The Spiritual Heroes of 12 Step Recovery
As a thirty-year veteran, I’ve witnessed the phenomenal emergence, growth, and now the seeming demise of the field of chemical dependency treatment. William White’s insightful book, Betraying the Dragon is mandatory reading for any and all whose lives have been touched by addiction and healed through the pioneering efforts of the many unsung heroes who’ve gone before us and carved out the unique field of addiction treatment that many of you reading this may have come to know and love. That field is now all but destroyed; the victim of its own adolescent arrogance and pride along with the ever recurring ignorance and denial that our country continues to foster when it comes to not dealing with its own alcohol and drug problems.
Readers of White’s book will come to understand that treatment emerges and then recedes in recurring cycles throughout America’s history. The tide level of treatment is driven by not by the moon but by how American society views addiction i.e. whether it sees addiction as a problem of individual moral weakness where addicts should be put to shame, a criminal problem where they should be locked up, or a public health issue where they are offered treatment. The recent multi-billion dollar ad campaign by the federal government linking drug addicts to support of international terrorism should serve as a signal to all of us that the deluded believers of moral self-righteousness are firmly in control in Washington. It’s only when the cost of prisons become economically prohibitive as they have in California and as they are approaching in Texas, and its only when more and more of the children of our state and national leaders fall victim to this illness, and when minorities wake up to face the discrimination that is again being inflicted on them in the name of justice that treatment will again, some day, perhaps in the not too distant future, be looked at again as a viable alternative. Then treatment will be reinvented as it has all throughout our history. And when that happens, how we put the pieces back together will depend on whether or not we’ve learned any of the lessons our past has to teach us. As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Nowhere does his statement seem more prophetic and the consequences of not heeding it more tragic than in our own field.
I once heard a tape recording of a talk Bill Wilson, he co-founder of A.A., gave many years ago. In it he described his own addiction in a language of the heart that every alcoholic and addict will instantly understand. He said his addiction was as if he had been chained to the back wall of a long, dark cave. Outside the cave he could see his family and his friends calling to him and beckoning him to come out, to come out into the sunlight. He wanted to come out. He loved the people who called to him from outside his cave and he hated all the horror and destruction he had witnessed and become within his cave, and yet, he couldn’t free himself. He couldn’t break lose of his chains.
Then Wilson describes the day his old high school buddy Ebby Thatcher visited him in his kitchen in Brooklyn in 1935. Bill said that he knew Ebby was an alcoholic – he knew he was a real alcoholic - and yet it seemed as if Ebby had miraculously found a way to free himself from his own cave – and that now, here he was, coming into Bill’s cave and telling him of a way out.
That story of Ebby bringing the message of recovery to Bill Wilson is pretty well known to many in the fellowship of A.A. But the story of how Ebby escaped from his own cave is one that’s rarely told. It’s the story that shaped the 12 Steps and the entire A.A. program and yet it’s a story that few people know. Over the next year, this column will explore some of the men and women who shaped the message of recovery that Ebby brought to his old friend. Men like Roland Hazard and Carl Jung. Sam Shoemaker, Henrietta Sieberling and Frank Buchman. These pioneers found the spiritual key that unlocked the caves of Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob and thousands of alcoholics and addicts long before there was a Big Book and long before there was a fellowship. That spiritual key got lost in much of our field as we became beholding to insurance companies, managed care and state bureaucracies that neither knew nor cared about our history.
When we’re finally called upon, as one day some of us surely will be called, to put the pieces of the treatment puzzle back together, then we’d better know and understand our past. We’d better know where we came from and why the program that Ebby carried to Bill was so effective. We’d better look very closely at our 12 Step fellowships and see if they’re drifting away from their spiritual roots. We’d better see clearly how so many of our Councils on Alcoholism in Texas became so utterly dependent upon government handouts that they lost their vision and they lost the message they had carried to so many for so many years. We’d better understand how the greedy business practices of our hospitals created a backlash of managed care that’s cost thousands of alcoholics and addicts their lives as good treatment has all but disappeared in our state.
The tide of treatment will rise again as it always has. And when it does, if we know our history, and if we can read the charts of those sailors who’ve gone before us, we just might avoid some of the reefs that sank the last ship. A lot of good hands were lost.