The Opioid Epidemic and White Collar America

Two financial services veterans discuss the impact of substances on Wall Street.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

The opioid epidemic is largely associated with blue-collar, middle America. One might think of laid-off coal miners, still suffering from years of hard labor, who became unwittingly addicted through the overprescribing of opioids by physicians. This association has been bemoaned by some scholars, who posit that no less important groups of Americans are being forgotten in the push for treatment, especially African Americans (see Netherland & Hansen, 2016) and other minority groups, such as Native Americans (see Associated Press, 2018; Shihipar, 2019) [1]. It may be surprising to learn, however, that opioids have ravaged bankers, financiers, and other white-collar workers. In short, rather than being limited to blue-collar America, the opioid addiction has had a grave impact on some of the most successful and seemingly well-off Americans.

In a previous post on this blog, we covered substance use in corporate America and what can be done. In this article, we zoom in on Wall Street and stories from two individuals. We start with Todd Hollander, who was a highly successful options trader when he first took a Percocet—offered to him on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange—and this relatively banal moment led to a significant grappling with addiction and addiction stigma.

Fletcher6 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Fletcher6 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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After I took that first Percocet I went home and found a bottle of Vicodin that had been in my medicine chest for years from a previous surgery.  I proceeded to finish the bottle. I enquired on the exchange if I could find more Percocets. To my surprise, it took no time to have a constant supply. I was soon addicted. 

My world contracted. There was work and home—and there were pills. Beyond this, not much. For two years, this was my world. I took pills to get out of bed, pills to make it through the day, and pills to get me to sleep.

In the summer of 2002, however, I felt that I couldn’t go on like this. I had heard about Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut, and I decided to give it a try. The decision was life-changing. At recovery, I cleaned up, and I started to develop the skills that would enable me to stay clean when I left the hospital. I also started a process of growing. While before my world was small and stagnant, now my world was expanding and changing. I was open to growth, even if it would be painful and even if the ultimate outcome was unknown. 

Without a doubt, the community was a key part of my journey. My company on Wall Street was extremely supportive. I told them the truth, and they were with me the entire way, truly wanting me to get well again. In addition to developing a robust sober community, I also became active in helping others who struggled with substance use disorders. I joined the board of Silver Hill Hospital, I was a founding member of an addiction group (Facing Addiction), and I am still sharing my story today, hoping that others will find encouragement in my journey.

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Trey Laird, a former Wall Street Trader who is now the CEO of The Lighthouse Sober Living Recovery 365, told us the following:

I was an athlete in high school and, while I did drink then, it was with teammates and it was never the focus. In college, however, I stopped playing varsity sports after my freshman year and that’s when I focused more time and energy on drinking. Drugs soon followed. This continued into my first job on Wall Street, where drinking was not only accepted but an ingrained part of the culture. We went to bars every night.

The first time I suspected I had a problem was when I was 25 years old. I woke up too hungover and too sick from drinking to go into work. Substances had gotten in front of my career ambitions, and this surprised me. 

In December of 2002, I had emergency surgery to remove my appendix. I had a four-day hospital recovery, and I spent the entire time in an opioid haze. It was the first time I had ever had opioid pain medication, and I loved how it made me feel. The attending physicians gave me virtually as many pills as I asked for. They also sent me home with 90 pills and a refill for more. Two weeks later, when I was still taking multiple pills a day, even though I was no longer in pain, my thought was, “What’s the harm in this?”

INeverCry - Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons
Source: INeverCry - Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

By 2007, I was taking 40-50 pills per day, and I had to take them just to prevent myself from going into withdrawal. When I looked around, I saw that my marriage was crumbling, I was not there for my children, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to live. I remember having a recurring vision of my daughter, Brooke, as a young woman telling her friends how her father had died at a young age. That vision was what ultimately got me to seek help.

I went to rehab, where they told me, “Easy diagnosis. You have the disease of addiction. There is no cure. You will have this for the rest of your life. The good news is that for someone in your condition, you couldn’t be in a better place. We know how to treat you; we’ve been treating people like you for over 80 years. But remember, we will not cure you. Nobody will.”  

The next 90 days represent the most transformative period of my life. I learned about the disease and how to care for it. I learned that it is all about connecting with others like myself and sharing our stories. The shame that I carried was lessened tremendously by hearing others’ stories and sharing my own. I realized that I wasn’t alone.

At the same time, it was the financial crisis of 2008. Each day, I woke up unsure if I even had a job, as major banks were literally going out of business. My wife filed for divorce. I didn’t have a lot of contact with my children. 

But I made it through this period sober because of all the support I received from the people at rehab and in my sober group meetings. They were always there for me. They never said no. They were happy to get a coffee or a burger and listen without judgment.

Today I can say that I am grateful that I became addicted to opioid pain meds. If that hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t have the life I have today, which is better and filled with more meaningful relationships than I ever could have imagined. I believe that as long as I stay connected to others in recovery, I’m in good shape.

References

[1] This topic—the intersection of race and substance use—will be addressed in a future post.

Associated Press. (March 14, 2018). Native American overdose deaths surge since opioid epidemic. Associated Press. Retrieved from https://www.apnews.com/

Netherland, J., & Hansen, H. B. (2016). The war on drugs that wasn’t: Wasted whiteness, “dirty doctors,” and race in media coverage of prescription opioid misuse. Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, 40, 664–686.

Shihipar, A. (2019). The opioid crisis isn’t white. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/