Want to read more Daniel McGraw on alcohol, Cleveland, and his own story? Belt is proud to share “A Drinking Life” an excerpt from McGraw’s First and Last Seasons, a memoir of sh*t, death, and lousy football.

By Daniel J. McGraw

The guys are sitting on lawn chairs in the driveway, about 20 of them, almost all of them smoking and hardly any talking. They are in the driveway of an older home on Denison Avenue on Cleveland’s near west side, uphill from the steel mills by the river, close to the big public hospital where trauma lives every day, and a couple blocks away from one of Cleveland’s oldest cemeteries.

Their heads are down mostly, side of the head to palm, eyes glancing up to see who this guy carrying a yellow legal pad is. One of the older guys asks who I am there to see, and I tell him the names of the people running this drug treatment center, and that I’m a writer doing a story about alcohol and drug addiction. Oh, I thought you were a lawyer or a bond agent, he says quietly. The eyes of the smokers dip back down.

[blocktext align=”right”]We know each other’s faces, because we were both in the same place somewhere before.[/blocktext]But one guy looks at me and our eyes meet for a fleeting moment. We know each other’s faces, because we were both in the same place somewhere before. I give him the knowing nod, and he gives it back. But that’s about it, because we remember each other but we don’t. Tough to explain. Meaning and memory collide with confusing unfamiliarity in the brain fluctuations of drug and alcohol addicts—with the mind sometimes lucid, and at other times off in another dimension or two. Putting poison in your body every day for years and years does that.

He goes back to gazing at the concrete, and I go inside Lia House, a rehab treatment center that has been open for a few years and houses about 50 addicts, most of them of the heroin variety. Inside I find plenty of coffee brewing, burning cigarettes in just about everyone’s hand, and the standard vacant stares that a few days or weeks or months of sobriety leaves on the faces of those doing without.

[blocktext align=”left”]We got up at 6:30 a.m. and brushed our teeth and made our beds and cleaned toilets and mopped floors. We said the “Our Father” together about a half-dozen times every day.[/blocktext]As I walk through the dark hallway to the back office, I think of that buzz-cut, big-eared skinny guy outside. We were at the Keating Center together in early 2012, “The Rock” as the Cleveland alcoholics proudly call it, sitting through about six mindless one-hour sessions every day and then going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every night. We got up at 6:30 a.m. and brushed our teeth and made our beds and cleaned toilets and mopped floors and ate lots of fried chicken donated by good people wanting to help us nearly brain-dead needy people. We said the “Our Father” together about a half-dozen times every day.

He was part of the younger, heroin-addicted crowd, the guys that acted like they were in class with a substitute teacher during our daily meetings. Because the facilitator of each group was there once a week—and didn’t know what was discussed in the other meetings that day—these funny guys would say the exact same thing word-for-word in each meeting. All of us in the classroom got the joke, but the facilitator didn’t.

For example, one guy would repeat over and over how he was inspired to quit his addiction because he was going to be an apprentice iron worker when he got out, and how he would follow the great tradition of his father and older brother being hard-working blue-collar guys who loved their mother and worked hard and loved their country. We’d all snicker a bit, especially when the facilitator would say how great it was that the iron worker apprentice was doing so well.

The iron worker apprentice OD’d the day after he got out of rehab. We got that news one morning at our spiritual meditation meeting. Now his buddy is at another joint more than two years later, his stare indicating his mind is uninhabited. My mind is not that interested in reminiscing with him.

Lia House (Photo by Bob Perkoski)

Lia House (Photo by Bob Perkoski)

When I meet with Jackie Rivera and Mark Sowden, the directors of Lia House and recovering addicts themselves, you realize how powerful the gravitational pull of addiction can be. I have forgotten some of that. They run their house by bringing in addicts for a (typically) ninth-month stay, cleaning them up for the first two, and then getting them a job outside the halfway house for the remaining months. They pay $300 per month in rent while they are working. That’s how Lia House funds its treatment for the most part.

[blocktext align=”right”]Lia House has a nine percent success rate. Meaning they think that nine percent of their graduates remain sober, because they haven’t come back.[/blocktext]Lia House has a nine percent success rate. Meaning they think that nine percent of their graduates remain sober, because they haven’t come back. The directors and I talk about the “phenomenon of craving” and 12 steps and the higher power and the serenity prayer and all that stuff that makes you think about how you are an addict. We talk about how all that stuff bounces around in your brain while you’re trying to figure out how not to think about using. All this while your memory is not only in broken pieces, but each piece is trying to trick you at the same time in different ways.

Staring down from the wall is a bulletin board of about 30 pictures, people that Rivera and Sowden have known that have OD’d recently. Many are Catholic holy cards with a little prayer attached. “If we can help one person, then we’ve done something,” Rivera says.

[blocktext align=”left”]Sowden looks over at me and me at him. We both know this guy is lying. We know that because we are both addicts, and that is what we do. We lie. At least to ourselves anyway. [/blocktext]On the way out, Sowden is having a discussion with a heroin addict who wants in, but had some dirty urine while in lockup recently and was looking at a probation violation. The guy was insistent that he used for only two days, and that he hadn’t used for three days after that. There is no way I shoulda had dirty urine. I was clean for three days. I’m telling the truth.

Sowden looks over at me and me at him, and we give the knowing nod to each other with a grin added. We both know this guy is lying. Sowden and I know that because we are both addicts, and that is what we do. We lie. At least to ourselves anyway. It’s a prerequisite for joining the club.

Bunks at Lia House (Photo by Bob Perkoski)

Bunks at Lia House (Photo by Bob Perkoski)

When people ask why I moved back to Cleveland a few years ago, I don’t see any reason not to tell the truth, and I try to keep it short. I was drinking myself to death where I lived in Texas, and there weren’t a lot of treatment options for someone with my means down there. So my older brother, Brian, and my daughter, Meredith, strongly suggested that I move back to my hometown to get sober. It’s funny to me now, because coming to Cleveland to quit drinking is like going to Amsterdam to stop smoking pot.

The thriving industries here seem to be bars and churches and funeral homes, at least much more so than they are in Texas. And I’ve always thought that all three of those industries in Cleveland depend on at least a bit of their livelihood from the drinking and drug addiction that goes on here. The first two feed on each other, and the last one is the tidy little end game.

[blocktext align=”right”]The thriving industries here seem to be bars and churches and funeral homes.[/blocktext]But is addiction worse in the Midwest than elsewhere? People think I am nuts for even asking that, and I probably am. First off, it’s hard to get any exact data on the numbers of addicts based on the aforementioned lying trait all of the responders have. And Alcoholics Anonymous has always resisted any studies that might add up any numbers on addiction.

When you go on per capita alcohol consumption data by state, the Dakotas are usually near the top and Ohio and Illinois in the middle. On bars per capita, Cleveland and Detroit and Pittsburgh rank in the top ten, but that is more a product of population loss than an intrinsic Midwestern thirst for booze. There has been a explosion of heroin use in the big Midwest cities compared to the rest of the country, but that has more to do with the business plan of the Mexican drug cartels than the nature of the Midwest. The drug cartels figured there was more profit from heroin in the suburbs than crack cocaine in the inner cities, and adjusted their business plans accordingly, per the consensus among law enforcement agencies.

[blocktext align=”left”]Is addiction worse in the Midwest than elsewhere?[/blocktext]A recent DEA study found that Midwest states break bad when it comes to methamphetamine (Illinois, Indiana and Ohio are all top-seven). But the data is based on meth lab busts in each state, and some states might be more aggressive on enforcement than others. As far as we know, there is no data measuring how many tweakers are dismantling carburetors in each state.

But I still think geography moves the needle a little bit. This region has a brutality to it, built upon industries other parts of the country wouldn’t do. The work that built the industrial Midwest was exploitive, chemically messy, not only physically tough but mindlessly repetitive. Renowned author Nelson Algren wrote about this in his 1951 essay, “Chicago: City on the Make”: “[Chicago is] the place built out of Man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man’s endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself—loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth.”

[blocktext align=”right”]This region has a brutality to it, built upon industries other parts of the country wouldn’t do.[/blocktext]Ben Hamper, a Michigan writer and radio host who spent a few decades riveting bumpers to pick-up trucks for General Motors, says it was not so much the mindless work, but the good money that added to the alcohol and drug addiction. “We used to drink all the time at lunch, because your mind needed a break,” he says. “And it was work you could do with a buzz or a hangover going. But we made lots of money too, and it’s easier to fall into serious addiction when the money’s good.”

At his home on East 35th Street in Cleveland’s Cedar/Central neighborhood, 84-year-old Catholic priest Jim O’Donnell has a similar take, but takes it a bit further. “A lot of these guys starting these factory jobs were 18 years old or younger, had just gotten married with the kids coming along, and they were just kids for the most part trying to grow up,” he says. “And you drank in bars because you were treated as an equal, and there was some solace in that.”

Father Jim O'Donnell (Photo by Bob Perkoski)

Father Jim O’Donnell (Photo by Bob Perkoski)

“And the blacks had it worse,” the priest who has worked in prison counseling for most of his career continues. “They worked hard at tough jobs too, but were told at a certain point it doesn’t matter how hard they work, that this is as far as they can go. Think of what that does to you. It’s not hard to figure out how that leads to drugs and then crime to pay for the drugs.”

PrintMichael Clune, a Chicago native and Oberlin College graduate and an English professor at Case Western Reserve University, wrote about his heroin addiction in his memoir White Out (Hazelden, 2013, excerpted in Belt last year). He sees addiction as a numbers game, with access being the key.

“There are a certain percentage of people who will become addicts to certain types of drugs no matter where they are from or their background,” Clune says. “But there are more heroin addicts because there is more access. It starts with prescription pain drugs and those lead to heroin. But I still think it’s the same percentages.”

I figured Charlie LeDuff might be able to make some sense out of all this. LeDuff is a Detroit native, a former reporter for the New York Times (where his reporting won a Pulitzer Prize), and now works as a TV news reporter in the Motor City. His book, Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Press, 2013), detailed his growing up in an environment of “a lot of drugs, a lot of rock-n-roll, a lot of tight jeans.” It is also about his younger sister, Nicole, who was caught up in drugs and prostitution and was killed after jumping out of a speeding car.”

“I don’t know if you can say the factory jobs had so much stress that people took more alcohol and drugs,” LeDuff told me over the phone. “Hey, I worked in New York and all the Wall Street traders were blowing tons of coke because of their stressful jobs.”

“We’ve had a lot of drug abuse in my family, my sister, my niece, my stepbrother all have died from it,” he says. “And if you grow up in Detroit or Cleveland, it is everywhere. But is it more than anywhere else? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

His voice trails off. A few days later, I am watching the tube and Charlie pops up on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN. Charlie and Bourdain (himself a former heroin addict) are eating at a fancy Detroit restaurant, talking of ruin porn. Then Charlie dumps his glass of gin into some fancy chilled fruit soup and starts slurping it out of the bowl. Bourdain tells LeDuff if he had done that when Bourdain was a chef, he would have stabbed him in the neck with a fork.


Josh is a heroin addict and is in his second month at Lia House. In his late twenties, he has the usual curriculum vitae going: started with alcohol, moved to prescription pain killers and other drugs, jail a few times, and rehab attempts a few more. What’s a bit different is that Josh’s father got him started on the hard stuff as a teenager. When his dad got out of prison, they bonded by doing heroin together.

[blocktext align=”left”]In the Midwest narrative about addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous is a crucial early chapter.[/blocktext]The toughest part of all rehab programs, Josh says, is “the controlled chaos caused by 40-year-old adolescents living together.” It is having rules and following them, he says, is the only thing keeping him sober. “And AA is pivotal.”

In the Midwest narrative about addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous is a crucial early chapter. The organization began in Akron in 1935, and is now the standard for treatment of most all addictive behaviors. Follow the 12 steps and establish a relationship with a higher power, and the addiction problems will go away. For some, it works. For others, it is a big lie.

Photo by Bob Perkoski

Photo by Bob Perkoski

There has been a lot written about the wonders of AA, and a lot written about it being an ineffective cult. But regardless of how AA is perceived, its precepts are ingrained into society around the world. If you are convicted of a drug charge, part of your probation usually involves getting your papers stamped at an AA meeting every week. I had to go to eight AA meetings a week as part of my rehab program. And versions of the 12 steps are now applied to drug and porn and food and every other addiction known to humans.

[blocktext align=”right”]Versions of the 12 steps are now applied to drug and porn and food and every other addiction known to humans.[/blocktext]When you get into the studies about whether AA works or not, the data is all over the map. AA has always been resistant to studies, and has even claimed a 100 percent success rate if you follow the 12 steps. Of course, the first step says to not drink anymore, so if you follow it, you will be successful.

On the other hand, numerous studies have pegged the long-term AA success rate at between five and ten percent. But those studies are based on the addicts’ AA meeting attendance. The researchers often conclude that those who stop going to meetings must be using again, and conversely, those who are attending aren’t.

I’m an example of how this reasoning is fairly useless. AA meetings can be very mindless, the drunkalogues by the lead speaker nearly identical (I had my first drink at my cousin’s first communion party, when my dad sent me down the basement to get him and my uncles beers …), and the repetition of clichéd old saws annoying (Don’t drink, don’t think, go to meetings). I was forced to go to more than 60 of those meetings over a two-month period. I stopped attending after I got out of what I now call “drinking jail.” I stayed sober without meetings.

Since I got out of rehab, I have been repeatedly told by AA members that without making meetings I would end up insane or in jail or dead. I do go once a week now, to the same meeting, but mainly because of the old guys I’ve met who have an interesting take on things. Keep it quiet, but the 12 steps and the higher power stuff don’t interest me too much. And neither does the message that if you make your bed and get on your knees and pray every morning, you’ll stay sober. AA uses that one a lot.


But what has interested me very much was how AA grew from this little social group in Akron run created by Dr. Bob and Bill W. into a huge fellowship with millions of members and meetings and treatment centers. A lot of that has to do with what happened to the movement when it moved the short distance from Akron to Cleveland. The story involves a Catholic nun who had once been in an insane asylum, and a gas station worker who hid his bottle of booze from his employers by tying it a string and suspending it in the station’s storage tanks.

[blocktext align=”left”]How did AA grow from this little social group in Akron into a millions-strong fellowship of the millions?[/blocktext]When they started AA in the 1930s, Dr. Bob and Bill W. were white-collar professionals, a proctologist and a stock trader. At the time, alcoholism was not considered a disease, but a character problem that mostly manifested in the lower classes and those with other mental issues. AA’s initial target audience, if you will, was an upper-middle-class social group that didn’t want to be lumped in with the lower-class drunks. And they did this with the standard business approach: they had meetings.

In a famous 1941 article in the Saturday Evening Post, which put AA on the national map, Jack Alexander wrote this about the early AA meetings:

“In the larger cities, A.A.s meet one another daily at lunch in favored restaurants. The groups give big parties on New Year’s and other holidays, at which gallons of coffee and soft drinks are consumed. Some play cribbage or bridge … others listen to the radio, dance, eat or just talk. All alcoholics, drunk or sober, like to gab. They are the most society-loving people in the world, which may explain why they got to be alcoholics in the first place.”

But while the AA gabfest that Alexander was writing about was going on, Sister Ignatia Gavin was setting up radical new treatments for alcoholics at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron. Born in Ireland in 1889, she emigrated with her family to Cleveland at age seven. She became a nun in 1914, and taught music in Catholic schools for about ten years. But at some point in the mid-1920s, Sr. Ignatia suffered a nervous breakdown and was put in the sanitarium. When she got out, she dropped the music teaching and became a nurse.

While at St. Thomas, she persuaded the hospital to allow her to use a small room for the alcoholics she saw coming into the emergency room suffering from delirium tremens, a common component of alcoholic withdrawal. Dr. Bob and Bill W. heard about her work at St. Thomas, and began sending patients to her. The medical establishment at the time thought of alcoholism as a character defect, rather than a disease, but Sr. Ignatia and the St. Thomas medical staff experimented with sedatives, vitamins, and dietary changes during the first few days of detox.

Sister Ignatia

Sister Ignatia

She also took great care to involve the addicts’ family with the treatment, something that seems standard now, but was a radical departure in thinking back then. In many ways, this little nun who came out of the sanitarium had more to do with addiction being treated as a disease than the AA founders did.

But her greatest legacy might be a culinary one: She was known for keeping a pot of coffee and a tray full of sweets available for the patients at all times. She eventually set up the coffee station as a bar to make the patients more comfortable. In 1952, her religious order transferred her to Cleveland’s St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, where she helped start Rosary Hall, a treatment facility still in existence. She died in 1966.

[blocktext align=”right”]Sister Ignatia was known for keeping a pot of coffee and a tray full of sweets available for the patients at all times.[/blocktext]“They were all very broken people,” Fr. Jim O’Donnell, the Cleveland priest, said of the AA founders and Sr. Ignatia, whom he worked with and knew well. “I don’t think she would have had the compassion she had if she herself didn’t have a mental breakdown. But she was a very tough woman, and wouldn’t take any bad behavior from her patients. But she also knew that one of the causes of alcoholism is a lack of love at some point in their lives, and she made sure a strong and loving atmosphere was part of the treatment.”

“I remember her very well telling us that the family was one of the most important part of treatment,” O’Donnell says. “She counseled the family to be patient and helpful, but she also was very tough on the alcoholics about how much they had hurt their wives and children. She saved many marriages and families.”

While Sr. Ignatia was experimenting with new treatment techniques, Clevelander Jack Mulhall was trying to drink as much and as often as he could. Born in 1923, he was kicked out of three Catholic high schools (St. Ignatius, Cathedral Latin, and Holy Name) and never graduated. His old friends say he hid his day-drinking while working at a Sohio station on Carnegie Ave by tying a string to a pint of whiskey, and lowering it into the gasoline storage tank.

[blocktext align=”left”]“But we were all blue-collar guys, and we could see this was a blue-collar disease in some respects.”[/blocktext]He and his wife Estelle had 11 children, and lived in a small house near West Tech High School in an Irish working-class neighborhood. Mulhall was working as a Cleveland public school system janitor when he sought help for his drinking in the early 1960s. Two guys he knew, who want their names to be Ray B. and Bob T. for this story, helped get him help at Rosary Hall with Sr. Ignatia.

“From the very beginning, he was passionate about it,” says Bob T., 78, and Jack Mulhall’s original AA sponsor. “But we were all blue-collar guys, and we could see this was a blue-collar disease in some respects. The working stiff needed help, and Jack was so passionate to make sure they got it. He started sponsoring as many as he could and made sure everyone got to meetings and did everything he could every day.”

Ray B., 82, remembers that some of the treatment hospitals didn’t want the blue-collar drunks in with the carriage trade. “I remember in the mid-sixties, where some of the Rosary Hall administrators didn’t think it was good for the common laborers in with the white-collar folks,” he says. “They never did that, but I think it never happened because we fought so hard.”

Mulhall and his group were known as “The Brink of Disaster,” and he eventually was asked to run Cleveland’s Stella Maris rehab center. But he fought hard with the philanthropists who funded the treatment facility. He advised against taking public money, because public money meant government interference in treatment policies. He also was obsessed with more beds, because Mulhall never wanted to turn anyone away, no matter how many times they had relapsed. Lia House’s Sowden said Mulhall took him in for treatment many times over the course of three decades of addiction.

[blocktext align=”right”]Mulhall never wanted to turn anyone away, no matter how many times they had relapsed. [/blocktext]Mulhall teamed with unions to rehab old buildings for treatment, and then helped addicts with union cards negotiate with their employers to stay on the payroll while they were in rehab. He went to court hearings and vouched for those accused of drunk driving or spousal abuse, but also got judges to see the value of probation and rehab instead of jail time.

Keating Center founders Dennis Eckersley, Jack Mulhall, and Phyllis Eisele-Curran (Photo via Keating Center)

Keating Center founders Dennis Eckersley, Jack Mulhall, and Phyllis Eisele-Curran (Photo via Keating Center)

In 1998, Mulhall worked with baseball hall-of-fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley and renowned Cleveland-based sports agent Ed Keating—along with longtime counselor Phyllis Eisele-Curran—to open up a new rehab system. Mulhall had helped both guys get sober. The Keating Center now has three facilities that can house about 150 men and women combinedat any given time. No payment is required, and addicts are brought in as beds open up. Mulhall died in 2009 at the age of 86.

Because of Mulhall’s passion for rehab and AA, Cleveland hosts an outsized number of meetings, in workplace break rooms and dedicated rehab facilities like the Keating Center. There are about 1,000 AA meetings in the Cleveland area each week (about 150 a day), an astounding number given the population. Chicago, for example, has about twice the number of meetings Cleveland does, but with four times the population. Columbus has a slightly higher population than Cleveland, but has 200 less meeting each week. Dallas has less, Indianapolis has half the number.

“My dad never talked about [his work] much, but what I’ve heard from his old friends, he had the ability to get people to do thing that would help people, but to get those people to think they thought of doing it,” says his son Dennis Mulhall.

[blocktext align=”left”]There are about 1,000 AA meetings in the Cleveland area each week (about 150 a day), an astounding number given the population.[/blocktext]“I think AA got its start in Akron, but it got its wings in Cleveland,” says the younger Mulhall, 52, who is also an AA regular because of his alcohol addiction. “I think what he did, and what is now followed around the country, is to make sure everyone—and I mean everyone—gets help. It didn’t matter how many times they fell down, he’d help them get back up every time.”

I saw that in action during my time at the Keating Center. Some of the heroin addicts were finding a way to score, and all of us inmates knew who they were, but had no real proof. One night one of the users bugged out, woke everyone up (about 25 in a room, on bunk beds four feet apart), and took off. He was absent when the roll was called the next morning, and we all figured he was gone for good.

But two nights later, at about midnight, there was a commotion outside the locked fence. The runaway addict had tried to climb back in, but was on the ground outside the fence foaming at the mouth with an OD episode. Some of the addicts hopped the fence, gave him mouth-to-mouth, and called an ambulance.

He was back in his bed and at meetings two days later. He seemed real sad, because he had not just failed, but failed in front of all these jaded addicts. I didn’t really know what the concept of rock bottom meant until then.


Last spring I attended a memorial mass for Sr. Ignatia at St. Patrick’s Church on Bridge Avenue in Ohio City. St. Pat’s was the best place for the mass honoring the “Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous,” as this was the church where the early Irish émigrés to Cleveland landed. The Irish have certainly played a big part in the growth of AA in Cleveland. Jack Mulhall used to joke the Irish should get assigned a home meeting and a sponsor at their baptism.

[blocktext align=”right”]The main choice in overcoming addiction is deciding if you want to live or die.[/blocktext]The priest was Fr. O’Donnell and the gospel reading was the story of Lazarus. Lazarus had been sick, Jesus got there too late to heal him, and Lazarus died. So Jesus raised him up from the tomb. Fr. O’Donnell started his sermon about how all the addicts in the audience had new life. But then he threw this wrench into the works: “Jesus didn’t resurrect Lazarus from death, he resuscitated him.” O’Donnell explained that Lazarus wasn’t getting eternal life and going to heaven, he was getting new life so he could die again. That’s what all of you have been given the chance to do, the priest told all of us.

That might not seem the least bit uplifting, but most addicts get the point. Because the main choice in overcoming addiction is deciding if you want to live or die. That is the truth you can’t escape. You know the addiction will kill you eventually, but it will be slow and easy. Much easier than sticking a gun to your head.

But the kicker is that your choice of life also means suffering and eventual death in the process. It’s the irony of all ironies. When I’m in one of my contemplative moods, I sometimes think about this. If I hadn’t decided to come to Cleveland to sober up, I’d be dead. The doctors told me so. But I’m alive. With death down the road. Funny, funny.

[blocktext align=”left”]You know the addiction will kill you eventually, but it will be slow and easy. Much easier than sticking a gun to your head.[/blocktext]I shared this with a famous Cleveland retired judge last month while sitting in the Keating Center on West 117th Street. It was my first time back at the place where I rehabbed, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Just kind of weird looking around.

The judge quit drinking in 1988, and doesn’t want his name used, not for some embarrassment, but because AA doesn’t approve of people using their names in the media. “It’s just the rules, and the rules are important,” he says.

The weekly meeting the judge ran at the Keating Center was one of the few sessions I got anything out of, because he would challenge the lies and made-up stories that spewed from the addicts’ mouths. He’d ask all the newbies why they were there. I remember one guy said he was there because he had back problems and that led to oxycodone abuse which led to heroin addiction. “How come you told us about your back problems?” the judge asked. “Now tell us why you’re really here.”

And that’s why he is sold on AA. Addicts can bullshit therapists, but they can’t bullshit each other, he says. “What Bill Wilson discovered was the greatest,” he says. “It takes another drunk to keep a drunk sober.”

“As a judge, I’ve sent hundreds of people to AA, because for so many of them, there was no place else to go,” the judge says. “Everything has to start some place. This is where the forces come together. The people who claim AA doesn’t work miss its purpose. You become a part of something bigger than you. It makes people that have become isolated become a part of something.”

[blocktext align=”right”]Drunk or sober. Death or life. Shit or ice cream.[/blocktext]He’s right on that part. Addicts become disconnected from almost everything over time. It starts with not caring about your clothes or brushing your teeth. The people at work don’t want to be around you. Family walks away after you’ve exhausted chance after chance of cleaning up you act. Eventually, the people you drink with at bars don’t want you around, so you do it by yourself at home. Addicts know this very well. We can spot this stuff quickly.

“It’s like Jack used to ask, do you want shit or ice cream?” the judge says.

Lia House

Lia House meeting – Photo Bob Perkoski

I start laughing, because I had forgotten that particular piece of wisdom. Jack Mulhall’s default question to a new arrival was whether they preferred to eat shit or ice cream. Even though Mulhall has been dead for five years, you still hear about shit or ice cream in AA meetings and rehab sessions around Cleveland

That simplicity is what Cleveland’s version of AA brought to the treatment game. Let everyone in, get their families involved, and make it simple, in a blue-collar way. Don’t think. Follow the rules. Drunk or sober. Death or life. Shit or ice cream.

While the judge and I were weighing the merits of shit or ice cream in philosophical terms, the addicts hanging with us in the dining room/TV area were called outside to unload food from a van. When they came back in, they were carrying ice cream, 60 half gallons. No shit.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt

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