An expert on substance abuse, U-M nursing prof Carol Boyd talks to people across the social spectrum–including a few small-time drug dealers. “It’s not like I go into crack houses,” she says–but she might phone a dealer to ask, “How much is stuff selling for?”
The calls are usually brief and businesslike. But once, things got personal. A relative owned up to a pain pill addiction–and Boyd realized that she knew his dealer. She called the dealer and screamed, “Don’t you ever sell to him again! If you do, I swear I’ll report you!”
The next day, the dealer called to report that the relative had returned–but left empty-handed.
Her U-M colleagues and students praise Boyd’s warmth and approachability. “She is very supportive of junior faculty,” says assistant prof Quyen Epstein-Ngo, a former grad student of Boyd’s. Senior academics are not always so “kind and generous,” Epstein-Ngo says, “especially when they are as successful as Carol is.”
But Boyd, sixty-four, also has a feisty side. As a U-M student in the early 1970s, she joined the ranks of young radicals, championing civil rights and feminism, marching against the Vietnam War, and–on one occasion–joining a sit-in at the office of president Robben Fleming. A quarter-century later, in 1996, Fleming humorously recalled that episode while introducing Boyd as the winner of the university’s top teaching award, the Golden Apple.
Boyd’s interest in nursing was spurred when she volunteered at Ann Arbor’s short-lived Free People’s Clinic. She followed her U-M general studies degree with a bachelor’s in nursing from Oakland University and went to work as a hospital nurse. But she’d had glaucoma since birth, and after she tore a retina playing touch football, a prescription error caused her right eye to swell, slowly destroying her sight. Six years later, she had to have the eye surgically removed. “Scared, lonely, and learning to cope with a new face,” she decided to leave hands-on nursing for grad school. She later underwent reconstructive surgery. Today, stylish glasses and a way of holding her head mask the artificial eye.
At Wayne State, Boyd earned a master’s and then, unusually, a joint PhD in nursing and anthropology. One of the first researchers to interview women using crack cocaine, she learned that most had been drawn into the drug world through boyfriends or husbands (men, in contrast, were seldom introduced to drugs by girlfriends). She also realized the era’s confrontational drug abuse treatment strategies were wrong for female addicts.
Essentially, recalls Boyd, counselors “would give them a hate speech. You would ‘tear them down’ [until] they had no defenses. Then you would ‘build them up.’
“The last thing a woman needed was to be torn down by men!” Boyd exclaims. Instead, she concluded, female addicts needed encouragement. Her findings were influential in encouraging more humane treatment programs.
Raised in the affluent Detroit suburb of Pleasant Ridge, Boyd has since childhood pulled for the underdog. Her dad was an ad man (he helped create the popular Seventies ad campaign “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet”), her mom, a housewife; both were progressive and inclusive. She remembers her mother insisting she invite every girl in her class to her birthday party. When she was ten, that meant including an unpopular girl with hearing problems.
When Boyd reluctantly invited the girl, she cried because “she had never been invited to a birthday party before,” Boyd says. “I walked home crying.”
In 1970, the summer after she graduated from Ferndale High, a classmate died from a drug overdose. Another never recovered his mental balance after tripping at the Goose Lake music festival. Realizing that “drugs could really screw me up,” Boyd only “nibbled at the edges” of the era’s drug culture.
In 1983 she married Conrad Stack, a custom woodworker. Their two sons are now grown, and she and her husband live in her grandmother’s former house on the same Pleasant Ridge street where she grew up. (She commutes by car unless a blizzard threatens, when she catches a train that leaves Royal Oak at 6 a.m.)
Her U-M research cuts across disciplines; she holds appointments in nursing, women’s studies, and psychiatry. She has taught classes on medical and psychological factors relating to reproductive choices and childbirth, and assisted in studies of “maternity waiting homes” in Liberia that improved survival of both mothers and newborns.
But at heart, says Boyd, “I really am a substance abuse researcher–that’s where I hang my hat.” While the symptoms of addiction haven’t changed, the drugs people abuse have. “I study the people caught in any given drug cycle–Ts and blues [the opioid Talwin and the antihistamine pyribenzamine], heroin, crack, campus drinking, and pills.”
The current in-vogue drug at U-M is Adderall. It’s a stimulant usually prescribed for ADHD, but students think it boosts mental performance. “They know exactly what to say to a physician” to get a prescription. So many turn to it during exam times, she says, that “around finals, you can see the price go up.”
Tonda Hughes, a University of Illinois prof who’s collaborated with her, says one of Boyd’s most important contributions was “her work in the early 2000s regarding prescription drug abuse, particularly opioid abuse.” By distinguishing between users who self-medicate to treat pain and thrill-seekers, “Carol was the first to articulate that motivations matter with prescription drug abuse,” Hughes emails–an insight “that has helped shape the field in important ways.”
Boyd says that physicians and dentists are exercising more caution in writing prescriptions, but she is frustrated by the shortage of available and affordable treatment. Though she’s a professor, not a treatment specialist, about once a month she gets a call from an addict–or an addict’s anguished family member–seeking help.
“If you think about it, their calling me tells you how little people know what to do when someone you love is in trouble,” she says. “It’s stigmatized. People don’t go on Angie’s List and say ‘I had a really good experience at the Betty Ford Center.'”
Boyd doesn’t mind sharing the names of places she respects, including Dawn Farm. And she doesn’t judge. As she notes in an email, “No one starts using drugs to become addicted.”