I’m nearing the end of the first installment of Emmett Wilson’s biography. There is definitely some light shining in the tunnel, even though I still have quite a way to go before the journey is complete.
In January, I decided to break the story of Emmett’s life into four specific sections or installments. I hesitate to say the final version of Emmett’s bio will be told as a sequel, because I may simply consolidate the story into one volume at the end.
Or, I may release them one at a time. Goodness knows, I have enough content in one installment for a stand-alone book.
But, for now, this makes sense, because his life followed a steady pattern that repeated at four different intervals:
- Education/recognition of goal
- Transition to importance & prominence, nears goal
- Major screw up/drama/bottoming out
Organizing the story into this pattern made a lot of sense to me. Also, it made me a little impatient and angry with Emmett: He was a logical, INTJ-kind of guy. Could he not see history repeating itself in his own life?
Or did he simply miss the not-so-subtle cues because he was a full-blown alcoholic in the last quarter of his life?
Occasionally, I’m asked how a story about an obscure guy like Emmett Wilson is relevant today.
Emmett’s biography is also the story of his family and friends — the story of what it was like to live with, work with, and love a family member who was not only incredibly intelligent and talented, but also tragically self-destructive.
This is nothing unusual or new — or different, really — in the 21st Century. Most of us probably have an Emmett Wilson in our own lives.
Since Emmett’s time, medical science has come a long way in the treatment of alcoholism, but the disease still exists as it did in Emmett’s day — as does the lack of general understanding about what it is like to live with an alcoholic. Many people still say and assume about that sobriety is a matter of will power.
It’s horrible to watch someone you love destroy themselves; especially when you KNOW that THEY KNOW that they want to stop, but they can’t.
In 1918, Emmett and his fellow alcoholics did not have AA (it didn’t exist until 1935), and most alcoholics were treated with morphine or other nostrums that often did more damage than booze (such as lithium). Alcoholics often became addicted to those other substances.
The medical community didn’t consider alcoholism as a disease until the 1930’s. According to William White’s book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, there were two waves of state laws between 1907 and 1913 that called for the mandatory sterilization of ‘mental defectives’, which included alcoholics.
I often wonder how many alcoholics that Emmett, as District Attorney and later, as State Attorney, had committed to Chattahoochie (the state mental hospital)?
I wonder if Emmett lived in fear of being placed there himself?
How is Emmett’s story relevant to today?
My colleague, Donna the Nephrologist (who is reviewing Emmett’s biography for medical accuracy) reminds me that people were reluctant to talk about alcoholism in the 1900s; mostly, people ignored the alcoholic in their families, or shunned them, which did nothing to alleviate their suffering. Hiding it, shunning it, solved nothing.
Even today, she said, there’s still a reluctance to talk about it. It’s not a comfortable subject. People don’t want to admit that they have a problem with drinking; that they can’t ‘drink normally.’ But if we don’t talk about it, how can those who suffer with it find help?
Hopefully, in telling Emmett’s story this way, there will be a little more understanding out there about alcoholism.
Perhaps it will contribute to a more open dialog about how to deal with the disease in our midst.
Perhaps it might encourage someone to reach out to the loved one who is suffering, so that loved one won’t end up like Emmett.
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