March 2008 / Issue No. 38

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, usually where someone deserves the Darwin Award, but lived.

There is something for everyone!

Welcome back!

In the spirit of the Season, in this issue you'll find an unusual review of Tax Season. We also tackle English, journalists for failing to identify the shooter-of-the-month as an addict and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for missing the more likely culprit in a bizarre new disorder. And we say farewell to one of the greatest chess masters ever--and help explain a life that has baffled so many.

Actors Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro succumb to "accidental" overdoses

When does addiction-fueled risk-taking make an "accident" not an accident?

English contains numerous words with dozens of meanings. For example, the word "run" has over 90 different definitions. While such nuances can make language more interesting and beautiful, it can also lead to a lack of clarity, making words less useful and communication more difficult.

Progress is enhanced by increasing specificity and differentiating meanings. In science, a singular idea is usually ascribed to each word, allowing scientists around the globe speaking different languages to efficiently exchange information and add to mankind's knowledge. Compared with the physical sciences and mathematics, from a libertarian perspective there have been far fewer advances in the so-called "social" sciences. This may in part be due to the fact that few seem able to agree on distinct definitions. "Freedom" is one such word (after all, both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin said they favored "freedom"); "alcoholism" and "accident" are two others.*

Creating a new word for different concepts currently described by the term "accident" could improve our understanding of events. In the past month, actor Brad Renfro, 25, died from a heroin overdose and actor Heath Ledger, 28, died from an overdose of multiple prescription drugs, including the legal forms of heroin (oxycodone and hydrocodone, commonly known as Oxy-Contin and Vicodin) and Valium/Xanax and equivalents (diazepam, temazepam and alprazolam). Former U.S. figure skating champion Christopher Bowman, whose story was recounted in the January 2008 Thorburn Addiction Report ("Sometimes it takes an addict"), was confirmed to have died of a drug overdose with cocaine, Valium, marijuana and alcohol (.12 per cent) in his system. All were termed "accidental overdoses." Using the commonly accepted definition of the word, all three were accidents: "unintentional, unforeseen" events. However, the "unintentional" event of death by drug overdose is dramatically different than death by slamming one's car into another in a sudden heavy fog or blizzard, or the Challenger space craft blowing up a minute after lift-off.

While tragic and sudden adverse events do occur despite careful thinking unclouded by a damaged frontal lobe, they are far more likely to occur with alcoholism, a disorder that causes such damage. This is particularly true since the lower brain centers often impel the afflicted person to act recklessly.

Evidence abounds that 50% to 80% of "accidents" involve some sort of recklessness on the part of alcoholically brain-damaged individuals. As shown in Get Out of the Way! about half of road fatalities involve alcohol or other-drug addiction. Studies cited in Drunks, Drugs & Debits found that one or more of the participants in 70-90% of snowmobile, workplace and incendiary accidents were likely addicts. Although lacking studies, we might deduce that drug overdose "accidents" almost always involve an addicted person.

The trouble with the lack of differentiation underlying causes of accidents is that the word fails to distinguish between clear-thinking people who simply goofed and individuals suffering from distortions of perceptions, rendering them incapable of rationally weighing risks. The resulting confusion over meaning can mislead others--particularly budding young addicts, who may be thinking "that would never happen to me." While young addicts may not be readily capable of getting the message, they occasionally have moments of lucidity during periods of abstinence. Another word, another phrase might save a life, here or there. However, until we come up with a more accurate word for "accident contributed to or caused by distortions of perception from brain damage rooted in alcohol or other-drug addiction," if we hope to increase the odds of communicating an accurate message, such cumbersome terminology will have to do.

* An improved definition of alcoholism is provided in How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics and Alcoholism Myths and Realities. The definition is more specific than that in common use, which makes it more useful. By removing a late-stage symptom from the definition ("loss of control over use") and asserting that its roots are genetic, resulting in a biochemical difference between alcoholics and non-alcoholics, the definition removes from consideration those who merely drink out of "habit" or "abuse" the drug. By stating that it causes behavioral disorders, it allows identification of early-stage alcoholism, increasing the utility of the definition.

Runners-up for top story of the month:

Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez
, who reportedly "misspoke" in announcing that he chews "coca paste" every morning, which serves as a base for cocaine and is sometimes smoked but not chewed. He later claimed he meant to say he chews coca leaves, which with his consumption of up to 30 espressos a day may explain his tirades. However, this and his weight got me thinking about comedian Arte Lange, who is over 300 pounds and uses cocaine, heroin, alcohol and just about every other drug under the sun. Perhaps Mr. Chavez has learned Lange's secrets. This would be consistent with the observation that alcoholics are more frequently heavy caffeine users than are non-addicts and that very few non-alcoholics can drink coffee before bedtime while many alcoholics can drink a pot and go right to sleep.

Mass murderer Stephen Kazmierczak
, 27, who killed five students before putting the gun to himself, had stopped taking his Prozac a few days before the slaughter in northern Illinois. He was described by some as "solid," even though he bounced around jobs and abruptly quit training as a prison guard, even though he had quit another job because he wanted to become a correctional officer. The addiction aware would predict he was using drugs capable of causing distortions of perception and memory. Indeed, he had been prescribed Xanax and Ambien--sedative-hypnotics in the same league as Valium--by his psychiatrist.

Actress Sean Young
, who played opposite Harrison Ford in the movie "Blade Runner," escorted from the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency in Century City after an outburst during the Directors Guild of America Awards ceremony, where she heckled director Julian Schnabel as he started to say a few words from the podium. The next day her publicist explained that after "struggling against the disease" of alcoholism for many years, she admitted herself into rehab. Sometimes a public embarrassment proves the inspiration needed to get alcoholics to try sobriety. We'll keep a good thought for you, Ms. Young.

Pat O'Brien
, host of the CBS celebrity news show "The Insider," back in rehab. "Spiderman" actress Kirsten Dunst and "Hitch" actress Eva Mendes checking into the Cirque Lodge, Utah rehab facility, possibly within days of each other. Raymond O'Neal, son of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal, busted for DUI and drug possession--again. Unfortunately, Christian Brando, eldest son of actor Marlon Brando, didn't make it despite several reported attempts at rehab and numerous legal troubles, including a guilty plea to manslaughter in 1990 and a "no contest" plea of spousal abuse in 2005. He died from complications of pneumonia after living hard and a failure to inherit his father's more sturdy alcoholic constitution. Christian was 49.

Former Orange County, California sheriff Michael Carona
, who qualified for Top Story in the December 2007 issue of the Thorburn Addiction Report due to his arrest on charges of corruption, didn't know that his friend Don Haidl was cooperating with federal authorities when he was taped discussing money Haidl had paid him. At one point during the profanity-laced recording Carona says he will deny receiving money from Haidl and that there is "no trail anywhere." Oh, except for the wire.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland
, 41, spared media attention as his jail sojourn ended, reportedly because of his age. Then explain the publicity surrounding actor Mel Gibson's arrest and anti-Semitic tirade and comedian Michael Richards' racist rant. Let's instead try the idea that his story is boring because he appears contrite, which suggests that Kiefer is done with the drama. Once again, Kiefer, we're hoping you decide drama is best left for television, especially "24."

Under watch:

Attorney William S. Lerach
, 61, sentenced to two years in prison for participating in schemes involving fraudulent class-action lawsuits against numerous large corporations on behalf of plaintiffs who received kickbacks. Lerach, who was known for "explosive" courtroom rants, will likely be disbarred. We might suspect that while some of Lerach's victims, including a number of former Enron executives, got what they deserved there could be many who were true casualties. Although he has admitted that his "conduct was completely and absolutely unacceptable from anyone, and especially a lawyer," we might speculate that alcoholism-fueled egomania drove him on both good days and bad.

Rogue Trader Jerome Kerviel
, 31, almost brought down the venerable French bank Societe Generale SA with one-way trades losing $7.2 billion. He "skillfully" circumvented internal controls by building a multilayered way to hide his trades by hacking into computer systems and temporarily covering up his bets when checks were conducted. He also stole computer log-in passwords of colleagues in both the trading and technology sections of the bank, forged trade documents and quickly responded to supervisors who spotted errors in his books, telling them they were only mistakes, which of course he would correct. Kerviel, described as "brilliant" by one of his former university teachers, is said to have netted no personal gain from his scheme. However, the bank's Chief Executive, Daniel Bouton, came close to one possible driver in telling the press that Kerviel's motivations were "totally irrational." Kerviel admitted to openly flouting the bank's rules and, in testimony to investigators, scoffed at the bank for missing an elementary sign that something was amiss: he rarely took holidays, and as he explained, "a trader who doesn't take holidays is a trader who doesn't want his books to be seen by others." In addition, Kerviel had asked for a bonus far beyond the norms for a trader at his level, reportedly burning with an "inflated sense of his own worth" (his co-workers' words). While it's possible that Kerviel acted without benefit of chemistry, the scheming, lying, cunning, forgery, belittling attitude, "irrational" motivations and inflated sense of self all point to the driving force behind most crime: alcoholism and an ensuing need to wield power over others.

Co-Dependents of the Month:

Friends of Actor Heath Ledger
, described as "an intense, restless man known as much for his partying and wild streak as for his sweetness and sensitivity" and "devoted to his daughter [yet] driven by reckless impulses." Friends watched him "drinking and taking drugs to excess" on New York's party circuit, but everyone seemed to think he had it "under control." Here's the problem, friends: we aren't mind readers or little gods. There is no way to predict when an addict will lose control, or in what destructive way.

Perth, Australia locals
, who expressed "dismay at speculation in the media that actor Heath Ledger had used drugs." A supervisor at Royal Perth Hospital, Margaret Byrne, 56, commented, "If a person dies, let him go in peace. All this rubbish they bring up about a lot of rubbish." And that is why so few are in a position to nip the disease in the bud, Ms. Byrne--hardly anyone understands it and almost everyone assumes that misbehaviors are caused by something other than drugs because there's no way "my little Johnny" or "my favorite actor" could be "so stupid as to use drugs." Sorry, locals of Perth: Heath Ledger was an addict. In one anecdote of many, John-Bruce Shoemaker, who owned a Prague nightclub where Ledger was a regular while filming "The Brothers Grimm," said he was "in my club practically every night for months" and snorted a gram or two of cocaine every night. "There were lots of beautiful girls in my club--but he ignored them. He was interested only in drugs."

Enablers of the Month:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control
, launching a study into a "bizarre" condition known as Morgellons, in which sufferers typically feel crawling sensations and observe fibers coming out of their skin. Many doctors have diagnosed the disease as "delusional parasitosis" and treat it with anti-psychotic medications. Dr. Mark Horowitz, a dermatologist who has "seen hundreds complaining of Morgellons," said he believes "it's a real entity [but would] be very surprised if they find anything more than a psychiatric disease." Since methamphetamine can cause "worms crawling out of the skin," delusions and numerous other distortions of perception, we might profitably divert the funds to more useful research by instead testing for meth in the systems of those supposedly afflicted. While there may be a real disease, we might find that Morgellons is more often than not rooted in psychotropic drug addiction.

Las Vegas police
and lawyer Mario Torres, who said there was no indication that former Miss Nevada Katie Rees, 23, was under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, even though busted for speeding, driving with a suspended license and becoming physically aggressive with a police officer. Las Vegas cops might benefit from reading How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics, from which any reader with even a modest IQ might figure out that any one of these behavioral clues indicate alcoholism and possible DUI. Not to mention the fact that she was dethroned by the Miss Universe organization in December 2006 after photos surfaced showing her partying just a little too hard.

Sometimes, it takes an addict:

Chess genius Bobby Fischer
, who became a Cold War hero when he defeated Soviet champ Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavik, but who later became known for his hate-filled rants after becoming a fugitive, dead at 64. Fischer's encounter with Spassky transformed the game, causing sales of chess sets and memberships in chess clubs to skyrocket while making front-page news. Harold C. Schonberg, in his 1973 book Grandmasters of Chess, wrote that Fischer single-handedly helped the world recognize that chess is as "competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity." However, his "dark side" had long before made itself apparent in unpredictable, demanding, childlike and surly behaviors. By the time he got to Reykjavik, he was demanding a Mercedes-Benz, a swimming pool reserved for his exclusive use and the right to prescribe the distance of the audience from the players. He often arrived late and kept threatening to pull out of the game. At one point, he claimed the noise from the cameras was distracting and walked out. This was, unfortunately, Fischer's high-water mark. Soon after, he became the first world champion to give up his title without losing after refusing a challenge from another Soviet grandmaster (Anatoly Karpov).

There were many other points in his life at which most people must have shaken their heads and wondered, "Just what is he thinking?" Shortly after winning, Fischer joined Herbert W. Armstrong's Pasadena, California based Worldwide Church of God and left it not because the church was, as one ex-member described it, an "alcoholic cult," but instead because Christ didn't re-appear in 1975 as Armstrong had promised. During the 1980s, Fischer wrote a 14-page diatribe against Pasadena police after being mistaken for a robber and jailed for two days, cut himself off from most of his friends and lived in a series of cheap apartments and rundown motels. He played against Spassky again in 1992 despite a warning from the U.S. government that he would face a 10-year prison sentence for playing in Milosevic's Yugoslavia, against whom the U.S. had sanctions. Since he couldn't return to the U.S., he flew to Japan where, after being jailed for not having a passport, he blamed a lack of booze for his poor health. He repeatedly made offensive remarks about Jews even though his mother was Jewish, pronounced the destruction of 9/11 "wonderful" and said he wanted "to see the U.S. wiped out." Over the years, many people have offered many hypotheses, such as "madness," to explain Fischer's bizarre behaviors. None, however, have publicly suggested the obvious: alcoholism (except for his inclusion as "runner-up" for top story in the April 2005 Thorburn Addiction Report). Yet, aside from irrational demands, capriciousness and nastiness, one of the key failures of character that recovering addicts admit to when using is unreasonable resentments. Because he failed to get what he considered to be "enough" support from the America he once loved and its chess establishment, he became a recluse, paranoid and filled with hate. His biographer Frank Brady called Fischer "the Beethoven of chess." Brady probably had no idea that the two were birds of a feather not only in the creation of symphonies and their chess-like equivalents, but also in their alcoholic biochemistry.

Jason William Levin, publisher of the Los Angeles-based Steps for Recovery newspaper
, who died on February 15 at the age of 40 after suffering a heart attack and lapsing in and out of a coma for over two months. I knew Jason only through Malibu networking luncheons for addiction experts, but we shared an appreciation for each others' work. He spread the message of recovery widely and, as a truly gentle soul with six years clean and sober, appears to have touched everyone who met him. We will miss you, Jason.

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, where possible, proactively intervene.

Tax Season

In late 1995 I discovered that alcohol and other-drug addicts seemed to be at the root of most emotional and physical abuse. I wondered if this was true of financial abuse as well. After realizing that a simple reversal of the idea--that abuse might indicate alcoholism--it dawned on me I could easily test the concept.

I did so during the 1996 tax season by suggesting to clients who were victims of financial abuse (a spouse who was way over-spending; a bankruptcy; a partner who absconded with partnership funds) that the culprit might be an alcoholic. My clients invariable exclaimed that was impossible since the abuser was not only too intelligent but also their partner, child, parent or best friend. I explained that addiction didn't seem to have anything to do with intelligence or relationship and suggested they take another look. Three days or three months later I heard, "You were right. How the heck did you know?"

On occasion, I experimented in unique ways with the idea that abuse in various forms is evidence of an underlying addiction. While most who bring me the necessary papers for completing a tax return after March 31 tell me they expect to be put on extension, one in the early 1990s repeatedly asked that I prepare and complete his return on about April 10. Although I always reminded him that he should begin the process by the middle of March, he invariably had an excuse for not having done so. His attitude was one of panic with a bit of nastiness--but other than figuring he'd be earlier next year I never really gave it much thought. After preparing a joint return for him and his wife for several years, he didn't return after 1994. Sometime in 1998 his wife called and asked for a copy of the 1994 filing, which she needed for a divorce proceeding. I was in testing mode then and asked, "By the way, was your husband an alcoholic?" (Today I'd more likely ask, "What was your husband's drug of choice?") She responded "vodka straight up" and, after telling her about my studies on the subject, shared that he had on numerous occasions struck her.

In Drunks, Drugs & Debits, I told a story of a client under audit in 1996. After a phone call when I innocently asked him to explain a $10,000 education expense, he calmly responded, "Maybe this is a bit over your head. Why don't you package up the receipts and return them to me? And by the way," he suddenly screamed, "f- you, f- you and f- you again!" I knew enough by then not to argue and he hung up. I calmly and silently listened when he called back yelling and cussing before slamming the phone in my ear several times before he finally gave up looking for a response other than the equivalent of "yes, dear." Within a half hour I had confirmed his alcoholism by asking a mutual friend, "So how long has Larry been drinking?" and hearing, "Too long. It's becoming a real problem."

After learning early on in my research that the vast majority of convicts were alcoholics and that alcoholism takes form as a function of personality type, circumstances and environment, I figured white collar convicts were likely no different from their more violent brethren. Extending the logic to those who would be convicted if only they were caught, I realized that tax fraud must also be far more prevalent among alcoholics than others. While I obviously do not prepare tax returns when I suspect fraud and most alcoholics have chosen to leave my tax practice ("he probably thinks I'm an alcoholic, so I won't see HIM any more!"), those clients who in hindsight I suspect may have slipped into areas beyond the gray were frequently alcoholics. Public evidence for this can be found in the top stories on "Survivor" Richard Hatch (April 2005) and Actor Wesley Snipes (January 2007), which are the two biggest celebrity tax fraud cases tried in the last few years--and there is overwhelming evidence that both are alcoholics.

More relevant for honest taxpayers is avoiding what the IRS calls "unscrupulous" preparers, or those committing fraud. When scrutinizing new clients' prior year tax returns badges of fraud are often easy to spot. I usually ask whether my client saw the preparer's bottle of vodka in the desk drawer. While actually seeing a bottle is rare, it often dawns on my client that the preparer may well have had deeper problems, based on a pattern of little lies to the client, failing to complete the return in a timely fashion, an observable inflated sense of self or other hallmarks of hidden alcoholism. You can avoid becoming part of a fraud or victim to one by learning to quickly identify alcoholism. It would also help law enforcers--IRS personnel included--to more efficiently enforce the law by focusing on those who are five or ten times more likely to commit fraud and other crimes but who only comprise 10% of the population: alcoholics.


Parents enable brother and endanger niece

Dear Doug:

My parents have long enabled my 30-year-old brother by providing a roof over his head while tolerating his working at best a few months out of the year. It recently became worse when he fathered a child. Now my parents watch his daughter while he sleeps off hangovers and even bail him out of jail and cover his legal bills for DUIs and bar fights. I'm losing respect for my family. I'd like to tell my parents to require that he pay rent and tell him that when the daughter is with him for the weekend, he shouldn't drink. What should I do?


Concerned Uncle

. . . .

Dear Codependent,

Other columnists might suggest that you have no control and that you should tell your parents, once, what you think. They would suggest that you then butt out.

This, in my opinion, is extremely dangerous advice since your brother is obviously incapable of properly caring for his daughter. She should not be left with him unsupervised until he has a period of sobriety.
I think there is little you can do to get your parents to act properly. They seem to be obdurately blind to your brother's addiction, their role in enabling, and the potential danger to their grandchild. However, since I never say don't try to educate, give them all of my books and hope.

In the meantime, if the mother is not an addict, I would help her gain custody by serving as her key witness. If she, too, is an addict, then I would seek legal counsel and do everything possible to coerce your brother, under threat of loss of custody, to get sober. This is a classic case where I advocate a role for police in setting up someone for a DUI, which I recommended in Get Out of the Way!

(Source for story idea: Dr. Phil in O! magazine, December, 2007.)

"Social scientists and law enforcement authorities say the influence of family members may be one of the most important and largely unaddressed factors in determining whether people adopt lives of crime."

So said a USA Today piece, "For many of USA's inmates, crime runs in the family," written by Kevin Johnson. He focuses primarily on one such story of crime running in the family--three brothers, Jesse, Frank and Sonny Caston, who suffered an upbringing marked by violence and other abuse. The brothers spent much of their childhood locked out of their home at night and every law enforcer involved seem to agree the boys had a Gothic-like and nightmarish upbringing. Today, all three are serving life sentences for murder.

The problem with such stories is that they fail to mention the use of alcohol or other drugs by the culprits. Journalists, following in the footsteps of historians, seem blissfully unaware of its relevance. Two of three brothers who agreed to be interviewed for the story said they dream about someday being released, opening up a business and "having wives and kids and learning from our mistakes." A return to normalcy and clear-headedness is symptomatic of recovery from alcoholism, from which over 80% of felons suffer. While correlation is not causation, the more likely culprit is that addiction, which runs more in some families than in others, takes form as a function of circumstances, underlying personality type and environment. Children raised in a culture of violence who inherit alcoholism are perhaps far more likely than others to act out in horrific ways.

A hypothesis more likely to pass the test of time is, "inheriting alcoholism and being raised in particularly violent homes may be the most important factors in determining whether people adopt lives of crime, particularly of the violent kind."

Story from "This is True" by Randy Cassingham, with his "tagline:"

"BLACKOUT: 'I did? I was just way too drunk to know what I was doing,' said Joshua W. Harrison, 27, after he was told the circumstances of his arrest -- and why he had been shot. 'I would never burglarize my next-door neighbor and especially when they're home. Come on.' Harrison had apparently locked himself out of the Lexington, Ky., house he shares with his girlfriend, and thought he was climbing in his own window to get inside. But instead he was climbing through a neighbor's window late at night, police say. The two women who lived there were terrified, and when he made it inside one of the women shot him -- and hit him in the butt. He was treated at a hospital and released to the police, who charged him with burglary. Harrison, who has an extensive police record, including multiple arrests for intoxication, isn't sure if he'll still have a job -- or a girlfriend -- when he gets out of jail. 'I've probably lost everything because of this,' he said. (Lexington Herald-Leader) ...But I'll bet that won't be enough to convince him to stop drinking."

Blackouts are periods of time during drinking episodes that a person will never remember because events don't enter the memory banks. Because "coming to" after a blackout can be so terrifying, anyone experiencing more than one and for whom, therefore, the pleasure of use outweighs the terror, almost surely has the disease of alcoholism. And that is the reason Randy once again gets it right: it is only that "final" blackout that convinces the addict to stop drinking for good, and the "final" drink is a rare one in the life of the alcoholic.

Losing everything at such a young age may sober Harrison up for a while. However, without a program of sobriety, he is unlikely to stay the course. Anyone who knows Mr. Harrison could help by explaining, when he is sober, that his numerous arrests, likely loss of job and girlfriend, along with his bizarre mistake in entering the wrong home were all a result of a disease that compels him to sometimes and unpredictably act badly when he drinks. Mr. Harrison, do yourself and the society to which you cling as parasite a favor: don't ever drink again.

(Story and tagline from "This is True," copyright 2008 by Randy Cassingham, used with permission.)

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