We are pleased to share this Opinion Piece in The Oregonian by guest columnist and frequent AI blogger Martin Lockett.
I had been drinking all day on New Year’s Eve of 2003 and then, had gone to a party to celebrate more. Later, as I drove my twin brother home, he tried repeatedly to get me to slow down, to drive more carefully. But I ignored him.
Moments later, I sped through the intersection of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Fremont Street and crashed into a car. As I was being interviewed by a police officer, he told me that I had killed two people and another was being life-flighted to Emmanuel Hospital.
It was days later when The Oregonian newspaper was delivered to my cell that I grasped the devastation — and the irreversibility — I had caused my community. It turned out that my victims were actively working their own programs of recovery from substance use. They had turned their lives around and were helping others do the same. Now they were gone.
Employees and clients at Volunteers of America and other recovery-related organizations were in shock and disbelief as they learned about the tragic deaths of their friends, mentors and loved ones.
Nearly a year later at my sentencing, I was confronted by my victims’ family members who were just a few feet away from me as they gave their victim impact statements. They offered me forgiveness that I didn’t deserve, yet they also made it known I took something immeasurable from them that they could never get back: Any more precious memories they’d ever make with their mothers.
Then I stood up, turned around and addressed the courtroom: “My indictment says I acted with extreme indifference toward the value of human life, but I can assure everyone here that my feelings have been anything but indifferent since the day this happened. And I know it’s not much consolation, but I vow to spend the rest of my life doing all I can to ensure something like this never happens again.”
With that, I was sentenced to 17 years and six months.
For the next three years I lived with immense guilt and shame for the senseless decision to drink and drive that fateful night because it changed the course of these people’s lives forever. But once I was able to forgive myself, I was able to positively channel that energy into making a difference in the lives of others, carrying on the legacies of the people I had taken from this world.
In keeping with that solemn life vow that I made more than 14 years ago to my victims’ family and friends — and my own — I have used my time to earn an education toward a career in counseling. I knew this would give me an opportunity to help others struggling with addiction, the same addiction that led to me killing two people. In these efforts, I have earned a master’s degree in psychology and published my memoir, “Palpable Irony,” in an effort to detail and warn against the dangers of drinking and driving. Three years ago, I was given a rare opportunity to share my story and help lead panels of victims hurt by other impaired drivers here at the prison. This restorative justice program provides profound healing for many men incarcerated for fatal car collisions as well as victims who come in and tell us their heart-wrenching stories. Those in attendance are incredibly moved and grateful for having heard so many compelling stories that urge them not to drink and drive.I currently work as a certified recovery mentor in a drug and alcohol treatment program at the prison. I mentor men one on one, counsel them in group settings and assist them with recovery-related issues. This is such a unique position within the Oregon Department of Corrections, and I couldn’t be more grateful and humbled that I would be entrusted with such a responsibility. Through this effort, I have earned state certification as a recovery mentor, and I expect to receive my state certification as drug and alcohol counselor early next year. This work is my life’s passion. Not because it makes me look good, or makes a lot of money, or because it could reduce my sentence. It can’t.
Rather, I do this work because my reckless actions took two beautiful people from this world. Therefore, I will honor their precious lives and bring meaning to mine every day through using my story, education and experiences to help others not follow in my footsteps.
And, because I said I would.
— Martin L. Lockett, MS, CRM, is serving the 15th year of a 17-year sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
Many have exclaimed, “Addiction is NOT a disease — it’s a choice!” A disease, they’ll say, is something that you have no control over; it suddenly afflicts you when you least expect it and wreaks havoc on your life. People don’t do anything to bring about disease in their lives. Addiction, on the other hand, is something that people choose to engage in. No one makes anyone drink their first drink — or any drink thereafter. No one is forced to do drugs at any point in their life, yet drug addicts, they’ll point out, choose to participate in drug-seeking behavior, hang out with other drug addicts, and repeatedly make irrational, counterproductive decisions that invariably result in self-destruction. How can this possibly be tantamount to someone who has a disease that they didn’t ask for?
As I noted in my previous blog entitled Understanding Addiction, addiction takes root in the midbrain — otherwise known as the limbic system. The limbic system is home to what is known as the pleasure pathway — receptor sites that release chemicals that make us feel good when we engage in pleasurable behaviors like eating, sex, playing, etc. What differentiates an alcoholic/addict from a non-addict is the way in which this neural pathway is activated and affected by drugs and alcohol. What causes this is extremely complex, but what is consistently found lies in genetics.
Studies show that between 40 – 60% (DSM V) of the variability in alcoholics comes from parents where at least one has also suffered from alcoholism. When it comes to drug addicts, this variability hovers around 50% (DSM V). These findings were substantiated by countless identical twin studies that showed, despite being adopted into different homes where the environments were nurturing, wholesome, and drug/alcohol free, twins whose biological parents were addicted to alcohol were still more likely to develop alcoholism than others reared in those environments who were not born to such parents. The variances in studies are endless, but the result was the same: genetics play a profound role in addiction. But what does this have to do with it being considered a disease and not a choice?
Let’s look at diabetes, for instance, when we consider the affliction of disease. Diabetes results as a malfunctioning of the pancreas, which produces insulin. Either the body stops producing it altogether or in such low amounts that it is rendered ineffective to take in the nutrients from the food we eat. But what underlies diabetes? Why do people develop it? Well, a scant amount of unfortunate people are born with it or develop it as a child — this is known as Type One diabetes. But the vast majority of people develop Type Two diabetes as adults, which is attributable, in large part, to poor diet and lack of exercise. In other words, unhealthy lifestyle habits are predominately to blame for their disease. As a result, they go to a doctor who tells them to lay off certain fatty foods, start exercising, take a pill or insulin shots, etc. If they comply, they can go on to live good quality lives; if not, their condition will likely worsen, and death may ensue. Are choices involved in their prognosis? Did their lifestyle choices have anything to do with their disease onset? Yet, we don’t demonize and vilify them like we do an alcoholic or drug addict — why?
What I failed to mention in speaking about people who have diabetes is it’s not solely their poor lifestyle habits that doomed them to acquire a deadly disease. Think about it, some of the worst eaters and laziest people we know have never gained weight and will likely never get diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, or any other dreadful health affliction — but why? Again, we find ourselves back at the genetics argument. People who are born to parents who have had a history of certain diseases are inherently susceptible to developing those diseases during their lifetime, but the key determinant is one’s lifestyle. The lifestyle choices they make will either stave off the genetic predisposition or allow it to take root and fully manifest.
To compare, in the same way one’s pancreas has changed when diabetes sets in, an addict’s brain chemistry has been permanently altered. In the same way one goes to a doctor and is prescribed insulin and instructed to change lifestyle habits to live more healthily, an addict is prescribed Methadone, Antabuse, Suboxone, etc., and ordered to enter treatment to develop healthier lifestyle habits. In the same way, there is an onset and progression that can lead to death if diabetes not managed well — and so there is with drug and alcohol addiction. With so many similarities and congruency between the two, why do we criminalize one and sympathize with the other? Why do we hold firm that one is a choice that deserves punishment and the other a disease that deserves sympathy?