Childhood lessons driving force for alcohol researcher
Sometimes you just can't escape your fate.
For MUSC substance abuse expert Dr. Raymond Anton, it began at the tender age of 12, when he first started helping out around his father's liquor store in northeastern New Jersey. Standing behind the cash register at the front of the store, Anton saw firsthand how alcohol affected people differently.
"I didn't think much about it at the time," Anton says, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back in his chair. "But it became clear that there were people you saw quite often and people you would see hardly at all. The people that you saw quite often usually looked more disheveled and not as well-nourished. It was around this time I said to myself, 'These people are different.' "
And fate dug its claws in a little deeper.
To say his choice of careers is somewhat ironic is an understatement. Son of a liquor store owner goes into medicine so that he can help those battling the demons of alcoholism. Unbelievably ironic, is more like it. But it gets better.
In the late 1920s, Anton's grandfather, an Italian immigrant who parlayed his hard work and energy into his own canning factory, fell in with the wrong crowd. Around the time Prohibition was in full effect, he was recruited by the New Jersey Mafia to use his business as a front for canning and distributing booze to customers who didn't necessarily agree with Uncle Sam's stance on drinking.
"I remember my dad telling me stories about how his father would round everybody up on the weekend to 'go for a drive,' " Anton recalls, his blue eyes fixed on some point far off in the distance. "He'd hide the bootlegged alcohol, which was in olive oil cans, under the seat and take everybody out with him to make deliveries."
So for nearly 50 years, Anton's family, both legally and illegally, provided people with alcohol. It's something that weighed on the New Jersey native when he eventually decided what he wanted to do for a living.
"It did cross my mind that maybe alcohol research was something I could do to pay back anything my father and grandfather might have done," Anton says. "Not that they consciously did anything to anybody, but it just so happened they were suppliers of a substance that probably caused havoc in a number of people's lives."
Today, as the director of the Medical University of South Carolina Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs (among other responsibilities), Anton works on a daily basis with professors, doctors and researchers in the hopes of helping alcoholics live more normal lives. He advocates things such as counseling as well as prescription drugs -- somewhat of a hot-button topic in the field.
"I'm one of the people who feel that there is a role for medications in treating alcohol dependency. I wouldn't say that it's the only way to treat it," Anton says. "But a lot of people don't think that there is a place for medications ... and that's the other extreme."
Anton uses diabetes as an analogy. If medication helps someone with diabetes, he says, there's no reason why the same methods shouldn't be applied to alcoholism.
"Sometimes you need to have medication to fix biological abnormalities. And if it works, why not utilize it? Ultimately, they can give you a fighting chance to help yourself."
Though he spends less time with patients these days and more time attending seminars and reading scores of medical journals, Anton still feels just as connected to his job and family. He's a proud man. Proud of his father. Proud of his grandfather. And maybe not so surprisingly, his father is proud of him, too.
"He probably would have liked me to be a surgeon," Anton jokes about his father, "because he said, 'Surgeons really do something.' But then he became proud of the fact that I was working on a potential cure for alcoholism. In fact, he's 92, and every week he asks me, 'Have you found any cure yet?' "
Reach Bryce Donovan at 937-5938 or firstname.lastname@example.org.