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“The Calling for Me was a Clear One.”William White

William L. White, MA
Senior Research Consultant
Chestnut Health Systems
Lighthouse Institute

Bill White, who has served in the addictions field for 40 years,  knew this was his life’s work and passion from the very beginning. 

How did you choose to be in the addictions field?
I am a part of a generation of workers who entered the field in the 1960s and early 1970’s out of personal or family recovery experience.  The calling for me was a clear one.  I saw the local “drunk tanks,” “county work farms” (penal colonies) and back wards of aging state psychiatric hospitals that preceded modern addiction treatment.  I have vivid memories of a world without addiction treatment and accessible recovery pathways which have fueled my commitment to this field over the past four decades.  I have no illusions about this imperfect instrument we call treatment, but I would not trade our worst treatments for what preceded them.  As a field, we are slowly losing the memory of what it was like when most communities did not have specialized addiction treatment.  That is a significant loss.

Who was the biggest influence in your career? 
I have been blessed with a long list of mentors.  There were many sage recovering people who nursed me through my early years in the field.  My early mentorship under Dr. Ed Senay exerted a profound influence on my clinical and research interests, and Dr. Ernie Kurtz has mentored all of the work I have done on the history of addiction treatment and recovery in America.  I also include among my mentors the many people I have had the opportunity to co-author articles with—individuals like Bill Miller, Tom McLellan, Tom McGovern, Herb Kleber, Bob DuPont, Alexandre Laudet, William Cloud, Arthur Evans, and of course, all my research colleagues from the Lighthouse Institute.  My work has also been deeply influenced by my work with other recovery advocates, including Pat Taylor, Don Coyhis, Bob Savage, Phil Valentine, David Whiters, Bev Haberle, Marty Nicolaus and others.  And then there are what I think of as peer mentors individuals like Mark Sanders--we often take turns mentoring each other.

What were the most helpful things you learned from your mentors?
I think the most beneficial things I’ve received are encouragement, technical knowledge and skills, honest feedback, linkage to key source of information, introductions to other people, invitations for contributions and collaborations and guidance on how to live one’s life in this most unusual of professions.  

What advise would you give to emerging leaders?
The opportunities in the next decade for advancement and leadership will be greater than they have been in 30 years.  Now is the time to prepare yourself—time to go back to school, time to read the field’s core literature, time to tap the knowledge of the field’s now aging leadership, and time to emotionally prepare yourself for the demands of leadership.  

What are the necessary skills/experience needed for being a leader in the field?
The skills needed are as diverse as the growing number of roles in the field, but I think there is one core area of knowledge that stands above all others and that is knowledge of recovery.  We have been in love with pathology—obsessed with understanding addiction and intervention technologies.  As a field we know a great deal about addiction and treatment.  It is time we all shifted to a focus on the lived solution to alcohol and other drug problems.  It is time all of our leaders and our workers were experts on the pathways, styles and stages of long-term recovery and experts on American communities of recovery.

Do you mentor others? 
I do this informally as much as I can and also participate in various leadership development institutes.  What I get in addition to the richness of giving is a continual source of new perspectives and questions which regularly force me to reconsider what I think I already know.  This helps me keep my current ideas on probation rather than seeing them as THE truth.  

Why is mentoring important? 
I once asked Ernie Kurtz how I could pay him for all the time and guidance he had given me.  He said I could pay him by saying yes to those in the future who would come seeking my counsel.  He told me they would come ill-prepared, come at the worst times and ask things I wasn’t sure I could provide.  He said I could pay him back by saying yes to such requests as he has said yes to mine, and that is what I have tried to faithfully do.  Mentorship is a way to keep the oral traditions of the field alive.  It is the connecting tissue that links the field’s past and future.

William White's Bio

Bill White has worked full time in the addictions field since 1969 as a streetworker, counselor, clinical director, researcher and well-traveled trainer and consultant. He is currently a Senior Research Consultant with Chestnut Health Systems Lighthouse Institute.

He has authored or co-authored more than 300 articles, monographs, research reports and book chapters and 13 books.  His book, Slaying the Dragon - The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, received the McGovern Family Foundation Award for the best book on addiction recovery.  In addition, the Johnson Institute recently published Bill’s widely read papers on recovery advocacy in a book entitled Let’s Go Make Some History:  Chronicles of the New Addiction Recovery Advocacy Movement.    

Mr. White has received several awards for his contributions to the field and was featured in the Bill Moyers’ PBS special “Close To Home: Addiction in America” and Showtime’s documentary “Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century.”

Bill earned a Masters in Addiction Studies and served as Chairman of the board of Recovery Communities United.

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