Puritanism?

I recall Susan Cheever’s revelation, but missed this at the time:

On May 3, the Washington Post’s David Von Drehle wrote a Style Section profile of Susan Cheever, biographer of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. In Drehle’s article, we learn that as Wilson was dying of emphysema, the man who has inspired millions to kick the bottle, asked his caretakers for three shots of whiskey. Over his last days, he asked three more times for a drink. He was never given one.

Cheever says she was “shocked and horrified” that Wilson would want whiskey on his deathbed, and that her “blood ran cold” when she read of his request in the nurses’ logs of the last days of his life. Though she doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication is that Cheever — and I would imagine a good percentage of people who read Drehle’s article — took relief in the fact that the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous remained clean and sober to the very end.

I don’t know why Bill Wilson was denied those three shots of whiskey. Perhaps alcohol would have reacted poorly with the medication he was on. Perhaps it was against the policy of the hospital or medical center where he was staying. Whatever the case, I’m not at all shocked or horrified that Bill Wilson asked for whiskey as he was dying. But I am saddened that a dying man was denied one of the few things that may have given him some comfort. And I find it even sadder that anyone would be relieved to hear he was denied that final drink.

There are a couple of ways of looking at drug addiction. One way calls for rehabilitation when a person’s craving for a substance begins to take a toll on his health, his job, his mood, and/or on those around him. That is, drug or alcohol use only becomes a problem when — well — when it actually becomes a problem.

The other way looks at overcoming drug and alcohol addiction as an end unto itself. There are no “functional” or “recreational” users. Drug and alcohol use ought to be fought at every turn. Overcoming the craving for a drink, or the urge for a hit, is always a victory, even if rehabilitation wreaks greater costs on the user and society than continued use.

It’s this latter approach to drug and alcohol use that causes us to put a higher priority on preserving the purity of Bill Wilson’s legacy than to granting a dying man the small comfort in a shot of whiskey.

Am I really some sort of Puritan because I’m troubled by the idea of providing a drink to a man with a history of terrible alcoholism after having not drank for decades and having helped hundreds of thousands hopeless alcoholics quit. That’s hard to understand? (skip to 9:58)

Such willful ignorance and an absence of empathetic imagination. I don’t get it.

It speaks to the challenges of our drug policy debate. People who present themselves as only interested in liberty really seem to be motivated by other values. Bill Wilson never tried to change alcohol policies and described himself as someone who lost all agency when he drank. So, if it’s not liberty that motivates them, what is it?

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