HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol

Chapter Two: Ken's Story

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I was born in 1958 way out in the Wisconsin farmlands to fundamentalist Christian parents who believed that anything anyone ever did that was fun would send them straight to hell. No dancing or drinking or card playing or smoking or movies or drinking allowed. Period. And of course believing in evolution or going to college were sure paths straight to hell.

Early on I developed a love for natural science. By the time I was 13 I had read Darwin's Origin of the Species and became an atheist. By age 16 I had dropped out of school so as to have time to teach myself calculus--none of the teachers at my high school knew how to do it. I did a lot of farm labor and used the money I earned to buy books through the mail order. Of course my parents had never taken me to a library since they believed "the only book you need to read is the Bible. Around this time I read Kant and Spinoza and decided that I was a pantheist.

At age 20--with some help from a friend--I started college at Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I spent a lot of my college time hanging out with hard drinking poets and did my share of drinking and writing as well. I had barely encountered alcohol at all before college--now I was drinking on a fairly regular basis but it was completely fun and unproblematic.

After a year of college I went on a foreign exchange program to Japan. I wound up staying in Japan for six years--largely due to an unhappy love affair. It was as a result of this unhappy love affair that I began to abuse alcohol--using it to self-medicate depression and insomnia. During my period in Japan I became quite a scholar of Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese. I also did a period of nine months abstinent from alcohol while in Japan--because I knew that I needed a break. At the end of six years I returned to the US.

I decided to transfer from Eau Claire to the University of Minnesota because U of M had an East Asian Studies Department and I thought that this would give me an opportunity to use the knowledge of the Japanese and Chinese Classics which I had acquired, however my reception there was quite cold--I was told that they had no interest in students who knew anything. Eventually I wound up in graduate school at the U of M Department of Linguistics simply because they were a much friendlier bunch.

However, on the down side, it seems that the guarantee company which held my student loans had decided to declare them in default without telling me about it. They were actually sending me letters which said that I did not owe anything at the same time that they were declaring the loans in default. Immediately thereafter they declared bankruptcy so there was not even a way for me to fight them on this. I did my whole MA in linguistics with no federal financial aid just by working as a teaching assistant. Believe me--it was stressful.

Summer vacation at the end of my first year as a teaching assistant I was still having a hard time with depression and insomnia and drinking too much and I decided to check myself into an alcohol treatment program.

The Cedar Ridge program consisted of an odd mixture of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and disease theory. I benefited quite a bit by learning to practice CBT which helped to lessen my problem with depression and I also got a prescription for ambien which helped with the insomnia. It was while I was at Cedar Ridge that I attended my first AA meeting. I was frankly shocked that the meeting leader suggested that we close with The Lord's Prayer without even bothering to ask if anyone present was not a Christian. I thought this was about the rudest bit of behavior I had ever witnessed in my life. I did not know that this was standard operating procedure at AA.

Cedar Ridge did not convince me that abstinence was the only solution for all drinking problems. I knew that I needed to keep my drinking under control if I wanted to finish my masters degree so I started seeking out a solution. I began attending live meetings of Moderation Management (MM).

It so happened that MM founder Audrey Kishline was living in Minneapolis at this time and leading the only live MM meeting in the state. Audrey and I were the only two people at the first MM meeting I attended. I told her that my plan was to abstain 6 nights out of the week and to drink a fifth of whiskey on Saturday nights safely alone at home. Audrey looked rather askance at me for saying this and told me that this was not moderation. Of course it wasn't moderation--it was the first rudimentary step towards an alcohol harm reduction plan. To her credit Audrey did not kick me out of the meeting, and I faithfully followed this drinking plan until I finished my masters degree and graduated. Audrey moved out of state and I stopped attending MM at about the same time as I graduated.

I had started working part time as a shelver at the Minneapolis Public Library as I was finishing my degree and now I moved up to full time. Truth be told I was rather bored by the job and drank quite a lot during this period. I never missed work and I did the best job of anyone holding this position but I showed up for work hungover quite often. This was a thing which was bound to lead to trouble in Minnesota--"The land of ten thousand treatment centers". My boss ordered me to attend AA. I said that AA made me want to drink--which was the truth. The couple of times that I had attended AA meetings I had wound up getting totally loaded afterwards to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. As soon as I said that AA made me want to drink I was fired. It might as well have been the 13th century and me saying that the pope was not infallible. I had insulted the state religion.

I thought about getting involved with MM again but the local meeting had disappeared. When I tried going online to see what was happening I found that Audrey had resigned from MM, joined AA, and then killed two people in a drunk driving incident. Somehow this turned me off of any desire to get hooked up with MM again.

I was not doing so well with alcohol or depression at this point. I had really been living hand to mouth in the student days and the library days and I didn't even have a telephone--which made job-seeking a next to impossible task. I wound up checking myself into alcohol treatment again.

This time I was at a twelve step program and it was horrible. I don't want to knock AA for everyone. Some people seem to find it a good fit--and since the first amendment guarantees us freedom of religion I say more power to them. However it is without a doubt that exposure to AA makes some people's drinking problems get worse, not better. I am one such person and I have met many others who had the same experience. After leaving the treatment I tried to stay abstinent for a while by attending 12 step meetings which lasted until after the liquor stores closed. But the upshot was that the theology of AA made me sick to my stomach and in the end I went on the worst drinking binge of my life. I had life threatening withdrawal symptoms and I had to check myself into county detox for fear that I would die without medical aid. Once I was there I made a decision: I would have to leave AA before AA killed me.

Right around this time I ran out of ways to pay my rent. I asked the county chemical health services to refer me to chemical free housing. But I told them no AA. Because AA made me want to drink.

This seemed to enrage the person I was speaking to--for he told me that I needed even more twelve step treatment--and until I decided to convert to the twelve step religion that the only thing he would refer me to was the St Anthony Home for Chronic Inebriates--a place where people went to drink themselves to death. So this was my beginning of two years living in a homeless shelter--the St Anthony home for drunks.

However, I refused to be a drunkard just because I was living there. I started out when I moved in with a 30 day period of abstinence and I managed to hook up with a roommate who kept his drinking well under control. I actually managed to get along well with most all of the drunkards there--who were often better human beings than at least some of the staff there who would openly rob us because we were "just drunks" and they were virtuously sober.

At this point I got very active in taking care of myself and finding a way to get myself out of there. I signed up for vocational rehabilitation, I got good access to public library computers and got involved with MM online, and I volunteered at another homeless shelter. Before long I was made an MM employee--Online Director and was paid a whopping two hundred dollars a month. I learned about the concept of harm reduction and I began volunteering at the local needle exchange to gain a thorough knowledge of what harm reduction was and how it worked. I read most every book out there on the topic of harm reduction and vocational rehabilitation even paid for me to take a three day harm reduction training given by the Harm Reduction Coalition. I began to introduce harm reduction concepts to people whom I met online at MM and it was the way to go for many of them.

Eventually vocational rehabilitation hooked me up with a job in a Salvation Army store and I got out of the shelter and into my own place. The store was running way in the red when I started there--but we cut prices on everything severely and turned it around and got it into the black. Once we started making a lot of money the local Salvation Army captain took an interest in the store. He got the bright idea in his head that we could make a lot more money if we quadrupled the prices on everything. Needless tosay this put us right back in the red.

The Captain decided that the reason the store had gone back into the red had nothing to do with the fact that he had quadrupled all the prices. It had to be the fault of the employees--so he decided to fire everyone with more than 3 months of experience. I was very fortunate that one of my online friends invited me to come to New York at this point and start over. This is a person to whom I owe an undying debt of gratitude.

Life in New York went very well for me. I worked a couple of boring McJobs, then a friend of mine told me that her church--St. John�s Episcopal in Brooklyn--had an opening for the position of sexton. I was a bit wary of this, however when I talked to the priest and told him that I was a pantheist and not a Christian he said that it didn�t matter--my job was to make the church look nice and keep the people happy and it did not matter whether I attended mass or not or what I believed. Since I did not have to go to mass, I decided that I wanted to out of politeness and curiosity. Although my belief system remains that of a pantheist after about a year of working for the church I decided to become a member because I found that the ritual was beneficial to me personally.

However, I have gotten far ahead of myself. Since from before the time that I started working the sexton job there had been tension developing inside of MM. MM was not founded to be a harm reduction program. MM was founded to be a program to help problem drinkers learn to become moderate drinkers. I think that MM does a good job at this and I recommend it to people seeking such an approach.

During the time I was working for MM I had wound up creating a rudimentary harm reduction program for drinkers and many of the people whom I met at MM had put this program to work in their lives with excellent results. I offered these principles to the MM board of directors for incorporation into the MM program, however MM was not interested in remaking itself into a harm reduction program and the powers that be at MM stated that they wished to continue to operate a moderation oriented program. Hence, several members of MM and I decided to leave and to form The HAMS Harm Reduction Network in January of 2007. Interestingly enough, this was within weeks of my taking the position as sexton at St John�s Episcopal in Brooklyn.

I was quite frugal and I used the money I was earning carefully. Somehow I managed to buy my student loans out of default. I got lucky when the church decided to renovate their kitchen and wound up working seven days a week that summer. This bit of good luck enabled me to pay all the fees needed to incorporate HAMS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation.

Throughout it all I continued to practice harm reduction. I managed to get accepted at The New School in Manhattan to pursue a masters degree in psychology with a credential in substance abuse counseling on the way I abstain from alcohol at least five days a week and I do not miss work or school--nor do I go to work or school hungover. When I drink heavily I do it safely at home. In public at a social occasion I sometimes choose to practice moderation--I have one drink and stop.

My message to you is this: If you want to take control of your drinking you can do it!! Harm reduction works! It is up to you as an individual to do a cost/benefit analysis and to decide whether your best goal is to pursue harm reduction, moderate drinking, or abstinence from alcohol. Whatever your choice of a goal you can do it either on your own or with a little help from your friends in HAMS. This book will help to tell you how. No "Higher Powers" required!

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