Many of the pieces in your July 1998 Readers Write on “Doctors” reflected a mistrust of that profession, while only a few showed how deeply at least some doctors care for their patients. I think this gap occurs because doctors often use the cloak of education and technology to protect themselves from the possibility of failure, and to maintain the appearance of an objective observer. Yet they stand guard at the crossroads of our lives, during moments when we are most vulnerable and aware of our own mortality.
Recently, I had a doctor admit to making a serious mistake in my treatment. He subsequently lost his position in his practice. I later learned that fear of a lawsuit was to blame for his dismissal. After much soul-searching, I have come to admire how upfront he was with me, and to see how I am at least partially responsible for what happened. His honesty allowed a measure of forgiveness and healing to occur.
I had not seen your magazine until a friend gave me a copy of the July 1998 issue. Being a doctor, I was particularly interested in the Readers Write section.
Except for David Wohl’s reminiscence about his father-in-law, the stories were extraordinarily painful to read. Was the request to write about the worst thing that had ever happened to you at the hands of a physician? If so, then the title “Doctors” should have been modified to reflect this. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and trust that you did not purposefully select only negative letters.
No one would deny that there are doctors whose actions are reprehensible — there are poor practitioners in any profession — but, at the risk of sounding self-serving, I would suggest that doctors of the type described by your readers are a distinct minority.
Reading July’s Readers Write about “Doctors,” I regretted not contributing myself. At fifty-two, I have experienced the full range of medical care described by the writers. Remembering that doctors are human beings subject to strengths and weaknesses, I’ve been able to forgive those who seem to view patients as inferiors and medicine as a business. I felt sudden exhilaration as I read about Dr. Pelle, Dr. Wohl’s father-in-law, Dr. Matthews, and the unnamed French doctors. I, too, have met doctors like them, true healers all.
“Goodbye Johnnie Walker,” by Neil Davidson [July 1998], was an eye-opener for me. My father’s battle with alcohol began long before he met my mother. She blindly married him, and together they brought my sisters and me into a world ruled by alcohol. Although my mother is not an alcoholic, she qualifies as a drunk by association. She has stuck by my father, even when he turned into a thief.
I grew up prematurely, because of the need to act as a shield between my father and others in my family. My father is a verbally abusive drunk. When he is sober, however, he turns back into a gentle, friendly, humorous person. I wish this person would stick around.
My father has never spoken to me about what drives him to drink, or why he can’t stop. Reading about Davidson’s struggle with sobriety has given me insight into the difficulty my father may be having.
I’ve learned to accept my father’s alcoholism. Sadly, I am used to being the daughter of an alcoholic. I know no other kind of father-daughter relationship. Having offered all the support I can, I have nothing left to do but watch him rise and fall, and patiently wait to help place my father’s feet in his ragged sneakers when he is prepared to walk down the road to sobriety again.
I read with mixed feelings Neil Davidson’s honest description of the disease of alcoholism and his struggle to gain sobriety. As someone who drank heavily for fifteen years and at the end found himself in a place similar to Davidson’s, I can truly relate to his story. I was troubled, however, by the total absence of a spiritual dimension in his recovery. Maybe he was trying to avoid writing a “smug and self-congratulatory” piece, but when I think of sobriety, I cannot help but think of the miraculous. In March 1986, I went from drinking a twelve-pack of beer and half a fifth of bourbon each day to drinking nothing at all. I went from a world of self-hatred and failed suicide attempts to a life that has possibilities. I was dead and now I am alive.
I also can’t agree with Davidson’s decision to give up on Alcoholics Anonymous because of one negative experience. He’s right: the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Having attended meetings all over the country in the last twelve years, I have on occasion observed intoxicated people in attendance — given the nature of alcoholism, it would be surprising if this were not true. In fact, when I hit bottom, I could muster the courage to attend a meeting only by drinking. In spite of my bourbon-scented breath and generally confused state, people reached out to me and made me feel welcome. Eventually, with their help, I was able to stop.
Like Davidson, in early sobriety I struggled with my writing. Alcohol had always fueled my creativity, or so I thought. For a while after I stopped, the poems weren’t there, and I became depressed. I was forced to make a decision: I could drink again and write the way I had before, or I could accept the possibility that I might not write again. I stayed sober and discovered that I can live without booze and write at the same time. In fact, I’ve written a great deal more sober than I did when I was drinking, and the results have been better. That’s because I’m truly alive, and not killing my emotions with liquor. This gift was given to me not by a high-dollar treatment center or repeated visits to psychiatrists, but by my fellow drunks in AA.
As soon as I received the July Sun, the title “Goodbye, Johnnie Walker” jumped out at me. I’m a recovering alcoholic, so anything even remotely related to drinking will always get my attention. I was truly disappointed by Neil Davidson’s lack of courage when it came to attending AA. He showed tremendous resiliency while in treatment, and didn’t run away from there, even though I’m sure there were moments when he felt rejected. Each AA group is fully autonomous. One group may have tossed him out, but there are many others where that would not happen. I wonder if Davidson was ever tossed out of a bar. It happened to me as a practicing drunk, and I know I always went back.
I don’t know any other way to be “engaged” in recovery but to be with other sober alcoholics. Yes, doctors and loved ones can be helpful, but I can lie to them. I cannot lie to other AA members, who sometimes know me better than I know myself. AA may not be the best choice for everyone, but I can’t help feeling that Davidson should give it another chance.
Neil Davidson responds:
Since my article “Goodbye, Johnnie Walker” appeared in The Sun, a number of people have written to implore me to return to AA, find a “spiritual dimension,” and otherwise join the legion of drunks for whom staying sober is the sole purpose of life. I think it’s wonderful that these intellectually insipid meetings seem to work for so many people, but it ain’t me, babe. I just try to struggle through, pretty much on my own right now. No more high-priced hired guns standing next to me, helping me. The bottom line for me is the realization that if I drink, I die. I don’t need to “do a meeting” to confirm, deny, or share this problem (even with others in the same boat). It is my choice alone, alas. See you on the other side.
As for my (falsely assumed) lack of a spiritual dimension, I was shot early and often with that old-time religion but never did fall. In a world where killers, robber barons, and book publishers wear crosses around their necks to flaunt their spiritual dimensions, I wear a teddy bear. Now that’s spiritual.
To Karen A. from Queens, I can only say that you sound like a person who wants to keep her flawed father in her life. You are right not to give him choices or ultimatums; he would choose the booze. Even over you. So love him today, because tomorrow he just might be gone.
I couldn’t help but notice that the Readers Write on “Monogamy” [June 1998] focused more on infidelity. Maybe monogamy makes for less interesting stories. One piece in particular stood out for me: the one in which Robert was traumatized when he learned his spouse had slept with an old friend of hers. His question to her — “How could you bring me this pain for ten fucks?” — assumed his pain was inevitable, not to mention her fault. So his spouse felt bad and regretted what she had done. His pain won out over her pleasure.
I realize that we hurt about what we hurt about, yet I find myself asking the flip side of Robert’s question: “Why is he feeling so much pain over ten fucks?” Regardless of the individual details, the same unexamined assumptions about pain and blame loom just behind all emotional reactions to infidelity. People don’t seem to realize that it’s not their partners’ actions that hurt them; it’s what they think it means about themselves. More importantly, it’s how they felt about themselves in the first place that determined how they’d respond to the infidelity. Conventional morality does nothing to encourage reflection or personal growth. Quite the contrary. The focus is kept squarely on the one who did “wrong” and must be punished for his or her transgression.
Down through the years, The Sun has been a consistently skillful, even-handed journal of alternative, off-beat writing. I don’t always like or agree with its content, but that isn’t how I judge whether a magazine is worth reading or not. Readers who write in to villify a piece and huffily cancel their subscriptions are missing the point. I have to admit, however, that some of them write damn good letters. Please continue to both politely ignore and publish them.