In the late 1990s, a recovery advocacy organization invited me to Dallas, Texas to talk about the history of addiction treatment and recovery in America. In responding to such requests, I often arrived early enough before my presentation to interview any old-timers I could locate about their early experiences in jails, treatment institutions, and mutual aid societies. In Dallas, I had arranged to interview a number of old-timers about the early history of treatment in the Southwest, and was fortunate to have a number of people with decades of sobriety and considerable knowledge about the relationship between AA and early treatment institutions in the Southwest.
After touring the AA clubhouse and interviewing this distinguished group, we took a break, and Searcy W., the oldest of the old-timers there, asked me, “Bill, what is this research stuff you do?” I explained that I worked out of an addictions research institute and that we spent most of our time conducting treatment follow-up studies to scientifically evaluate the effectiveness of addiction treatment. I proudly noted that we had a few studies that were going to follow people for five years after treatment. He then mused, “Five years? Very impressive,” and then asked me, “What does your research tell you about characters like us (waving an arm to include the other old-timers)?” It was a stunning question. I had to admit, that from the standpoint of science, we knew almost nothing about such long-term recovery. I finished my interview and my professional talks in Dallas, but Searcy’s probing question haunted me in the weeks following my visit.
Searcy’s question came at a time I was trying to sort out what remaining contributions I could make to the field. I continued to reflect on this when I heard of Searcy’s death that next year. I resolved that whatever time I had left in my career I would dedicate to answering his question. I realized that, as a field, we could fill whole libraries with what we knew about psychoactive drugs and the processes and consequences of addiction. We also know a great deal about specialized addiction treatment and its short-term effects. But what do we know about the solutions? It was time I and the field expanded the knowledge base from a sole focus on the problem and its related clinical and social interventions to the lived process of recovery experienced every day by several million individuals and their families. It was time to shift my focus of attention to the prevalence, pathways, stages, and styles of long-term addiction recovery.
What I did not fully realize at the time was how much this shift in focus would profoundly change my view of a field I had already worked in for more than 30 years. My epiphany in Dallas was the first step in a process of professional rebirth with far-reaching effects that I could not have envisioned at the time. It created a clarity of purpose through which all my subsequent work was filtered. Issues unrelated to this recovery focus, I progressively weeded from my professional life, while casting a broad net in hopes of aligning myself with opportunities to shift the field’s focus towards long-term personal and family recovery. Once that clarity of focus was achieved through an irrevocable commitment, unexpected opportunities arrived as if by plan. This confirmed my belief that few things are as essential to success as clarity of purpose. As you look at the span of your professional activities, what is your primary purpose?