Straight Talk About Addiction & Recovery

by Kathy Ketcham

 Forty years ago I had the privilege of working for William F. Asbury, then editor-in-chief of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper.  I was Bill’s part-time office assistant (i.e., glorified secretary), spending the rest of my work day as a free-lance writer.

At the time the P-I was one of the largest morning dailies (number 33) in the country.  My boss was the quintessential old-time journalist, fiercely protective of his writers, fearless in the face of controversy, stubbornly committed to reporting the truth no matter what the cost.

On slow news days Bill would pull up a chair, put his feet on my desk and tell me stories about his drinking days.  I don’t know why Bill trusted me with his stories when they were clearly so painful to tell.

Maybe he sensed that I had no real knowledge or experience of alcoholism and therefore no scores to settle and few judgments to make.  Maybe he was simply spreading the word, giving me some insight into a common but unmentionable disease that almost destroyed his life and his reputation.

Whatever the reason, Bill gave me his stories, and they changed my life.  Even after all these years, I remember most of the details.

The stories took place in a small farming town in Eastern Washington, a place as far removed from Seattle that just saying the name made sophisticated urbanites laugh out loud – Walla Walla.

Bill was the editor of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin from January 1972 to August 1975.  He was also, during those years, a “high-functioning” alcoholic who never missed a day of work due to boozing and never had a drink before quitting time.

Still, the drug alcohol was causing considerable havoc in his life, including a drunken-driving conviction, a painful case of gout and enlarged liver (“You might consider cutting down on your drinking,” his doctor advised), chronic depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.  Despite these alcohol-related problems, only his wife and a few close friends knew that Bill was addicted to alcohol.

One of Bill’s stories says a lot about his character, even when he was under the influence.  It was an early summer evening, and Bill was driving home from a meeting and dinner (with booze) in Pendleton.  A state trooper stopped him on the Milton-Freewater Highway and gave him a breathalyzer test. He “blew” a .17, plenty high enough to earn him a ride to the county jail.

Bill arrived early at work the next morning.  Hung over and filled with shame and self-loathing, he summoned Jo Moreland, the U-B’’s police reporter.  After relating the details of his arrest, Bill told her to pursue the story, holding nothing back from the truth.  Later that day his name appeared in the arrest column along with other drunk drivers and law-breakers.

Two months later, in July 1975, Bill was offered a job as news editor of the P-I.

He asked for a month off and voluntarily entered a 28-day treatment program.  Three days after completing treatment, Bill started his new job and his new life.

At the P-I Bill moved quickly through the ranks.  In less than three years, he was promoted to editor-in-chief.  During his years at the helm, the newspaper won more awards for journalistic excellence than any other daily in the Northwest.

Following his retirement from journalism in 1983, Bill began a career in public service.  He served as director of our state’s Office of International Relations and chief of protocol for Washington Governors John Spellman and Booth Gardner

Governor Mike Lowry asked Bill to help write new ethics and campaign finance laws for the state and then appointed him to the state Legislative Ethics Board, where he served for many years as chairman and vice-chairman.

Bill’s story, which he was willing to share with me, and hundreds of similar stories told by recovering alcoholics, remind us that it’s unwise to judge someone’s character when he or she is under the influence.  For alcohol, like other drugs, is capable of reduce moral giants to pint-size scoundrels.

Take the booze away, however, and ethics are gradually restored.  Logic and reason return. Amends are made. Forgiveness is sought.  Gratitude gradually replaces self-pity.

For the sober alcoholic, life begins anew.

And for those of us who are privileged to witness the transformation, there are lessons to be learned about the addictive stranglehold of drugs, the power of human beings to resist them, and the astonishing resilience of our bodies, minds, and spirits.

William F. Asbury died on March 8, 2015.  He was 90 years old and 39 years sober.