Drunken Angel

You’re on the other side

— Lucinda Williams

I understand what it is like to be addicted, but I don’t understand what causes addiction. My best guess is that obesity, alcoholism and drug addiction are part of your genetic makeup.

My family hit the obesity gene 100 percent. Almost everyone has battled their weight. Most were severely overweight like I am.

I understand being compulsive and addicted. Because it seems out of control, probably every addicted person wants to give up the struggle. I’ve watched addicts fall off the wagon over and over again. I sometimes think attempts at rehabilitation are futile.

Then I see my friend Al Smith.

Al is one of Kentucky’s most famous and celebrated journalists. After more than 30 years of hosting “Comment on Kentucky” on Kentucky Educational Television, he has become a universally known and beloved figure.

He is certainly my role model. We have a deep bond, yet what I really admire about him is that somehow, 40 years ago, the drunken Al Smith stumbled into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Russellville, Ky., and turned his life around.

He’s never been able to explain how he chose that time and that moment to break the hold of alcohol. All I know is that he did it.

He is working on his autobiography. I hope he is able to tell us how he overcame his problem.

Like myself, Al is not reserved when it comes to sharing information from his life. I was watching the close out for his Thanksgiving show when he briefly stated that he had been an alcoholic. He went on to speak about The Healing Place, a recovery center in Louisville.

I checked out The Healing Place’s Web site — www.thehealingplace.org, and it is impressive. They have a recovery rate of 65 percent, which is five times the national average. Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher announced plans to open 10 homeless and addiction centers across the state that will use The Healing Place as a model for their operations.

I hope they work. I hope they open one in every county.

One of my family members battled alcohol addiction for most of her life. It didn’t kill her, but I’m sure it contributed to her death. She was never able to walk through the door of a recovery center like The Healing Place.

That is what impresses me about Al Smith — not that he remained sober for 40 years, but rather that he made the initial decision to walk through the door of that Russellville church and get help.

I think his success was partly because he lived in a small town. Almost all United States presidents, with Teddy Roosevelt a notable exception, grew up in small towns. They developed a sense of community and hard work.

I understand the rooted feeling that a small town gives. I grew up five miles from downtown Cincinnati, but still within the limits of a small city called Edgewood, Ky. When I went away to college, I knew almost all of Edgewood’s 5,000 residents. When my mother died in April and my sister in October, people came to the funerals that I had not seen in 30 years. We had that small-town sense of connection that is impossible to lose.

I don’t know if anyone has tied addiction to being socially disconnected, but there has to be a correlation. I realize that part of addiction comes from genetics and possibly environmental factors, but groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are fueled by love. What works is the connection and support of the group.

I started a group for overweight men in Richmond. Even better than The Healing Place, we have a 100 percent record of people losing weight. We don’t do anything special or fancy; we just show up each week and support each other.

I wish my family member had found that connection and support. Maybe she would be here today. I pick on Gov. Ernie Fletcher, but I applaud his focus on treatment. We don’t always agree, and in fact, I wrote a book that criticized some of his policies. Yet, on the issue of addiction, we are in total agreement. We need to help addicted people recover.

My family’s drunken angel is on the other side. I want to stop others from taking that same journey.

Don McNay is the author of “The Unbridled World of Ernie Fletcher” and chairman of the board of McNay Settlement Group. You can write to him at don@mcnay.com and read other things he has written at www.donmcnay.com.

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