Amanda Davis, a Tribute

I was first exposed to Amanda Davis when I bought her collection of short stories, Circling the Drain (1999). It is a collection of fifteen short stories told from the perspective of young women who, despite their vastly different circumstances, seem to negotiate an eerily similar and unavoidably dangerous emotional terrain. Each of these women are trying to understand the nature of loss – of leaving or being left – and discovering that in the throes of feverish conflict, things are rarely what they seem. Ironically, Amanda’s first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, was published just a short time before her death.

She was traveling in a private plane that was taking her on a publicity tour for her novel when it crashed into a mountain 18 miles from Asheville, NC. Her father, Dr. James Davis was piloting the plane, and her mother, Francie Davis, was traveling with them. Dr. Davis was chairman of the neurology department at Stony Brook University Medical School in Stony Brook, N.Y. Mrs. Davis was an assistant professor and the chief librarian at Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y. No one survived the crash.

I was thinking about Amanda’s death one afternoon in late 2003 when I was compelled to write a poem as a tribute.

I’m sorry you died;
Were you scared?
Could you tell what was happening?
What did you feel first,
The coppery taste of fear on your tongue
Or the shudder of the wings?
I wonder if you were writing;
I can only imagine what you were thinking.
I look at your photograph
Tucked inside the back cover of your book;
I smile, softly, sadly,
And I place my fingers on your face;
I watch, helpless, as you circle down,
Swirl around,
Ending prematurely, inexplicably;
Nothing is the same anymore.

When, if Ever?

I wrote this poem in 1995 while in active addiction. I was at that jumping off point where I was struggling, drowning, and yet I couldn’t make any sensible decision that would help turn the tide. When I started bringing booze into the office and starting my mornings drinking a cold beer in the shower, I knew something was terribly wrong. I hated myself. I could not make eye contact with myself in the mirror when shaving. I truly believed I would never be able to find the humanity that was buried deep within my soul.

When, if Ever?

Silent and alone,
I sit and stare into the sun
And wonder when, if ever,
I will walk the face of this planet
In complete harmony with myself.

Steven Barto, 1995


Death, a Poem

Does it have wings,
Or just claws?
Giant talons of razor-sharp finality
Carrying us away.
Is it the end, or just a sort of limbo?
Is it fair?
A true measure of retribution and penance,
Equal in proportion to the evil we have spread.
Does it give over to eternity,
Or does it simply close the door on what was?
Can it be cheated,
Or does it always have the last laugh?
When it strikes at an early age, is it off course,
Or is death always on time?
Can it ever be bargained with?
And, if so, what would be the price?

© 2016 Steven Barto

Morning Breaks

Morning breaks, tugging at me,
seeking me out, inviting me
into the light.
Groggy but aware,
I sit up and run my hand through my hair.
The sun is dazzling,
Slicing through the curtains and
Warming a patch of carpet
Next to the bed.

I look at the clock on the nightstand and grin.
I see I’ve beaten the alarm again;
Five minutes to spare. Good deal!
No squawking buzzer; instead a
Slow gentle return to awareness,
The last dreamy thoughts receding into
Their hiding place,
Content to wait patiently for me
Until I come back for them again,
Later tonight.
Every day should begin this way.

©2016 Steven Barto

Pride Can Halt Recovery

With all the interest in self-esteem and self-worth, there is another element to think about when we consider pride. Some of us come from families where we were not taught healthy emotional language and habits. We did not get a balanced perspective on the world and on relationships. Some of us actually got a distorted view of where we stood in relation to the rest of the world. We felt less than. In order to make up for that, we learned to exaggerate and lie and blow our accomplishments way out of proportion in order to feel of some value. To  succeed in our recovery and in life, we have to stop thinking we are worth less than others. We need to see the glass half full instead of half empty. We have to get rid of feelings of inability before we can make progress. As we learn more about how false pride has held us back from our full potential, we come to see that our main problem centers in our mind rather than in our body. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that we alcoholics don’t just have a drinking problem; we have a thinking problem.

Many of us still think our value as a human being is in what we do or don’t do, rather than who we are. We think our value is about results – the car we drive, the person we marry, the house we live in, the job we have, where we go for vacations, or the clothes we wear. We’ve shifted the emphasis from who to what. This is not emotionally healthy. Taking a look at pride means gaining a new perspective and looking again at who we are, not exclusively at what we have or what we do.

Out-of-control pride is dangerous. Too many people are convinced they wrote the book. They take false pride in their accomplishments and feel they have nothing left to learn. They are eager to tell everyone how much they know. They become unteachable. This is a sure way of closing a mind that needs to remain wide open. This kind of pride becomes arrogance, and it turns many people off. False pride and settling for inferiority will accomplish nothing. We have to stop choosing to have low self-worth, or to settle for less in life. We ask, “What value do I have as a human being? What do I have to offer others in the way of service, wisdom, and help? Who have I become, and who am I becoming in order to increase my value to the rest of humankind and myself?” The thought that must go with us constantly is, “How can I best serve you Lord? Your will be done, not mine.”

Although pride is at the top of the list of the Seven Deadly Sins, the real sin is having arrogance or false pride. Healthy pride is a necessary part of self-esteem and character growth. Remember, pride goeth before a fall. This is speaking of unhealthy pride, including character defects such as egotism, grandiosity and arrogance. No harm will come to spiritual growth from the pride experienced when we freely admit to ourselves that our progress is not made by us alone. Humble pride acknowledges the guidance of others and a faith in and reliance upon God. With humility and God’s help, we learn to have healthy pride in our progress and growth in our recovery.

When people give up an addiction, they have a great deal to feel proud about. They have managed to escape a condition that was ruining their life, and could easily have led to their death. If the individual puts enough effort into their sobriety, they will have many more things to feel proud about in the future. Feelings of pride can be one of the rewards of recovery, but care needs to be taken that this emotion doesn’t become excessive. Some people can become so full of pride that it stops them from making any further gains in sobriety. They start to believe that they already have all the answers, and may start to view other people as inferior. We have every right to be pleased with our accomplishments, but we should never allow our pride to become a liability.

If people are excessively proud, it is referred to as hubris. The definition of hubris is “a great or foolish amount of pride or confidence; exaggerated pride or self-confidence.” In other words, their self-esteem is unrealistically high. They overestimate their importance in the world, and may look upon other people as inferior to them. An old timer named Wally C. used to share in AA meetings that we should never look down on another alcoholic or addict no matter what their station in life. We never know if they are the one who might save our life. (Wally died sober late last year.) Even those individuals who generally suffer from low self-esteem can exhibit excessive pride in an attempt to hide their true feelings. Most people who have fallen into addiction also suffer from low self-esteem. They can regain their feelings of self-worth once they are sober and are able to rebuild their life. A healthy level of self-esteem for people in recovery is fine, but it needs to be realistic and tempered with humility.

Humility does not come easily. I’ve heard it said that if you think you’re humble, you probably aren’t. Benjamin Franklin said, “In reality, there is, perhaps, not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.” To develop humility, we need to examine our own actions, words, feelings, and thoughts. If we regularly probe ourselves, (asking “When have I been arrogant, vain, snobbish, self-absorbed?”), we are likely to reduce the pleasures of vanity, arrogance, and the like, and loosen their hold on us.

One dimension of humility is realizing your progress in recovery is not a matter of self-sufficiency in your actions and accomplishments. You become willing to receive advice and correction. You are able to acknowledge the contribution of others to your success. This rules out hyper-autonomy, which is the excessive desire to go it alone, to be the sole author of your accomplishments.

It is significant that Peter tells us, “In the same manner, you who are younger, submit yourself to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because , ‘God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.'” (1 Peter 5:5, NIV) The first aspect of this renewed mind the Apostle Paul mentions is humility. Paul describes for us how the renewed mind thinks. In the Greek text, Paul uses the verb “to think,” or some aspect of it, four times. This shows us that humility is a matter of how we think before God. Often we can see the attitudes and behaviors of pride in others. When I act from a position of pride, I assume my recovery is complete. I begin to feel as though I am better than others. Before I know it, I believe the lie that I don’t need to work on my recovery any more. I forget that I am supposed to work out my salvation daily with trembling and fear. When in this particular frame of mind, I begin to justify my actions. Once again I live by my rules.

It is very important to note Paul’s struggle with this same issue. In his letter to the Romans, he writes,”But I need something more. For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help. I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it! I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway…I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” (Romans 7:17-25, taken from the translation The Message by Eugene Peterson)

Even if we could hide our pride from others, we cannot hide it from God. This is a mindset that we have to develop before God, where we watch for episodes where we depend solely on ourselves, thinking “I got this!” Then, instead, we affirm our dependence on God, grateful that He is there. As James 4:10 says, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” I have come to the point in my recovery that I am able to humbly admit I can do nothing by myself. My addiction is too strong. It waits during periods of abstinence for a weak moment when it can take me hostage once again. The convincing evidence of this is that I can stay clean and sober for 10 months, 12 months, and, on one occasion, 18 months, only to fall off the wagon.

I cannot continue to let my addiction make me do things I would not normally do. I am in the presently in the very midst of the struggle Paul speaks of in the above passage. I see now how it applies to me; especially to my struggle to stay clean. I must work on my recovery daily. I need to work out my salvation with fear and trembling on a daily basis. How is it that I forget to be humble? To admit defeat? To accept help, not only from my sponsor and my pastor, but from Jesus Christ who made recovery and redemption possible? How is it that I can hurt the ones I love without setting out to do so? How can I break this addiction? By remembering that there is power in the Name of Jesus to break every chain. I no longer need to know why I can’t drink like other people, or why I can’t safely take narcotic painkillers. It is as much a fact of life for me as it is for people who have diabetes and can’t eat certain foods.

When I feel the urge to get my hands on narcotic painkillers, even through taking them from someone else’s prescription bottle, I must remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.” It is a matter of not giving in to my flesh. Of not letting the disease of addiction dictate what I am going to do. It is at these times of temptation that I must remember I can do nothing by myself, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13) Once again, I have returned to the place in my recovery where I make it a habit to thank God every morning for my continued sobriety, and I submit daily to His will for me. I ask Him to keep me away from a drink or a drug for the next 24 hours. I say to Him, “Lord, if something is not true, I pray that I don’t say it; if something does not belong to me, I pray that I don’t take it; and, if something doesn’t feel right, I pray that I don’t do it.” If I do these things every day, I will be granted a reprieve from my addiction one day at a time. To deviate from this can lead to jails, institutions and death.

Anywhere, U.S.A.

You can say that drug addiction could happen to anyone’s child, because it could. You can say that it happens in every community, because it does. But what happens when it’s your neighborhood? The residents of Campbell County, Kentucky know.

When you mention Matthew W. to some of the people who knew him, when he was in high school, even if you don’t use his name at first, they’ll know who you’re talking about. “Of course,” they’ll say. “I figured you meant Matt.” And then the teacher or the counselor or whomever will smile a smile that is genuinely warm and thoughtful, and you will naturally figure that their memories of Matthew are unclouded.

And you can imagine why. His skin is pink gold, the kind of color Norman Rockwell mixed for his cherubs, and his hair has the sort of soft, nape-of-the-neck curl that mothers love to snip and save in baby books. Matthew W., Campbell County High School Class of 2002, is every kid who ever sacked your groceries or lugged an instrument across the field at halftime.

The year since Matt graduated from high school has been a hard one in Northern Kentucky’s Campbell County. This past Friday there was a dramatic community meeting held in the Alexandria fire station. The police chief called it an intervention, employing the word that therapists use when they talk about confronting a person who is an alcoholic. But it was heroin, not alcohol, that prompted the meeting. Nineteen-year-old Mark D. and eighteen-year-old Adam M. had died of drug overdoses within weeks of one another, within months of their high school graduation. The death of Casey W., 23, from Kenton County, raised the local toll.

Both the Cincinnati Enquirer and The Post wrote about the growing threat of heroin among teenagers and young adults. Reporters were careful to talk about heroin use by kids all over Greater Cincinnati, but it was pretty hard to miss the fact that the deaths of these three in Northern Kentucky had prompted their attention. Their high school graduation pictures formed a gallery of heartache. Matthew W.’s picture could have been among them. He knows that now.

When Matt tells his story, he’s still trying to make sense of it himself. Sometimes it seems like a whirlpool of events, snapshots and memories that trail off to nowhere. The part that seems clearest is the part that’s the furthest away. Growing up Catholic in an Alexandria subdivision, going to St. Mary’s School and then Campbell County High School with his friends. The same crowd that signed up for AP classes, played together in the band, and spent weekends going to movies or playing cards.

It was in the ninth grade that Matt’s depression began. He told his mother he was sad, but it was more than that. He felt like he was living in darkness, that everything he did was a chore. His family doctor dismissed it as a phase. Routine adolescent doldrums. But as the months plodded on, the shadows never lifted. By the time he was 16, he was “self-medicating” with alcohol. He partied at the homes of a few like-minded friends whose parents were absent, and arranged weekend sleepovers so he could sober up before facing his parents. The drinking alleviated the depression, but as a depressant itself, alcohol became a double-edged sword. Downing a whole bottle of Jim Beam in the span of two hours became almost commonplace.

In October of his senior year, Matt’s depression was deep. His grades suffered, and music became less of a passion. On a particularly miserable fall afternoon, he made not one but two suicide attempts. First, he shut himself inside the garage and ran his dad’s ’84 Thunderbird until he passed out from the fumes. The car ran out of gas and he woke up. Then, he went inside and dug through the family medicine cabinet, collecting old pills and the painkillers he’d saved from foot surgery. He arrived at a friend’s party, pockets bulging with pills, and proceeded to wash them down with swigs of Jim Beam. Then he stumbled outside and passed out near U.S. Route 27. People from the party had to drag him back to the house, tearing his clothes and scraping his head along the pavement.

When he returned home the next morning, Matt had a black eye and his clothes were in shambles. This time he didn’t use the sleepover excuse. He told his parents what he’d done. They hadn’t known about the drinking. Hadn’t the doctor said not to worry? This was “just a phase.” Matt’s parents got help immediately, taking him to a therapist who specialized in adolescents. The therapist prescribed Zoloft for Matt’s depression, and insisted he start attending AA meetings. Matt took the Zoloft and went to therapy, but continued to drink. Only after four months did he start attending AA meetings.

In January 2002, after binge drinking, Matt tried heroin for the first time with a classmate named Chad. Chad was on the fringes of Matt’s circle at high school, a brilliant guy in Matt’s estimation, who could come to class stoned and still perform well enough to rank in the top five percent of the class. Chad had been using heroin for about a year and was happy to show Matt the way. Within seconds of shooting up, Matt felt like he was saved. He was on a high that cast daily life as a mere caption to his new picture of health. Twenty milligrams, $20, one fix, and Matt had never felt better. Today, it’s hard for him to recreate the precise rationale that got him there. Only that, at the time, “putting a needle in my arm made sense.”

In the 1990s, when cocaine began to lose its cachet, Columbian drug traffickers needed to diversify, so they added heroin to their product line. Once they got into the business, they refined it, producing a purer heroin that was also cheaper. The higher-quality, more affordable powder could be snorted, which actually helped people become users. It’s one reason that heroin use rose in the United States during the ’90s. A survey by the Department of Health and Human Services found that between 1993 and 1999, overall admissions for heroin treatment at public hospitals increased by 11 percent. But that’s an average. Some parts of the country (especially the Seattle grunge scene) were especially hard-hit.

Things always seem to happen later in our part of the world, and heroin has been no exception. Police and drug rehab professionals speculate that when Northern Kentucky law enforcement started clamping down on illegal OxyContin distribution, the local Oxy traffickers phased in heroin to serve their customers’ habits. “We saw OxyContin users, and when that was being controlled there was the swing to heroin,” says Dr. Mike Kalfas, medical director of the St. Luke Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. “I can’t prove it, but it’s sure a logical conclusion.”

Heroin changed Matt’s life instantly. Before, he had been sleeping 14 hours a day, but once he started using, he was happy and life became manageable. He took every opportunity to get high, in his room, in the garage, at Chad’s house. Once, during an AA meeting in a church basement, he shot up in the restroom. He convinced his mother that he was in control because he only used twice a week. If he forced himself to maintain some sort of schedule to his using, he reasoned, he wouldn’t become an addict.

By the first week in February 2002, Matt had spent all his savings on heroin. Stuck for cash, he asked his mother for money to get his girlfriend a Valentine’s Day gift. She gave him two twenties and asked for the change. Matt was gone for ages, and when he returned he had a card and a box of chocolates. Change from the $40? He insisted his mother had only given him two tens. The next day, Matt’s mom walked into his room when he wasn’t around and saw a cup of rubbing alcohol sitting out. Suddenly, the whole picture fell into place. She knew he was injecting heroin.

In early February of the following year, 12 months from the day Matt’s family faced his heroin addiction, 400 or so citizens of Campbell County crammed into the meeting room of the Alexandria fire house. The meeting had been called a couple of weeks after eighteen-year-old Adam M. died of an overdose. The idea was put together by law enforcement officers from several agencies, the county coroner, and the Commonwealth’s attorney, but it was Alexandria’s Chief of Police, Mike Ward, who organized it. He was sticking his neck out by hosting the meeting. Insiders said community leaders were worried about how it would make Alexandria look. But in the face of the tragedies, keeping up appearances didn’t seem so important to Chief Ward.

The conventional method of cleaning up a community drug problem, using informants to make controlled buys, then arrest dealers, wasn’t working. There was significant drug-fighting expertise on the south side of the Ohio River. Officers were prepared to deal with kilos of cocaine coming into the area, or an enterprising farmer harvesting marijuana. But keeping a kid from overdosing on a hit of heroin he bought five minutes before in another state seemed impossible. Unless you could keep him from using drugs in the first place. This was the intention of the intervention meeting at the fire house.

On April 2, 2003, Matt W. was one year clean. He was a freshman at a local university. During his first year of college, he attended NA meetings in Lexington, which was a two-hour round trip from campus. He continued to read books he purchased at an AA meeting. He kept busy, playing in the marching band, did tutoring for the math department, and carried 18 credit hours in the fall. In the winter, he started going home on weekends, and began rehearsing again with the band he’d put together in high school. It had fallen apart when he started using heroin.

One night he went with friends to a party where people were drinking and smoking hash. He turned on his heels and went back to his dorm. The same kind of struggle can be set off by the simplest of things. “I’ll wake up and I think it’s a gorgeous day, and I say ‘What a great day to be high!'” When that happens, he counters it with something equally simple. He simply remembers his mother crying one year ago on that February night before he went into treatment. When you talk to Matt now, he still doesn’t know everything there is to know about his addiction, or why he chose to do what he did. Nor does he know why he chose to stop when he did. But he’s learning about himself, which is one of the great gifts of recovery. He’s not afraid to go home again. After all, he comes from a good place.


Mandrell, L. and Vaccariello, L. (2003). Anywhere U.S.A., Cincinnati Magazine, 36(10), 62.

The Accidental Addict

Up until a few months ago, Susan started her day by getting high. She’d crush a cocktail of drugs that included Oxycontin and Roxicodone, two forms of the narcotic painkiller Oxycodone, and then snort them so they’d get into her system faster. Within hours the symptoms of withdrawal would set in. An unbearable panicky feeling, muscle cramps, diarrhea and nausea. So she’d quickly snort another round. If there were no drugs left, she’d find a way to get more. Either from someone she knew or by buying them from a dealer.

This scenario wouldn’t seem shocking if Susan were a junkie living on the street, but that’s not the case. She’s a 32-year-old, well-educated, middle-class mom holding down a job as a nurse. Her spiral into addiction started seven years ago, when she was 25 and often in debilitating pain. After finally being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, she was relieved to have a name for her condition and a prescription to ease her suffering. “The Oxy didn’t just take away the pain. It gave me energy and helped me feel less stressed,” says Susan. “When I took those pills, it was like I could get everything done.” But soon the drug stopped giving her that false sense of control, and she needed to take more and more just to feel normal. When popping pills wasn’t working, she started snorting them. By the time Susan realized her drug habit had become a problem, this real-life “Nurse Jackie” was powerless to quit.

Chances are, you know a Susan even if you don’t realize it. “After alcohol and marijuana, prescription pain relievers are the most widely abused drugs in the United States,” says John Coleman, PhD, president of the Prescription Drug Research Center. Why are pills so ripe for abuse? They’re easily available. Last year, 139 million prescriptions were written for hydrocodone-containing drugs like Vicodin (up from 112 million just four years ago), making them the most-prescribed drugs in the country. They’re also highly addictive. Especially painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxy, which come from opium or a synthetic version of it. They are actually chemically related to heroin, but without the stigma. “People who would never dream of trying an illicit street drug may be prescribed Vicodin or Percocet for pain relief after a car accident,” says Coleman, “and after just a few weeks they can end up dependent on these drugs.”

“About 10 percent of the population has a genetic predisposition to addiction, whether it’s to painkillers, alcohol or substances like nicotine,” says Russell Portenoy, MD, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine Palliative Care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “A personal or family history of alcohol or substance abuse suggests that you may be one of those people.” Other risk factors include suffering from a psychiatric condition like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, or having experienced past trauma such as sexual or emotional abuse.

Unfortunately, most people who become addicted to narcotics can’t stop on their own. That’s what Susan is in the process of doing. Her wake-up call came one morning when she realized she’d finished a month’s worth of her prescription in less than a week. This time, instead of trying to get more pills, she decided she’d had enough. She sat on the bathroom floor, sweating and shaking. She opened the phone book and called one rehab center after another until she found one with a bed open for her. She went in to treatment the following morning.

Addiction is defined as the compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, alcohol or narcotic pain medication) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. In other words, persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. If you’re struggling with addiction, please pick up your phone book or go online and find the number for Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous. Don’t wait 30 years to seek help like I did. Know this: If you find that when you drink or take narcotics you cannot control the amount you consume or, if when you want to, you find you cannot stop, then you are at that jumping-off point where it will never get better. Only worse.