The copyright date on the book is 1915, published almost 100 years ago. I bought My Last Drink: a Tragic Human Story by Joseph H. Francis this past weekend at yet another bookstore that is going out of business. I had recently been reading Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, published in 2013 by author David Sheff.
Both volumes tell the stories of addiction and recovery. Francis writes about his own downward trajectory, and Sheff writes about his son Nic’s addiction. Both are filled with gut-wrenching stories, but Sheff benefits from the tremendous amount of research that has been done on addiction. He covers areas such as why so many Americans are addicted to drugs and alcohol, treatment possibilities, the complexities of staying clean, and the need for an awareness of the public health crisis the nation faces in respect to drug and alcohol addiction. He concludes with his own 12 steps, which he indicates he has borrowed from the “organizing principles behind the original Twelve Steps” which have been in place since the 1930s.
My column today will not be on the advice of Francis or Sheff on getting and staying clean and sober, but will be the story and celebration of a Harlan County man who has been clean and sober for 31 years. He’s 71 now, but he was 40 when he got sober.
It was January 31, 1983, and he was being discharged from the old Corbin hospital. The attending physician didn’t want to discharge him, felt he needed further treatment, and wanted him to go to Eastern State Hospital, the second oldest psychiatric facility in the United States.
The subject of my interview had been admitted six days earlier. His symptoms: “I was seeing things and hearing things. I was loading my 22 Magnum to kill myself when I passed out. After four or five hours of sleep, I seen what I’d done and I decided to go to the hospital.”
He was detoxed at the hospital and afterward his wife signed him out against the doctor’s advice. He indicates, “I knew as soon as I passed Mag Bailey’s, I was gonna stop and get anything I could to do the job, a half pint of something.”
He made it past Mag’s and went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that night on the upper floor of a coal laboratory on River Street in Harlan. There were seven or eight people there, and at first he didn’t know what to say but then he started talking. One of the men in that meeting was Big Earl, and he reports, “Big Earl took me under his wing.” There were only a few meetings a week at the time in Harlan so Big Earl and another person at the Harlan AA meeting, C.F., took him to additional meetings: at the county jail, at the prison camp in Bell County, at Manchester, Middlesboro and Pennington Gap. During the day, he was working in the coal industry and at night attending AA meetings.
Thirty-one years later he still attends eight or nine meetings a week, and he maintains that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have taught him how to live. As he reports, “The program has taught me how to get rid of my character defects, and to finally — and I mean finally — make contact with my Higher Power.” He lost contact with his Higher Power when he was 16 or 17 when he was staying with a relative who had a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. He read the book and came to the conclusion that God had no role in the creation of man and, thus, no role in his life.
Part of his ongoing recovery is the daily opportunity to talk with other alcoholics in recovery because “they’ve been exactly where I’ve been.”
Another part of the AA program is giving back per the Twelfth Step, “to carry this message to alcoholics.” He sponsors others and works at the Hope Center outside of Harlan. He says, “I’m paying Big Earl and C.F back for what they done for me. It makes me feel better to see one I’ve sponsored sober up and keep their sobriety.”
Recently, six women were transitioning out of the Hope Center, and he says, “I fixed a dinner for them, steak and taters and pineapple and strawberries for dessert. We set around and talked about their times at the Hope Center and them being scared about going home. I understood about them being scared.”
I queried, “What did you tell them when they said they were scared?” He promptly replied, “Find you a home AA group, get in it, and get involved.”
In conclusion, he reports, “To stay sober is the only life I know. It’s give me more than I’ve ever expected out of life.”
And to all of those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, I say, “Happy birthday. Keep coming back. It works if you work it.”
NOTE: Harlan AA meetings are now seven nights a week from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. across from the BP Station and beside the Home Federal Bank.
The official 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War will be in 2015. According to the U.S. Department of Defense “On March 8, 1965, America’s ground war in Vietnam began when 3,500 Marines were deployed and ended on April 30, 1975, when nearly 3 million Americans had been on the ground, in the air, and on the rivers of Vietnam. More than 58,00 American lost their lives.” It is my intent to do a series on those in Bell and Harlan counties who served in Vietnam. Please email or call me indicating your willingness to be interviewed: Vivian B. Blevins, Ph.D. 937-778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org Note woh as computers attempt to automatically change this in the email address.