This is the first in a series of posts exploring the various ways that addiction and recovery are represented in popular culture.
Today, Kuraĝo editor Matt Williamson discusses the Blake Edwards classic The Days of Wine and Roses with Lauren Walther, LCSW, LCDC, Director of Driftwood’s Courageous Family Program.
In October 1958—25 years after the end of prohibition, and 23 years after the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—CBS aired a live performance of JP Miller’s teleplay The Days of Wine and Roses.
Directed by John Frankenheimer—who would go on to fame with movies like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds—and featuring a cast led by heavyweights like Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, The Days of Wine and Roses was an early example of “event television.” (The Criterion Collection would include a recording of the telecast in its Golden Age of Television box set.)
Four years later, Days returned as a high-profile theatrical movie, with a Henry Mancini score, an Oscar-winning top-40 theme song, a bigger director (Blake Edwards) and a much bigger star (Jack Lemmon, who would get the second of his eight Oscar nominations for his performance here). Last year, this version was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. (Its fellow inductees included Jurassic Park, My Fair Lady, and another movie that we’ll probably get around to discussing on this blog, The Shining.)
On TV and in theaters, then, The Days of Wine and Roses was a major hit. More significantly for this blog, it was the last of what sociologist Robin Room has called the “alcoholism movies”: a 17-year run of post-war films, beginning with The Lost Weekend, that were centrally about substance abuse.
Unlike the temperance plays and slapstick comedies that had come before, these movies used the term “alcoholism” and even depicted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They signaled a generational shift in thinking about addiction. Often written and directed by AA members, they boosted the rise of 12-step programs and the adoption of a more humane way of speaking and thinking about alcohol dependency.
Although we’ll include a spoiler warning at this point, the plot is fairly simple:
Joe, a PR representative, meets and woos Kirsten, a secretary at his San Francisco firm. It’s a double seduction: he tries to win her affection, and also tries to convert her into a drinking buddy. (Kirsten is initially repulsed by the taste of alcohol, but likes chocolate, so Joe entices her with a chocolate liqueur.) Joe and Kirsten marry and have a child (though the daughter, unfortunately, feels more like a prop than a three-dimensional character). In short time, Joe and Kirsten have become compulsive drinkers: withdrawn from society, unable to hold steady work. They try, and fail, to get sober on their own. Joe finally, and successfully, turns to AA for help. Kirsten, however, does not give up drinking; the movie ends with her estrangement from her husband and daughter.
Matt Williamson: What does The Days of Wine and Roses get right about addiction and recovery? What does it get wrong?
Lauren Walther: This was my first time seeing this movie and I was stunned by how much the movie gets right. Generally, I am dissatisfied with how movies dramatize the addiction and recovery process (which I'm sure we'll get to as we put out more of these), but this movie is pretty spot on!
The progression of alcoholism from fun "it makes me feel good" party-time lubricant to devastating life-destroyer was exquisitely portrayed in the deterioration of their physical environment, social circle, personal value system, and physical form. Ugh, some parts were hard to watch.
Similarly, on the recovery side, the characters' reluctance to accepting that they have this illness—the blow to one's sense of identity and the social stigma associated with accepting the label of "alcoholic"—continue to this day. Additionally, the starts and stops of "drying out" and getting into recovery all felt very accurate.
I particularly loved the scene where Joe's button falls off on his way into the AA meeting: the self-consciousness people feel when they're connecting with people in a vulnerable and authentic way in early recovery was wonderfully captured in that moment. The way AA meetings and AA members are portrayed in movies generally makes me want to cringe. According to most movies, AA is a gathering of blowhards and sad saps who say contrived catchphrases to one as a form of support. The illustration of AA in this movie was closer to the actual experience—a gathering of normal people with alcohol problems sharing what they know about the disease and how to live differently. Maybe the actors were all just better than who they normally get in movies these days, but I appreciated a more accurate portrayal for once.
MW: It's got a lot of memorable images—e.g., an early shot of Joe holding a cocktail to one cheek and his phone to the other, as if he's literally propping himself up with booze. I also enjoyed all of the black-and-white Bay-Area cityscapes.
One interesting factoid about this movie: its director, Blake Edwards was, by his own later accounts, heavily dependent on alcohol and drugs at the time he made it. He got sober a few years after making this movie. And Jack Lemmon was, for decades, a "three-martini lunch" guy. He was arrested, once, for DWI. Later in life, he quit drinking and began to refer to his drinking problem as "alcoholism."
Some people in recovery talk about "the yets" –"I haven't been arrested yet," "I haven't gotten divorced yet"—as rationalizations for continued drinking. The ultimate "yet" might be "I haven't been put in a straitjacket yet." Most alcoholics, obviously, never end up in straitjackets, banging their heads against padded walls.
Do you think this movie exaggerates Joe's "rock bottom" moment in a way that reassures viewers that they aren't alcoholic?
For me, the moment when Joe trashes his father-in-law's greenhouse while looking for a hidden bottle is terrifying enough. It's clear, at this point, that Joe's addiction is destroying the things that matter most to him, causing him to harm the people he loves, making it impossible for him to keep his promises. When the movie intensified Joe's crisis by moving the action to a sanitarium, I was surprised.
LW: This is a great question because the movie allows us to view the progression of the disease of alcoholism. (Substance use disorders are considered progressive illnesses, meaning that they worsen without intervention or treatment.)
That rock-bottom moment at the asylum was the only moment where I was like "whoa, this is a bit much," but then I reminded myself that back in the day that's exactly what patient care looked like. Historically, they also didn't think of drug and alcohol issues as something that required medical treatment, so it was much more likely for the illness to progress into its later stages where folks are much more severely physically and mentally compromised. Approaches to treatment have been improved, so thankfully we catch substance use disorders in their earlier stages now. However, it is still accurate that folks experience multiple hospitalizations on their road to recovery.
So there may be some viewers who recognize themselves in the early stages of the progression like "yeah, I get into fights with my partner about my drinking," or "I scared my kid that one time," but they can differentiate themselves by saying, "I haven't lost multiple jobs," or "I'm not gnashing my teeth at the asylum." This is where I'd tell folks to look for the similarities rather than the differences. If a person is connecting with some of those early stage warning signs, it couldn't hurt to explore one's relationship with substances with a mental health professional.
MW: Do you have any ideas about why Joe is able to admit that he is an alcoholic, and seek help, while Kirsten is not?
LW: That is the question and I'll tell you up front there's no clear answer. There's a scene where Joe is asking his sponsor why he and Kirsten became alcoholics when other people drink the same, but don't become problem drinkers. The sponsor responds, "It's a lottery and you lost." That's not a satisfactory answer, so Joe presses: "Well, how?" The sponsor later says, "How many strawberries does it take to start an allergy? And which one gives you the hives?" Unfortunately, science hasn't gotten much further in answering the question why certain folks develop substance use disorders and why some folks' behavior looks problematic, but they're able to stop eventually.
The conundrum is similar for recovery. We do have data about risk factors and protective factors. For example, a person who has a family history of alcoholism, a history of trauma, early drug experimentation, and lack of parental supervision might be more likely to develop substance misuse issues. However, someone with this profile may not have any issues at all. Factors that influence a person's recovery include changes in someone's neural circuitry and brain structure (which we can't check, we just know that substance misuse causes brain changes), length of time in treatment and supportive relationships.
People's biologies and life experiences intertwine so uniquely, it would be impossible to tease out all the factors that contribute to the development of substance use issues or factors that support recovery. As folks get into recovery, I think it's valuable for individuals to construct a compassionate narrative about their understanding of their disease. As a clinician, I can make one up with some pretty educated guesses, but it's much more valuable and impactful for people to do that for themselves.
MW: A Driftwood alum recently mentioned to me that his parents used to beg him to stop “partying” so much. "Please, stop with the constant partying." His substance abuse was, at that time, solitary and isolating; he was surviving the day until he could get back to his apartment and be alone and drunk again. It wasn’t much of a party! In the beginning, though, his drinking had part of his rowdy college life, and my guess was that he had been a well-liked “character.”
The Days of Wine and Roses charts a similar trajectory. In the beginning, Joe is drinking with colleagues and clients and models on a yacht. On their first date, he and Kirsten are sipping Brandy Alexanders in a swanky bar. Later, the two are hiding together in a bedroom at her father’s house, drinking straight from the bottle. By the end, Kirsten has separated herself even from Joe, and is alone in a motel room.
LW: That's one of the most stunning features of the disease of addiction, in my opinion. We call it a "disease of isolation," and that plays out in a few different spheres. Unlike some other illnesses, the symptoms of addiction are behavioral as well as physical and psychological. On the surface, the behavioral component looks like a person turning into an unreliable selfish liar, which tends to deteriorate relationships, but underneath the surface something much more neurologically complicated is happening.
Even if people have loving, supportive people in their lives, like Kirsten has with Joe, the substance hijacks the brain into making a person think that the substance is needed for survival. That survival instinct is where the anti-social behaviors stem from—a person will do anything for the substance because on the brain-level it feels like life and death. The bottom line is it's hard to be in relationship with someone who considers substances their primary attachment. Simultaneously, a person gets sucked into their own personal shame vortex in their relationship with themselves. Unmet goals, poor self-care, social snafus, legal consequences, disappointed friends and families are just a few of the things that might contribute to some intense self-loathing. Sometimes a person "in their cups" doesn't even want to be around themselves anymore. So common sense says, "well, just stop drinking," but this disease doesn't operate on the common sense level. Breaking up with substances is much like breaking up with a toxic person, which is excruciating, especially if that person had become your whole world.
This is why we're big on getting people into community and into a lifestyle that fits their values because we want folks to heal those parts of the brain that have been hijacked. Healing happens by turning away from the relationship with substances and building relationships with actual people, which also helps us heal our relationships with ourselves.
"Going through recovery is one of the hardest things you will ever do. And probably the most freeing thing you'll ever do": An Interview with Driftwood Co-Founder Peter Fluor
This is the first in a series of posts introducing the individuals who make up Driftwood Recovery’s community of caregivers.
Through these informal and sometimes wide-ranging conversations, you’ll get a chance to meet most of the people on Driftwood’s team—from its executives to its care coordinators. You’ll learn about the programs they facilitate, and about how their work serves Driftwood’s overall treatment philosophy. You’ll learn about the various paths that brought them here. And you might also pick up a useful book or restaurant recommendation.
In this post, Kuraĝo editor Matt Williamson talks to Peter Fluor, who co-founded Driftwood Recovery in 2016 and is its president.
Matt Williamson: So, you studied business at USC. And I know that you went on to work in real estate, and in oil and gas. I guess I'm interested to know, first, how you ended up making this seemingly radical career shift, becoming president of a residential treatment center in the Texas Hill Country.
Peter Fluor: It begins with my own experience in recovery. I became an active addict when I was in college, and I struggled with substance abuse for years after that.
A big part of the reason that I drank and used drugs is that I felt trapped in a certain trajectory in my life. The direction I was taking didn't feel true to me, but it seemed like the world was telling me I had to go in that direction. I don’t mean that any one person was pressuring me—it wasn’t just my parents, for instance. It was more a general sense that everyone around me, from my family to my peers—even my teachers—expected that I’d have a certain kind of professional life. But that life wasn’t what I had envisioned or hoped for myself.
At some point, as you mentioned, I was working as a financial analyst for an oil and gas company. And I was actually having a rough time. I felt some guilt about the fact that I was in that job, because I hated it, and other people would have killed to have it, and they could have done so much with the opportunity.
But then then I got into treatment, I got sober, and things started, inevitably, to change. I worked as a raft guide for a while! I got my real estate license. But ultimately, I still wasn't feeling fulfilled.
MW: I was just listening to a radio interview with the anthropologist David Graeber on this topic: the way a lack of meaning at work can erode our sense of well-being.
I talked recently with someone who had backed away from a career in medicine to work in experiential education: designing ziplines and ropes courses. When she first told people that she was making this career change, someone said: “so you’re going to teach kids to play kickball?” Obviously, that description was meant to diminish her work. But even if she really were “just teaching kids to play kickball”—that strikes me as a beautiful way to spend a working day. You’re doing something that’s fun, that makes people happier and healthier, and you get to see the result of your work every day.
PF: When I was working in real estate—where I definitely didn’t feel that I had found my calling—I was talking a lot about this kind of stuff with a friend of mine. This was someone who had helped get me into treatment. He was the owner of an adolescent program called Newport Academy.
I was sharing some of my frustrations about work, my sense that it lacked purpose. And during those conversations, I was remembering that I had always been drawn to helping people. This goes back to my time at St. John's School, where the upper-school students do 36,000 combined service hours every year. It’s ingrained in you that giving back to the community isn’t something you do on the side; it’s supposed to be a central part of your life.
But it took me a long time to make the connection that you can help others full-time and also make a living. You can run a successful business that exists to help people.
At some point, my friend said: “just come work for me at Newport.” You used the phrase “radical shift.” And, yeah, it was a dramatic change. I took a 60% pay cut, and I was at ground level in a job without a lot of glamour, working with people in treatment. And I was the happiest I had been in my life.
MW: You were working directly with the kids?
PF: In a variety of roles, yeah. I was a recovery coach. I did some tutoring in Newport’s day school, and then I was in an operations role.
Almost immediately after I arrived at Newport, I knew: I want to start a program. Of course, I didn't really know how to do that. But I knew some fundamental things that would be really important.
The most important thing was to find the right people, and to create an environment where those people were valued, where they felt challenged, and where they could grow—and be held accountable, too. To me, that was the fundamental idea behind Driftwood: curating a staff, and a staff culture, that was second to none, in any treatment program. If there’s something that truly sets Driftwood apart, that's it.
MW: I talked to Jason Donoho [Driftwood’s Culinary Director] yesterday. And it was clear that when he was hired, he felt—to a degree that surprised him—that he had a free hand in designing the menu and the overall dining concept for the facility. He felt trusted to act with autonomy. And when I was talking to Connie Cole and Ryan Potter over in the Wellness Center, I got a similar impression: that both of them have a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility—and that they respect and trust one another. If Ryan has a big idea—even a counterintuitive one—Connie wants him to give it a try, because she knows that he’s a brilliant guy, and also that he’s someone who’s going to act responsibly and compassionately.
PF: What you've observed is kind of the hope and the dream for me. Oftentimes, people in leadership roles want to dictate everything: to over-manage or micromanage. Our goal at Driftwood was to assemble the most capable people we could find, and then harness each person's strengths to create an environment where their best can come out.
Once you hire someone with the highest level of expertise, you have to cede some decisions to them, celebrate them when they need to be celebrated, and have the challenging conversations when those need to happen. We try and stay away from shaming any staff member—or resident, for that matter. We want to treat each other the same way that we want to treat our residents and alumni, and the same way we want residents and alumni to treat each other.
From my perspective, Driftwood’s success isn’t measured only by the experience that the resident has here. It's also about the experience that the staff member has. That's how you create the proper resident experience. Everyone at Driftwood is part of our community, however they arrive here.
MW: Could you talk about some of the ways Driftwood’s approach to treatment is unusual?
PF: I do want to say, in the spirit of what we were just discussing—giving people autonomy over their respective areas—that this is Brad Kennedy's area. Brad is a great resource for anything on this, and honestly can talk about it much more eloquently than I can.
But from a really high level: there are a lot of treatment programs that are a little bit . . . black or white. They take one specific approach. A treatment program might just be a 12-Step program, for instance. In that case, most of its programming revolves around 12-Step recovery. There are programs that are much more heavily clinically driven. And there are programs that are, you know, wilderness programs, experiential programs. The awesome thing about a lot of those programs is that they can do their particular things really well. The downside is that if they get somebody in their care who isn't responding to their particular treatment style, then that person is not going to benefit as greatly as they might somewhere else. In the worst-case scenario, you might have someone who’s trying to get sober, but is in an antagonistic relationship with the treatment program.
At Driftwood, we have a multifaceted approach to treatment. Our clinical team is established. I would say that it’s the best clinical team in the state of Texas, and one of the best in the country. So the clinical programming is really good. At the same time, we do a lot of experiential stuff. And we emphasize learning through action, rather than just learning through reading or listening.
We do try to foster a recovery lifestyle, and a big part of that, for us, is the 12 Steps. But most importantly, our program is about teaching people how to take concrete actions that will help them work a program of recovery.
All of these things that I’ve described, when you do all of them really well, simultaneously—create a unique, comprehensive treatment experience.
Just to be clear: we wholeheartedly believe in, and will always advocate for, 12-Step recovery. But if somebody is not vibing with that—if they're averse to it for some reason—there are a lot of other ways here to help them engage in treatment. And we may end up helping them work through some of those barriers that are preventing them from engaging in 12-Step recovery.
MW: Driftwood’s physical campus is pretty remarkable. I’m an Austin native, so maybe I’m not the most reliable source, but I think this part of the Hill Country is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. And the architecture here has a kind of serenity that matches the surroundings.
PF: A wonderful lady named Robin Garrison designed this place. She transitioned it from the ranch houses that used to be here to the property that we're on today. Robin modeled it after a spiritual center she had visited in South America. The idea was that it would be a bed-and-breakfast, a wedding venue, a retreat, and so on.
But she was more in love with the process of building the place than in going on to run it as a hotel. So when it was put to her that this might be the perfect site for a residential treatment facility, she loved the idea. It’s almost as if, without knowing it, she had built this place for us. I don't want to put words in Robin's mouth, but I think it’s safe to say she feels that way.
We love this location. But I want to add that I don't think treatment should ever be compared to a spa-like experience.
Going through recovery, no matter where you do it, is one of the hardest things you will ever do. And probably the most freeing thing you'll ever do.
So when I talk about the property, I always say it's the cherry on top. It's an added bonus that we get to do this work in such a beautiful setting. But the meat and potatoes—the heart and soul of the program—is the staff, the community, the culture. The work that’s done here, the programming, is the important piece.
Vice's 2016 documentary Fentanyl: The Drug Deadlier than Heroin is full of disturbing scenes, but one moment early in the movie is especially memorable.
In this scene, a young man has come into a publicly funded treatment center asking for help with his addiction. His desire to get sober seems genuine and urgent. A staffer explains to him, however, that before he can begin the program, he must stay sober for at least five days: he has to find the "willpower" to go through withdrawal while he's alone, broke, and possibly homeless.
After he pleads his case and loses—"five days" is a strict requirement—he seems to check out of the conversation, to give up on the idea of entering treatment, at least for now. (In the next scene, a different person tells the filmmakers that he would "rather die than go through the pain of the withdrawals of these pills.")
"But it's only five days," you can imagine somebody complaining. "How hard could it be to not take pills for five days?"
I asked Driftwood's Medical Director, Dr. Rey Ximenes, to explain why a person addicted to a drug like fentanyl often won't just do the prudent thing and lay off for a while.
"I have a favorite analogy, actually. So there’s this cup of coffee on the table here. Let's imagine that I told you to take a sip of that coffee, and you didn’t want to. If you felt strongly about it, you’d refuse."
"Now—what if I took a .45 out and pointed it at your head and said: 'drink the coffee?' What are you going to do?"
"That's what the addict is experiencing during acute withdrawal. 'If I don't drink that, if I don't snort that, if I don't shoot that, I'm going to die.' The person might know that they don’t really need the substance. But they feel that they do. And that's the trap."
I asked Dr. Ximenes how easy it might be to kick fentanyl alone, while squatting in an empty house or sleeping under a bridge in cold temperatures.
"It would be like five days of re-enacting The Deer Hunter. Click. Click. Click. Five days of that? No. That's where supervised detox becomes crucial."
Dr. Ximenes takes exception to the idea that opioids like fentanyl hijack the brain's "pleasure center." "The first thing people need to know is that these drugs take over the survival center. I don't call it the pleasure center. It's the survival center."
The question "why don't you just quit" implies, subtly, that drug dependency is fun—that people addicted to fentanyl or OxyContin are indulging. If they wanted to get sober, they'd find the willpower to deal with a week or two of "dysphoria, insomnia, pupillary dilation, piloerection, yawning, muscle aches, lacrimation, rhinorrhea, nausea, fever, sweating," and life-threatening "vomiting and diarrhea."—and then independently solve all of the problems that had made them susceptible to addiction.
But the world we glimpse in that Vice documentary—of young people wandering around in the autumn cold begging strangers for spare change, living in tents and under bridges, obsessively looking for the next pill—doesn't seem like such a fun place to be. It's easy to see why the glassy-eyed young man at the treatment facility in Calgary wants to free himself from his addiction. It can be harder to see why he doesn't "just do it."
Welcome to Kuraĝo, a new blog covering addiction, trauma, recovery, wellness, and the search for meaning.
While Kuraĝo is (obviously) hosted by Driftwood Recovery—and will feature conversations with Driftwood’s clinicians, dieticians, physical therapists, and canine client support specialists—it’s not necessarily a blog about Driftwood. This blog is for everyone, and we want it to include a wide variety of perspectives.
Alongside explainers on “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy” and “opiate hyperalgesia,” you’ll find movie recommendations, recipes for non-alcoholic cocktails, meditations, and links to whatever else we found interesting during a given week.
Whether you’re taking your first awkward steps toward sobriety, trying to learn more about the challenges that a friend or family member in residential treatment is facing, or just looking for strategies for weathering the daily stresses of life, we hope you’ll find something of value here.
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If you're interested in contributing to the blog—or you know about something we should be discussing here—drop us a line at: kurago (at) driftwoodrecovery.com.
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