Dramatic reading spurs discussion of addiction at psychiatric conference in Philly

    It’s usually Powerpoint slides, statistics and pie charts at professional conferences — but those attending the American Psychiatric Association’s national conference in Philadelphia were treated to a star-studded performance Tuesday: a dramatic reading exploring issues around addiction.

    “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” written in 1941, draws on playwright Eugene O’Neill’s personal and family history of addiction. The play delves deep into the explosive dynamics of substance abuse.

    Actors Dianne Wiest of “In Treatment” and Dan Butler, who played Bulldog in the TV series “Frasier,” read the parts of Mary and James Tyrone. In the play, James is an alcoholic, and Mary is a morphine addict.

    In one scene the actors read Tuesday, Mary accuses James of turning her children into alcoholics. She recalls a life moving from one hotel room to the next, waiting for her husband to return from the bars. James screams at Mary for abusing “poison” and always blaming everyone but herself.

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    The characters alter rapidly between accusations, professions of love and feelings of guilt — in a way that is sure to stir up emotions in those attending, says University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist and addiction expert Charles O’Brien.

    “Everyone in the audience will have something that hits home to their personal experience when they see this play,” he said.

    O’Brien served as a panelist in the discussion after the play. Psychiatrists in the audience shared their own family experiences of addiction, and discussed how they can better help their clients.

    The “Addiction Performance Project,” funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, started last year as a traveling performance to spark informal town-hall style conversations about this issue, which touches millions of Americans every year.

    O’Brien says the performance along with the discussion can help clear up misconceptions about addiction.

    “Most people still believe that if you get the drugs out of people’s bodies, you have cured their addiction,” he says. “That is barely a beginning. The real addiction is in the brain.”

    Audience members said that having these discussions could reduce the stigma around addiction, which prevents many people from seeking help.

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