Rust Belt Recovery: The Story of Addiction and Rehab in Cleveland

2015-03-05T14:50:55-05:00July 16, 2014|

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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  1. Ian July 16, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    From a guy who moved back to his hometown to stop drinking himself to death, who quietly thinks AA is three-quarters ridiculous but who still goes to a meeting a week to sit at the feet of men he respects and who’ve adopted him as an apprentice in the business of life, and who thinks about sobriety’s deferral of his own death (but for how long? ‘Til age 94, or ’til that bus that runs the red this afternoon?), I just want to say thanks for a good read. Got a lot out of this–“identification” and all that. I think the dichotomy you establish, between the whiteness of the AA “Founders'” collars and the blueness of what’s now seen as the heart and soul of addiction and recovery in general and AA in particular, is one of the more interesting social aspects of the drinking and addiction and recovery subculture. It’s so American, right? At least blue-jean and bootstrap America, which is the most pervasive trope. As opposed to those $30k/month recovery spas in Malibu or South Orange County that claim to not interrupt your life or the good things you have going for you, AA says that no matter who you are, the best thing is to strip away “the fancy,” whatever that is for you, and return to basics. And, it accounts for the bottom-up popularity of the program and the top-down prescription of it, its efficacy on a thousand different local levels and its respectability amid the highest ranks of the medical and legal establishment. Real interesting read. Thanks again.

  2. Practice Man July 16, 2014 at 5:18 pm


  3. Practice Man July 16, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    One other thing…sounds like the AA thing, which really isn’t for you, is wearing you down, and, maybe, just maybe, it is for you EVEN IF some of it is repetitive BS.

    • Dan McGraw July 16, 2014 at 6:00 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Practice Man. AA doesn’t wear you down for acceptance per se, one begins to strip out the stuff that seems to be unimportant and you give it no meaning anymore. For instance, I don’t make my bed or pray every morning. I have been told repeatedly (and still am) and listened to speaker after speaker say that if I don’t do make my bed and pray there is a good chance I will relapse and find myself in jail or insane and they are serious about this. It used to make me mad when I heard that. shit. Now I given it the attention it deserves and go off and eat ice cream (vanilla w/black cherry).

  4. Tim July 16, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Great Great Article, There’s never enough beds for all the people that need the help in Cleveland, but Cleveland is fortunate enough to have places like this. A lot of states do not and unfortunately there’s never enough beds for all that need help. Thanks to Jack Mulhall who fought to keep places like this private. What alcoholic addict can afford to pay thousands of dollars for treatment. These places are the real deal very hardcore treatment that is no doubt one of a kind. There the so called ” last houses on the block”. Donations are a huge part to keeping these centers open. Food , clothes, toiletries etc.. anything is always needed. Theres no better feeling in the world then being able to help someone overcome this terrible disease and doing so made me realize why people like Jack Mulhall, Mark and Jackie and the many others do this. Again great article, I hope that many people read this, we need more people to understand how big of a problem there is and also we need people to know that there is a choice “Shit Or Ice Cream”.

  5. Karen Sanford July 17, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    Because addiction is a family game- EVERYONE gets to play! , I enjoyed reading this. Been to many AA meetings. Spotting the bullshit becomes part of the fun. I have been inspired and disgusted. Disgusted not by what someone has done but the fact that I know they are still lying. I became pretty good at detecting how “real” the recovery might be. If you hold back, lie, or be defensive in your lead…….DOOM. AA can be a crock because I know people using who have done a lead. But it also can be an amazing, inspiring, awesome thing to see. I love it when the old guys cry bullshit. Thanks for sharing. I mean that. I know this world, so wish I didn’t.

  6. Bob D. July 18, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Unfortunate that Dan chose not to honor the principle of anonymity that is so important to A.A. Anonymity is more than “just a rule”–it’s a core principle that is critical to our success. Hard experience has shown it to be important for the continued sobriety of the individual who is trying to work the A.A. program, as well as fellow-alcoholics that the recovering alcoholic might otherwise help.

    • Dan McGraw July 18, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      Bob D., thanks for reading and I’ll explain about the anonymity issue. I gave that a lot of thought, and gave everyone I spoke to the choice of using their name or not, and any other ID they preferred. As far as myself goes, I am a writer, and my name goes on my work. So what you are saying is that I should not be allowed to be in AA because my chosen profession uses my name and therefore my writing precludes me from participating in AA.. For example, what if for some reason or another, the AA founder concluded that anyone who was a carpenter could not be a part of AA. So anyone who worked in constrcution could not go to meeting or participate. You would think that is ludicrous.. The same goes for me. I make my living writing, and some of that is about my experience in life. And part of my life is my alcoholic addiction. So if you think this piece would necessitate me not being able to participate in going to meeting or doing working in some of the outreach programs, go right ahead and ban me. Part of the problem with AA is that it is grounded in the rules formulated in the 1930s, and while many of them are good, some are based on the time when alcholism was thought of as a severe charcater defect and had a worse stigma in society than it has today.. One way you keep that stigma attached is being secretive. I choose not to be. But I respect the decision of others who choose to be anonymous. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      • Jim S. July 25, 2014 at 5:02 pm

        The idea of anonymity was born out of fear. The founders feared the overwhelming response to the publication of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. They were afraid they would not be able to carry on with their lives because all of us rummies would be tearing down their doors to get help.

        By the time of the introduction of the 12 traditions in 1950, the idea of anonymity had taken on a far greater meaning. The 12th tradition states “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” They discovered over time that the ego of the alcoholic was a big problem. Fights over power and influence among the members became such a problem that it almost tore the fellowship apart. It has become a constant reminder of the importance of humility in our lives. The highest rank in AA is servant. It has absolutely nothing to do with limiting what one can do for a living. Over the years some folks have outed themselves publicly while others have adhered to the traditions our founders layed out for us. Does it mean you’ll get drunk? No. Does it mean you think you are bigger than the whole? I don’t know. That is a question you can answer for yourself if you wish.

        My experience in AA has differed greatly from yours. I wonder about people that say “You will get drunk if…”. My sponsor never forced his beliefs on me. He only shared what worked for him, with an offer to help me do the same, if I decided I wanted it. I thank God for AA every day. I thank God for people like Jack M,. that consistently did the footwork to make sure as many of has have the opportunity to recover that had been given to them. AA works if I work it.

        Thank you for an interesting read.

  7. Pete Beatty July 18, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Someone, somewhere (pretty sure it was at an AA meeting) told me there’s no wrong way to be sober.

  8. Chris V July 19, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Dan,
    A friend sent me this article as something of interest. I’m a alcoholic and I live east of Cleveland. These days there are many more addicts than drunks in AA. 71 is called the ‘heroin highway,’ and young people are dropping like flies. I liked the history in your story. My opinion differs from yours for a few reasons, outlined below.

    The obvious – I am sober and I never thought I’d get that way. I meet a lot of sober people, many of whom have been that way for a long, long time. Not all of them ‘hit their knees’ on a daily basis, but they do seem to follow the 12 steps. What I find ironic is that these steps *can* be applied to *any* life with excellent results. However, they’re hard enough work that only people who have the ‘shit or ice cream’ option (and only some of those) have enough motivation to actually live them.

    Statistics can prove anything. I’ve seen lots of young people on papers who don’t want to be there and have no intention of staying sober a moment longer than they have to. Is this a program failure? I don’t think so. One of AA’s sayings (and yes, they have sayings and cliches without number, some of them wise, some of them silly) is that you have to want it. Coming across a burning bush and hearing God say, “hey, you over there. Get sober!” won’t do much good for those who don’t want to. Is it possible to tell the percentage of people that *want* it and can’t get it by following the program? I don’t see how, but then I’ve seen a *very* high success rate in those cases, and that’s a small sample size.

    Yes, we drunks are liars. And darned good at it. Takes another drunk to see through those lies, with that I definitely agree. And some folks fake it and some folks end up making it (yay, another slogan!). Learning to be honest with yourself (and eventually others) is one of the cornerstones of the program. If you can’t do that, it’s my opinion that it will be impossible to be successful.

    Sobriety is a funny thing for alcoholics. Not drinking is not drinking, and yup, there are many ways to do that. I’m not sure that there’s a point though, if your life doesn’t change. My life went from pure selfishness to a strong desire to help others. Is there value in that? It’s my opinion that this is so. Again, small sample size, but when I meet alcoholics who don’t follow the program, I’m saddened by their continuing bitterness and hostility. If I wanted to stay like that, I never would’ve stopped drinking!

    Anonymity. I think at least part of the concern is that people in media will talk about being in AA then go out and get drunk. That’s not a good reason in my opinion because it smacks of ego (because it reveals that there *is* indeed recidivism for folks in the program). In my opinion attraction versus promotion does lead to a higher success rate (remember, you’ve got to *want* it). I have no idea how AA got caught up in the courts (this smacks of promotion to me), but it seems to be the easy alternative to jail time these days and that doesn’t seem very productive for either AA or the courts. Still some do stay, so it’s worth it. No worries, Dan – the *only* requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking 🙂

    I found your life or death choice confusing. Seemed to say the choices are live as an addict or commit suicide?
    “You know the addiction will kill you eventually, but it will be slow and easy. Much easier than sticking a gun to your head.” Maybe those are the two “die” choices versus wanting to get sober and finding a way to make that happen.

    Finally, also not sure I understood your comment that Bill and Bob’s “club” was for white collar workers. I know Bob spent his time pulling folks out of the gutters and getting them sober (maybe they used to be white collar workers?). I don’t know about Bill – he had so many additional issues in his life, one of which was an ego the size of the city he lived in, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he thought the nature of the ‘clientele’ might affect his reputation.

    In any event, I enjoyed your piece. I think it’s great to raise awareness of the levels of addiction – maybe sometime someone will come up with another good program and it will produce even more successes that can easily be tracked. I also think it’s important to share different opinions. From a selfish perspective, whether there’s a 1% success rate or 99%, it’s keeping my ticker ticking for now. Gives me a chance to actually do something positive in the world. Everybody dies, but is there some value to the quality of life? It’s my opinion that this is so.
    Chris V

    • T July 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      Chris V. You ever here of keeping it simple. Geez

  9. Quiz July 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I am a Keating Center “graduate”. I’ll have 11 years sober in October. Mark Sowden and I got sober together at the Jones Road house under Jack Mulhall, Phyllis Eisele-Curran and Bill Lynch. My three quarter house job was working in the office at the Keating Center and I ended up working there for 3 years. You will find fierce loyalty to Jack, Bill & Phyllis with all their alumni.
    The Keating Center isn’t what it use to be because Jack and Bill could never be replaced. When Mark and I along with many other sober drunks/junkies and cokeheads were there the groups were done by Bill, Jack, Phyllis, Jim B, Maria M and Karl W. There wasn’t the repetition in groups then because it was better co-ordinated. The current Keating Center management has alienated most of their alumni from Jack’s time with poor management choices to run everything except their woman’s house (it’s a 1st class place)
    Mark & Jackie are running one of the best houses around now. I wish I lived closer to their facility so I could be of more help. They know that Jack’s Jones Road boys support them 100%.
    Every morning I thank God (as I understand him) for Jack Mulhall, Phyllis, Bill Lynch and Dr. Greg Collins (Cleveland Clinic-Keating Center Senior Advisor). Without them there is no doubt I would be dead.

    Tom Quesinberry

  10. John Ettorre July 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Dan, please tell me you’re working on another book…

  11. Laurie October 9, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Thank you for this!! I really love my home town Cleveland and especially love the fellowship even more! I have recently moved to Alabama were drugs and alcoholism is crazy on the rise! There are hardly any meetings here and the fellowship is totally different in so many ways! It has been difficult for me here, I had a huge support system in Cleveland and always had someone to call or a meeting to go to close by. I appreciate the hub of Cleveland and believe that there isn’t fellowship anywhere else in the whole country like Cleveland! I have lost folks I knew and see ones go back out who may never get there chair back. It is so very sad. This article was worth the read and I know some of the folks you speak of and also know personally a lot of the men and woman of these houses you speak of. It truly is a blessing to have places like this for people to go to when they feel they have no where to turn. I stayed at Matt Talbot for women and Laura’s Home in 2005-2006 and chose not to stay sober, but a seed was planted. In 2013 I got sober again and went to Rosery Hall! I loved it, met some amazing people there that really cared and something stuck with me this time for real!! I didn’t want to die, I wanted to start living….I am friends with some of the graduates of that program and WE are still sober today! almost 15 months and I get it this time around! I will never say I got this, but I love my life today and it is so worth living. I have hope and love and that you can’t put a price on. This comes through the fellowship the people in it, the support and the programs offered for recovery. Thank you again for this!!! Keep on trudgin!

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