Reflections on the Lessons of History: Bill White

Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America by William L. White isn’t just a fascinating and enjoyable read, it has also taught me so much. Bill White’s book, his other writings, and our meeting in the UK in 2009, have been so inspirational for me.

I’m currently trying to write a book about addiction recovery, which includes details of my own journey (experiences, thoughts and emotions) as I learnt about the field and tried to develop an initiative (Wired In) which I hoped would help individuals, families and communities. Writing the book is quite a challenge and I have done a good deal of reflecting, a fair amount of writing, and lots of correcting!

Today, I pulled Slaying the Dragon off one of my bookshelves to read the last parts. I knew they would help inspire me and provide the fuel for more reflections on the structure of my book. It also made me realise that I needed to post the last sections of Bill’s book in a blog because they are so important for all of us working in this field. I hope they help you in your work and in reflecting on what you do. I can strongly recommend purchasing Bill’s amazing book.

Please note, that I have changed the paragraphing from Bill’s original, simply to make it easier to read on a computer or  other device. Enjoy!

History as a Lesson in Humility

As a culture, we have heaped pleas, profanity, prayers, punishment, and all manner of professional manipulations on the alcoholic and addict, often with little result. With our two centuries of accumulated knowledge and the best available treatments, there still exists no cure for addiction, and only a minority of addicted clients achieve sustained recovery following our intervention in their lives. There is no universal successful cure for addiction—no treatment specific.

In 200 years of addiction treatment history, the most significant breakthroughs have existed alongside the most ill-conceived. Some of the most passionately claimed truths and best championed interventions have proven wrong, ineffective, and at times harmful. It is easy for us to smugly condemn the past imbecility of treating morphine addiction with cocaine, or to be outraged at the cruelty of sterilizing and lobotomizing alcoholics and addicts, but it would be the ultimate in arrogance and blindness for us to deny such errors in understanding and judgement are likely present in our own era.

Given this perspective, addiction professionals who claim universal superiority for their treatment disqualify themselves as scientists and healers by the very grandiosity of that claim. The meager results of our best efforts—along with our history of doing harm in the name of good—calls for us to approach each client, family, and community with respect, humility, and a devotion to the ultimate principle of ethical practice: “First, do no harm.” 

Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

So what does history tell us about how to conduct one’s life in this most unusual of professions? I think the lessons from those who have gone before are very simple ones.

  • Respect the struggles of those who have delivered the field into your hands.
  • Respect yourself and your limits.
  • Respect the addicts and family members who seek you help.
  • Respect (with a hopeful but healthy scepticism) the emerging addiction science.
  • And respect the power of forces you cannot fully understand to be present in the treatment process.

Above all, recognise that what addiction professionals have done for more than a century and a half is to create a setting and an opening in which the addicted can transform their identity and redefine every relationship in their lives, including their relationship with alcohol and other drugs. 

What we are professionally responsible for is creating a milieu of opportunity, choice and hope. What happens with that opportunity is up to the addict and his or her god. We can own neither the addiction nor the recovery, only the clarity of the presented choice, the best clinical technology we can muster, and our faith in the potential for human rebirth.

Slaying the Dragon

I have enmeshed in this history for the past ten years, and the most profound of message I have drawn from this work is the power of one individual and a single institution to change the future, often in the face of insurmountable odds. I think that we can draw sustenance from many of these heroes and heroines, and extract important values and lessons from their lives to keep us focused during the turbulent days ahead. I think we must ask these pioneers to help us keep our eyes on the prize, ask them to help us when we doubt ourselves, ask them to help us stay focused.

I look back on 30 years of working with alcoholics and addicts with few illusions about this incredibly imperfect instrument we call “treatment”, but still believing that, at its best, it has the power to heal bodies, touch hearts and transform lives. I would bid those of you who would carry this history forward to align yourselves as closely as possible with that power. When you strip away all of the pomp and paper and procedures, it is that power that has and will continue to be the beacon of hope for us all. If the external structures of the field one day collapse, it is that power that will rise again in the future. The privilege to participate in this process of rebirth is the most sacred thing in our field. It is a prize worth protecting.

Slaying the dragon—for our clients and ourselves—begins with waging war against our flawed selves and ends with the capacity to move forward through the acceptance and transcendence of our own imperfection. In this transition exists recovery, service, and life for us all.

To those of you who choose to toil in the treatment of alcoholics and addicts, let me say that generations of humanly flawed but highly committed individuals have delivered the field to your care. You must write with your own lives the future chapters of this history. In accepting such a challenge, you must find a way to respect and learn from this history without getting trapped within it. I wish you Godspeed on your journey into that future.’ William L. White, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, pp. 341-342, 1998.