Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Scholarship Contest Update

It's been a crazy few weeks in my world, and this is really the first chance I've had to post any sort of update on this year's My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest.

This year we ended up with 29 entries from students in 15 different states. I spent my Fourth of July weekend reading all of the essays and I confess that I shed more than a few tears while doing so. Even though every sibling's story is different, the things that they have experienced and felt while living through their brother's or sister's addiction are so similar. When you read their essays, you can't help but be overcome with emotion.

At this point, the 29 essays have been distilled down to the Top 10. Now the judges have until July 31st to select their personal Top 3. When that process is finished, points will be awarded accordingly, the points will be tallied, and a winner and runner-up will be determined. Those lucky students will be notified the week of August 1st and the official announcement will be made in this blog around that same time. The first- and second-place essays will also be published here so you all can read them.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the young people who took the time to enter this contest. I'm sure writing about your sibling's addiction wasn't easy, but hopefully it helped you in some way. I know from experience that writing can be incredibly cathartic, so maybe putting your feelings into words has given you at least a little bit of relief.

Remember: #SiblingsMatter

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Sober Stick Figure: A Unique and Hilarious Story of Alcoholism and Recovery

(Note: This book review also appears on The Huffington Post Blog site under the same title.)

I'll be totally honest with you. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea who Amber Tozer was. None whatsoever. Then one day on Twitter she tweeted to me and asked, "Would you be interested in reading my book maybe?" I clicked on the link she included in her tweet and it took me to the page for her book Sober Stick Figure: A Memoir.

There I found a picture of the book's bright yellow and blue cover, which included a rudimentary stick figure drawing of a woman passed out next to a bottle. It made me chuckle. Then I read the first part of the book's description and was intrigued.
Sober Stick Figure is a memoir from stand-up comedian Amber Tozer, chronicling her life as an alcoholic and her eventual recovery--starting with her first drink at the age of seven--all told with the help of childlike stick figures.
As a recovery advocate and blogger, I get a lot of requests from authors who want me to read and write about their books. Most of the time, I decline. But every once in a while, if the book seems interesting enough, I'll bite. This is one of those times I'm glad I did.

Sober Stick Figure is effing brilliant.

When the FedEx driver delivered my book, I eagerly ripped open the package it came in and thumbed through the book's pages. Oh. My. God. I was expecting a few stick figure drawings scattered throughout the text, but there were stick figure drawings on every page spread! They were crudely drawn and laugh-out-loud funny. All 269 of them (yes, I later counted the drawings).

Then I sat down with the book and started reading the text. By the time I finished reading the first four sentences, I knew this book was something special:
The first time I ever tasted alcohol was at my grandma Babe’s house. I was seven years old. My uncle Woody let me take a swig of his beer, and I thought it tasted like sour pee. I knew what pee tasted like because I was a fucked-up kid.
Sober Stick Figure is, as Amber Tozer describes it in the front matter, "a dark and funny story about alcoholism." It tells the story of how Tozer fell in love with alcohol, how it took over and complicated her life, and how she eventually came to realize that she had a problem before getting sober more than seven years ago.

Tozer shares hilarious stories and intimate--at times very intimate--details about her life, starting with her days growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, where she is surrounded by alcoholism, both within her family and at the bar/restaurant her mother owns. Working for her mother provides Tozer with security, but she wants more than that. She longs for opportunities and adventures, and that prompts her to make a life-changing solo move to New York City.

The Big Apple is the setting for numerous tales of job hunting, job hopping, love, lust, Tozer's entry into the world of comedy, and, of course, drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. And that drinking fuels some scary--and amusing--incidents.
I went on a six-month drinking binge that lead me to get blackout drunk every night. I don't remember much, but what I do remember is "waking up" also known as "coming to" in random places. One time I woke up on a train in Coney Island. The sun was coming up, and I was the only passenger. I was like, "Holy shit. I’ve always wanted to come here."
Later, Tozer moves to Los Angeles, where more craziness ensues.

Throughout her narrative, Tozer holds nothing back, always being as brutally honest as she can be. (How brutally honest? Five different stories about peeing in inappropriate places should give you some indication.) But that honesty brings humor along with it, too. Like when Tozer describes her fear with this comical analogy and drawing:
I was like a mouse in a factory that made big gigantic ceramic cats, nothing to be afraid of really, but it was still scary. 
Although this book is uproariously funny, it also contains some serious, thought-provoking messages. Like when Tozer declares, "Sobriety doesn't make you automatically smart; it teaches you painful lessons until you become less stupid." Or when she writes:
Alcoholism is such a baffling condition, and I'm sure it's even more confusing to people who aren't addicts. Normal people who say, "Stop drinking and stop using drugs. It's a choice and it's common sense." To you I say, "Ssshhh. You have no idea what you're talking about. Why don't you just enjoy your normal brain and logical reactions to life's troubles while we spin out of control until we find a solution that works for us."
I've read a lot of books about addiction, many of them memoirs. But Sober Stick Figure is in a league of its own. Amber Tozer has a knack for storytelling, and that makes this book very difficult to put down. Tozer's ability to write about her struggles in a self-deprecating and relatable way would make this book a winner even without the dark and childlike stick figure illustrations. But, damn…the drawings are amazing. And they make Sober Stick Figure truly unique.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Deadline for Scholarship Essay Contest Is 1 Week Away!

When I was in school, I was a procrastinator. No matter what the assignment was, I managed to put it off until the last possible minute. Example: For a film class in college, we had to choose a current movie and watch it three times, each time observing and taking notes on a different aspect of filmmaking. Then we had to write about our findings in an essay.

Of course, the scope of that project didn't faze me. I went to the movie theatre the day before the assignment was due, sat through three consecutive showings of On Golden Pond, then came home and wrote my paper. I got an A+.

I've since learned that just because you can doesn't mean you should. In other words, you can put things off until you can't put them off any longer and still get them done. But why put that kind of pressure on yourself? Why not take Nike's advice and just do it?

So here's another friendly reminder that the deadline for entering the 2nd annual My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest for college students who have been impacted by a sibling's addiction is now just ONE WEEK AWAY. All entries are due no later than 8:00pm EDT on Friday, July 1st.

If you're planning on submitting an entry and haven't started writing yet, you might want to think about doing so. Or, if you're a procrastinator like I was, maybe you don't need to think about it until next Thursday. Whatever works for you. Just know that the clock is ticking. The essays that have been submitted so far are great and I look forward to reading many more.

All the information needed to enter the contest--requirements, rules, key dates, etc.--should be contained in the documents below. (For more background on the contest and to find out who the judges are, read this blog post.) This year we will be awarding a $1,500.00 scholarship to the contest winner and a $550.00 scholarship to the runner-up.

NOTE: These links are to Google Docs.

2016 My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest: Rules

2016 My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest: Application/Entry Form

If you have any questions about the scholarship, or if you have any problems with the documents, please contact me at:

Good luck! And remember: #SiblingsMatter

P.S. I love SpongeBob SquarePants. :)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Getting Mental Health Care Shouldn't Be This Difficult

(Note: I wrote this piece on June 15th and submitted it to The New York Times, hoping they would publish it on their OpEd page. That didn't happen, so I'm posting it here in its original form. It also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site under the title "Getting Mental Health Care Shouldn't Be This Difficult.")

Broken Leg? No Problem. Broken Brain? That's Another Story

As the parents of an adult son who has struggled mightily with severe depression and addiction issues since he was a teenager, my wife and I have been through more health care and insurance ordeals in the last ten years than we can count. Over that decade, one might assume that some major improvements would've been made to "the system." Unfortunately, even though some things may be slightly better today, the system is still broken. And it's maddening.

Our older son is 26 years old and recently experienced a devastating break-up with his girlfriend, whom he'd been living with for a couple of years. He had already been fighting an almost debilitating bout of depression for several months, so the change in his relationship status really hit him hard and sent him spiraling downward to to a new low. My wife and I were so concerned with his well-being that we took him to the emergency room of a major hospital in Detroit to try and get him some help. But all we got was frustration.

If you want to find out how screwed up the mental health care system in this country is, try spending thirteen hours in the ER with someone who needs help but doesn't want to be there. Someone you love with all your heart, who is telling you he has lost his only reason to live. Someone you keep telling, "It’s going to be okay," but whose only answer is, "I can't do this." Trust me: It'll rip your heart out.

Five hours into our ER stay, we were still waiting to see the one and only social worker on duty and were told that there were three people ahead of us. Three hours later, we were told the exact same thing. It wasn't until four hours after that that we actually got to meet with the social worker. A twelve-hour wait for a person in a desperate emotional state to see a social worker at a major hospital in a big city. Does that make any sense at all? (Here's an idea: How about having two social workers on duty? Would that cut into the hospital's profits all that much?)

The social worker interviewed our son and wanted to have him admitted to the hospital. Our son was against that idea, though, because he has had several negative experiences in psychiatric hospitals over the years. (I don't think the twelve-hour wait helped much either.) The next option was to have our son admitted against his will, but the social worker said that doing that probably wouldn’t work out very well. My wife and I agreed with her.

That brought us to option number three, which was a partial hospitalization program at another local hospital. With that program, our son would go to treatment and therapy during the day, then come home at night. It was a great program, we were told, and it seemed like the perfect compromise. Best of all, our son agreed to do it. Finally, after thirteen hours, a glimmer of hope.

The next morning, my wife called the hospital to get our son registered for the program. When she hung up the phone and came downstairs, she had a sad look on her face. "What’s wrong?" I asked. Fighting back tears, she replied, "They don’t have any openings until five weeks from now."

Yes, the mental health aspect of our health care system is barely functional and in need of massive repair. No matter how hard you try, getting someone the help they need is like an Olympic event. If you have a broken leg, you go to the hospital, get seen relatively quickly, get the help you need, and are on your way. But if you have a broken brain, it seems like the system sets you up to fail. And for someone who is battling mental health issues, that's a recipe for disaster.

Three days after our nightmare in the ER, my wife and I are still trying to find our son help. Although we're frustrated, angry, and sad, we're trying our best to stay hopeful. I won't lie to you: It's not easy. But we love our son and a broken system isn't going to stop us from getting him the help he needs.


Postscript: It's now eight days after our trip to the ER and we're still struggling. We've tried a couple of things that weren't a good fit. So we'll keep looking. Getting mental health care shouldn't be this difficult.

"There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, 'There now, hang on, you'll get over it.' Sadness is more or less like a head cold--with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer." --Barbara Kingsolver in The Bean Trees

Friday, June 17, 2016

Deadline for Scholarship Essay Contest Is 2 Weeks Away!

This is just a friendly reminder that the deadline for entering the 2nd annual My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest for college students who have been impacted by a sibling's addiction is only two weeks away. All entries are due no later than 8:00pm EDT on Friday, July 1st. So if you're planning on entering, you'd best get writing!

This year we will be awarding a $1,500.00 scholarship to the contest winner and a $550.00 scholarship to the runner-up.

All the information needed to enter the contest--requirements, rules, key dates, etc.--should be contained in the documents below. (For more background on the contest and to find out who the judges are, read this blog post.)

NOTE: These links are to Google Docs.

2016 My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest: Rules

2016 My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest: Application/Entry Form

If you have any questions about the scholarship, or if you have any problems with the documents, please contact me at:

The judges and I are looking forward to reading a lot of heartfelt essays. And, of course, to giving away some money.

Good luck! And remember: #SiblingsMatter

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Can We Maybe Cool It with the RXs?

Lately it seems like the fun never stops around here. Yesterday I turned my family's world upside down (sort of) by accepting a new job that will eventually require us to relocate. Today I went to an oral surgeon for what I thought was going to be a consultation on having an aching wisdom tooth extracted. Except that a few minutes into the appointment, I was informed that they were actually pulling my tooth today.

Who knew?

Needless to say, I was completely unprepared. Thankfully, though, everything went off without a hitch. It's been a couple of hours since my tooth was yanked out, and my mouth is still pretty numb. The same goes for my my cheek, chin, tongue, and wallet (no dental insurance). When you throw in the gauze I'm biting down on, I kind of look and sound like the second coming of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Except I'm guessing he didn't drool like I have been.

I felt no pain whatsoever during the extraction. I guess the combination of three shots of novocaine and some nitrous oxide did exactly what it was supposed to do. (Whew!) Of course, the doctor told me I wouldn't be getting off totally pain-free, so he was sending me home with a couple of prescriptions for pain relievers. "They don't let us phone these prescriptions in anymore, so we'll give them to you now in case you need them."

When I got home, I took 800mg of Motrin, changed my gauze, and opened up the envelope the doctor had sent home with me.

What I found made me mad.

In addition to a sheet of post-op care instructions, some more gauze, and a prescription for amoxicillin, there were two other prescriptions: one for thirty Norco tablets and one for 20 Percocet tablets. In case you didn't know, Norco contains a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone (an opioid); and Percocet contains a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone (a stronger opioid). The instructions told me to take the Norco first, and if that didn't help relieve the pain then switch to the Percocet.

I was kind of surprised to see that I had been prescribed a total of 50 opioid pain relievers for the extraction of one wisdom tooth. I understand that I might experience some pain in the next day or two (or three or four), but isn't 50 pills a bit much? And why not just prescribe one pain reliever, with the caveat that if it doesn't do the job, call our office and we'll discuss it? It seems to me that pills are being overprescribed in the interest of convenience. Doctors can't phone in prescriptions for narcotics anymore, so they give you prescriptions you may not need...just in case.

That's wack.

I plan on sticking to just Motrin if at all possible. (If you follow this blog, you may recall that my son did that a couple of years ago when he had two wisdom teeth pulled.) I figure there's no sense in going overboard if I don't have to.

I wish doctors shared the same philosophy.

Did you know?

  • Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.
  • More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid.
  • Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled. From 2000 to 2014 nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses.
  • Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report. Deaths from prescription opioids--drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone--have also quadrupled since 1999.
  • 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose and overdoses from prescription opioid pain relievers are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths.
  • The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but uses 80% of the global supply of opioid drugs.
(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Welcome to Michigan, Skywood Recovery!

Every year 23 million people suffer from addiction and mental health issues. Unfortunately, only 3 million of those people seek help. There are many reasons why people don't ask for help--stigma is probably the most common one--but when they finally do reach out, we have to have effective facilities to provide treatment for them. And we have to have enough beds.

Foundations Recovery Network (FRN), a leader in state-of-the-art treatment facilities for co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders, is working hard to help as many people as it can. The company recently opened its fifth location: Skywood Recovery in Augusta, Michigan. Located on the sprawling grounds of a former golf and conference resort, Skywood held its grand opening celebration on Thursday, April 28th, and my wife and I were thrilled to be able to attend.

As a lifelong Michigander, I'm excited to have Skywood setting up shop in my state. It's good to know that there will be another quality rehab option available, not only to people who live in Michigan, but to residents of the Midwest and beyond. I can tell you from personal experience that there's nothing more frustrating than trying to get a loved one into treatment and being told "There are no beds available." So it's nice to know that when Skywood is finished with their remodeling, they will have the capacity to house and treat 100 patients.

Augusta is a little village (population less than 1,000) that sits halfway between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The beauty of the scenery surrounding it is pure Michigan, and Skywood's 300 tranquil acres provide an incredibly relaxing environment. Just being on campus makes you feel like you are one with nature and puts you at ease. All this natural beauty will be an integral part of the Skywood patient experience. In fact, Skywood is working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to return much of its land back to its original state, so it will become even more beautiful in the years to come.

As awesome as the woodlands around Skywood may be, the treatment delivered by the highly qualified staff is even better. Led by CEO Adam Marion and clinical director Lori Ryland, the people at Skywood treat addiction and mental health issues simultaneously using a patient-centered approach. That approach includes:
  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Holistic therapies (yoga, massage, acupuncture, art therapy, adventure therapy, equine therapy)
Good nutrition also plays a key role in recovery, and Skywood's executive chef and his staff create delicious, balanced meals that help patients' bodies start healing immediately. Better nutrition equals better physical health, which means more strength to do the work of recovery. (Note: If the patients' food is anything like the food my wife and I tasted at the grand opening--and I'm sure it will be--they are in for a treat!)

Skywood is an impressive treatment center, for sure. They offer all of the building blocks required for someone to establish a solid foundation for long-term, sustainable recovery.

My family's first experience with Foundations Recovery Network was almost five years ago when my son spent 38 days at Michael's House, the FRN rehab facility in Palm Springs, California. It's no secret that the treatment and care he received there was instrumental in him beating his addiction to heroin. The family program at Michael's House--which my wife, younger son, and I all attended--was invaluable, too, because addiction is a family disease and the whole family needs to work on recovery. (Skywood will also have a family program.)

Foundations Recovery Network truly cares about helping people who are struggling. Their evidence-based, integrated treatment for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders works. I know, because I've witnessed it. I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am that they now have a fabulous new treatment facility in my home state.

Welcome to Michigan, Skywood Recovery!

"Addiction and mental health are still highly misunderstood, so it's important that Skywood Recovery is a safe place where people can heal." --Adam Marion, Skywood CEO