Remembering Frank. He Was An Addict. He Was My Friend.

BrianCubanI got the phone call from Frank on a unusually cold Dallas winter day in 2001. He had not been feeling well for quite some time. On and off bouts with the flu, so he thought. After all, He lived in   Chicago. Brutal winters. An outdoor job. Like me, Frank was a cocaine addict. My trips to Chicago to visit him always involved tense visits to seedy parts of town to score from his dealer. Hotel rooms and all night cocaine binges were a regular staple. The cocaine money would run out. The weekend would end; I would head back to Dallas and my addict life. He would stay in Chicago in his. Addicts never really think about the lifestyles of other addicts. We count on them being the same. The quest for white powder to drive the masking of pain, guilt, childhood and loss.

My drive was for the acceptance of a thirteen-year-old bullied little boy. To change a horrifying reflection I saw in the mirror. The drive for the elusive feeling of being loved. Frank’s was wrapped around loss. The loss for Frank was profound. The loss of a son. His only son at the time. A tragic July 4th weekend years before. The pain. The guilt. The blame. He would never recover. His marriage would never recover. The descent into addiction. My problems seemed trivial in comparison. Addiction does not distinguish between the trivial and the tragic.

I picked up the phone that winter day in 2001. The news on the other end was tragic. His words ingrained on my brain to this day. “Brian, I have stage four colon cancer”. I am going to die”. I had known Frank had not been feeling well but we went fairly long periods without talking to each other. Busy in our lives. Busy in our addiction. Too busy to be that one person who is told all. The person who can help. Until that moment that hopefully moves us into recovery, no addict wants to help. We want enablement. I wanted to make those trips to the seedy areas when I visited Frank. Our only talk about life’s problems came during the inhibition released cocaine binges. Binges that would begin to mask the changes his body was going through and tell his brain that it was simply the hangover, the all nighter, the drinking. He would ultimately recover. Nothing permanent. One day his urine changed color. That was not the cocaine.

A long silence on the phone as I processed what Frank just told me. Going through the stages of denial and grief within a split second. If I couched the response properly I would hear something different.

Clam Down Frank, tell me what’s going on” Are you sure? He was sure.

December 13, 2004. A trip to Chicago. Brutal Cold. Snow. One last time. We would see the Dallas Mavericks play the Chicago Bulls with his other son and another good friend. There was no venture into the seedy to obtain drugs. We were still addicts. I knew Frank was still using despite undergoing chemo and experimental treatments. Frank had to wear extra heaving clothing to compensate for the chilling effect of chemotherapy and experimental treatment. The cancer was spreading. He had given up hope. A new son did not ease the pain. A marriage that had failed in the midst of guilt and blame amidst the loss of the first. Talk became useless. We never spoke of hope. We would no longer speak of our demons that drove us to the crack house underbelly of Chicago. He was still making them. Addiction became all he had left.

November 15th 2014. Free of the drug demons and cocaine binges for almost eight years. Dreaming. I am thirteen years old in the house I grew up in. Searching for the cold blue lock box my father often kept money and coins from his trips abroad. As a child, I loved to explore it and steal mementos of his trips to foreign lands so mysterious to me. I would look up the counties in the bound volumes of Britannica Encyclopedia that was a staple in so many baby-boomer homes. I think he purposely left it unlocked to allow me to begin my exploration of other cultures. Once again it was unlocked. This time there were photos. Photos of Frank and myself. In my dream, I began to cry uncontrollable heart retching sobs of a little boy mourning. Mourning a loss that had not yet occurred. I awake from my dream in the middle of the sobbing.

Frank Passed away from colon cancer on June 5, 2005. He was 46 years year old. In his life, he was a father. A husband. A provider. A friend. An addict. I miss him.


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Return To Happy Valley

BrianCubanOctober 1981. A beautiful, cool, crisp, Saturday afternoon. The Penn State Nittany Lions were playing a home game against the Boston College Eagles. There would be close to eighty-five thousand people in Beaver Stadium. Penn State was having a great football year. It seemed like everyone in the dorm went. I couldn’t imagine going. I hated that feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I felt like an outsider in a big crowd. In my mind, no one would want me to join them. Why even ask. I yearned to be a part of that cheering camaraderie of Nittany Lion fans all geared out in blue and white. Being alone was easier; alone, you know no rejection. I ran alone instead. I ran.

It was an easy choice that day. Perfect weather to do the impossible. My plan was to run from University Park to Altoona, Pennsylvania. Was I nuts? Altoona was forty-three miles away! That’s eighty-six miles round-trip. I was not an ultra endurance runner. I was, however, mentally ill. Deep into an eating disorder. Both traditional and exercise bulimia. There was a rational part of my mind quietly telling me it was impossible. I also knew that whatever happened, by the time I got back, the football game would be over.

I got about seventeen miles out and could run no farther. I was surrounded in all directions by the rolling farmland of central Pennsylvania: A beautiful landscape for solitude. The silly reality of my endeavor hit me. I wasn’t going to make it. Not even close. I didn’t care. It wasn’t about achievement. It was about finding sanity in doing the insane. By the time I ran-walked-ran the seventeen miles back, the game would be over. It was dark when I got back to University Park. I walked through town. Students were still celebrating Penn State’s 38-7 win. I went to Domino’s and bought a pizza. I ate it in my dorm room with my old familiar friend, bulimia. Then down the hallway to the toilet. That was my life. There was no conversation about men and eating disorders in 1981. A year later I would add alcohol abuse to the mix. There was not much more of a conversation about drinking on college campuses.

May 1983. I got on a Greyhound Bus and left the campus of Penn State for the last time. A broken child, or should I say young adult. I was still a child in how I saw the world. I thirteen year old child who had been consistently fat shamed by his mother, bullied and physically assaulted at school over his weight. Brutally shy and self isolating because in his mind, he was not worthy of love, friendships and self-respect. Consumed with anger and blame. Not knowing that, all consuming and defining. Eating disorders and addiction are not about blame. They are diseases of the brain. All consuming loneliness with my only friends being bulimia that had developed late into my freshman year and alcohol abuse. I felt so alone with my disorders. No one else could be going through it or understand. A time when a male with an eating disorders was virtually; unheard of and certainly not discussed either privately or publicly. A time when, with very little awareness on campus, it was easy to blend in as a student abusing alcohol. As the saying went, “you were not an alcoholic until you graduated” Both self-destructive yet the only tools in my limited arsenal to change that “fat pig” in the mirror. The only avenue of acceptance even if that feeling was only for a few second or minutes of the bulimic act or of the self medication of Alcohol. A mindset that would also take me into cocaine and steroid abuse and ultimately lead to a brush with suicide before I would enter recovery. If I had seen that future in front of me as a twenty one year old senior getting on that bus on a Sunny day in May, what decisions would I have made? If had known then what I know now about the power of recovery and the ability to overcome even the darkest moments, I would night not have taken almost twenty-five years to begin that journey. If I did not feel so alone in my shame.

October 25th 2014. My first return to Penn State, also known as “Happy Valley” in 31 years. So much had changed about Penn State. So much had changed about me. Eating Disorders Programs. Eating Disorders and Addiction Peer Recovery. Doctors, counselors and students who work hard to let the new “Brian’s” know they are not alone and recovery is possible. I hardly knew the campus I was so happy to exist in 1983. I knew myself much better. I had been a long journey. The eating disorders. The drug addiction. Steroid addiction. Close to suicide, then recovery beginning in 2007. Learning to love myself. Learning to love that thirteen-year-old little boy. Learning to love that nineteen-year-old sophomore who felt totally alone on a campus of almost fifty thousand students. Recovery was not always easy. Twelve-step. Lots of therapy. Learning to love myself. I spoke to students at the HUB and then at Penn State-Hershey Medical Center about that journey.  I spoke about my recovery. I spoke to myself. I spoke to that nineteen-year-old student who felt so alone and ashamed. I had come full circle. It finally, was truly, Happy Valley. Recovery is possible.

*A special thanks to Dr. Rachel Levine of the Penn State-Hershey Eating Disorder Program and  Dr. Micaela Hayes of Penn State University Health Services for giving the opportunity to share my story.

Brian Cuban is a an author whose best-selling book “Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder” chronicles his first-hand experiences living with, and recovering from clinical depression, twenty-seven years of eating disorders and Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD),drug and alcohol addiction. Brian speaks regularly about his recovery and empowering students and adults to turn their worst moments into their greatest achievement




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CBS Promotes Addiction Awareness But At What Cost?


This week CBS News begins an addiction awareness campaign entitled “ 14 Days On The Wagon”. An awareness campaign designed to get people to stop drinking, smoking, doing drugs and refrain from other addictive behaviors for a two-week period in the hopes they will feel better, and see that there is a healthier lifestyle that awaits them. The basic premise is set out below:

“If people go through this two weeks, this 14 days on the wagon, and they have a hard time doing it, it should be a real eye opener,”

At first blush this seems great. Of course, the only way to “get sober” with regards to drinking or “clean” with drugs is to start with day one. A well-known twelve-step saying is “one day at a time” What about fourteen days at a time?

I spoke to quite a few people in the addiction community ranging from treatment providers to awareness advocates and recovering addicts to get various viewpoints on this initiative. Here were some of the comments that were part of a common consensus.

The initiative is well intended. If someone tries to stop for two weeks and fails, he or she will realize they have a problem and seek help and using the resources on the website begin to embrace a healthy, non addict lifestyle.

The initiative is misguided for the following reasons:

a. There can be severe health and psychological consequences to going cold turkey for two weeks without medical or psychological support.

b. It fails to distinguish between non-addicts who simply want to live a healthier lifestyle and can stop their behavior for two weeks with no problem and addicts who may need real, ground level support to get through a day let alone two weeks.

c. This initiative reinforces the idea that suffering from “substance abuse” is a choice, which negates the “chronic disease” that the AMA and knowledgeable Addiction Physicians and Psychiatrists” know this to be. In doing so, it risks increasing the shame and stigma associated with addiction if the addict is unable to complete the two weeks. He blames him or herself for the “choice”. An even deeper sense of hopeless may set in.

d. Failure in this “choice” can also cause family based shame and stigma. Family members can use their ability to stay sober in blaming the addict for his/her failure.

“I was able to stay sober why can’t you”

It promotes both the medical and psychological fallacy that fourteen days of sobriety will help an addict better understand addiction.

Awareness is great, but while the mechanics of addiction are the same, the stories are different. Stories that may include depression, co-addiction, childhood trauma, suicidal thoughts and so on. An attempt to stop drinking or doing drugs for two weeks will not address these issues and can even lay them bare to the world with no support other than a few videos on a website.

In the end, this campaign could have done so much more by doing so much less. It is far too over-reaching and attempts to “one size fits all” the complexity that is addiction.  It could have accomplished the same with a non-judgmental, three-day event without the “in your face” stigmatizing aspect. I really hope it helps some people. I really hope no one dies or sinks further into addiction because of it.



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