Chapter 2: My Story
Nature vs. nurture
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, the son of a defense attorney and a teacher. I was the second of four children. I will not get into a drawn out psychodynamic exploration of my upbringing at this time except to note that I firmly believe that the way I ultimately turned out is a result of a combination of genetic, developmental, environmental, and personality factors. There were probably elements of my early life and also genetic factors that predisposed me to become an addict, but I believe that each person can point to similar predispositions. I am the one responsible for how I used the gifts and liabilities that shaped my life.
I was a very cheerful young child, but at some point I began to struggle with social interactions. By the time I was in high school I was clueless about fitting in. The things that seemed impossible back then look easy now; why didn’t I simply look at what other kids were wearing and imitate them? That idea never entered my mind, and I cringe when I see pictures of myself at that age. Why did I think any boy should enter a school with embroidered blue jeans?! I did well with the academic aspects of school, always scoring at or near the top of my class with little effort. There was little respect for academic achievement in my rural high school, and I blamed my academic performance for at least some of the harassment directed my way. By the time I was a sophomore I was literally afraid for my own safety on a daily basis. I had several incidents where I was facing bullies, my back against a wall. I was deeply ashamed when the bullying occurred in public, and I certainly didn’t want my parents to know that it was happening. I was physically beat up on two occasions, both times accepting the blows with no effort to fight back or defend myself. The clear message from my father was that real men do not run away from a fight, and so running was not an option. But I didn’t know how to fight back, and was afraid that if I tried I would only be hurt worse, so the outcome of my ‘don’t run’ strategy was not great!
I ‘tried on’ different personalities during my last two years of high school. I became a druggie, growing my hair long and replacing the smile on my face with a look of apathy or disgust. I sported an Afro and used a pick instead of a comb. I smoked pot and drank beer when not in school. The changes worked as intended, and the harassment from other students stopped. But I was still on the ‘outside looking in’. Some people who lack social skills seem to come to terms with their unpopular position and quit trying. That wasn’t me; I continued to try to be one of the popular kids, kissing up, tagging along, and laughing at the stupid comments of ‘jocks’… Yuck! During my senior year I joined the cross-country and track teams, and in retrospect I was fitting in at the time without even realizing it. But by my high school graduation in 1978, the year when marijuana use peaked in the United States, I was a daily pot smoker with a great GPA, little confidence, and no direction in life.
I attended the same liberal arts college that my older brother was attending mainly because that was easier than finding a college that I liked more. I took the courses that were the most interesting and ended up majoring in biology. College came very easy to me because I had a genuine interest in what I was learning. Everything I learned seemed to answer a question that I always wondered about. That is, by the way, is a great way to attend college!
I was in a couple of relationships in college that in retrospect had addictive traits to them. After a difficult breakup during my sophomore year I became very depressed, and afterward spent several months engaged in the heaviest drug use of my life. My fraternity house provided ready access to pot, opium, cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana, LSD, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. I wonder if I carried so much anger under the surface that I had a ‘death wish’; I have hazy memories of walking on a ledge seven stories up, losing control of a motorcycle and ending up in someone’s front yard without wearing a helmet, and wandering around in tunnels under the streets of Milwaukee after climbing down a manhole. I was lucky to survive those experiences, and I now try to understand similar behavior—extreme risk-taking and impulsivity—in addicts who are patients of my practice.
Chapter 2: My Story