drive safe

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “Drunk driving deaths spike during the holidays. Every 51 minutes, someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-impaired driving crash. Be responsible—don’t drink and drive. If you plan to drink, choose a sober designated driver before going out.”

As the Memorial Day holiday weekend approaches there will be more traffic on the roads, and more people will make the devastating decision to drink and drive.  

The concept of the "designated driver" began in Scandinavia. It was adopted as a formal program by Hiram Walker and Sons, the distillers of Canadian Club Whiskey in Canada, in the 1970s and became a buzzword in the North America shortly after. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) became the self-declared champion of the designated driver in the 1980s. But designated driver programs, when instigated by groups of people drinking, had its problems. If the driver wasn’t designated the driver before travel, often the designated driver didn’t stay sober. Equally, if complete abstinence is not required, someone would end up driving drunk.

Several volunteer programs across the country focus on college students' weekends and the excellent HERO program vows “ register one million designated drivers and make having a designated driver be as automatic as wearing a seatbelt.”

Now 35 years old, MADD, the support and advocacy group for the victims of drunk driving, has long been aware that young people between the ages of 21 and 24 are most at risk of being involved in a fatal crash involving alcohol. The group aged 25-34 are the next highest.

Incidentally, the two age groups most at risk, are the most tech savvy. The Pew Research center says: “Younger adults—regardless of income level—are very likely to be smartphone owners.”

So is there an app for that? You bet there is. Uber’s wildly successful 2009 launch into the closed shop of private transportation caused a storm of protest from taxi drivers across the country. But the "ride-sharing" service that connects independent, non-commercial drivers with their own cars with people in need of a ride has been hugely popular with an urban generation raised on technology and the convenience of the Internet. As the taxi app that crowdsources private drivers quickly became a ubiquitous part of modern life, it became a no brainer that Uber (and other ride-sharing start-ups, Lyft and Sidecar) would be the first choice for getting home late at night from a party or bar.

Ride-sharing, for MADD, couldn’t have come at a better time. And both Uber and Lyft have made donations to the charity through the use of promo codes. Over the July 4th weekend in 2014, they began their partnership by giving $1 ($10 for new riders) for every ride taken between 6am on July 4 and 6am on July 5. The cooperation continued over the New Year’s holiday.

But was the new app making a genuine dent in DUI deaths? And was it changing attitudes toward drunk driving?

Back in 2014, Uber looked at publicly available data on DUI arrests in the time before and after Uber’s Seattle entrance in 2013. They noticed a drop in DUI arrests in the city.

Inspired to learn if their business was having a genuine impact on public safety in other markets, they looked at Pittsburg and Miami and noticed a temporary and unusual spike in requests for drivers at closing time in the two very different cities. Satisfyingly, that’s exactly how it looked. Coincidence? Maybe, but in a follow-up look at requests in Chicago, they dug a little deeper—looking into the distance of a request from a bar or restaurant, and sure enough, 45.8% of rides requested came from or near these locations during the peak drinking hours of 10pm and 3am, compared to 28.9% at off-peak times.

But these were only small slices of time, a year at most, and not necessarily hard proof of a change in the habits of young drinkers.

In January 2015, Uber teamed up with MADD to look at California. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) covers the entire state’s highway and county road system. Its publicly available data on DUI crashes, gives a snapshot of activity from across approximately 2,335,000 miles of paved roadways. Uber used this information and looked at the time when the "Uber X" ride-sharing model was introduced into various parts of the state. Uber X is the basic service, where private individuals share their car to people in need of a ride.

As they hoped, in their report, “More options. Shifting mindsets. Driving better choices,” alcohol-related crashes were fewer in parts of the state where Uber X had been introduced—particularly in the key group of those under 30. They conclude:

“...We believe there is a direct relationship between the presence of ‘Uber X’ in a city and the amount of drunk-driving crashes involving younger populations.”

Good news, of course, but what about the attitudes of these young drivers? Were they changing? MADD wanted to see if part of their mission: “to create major social change in the attitudes and behavior of Americans toward drunk driving,” was being accomplished. They commissioned a survey to find out how seriously people wanted to end drunk driving.

“The results of our survey show that the availability of additional, reliable transportation options is shifting mindsets and driving people to make better, safer choices."

"88% of respondents over the age of 21 agree with the statement: 'Uber has made it easier for me to avoid driving home when I’ve had too much to drink.'”

"78% of people say that since Uber launched in their city, their friends are less likely to drive after drinking."

"57% of transportation network service users agreed with the statement: 'Without Uber, I’d probably end up driving more after drinking at a bar or restaurant.’”

And after hearing about Uber’s impact on drunk driving already, 93% of people would recommend a friend take Uber instead of driving, if the friend had been drinking.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the forgotten victory in the War on Drugs and how the DEA under Michele Leonahrt was rotten to the core.

Memorial Day driving could be safer this year, due to an unlikely alliance.
By Neville Elder
Craig Gass

Craig Gass has been keeping audiences doubled over in laughter for more than 20 years. His knack for impressions of notorious celebrities like Gilbert Gottfried and Al Pacino attracted the attention of radio kingpin Howard Stern, who took him under his wing. He’s since gone on to appear on numerous shows including Sex and the City, The King of Queens and American Dad!, in addition to selling out comedy clubs across the country.

But a cocaine addiction that started in his teens and continued into his 30s, threatened to take all of it away. After having a heart attack at age 32, he vowed to give up drugs once and for all. Although the road was difficult at the beginning, Gass has now been clean and sober for over 10 years.

Speaking exclusively to The Fix, Gass opened up about losing some of his closest friends in the business to drugs, the relationship that led to a relapse, and how he now stays sober on the road.

When did your drug use first begin?

I started drinking alcohol at age 14 and drifted into pot shortly after. But when I discovered cocaine at age 15, it felt like I had discovered the most incredible thing in the world. It lit the fire and I didn’t realize until a few years later that I was in a situation which wasn’t so good. 

Like most people, the first few years were chasing the incredible fun you had your first night doing it, but the bad moments continued to happen more frequently. It’s funny how everything that your parents warned you as a kid about drugs comes true. You start to notice something really bad happening to those around you more often, whether it’s that they die or go to jail, but you see it in the peripheral and ignore it, even as it continues to pile up. 

Would you say that the culture of stand-up, or the business, exacerbated your drug use in any way?

I tried stand-up just for fun at age 20 and really went for it at age 23, so I was well into my addiction at that point. I think I still would have had my addiction following me regardless, but you do surround yourself with other fucked-up people who have a certain intensity to them. 

The crazy thing was that seven friends died in the first year I quit drugs and alcohol and all of them were comedians. Four were from drug overdoses and three were from DUI-related accidents. The first friend to pass away was Mitch Hedberg, who was my roommate at one time. I had really thrown up the white flag at that point and was determined to quit, but we all have doubts in the beginning. You think to yourself, “You can still do drugs. You just have to keep it under control!” It just reinforced that I was doing the right thing. 

Many of the comics we’ve spoken to have said that being alone on the road has tested their sobriety the most. Is that something you’d agree with?

Absolutely. It actually hit me harder after I was clean for about four or five years. I was performing at a club in Austin, Texas, and there were a bunch of local comedians who were really cool and had their own scene going on. Comics will usually hang out together and when you’re in a new city, people will come up just to shoot the shit or ask for advice. But nobody wanted anything to do with me that night. 

I felt really alone and went back to my room, opened up the ring key and thought this would be such a cool moment if I had drugs on me. Maybe it was the feeling of loneliness. But I knew I’d spend all night lowering the volume of the TV until it was on mute or following the shadows under the door, thinking I had to chop my coke more quietly because everyone could hear me. There was nothing enjoyable about the psychosis of it all.

You’ve spoken previously about having a heart attack when you were 32. Was that the moment when you decided to stop using?

It was. It was the first time in my life that I could afford my addiction and I wanted to make sure I had more than enough. I was having moments where my body was sending signals and I’d just move past it. But I was up for a couple of days at one point and could feel my breathing getting more restricted. My roommate took me to the hospital and the doctor said they were calling for a cardiologist to come down immediately because I was having a heart attack. It was surreal because I was making phone calls to people not knowing if I was ever going to talk to them again, all while feeling my breathing becoming more restricted as my body was shutting down. I knew afterwards that something had to change.

Were there any periods of your recovery that were rocky?

I was clean for a year and two weeks the first time, but then I got into a relationship with a girl who just wasn’t right for me. She would beg me to do coke with her, even knowing what happened with the heart attack, and said I just needed to do it in moderation. Finally, I got fucked up on New Year’s Eve and it was amazing how much more intense my addiction got for the next 11 months.

The plan was to quit on New Year’s Day since Jan. 1 is an easy day to remember to be sober. But on the two-year anniversary of my heart attack (on Dec. 14), the switch turned on. I was taking care of my mom at that point and just had clarity. And that’s hitting the fucking lottery because so many of us do this stupid dance where we know we need help, but see what the options are and run away. Just surrendering and accepting the embarrassment and saying I have a problem is something not many of us are able to do. I celebrated 10 years of sobriety last December. 

Do you talk about your past drug use on stage at all?

I talk about it lightly on stage, but there wasn’t anything about that period that was hugely funny to me. I talk about doing coke with someone in the Mexican mafia who put a hunting knife to my face. I was willing to put up with that and hear about what a horrible human being he was just because he had coke. It doesn’t come out as a 10 or 15-minute bit, but more as little sides.

Is there a camaraderie of sorts among other sober comics in the industry or is it not as obvious who they are?

I was able to confide in another sober comedian when I was struggling early on after my heart attack, which was really important for me. The scary thing when I first stopped was thinking about how I’d be alone. I was shocked to find out how many comedians, musicians, actors and radio people are sober. It was like, “Wow, not everyone was getting as shit-faced as I was.” I was realizing that I was actually one of the few people who had reached that level. 

What are some of the things that have helped you most in staying sober?

It was hard for me to do, but the biggest thing in the beginning was getting rid of everyone who I partied with. I was always living two separate lives, so the people I cared about and the people I partied with never mixed. That’s not to say I didn’t care about some of those people, but I couldn’t be around them if that’s what our friendship revolved around. So even when I let that go, I still had people who cared about me. It also took me a while to realize that I had to give up everything as well. I never had a drinking problem, but it took me right back to coke.

Attending group meetings is something that’s therapeutic for me to this day and I’ll do it more often now. I’m just really grateful to be alive.

McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix.

Cocaine addiction that started in his teens and continued into his 30s threatened to take all of his success away. Gass has now been clean and sober for over 10 years.
By McCarton Ackerman
pro voices

Memorial Day is a good time to assess the condition of our returning military veterans, a group which is fraught with alarmingly high rates of PTSD, addiction and suicide. The rate of suicide among veterans is alarmingly higher than is found in the civilian population, and substance misuse is often involved in these tragedies. An underlying issue is PTSD, which is significantly higher among veterans than in the general population. Dr. Tom Horvath and Len Van Nostrand highlight the connection between PTSD and addiction and the critical role of treatment in healing our veterans….Dr. Richard Juman

As the month of May brings Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, becomes a natural topic of discussion. Within this important conversation is the intricate relationship between PTSD and substance use.

Our greatest understandings of traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress often come from those who’ve experienced the horrors and devastation of war, which can last long after combat ends. For many veterans, the impacts of war remain as if it were yesterday. Heartbreakingly, their mind continues to be a battlefield of devastating, torturous memories and they are tasked with the challenge of coping with PTSD.

Casualties of War: The Somatic, Neurological and Psychological Systems

Traumatic stress impacts all of our systems, including the somatic, neurological and psychological systems. When we have painful thoughts and memories, we activate the various chemical and messenger systems of the body and experience distress, tension, anxiety and depression, resulting in ongoing deregulated emotions. Despite repeated efforts to avoid the painful memories and associated emotions, our minds and bodies remember. For reasons we may be only vaguely aware of, unresolved major trauma can result in seemingly unbearable emotions and physical sensations, negative and self-critical beliefs, interpersonal isolation and defensiveness, hypervigilance, and a deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness.   

As if the assault on the somatic, neurological and psychological systems wasn’t enough, the deregulation of these systems can diminish the capacity for meaningful connection to others, eliminating a critical component of healthy coping. When left alone and consumed by traumatic stress, our coping can take many different forms, but engaging in addictive behavior is one of the most common.

Disturbing the Connection to Others

Trauma, especially war trauma, often has a substantial effect on our relationships. We are born with an innate need to attach to and connect with others. Our survival depends on the maintenance of these bonds. However, when our sense of connection and self-efficacy is ruptured, we no longer enjoy the ability to trust others or ourselves. The result is an inner world of numbness, terror and rage. With these bonds disturbed, our whole being is shocked and in an ongoing state of disequilibrium. Relationships lose their ability to provide us with a sense of safety and trust, and the need for relief from overwhelming negative emotions can become enormous. 

Both situational (specific circumstances) and cumulative (ongoing and/or persistent) trauma can result in an inability to participate effectively in relationships. We can appear to be in a relationship, but the ability to connect and find meaningful attachment and security may not exist.

Everyone experiences some distress throughout the day, whether small, intense or catastrophic. When we confide in friends or family and trust others to listen to us, our distress is reduced. This form of emotional support keeps us regulated and able to handle a variety of stressors throughout the day (or week, month, year, or even lifetime). On a much larger scale, the same process can also be applied to the major distress caused by war. However, the traumatic experience of war can break down our trust in the emotional process, cause us to believe that we are no longer worthy of being listened to, or simply cause us to lose our ability to trust people. In such a state, we may search for another outlet for our emotional pain. Under such circumstances, drugs and alcohol (or even sex and gambling) have a powerful appeal. If the need for relief is strong, substances are typically very effective at providing that relief. Substance misuse becomes the solution to our universal need for connection. Perhaps alcohol, drugs, and destructive addictive behaviors can provide the most rapid and predictable relief from emotional pain.

Bonding With Substances and the Vicious Circle

Under these conditions, classic substance dependence can develop. Gradually, the substances replace our ability to cope with stress and tension. Rather than the development of resilience over time, we increasingly rely on the substance. Coping diminishes and substance use increases until the solution (substance use) has become the problem.

As inner capacities atrophy, and we abandon personal goals and relationships, our focus turns to more and more substance use. It becomes the primary, and ultimately, the only method to overcome numbness, terror, and rage. The new problems created by the “solution” add another layer of pain, isolation and immobility. We find ourselves in a vicious circle, which may not be escaped until a crisis occurs.

Treating Trauma and Substance Abuse

For someone with trauma, recovery is twofold: we not only need to start on a new path, but we must also work at overcoming the original issues. We must re-establish a basic trust in others and ourselves. Because trauma typically involves a substantial reduction in the capacity to experience, tolerate and articulate our inner experiences, significant psychotherapeutic work may be needed. No matter how painful, the journey to rediscovering your worth, restoring healthy relationships, and recovering from substance misuse and the effects of trauma is full of hope and certainly worth the effort.

The Practical Recovery and Full Spectrum Recovery teams express sincere appreciation for our veterans and service members. We recognize the immense internal battles that will be fought long after the external ones have ended. The trauma is real and the war wages on within many of them. Undeniably, we owe a deep gratitude for the expansive lives we are able to lead because of their sacrifices. 

If you or someone you know suffers from trauma and substance abuse, please don’t be afraid to reach out – there is help.

Len Van Nostrand, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is the co-founder and owner of Full Spectrum Recovery and Counseling. He is trained in a variety of modalities, including TRE (Trauma/Tension Release Exercises), EMDR, hypnotherapy and Motivational Interviewing, and he has maintained a therapy and intervention practice for over fifteen years. He also facilitates weekly SMART recovery groups. 

A. Tom Horvath, PhD, ABPP, is the founder and president of Practical Recovery in San Diego, CA, a self-empowering addiction treatment system including sober living, outpatient services and two residential treatment facilities for alcohol and drug abuse. He is also the president of SMART Recovery, an international nonprofit offering free, self-empowering, science-based, mutual-help groups for addiction recovery. A past president of the Society of Addiction Psychology, he is the author of Sex, Drugs, Gambling & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions. 

Substance use begins as the solution, but becomes the problem.
By Len Van Nostrand and Tom Horvath