Ravages of addiction affects family, friends
It's been almost 20 years, but I can still see Dana standing triumphantly on the auditorium stage at Greenfield (Mass.) High School, hugging his son and daughter in front of more than 750 high school students. He is crying tears of joy, the tears of a father too long absent from his son and daughter's life because of his years of drug addiction.
He barely knew his children; half his life was a blur and over the years, Dana had taken his wife and children on the most terrifying roller coaster ride imaginable. They were in constant fear for his safety and would worry about what condition he would be in when he returned home.
When he was using, he wasn't a father or a husband, he was a drug addict living for the next rush, incapable of dealing with the devastating effect his addiction was having on his family. Eventually, it took everything he had -- his marriage, his job, his money, his house and his cars.
According to a recent USA TODAY/HBO nationwide poll of adults, one in five said they had an immediate relative who at some point had been addicted to alcohol or drugs. That means close to 40 million American adults with a spouse, parent, sibling or child battling addiction -- a staggering statistic.
Addiction is truly a family disease, and for every person who is an alcoholic or drug addict, there are at least four or five people hurt on a regular basis. It's also a very scary disease; a nonstop horror movie where you never know what's going to happen from one day to the next.
Dana's daughter had invited him and the other Liberation House Players, a theater group of recovering addicts, to Greenfield High School, to perform "Pull Up," a one-act play that depicts a day in the life of a drug addict in treatment. It's script-free, keeps it real and confronts addiction head-on.
The audience was on its feet and it seemed as if the applause would never end. I stood off in the wings, tears trickling down my cheek, thinking what a truly special moment we were all a part of. You could tell by the looks on his children's faces how proud they were of their father.
Even though the play was about drug addicts in treatment, it really touched upon the joy and sorrow of the human condition. It had been put together by the actors and myself in an effort to convey their struggle to come to grips with their addiction and gain control of their lives. They were seen reaching out to each other, one addict helping another addict, offering hope and in so doing offering hope to the audience as well.
The actors loved performing, especially when the audience would come up after the show to share their impressions and thoughts. Often they were seeking advice on what to do about a family member with a drug problem. The actors took the time to listen, give suggestions and leave them with a message of hope. They had lived the horrors of addiction, were now on the road to recovery, and wanted people to understand that no one is immune from its possible ravages.
The play begins with the actors strolling through the audience, repeating the lines: "Do you know who I am?" "I'm the one who makes you drink and drive." "I'm the one who makes you lie, cheat, hurt and steal." "I'm the one who makes the children cry." "Hey take a chance on me." "Do you know who I am? I'm your addiction."
When they arrived on stage, "Cocaine," by Eric Clapton, began playing. When Clapton sings the line, "She don't lie, she don't lie, cocaine," the music goes up and out and Dana would scream, "Hell no, she sure lied to me."
During the play, Dana told a story that never failed to get a strong reaction from the audience. He had been a police officer and a baseball coach. One night he found his star pitcher wandering around stone drunk and knew he had a decision to make. Did he tell the young man's parents and risk having them pull him off the team or did he bring the young man home through the back entrance and not tell his parents.
Being the drug addict he was, he opted for the latter and no one was the wiser to the young man's drinking. Two weeks later he was called to the scene of an accident and said that when he arrived and got out of his patrol car, he got a sudden case of the chills.
There was blood all over the ground and when he looked into the smashed up car he saw his star pitcher with a bottle of wine stuck down his throat. He had obviously been drinking on impact.
Dana said that the young man's eyes were wide open and when he looked into them they seemed to be saying, "Why didn't you tell my parents? Why did you let me get away with my drinking? Why? Why? Why?" It was an image frozen in time that Dana could never forget
The last time he told the story is during a performance in May 1993 at Liberation House, a residential unit of Liberation Programs, Inc. The original Lib House Players got together for a reunion performance for the residents and while telling the story, Dana gets all choked up and has trouble finishing the scene. As per usual, the story has its intended impact and takes people's breath away.
We are all amazed at how well it had gone, with no rehearsal and more than 18 months since the last performance. The play, a cautionary, yet hopeful story of the struggle to stop using, was as powerful as ever and was a strong testament to the possibility of recovery for the residents of Liberation House. They were witness to a performance by eight former residents of Lib House, all with more than three years of sobriety.
Less than four months after our final performance, a mutual friend called to tell me that Dana had died of a drug overdose. Disbelief was soon followed by sadness and anger, sadness that someone I cared about was gone and anger that addiction had taken yet another life.
Six of the original eight members of the Lib House Players now have more than 20 years of clean time and when we get together to catch up, we always share laughs, remember Dana and reminisce. Throughout the years they have been a support system for each other, always just a phone call away.
Dana used to say, "Barry, our play really touches people, it's real and the audiences respond to that."
His son echoes his father's sentiments added, "If someone can see this and get help, that'd be great. Nobody has a "Leave it to Beaver" family."
I'm sure they'd be happy to know that I still run into people who tell me what an impact the play had on them; that it was the `real deal,' an honest look at addiction that touched their hearts.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien and New Canaan. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.