Specialist in addiction medicine since 1973, author of The Twelve Step Pathway - A Heroic Journey of Recovery

I just finished reading John Thompson’s autobiography, I Came as a Shadow. His is an excellent example of the Heroic Journey, of overcoming monumental difficulties in achieving success in life. He grew up in a poor Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the youngest of four children. His mother graduated college with a teaching degree but was unable to get a job teaching, so she cleaned the houses of white people. (My late wife’s grandmother was a black woman who graduated with a teaching degree from Selma College in Alabama but was unable to get a teaching job in Alabama because she was married. I am serious! So, she cleaned the houses of white women.) His father was a hard-working man who never learned to read. John had great difficulty learning to read, and the teachers said he was “retarded.” There were many spirit guides in his life, and the first one, after his parents, was a teacher who took the trouble to teach him how to read. His goal in life was to earn a college degree and not have to engage in physical labor the way his father had done in order to stay alive and indoors at night.


As he was doing this, he grew into a giant of a man who learned to play basketball. This opened many educational opportunities and eventually, job opportunities for him. As he matured, he grew into a self-confident, outspoken man who was willing to speak his mind regardless of the potential consequences. He always thought of himself primarily as a teacher with the basketball court as his classroom. He interacted with powerful people and learned how things worked, from the inside. He quotes Father Heath who at the time was a professor of philosophy at Georgetown. “I am an American white man. I have more privileges and status than you. And I don’t ever want to make anybody equal to me. All us white men, we don’t really want to give up the privileges and advantages that we have.” John quotes this in his autobiography to show what he realized that he and his Black peers were and still are up against. In my opinion, it is the great challenge that faces our country today. Black people don’t want to take away the privileges of the white man; they just want the same opportunity as the white man. Some white people will always feel threatened by the prospect of losing their advantages. Coach was criticized for making everything into a racial issue, but his view was that everything that affects Black people is racial.


Coach Thompson took on racial prejudice in a direct way and got a lot of criticism for it. He understood that on the Heroic Journey of his own life that it was not enough to achieve his own dream—he had to work to help others achieve theirs. He took on a lot of students and tried to get them through Georgetown, some of whom he found playing basketball in the parks in Washington. He always let them know that if they came to Georgetown, he expected them to graduate. Many of his players didn’t stick with the program, but of those who played for four years only two failed to graduate. One of the things I admire him for is being able to say he was wrong about something or somebody. Another thing I admire is the way he gives many people credit for the success that he had. He credits Dean Smith, the famous coach at the University of North Carolina as an important mentor who was meticulous about work and detail. He learned that seventy percent of winning basketball was learned off the court. John had a slogan, “The guy who gets up at six and starts walking will always beat the guy who gets up at noon and starts running.”


Coach Thompson was a major opponent of Proposition 42 which the NCAA enacted in the late 1980’s. It set minimum educational standards and in John’s mind was unfair to black students who by and large came from inferior educational environments which prepared them poorly for college work. He felt so strongly about it that he made a big production of walking off the court at the start of a game as a gesture of protest. When the rule was enacted, there were 600 players in the country on athletic scholarship who would not be allowed to return to school in the fall, 90 percent of them Black. There was a great hue and cry in the sports world including many blacks who disagreed with him, Arthur Ashe for one. In the end the NCAA suspended the rule. There is a great lesson here about being heroic, accepting the challenge, getting whatever help you need, spiritual and otherwise, and doing the right thing regardless of the consequences. He was even credited for being heroic. His comment in the book about that is “The m…..f….. who ain’t afraid ain’t no hero, because he didn’t care anyway.” As far as being right he had an interesting take on a saying from Gandhi who said that people aren’t really free until they have the freedom to make mistakes. This is what he had to say about the real heroes: “To hell with winning games, or dunking backwards, or making three-point shots. The real heroes are the ones who lived in bondage, or scrubbed toilets when they couldn’t teach school, or went to work instead of learning how to read. When Georgetown spent sixty-two million on a new athletic center, I said, ‘That’s my father’s name on this building.’ The real heroes are the ones who took a lot of shit so I could talk a lot of shit.”  (The building was named for John Thompson, also his father’s name.)


He also specifically names his heroes, people whose pictures hung in his office: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Barack and Michelle Obama, Red Auerbach, Dean Smith, and Dave Gavitt. He also had a small statue of the Blessed Virgin on his desk—he drew much comfort from his relationship with her.


I Came as a Shadow is also a great basketball book, dealing as it does from the inside with a time period of terrific college basketball. From that standpoint it will be enjoyable to those who remember the names of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Allen Iverson, and Dikembe Mutombo. Books like this are inspirational as well as informative. I hope in reading  this blog  someone, anyone, is inspired to be heroic. I wish you all courageous travels.

Noah is generally credited, if that is the right term, with being the first alcoholic in the Bible. It is possible that he was, but the evidence is scant. This is the scripture from the New International Version (NIV), Book of Genesis, Chapter 9, Verse 20-21: “Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard.  When he drank some of his wine he became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.” Now, getting drunk after drinking some wine does not make a man an alcoholic. However, we have a possible clue that he may have been alcoholic in verse 21 where it says, in part, “When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him,…” This refers to Ham having found his father naked in his tent and joking about it to his older brothers. The clue is that it seems that Noah did not recall the incident because of the phrase “found out what his youngest son had done to him.” A symptom of alcoholism is memory lapses for the period of intoxication. This typically comes about during episodes of heavy drinking during which the drinker appears to be cognizant of his or her surroundings; but the next day does not recall some or all of what had transpired. The common term for such an incident is a “blackout.” However, blackouts also occur in persons who do not have the disease of alcoholism. They would typically occur in a circumstance in which a person, for whatever reason, has drank much more than is their usual custom. If Noah had just made his first batch of wine from his vineyard and had not drunk for an extended period of time, he could have easily overdone his consumption and gotten very drunk to the point of blacking out.


A more likely candidate for the first alcoholic in the Bible is Lot, Abraham’s nephew. An incident occurred with his daughters in which he blacked out and had sex with each of them, the older on one night and the younger daughter the following night. The daughters had worked out a scheme to get him to participate in this activity by getting him drunk, knowing that they could get him drunk, and that he would not remember what happened during the period of his intoxication. So, they knew him to be a blackout drinker. Only an alcoholic would have such a drinking pattern. The circumstances which led up to this remarkable story was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The preliminary to the destruction was a debate between God and Abraham about whether God was justified in bringing about such a cataclysmic event. God had agreed to save the cities if ten righteous men could be identified in Sodom. So, he sent two angels disguised as men who came to the gate of the city where Lot greeted them and invited them to his home. Hooligans from the city surrounded Lot’s home and demanded that he release the men to them so that they could have their way with them. There is the implicit suggestion was that they wanted to rape the men, and that the great sin of the city was sexual immorality. Lot offered the hooligans a deal—he would send out his two virgin daughters instead so the villagers could rape them instead. The angels had to intervene and strike the men blind so they were incapacitated and could not effect a break-in.


What are we to think of Lot? Is it nobler to allow a mob to rape one’s daughters than one’s house guests? This is an outrage to our sensibilities, but on at least two accounts it makes sense given the times in which this story occurred. First, women had no rights as to whom they marry or cohabit with in those days in that society. While we are outraged, we can judge Lot based on the context of the times. I think more importantly, the virtue of hospitality was of prime importance. Recall the gracious hospitality of Abraham when he was visited by the three men who travelled by his tent. Inhospitality was a great sin in the tales and literature of the Greeks. This theme was brought forward by Shakespeare in Macbeth. The sin of the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth was magnified by the fact that the murder was committed while Duncan was a guest in Macbeth’s castle. We learn from these epic tales about the challenges faced by people, great and small, even thousands of years ago. Suffering and injustice were commonplace. What was also commonplace thousands of years ago was alcohol and the problem of excessive drinking, which sometimes developed into the disease of alcoholism. What is also a fact, and remarkable when considered, is that until less than one hundred years ago, despite all efforts of well-intentioned people, no effective treatment had been devised that would work on more than just a few cases. All that changed in 1935 when two men met at the home of Henrietta Seiberling in Akron, Ohio. It is a remarkable story—reader of this blog may be aware of it already—and we will look at it in the next blog.

A few weeks ago I received a booklet from Oglala Lakota College (OLC) entitled Woksape Wokikta – Awakening to Wisdom. I receive these gems because of the small financial support I offer to the American Indian College Fund. The booklet contains the stories of four people who faced tremendous challenges in their lives but completed their education and are giving back to the community, all living and working at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. As a child Nichola Witt and her 3 siblings ran away from the boarding school where they were beaten and otherwise mistreated as the government tried to obliterate their Indian culture. The children walked over 100 miles to return to their home on the reservation. Nichola earned a nursing degree from OLC and has served in various capacities including Acting Director of Nursing at Pine Ridge Hospital. She accomplished this while raising 4 children as a single parent and struggling at times with severe asthma. Her grandfather was Young Man Afraid of His Horses, an Oglala chief.

Richard Iron Cloud has become a leader in his community after overcoming alcoholism through guidance in Lakota spiritual practices as well as a Twelve Step program. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors at OLC. His great-great grandfather was Iron Cloud who fought in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The stories of Loretta Giago and Alice Phelps are also inspiring. They also have ancestors who were great leaders of their people. All these stories are fine examples of the Heroic Journey. All were challenged to accomplish a quest that appeared to be impossible. All accepted the challenge and the mentorship and spiritual guidance on the way. All completed their quest, a college education. All returned to their home community with gifts, their knowledge, which allowed them to help their communities, and their self-respect which inspires others to respect themselves and their native culture and language—and, all gained in depth knowledge of themselves as spiritual people.

While in my book I write about recovery from addiction as a Heroic Journey, I do also make the point that life can be a Heroic Journey for everyone. The Heroic Journey is one in which the hero is challenged in life to overcome great obstacles on the way to being a success in life. The obstacles are external, such as poverty, abuse, lack of basic necessities, illness—each person has his or her own difficulties. More significant are the internal challenges—fear, resentment, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, and often some type of addiction or mental health disorder. The experience of millions has proven that all these obstacles can be overcome. While there are many paths to achieve success on the Heroic Journey, the Twelve Steps provide an excellent formula for such success. It is worthwhile making the point that you don’t have to be an addict to work a Twelve Step program. Jerry Hirschfield has written a book entitled The Twelve Steps for Everyone who Really Wants Them (Hazelden, 1994) which proves the point. What is clear is that nobody can do it alone, but also that nobody can do it for you. It is a spiritual adventure which involves a deep looking within and discovery of one’s spiritual core. It is a scary journey at times, but one well worth taking. My journey has brought me to a place in my life that I never could have imagined or hoped for and prepared me to deal with life on life’s terms. Most gratifying are the relationships I have with my family, friends, with the God of my understanding, and the positive way in which I can experience myself today.

I have a great personal and professional interest in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I find the history of the origins of this movement to be fascinating. There are several good books on the history of A.A., some of which I will list at the end of this blog. There is always a story before the story—who can say what is the first event in a historical recounting? —there is always a context. Let’s start with two men, Dr. Carl Jung, and Rev. Frank Buchman. Dr. Jung was a pioneer of modern psychology, a Swiss psychiatrist who developed a theory of personality which is still widely respected today, a century later. Frank Buchman had a spiritual experience which led to his founding a non-denominational Christian movement which was quite popular in the first part of the 20th century, at which time it was known as the Oxford Group. We will now bring in a third man, Rowland Hazard. He was from a well-established Rhode Island family which came to America in the 1600’s. Members of the family had been prominent bankers, lawyers, judges, businessmen, politicians, and educators. Rowland was successful in his own right, but his success was limited by his chronic alcoholism. In 1926 or 1927 he went to Switzerland to consult with Dr. Jung (he had tried to see Dr. Freud in Austria, but Freud was ill and not taking new patients), and he was in therapy for about a year. Returning to the United States, he soon relapsed. He returned to Switzerland where Dr. Jung told him that he had no further treatment to offer him. He did what he could, and it didn’t work. Rowland asked if there was another approach that might help, and Jung told him that sometimes people have dramatic personality readjustments through religious or spiritual experiences. Rowland was no stranger to the church, and found this quite discouraging, but he learned of the Oxford Group. He became involved and quit drinking for several years.


Rowland was in New York when he learned of the pending commitment to a mental asylum for chronic alcoholism of the brother of a friend of his up in Vermont. The friend was John Boyd Thacher, II, the mayor of Albany, New York from 1927-1941. Thacher also ran once unsuccessfully for Governor of New York on the Democratic ticket. His brother was Ebby Thacher, a much less successful and less distinguished member of the family, at least in part due to his chronic alcoholism. Rowland was also acquainted with Cebra G., another Oxford group member and former drinker who was the brother of the judge who was to hear the case. Rowland, Cebra, and another Oxford Group member went up to Vermont and obtained the release of Ebby, agreeing to take responsibility for him. They brought him back to New York city and installed him in a rescue mission operated by the Calvary Episcopal Church where Rev. Sam Shoemaker was the rector. Shoemaker was a leader in the Oxford Group and had invited Buchman to establish his headquarters at Calvary. Important precepts of the Oxford Group were service and evangelism. As such in this situation, Ebby was soon expected to get out and start saving souls—to recruit new people into the group. He chose as his first subject an old childhood friend and drinking buddy of his from Vermont, Bill Wilson. Bill had been active in business on Wall Street, but had ruined his reputation through his drinking, a fact of which Ebby was well-aware.  He paid him a visit in November of 1934. Bill, who was pretty much of an agnostic with atheistic tendencies, was moderately inebriated during the visit, but not so much so that he did not remember what Ebby had said. A few days later Bill decided to investigate the mission where Ebby was living. Arriving there drunk, he sat and listened to testimony of men who had quit drinking, and then answered the altar call, making a drunken spectacle of himself. But a seed had been planted and was on the verge of germination. A few days later he took the subway back to Towns Hospital, where he had undergone detox on three prior occasions,  and requested admission. While there, he was alone in his room after receiving a dose of medication, and he called on God to show himself if He was real. Bill immediately had a profound spiritual experience but feared he had lost his mind. Calling the doctor, William Silkworth, he told him what had occurred, and asked if he was hallucinating. Dr. Silkworth told him he was sane, and that whatever he had experienced he had better hang on to it. This was a turning point in Bill’s life. A few days later he went home, and never drank again. There is much more to the story as it goes on, of course, and we will have occasion to explore this history in more detail. It is worth noting that if Freud had not been ill, had Jung not been honest, if Hazard had not involved himself in the Oxford Group, if Shoemaker had not set up the Oxford Group Headquarters and the rescue mission at his church, if Ebby had not gotten himself confined to jail in Vermont through a drunken escapade (trying to paint a house while intoxicated), if Hazard had not learned of Ebby’s pending commitment, if Cebra was not also in the Oxford Group in New York, if Cebra’s brother was not the judge hearing Ebby’s case, and if Dr. Silkworth had not assured Bill Wilson that he had not hallucinated, Alcoholics Anonymous would probably never happened. Many people see the involvement of a Higher Power in bringing all this about. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a random occurrence.


Here is a partial listing of books that may be of interest to some readers.


‘Pass It On’ – Bill Wilson and the A.A. Message, A.A. World Services, Inc., 1984

Bill W., Robert Thomsen, 1975

The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous, Dick B., 1998

Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernest Kurtz, 1979

New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle, Mel B., 1991

Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A., William H. Schaberg, 2019

Father Ed Dowling: Bill Wilson’s Sponsor, Glenn F. Chestnut, 2015