Last week I watched a documentary, on CBC’s The Fifth Estate, on one Sam Brown, a thrill seeking, award-winning, mountain-biker from Nelson BC, who found the greatest thrill was hauling hockey bags full of pot across the border to the US. (http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2009-2010/over_the_edge/)
Sam didn’t fancy himself a drug dealer and would be offended at the suggestion. In his mind, he was just having fun. The more dangerous the mission the better. He revelled in pushing the limits and fancied himself as quite the tactician. And as time went on, the rewards got bigger.
Sam surrounded himself with fancy bikes, fancy sleds and fancy girls.
But the risks got bigger too. Soon enough, Sam was not only dropping off pot, but hauling back coke on the return trip, hundreds of kilos worth.
Even his Dad figured something was up when Sam came home one night with a helicopter for his Dad to fix. You’d think Dad would say something like, ‘What the hell are you doing with a helicopter. Are you out of your frickin’ mind. Do you know what the American’s will with you if they catch you? But instead his attitude was, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. “I’d rather aid and abet my son’s illegal activity, than watch him crash because of faulty equipment”.
As it happens, one of Sam’s associates found herself with faulty equipment caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by the Feds and doing time, awaiting trial in the US. With the heat on, Sam starts wondering whether maybe he should quit while he’s ahead. Plan B was to cash out and maybe find something a little more mainstream. But, of course, there would have to be one last run to raise money for his associates’ legal fees.
As it happens, the DEA was on his tail too… and on that fateful night, with darkness falling and wind and snow closing in on him, he flew right into the web that his captors had set for him. Long story short, when they stuck this young man in the local jail, his characteristic bravado nowhere to be found, he hung himself with a bed-sheet.
Lyndon Mackintyre who I have always found to be an excellent journalist ends the piece with a sob-story about how this is his handler’s fault, the American’s fault, the drug culture’s fault, his parent’s fault. Everyone is to blame, except Sam. I nearly threw up.
But then I though, maybe I’m being a little too judgmental. So, I’m exploring the topic today in QuestForFire because it brings up a number of issues that I think are at the heart of our societies current ambivalence towards addicts and addiction.
My sense is that people are drawn towards one side or the other based on their inherent empathy quotient.
On the one side, those who do not fell for Sam, see him as the master of his own fate and as awful as it may seem, shed no tears for the daredevil drug dealer. This is the side to which, I must say, I gravitate to, at least initially. It’s not so much that I have no empathy for him, but rather that I have more empathy for the drug users who end up homeless, psychotic or in a ditch somewhere, as a result of the crack, that Sam was able to supply them with. As an addiction specialist, I am only too familiar with the shattered lives that drugs (and alcohol) leave in their wake.
On the other side, are people with a high empathy quotient who feel sorry for Sam and his family. They see Sam the victim, the young man with poor judgement. “Everybody makes mistakes”, they say.
Sure, everybody makes mistakes. But this was not an act of impulse. This was a repeated and persistent pattern of willful anti-social behaviour. Sam was happy to enjoy the fruits of his labour and even took umbrage at being labelled a trafficker. But that’s what he did without any thought of the consequences to himself or to others.
Some have said, he was just looking out for number one. And if he didn’t deliver those drugs, well someone else would. And that’s true. But it doesn’t change the fact that it was wrong, and he knew it.
But there is another way of looking at it… that was not raised in that very long list of viewer feedback on the CBC website. Sam Brown was a daredevil, a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie. He had to to push the limits, because doing what everyone else does, the way everyone else does it, is just too boring. I know the type. I work with them every day. As an addictionologist, understanding this, is my stock in trade. Maybe Sam Brown was just a different kind of addict.
There is quite a bit of science that says that Sam Brown was likely suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He has all the hallmarks: He was smart, but did not do well in school. He was hyperactive, never could sit still. And he was impulsive, to the nth degree. About 50% of ADDers suffer from one or more addictions (if you include nicotine) and probably higher if you include behavioural addictions such as compulsive shopping, gambling, gaming, sex and eating.
Addiction and ADHD have a lot in common. They are both associated with dysfunctional dopamine circuits. (read more about it on my web-site, northshoreadhd.com. I won’t go into anymore detail on that, but suffice it to say, both addicts and ADDers have chemical imbalances that lead them to be easily bored, to be unlikely to learn from their mistakes, and to have difficulty saying, “no” to temptation. And that leads them to make exceptionally bad choices, and to have the kind of poor judgement that can kill you.
So, I guess, if I think about it, maybe I can find some empathy in my heart for Sam Brown. I certainly feel for those who lost a friend or a family-member.
As a physician, hearing a story like this I find myself wondering, “what if”. What if someone had seen the ADHD pattern and directed him to some treatment. Or what if he had been able to stick to a less dysfunctional addiction such as extreme mountainbiking.It would have been nice to have been able to help this young man before he felt so desperate that he ended up taking his own life. I now if he were my patient, I might be able to look past his poor judgement. As long as he/she were willing to take some ownership of their actions. Those with a higher empathy quotient might say, “Let he/she who has not made mistakes, cast the first stone”.
Dr. Anthony Ocana MD, MSc, CCFP, ABAM Family Physician, Addiction Specialist firstname.lastname@example.org