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“Washington Post


Friday, June 16, 1995


Addiction: It’s a Secret We Can’t Afford to Keep

By Johnny W. Allem

Mickey Mantle’s recent transplant resurrected America’s periodic dialogue on addiction. I’ll leave the ethics of transplant medicine to others. I wish to bring word from a segment of society deeply affected by such issues but too often silent in the public debate.

            I speak of recovery alcoholics and addicts. I am one. There are millions more. Our silence contributes to the atmosphere of superstition and ignorance that surrounds addiction, and our misguided notions on anonymity have left us passive in the face of growing mythology. One such myth is that alcoholics and addicts are not moral individuals.

            My grandfather was a moral man, and he also happened to be an alcoholic. He quit drinking during Prohibition, because he didn’t want to break the law, and started drinking a few days after the repeal. I’m sure he planned to quit again, someday, but the beast had awakened, and he could not put it back to sleep. He drank until he lost his job, his home, and eventually his life.

            His sons watched this and all three, including my father, became preachers and lifelong abstainers. They kept most of this story from me as a child, perhaps out of shame. I grew up and went into business and though I consider myself a moral man, I too became an alcoholic. I believe I was biologically predisposed to it. I experienced loss of control, blackouts, and altered behavior almost from the beginning. But I spent twenty-two years trying to drink like other folks until I was lucky enough to run into a group of people who taught me that alcoholism is a disease and I could recover. Otherwise I’m sure I would have followed my grandfather.

            After many years of recovery and positive life experiences, people wonder why I continue to concern myself with addiction issues. But I share this history with perhaps seven million Americans, most of whom carry recovery as a secret hidden in their past. They keep it secret because they are afraid of the stigma attached to addiction. They know most Americans will think less of them for having once been addicted to alcohol or drugs.

            This hidden recovery leaves an unbalanced picture of the real nature and outcome of my disease. With no evidence of millions in recovery, it’s no wonder so many people think the solution to alcohol and drug problems is to embark on the biggest prison-building crusade in history.

            I’ll let you in on a secret: recovery is more effective than jail. In fact, jails which include legitimate alcohol and drug treatment programs are more effective than jails that don’t. The research confirms it. But tax payers don’t seem to be listening.

            The vast majority of persons changing their lives from addiction to recovery go unremarked. They hit their bottom, make their amends, restore their family and careers, without so much as a ripple in the public consciousness. They stay out of site because they think it’s safer. Society’s stigmatized view of addiction prevents them from demonstrating the possibility of recovery, or showing that we needn’t always live in shame.

            Sometimes I think the secrecy of the recovering community is a major contributor to the continuing death rate from addiction disease – a death so tortured, extended, and costly that we are only too happy to join the rest of society in denying its existence, even as we are spared its final curse.

            Mickey Mantle is an alcoholic and my guess is he’s also a moral man. He shouldn’t receive special medical treatment because of his celebrity, and he shouldn’t be discriminated against because of his alcoholism.

            Like so many of us, he unknowingly sacrificed much of his life to the disease of alcoholism. When he finally sobered up and his brain cleared, he realized how much pain he had brought to his loved ones. There was no way to erase those years. All that was left was to stand up in public and take responsibility, which he did. It was the moral thing to do.

            After all, his example might help someone else. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us in the recovering community to do the same. 

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