which are nothing more than heroin or another opiate in legal form. Addicts not only take all they are prescribed, but also whatever they can get their hands on illicitly.

Of course you should tell her husband. He may not have the foggiest idea what he’s dealing with. Do everything you can to inform him that there is virtually no chance the pills disappeared any other way than by Anita’s theft, and that since she has the disease of addiction she probably consumed them and others, will act badly as a result and will lie about her consumption to protect her perceived right to use whatever she wants. It will be up to her husband to act accordingly, but perhaps if you suggest he read, oh, say Chapter 5 of Drunks, Drugs & Debits, he will do what needs to be done.

And by the way, please, never let a practicing addict or one you think is in recovery stay with you again without inventorying and locking up your drugs.

(Source for story idea: Annie’s Mailbox, February 2, 2006.)

“She’s acting this way because of cultural differences.”

So said an old friend and client of mine when dealing with the sole heir who was refusing to cooperate in burying the decedent. While the man lay in the refrigeration section of a mortuary, the heir spent what little cash was left on re-seeding the front yard of the decedent’s home, which she had just inherited. After suggesting that no sober person regardless of culture would act this way, my friend recalled that the heir had her two babies taken from her due to drunkenness and methamphetamine use.

Most people habitually think of anything but addiction as the root of problems. We need to retrain ourselves to consider alcohol and other-drug addiction first, not last. Only then can we truly understand and deal with it appropriately.

Amazing Antics: Stories of Alcoholism-Driven Behaviors™

As mentioned above under “runners-up,” Swedish playboy Stefan Eriksson, 44, slammed his $1 million Enzo Ferrari into a power pole on Pacific Coast Highway near Los Angeles. He was doing 162 mph. The car split in two and created a 1200-foot trail of debris. Incredibly, Eriksson survived with only minor injuries. Ferrari enthusiasts point out that the driver-safety system performed exactly as it was designed to, while likening the destruction of the Enzo, one of only 400 ever made, to the burning of a Van Gogh.

Eriksson, whose career as executive director of failed electronic game maker Gizmondo recently ended, claimed that a German whom he knew only by the name of Dietrich was driving the car and disappeared after the crash. Officials, perhaps skeptical of the idea that he would let someone he barely knew drive a $1 million car, quickly admitted they are not searching for Harvey—er, I mean Dietrich. Perhaps the unbelievably reckless behaviors had something to do with the fact that Eriksson’s BAL measured .09 per cent and that the crash occurred at 6:15am. If he stopped drinking at 2am, his BAL peaked at over .15 per cent, which is the equivalent of over 10 shots of 80-proof liquor over a span of four hours for a 200-pound person. The speed at impact suggests extraordinary driving abilities while under the influence, somewhat reminiscent of Henri Paul’s ability to accelerate to 90 mph before making a fatal mistake killing him and Princess Diana. To the uninitiated, the ability to consume enormous quantities of alcohol and still drive well—at least to a point—would seem unrelated to the fact that Eriksson reportedly served time for a counterfeiting conviction in the early 1990s. But we know better.

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