No Fun on the Merry-Go-Round

By William Moyers

November 15, 2014 4 min read

A flashpoint in the debate about addiction is what it means to be "powerless" over alcohol or other drugs. There's not enough space here to make the case one way or the other. But I think we can all agree that addicted people do have power over their illness if they are willing to recover from it. As I emphasize to them all the time, invest as much time and energy in recovery as you did pursuing the high and you will get well. Just don't try to do it alone.

This week, I am reminded about what a narrow but formidable line separates those who are stuck in the problem from those who aren't. Actually, it's less a line and more a circle, as in the metaphorical merry-go-round; atop their high horse, they spin in circles, barely an arm's length from the brass ring of an opportunity to stop using. Only they make scant effort to reach for it or allow others to help them grab it. Fear and shame, finances, family affairs, a job, an upcoming vacation — they never got in the way of a drink or a drug. And in the inundated brain of the addict or alcoholic, these reasons become excuses to put help on hold.

A few weeks ago, a man called my office asking for help. He said we'd first met at an airport in New York in 1998 after he recognized me from my appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and came up to me saying he, too, was addicted to substances. I had given him my business card. It took him 16 years to call. But call he did, despondent to the point of talking about suicide because he could no longer endure the unremitting despair of a shopping bag filled with doctor-prescribed narcotics to deal with the pain of a lifelong chronic illness.

His willingness was tantamount to our initial encounter. Back then, he approached me. And by his phone call all these years later, this same willingness had reconnected us again. Then and still now, he wanted help. I was so impressed that I agreed to meet him at a popular neighborhood coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon. I wanted to know the rest of his story so that I could better understand how and where to steer him to treatment for his addiction and his mental illness, all in the context of his chronic pain. Solving all three was his goal and mine.

Sadly, that meeting over coffee and scones was the high point of our interaction, it seems, because every day since, I've felt as though he's taken me on a ride on his merry-go-round. It leaves me frustrated and him further from what he needs and closer to that place he must not go.

I'll spare the reader the details of a ride that's made me dizzy. Anyway, it isn't the facts that really matter. But when his Medicare will cover comprehensive quality treatment close to home and he won't go right now, when at this critical moment he starts drinking alcohol on top of everything else and even goes so far as to peg his timeline to a medical procedure I'm having in a month, I know it's time to get my feet back on terra firma. I am reminded that powerlessness comes with alcohol and other drugs. With willingness comes the power of recovery. Only by letting go of one is it possible to grab the other. No excuses. Keep reaching. The brass ring is closer than it looks.

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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