This is the third article in a series that examines adolescence and addiction. Instead of focusing on the growing problem, it attempts to make the public aware of some the programs that are attempting to address addiction and provide hope for those who struggle with addiction every day.
by Sue Ann Rybak
Dr. Jeremy Frank, 51, an addiction psychologist, first began experimenting with alcohol and drugs as a teenager in high school.
According to the National Institutes of Health, by the time teenagers are seniors in high school “almost 70 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol and half will have taken an illegal drug.”
As a teenager, Frank didn’t fit the pothead stereotype. He was by all accounts a model student.
“I am the oldest of three brothers in a very tight family with no history of addiction,” said the Mt. Airy resident. “In fact, my parents are both in the field – my father is a psychiatrist and my mother is a social worker.”
The Germantown Friends School graduate described himself as “popular and socially well-adjusted.” In high school, he played three varsity sports and was a member of the school’s band, choir and chorus. On weekends, Frank worked part-time at a pet store setting up tropical fish aquariums in customer’s homes.
“Music, sports, girls and friends were my life, with a little school sprinkled in, until I started smoking pot,” he said. “Then slowly, I needed that in order to make everything else better, more creative, more chill, more profound.”
By 11th grade, he was smoking pot daily and eventually began using “harder drugs” in college.
Unfortunately, Frank said common myths and stereotypes often prevent people from getting help for their addiction. He said many people still believe that alcoholism and drug addiction is a choice and not a progressive disease.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, said addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease that hijacks your brain.
Frank, who graduated from the University of Rochester with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology in 1988, said he got scared that he was “using too much” when he didn’t have money to pay rent.
“I had a decent academic job at the time, but most of my money was going to get high,” he said.
He finally decided he needed help after almost losing his job.
“I had been up all night long and decided that rather than try to sleep for an hour, it made sense to just keep using drugs from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and then head into work,” Frank said. “I heard sirens on the way to work and was convinced they were coming for me. When I got to work, I kept leaving the staff meeting to check if white powder was coming out of my nose. I almost fell out of my chair, and I am pretty sure there were some discussions about whether they really needed me any longer on the research team.
“I had friends tell me I was letting them down. I was horribly ashamed of having to avoid my parents and brothers and I was putting myself in increasingly more dangerous situations. After a couple of unpredictable and intimidating guys threaten you, when all you’ve known is Quaker school, you can get pretty scared. When all of your ‘I nevers’ start to come true, like ‘I never smoked crack … I never tried heroin … I never …,’ you begin to realize you need help, especially when you can’t stop using drugs even after there are significant consequences.”
Frank was 25 years old when he finally told his parents he had a problem and needed help. Initially, he started seeing a therapist once a week. Frank said he had serious doubts about the benefits of therapy at the time.
“I didn’t tell my parents the extent of the problem,” he said. “I was definitely skeptical of therapy. I thought I was so complicated that no one was going to be able to outsmart me. I had an odd combination of cockiness and terribly low self-esteem.”
Despite going to therapy several times a week and attending Narcotics Anonymous, he kept relapsing. He recalled strapping on roller blades at 1 a.m. in the morning because he couldn’t sleep.
“I was trying not to smoke the remainder of resin I had in a [pipe] bowl,” said Frank, who later earned a Master of Arts in clinical psychology from Hahnemann University in 1994. “I went up and down Spring Garden street for two hours until I was exhausted. I didn’t smoke that night. I did it the next night and the next night and strung together a few days of sobriety. A week later, I was playing hockey under a bridge along I-95 and then eventually found a real rink with boards, nets and goalies. I was having fun again.
“One day I was on my way to play hockey, and I wasn’t sure if those guys would show up. Would I be bored and alone and have no fun or would I get the thrill of the game and the release of endorphins? It reminded me of coping drugs. Would the cops be there or the guys that mugged me, or would I get my drugs?”
Eventually he made new friends in Alcoholics Anonymous and with their support, he was able to stay “clean and sober.” Frank has been sober for 26 years.
“In AA they say many of us are ‘egomaniacs with inferiority complexes,’” he said. “We create issues like this to divide ourselves from others, maybe because we are scared of closeness and intimacy and allowing people to really get to know us. The only way to recover is to reconnect with others and to take some risks and trust people and be genuine and to ask for help. Oddly enough, I took to AA eventually because it reminded me of Quaker meetings for worship. People sat quietly, and when the spirit moved them they shared. A powerful connection builds this way. It’s a connection that replaces drug and alcohol use … and the only negative habits with positive ones.”
“You have to fill the void that exists once you put down the substance,” said Frank, who has a Ph.D. in clinical and health psychology. “Nancy Reagan was wrong when she said, ‘just say no.’ It’s more about what you say yes to.
“I got a fish tank, then a salt water tank and then a reef tank with an octopus. All these things filled up my life and continue to play a role today. Hockey is too dangerous and octopuses are too hard and expensive to take care of. So now, I play soccer, I love to walk with my wife and kids, and I’m always gardening.”
For more information about Dr. Jeremy Frank, a Philadelphia psychologist, alcohol and drug counselor and addiction treatment consultant, go to http://jeremyfrankphd.com/.
Part 4 of this series will run next week.