Recovery Rising: A Retrospective of Addiction Treatment and Recovery Advocacy
by William L. White
Review by Linda Farris Kurtz, MSW, DPA, Emeritus Professor, Eastern Michigan University School of Social Work
I first met Bill White on October 6, 1995 when he arrived at our house to meet with Ernie to discuss his book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment in America. Since then, Ernie and I hosted Bill as a guest in our home more times than I can count over the next two decades. However, I realize now that I had no idea how he got involved in addiction treatment, training, and research.
In the first sections of his Recovery Rising memoir he described his early life as a young university student from a working class family in central Illinois trying hard to succeed in college – so hard in fact, that he resorted to methamphetamines to stoke his already high level of achievement. It’s a fascinating and beautifully-written story in which he shows us himself as a young man driven to make it. He drives himself almost to the brink of destruction. Amphetamines were a predictable drug for Bill as they gave him more of what he already had in abundance: the power and clarity to accomplish great things.
Bill engaged in his use of the drug for just a few years, until one night he nearly died of it. As a result, he experienced a quantum change without treatment and without a self-help group (Narcotics Anonymous was not available in most communities at the time.). As he points out too, speed did not have the cachet that heroin has in the recovering drug addict world.
The amphetamines left him with a damaged heart, and as you read on, you realize that the heart ailment weighs on his mind and influences decisions he makes as he reaches his seventieth year. The drive that he describes in his early years continues on through his days of working on the streets with addicts, and then to all the other activities he acquires throughout his life.
The beginning sections of Recovery Rising were of particular interest to me. Bill shows us the changes in mental health treatment in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They were the years that I was also beginning my mental health career in Chicago where Bill also worked for some of those years.
The lack of services for addicts and the failure to fund community mental health after shutting down hospitals were frustrations that Bill endured just as I did in the 1970s. His descriptions and stories of this period, when he is still figuring out where he is going to put his energies, are particularly colorful and interesting. He begins life in small-town central Illinois and remains in this part of the country for most of his life, except for a few years in Chicago and a few years in Washington, D.C. until he seeks semi-retirement in Florida.
The twin challenges in writing a memoir are deciding what to leave out, and being able to write about yourself.
Bill leaves out a lot of the details while at the same time covering the entirety of his complicated life. Fortunately, there were many glimpses into Bill White, the person.
He does not hesitate to tell the reader about his mistakes. Bill does not make many mistakes but it seems as though he is particularly aware of them when they happen, and he uses them to adjust his thinking and acting.
One amusing example comes early in the book when he is taking a colleague around to meet some of the street people with whom he works. This comes under the heading, The Dangers of Self-Infatuation.
I was becoming fascinated by the novelty of my role and the recognition it was bringing me. I was infatuated with my own image – the wild bushy hair, the beard, the exotically patterned shirts, the vests, and the bell-bottom jeans and boots. I looked more like a character from Easy Rider than a service professional. I was intoxicated by the exoticness of what I was doing (p. 73).
He goes on to discuss the changes he needed to make as a result of his sudden self-awareness. There were several similar descriptions of himself during his early years in the field. They are hard to imagine knowing Bill as he is today, very neat, well dressed, and well coifed. I wished for pictures of this scruffy, theatrical self.
This long book is organized chronologically – at first with chapters that cover the early years, his beginnings in the field of mental health and addiction treatment, his street years, becoming a therapist, his Chicago years (1976-79) working for the Dangerous Drugs Commission as a training specialist, his three years working in Washington D.C. as a consultant with Health Control Systems, Inc.(1979-1982), and going back to work in treatment in central Illinois in 1982. This chapter organization goes up through 1985. The rest of the chapters overlap with each other as Bill’s undertakings multiply.
In Chapter Nine he introduces training, consulting, and research – 1986-2005; in the next chapter he goes back to 1978 to tell about how he got involved in organizational consulting, a side of his career that goes up to 1990. Chapter Eleven (1994- 2016), describes his pursuit of writing history and the branching out of his career with invitations to speak in various international locales. Chapter Twelve (1990-2015) gets into varieties of recovery experience, such as secular recovery, Moderation Management, Jewish recovery, family recovery and others.
Although it’s not mentioned, AA Agnostica readers will see in this section how naturally the author opens his arms and accepts them as he accepts all these others.
Chapter Thirteen (1998-2016) discusses the recovery advocacy movement, which Bill has devoted so much to starting and making successful. Chapter Fourteen (1998-2017) presents recovery management and the Recovery-Oriented System of Care. Chapter Fifteen brings the book to a close with many thoughts on the past and present.
The years spent in central Illinois were where Bill did most of the clinical work that he draws from when training. On Bill’s visits to Ann Arbor, he frequently visited my social work classes where he spoke to the class about addiction treatment. I wondered at his familiarity with treatment while not knowing where this knowledge came from. He began the treatment side of his career in the Adolf Meyer Zone Center and later at the Lighthouse Institute. During that period, he entered Gateway House in Chicago for training. Bill gives Gateway House credit for helping him understand his own drug experience and leading him to “deep fellowship with a community of recovering people” (p. 17).
This book is full of anecdotes and from those many stories his views often get dropped in favor of new ones based on more recent events or contact with better-informed people.
One of those occurred when Bill was a graduate student at Goddard College, a school where students design their own curriculum. One of his mentors was Professor Ed Senay at the University of Chicago, a scholar known for his studies on methadone maintenance and a national scholar in addiction medicine. After Bill finished a rant on the stupidity of using an addictive drug to treat addiction, Dr. Senay proceeded to “point out to me that my passion on the subject of methadone was in inverse proportion to my knowledge” (p. 126).
After narratives like this, Bill typically gives a short essay on the topic, in this case, on methadone maintenance.
Bill’s graduate study, begun in 1975, opened his eyes to an abundance of new knowledge and research about addictions.
It was difficult for him to go back to the field, where so many of the beliefs about addiction and how to treat it were formed through experience without much challenge or reflection. He had to figure out how to share with old friends and colleagues that he had come to believe something completely different from the accepted dogma.
Throughout his career, he questions this dogma and slowly convinces others, but not always.
There were two individuals early on that influenced Bill’s eventual formulation of a new recovery paradigm. Both of them were men who entered treatment and graduated with good sobriety and good jobs. Neither of them survived the vicissitudes of life after treatment; one checked into a hotel and overdosed on drugs, the other hung himself in jail. Seeing these devastating outcomes, Bill realizes that we were not linking treatment to the long-term process of recovery and not linking people to a community of recovering people.
Toward the end of the book, Bill tells us the story of Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a program Ernie Kurtz introduced to Bill in the 1990s. Jim Balmer, Dawn Farm’s director came to a similar realization: the Farm was not linking its residents with the recovery community, or the larger community.
In 1999 he began transforming the program in ways that would repair those shortcomings. This comes at the beginning of the chapter on recovery management and recovery-oriented systems of care. In so many ways the entire book moves in one way or another toward this recognition. Recovery involves so much more than detox and treatment. It does not have to be the same for everyone, but there must be some form of community with which people can connect. Many of the stories in this memoir can be traced to this common thread.
Bill White has shown us all the varied pieces of his life in this professional memoir.
It is organized chronologically so that we can see how the life progressed as his realizations grew and his contacts with people all over the United States and the rest of the world also grew. You can open the book and look at the table of contents where each little piece of his story is listed by topic. There was so much here, I found that I had to go back and look at the contents to find points I wanted to revisit. I wished for an index and I wished for pictures – those were missing.
But otherwise it’s a huge, engrossing display in 471 pages of the life of a man who ended up creating a career for which there was no model. I can think of no one else who has taken on so many roles in every aspect of the world of recovery and accomplished so much in making it all come together.
Linda got to know Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1970s when she directed a small community mental health program on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. She joined the University of Georgia Social Work faculty in Athens, Georgia in 1978 and in 1979 was one of the first people to read “Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous”, written by Ernest Kurtz. Ernie joined the University of Georgia history faculty in 1979. They were married in August 1980 and Linda began attending open AA meetings with Ernie.
She continued attending AA occasionally when she moved to Chicago, Indianapolis and Ann Arbor while also going to Al-Anon meetings. Linda has published two books on self-help groups as well as numerous research articles. She has been retired from the Eastern Michigan Social Work faculty since 2004. Ernie passed away in 2015. Linda still lives in their house in Ann Arbor with their two dogs, Lacey and Maddie.
You can visit her personal website here: Linda Farris Kurtz.
Bill White’s website “contains the full text of more than 300 articles, 8 monographs, 30+ recovery tools, 9 book chapters, 3 books, and links to an additional 17 books written by William White and co-authors over the past four decades as well as more than 100 interviews with addiction treatment and recovery leaders.”
“The purpose of this site is to create a single location where such material may be located by those interested in the history of addiction treatment and recovery in the United States.”
It is well worth a visit and you can do that by clicking on the image above or here: Selected Papers.