My Career as an Addiction Professional
My interest in addiction services began when almost everyone else involved in the field was a recovering person and a common refrain that I heard was “You can’t understand an alcoholic unless you are an alcoholic.” I also had no plan to get involved in the treatment of people with addictive disorders. Like many unplanned events in our lives, it just happened.
In 1961-1962, I was a psychologist working in a Pennsylvania Department of Correction Classification (read “assessment”) Center for male state felons, which was located within Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Classification Center was referred to as the “Center” and the rest of the penitentiary in which it was housed as the “House.” There was a single purpose to the assessment and that was to determine what level of security a particular inmate would require and that would determine to which Pennsylvania correctional facility he would be referred to complete his sentence.
As I performed these assessments, it became clear that most of the inmates would not be in prison if it were not for alcohol (the primary drug problem at that time). An insight that I did not make until many years later is that many of these inmates would not meet current DSM diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence but had impulse control and anger management problems severe enough that when they drank at all, they became involved in illegal activities.
My observation about the connection between alcohol use and conviction for criminal behavior captured my interest, and I began attending open AA and Al-Anon meetings and a weekly educational presentation for the general community provided by a local psychiatric hospital that treated alcoholics. I arrived at the conclusion that most of these men would not be in prison if it were not for alcohol and I thought I could do something to make a difference for both the inmates and the community.
We did not do inmate assessments at the Center on Friday afternoons and I decided to use that time to make a presentation to inmates (25 at a time). To prepare for this, I stayed hours beyond the end of my shift (which allowed me to eat the world’s worst lunch a second time for dinner in the staff dining room) and spent hours on my knees drawing a ten foot long representation of Jellinek: “Progress of Alcoholism Chart” on butcher paper. All of the materials I needed for this were paid for out of my own pockets (which were very small back then).
Because of my AA meeting involvement I became aware of an AA World Service pamphlet entitled “Memo to an Inmate Who May Be Alcoholic” which I remember as about 20 pages and had a cost of 20¢. I sent a request for a purchase order for 200 of the pamphlets to my supervisor who forwarded it to the director of the Classification Center who in turn forwarded it to the Director of Education in the “House” (who had to approve all such purchases) who forwarded it to the Deputy Warden who forwarded it the Warden who in turn forwarded it to the Director of Education (once more). It is important to understand that this process took about three weeks and it became clear to me that the request would not be approved. It is also important to understand that correctional facilities were all about custody (e.g., security, guards, etc.) and anyone or anything that was not associated with custody was automatically considered anti-custody (e.g., psychologists, social workers).
Knowing what I was trying to do, one of the House inmates assigned to the Center to help the staff offered to have the pamphlet reprinted in the prison print shop by a “buddy” of his. Because it was copyrighted, I wrote AA World Service and asked for reprint permission, telling them that I could not afford to purchase them. They responded telling me that they could not give me permission to reprint but that they were sending me 100 free copies. I was so elated with their reply that I have my letter to AA and their response framed and hanging in my office.
When I received them, I numbered each, gave them to the inmates to read before the Friday afternoon session they were to attend and then collected them afterward to be reused with the next group of inmates.
The purpose of the session was not to get them to identify as alcoholics but rather to answer one question, “Would I be in prison if it were not for my drinking?” In the last part of the session, I told them the resources at each of the institutions to which they would be transferred. Those resources included prisons that had AA meetings, a chaplain that was interested and would do counseling, etc. The focus was on what the inmate could do while serving their sentence that might keep them from being re-incarcerated.
The suspicion that I raised within the prison administration about what I had been doing by remaining after my normal workday to prepare for the sessions was compounded by the Friday sessions themselves and rose to the level of perceived subversiveness on my part by prison administration. They even had some of the administrative staff sit in on the Friday sessions to “catch me.”
I discovered that the chaplain in the House was the person who sponsored the prison AA meetings which could only occur if there was a staff sponsor. Since he was not able to be at all the meetings, I asked the prison officials to be a co-sponsor which would mean attending the meetings on my own time at night. I was turned down with the bizarre explanation that the AA meeting “was a House function and I was a Center employee.”
This entire process had gone on about six months when I came to two realizations: (1) I wanted to work with alcoholics and (2) I could not do it in that environment. I put the word out among the people I had met in the “alcoholism community” that I wanted to leave the prison and work with alcoholics. Shortly thereafter, a person who I had met was offered a job at Caron Foundation (then Chit-Chat Farms) but he was returning to school full-time so he asked me whether I would like to be considered for the position. I was definitely interested and he gave Dick Caron, the founder of Chit Chat Farms, my name and phone number. After some phone calls and an interview, I became the newest member of the Chit Chat Farms staff with the title of assistant director but the job of counselor.
I was employed at Chit Chat Farms (the “Farm”) for a total of 17 years, first as a counselor, then Director of Therapy and finally as the Executive Director. Being the first non-alcoholic in any position at the facility in the early years was very hard for me (“You can’t understand an alcoholic unless you are one” from some recovering people and “If you work with drunks you will ruin your reputation” from some of my professional colleagues). Like the other facility counselors in the early 1960’s, my schedule was 26 days on and two days off and once a week I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. I was paid a salary of $3,000.00/year, room and board, which was initially my family and I eating with the patients in the facility dining room. I had an extension of the office telephone in my apartment and I must say that I had some very interesting middle of the night phone calls. It is important to understand that at that time and in that environment, no one thought any of this was strange. What drove the staff was a sense of commitment and conviction.
As the Farm became more professionalized without losing its caring and concern for the individual patient, more non-alcoholic clinical staff were hired and the early anti-professional and anti-nonalcoholic bias dissipated.
As I look back, I am not sure that I would willingly again sign
up for my early years at the Farm but in retrospect I am glad I went through
the process and strangely have great fondness for those years. Over the
years I feel I made a major contribution to the facility and the field through
my employment at Caron, but Caron also gave me an even greater opportunity
to grow and develop professionally. Most importantly, my experience as a
counselor, clinical director and executive director fueled my passion for
working in the field, a passion as strong after almost 45 years as it was
early in my career.