Life has transformative moments. You wake up one day and experience devastating heartbreak or you are floating in pure elation at some positive reinforcement finally showing itself. This week, hell this past month, has felt like one long struggle. There have been positives and negatives galore, oftentimes combining until I am big quivering pile of tears. Uncertainty is one of life’s most obnoxious gifts. You see, it is a gift. It may make me cringe or cause the nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach, but it is a gift. There are times when you are walking down a path and you eventually look up and around and wonder, “How did I get here?” You look behind you desperately seeking some hint or clue as to how you found yourself there, but nothing registers, and you are as lost emotionally as you are physically.
Usually it takes something big to force someone off a path, or to wake them up enough and alert them that there are other options. A few combining forces led me to look around, to shake off the dust of monotony, and to ponder the possibilities that still lie ahead of me. First, the Italian court’s decision to convict Amanda Knox of murder, again. Curiosity about the case led me to spend most of a day looking up as much information as I could about the case. I vaguely remembered the headlines and news stories from her trial, but I never delved deep into the information. Most of what happened in regards to Amanda Knox was still unknown to me. So her resurgence in the media, and the unfortunate news of her conviction, ignited curiosity and then outrage.
When detailing the facts of the case to my boyfriend on a car ride back to Chicago, I suddenly stopped talking and had a “wow” moment. I think Gabriel might have thought I was in the throes of some physical pain or some psychic disturbances, and quickly asked if I was alright. I let out a half laugh and said, “I think I want to study law.”
Law school and I have a sordid past. When I was 21, on the verge of graduating from the University of Iowa, with a B.A. in English and Religious Studies, my parents were pushing for me to apply to graduate schools. There aren’t many job opportunities for an English major, especially one who concentrated her efforts in Creative Writing, outside of asking frequent customers if they want whip cream on their daily triple shot mochas. Or becoming the next Stephenie Meyer (I shudder to think) or J.K. Rowling. And with my lack of tenacity, publishing didn’t seem viable. Add into the mix a second major of Religious Studies, and there is no doubt HR departments and retention experts were sitting there wiping the tears of laughter from their eyes as they tossed my resume/CV into the recycle bin. The options are extremely limited: a. graduate school, b. getting a second degree in education, or c. writing the next great American novel. Either way, it meant applying to different programs or pulling my head out of my ass.
My dad is a lawyer. He went to University of Illinois and graduated with a degree in Engineering. After a few years in the working world and coming to his own “ah-ha” moment, he applied to, was accepted, and began law school with DePaul University in Chicago. He worked full-time during the day and took classes part-time at night. As a result, when his youngest daughter was attempting to “figure it out” after college, his idea of help often resorted to pushing law school as an option. And as a young twenty something, the idea of following through on anything my dad suggested was simply, and honestly, ridiculous.
I must state that when I was younger, one of my favorite pastimes was going to work with my dad and reading through his files. I was inundated with legal jargon and he was diligent in educating me about various cases he was working on. My job, now, deals with making sure our company is compliant with United States import and export laws. No matter how hard I rebuked the option, it keeps popping up in my life.
The second force that caused me to look up and question the path I am on was the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is devastating and surreal to hear about anyone’s death. It seems doubly awkward when a celebrity dies, and in such a way that Mr. Hoffman did. You feel a sense of loss, even though there is no personal correspondence or action between you and the deceased celebrity. The first time I remember seeing him in a movie was Twister. Laugh if you will, but this movie is my go-to when I am sick, sad, in a funk, or simply bored. And Philip Seymour Hoffman played my favorite character. Not Bill Paxton, not Helen Hunt, no, Philip Seymour Hoffman played Dusty, the burnt out storm chaser who listened to Clapton and Led Zeppelin. Hoffman had a way of stealing scenes. And the way he did it was to fully become whatever character he played. When you watched him, you weren’t watching Philip Seymour Hoffman as someone, you were watching this fully developed person. After my introduction to his brilliance in, of all things, Twister, I began to make an effort to see him in the diverse roles he chose. My next favorite was his Oscar-winning role of Truman Capote. Something that, to this day, haunts me.
His death shocked me. Gabriel and I were in the car driving through Chicago suburb traffic when my phone buzzed alerting me to a breaking news story from CNN. When I looked down and saw that Hoffman had died of an apparent overdose, I felt sad and then immediately angry. Gabe asked me if everything was okay, and the only thing I could think of to respond was how pissed I was at drug policy in the United States, that we needed reform. If we didn’t subvert drug abuse or blame moral failing, but actually openly discussed it without hesitation or fear of immoral labeling, maybe we could prevent deaths caused by drug abuse. Maybe we could help those addicts who relapse and feel they have no other option. Maybe, just maybe, if we changed how we approach drug policy, we wouldn’t be saddened and shocked and angry by the deaths of those who are helpless against addiction.
According to David Sheff’s new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, approximately one in twelve Americans over the age of twelve are addicted to drugs. Look at your Facebook friends list. If you have 120 friends, that means at least ten of them, statistically speaking, are addicted to drugs. And most of the time, we don’t even know it. When Nixon announced his war on cancer, an overflow of monetary aid flooded research in the field, which helped lead to preventive measures and information and new treatments. That same year he announced his war on drugs, which turned addicts into criminals. We effectively showed those with addictions that we don’t care, that we would rather see them as immoral scoundrels of the earth rather medically ill people in need of treatment.
With the limited funds available, research into addiction has led to some advances in understanding the brain chemistry of an addict. Thanks to these pioneers, there is scientific evidence that shows the effects drugs have on the brain, and what leads to chemical dependency and abuse. Additional studies are providing more insight into the ways the brain adapts to continued abuse, making recovery difficult, due to physiological changes, not weakness of will. With the proper tools and monetary backing, preventive measures outside of scare tactics can be implemented and a decrease in abuse can happen. Understanding the human brain and the components that lead to initial use, at oftentimes young ages, are educational tools that will provide youth the independence to make informed decisions. Rehabs and treatment centers can use new cognitive and behavioral therapies to help addicts reach sobriety and stay in sobriety. The first step, though, is realizing that addiction is not a moral failing, but a disease that needs treatment.
But more has to happen. In addition to research, preventative techniques and education about drug use and abuse should be implemented, and not through scare tactics or religious guilt, but through scientific fact. Health care reform has to occur, too. When many people are not given the opportunity for psychological and/or psychiatric evaluations and treatment, many people will self-medicate otherwise treatable mental illness and anxiety disorders through drug use. When addiction happens, insurance companies need to cover rehab and treatment centers. Laws exist that allow insurance companies to refuse payment if drug or alcohol abuse is present, whether that be for rehabilitation or when someone lands in the ER due to drugs or alcohol.
As you can see, Hoffman’s death ignited another fire in me. Public Policy, especially in regards to drug reform, has been a passion for as long as I can remember. I have read countless memoirs of addicts and their families. Read, in graphic detail, their descent into abuse and addiction. I have hit rock bottom with them, went through the agonizing moments of detox, and the uncertainty of sobriety, with them. My empathy led to the wish to gather as much information as I could on drug law and policy, as well as the history of drug use and abuse (specifically in the United States). My bookshelves at home have a diverse selection, ranging from romance novels, biographies and memoirs, to drug policy and reform, and the Harry Potter series. Next to my copy of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is The Pot Book and David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy. An epidemic is hitting not just the United States, but other countries, as well. If the last forty years have told us anything, it is that the war on drugs is failing. There are so many steps that this government can take to radically improve the statistics out there. One in twelve Americans over the age of twelve.
Amanda Knox and Philip Seymour Hoffman; these two separate people and events shook me from complacency of my path. This new path scares me, but above all, overshadowing any doubt or fear or resignation, is an excitement I haven’t felt in a long time. For the first time in my almost 28 years, I feel like I know what I need to do.