Getting Better

By William Moyers

April 12, 2014 5 min read

It's not a can of worms I've opened with my suggestion that recovery from addiction isn't an easy experience to measure. But your responses are a cornucopia of impassioned insights. We've all agreed to disagree.

"You're dead wrong, waaaayyy off base, if you think us smokers aren't sober," wrote Donna N. of New York City. "You were just a kid when I had my last drink, what do you know. Who cares if nicotine is a drug? (There are) thousands, no millions of us, who smoke but don't drink anymore. That's all that counts. Keep your nose out of it."

Sorry. All I asked is whether somebody is abstinent if he or she smokes.

No, replied Todd R. from Kenosha, Wis. "They're fooling themselves while they're killing themselves. It's that simple." He gave up tobacco the same day he entered treatment in 1997. "The hardest thing I've ever done. Everyone else there was smoking or chewing (tobacco) except me. I figured, 'Hey, if I'm giving up booze and pills, I might as well go all the way.' Son of a gun, it worked, too; I haven't done any drug since."

In treatment, Todd learned this mantra: A drug is a drug is a drug. But is it?

Alexis B. is a 25-year-old single mother of two in Collier County, Fla. She takes alprazolam, a benzodiazepine that is the active ingredient in Xanax. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a controlled substance. "As a teenager, I suffered paralyzing panic attacks for years. Wine was the only way I could calm down. It was a wicked cycle. I wanted what recovery promised, but of course that's predicated on not drinking. I tried not to drink. Not drinking made the panic attacks unbearable. So I drank again and again until I ended up with a DWI. Fortunately, the judge sent me to outpatient treatment."

Three years ago, a psychiatrist at the treatment center prescribed a small dosage of alprazolam, which she takes every day. She takes an extra pill when she feels the rising tide of anxiety or stress — exactly as the doctor ordered.

"I couldn't do it alone, and by alone I mean just the meds or just my recovery support group," she says. "I need both." She hasn't had a panic attack in three years. Or a drink. "I'm in recovery three straight years."

Jack D. from the suburbs of Minneapolis wouldn't agree. "Anyone who has been diagnosed an addict or an alcoholic who then takes any drug that changes how we feel or think isn't really sober." And that includes him. He suffers from chronic shoulder pain from a severe injury a decade ago. But he rejects any narcotic pain relief. "I'd rather suffer in sobriety than be numb and dumb in sobriety." (Jack smokes, but I didn't go there with him. He likes to argue, and he's good at it.)

Then there's Bob, a gritty guy with a long white beard that more than makes up for the thinning white hair on his head. We met at a recovery meeting not long ago in Arizona. We went around the room talking about what recovery means to each of us. Though I didn't write down what he said, it resonated with me and went something like this:

He first tried to quit smoking marijuana in 1980 and has been trying to quit ever since. Two years ago, something stuck. He hasn't gotten high since. "I guess you can say I've been in recovery for 34 years. I'm getting better. It just hasn't been perfect."

And isn't that the point? Whenever we got drunk or stoned, it was never perfect, because it was never enough. Over and over we did it, chasing nirvana's elusive goal we had convinced ourselves was just ahead, if only we kept reaching for it. Only in the futility and desperation of our failed bids to grab and hold on to it did we finally realize that something had to change. We were that something.

We let go and then start to change — not all the same way or on the same timeline or even with the same benchmarks to mark our progress but with the same goal, to recover by making better who we no longer want to be.

For today, I'll suggest that's where recovery starts. Perhaps that's where it ends, too.

William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His newest book is "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery." Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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