[Written by Michelle Dunbar, Executive Director at The Saint Jude Retreat, and reprinted with permission.]
When I was 9 years old, my father was arrested for drunk driving. While every other time he’d been stopped they had let him go, this particular time they decided they probably should get him off the street for his own safety and the safety of others. It was 1977, 3 years before Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded, and 6 years before I would join my high school’s chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). My father was well known in our small town, in part for his drunken escapades, but also as an upstanding professional who was always willing to help out anyone in need, which is why we took in his Dad, my Gramps, a few years earlier.
Gramps was an Irishman, a WWII veteran, a huge Yankee fan, and one of my favorite people in the world. He was always kind, soft-spoken, and caring. It was my understanding that he came to live with us to take care of us while my parents were working and because of my Dad’s heavy drinking, but later on I was told it was because Gramps was sick. I was told he had a disease called alcoholism that made him drink very heavily. However, when he lived with us, he wasn’t allowed to drink, so he didn’t. Even then I can remember thinking, ‘What a strange disease this must be?’
If Gramps was drinking during the years he lived with us, I never knew it. We became very close. He is the reason that I became a baseball fan, and specifically a Yankee fan. He taught me how to mow a lawn, throw and catch a baseball, and paint. We would spend hours in his shop in the basement. He would tinker and I would paint my pictures listening to Yankee games on his little radio. I can still remember his warm smile and the first thing he would do when I got home from school was give me a big hug. Then in 1979 my father was transferred across the country and we had to move away. Gramps stayed in NY while we headed to California.
My Dad quit drinking and joined AA in 1977, and his career took off. Gramps seemed to be doing well, had a job and a girlfriend. He was always smiling. That summer day in 1979 when I kissed Gramps goodbye, I had no idea it would be one of the last times I’d get a chance to see him.
We moved back from California a little more than a year later, and I remember asking where Gramps was. I was told he had relapsed into his disease, and we were not allowed to see him. This made no sense to me at all. If he’s sick, why wouldn’t we be there for him? Doesn’t he need help and people there to care for him? It seemed to me, this is exactly when we should be seeing him. But my father was adamant; until Gramps stopped drinking, we wouldn’t visit him.
I think I saw Gramps just one or two more times in the 5 years that followed, until the day I got the call. It was my first weekend away at college, and my mother told me that Gramps had passed. He was found alone, in a room he was renting, some days after he had passed. The coroner said he died of heart failure, presumably while detoxing from alcohol. I was devastated and angry. I can remember the last time I saw him, he told me that he was alcoholic, and the disease was going to kill him one day. During that visit, his deep regret and feeling of defeat was palpable. He had been to detox and treatment at VA hospitals several times over the course of 30 years, and he was labeled a gamma alcoholic and chronic relapser. He fully embraced the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is also a requirement for alcoholism treatment – he believed himself to be powerless over alcohol.
Think about that for a moment. “I came to believe that I was powerless over alcohol…” That’s the first step of AA. Treatment providers, counselors, and those in AA tell you that you have to take that first step everyday. You have to remind yourself that you’re powerless over an inert substance; a beverage. This is supposed to scare you into being totally abstinent, but based on the data it works for less than 20% of those taught it.
Gramps was a soldier who fought in France during WWII. He was a decorated war hero. This man was anything but powerless. He was told by treatment and those in AA that he was selfish, ego-driven, arrogant, and a narcissist as this is what is taught in 12 step driven treatment. He was none of those things. He was injured trying to save others. He put his life on hold to care for his grandchildren. He was always kind and loving, he just happened to like drinking a lot. It was a part of him and a part of his culture. But in spite of that, he had chosen to stop drinking for years while caring for us. This reality seemed to escape him when he started drinking again.
So did ‘alcoholism’ kill my grandfather, or did his belief in it? With the specific demographic of veterans, they are often brave and powerful people by nature. They are trained to be in control at all times, and then when they get home from combat, part of the transition is an evaluation that often diagnoses and labels them with mental health issues and/or substance use problems. A major component of that treatment is being told they are powerless and out of control, and for many this dichotomy leads to serious struggles and in the worst cases an untimely death.
A 2017 study at the University of Michigan found that veterans who have drug or alcohol problems are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than their peers. This is one of the largest studies done of its kind, including 4.4 million veterans. These veterans had received VA services in 2004 and 2005 and were tracked for six years. The difference in suicide rates was alarming: 75.6 out of 100,000 with SUD committed suicide compared to 34.7 out of 100,000 veterans without SUD.
What the study fails to highlight is that all of these veterans were receiving services for their mental health and substance use problems. Additionally according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report the suicide rate among veterans continues to climb in spite of massive suicide prevention efforts and increased access to substance abuse treatment for veterans. This begs the question, is the treatment they are receiving helping or hurting our veterans?
If you are treating someone with cancer and the cancer gets worse, would you continue the same treatment or try something different? Of course you would at the very least discontinue the ineffective and/or harmful treatment.
It’s time for the Veteran’s Administration to reevaluate how our Veterans are being treated when they return home. I started my research into addiction nearly 30 years ago, in part, due to the massive failure of the system that was supposed to have helped my Gramps. Based on my experience helping people and my research, it is clear to me that the treatment our veterans are receiving specifically for substance use problems is causing more harm than good.
The truth is no one is ever out of control over what they ingest. Alcohol is no more powerful than milk is, and the solution to addiction is to first show people how much choice they have in the matter. Change must come from within, and it must come from the idea that there is more happiness in making the change than there will be in not changing. I just wish Gramps was told the truth – that he did not have a disease, but rather a preference for heavy drinking. And more importantly that his preference could have changed, and that he could have moved on and built a happier life for himself.
Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you know someone who is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to www.TheFreedomModel.org for more information.
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