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Voices of hope for alcoholics

When I attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, I speak of my “experience, strength and hope.” As an alcoholic in recovery, I carry that message to others as part of the 12-step program I work in AA.

This week, I listened to other voices, both younger and older, carry the message, too, from as near as my community’s local high school in Iowa to as far as Woonsocket, R.I. Indeed, with the Internet, some of these voices go the distance.

In my local school district, I heard three young women, one still a student in the high school and one who graduated just a year ago, as they bravely spoke about their addictions, including alcoholism, facing an audience of people asking questions in a public environment that included a television camera.

Four days later I listened as an older gentleman, Normand, who had been homeless, living in the woods in Woonsocket, R.I., and actively drinking for many years, spoke to a different audience at a nearby movie theatre, after we all watched a documentary about his and a friend’s ongoing processes of recovery from alcoholism. We are never “recovered” from this disease, but “in recovery” if we aren’t actively drinking.

The young female panelists were speaking from personal experience about underage drinking and using drugs, as part of a town hall meeting to engage the public and help people better understand what the disease of addiction and the consequences of underage drinking entail. They spoke frankly, in the presence of school officials including the superintendent, about poorly chosen behaviors such as partying with all of the football team members, driving while drunk and getting high several times during the same school day.

One panelist, 24, is a single mother of three young children and answered an audience question about designated drivers at parties by saying she often served in that capacity simply because she had had relatively less to drink than her fellow partygoers. She added that she still shouldn’t have driven.

Another young woman on the panel, sporting tattoos and striking black facial make-up, spoke about her alcohol and drug use, noting she made sure she had enough packs of cigarettes to last for as long as needed when she knew she wouldn’t be able to purchase them for a period of time. I used to do that with alcohol, as do all alcoholics. We make sure we have our stashes, for long weekends, big parties, prior to inclement weather, store closures on weekends; any excuse will do, just so we won’t run out. She spoke also, she said for the first time, of going on a drunk that lasted for days. She said that one drug led to her use of others.

Normand Cartier, the 49-year-old man who is one subject of the documentary I saw titled “Lost in Woonsocket,” was the man I met, who talked to audience members about being a “maintenance” drinker. He said he literally could not see, nor could he take a step, until he first took a drink upon waking every morning. He drank to maintain his ability to function daily.

The film in which Normand appears was produced for an Arts and Entertainment program called “Random 1” (www.lostinwoonsocket.com), and is now being shown around the country to raise funds for homeless shelters and addiction-recovery programs. Normand was filmed on location in the woods where he slept in a tent with a friend, Mark, a fellow homeless alcoholic whose family wanted nothing more to do with him.

The filmmakers take these men from the woods one at a time and they are filmed in real time as they get a new start on life, with fresh haircuts done by Joe, an alcoholic with 27 years of sobriety, who also carries a message of experience, strength and hope. They each go through a seven-day detox, to begin to rid their bodies of the toxins created by alcohol abuse, and then through lengthy periods in residential rehab.

Normand has stayed sober for well over two years, and continues to carry the message by accompanying the film and speaking at fundraisers, and lobbying for changes in laws in the Rhode Island statehouse. His friend, following the same path as the majority of alcoholics, does not work a 12-step program and, Normand said, cannot stay sober for long. Maybe someday Mark will be able to do so. Normand said his friend has excuses for his drinking, and in the film Mark says the fame of making the movie, becoming a local celebrity and called “Mr. Hollywood” on the street, was too much, so he relapsed.

Normand said simply, “I don’t use excuses or the word ‘but;’ I use the word ‘because.’” He said the point where he surrendered to his powerlessness over alcohol, the first of the 12-steps, and he decided to stop drinking was when he was reunited with his children and grandchildren he didn’t know he had. His grown-up sons and daughters had contacted the filmmakers when they saw their dad on the television. He had not seen his family in more than 12 years.

The high school panelist who talked about getting high five to seven times in a single day also said she had entered and completed a three-month residential treatment program, after deciding she needed help.

Those of us in recovery circles talk a lot about “hitting bottom,” the point at which we have had enough of drug and/or alcohol usage, like Normand. This young woman on the panel said, “you reach bottom when you stop digging.”

All of these speakers had stopped digging, as I did when my family sent me to 28-day residential treatment for alcoholism, in Minnesota at Hazelden, almost 3 1/2 years ago.

Instead of despair, we now extend messages of optimism for our futures, and the hope that other alcoholics and addicts can learn from us.

The young lady who stayed drunk for days is now attending a nearby community college and making better, more informed choices, planning to move away from an environment that she said was dangerous for her. Her family instituted some tough love to help her, and she was grateful, she said.

The 24-year-old mom is working with at-risk students at a nearby high school, is also employed at a restaurant, and she volunteers with a group of young parents needing guidance. Normand travels around the country and speaks of his work lobbying in the Rhode Island legislature, restoring funding for programs that can help addicts and alcoholics. He said he now has two more grandchildren and his family is a big reason for his continuous sobriety. And the high school student completed her treatment and is now armed with a body of knowledge about her disease that will help her in the future.

I write columns about my experience, strength and hope, echoing the message that Normand, a roughly hewn, former welder in the shipyards of the northeast coast left with the group who attended the film featuring him, which is that alcoholism does not discriminate but can be overcome, one day at a time.

Star football players, doctors, lawyers, journalists, welders, high school students, older folks and younger ones, college graduates like me or high school dropouts – we all may suffer from the same disease, but we can talk about it, informing, teaching others, and we can choose to travel a path toward recovery. To keep our sobriety, we must give it away.

Normand was given a “blessing ring” by Joe, the barber, after his first haircut and before he entered detox. He proudly displayed the small, round, silver charm to us at the theater. He keeps it on a keyring now that he owns one because he is no longer homeless, and I thought as I looked at the light in his eyes that we are all of us blessed, lucky enough to be on the road to continued sobriety and a better life.

source: Lisbon Sun

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