New York Yankees baseball legend Mickey Mantle was my boyhood hero. I collected all of his baseball cards and memorized every statistic about his performance. I couldn’t wait for my Uncle Tony to finish reading the Sporting News so I could cut out articles about the greatest baseball player of my generation, which I then carefully stored in a shoebox beneath my bed.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that my boyhood idol was an alcoholic who began drinking at age 20 after the death of his father from Hodgkin’s disease. “I was devastated, and that’s when I started drinking. I guess alcohol helped me escape the pain of losing him” wrote Mick in his 1994 Sports Illustrated article describing his 42 years of alcoholism. He lived an unhappy life, overwhelmed with depression, anxiety, family turmoil, and emotionally abusive behavior to the people around him.
I don’t cry very often, but I became teary eyed when I recently watched an HBO special about the Mick. The real tragedy of his life was that his extraordinary athletic gifts were wasted by his alcohol abuse. He entered into treatment in the later years of his life, and I’m guessing he uttered some of the saddest words you contemplate as you enter old age, “I wonder what might have been…”
Mick’s alcohol dependency is unfortunately too common a story. I won’t bore you with statistics about the seriousness of this problem, as I guess it has touched most of our lives. The Department of Justice has identified substance abuse as the nation’s number one health problem.
With that backdrop, I couldn’t help but be repulsed by the media articles proclaiming that “smokers celebrate as Washington legalizes marijuana.” Parents shouldn’t be rejoicing. They should be terrified that yet another mind altering drug is becoming readily available to our kids.
Research published by the National Institutes of Health indicates that marijuana use is now more common than cigarette smoking among our twelfth grade students, with 21 percent of our seniors having smoked pot in the past 30 days.
Please don’t bother sending me emails asserting that marijuana is safe and that its casual use is no different from alcohol. I hear that enough from “experts” in pharmacology, my adolescent clients. Perhaps many people can use alcohol and even marijuana “responsibly,” selectively altering their moods while living a healthy and meaningful life.
However, I wonder about all those other people who become so easily dependent upon drugs to change their feelings. I’m mostly worried about our kids, who have to learn ways to feel good, deal with depression, overcome rejection, and get through the day without using chemicals.
And every now and then, I think about the Mick, and wonder what might have been.