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When Seeking Treatment, A Reminder Addiction Is Not A Moral Failing


A prominent artist encountered drug addiction in his own family. He realized there was something he could do through his art, remind people of an addict's basic humanity. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on how he came together with the government's top addiction scientist.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The artist is William Stoehr. He's known for haunting faces painted with broad strokes on large canvases. Stoehr learned about stigma from his sister, who was addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers.

WILLIAM STOEHR: She said once that she was evil. Well, she's not evil, you know? She had a disease.

HAMILTON: Stoehr's sister died in 2012 from an overdose.

STOEHR: There was a bottle next to her, a bottle of vodka and the opiates. And so it was obvious and tragic.

HAMILTON: Stoehr had once coaxed his sister into rehab by offering to paint her portrait. After she died, he kept his promise. But he couldn't bring himself to title the work with his sister's real name.

STOEHR: And so I called it "Emma." And now I continue with the "Emma" because "Emma" now has become a stand-in for everyone who is a victim, witness or a survivor.

HAMILTON: Those paintings would lead Stoehr to Dr. Nora Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. Volkow says substance abuse disorder has a lot in common with diseases like Alzheimer's. Both alter the brain and a person's behavior. But she says people are less likely to judge an Alzheimer's patient who asks the same question over and over.

NORA VOLKOW: Because you understand that their brain cannot record the memory, you actually don't react emotionally and negatively to having to repeat the same thing 10 times.

HAMILTON: Volkow says it's harder to understand the behaviors associated with addiction, like lying or stealing. So it's not enough to merely educate people about the brain circuits that drive these actions.

VOLKOW: I want you to feel the significance of that, to take a stance and say, OK, I now understand why this person is acting this way. I want you to care for that person. And that's what art does.

HAMILTON: Especially William Stoehr's art.

VOLKOW: I'm a painter myself. And I was struck by the intensity of his images.

HAMILTON: When the scientist and the artist finally met, they found they had a lot in common.

STOEHR: We are coming at this problem from the same place.

HAMILTON: Both are determined to change society's view of addiction, Volkow with science, Stoehr with art. Stoehr says he wants his paintings to provoke the sort of conversations that people began having about HIV/AIDS decades ago.

STOEHR: You had writers and artists and playwrights and poets and educators - and everybody started talking about it. And so they made it OK to talk about this.

HAMILTON: Volkow and Stoehr both rely on brain science to get their message across. For a decade now, Stoehr has been studying why certain images are more likely to trigger recognition and emotion and empathy in the brain.

STOEHR: Faces with expressive eyes and then with the hands are all things that we do have special places in our brain and we're, in many cases, hard wired to respond to.

HAMILTON: Which is why he emphasizes these in his portraits. Stoehr also harnesses the brain's response to ambiguity. For example, he will paint a slightly different expression on the right side of a face than on the left side. Stoehr says the effect of that approach was especially dramatic for one woman who wrote to him to describe her experience.

STOEHR: She looked at a painting of mine and said that I knew exactly how she felt and that she wanted to die. And she said that the next day, she looked at the very same painting and saw hope in the woman's eyes. And then she said, you saved my life.

HAMILTON: That sort of emotional response is why a few months ago, Volkow invited Stoehr to speak to scientists at an NIH award ceremony.

VOLKOW: To the extent that art can make us understand and feel something in a different way, it has succeeded.

HAMILTON: And Volkow says the power of art and science together may be enough to lift the stigma from addiction.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "BLUE HOUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.