Interview

Recovery and Redemption

Q&A with William Moyers

by Stacy Smith

Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations at Hazelden Betty Ford.

William C. Moyers enjoys a very famous name. His father, Bill Moyers, is the renowned television journalist and served as press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, and William was raised among the most elite and powerful. Yet as his 2006 bestselling book Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption describes, no amount of privilege could shield Moyers from his struggles with addiction. Now, 20 years into recovery, Moyers serves as the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He spoke with Church Health Reader about his struggles, then and now, and how congregations can better understand and support people who struggle with addiction.

Stacy Smith: In the opening to your book Broken, you tell the story of when your father came to get you from the crack house in Atlanta. He says to you, “I hate you”, and you say, “I hate me, too.” Now it’s 20 years later and you’re a successful author and the vice president at Hazelden. Where is that guy who 20 years ago hated himself so much?

William Moyers: I’ve come a long way in 20 years. The grace of God, good luck, hard work, and the unrequiting love of family have all provided me with an avenue from addiction to redemption. I have walked that walk one day at a time to a point where I’m a better man who lives a healthy life and whose own example is an inspiration and a lifeline to others like me: addicts and alcoholics and their families.

In the documentary The Anonymous People, there is talk about anonymity as a double-edged sword. What does that mean?

Anonymity is a cornerstone of what has protected 12-step recovery for 80 years now, and never would I, nor should anybody else, advocate against that sensible anonymity. At the same time, what I and many others have come to realize is not just the importance of standing up and speaking out as addicted people in recovery, but doing so without straying the boundaries of 12-step recovery. So when I speak out in Memphis, or testify in Washington, DC, or share my story on Oprah, I never do any of those as a member of any specific recovery group. I do it simply as a person in recovery who got well because I got multiple chances. The film lays out the case for advocacy in the public, but in the context of respecting, revering, and protecting what the spirit of anonymity is all about in 12-step recovery.

Twelve-step recovery is a pathway for many millions of people, but there are many millions of others, also in recovery, who don’t participate in 12 steps. There are many pathways to recovery. The film, if nothing else, should inspire any viewer to become a beacon of hope and healing for others, regardless of what kind of recovery they are in.

How do you deal with being a visible tangible lifeline for people who are in distress?

Well, it isn’t easy, because I never say no to people. I do feel a sense of obligation, duty or responsibility to be a beacon, to be a lifeline, to be an avenue of help for people of all walks of life, all colors, all socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result I get 5–10 requests a day from people all over the country who want and need help for themselves and their family members.

Hopelessness and despair don’t take a break; they don’t take a vacation. It is hard, but I’m lucky. I’m truth that from adversity comes opportunity. My old message used to be that addiction does not discriminate, and I still bang that drum. But there’s another part of it, too, that I think is equally important, or maybe more important, and that is: addiction doesn’t discriminate and neither does recovery.

When I came into that crack house in 1994 in Atlanta, there were only two things that were different about me than for everybody else: the color of my skin and the fact that they weren’t going to get one more chance. I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve always thought about those other men and women, who were no different than I was. They were just as sick and just as deserving.

In your book Now What? An Insider’s Guide to Addiction and Recovery, you talk about chronic illness. How is addiction in your mind similar to chronic illnesses, and how is it different?

Addiction is progressive and chronic, and there is no cure for it. Somebody who has addiction always gets worse and never gets better if they don’t deal with it. That’s true for addiction, diabetes, hypertension, or asthma. So in many ways, how we treat it or how we manage it are exactly the same. The difference between addiction and all those other chronic illnesses is the behavioral components that tend to wreak havoc, not just with the person who struggles with it, but also with the family and the larger community. Typically when the diabetic is not well, it’s just the diabetic who suffers. When the alcoholic is not well, the individual’s behaviors are such they may involve crime, homelessness, violence, and all the other things that are further obstacles to our understanding of addiction and our appreciation for recovery from it.

You say that almost two-thirds of people with addictions also have a mental illness. What are the effects of one on the other?

Here’s an example: a soldier goes off to war and comes back to the US, struggling with PTSD. One way he finds that he can cope with it is to medicate, or to change his mood, and before you know it not only does he have PTSD, but he’s got co-ocurring disorder of addiction. They are separate but equal, intertwined illnesses that need to be untangled, straightened out and restored to hope.

What does being “in recovery” mean to you and how do relapses fit into our understanding of recovery?

My perspective has evolved over the decades. I used to see recovery, especially my own, as mostly about being abstinent. Now I realize there’s more to sobriety than abstinence, and there’s more to recovery than sobriety. Certainly if you have a disease of addiction you want to be abstinent. If you’re not abstinent from it, you’re running up the hill. It doesn’t mean you can’t make it to the top of the hill, but it’s better to run down the hill than to run up the hill. So the ultimate goal, I think, is abstinence. But what we have come to realize at Hazelden and other places is that there are many pathways to recovery. And even in the 12-step abstinence-based model, I strongly believe that it is up to each addict and alcoholic to find his or her own accommodation with recovery.

For example, let’s say I come out of a crack house in 1994 and I stop using crack cocaine and alcohol, but I still continue to smoke and cigarettes have nicotine in them, which is a drug. So am I sober? I may be abstinent from those substances that brought me to my knees, but I’m still using. If I come out of a crack house and I stop drinking, and stop smoking crack, and stop smoking cigarettes, but I don’t pay my income taxes, am I in recovery?

Recovery is a commitment to a better life. Along the way we fall down, some of us relapse, we make mistakes. But as long as we remain committed to the process and the journey, then I think we can continue to count ourselves as being in recovery.

I also think that anybody who struggles against the tides of life’s storms has a better chance of recovery if they have faith in some greater being. You don’t have to believe in God to recover, but you have to believe in some power greater than the substances that are destroying you. If you find that, then you’ve got hope.

When you spoke in Memphis, a pastor asked you what he could do to help, and you replied, “You can give people like me a voice in your congregation.” How do you see that happening?

A lot of church faith communities would prefer to turn their backs on their responsibility and their opportunity to help congregations to overcome addiction or mental illness. The Bible says faith without works is dead. So it isn’t just faith alone that helps us to overcome what ails us. We have to work at it, darn it. And it takes a lot of work. That’s why the first word of the first step of 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is the word we. We, not I, not you, not me, not they; it’s we, it’s community. Community lives in the heart of the church, in the 12-step meeting, in a revival tent, wherever we find it. I think what’s important is to understand that because addiction is a disease of isolation, you have to be a part of that community.

Finally, what advice do you give your children, based on your history, genetics and your work with people over the last several years?

My life is an open book and my kids have read it. I’ve always believed that I would be a role model for them never to use or experiment. Well, I’ve learned that not even me, as a role model, is enough to shield teenagers like mine from the temptations of experimentation. So I’ve moved that conversation away from prevention to one of education, and to one of actually helping one of my children who came to me one Thanksgiving and said, “Dad, I need help.” I used to think I’d be a role model for getting my kids not to use. What I’ve discovered, more importantly, is that I’m a role model for them to ask for help. Nothing can be more affirming of my life’s experience than when I can help my own children with the same issues I need help with.

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