A Personal Story of Sorrow and Hope: The Jacob P. Waletzky Award

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A picture of Jacob P. Waletzky.

Photo courtesy of the Waletzky family.

Every year since 2003, NIDA has honored a young career scientist with the Society for Neuroscience Jacob P. Waletzky Memorial Award for Innovative Research in Drug Addiction and Alcoholism. This award would not be possible without the generosity of the Waletzky family, who, in memory of their son Jacob, wanted to recognize research contributions in this area. We have asked his father, Dr. Jeremy Waletzky, to share some thoughts about their family’s experience with the disease of addiction.

My son Jacob, age 29, graduated from Yale, and at Columbia University he finished his Master of Fine Arts in writing fiction (stories and novels). Jacob won a literary prize for his work. Ironically, the prize was established to honor the memory of a former student who died from a heroin overdose. I remember telling Jacob, “You better not follow in his footsteps!”

Jacob had everything going for him. But for more than five years, he was plagued by a speedball (cocaine and heroin) addiction.

Jacob completed a four-week inpatient program at Hazelden Addiction Center and was drug-free for five months. He was proud of his sobriety.

That all ended May 20, 2001—the worst day of my life. A call from Jacob's girlfriend: “Dr. Waletzky, I've got some horrible news. Jacob is dead.” I heard myself saying, “Maybe he's just asleep and he’ll wake up.” She said, “No, he's dead. I'm waiting for the medical examiner.”

I got on the next plane to New York, and when I arrived, Jacob was lying on the floor of his apartment covered by an old blanket. I didn't lift it. I didn't want to see his dead face.

The night before the memorial service, 30 of Jacob's friends were invited to attend a dinner we hosted. That evening, seven friends claimed him as their best friend. More than 400 people attended his service.

Jacob's mother and I wanted to do something positive to commemorate his life. I knew that if there had been a treatment that worked, Jacob would have used it. He’d had several treatments that helped some—but he was still dead.

I’m a psychiatrist and an expert in using medication for people who are depressed or anxious. I think we might improve treatment for drug abuse with neuroscience: the scientific study of nerves, and especially how nerves affect learning and behavior.

We decided to establish an award in Jacob's name, in hopes it would make more people aware of addiction research. In 2003, the Society for Neuroscience began to give out the award every year to a young scientist who has already made important discoveries that improve our understanding of drug addiction.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, has invited the award winner to speak at the Society of Neuroscience each year. When she introduces the winner, Nora shows Jacob’s photograph to the audience on big screens. I always start to cry.

In a dream one night, Jacob appeared to me and said everything would be all right. As time has passed, I can focus less on the day he died and celebrate his birthday instead. I know that the award has helped me accept his death, because something useful has come from the tragic end to his life.

Get more information on the Jacob P. Waletzky Award from the Society for Neuroscience website.

Learn how to talk with your parents (or another adult you trust) about drug use.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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