AN OUTING IN EVANS
William W. Berry
495 Connecticut Street
Buffalo, New York 14213
First Serial Rights
In the Fall, 1998 issue of Mental Health World, "Turning Around Intolerance" ("Welcome to Allentown") examined the xenophobic basis of the anti-social services movement in Buffalo's Allentown district. That article concluded that the most effective means of clearing the pervasive uncharitable atmosphere would be the open involvement of social services recipients in their block clubs and neighborhood associations. This follow-up piece by the same author contemplates the motivations and experiences of one person who did just that, although in a different part of town. It is offered in the hopes of encouraging and informing those who are understandably fearful of making such a leap.
An Outing in Evans
by William W. Berry
The Town of Evans early today said no to a rehabilitation center for 50 addicts on the Derby lakefront...After a stormy five-hour public hearing, punctuated by shouting, catcalls, insults and wild applause by a crowd of more than 250 residents, the Evans Town Board voted unanimously at 1 a.m. to deny the company a special-use permit...Dr. Douglas Gilbert, an Evans physician who treats alcoholics, hushed the crowd with an emotional appeal for the project. 'I am an alcoholic and a narcotics addict,' he said. 'When you talk about what kind of people would come to this facility, you're talking about me. If rehabilitation hadn't been available to me, I wouldn't be standing here--I'd be dead.'
Buffalo News, February 20, 1992
Seven and one-half years later, but only fifteen miles away, in Buffalo, Doug Gilbert waits at an Allentown cafe. He is tall, even seated by the window at the sheet steel table in the wrought iron chair. He is bearded, the permanently adopted outgrowth of impersonating Meister Eckhardt in a recent production of his own stage play, Meister Eckhardt Speaks. His wife wanted him to keep the whiskers. Meister Eckhardt was a thirteenth century Dominican monk who preached "belonging through detachment, prostration and prayer" to his Rhineland neighbors. Doug is a Presbyterian minister who is not comfortable confined to the heavy chair, to predestination doctrine or to a century and land whose preachers are not leaders. His neighbors are in western New York.
He precociously greets his lunch date by name as the shorter man, whom he has never met, arrives in the rain and closes his umbrella and the door to the street. Doug has, Doug explains, looked him up in a twelve-year-old pictorial directory and he hasn't changed all that much. At Doug's suggestion, and by astonishing coincidence, they had earlier made plans to meet this day at another restaurant, several blocks down Allen Street, close by and within sight of the white pickets which still perch rudely at the corner of Main. But that ironical spot was closed for the week.
After several tries at selecting something they're not "out of," Doug settles on bacon and eggs; his companion, linguine. The new arrival wants to know what happened after that 1992 meeting and the newspaper publicity. Did the rehabilitation center ever open? What happened to your practice and reputation? Has there been opposition to similar facilities since? As strident? Have you any regrets about being so open? Have any of the opponents repented? What about the fate of others who spoke in favor? How did treatment help you? Why you would put so much on the line.
Doug responds with his story. He grew up in Middleport, up in Niagara County, graduating from high school in 1962. Hobart College. Princeton Theological Seminary. A year at St. Andrew's in Scotland studying the New Testament in Greek. A parish pastor near Corning. Then on to medical school in Philadelphia, a general surgery residency in Cleveland and neurosurgery residency in Detroit. Increasing amounts of alcohol and other drugs and always more degrees and achievements to accompany them. He picked up tobacco smoking from the thoracic surgeon who mentored him in Cleveland. They would remove a cancerous lung, then break for a cigarette together before moving on to the next patient. He still smokes.
But the drinking and drugging would stop in 1985. After a marriage and three children and a divorce. After years of telling himself that he was too smart and too accomplished to be so sick. And after being told by another woman he loved that he was a drunk and she wanted nothing to do with him.
In September, 1985, he signed up for the 28-day detoxification program at the Chit Chat Rehabilitation Center in Pennsylvania. He came out clean and stayed that way. In late 1990, on the shores of Lake Erie, after five years of misery and meetings, he met a Catholic priest who talked to him and tried to understand him. Doug was this close to suicide.
Doug told him of the boyhood beatings, the emotional and sexual mistreatment. The cleric helped him to understand that he had been treating his childhood wounds with alcohol and other drugs and recommended a five and one-half day family counseling program at Chit Chat. It had helped others he knew to learn how to uncover these mysterious early afflictions. People who are paralyzed with fear don't want to drag out these injuries just because they are so affecting, so consuming, so shaming. But the program would help him to identify his particular curses and give him some tools to moderate and move forward from their adverse effects.
Desperate, Doug got right on the phone and discovered that the sessions were booked for months. By confessing to the woman on the phone that he might not "be around" for the next opening, he convinced her to admit him to the one starting the next week.
That five and one half days taught Doug that his parents were sick, not bad. The experience made it easier for him to forgive and harder for him to be so angry. He began to understand that in adulthood he had been replicating his experiences in childhood--hiding and covering up and avoiding these memories that hurt him so much. He cemented these realizations with three more years of Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings; with three years of struggling with a painful past he had not wanted to dig up. Counseling really did save his life.
He now teaches addiction medicine at the University of Buffalo medical school "when it occurs to them to offer such a basic course." He studies and interprets the Sermon on the Mount and visits prisons to treat the inmates. He continues to see and treat more conventional patients. He refuses to do business with HMOs.
Finishing off his omelette, Doug muses on what might have possessed him that freezing night in Evans to bare his intemperate soul before so many so merciless. He reveals to his still hungry companion that he had already "lost his anonymity" back in 1985 when he first sought help and counseling for his addictions. In a fit of irony, the CEO of the hospital where he was then Chief of Staff "blew him in" to the State Health Department only after Doug had acknowledged his problem and stopped drugging and drinking. He went bankrupt defending the charges but managed to keep his license and his patients.
So speaking out in 1992 at a huge public gathering studded with news gatherers risked little more than the gamble he had taken when he first admitted he was a drunk and a junkie. Then he chanced his reputation to save his life. Seven years later, getting up to speak out openly for the recovery center energized him and made him feel invincible just as first acknowledging his addiction and sickness gave him a chance to stay physically alive. Both times he needed public affirmation to "fix the brokenness." First his. Then his and Evans'. Why did he need the audiences?
The healing had to acknowledge the disorder: he hadn't been able to love himself; he had not been good enough, so he had always sought others' recognition. His addictions, though, cloaked childhood trauma, reenacting the childhood cover-up each day of his adult life. The nature of the hurt required secrecy and seclusion. The hiddenness was part of the disability. In coming to accept and care for himself he still needed the attention of others; hiding these secrets had gnawed away at his sense of being part of the world. This need to share to stop the private addiction, was in the Evans crowd that evening folded into and fortified by an external cause: the bid to salvage an operation whose prototype had actually saved his life by acquainting him with these realizations.
Even more, this speaking out in Evans was for a facility which was feared and opposed because "... if the bums get too close, I might have to face those demons in me, also, and confront those forces and problems in my own life which I'm trying to hide." As Doug saw it, the opposition that night was submerged in an epidemic of hopelessness which it did not have the tools to resist. Every one of them supposed that this organization, its bureaucratic creators, its powerful supporters and its unseemly following, were all out to subvert their individual choices to live in peace and isolation in a town bordering Eden. For them, that battle, then, represented a specific outcropping of the smothering malaise of hopelessness which surrounds them and convinces them that everyone is trying to take away something from everyone else. Then there was Doug stating, "No, it doesn't have to be this way. It isn't this way. I am one of you and a place like this gave me my life. This one will give you yours, not take it away." Doug fought for the life of the rehabilitation center and his community because counseling and then his community had given life to him.
To join the block club or to speak out at such a gathering is, then, to stage a redeeming drama. You must acknowledge a problem to begin to work it out. This is about accepting: accepting the history and the body that combined to bring you to this point. Accepting who you have become represents an end to covering up those influences; an end to pretending that all those causes had no effects. If you haven't accepted your past influences, you haven't accepted the need to abstain because you still want to obliterate them with drugs and alcohol. Maybe you haven't accepted your need to take medicine to lighten those delusional escapes from your situation, or perhaps you haven't accepted the need to get some help to balance your checkbook. If you have accepted yourself, it is impossible to hide that history from the others. Being open and accepting are part of the same process. If you can't disclose, you haven't accepted because you are still saying to yourself that what "they" think about you is more important to you than who you have become.
This is basic Howard W. Campbell stuff. Vonnegut 101. You become what you pretend to others to be. A prisoner. Think about your pretensions. If you continue to pretend that you've never suffered these curses you've gone ahead and denied to others that there is anything you or anyone can do to alter this aftermath you are living through. You have erected a jail. Predestination rears its debilitating silhouette: to forget and avoid pain, we drink or escape into delusions and that's just the way it is. To be able, rather, to engineer change, to deconstruct the penitentiary, to, in Doug's words, experience true resurrection, you must accept and study the calculus of the past. And you must be willing to move beyond that past.
And it is also about energy and time. Pretending borrows all this space that you would otherwise be using, naturally and unconsciously, openly and easily, for making the changes and for understanding your past trauma to make those changes possible. You don't open up to that new acquaintance who seems so ready to understand because your energies are directed into your mask.
The good citizens of Allentown lament an "unsightly congestion." Is it possible the crowd at Evans doesn't want to even see the addicts because each of the group as individuals has not accepted themselves and each and every person who has admitted a problem and sought treatment threatens to uncover their disguises? Is the psychological basis of xenophobia, that "hard-wired" distrust of the strange, related to another hardwired process which conspires to obliterate the memory of pain? Have we done mischief if we bring that specter home?
Doug's story and musings have taken his listener into this reflective spiral. He asks Doug if there weren't any ill effects of the outing in Evans. Doug says no. It was all positive for him. He doesn't think any of his patients abandoned him. He has earned a deference reserved for the forthright. What about the crowd? It's as if Doug has circled with his correspondent's thoughts: "Each and every one of them will be less likely to think the stranger they meet is trying to take something away from them." And that is because they know Doug has faced his demons and Doug is familiar to them.
But, no, the rehabilitation center never happened. And no others have popped up. He is not aware of the fate of any of the others who stood up for the rehabilitation center that midnight in 1992. Not one of the opponents has ever come to him hat in hand. Any gauge to measure the sum total of Evans' distrust is not so finely calibrated that we will be able to determine the Doug Gilbert variation the next time such a clinic comes up for debate. But because Doug unmasked his own struggle in the presence of his neighbors and because the sum total of that fear of strangers mirrors or maybe even duplicates the aggregate fear of all their own masked and unaccepted selves, the gauge will certainly read lower next time.
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