Wide Awake: A Chat With Cameron
An unexpected lesson in holding on

A few months ago, I received an email asking me if I would interview Cameron Douglas (virtually) for a night of Katz JCC’s book festival. I didn’t know who that was, so I googled. I sent back: Whoa. Yes! Cameron is the son of Michael, grandson of Kirk. I remembered hearing that he had a drug problem and had been sent to prison. I started reading his book to prepare for the interview, but I have to admit, my biggest interest was finding out what it was like being Michael Douglas’ son.

The first part of his book “Long Way Home” describes his childhood and struggles with addiction. The second details – and I mean, details – his time in prison. Both were shocking, and both taught me things I didn’t know. I quickly realized the book was more about social justice and less about growing up with the guy who played Gordon Gekko.

So a side note here (this isn’t the social justice part) – I was disappointed to read how Michael Douglas wasn’t such a great father, which he admits. Often in the book, and in our conversation, Cameron would excuse his dad for things he did and talk about how he felt great love for him. I’m glad he feels that way, because he’s talking about his dad. But for me, the reader and movie goer…it’s clear Michael Douglas isn’t a great guy.

Of course, my opinion of Michael Douglas doesn’t matter at all. But the other parts of the book, that’s where opinions and awareness and actions do matter, especially when it comes to the section on prison.

Cameron spent 7+ years in jail. He was arrested when he was 29 and was released when he was 36. He started doing drugs when he was 12. So at the time of his arrest, he had been fighting addiction for decades. I think it’s reasonable to say his crimes were the result of his addiction, yet he wasn’t given help for his long-term disease. Instead, he was put into a system where no one receives help – at all.

Cameron says drugs were easily and always available to him in prison, so he took heroin for much of his time there. He explains the workings of gangs inside prison, and how he watched young men come in who had no choice but to join a gang. He said the prison system was a breeding ground for domestic terrorists. It was pretty alarming how he could back up that statement.

He spent 2 years in solitary confinement, where, oddly enough, you share a cell with someone else. But you don’t go outside, you don’t interact with other inmates. I don’t know how you survive that, especially for 2 years. One of the most puzzling aspects described in the book was a judge ordering that no one could visit Cameron for those same 2 years he was in solitary confinement. I couldn’t get over thinking how detrimental it must be to a person’s spirit to be rock bottom and not able to see the only people who think you’re still worth something.

But here’s the thing, Cameron’s book suddenly takes an incredible turn. You’re reading page after page of these horrible blows that just keep knocking him down, culminating in a judge doubling his original sentence from 5 years to 10, and then this son of Michael Douglas wakes up and decides he’s the only one who can change his life. He makes a plan. Every day, he’s going to meditate, work out, write in his journal and read. He starts writing poetry. He reads 3 books at a time: a self-help book, fiction and a classic. And, he stops the heroin.

He sticks to that plan for 2 full years while in prison. And everything changes. When he and I spoke, he was in L.A. where he has started a new life with his partner and 3-year-old daughter. I asked him how anyone could find the discipline to stick to a self-help routine while in solitary confinement. And, most of all, how do you kick a heroin addiction there?

He said it was difficult, but he talked about the power of the mind, and the possibility that things can always get better. It’s a reminder of something we all know, but maybe the end of 2020 is a good time to get that message again. I had a conversation with a man who had experienced a lifetime of trauma, but there he was, sitting in his California home with his daughter, who was dressed in a sunflower costume, sitting on his lap.

Better days can come. Here’s to 2021.

December 2020
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