My Chat with Shawn Achor of Oprah Fame about Happiness, Gratitude and Sobriety

 

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This piece originally was published Aug. 8, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

Oh. My. Gosh. What a terribly stressful week.

I have been so very crabby. So I’m glad I was lucky enough to land an interview recently with Shawn Achor. Shawn is nothing other than the happiness guru to O.

As in Oprah Winfrey! I’d be lying if I did not admit I enjoy speaking with celebs, and to me anyone who has appeared regularly with Oprah is a celeb.

So just as I almost had a complete and total meltdown this week, a few times, actually, including one just about an hour ago, and another a few hours before that, the tide turned once I decided to make it turn. And here I am writing about sobriety and gratitude.

 From the home office in Rock Island, Ill.

Let’s get started with a “Top Five” list. 

  1. I am grateful for getting to interview famous people like Shawn Achor and so many others, and to share what we talked about with others.
  1. I am grateful for my precious 20-year-old cat, LuLu, who is napping on the sofa in my office as I write this. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, LuLu died last month).
  1. I am grateful for my sobriety. I’m always grateful for that.
  1. I am grateful to be living in the very house I grew up in, which brings tremendous comfort during even the most difficult of times.
  1. I am grateful for the DE-LISH ear of sweet corn I just had, smothered in butter, garlic salt and pepper.

One of Achor’s tips to staying positive, especially at times when it seems so terribly hard, is to list five things that happened in the past 24 hours that you’re thankful for.

Achor was “on the circuit” a couple of weeks back to promote Buick’s “24 Hours of Happiness Test Drive” campaign. When his people reached out to me and asked if I’d like to chat with him, I was very flattered and immediately said yes.

I asked him what tips he has for people struggling to stay sober, who find themselves without their old “friends” or their fix.

“When it comes to addiction and recovery, instead of thinking about what you’re giving up, turn that around,” Achor said. “Instead of letting your whole life become deficit thinking, things you’re not doing anymore, there is real power in seeing things you’re picking up.”

Read more: My interview with Shawn Achor for HIV Equal

For me that has meant more time to spend with my dad. (Editor’s note: My dad died in September 2015). More time to exercise. Above all, more time for my writing, which I love.

And I even am getting to the space of letting go of anger toward people who want to hurt me. I know what those people are going through. I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty.

I’m glad I no longer live in that space. (Update: I’m still angry as hell at those who tried to hurt me, especially a handful of dirty politicians who are just dripping with filth).

Hating yourself is a big downer

I really never was a very positive person before sobriety. Most people who hate themselves aren’t.

But today, even though my dad is dying a horrible death from a dementia-related illness, and even though I still struggle to make ends meet, and even though I don’t speak with hardly any of my relatives, I sometimes have to pinch myself about how good life is. (Update: My dad died well over a year ago, and his estate still is not settled, and the court battle between my brother, myself, and a third party also included in my dad’s will grows uglier and uglier by the week and by the month. I have spent about $5,000 with an attorney just to get what my dad left me in a very simply stated will. But I have a very successful career and no longer struggle to make ends meet).

Acknowledging life is better now that I am sober, even if it is much harder in some ways, really is what keeps me going.

While I’m not a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to becoming a positive person was admitting I was powerless over alcohol.

Once I admitted that, I instantly was freed to envision a better life. My sponsor told me: “David, and I promise you, after one year, your life will be 10 times better.”

I believed him. I envisioned a better life. And today, 15 months later (update: now 30 months later), I have a better life.

I love my work. I have inner peace. I have good health.

That’s not to say I don’t get really stressed out. But with inner peace, I never blame myself for it anymore, because I know I am doing the best I can.

That’s not to say sober life has been easy. But it’s still better. And I’m grateful for that, and I know it will become less difficult over time.

How “I am an alcoholic” truly set me free

It didn’t take long after admitting I was an alcoholic before little signs of a better life began to sprout. Giving up the booze was like putting down top soil from which to sow new possibilities that come with living without drugs and booze.

I always have allowed my work to define me, for better or for worse. Many Americans are that way.

But when I was a drunk, I hardly could be proud of my work. When I was drinking, I didn’t show up for days on end. While my work always passed muster, I knew I wasn’t performing at even one-tenth of my ability.

Self-respect and good health are two things I never had when I was the town drunk. I spent each day feeling horrible about the dumb things I did the day before. So I drank to forget about it. It was an endless cycle.

In November 2010, I quit my job at the local newspaper. For three years, I tried to focus on caring full-time for my dad. But don’t kid yourself. I was drinking too.

But as I saw him decline and realized that he needed my help, I think I had purpose in life that I wasn’t getting from my job at the local newspaper.

Having purpose planted a seed for the sobriety. Suddenly life was about something bigger than myself, as they talk about in AA.

A fresh career start … so why not give up booze, too?

When dad went into a memory-care facility, I had the opportunity to start fresh in terms of my career. I lucked out when an acquaintance hooked me up with a freelance reporting gig for Healthline. Little did I know how much I would enjoy health reporting. I once again began to really feel like I was making a difference with my journalism.

I thought, “If I quit drinking, how much even better could things be?”

I was ready to quit. And after getting hammered and making an ass of myself in front of my neighbors and on social media Memorial Day 2014, I was ready to accept that booze made me do things I was ashamed of and that is was destroying my life, even as it was turning around after years of hopelessness.

So, to AA I went. A week went by without booze. Two weeks.  A month.

I worked hard to change my thinking to the positive from day one. It’s true that if you start each morning with prayer or meditation, or even list just three positive things about the past 24 hours, you can’t help but feel better about the direction your life is headed in.

The support you get from others when you become sober – friends on Facebook, professional contacts – is inspiring. After a while, though, the “attaboys” stop. And since I decided AA wasn’t for me, I don’t get any support “in the rooms,” as they say.

And my old crowd? I left them behind a few months even prior to getting sober and never looked back. Which, of course, is what everyone getting sober needs to do.

But more than a year (now 2 1/2 years) into it, I remain positive even if I operate as an island these days, at least physically. That’s because I have made friends with myself.

 

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Not ‘A List’ yet, but two years (now almost four) without cigarettes feels awesome

 

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This was published Feb. 11, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission. (Editor’s note: Feb. 15, 2017 marks four years since I’ve had a cigarette).

By David Heitz

You could find me there every night, at the corner of 69th and Mary streets. Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. On the weekends, sometimes you could find me there 12 hours a day, “pulling double shifts,” as I used to tell the bar owner.

Definitely NOT the corner of happy and healthy, at least not for me.

Today marks two years since I gave up cigarettes. The day after Memorial Day I’ll celebrate a year without alcohol.

It was tough finding a picture of me with a cigarette. I usually wouldn’t allow pictures of me smoking. I found this pic that a friend posted on Facebook in 2010 after Iowa’s no-smoking law went into effect.

Actually, I sort of like the picture. I do look happy, and I certainly had lots of great times at the bar where I used to hang out. But changing your life really does have to be all about changing faces and places sometimes, even if it means leaving behind the good memories as well as the bad.

Immediate disclosure: I still have a few vices, not the least of which is Willy Wonka candy. I’m sharing my story not to sound like Mary Poppins, but to relay how disgusted I became with myself. My sort of “rock bottom,” I guess.

The truth is, I gave up smoking because I always considered it “low class.” That’s right. It sounds horrible and arrogant, it makes me sound elitist and awful, but even as a child, I seemed to notice that people who smoked always had so many other darned problems.

It may be boiling it down to an extremely superficial level, and maybe there’s not always causation between a person’s problems and their smoking habit, but to a casual observer there certainly does appear to be correlation many times.

Do teenagers still say “smoking is for losers?”

When my generation was younger, we called the kids who smoked in high school “burnouts” or “lunch loggers,” because at my school they sat on a giant log adjacent to the student parking lot and puffed away during lunch.

At what point did it become OK for so many of us who should know better to smoke?

I say this even though my parents BOTH smoked. And they both had lots of problems, health-related and otherwise.

So I am just going to put out there that at a young age I noticed the happier, and, indeed, more successful people in life, seemed to be non-smokers. Of course, this was in the 1970s, when LOTS of people smoked. All I knew was that I associated cigarettes with “people with problems,” and non-smokers with success and happiness, and I wanted to be one of the happy and successful people.

And so I was a complete and, at times, very nasty, anti-cigarette snob all the way up until moving to Los Angeles. Then I added cigarettes to my beer. Then I began doing hard drugs, which can turn even a non-smoker into a pack-a-day person. Easily.

And I’ll skip all of the juicy stuff that happened in between, but two years ago I found myself fat, hung over, crying and depressed, wondering if life was even worth living, lying in the basement of the house I grew up in. I had moved back to Illinois in 2002 to escape a crystal meth addiction and to help take care of dad. While I was happy I had survived the meth and felt lucky to be alive, I hadn’t been living much of a life since the day I moved back.

In theory, I was taking care of my dad. But I wasn’t qualified for that job either, and after a hard day at the office, I’d spend a hard night at the tavern. Eventually I quit my job.

What a horrible mess my life had become.

I don’t advocate for any sort of religion, but the higher power thing has indeed brought some peace into my life. On that day that I woke up hung over, depressed, in the basement of the house I grew up in, I prayed to God for change, any kind of change. Something just had to change.

Because, man, did I have a lot of problems!

So I decided my part of the deal would be to stop smoking. That would be my first change. That’s the deal I made with God.

After all, how anyone could continue to smoke when we all know about how bad it is for you is…well…not congruent with being a smart person, which of course for years I have associated with happiness and success. So I knew that in terms of getting off the wrong path, I might want to start with giving up the deplorable cigarettes.

Things in my life did begin to change when I gave up cigarettes. Maybe it was just because I finally had at least some sense of self-worth after years of feeling like a louse. I was able to make decisions and stand up for myself, perhaps. I found that I believed in myself much more, and that my confidence really escalated very quickly the longer I went without a cigarette.

Honestly, it hasn’t even been too difficult giving up smoking. But it was harder for me to quit smoking than to quit drinking. Even when you know smoking is terrible and gross, the nicotine craving still nudges at you sometimes. Booze, on the other hand, almost never enters my consciousness anymore, even after only 9 months without it.

In the madness of giving up booze and cigarettes, somehow 70 pounds fell off during that two-year period, too. But 30 of them have come back on. With every challenge I face each day, I try a new approach to solving it. I’m doing everything in life differently. Something as simple as not answering the phone when I don’t want to, or not responding to an unpleasant email in a knee-jerk way…I’m getting so much more done by slowing down and doing less. Anything to keep the anxiety low.

People ask what the key has been to turning my life around in terms of getting rid of booze and cigarettes and losing weight. My advice is to just shake everything up, change every routine possible, find new, healthier addictions if you have to.

My new addiction is social media. Zuckerberg gets my money now, because I have turned my professional Facebook page, David Heitz Health, into a little hobby.

But it’s better than spending my dough on beer and cigarettes. And it certainly keeps me social in a place where it’s a lot easier to be me than a tavern.

I probably will be called “arrogant,” grand” and every other name in the book for this. But that’s OK. Maybe my story will ring true even with one other person and convince them to give up the poo-poo sticks, whatever their reason may be. Because there are a million of them.

 

Could an anti-cocaine vaccine help prevent HIV in the process?

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(Photo illustration courtesy of Pixabay)

When I first began to write about PrEP, the HIV prevention pill, I remember someone saying, “Back in my day, we would have been lining up around the block for a pill to prevent HIV. But today’s gay men aren’t.”

Another quipped that gay men “are more interested in ecstasy than a pill to prevent HIV.”

True or not, a brand new medical development raises similar questions. In some ways, it too could be a new tool in HIV prevention. Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian hospitals are now enrolling volunteers for a phase I clinical trial for a cocaine vaccine. That’s right – a vaccine that would prevent you from getting high on cocaine. You could toot up as much as you’d like, but you wouldn’t get high.

Cocaine use among gay men often fuels intense sexual sessions where HIV transmission can become more likely.

“Cocaine addiction is a huge problem that affects more than 2 million people in the United States, and results in more than 500,000 annual visits to emergency rooms,” principal investigator Dr. Ronald Crystal said in a Weill Cornell Medical College news release. “While there are drugs like methadone designed to treat heroin, there aren’t any therapeutics available to treat cocaine addiction. We hope that our vaccine will change that.”

Good cocaine is hard to put down

When I moved back to the Quad-Cities in 2002 to get away from Los Angeles and a raging methamphetamine addiction, and also to care for my dad, for a long time all I did was smoke pot. But when I got back into the bar scene, and was introduced to “good” coke, that became a problem for me too. At one point, most of my paycheck was going to the coke dealer.

At some point in 2012 or 2013, those of us in the coke crowd began to say, “Hey wait a minute. This stuff isn’t coke.”

While dealers often doled out baggies of Calumet, what finally got a lot of us to quit the “coke” wasn’t so much getting ripped off with total crap (as addicts, we were still dumb enough to buy it). Most of us quit using it when it began to keep us up all night, cause us to break down, and generally feel extremely unwell.

It now appears due to certain arrests in the past year or so that we probably were being dealt meth and being told it was coke. Had that good coke continued to flow, I’m not sure I ever would have been able to give it up, and then finally give up cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana, in that order.

So yay for a potential cocaine vaccine.

How would a cocaine vaccine work?

“While most drugs that target addiction are designed to disrupt some process in the brain, this vaccine, called dAd5GNE, is meant to absorb cocaine in the bloodstream – well before it has had a chance to pass the blood-brain barrier and later produce a dopamine-induced high,” according to the Cornell news release.

The vaccine works by attaching GNE, a cocaine-like molecule, to an inactive virus for the common cold. When the body recognizes the virus and unleashes antibodies, it also will learn to attack cocaine as an enemy, the reasoning goes. The body will respond with a flood of anti-cocaine antibodies, each meant to gobble up cocaine like a Pac-Man, Dr. Crystal said.

While the vaccine has been proven effective on animals, now investigators are looking to enroll 30 active cocaine users. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Before getting the vax, each subject will have to abstain from cocaine for at least 30 days (hard for an addict to do). They’ll be dropped regularly to make sure they are clean during that period.

They’ll get their first vaccine shot in the shoulder, with additional boosters given every four weeks until everyone has had six shots. After the final booster, monitoring will continue for three more months.

“Most people who become cocaine addicts want to give it up, but struggle to kick the habit in the long-term,” Dr. Crystal said. “If this vaccine works, it could represent a lifetime therapeutic for addicts.”

Participants will get $25 per visit – up to $2,400 for those who complete the study. To enroll or for information, contact Aileen Orphilla at 646-962-2672 or email anticocaine@med.cornell.edu.

Pfizer cancer drug may block cocaine memories

Meanwhile, another experimental cocaine addiction treatment recently made headlines. Researchers have found that a drug used in cancer therapy trials treats cocaine addiction “by inhibiting memories responsible for cravings,” according to a Cardiff University news release.

“We have demonstrated that a single administration of a trial drug from the pharmacompany Pfizer can completely obliterate cocaine associated memories and significantly accelerate the end of drug seeking behavior in animals,” said professor Ricardo Brambilla of Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences. “With this drug currently being used in cancer trials, it could be easily repositioned for treatment of cocaine addiction and other drugs of abuse.”

According to the news release, the drug kept mice from progressing to compulsive cocaine users by blocking the creation of long-term memories.

“With drug use recently on the rise, new treatments for breaking addiction are much needed,” said Dr. Stefania Fasano of Cardiff. “The availability of a powerful drug from Pfizer, already validated in humans, could speed up the clinical development of our findings.”

First year without dad: When it’s down to just you, you better like you. Thank God I do.

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Dad died a year ago today. For sure it has been the fastest year of my life.

But as I sat at the cemetery bawling yesterday, only then did it really hit me – it’s just me now.

And I mean that in every sense of the word. My dad was my entire life for so long – since the day I moved back to the Quad-Cities in 2002. I made several trips a day to his apartment for many years before moving in with him. And of course I also made several trips per day to the assorted substandard facilities he lived in in his final years, except for 108 days when one of them locked me out.

The void in my life is even bigger than I could have guessed. When you surround yourself with alcoholics and addicts, nobody cares when hard times come. They don’t. They really don’t. If you’re an alcoholic or an addict, you’ll find that out eventually. If you’re an alcoholic or an addict, you know what really matters is the bump, the shot, the tall boy.

“Yeah, yeah, so-and-so’s dad’s died. Hey, let’s get some ding-ding!”

I used to say it myself.

The bar people were gone pretty much from the day I moved in with dad. When he went into a facility, that’s all she wrote.

Thank God they left. It made sobriety easier. I remember once, my friend Scott’s grandma died. She was 100 years old, maybe older. He loved her so much.

We went out that night, to the bar. None of his “friends” showed him any compassion at all. It was as if they were incapable. I’ll never forget the look on his face, or the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Monsters,” I thought. But I still hung around them for free drugs and alcohol. I was an alcoholic and a drug addict.

And of course, when you’re nearly murdered, that tends to make you pretty much not trust anyone anymore. And that turns people away in droves. And I thought about that, too, as I sat at the cemetery, crying to dad as I had so many times before.

When it’s your family who tries to hurt you? That’s the worst hurt there is, I think.

I told dad at least I had raised hell about the substandard elder care in our community, and at least I educated a whole lot of people about his disease. And hey, I got to report undercover from the Rock Island County Jail, held there on no charges at all!

That truly was a blessing, and I’m being completely serious. I remember, when I heard someone cock a gun, and start shooting blanks “click, click, click” … I remember praising God for helping me become sober, for going back to work and helping people with my writing, and for showing my dad that I could be the man he always knew I was.

Most of all, I thanked God for giving me my self-respect back.

And I prepared for the bullet to the head I was certain I was going to take.

“They were f***ing with you,” one healthcare provider told me. “That’s what they do in the Rock Island County Jail. They’re known for it.”

Well, yeah.

But the reason I really thought they were going to kill me was this: I heard one guard, I’ll call him “J.,” say in his classic foghorn voice, “(Blankety Blank) tried to kill him last year, but he woke up on his couch.”

Who did he say that to? A high-ranking politician who was hanging out in the jail. I did not hear her utter a response. But I’ll tell you this: The silence alone was chilling.

I knew the politician and Blankety Blank were an acquaintance, because Blankety Blank boasted to me once or twice that he knew her. But this?

And “J.” feeling chummy enough with her to tell her what “Blankety Blank” allegedly had done? (Through the hands of my cousin and his friends, obviously, if in fact Blankety Blank really did have anything to do with it at all, or if that was just more s@#t talk for me to hear and get upset about)

It was one year prior to that day, at least to the same week, that my cousin and his friends assaulted me, pinned me down, and injected me with a needle. When I woke up, there was a nebulizer in my pocket. Classic (attempted) homicide disguised like an overdose. At least that’s exactly what it looks like to me.

And so very curious that other people who traveled in the same circles I did have indeed died in similar, mysterious ways. “Overdose.” “Suicide.” “Unknown.” “Under investigation.”

I showed my AA sponsor the marks on my arms. He said, “You had the shit beat out of you. Have you had enough?”

Apparently I had because it was the last time I ever took a drink.

And that person “J.” mentioned? Well, he has since been in the news himself for something rather shocking. So now it’s just doubly-triply chilling.

Did I imagine these things? Did I just “hear wrong?” because I was in distress in the jail?

I did dance around naked after all in an attempt to amuse myself. But I remember that. No, that wasn’t “a trip,” that was me using humor to keep going and “stay positive.”

If they find any jail footage at all I’m sure it will be that. The rest will be “missing.”

I suppose I could have imagined the things I heard, but I absolutely don’t believe  for one second that I did. Much of what I heard has since been independently verified. Believe me, I have a big ol’ file.

And it being “all in my head” doesn’t add up by the sheer fact of what history has taught us since, and the fact that I’ve known these people for years and years and knew their voices like the back of my hand. There’s too much detail, too much evidence, too much motive. I think the ones who try to paint me as bonkers are beginning to look guilty themselves, quite frankly.

Somebody knows what happened in there. At least a few people. It only takes one to snitch. I’m counting on that one.

The moral of my story today? I truly believed they were going to kill me in that jail, and the motive (my big mouth) was quite clear and had been for some time. Yet as I prepared and fully expected one of them to walk in and shoot me in the head, I thanked God for having my self-respect back.

That, my friends, is priceless. And for now, worth every lonely moment.

Improving your life – even saving lives – is as easy as taking a walk

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Even before I became sober (which is the best thing I ever did for myself), my life began to improve when I began walking.

When I sold my clunker to a junkyard when dad entered a memory care facility in 2013, I had no choice but to start walking. Once, I walked all the way home from the grocery store carrying a 25-pound box of cat litter (well over a mile).

It didn’t take long before I got over my hang-ups about using public transportation, but usually I chose walking over riding the bus even then. At one point, about a year after I became sober, I no longer felt safe riding the bus and returned to just walking.

We know that walking is incredibly good for your health. Even before I stopped drinking, weight began to fall off of me when I started walking.

In February I decided to buy a Toyota Prius, so I haven’t been walking as much as I once did. I go to the gym now instead.

But when my therapist suggested a few weeks back that I start participating in charity walks to meet new people, I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Why have so many Q-C LGBT people died?

A couple of weeks ago I participated in the Overdose Awareness Walk and blogged about that. I’m sure you all also have seen my pleas for sponsorship in the upcoming Out of the Darkness Walk benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (Oct. 29 in Bettendorf) as well as the NAMI Walk benefiting the National Alliance on Mental Illness (Sept. 24 in Davenport).

I’m proud to say that as I write this column, I have raised $175 so far for the NAMI Walk and $170 for the Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all who have donated.

What’s even more meaningful to me, even beyond the fact that walking has greatly improved my health (my blood pressure is perfect these days!) and the fact that I’m helping raise money for good causes by participating in the charity walks, is that all three of these causes are near and dear to me.

In the Quad-Cities, the number of gay and lesbian people who have died of drug overdoses is staggering. I lived in Los Angeles for 12 years (and was a wild party boy) and only knew two people who OD’d. Here in the Quad-Cities – and we’re talking as far as back as six or seven years ago, even before the nation’s opioid crisis reached full tilt – I can think of several LGBT people who have OD’d.

Of course, overdose, suicide and, I’d surmise, even foul play sometimes are blurred when you don’t have the complete story. And on many of these people, I don’t. Simply put, there are lots of moms and dads who have lost children in this town; and lots of children who have lost moms and dads.

Brandon Ketchum puts a face to “20 per day” stat

And of course we know that 20 service people per day are committing suicide, which is not excusable. Our country needs to do a much better job of taking care of our service men and women, and that includes accommodating their mental health needs. That point finally was driven home locally with the untimely death of Brandon Ketchum, which even has caught the attention of local lawmakers, as reported here by Quad-City Times columnist Barb Ickes.

I know what suicidal thoughts feel like, although thankfully it is not something I have experienced since 2003. Many years ago, after returning to the Quad-Cities from Los Angeles, my depression was so bad that simply being awake was painful. I just wanted to sleep.

In June 2015, when I raised my voice after not being taken seriously when reporting an intruder at my dad’s memory care facility, I was thrown in the Rock Island County Jail on no charges at all. The reason they gave? They said I was suicidal.

Please start paying attention, folks!

While many of those who govern and have governed out of the county of Rock Island are famous for their lies and corruption, saying I was suicidal may in fact be the tallest tale they ever told. And everyone who was in the jail knows that whether they have chosen to tell the truth about it or not. Even the local mental health center deemed me “not suicidal” after one of their clinicians evaluated me inside the jail, but now those records are “missing.” The hospital also forgave the portion of my bill that Blue Cross Blue Shield did not pay (and not because of financial need).

What was going on that day was a PTSD-fueled anxiety attack that occurred nearly to the day of the one-year anniversary of an assault that could have killed me.

Sure, after two days in there I was weeping, but mostly for my community, and for the fact I thought they were going to kill me in there and that I would never see my dad or my cat again. Prior to that, I banged on the cell door and screamed for help for hours and hours and hours and hours. It was a horrifying experience I will never forget nor ever stop talking about so long as I can make a difference by sharing my story.

Watch for my book coming out next year. In the meantime, please consider supporting me in the NAMI Walk, or the Out of the Darkness Walk for suicide prevention.

Thanks, and happy Labor Day!

Breaking: Powerful pain reliever works in monkeys without addiction, OD risk

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Followers of my blog and Facebook page, David Heitz Health, ask me all the time: Why aren’t there any alternative to opioids that actually work to relieve pain just as well?

I have been saying there are a few things in the works, and I have promised to follow up when there is news to share. That day finally has dawned.

Research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a new compound, BU08028, works to relieve pain in monkeys without harmful side effects such as addiction or overdose. In fact, even at doses ten to 30 times larger than what’s needed for pain relief, BU08028 did not slow breathing or cause other cardiovascular problems that lead to overdose deaths.

As for dependency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the monkeys “found it less rewarding than cocaine and two different opioids.”

BU08028 works by interacting with both opioid and non-opioid receptors in the brain.

Approximately 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, the NIH reports. That’s nearly a third of our population, and it has led to a national opioid crisis. Beyond addiction itself, the sharing of needles by addicts who progress to injecting has caused HIV and Hepatitis C rates to spike nationwide in communities that previously enjoyed low incidence of both diseases.

Read more: My Plus interview with Dr. Don Des Jarlais, founder of the modern needle exchange

“A potent opioid analgesic without addictive and respiratory adverse effects has been a predominant goal for opioid national chemistry since the isolation of morphine from opium in the 19th century,” reads the PNAS abstract. “By examining behavioral, physiological, and pharmacologic factors, the present study demonstrates that BU08028 exhibits full antinociception and antihypersensitivity (pain relief) without reinforcing effects (i.e. abuse liability) respiratory depression, pruritus (itching), adverse cardiovascular effects, or acute physical dependence.”

Don’t expect a pharmaceutical company to begin churning out BU8028 for humans anytime soon. The next step would be a phase 1 trial on humans, followed by additional clinical trials. Clinical trials take years and are wildly expensive, but a non-addictive pain reliever in the face of a national opioid epidemic could result in political pressure and a slightly expedited process.

Even under the most hopeful scenarios, such a pharmaceutical opioid alternative would be several years away.

Read more: My Healthline News report on how centipede venom could yield a powerful new pain medicine

Welcome to DavidHeitz.com! Here is what my blog and web page is all about

I get excited just saying it: DavidHeitz.com. 

DavidHeitz.com. DavidHeitz.com. DavidHeitz.com

Not even five years ago would I even have dreamed that one day I would have my own website bearing my own name — my very own brand, if you will.

For starters, I never would have guessed I would even get the domain DavidHeitz.com. There is another journalist named David Heitz (and we are even the same age, both with dark hair) right down the road, in Chicago. There’s a famous David Heitz winemaker in Napa Valley. There’s a big real estate agent named David Heitz in California, too.

But there’s only ONE DavidHeitz.com! And I’m thrilled it’s me.

So why did I purchase the domain and the software to create my own site and my own blog? Well, the short answer is, I’m writing a book, due out next year. Every author needs to have a website and a social media following. The working title for my book is “Sober Caregiver, Solitary Confinement.” It not only works literally, but figuratively too. On many levels.

The social media part I’ve been working on for about two and a half years now. Today, between David Heitz Health on Facebook, @DavidHeitz on Twitter, plus LinkedIn, Google Plus, and a tiny presence on Pinterest, I have more than 7,000 followers. And it’s growing pretty fast.

I admit it now — I have a story worth telling

When people talk about writing, so much focus is placed on the craft of writing. No doubt, that is very important. But in this age where, let’s face it, anyone can be a publisher, I think what you have to say is even more important than how you say it.

So who am I? Well, a guy who was an alcoholic and/or drug addict (always one or the other when not both) for about 30 years. I grew up in a violent home. I lost my mother to breast cancer at age 24 after she had divorced my dad the second time.

I found out in my early 30s that dad had Alzheimer’s disease, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis. A few years back, we learned it in fact was a very rare brain disease called behavioral-variant frontotemporal degeneration. You can read all about that by clicking here.  Essentially it causes people to be very mean, and otherwise behave outrageously. Toward the very end their mind disintegrates to the point where they lose control of bodily functions, the ability to walk, talk, and swallow. And then they die.

So I got sober two and a half years ago when dad went into a memory care facility. I knew I had to or I was going to die. Like so many families that go through this disease, ours fell apart. Nobody cared about my dad except for me, and I cared about him very deeply. I demanded quality care and respect from the people who were paid outrageous sums of money to make sure he was safe and I dropped in quite often to make sure they were doing just that. I wasn’t always nice when I felt he (or myself) were being treated poorly.

Even as a teen, my friends used to say, “You need to write a book about your crazy family.” I always said, “Oh, my life is not that interesting.”

Famous last words.

Jailed for reporting an intruder at dad’s facility

I even went to jail, stripped naked, held on no charges at all, for two days, for raising my voice at dad’s memory care facility. You can read all about that by clicking here. There’s a whole lot more to that story that I never have told (other than to authorities), and it will all be in the book.

I became very sick inside the jail and truly thought they were going to kill me, or that I was going to die from a heart attack based on what was happening to me in there.

When they did finally let me out, I  spent two nights in the hospital. I learned some chilling things about my community. Things that, in truth, I had heard about for many years as a reporter and editor for local news organizations. But never did I think I would get an up close and personal experience with it. Maybe they wanted a reporter in there to see what was going on for himself. Who knows. It was wild stuff, no doubt about that.

I have written about all of these things piecemeal in various columns for Healthline Contributors, Caregiver Relief, and LinkedIn Pulse. I wrote hard news stories for two years as a reporter for Healthline.com, the fastest growing health website in America. I’ve written about addiction and recovery, caregiving and elder advocacy, and many other health topics, namely HIV and Hepatitis C.

While I do not have HIV or Hepatitis C, in many ways, it was that reporting that served as my bread and butter when it came to paying the bills and my re-entry into the world of writing (and working, for that matter). I’ve gotten away from HIV reporting the past several months, and I may explain why in a future column. More importantly, I plan on bringing  back my HIV reporting soon — today, in fact. Check out my other blog post for breaking news today that will be of great interest to long-term survivors of HIV.

In fact, I pounded out this introductory column about my blog and my new website — even though the website isn’t exactly how I want it yet (I have no idea what a widget is, for example) because of that exciting HIV news. Expect my HIV reporting from here on out to be limited to stories regarding long-term survivors, a cure, and a vaccine. The other stuff I’m not even going to touch anymore.

Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

I do suffer from some personal health issues. Many years ago I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. In fact, I was a drug addict. Mixing the bipolar drugs with illegal drugs and booze no doubt did plenty of damage, and I went through bouts of depression where I would cry and not get off the couch for months at a time.

When I got off the bipolar medication things began to turn around, yet the hard drinking did not stop, even though I had quit using drugs and quit hanging out with the bar and drug crowd. Boozing it up by myself, at home alone, I knew then that indeed I was an alcoholic. I could not get to sleep otherwise, the anxiety associated with caring for dad and fighting with my family was so bad.

When I was violently assaulted by someone I knew, that was my “rock bottom.” I stopped drinking and by the grace of God hope I never take another sip. Things have been on the upswing ever since.

But I do live with PTSD, not only from that violent attack more than two years ago, but also from being taken to jail last year (almost exactly to the anniversary date of the assault). I also endured mental abuse inside the jail, and just the sheer disappointment of knowing our community runs a jail like that probably will forever linger.

But things are improving for me every day, and I have found that the best way to take care of myself is to completely isolate myself from the people of my past, including my own family. I have been told I should move out of this town, but I don’t want to do that. I enjoy living in my childhood home, which I now own, and I have made the decision to stay put.

So, what can you expect from this blog? Well, hopefully a lot of positive things. I recently began to write about travel (and plan to do some traveling myself soon), pets, eating out, and hopefully soon, home improvement. I mostly pay the bills writing branded content related to addiction/recovery and home care for seniors and people with disabilities. Those stories will continue to appear on my Facebook page, David Heitz Health. Be sure to like my page if you have not already!

So I have lots of great things happening in my life and am a very blessed man. I’m so excited to launch this new chapter — DavidHeitz.com — and hope you will continue to follow my work, as well as my path to finding happiness again.

All the best,

Dave