The first time I saw William Glasser in person was at a school improvement conference in Vancouver, Washington, in, as I recall, the fall of 1994. The Evergreen School District, just up the road from where I was school principal in Salem, Oregon, had sponsored the event and invited area-wide teachers to attend. I felt the $100 fee for the two-day event was a bargain and paid for all of my teachers to join me in checking Glasser out in person.
It turned out to be an important event for us as a staff, since the conference contributed to our understanding of control theory (it didn’t become choice theory until two years later) and ultimately toward our taking tangible steps toward becoming a quality school. Besides attending Glasser’s keynote lectures I was also able to attend Diane Gossen’s two-day workshop on Restitution, which became a life-changing set of beliefs for me as a school administrator. I wouldn’t learn until mid-1999 that Glasser would eventually have a problem with Restitution, nor could I have imagined that I would soon become involved with doing research on the formation of Glasser’s beliefs and with becoming his biographer. But I digresss . . .
As I read a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, I was reminded of one of those keynote lectures that Glasser gave over 20 years ago in Vancouver. Sticking to his classic presentation format – a chair or stool, a microphone, and a table with a pitcher of water and a glass on it – Glasser had the audience fully attending to what he was saying. Always able to connect with educators in a special way, he was speaking their language and touching on themes they wanted to know more about. At one point he began talking about the need for school campuses to be drug-free, a belief that his audience seemed to share. As he continued talking on this topic, though, it became clear that he wasn’t just talking about illegal drugs like marijuana, but was in fact also talking about prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. I can still see in my memory banks the row of eight or nine Special Education specialists that took him to task for the position he was taking on brain drugs. They felt such drugs were essential to the successful life of the children with whom they worked. I can also recall the way in which he gently, but firmly, didn’t back down.
The article in the New York Times Magazine is titled Generation Adderall and is an important read that has been written from a personal perspective. Although brutally honest, the article isn’t preachy. That not being preachy part is an important element that needs to be present for me to be able to recommend it to you. Click on the picture below to access the article.
Stories have a special appeal, and the article’s author, Casey Schwartz, is simply telling her story. It is true that with her addiction to Adderall she became a data point in what has become a sea of them in this country. Whether having to do with the percentage of children on brain drugs (I’ve read that something over 20% of 4th and 5th grade boys are now on a brain drug in the US) or the percentage of adults now addicted to pain medications, the numbers are staggering. Casey’s story, though, plus many other articles I am now seeing on a regular basis, calls into question society’s headlong rush toward pills as a solution.
Looking back on my time in the Evergreen School District amphitheater as Glasser patiently called into question a school’s support for brain drugs, I see now that he wanted to prevent the Casey’s of the world from having a difficult Adderall story to share in the first place. Addiction traps us, and even enslaves us. Choice theory is about freedom – freedom from dependence on things like drugs, whether licit or illicit, in our search to be happy and at peace.
addiction is about the spirit’s imprisonment in the flesh
Glasser said a lot that is easy to understand and readily accept. We sometimes forget, though, that he said a number of powerful statements that clearly swim against public opinion. He believed and wrote, for instance, that mental illness, as defined by his field, does not exist. He believed that although desperate to do so, neither psychiatry nor the drug companies had proven a biological connection to symptomatic psychological behavior. And he believed that brain drugs, while capable of affecting the creativity of the brain, did not address such symptoms in a helpful way.
Taking on psychiatry and the drug companies was not his key goal, although he wouldn’t back down when challenged in these areas. I viewed him as much more focused on the good fight of mental health, rather than on the bad fight of mental illness. He wrote more strongly about brain drugs and the drug companies in his 2003 book, Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health. I dedicated a chapter of his biography to the themes he covered in Warning and I would encourage you to re-read the chapter for a good re-fresher.
It isn’t often that I write about brain drugs (I’m not an expert), but when I do I want to capture the spirit in which Glasser spoke about them. That being there was no part of him that wanted to criticize someone for taking a brain drug; instead, he wanted to encourage a person with the possibility that they were not biologically diseased, and that they didn’t require help from a drug. He wanted them to consider that their symptoms just might be the result of months or years of deep unhappiness, and that choice theory could teach them how to be happier and more satisfied with their lives.
I ended the Warning chapter in the biography with the following –
During our interviews a couple of years after the Warning book was published, when he was already on to the next project, the idea that mental health was a public health issue rather than a medical problem, I asked him about his “moving on” from the emphasis in the book. The Warning title seemed to sound the battle cry for a full-on, prolonged assault on the psychopharmacology system, yet apparently he had discovered significance in another approach. Thinking out loud to me, almost in a tone that suggested let’s move on, he explained, “I’m damning psychiatry as much as I’m gonna damn it. I’m saying they diagnose diseases that don’t exist, they give drugs that can harm you, and they tell you that you can’t help yourself. That’s about as good as I can do.”
Ultimately, Casey Schwartz discovered she could help herself. This is the preventive foundation I want teachers and schools to be a part of sharing with students. For me, the idea that people can learn to psychologically help themselves is one of Glasser’s most important contributions.