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Feature:
Preventing Drug Abuse and Addiction

Actress Debra Winger: “Everyone Is Touched By Addiction.”

Debra Winger and NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow

Actress Debra Winger (left) and Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), discuss the actress’s participation in the NIDA-sponsored Addiction Performance Project. The educational project seeks to help healthcare providers understand and better treat patients who have addictions or are in danger of developing them.
Photo: NIDA

Long acknowledged as one of Hollywood’s finest actresses, three-time Academy Award nominee Debra Winger recently appeared at the National Institutes of Health in a dramatic reading of Act III of Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s gripping 1941 play of family alcohol and drug addiction. It was part of the Addiction Performance Project, developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to help healthcare providers remove the stigma associated with addiction and promote a healthy dialogue that fosters compassion, cooperation, and understanding for patients living with the disease of addiction.

Why are you participating in the Addiction Performance Program?

Ms. Winger: I was in high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Everybody came in contact with somebody whose recreational use turned into something else. And we didn’t know what that was, really. But you knew that some people were different.

I never intended to be an actress. In fact, I was a sociology major and wanted to go into criminal rehabilitation counseling. And one of the most interesting questions of that for me was, “How did they get there?” I learned that 80 percent of the guys on death row were without their mother’s presence as kids. You start to understand how drugs and alcohol just … it’s almost like not even a question because it’s part of the picture.

Drug and alcohol use has become part of the fabric of American life. My connection is partly from my family experience and a little bit from the world at large. Everyone is touched by addiction in one way or another.

Debra Winger and other “Addiction Performance Project” actors

Debra Winger, second from right, takes part in a recent Addiction Performance Project held at the National Institutes of Health. With her are other actors who worked together to dramatize a scene that revealed to the audience of primary care doctors the human face of addiction.
Photo: NIDA

How do you mean?

Ms. Winger: Because we assume addiction is woven into our everyday tapestry, we address it as a medical problem. But it is more than that. I had a fellowship at Harvard with Dr. Robert Coles, a world-renowned child psychiatrist, who created a wonderful course called “The Literature of Social Reflection” for undergrads just going into pre-med and areas of psychiatric care. He gave them literature, most times written by doctors, for example, William Carlos Williams. The purpose was to absorb the emotion, of someone dying; for example, Ivan Ilyich, in Tolstoy’s famous The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

You mean using the power of drama to get the emotion?

Ms. Winger: Yes. Let’s talk about what’s going on around him and the family. Basically, this is what we’re trying to do here, bring humanism back into medicine.

Who is your audience?

Ms. Winger: The Addiction Performance Project is for healthcare professionals and scientists, who often are not given the training to help with the things that happen to a person after the medical problem is diagnosed.

What is the message to them?

Ms. Winger: My goddaughter suffered from cystic fibrosis, which is a chronic disease. She spent a lot of time at the hospital, and I spent a lot of time with her. And I watched residents, interns, and then doctors; they can’t take it in all the way because they would be trashed inside of five years. But when someone’s in your office, include yourself in the conversation. It’s going to help you bring yourself to the room.

The message is, listen carefully. There are two people in the room, you and the patient, so listen carefully. The healthcare professional must be ready for the full picture: what family life is like, the level of education, money issues; everything needs to be considered.

And what should patients hear?

Ms. Winger: Get ready. Be ready for your appointment. The patient has the responsibility to bring his or her one-in-the-morning fears to the 3 p.m. appointment. Often when we go to the doctor, we’ve had this and that happen. Our body doesn’t hurt so much, and maybe we have already taken an aspirin.

But don’t think that just because you feel okay right now you are. We have a tendency to discount what we were feeling as “just nerves”—and then ask for sleeping pills.

How do you feel about your role in the Addiction Performance Project?

Ms. Winger: It’s an ongoing process of staying awake in my chosen profession, staying awake as a human being. I’m a mother, and although my parents are gone and I’m no longer a daughter, I’m a member of a family in all its different aspects. So I’m just trying to stay busy and involved.

Fall 2011 Issue: Volume 6 Number 3 Page 16-17