One Moment, Many Routes

By William Moyers

July 12, 2014 5 min read

Louis Zamperini died this month. He was 97 years old. His life was chronicled in "Unbroken," the perpetual best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, so I won't repeat it. Except for the part that inspires me to write about that moment in 1949 when he had an epiphany. It was at a Billy Graham big-tent revival he attended at the insistence of his wife, who had threatened to divorce him unless he pulled himself together. From that moment at the revival, he overcame too much drinking and the scars of trauma forged by his horrific experiences in World War II.

Zamperini was more than a survivor. He was a person who recovered.

Note, though, that his recovery wasn't about quitting drinking and staying sober — because that's not how he did it.

A few years ago, I exchanged emails with a man who knew Zamperini in his later years. I wanted to know more about what happened after his epiphany. "Did he ever see himself as an 'alcoholic' in the same way that many of us do? Did he ever (or does he) attend meetings of other alcoholics in recovery?"

The man's response caught me off guard: "I do not speak for Louis, but I can tell you that I have heard him refer to himself as having been an alcoholic. He does not attend meetings, to my knowledge, and he does have an occasional glass of wine."

A popular utterance in a well-established modality of recovery is this: "Don't drink, and go to meetings." Yet Zamperini did exactly the opposite. He still imbibed from time to time and apparently never went to those meetings. His experience reminds us that it doesn't really matter how we get from the bottom to a better place. What counts is embracing that moment of clarity when we realize that our lives are a mess and that we must change. Or else. And then taking action. Zamperini changed his life, and in the next 60-plus years, his story has inspired millions of people to overcome the adversity of their personal demons.

A few days after he died, another story made headlines, this one in The New York Times. It was about alternatives to the "mainstream" approach to fighting addiction through 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. From new medications to advances in science to innovative therapy, the choices people struggling with substances have are more plentiful than ever today, including pathways that aren't based on abstinence or faith in a higher power.

The story went viral on the Internet. And it didn't take long for the sniping and long-range artillery duels to commence. On one side, the mass of 12-steppers who cannot see a way to recovery other than their way. Insisted a solid citizen in sobriety who owes the past 30 years to this way of life and serves on the board of my employer: "This is not the first time the Times has gone off into the world of dubious recovery notions. If we offer any analytic reply, using our vast resources of experience and research, the paper will hesitate to do another of these dangerous stories."

On the other side, a smaller but louder constituency bent on not just promoting these viable alternatives but trashing the 12-step option at the same time. This from a certified addiction specialist in private practice who was schooled by my employer: "The 12-steps are not some benign group out to help people with addiction. The steps are only about keeping the cult alive."

Ouch. What would this board member think about how Louis Zamperini did it?

Double ouch. Does this trained addiction specialist dismiss my journey of the past 20 years because of how I do it, a day at a time?

Zamperini led a hero's life not because of his exploits at the Olympics or as a prisoner of the Japanese but in how he turned his life around and used those experiences to walk his long walk for the rest of his 97 years. Along his way and through the book, he inspired millions to find the resolve of hope. The rest of us will never be heroes or touch the number of people he did. No matter; walking our walk is all that counts, for us, our families and perhaps a few we encounter along the way. There are millions of us walking right now, and an equal number will follow. Thank goodness there's room for us all.

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 book "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery" was published last year. 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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