Thursday, April 3, 2008

Recovery and Transformation

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been planning my book tour, an essential activity for an emerging writer. I’m finding some of the venues myself, but my publicist is working on the midwestern leg of the trip. When she first proposed the itinerary, I thought the biggest challenge would be breaking the news to my husband that he’s going to Indianapolis. He’s coming with me for that segment of the tour because he has family, my in-laws, in Ohio, but he’s the kind of New Yorker who gets very, very antsy when he has to cross the Hudson. But when I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to stand by a table piled with my books near the door of a Borders in a mall in Illinois, I began to wonder how on earth I could persuade those ordinary folks out there in the heartland to plunk down their money on the premise that they might enjoy a book called Death Will Get You Sober and come to care about a a guy they’ll first meet on the Bowery coming off a bender.

I enjoy public speaking, and I’ve never doubted I’ll have plenty to say at bookstore discussions. There’s all that backstory about my characters that I took out over the course of many revisions. And I have lots of stories about the Bowery in the old days when I ran an alcohol treatment program there that didn’t make it into the book. But it’s occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t start there. Maybe I’d better begin with why I wanted—want—to write about recovery. It’s simple: recovery is transformational.

I once knew a nursery school teacher who had her class do a butterfly project every year. They’d watch the caterpillar form its chrysalis and wait for the brightly colored butterfly with its glorious wings to emerge. At the end of the term, she’d take them to the park so they could release the butterflies and see them fly free. Sometimes it’s kind of like that when an alcoholic finds recovery.

Before two guys named Bill W. and Dr. Bob came up with the idea for Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, alcoholism was truly a hopeless illness—though it was seen as a moral weakness, not an illness—whose outcomes were inevitably “madness” (depression, delirium tremens, irreversible dementia) and death. AA offered another choice: stop drinking for just one day, admit you need help, find some kind of spiritual path, get rigorously honest about your own shortcomings, make amends for the harm you’ve done others, and help another alcoholic. In other words, all you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life. As they say, the program works.

The real-life agency where I worked for more than six years was greatly appreciated by the surrounding community. It had cleaned up the notorious Third Street Shelter and turned the kind of guys you’d be scared to pass on the street at night into citizens with pride and dignity, ambitions and dreams. Not all of them, but some. The agency used to invite the whole neighborhood to a holiday party. At one of these, a woman asked me what the success rate was. I answered honestly: 15 or 20 percent. It’s hard to kick drugs and alcohol and turn your life around, especially since America doesn’t exactly lift its lamp beside the golden door any more. Some people are never satisfied, and this woman was one of them. “That’s not very much,” she said. I said, “We consider every one a miracle.”


Sheila Connolly said...

The shift from labelling alcoholism as a moral failing to treating it as a disease has been interesting to observe. But I think that whatever the underlying cause, it is the support network that AA creates that makes it effective. You know you are not alone, and you know there is someone you can reach out to for help. Even if you never take advantage of it, you know it's there.

Last week I went on a Sheriff's Academy tour of the county jail, and an inmate spoke to us about his struggle with addictions. Not unusual. What was interesting was that almost everyone in our group had something to say to him--suggestions for local groups to contact, or even accounts of personal experiences. Instant support, from a group of strangers.

Sandra Parshall said...

I have a lot of respect for the people who are able to stay clean and sober. I'm not sure anyone can understand how difficult it is without going through it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, what a perfect set-up line for me. My debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, which will hit bookstores on April 15, is precisely an attempt to engage the reader in an insider's look at what it's like, as well as a whodunit and a story about friendship and second chances.

Sandra Parshall said...

I live to serve you, Liz. :-)

Sophie said...

E - thank you for caring about recovery. It means the world to me, having lost my mom down that dark path. Write on; your words will find those that need them.