Dr. Leon Wurmser, a University of Maryland psychiatry professor widely noted for his work with drug addicts and alcoholics, is neither young nor "hip," and appears to have virtually no "street sense."
The white-haired Wurmer, who was born in Switzerland, looks older than his 49 years. His suit is rumpled and ill fitting, but his courtly manner reflects his European education. He regularly quotes from Greek and Hebrew literature, from writers and philosophers such as Ibsen and Spinoza.
Wurmser boasts no special methods or magic cures.
He has succeeded with chromic drug users and alcoholics -- patients traditionally avoided by the psychiatric profession -- where others have failed, by simple, dogged adherence to the best principles of classical psychoanalysis, say his colleagues.
"Many approaches are extremely well meaning," said Dr. Stefan de Schill, director of the American Mental Health Foundation, a national research organization established in 1924. "But Dr. Wurmser's tend to go deeper to explore the causes of why a man may become an addict or an alcoholic. dBy going deeper you can make treatment more effective."
Wurmser, who heads the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, was honored recently by the foundation with an award for "pioneering excellence and achievement," an honor bestowed only once before in 50 years.
De Schill said the foundation gives the award only for work that is both theoretical and applied, and that previously has gone unrecognized.
Wurmser said he has been successful with compulsive drug users because, "I am somewhat more persevering and interested than some" psychiatrists, who often are "frightened of this type of patient."
Drug users and alcoholics become skilled at "turning the tables," Wurmser said. They are able to provoke in others the helplessness, powerlessness, shame and guilt they feel themselves. They show contempt and ridicule for the therapist and "contempt is one of the most difficult things to take," Wurmser said. "There have not been many (therapists) willing to take it for so long."
Once a psychoanalyst understands this behavior, however, Wurmser said, "You are much less likely to be angry at (patients) and can work with them."
Wurmser doesn't stop with psychoanalysis for his patients. Those under his care are encouraged to participate in other programs such as family therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous or even hospital treatment. Traditional analytic treatment discourages patients from participating in other forms of care while being analyzed.
One criticism of this approach argues that only patients with intelligence and introspection are good subjects for psychoanalysis.
"Some say I restrict my insight to this type of patient," he admitted. But he argues that treatment of any disorder should not be affected by intelligence.
"Drugs are a form of self treatment," Wurmser said. "They are not the problem."
Drug users and alcoholics have deepseated problems which prompt them to seek relief in some way, he said, adding that he believes most attempts to deal with drug problems have not been effective.
"I do not think that the almost exclusive use of law enforcement to deal with this is rational," he said. The recent spate of laws banning sales of drug paraphernalia "is just barking up the wrong tree. It is irrelevant," he said.
"It's not (all) young people who are seduced" . . . into drug use by attractive equipment. "By and large it's young people who are already in trouble who get involved."
"Drug users should not be treated as criminals," he said, but as sick people who need medical treatment. He said his research has shown that more than 50 percent of drug users were physically abused as children.
Yet alcohol, which is legal, is far more dangerous than mind altering drugs because it actually acts on brain tissue while drugs do not, he said.
"Given a choice between addiction to alcohol and addiction to narotics, I would, without batting an eyelash, choose narcotics," he said.
Born is Switzerland, Wurmser grew up five miles from the German border and lived in constant fear the Nazis would invade. Frightening childhood experiences made him determine early to become a psychoanalyst.
He completed his education in Europe and came to the United States in 1962 for further training. When he sought an additional job to help support his family, he found work at night in a drug treatment program.
"What had really been at best a side interest and a moonlighting job quickly turned into a primary expertise, not because I knew much, but only because nearly no one else had dealt with these patients with any consistency and sustained psychoanalytic interest," he said.
Wurmer is considered the consummate scholar by colleagues who say that when attending conventions and meetings he would rather stay in his hotel room and read than go out to dinner.
He speaks German, English, French and Hebrew, and reads Latin, ancient Greek, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Aramaic, Yiddish and Dutch. He has a passion for literature and once taught it to first-year medical students to help "humanize the next generation of physicians."
"The Greeks are just absolutely invaluable," he said. "Their psychological insight is absolutely phenomenal, just like Shakespeare."
For recreation he climbs mountains (the Rockies and the Alps) with his three sons who, he said, are "just very good friends of mine," and to whom he has taught Greek, Latin and German.
He is a prolific writer and a list of his published books, monographs, book reviews and articles consumes nearly 18 pages in his resume.
"He's almost from another age," marveled colleague Dr. Alan D. Zients, an official with the D.C. Department of Human Resources. "He is a true European scholar. We don't have many of them in this country. We're too busy having fun."