an interview with Clark Burlew
Clark Burlew is a recovering alcoholic who carrys the message of recovery to others. He has helped develop and administer treatment and recovery programs for many years. He is currently the Director of Marketing and Outpatient Services at Pacific Hills Treatment Centers in San Juan Capistrano, California.
STEPS: Tell us something about yourself. How did you first get involved in substance abuse treatment?
Clark: Well, let me start early. When I was a child my father was a pastor. And in my late teens I was able to choose whether or not I would continue to go to church. I decided to leave. I attended a church down the street for a while, but it was really just an easy way for me to start backing out of church entirely. For the next few years church just wasn’t a priority. Pretty soon I wasn’t going at all. From there, things just kind of progressed—or, more accurately, deteriorated. Eventually I found a way to deal with the pain and anguish in my life by using alcohol and drugs. To make a long story very short, I was consumed by alcohol and drugs until 1988.
On May 10, I hit bottom. Just when I wanted to die more than I wanted to live, God reached down into the muck and mire, picked me up and dropped me into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. God must have known that at that moment in my life I would not have been receptive to anybody except those rag-tag alcoholics. I had already been in hospital situations and treatment situations—but I had never been treated for alcoholism or drug addiction. I was treated for symptoms like stress, anxiety and things of that nature. It wasn’t until I found myself in the rooms of AA that I started to face the mess that my life had become. My involvement in helping others during treatment actually began quite early in my own recovery. Shortly after I became sober I was at the opening of Community Psychiatric Centers in Laguna Hills, and I was asked if I would help out there on a voluntary basis. I became the coordinator between the hospital program and Twelve Step organizations in the community. I started taking patients to outside meetings. It was a very positive experience for me and I’ve been working in a variety of capacities at treatment programs ever since.
STEPS: One of the concerns I have heard Christians express about treatment for addictions is that it might pose a threat to their spiritual health. What do you think about that?
Clark: Well, recovery will always involve spiritual change. We need to honestly face the fact that what we have hasn’t worked. And that can be pretty scary. It was for me. During my early years in recovery I struggled a lot with my own spirituality. Although I believed in a power greater than myself, I couldn’t identify that power except with the confused notions of God that I had acquired in my childhood. And that higher power was abusive and hurtful. I knew there was a higher power, but the only one I had any relationship with didn’t give me a lot of joy or comfort. It seemed to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And that confused me.
Fortunately, I have had a series of spiritual awakenings during my recovery that brought me so close to God that I could no longer deny his presence in my life. Nor could I avoid the reality that God was a loving presence in my life rather than an abusive presence. But that took me some time. My misbeliefs took a long time to shed. It took time before I could feel the warmth and healing power of Christ in my life. All along I was looking for something to fill that God-shaped hole inside of me. During my search I tried all kinds of things. Drugs and alcohol didn’t work. Then when I got sober I tried all kinds of spiritual paths. I studied different religions and philosophies. They all left me sad and wanting. I spent a lot of time studying and teaching other philosophies, and one night when I was feeling really void inside I got this surprising feeling of fullness and an inaudible voice said, “OK, you’ve tried everything else, why not try me?” At that point I put everything else down and I picked up the Bible. I read it from cover to cover. I had never given the God of the Bible a chance to come into my life. I also found a good Bible-teaching church and did a lot of growing there.
That doesn’t mean that my spiritual growth has been easy. There have been some very difficult personal experiences. Five years into my recovery my mother died a horrible, horrible alcoholic death. The last thing she took into her body before she died was vodka. Three years later my father died and a year later I lost my son. During this period of time I also lost my health. I developed pulmonary embolisms and I was unable to breathe. Talk about getting back to basics: I learned the value of my next breath. I was gasping for each breath. Nothing else seemed important. After an operation the doctor put me on morphine, which was, as you might imagine, a very dangerous time for me. With every hit from the morphine pump I felt like I was being sucked down a long dark tube. During that dark time, I questioned the existence of God. I could not make sense out of anything. I asked to be taken off the morphine but the doctors hesitated because they insisted that the pain would be too intense. But I knew my survival depended on it. I was convinced that I was going to die on that morphine.
Well, I went home in a few days with nothing more than Tylenol for the pain. I cannot explain this except to note the obvious: this is the kind of thing that only God can do. I was not able to help myself. I couldn’t even manage to believe that God was there to help me. But God can do the things we cannot do for ourselves. I had to do my part. I stopped using the morphine. But only God could do the healing. I think all of us will face painful experiences that threaten our sobriety. But these experiences can lead to spiritual growth rather than relapse when we turn them over to the care of a loving God.
STEPS: Your early experiences in church were part of the problem. Do you find that to be true for many of the Christians who come to treatment centers for alcohol and drug problems?
Clark: The Christian community in many cases does not understand the dynamics of addiction. There are exceptions, of course. Here in Southern California there are a number of large (and some smaller) churches that have dynamic recovery programs. But many churches have little or no knowledge about addictions and can easily become part of the problem. Unfortunately, there are many churches that think they don’t have a problem in this area.
STEPS: We still hear pastors and church leaders say, “I’m really excited about the kind of work you are doing and if we had anybody in our congregation with those kinds of problems. . ..”
Clark: Exactly. We find that a lot. The problem is complicated. The church may be uninformed about addiction, but the people struggling with addictions are also running and hiding. When I was running from God it just became easier and easier not to talk with God about the things going on in my life. I didn’t set out to destroy my relationship with God all at once. It was a gradual thing over a period of time. The church may not have been very helpful to me during that time, but I was the one who gradually closed myself off to God’s grace. I turned the light off. By the time I got to A.A. I would have told you I’m not interested in the God part of this at all. I was that cut off from my longing for God.
STEPS: I suppose that Christians starting in recovery often struggle with the feeling that they have tried God and it didn’t work.
Clark: Yes. That’s what I felt. Well, it’s more confusing than that. On the one hand I didn’t want to have anything to do with God. But on the other hand I was deeply unsatisfied with the “higher power” language. It just seemed too vague to me. Again, like most people in early recovery, my spirituality was confused and confusing. Now I am deeply grateful for the help I received from the “higher power” language. It helped me to get started again. I didn’t have to understand all that yet. On one level I know I wanted to believe in God rather than a higher power, but as I said before, the only God I knew was a pretty abusive and shaming figure. A.A. helped open my mind to the possibility that the abusive God I had known in the past was not really God at all.
Another common problem, especially with Christians, is that so many churches teach a kind of one-step spirituality: Jesus Christ is all you need, and once you have Jesus Christ everything else is going to be wonderful. This kind of spirituality leaves out the fact that it takes a series of sheddings of self in order to find that relationship with Jesus Christ. I have covered myself with so many layers of disguises that until I get rid of some of the disguises, I’m going to keep playing the same old games. That’s one place where treatment can be particularly helpful. It can give us a safe and supportive place to start shedding some of the old disguises that are messing up our life.
STEPS: Let’s talk more about treatment. If I remember correctly, from the very beginning of A.A. there was a recognition of the importance of medical treatment in addition to Twelve Step meetings.\
Clark: That’s right. There are many of us who need a jump start to our recovery. It gives an opportunity to step out of the daily routine that has been adapted to the addictive process and allows a fresh chemical-free look at what’s real. We get so used to dealing with matters inappropriately. Something needs to change in that whole system before recovery will be possible. Often an inpatient experience is just what is needed. And, of course, treatment is even more important if you need to detox.
STEPS: People in general are not well informed about how dangerous it is to detox without medical supervision.
Clark: That’s absolutely right. In many cases people think that since the problem is just a matter of choice if a person is sincere enough and has enough will-power, they can just stop and everything will be fine. But detox from alcoholism can be fatal. Just stopping your intake of alcohol can lead to death. No one has good enough intentions and a strong enough will-power to avoid the medical complications of chronic alcoholism. Remember, detox is just the first step in any treatment program. It plays a vital role in keeping a person alive long enough to become receptive to the next treatment phase, which is designed to give a concentrated, intensive jump-start on what will need to be a new lifelong way of living. At Pacific Hills this involves an intensive introduction to the Twelve Step process coupled with biblical principles. People at this early stage of recovery have often lost all their support network. Their family may be hostile, they may not have a church community to support them, they may have alienated all of their friends. They have no support base. It’s not a fun place to be in life. But sometimes that is what it takes to make us open to taking a different path in life. Spiritual humility is not easy to acquire. Many of us had to hit bottom pretty hard before we could become open to a different way of living. Part of the treatment process is to be there when people hit bottom and to help them start to systematically rebuild a support base. As part of this process we introduce clients to Twelve Step programs, we introduce them to Christian recovery programs in the community, and we explore the need for counseling if that is appropriate.
STEPS: Recently I’ve talked to several people who thought that treatment programs for addiction were kind of hard-core boot camp things where harsh discipline and high control are the norm.
Clark: I’m sure you can find places like that, but it’s nothing at all like the kind of programs that I support. The foundation for the Christian approach to treatment is distinctive. It has to be rooted in love and compassion. We start with an assumption that each person who comes to us for help is a person of dignity, a person of importance, a person whom God loves deeply no matter how damaged their life may be at the beginning of treatment.
STEPS: What sort of advice do you give to family members of a person who does not yet want to get better?
Clark: I believe very strongly in the value of interventions. I don’t necessarily like the term “tough love,” but some of the principles of tough love may be necessary in order for a person to see his or her need. If I’m allowed to continue my inappropriate behavior, I will probably continue to do it as long as I can. The family often has to make some hard choices. They need to come alongside and offer support if the person gets help. But they may also need to say, “We choose not to watch you kill yourself in this way. We will not be a part of this dynamic of death.” Sometimes withdrawing resources that are helping a person continue in their addiction is essential for recovery to begin.
STEPS: So you don’t have to wait until someone is actually dying before you get help. You can always get help for yourself right away. You may be able to be actively involved in helping your loved one to get help. But it may be that all you can do is stop being part of the problem.
Clark: Exactly. An intervention is not just about having a meeting and having some professional come out and tell your loved one that they need help. The intervention event is only the beginning of a long process. Recovery will take a lifetime commitment. It will not be over after the intervention. Or after a few weeks in a treatment center. It is really important to remember that this is going to take time. And it is really important to remember that the recovery process is not just for the addict or the alcoholic. The whole family needs to experience some major changes. An intervention is critically important because it is the front door. It may be the first time that the truth gets told within a family in a way that a person can hear it. And that is a very powerful dynamic. Everyone in a family can learn from that and, hopefully, find ways to move forward in their own recovery. That’s also why good treatment programs have a family component. Addiction is a systemic problem and needs a systemic response.
STEPS: I guess most people understand that treatment can be emotionally painful. Talk to us about that.
Clark: That can’t be avoided. It can feel like now all of a sudden I’m an exposed nerve. I have no anesthetics in my body. And I’m being told I only have to change one thing and that’s everything. That is painful. It’s like having all of your defense mechanisms stripped away—not that they have been very helpful to us, but it feels like you are stripped naked. It is, however, right at that point that God has an opportunity to pour out his love and compassion. People feel like they are banging on the gates of hell, that there is no hope, that nothing can change. But even right there at the gates of hell, God can bring love and hope. That is one of the reasons why it is critical for care providers to have been through this process themselves. Unless you have been to the gates of hell yourself it is difficult to really explain. But if you have been there yourself, you may be able to communicate the hope of God’s love in a way that will lovingly move a person toward the next step in the healing process. This is one of the key things we have learned from Alcoholics Anonymous—that the only person who really has credibility to an alcoholic is someone else who has been there themselves.
STEPS: What other things are important for a quality treatment program?
Clark: The optimum treatment varies for each individual. We have a 42-day program, but that doesn’t mean each person stays that long. During that time the fog lifts, people begin to see hope, people get a lot of new skills that might be able to help them stay sober one day at a time for the rest of their lives. After inpatient treatment it’s not necessarily the best thing to just go back to where you came from. So, like many treatment programs, we have a variety of part-day outpatient services that can help people continue to stabilize their recovery. During this time it is even more important for people to connect with the resources and support that are going to help them over the long haul. A kind of individualized sobriety program is designed by each person. At Pacific Hills we offer lifetime aftercare. So alumni can come back and participate in programs of various kinds. It’s just another piece of the support system that can help build a program that works.
STEPS: I guess that emphasizes the difference between this kind of problem and, say, a broken leg. If you have a broken leg, you go to the hospital. But after a while, the leg heals and then you don’t have a broken leg anymore.
Clark: Right. You have a crisis period up front where care is urgently needed. And you then probably have physical therapy for a period of time. But the time does come when you don’t have the problem anymore. Alcoholism is not like that. Alcoholism is cunning, baffling and powerful. It waits patiently for you. One fellow described it as dancing with a gorilla. You’re not done dancing until the gorilla is done. That’s how it worked for me. It takes however long it takes. I should emphasize that this is not a shock to God. God is not surprised by how long this sometimes takes. God is prepared to work with us no matter how long it takes. And that’s pretty good news.