An alcoholism counselor named Judy Fraser recently died after spending a life steeped in recovery work and saving or profoundly changing the lives of countless Vineyarders — including my own. While this column is about Judy, if you have worked in the recovery community, you will recognize parts of Judy in countless other professionals who do similar work. Like so many who work with people who are struggling with drugs and alcohol, Judy grew up in a household plagued by addiction, and later she worked hard to recover from addiction herself.
When many people hear the term “alcoholic,” they imagine a loser who has damaged multiple lives and destroyed their own. I think of someone who is wise, tolerant, and kind. And we are both right: active alcoholism is generally a losing proposition, and active alcoholics often leave a wake of destruction behind them. But alcoholics in recovery are another matter altogether. Recovery — whether it be from alcoholism or from the trauma or growing up with addiction in your home — requires enormous personal work. People in recovery are often men and women of enormous depth and compassion.
Judy Fraser, like many of the addiction counselors and other people in recovery who have been my teachers, colleague and patients, had a wonderful, no-nonsense blend of humility and generosity, and a compulsion to tell it as it is.
Shortly after I moved to the Vineyard 22 years ago, Judy called me. I had just left New York City and an academic career at NYU to become a small town doctor. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure that I had made the right decision. Shortly before I left, a teacher of mine told me that the problem with leaving New York was that the most interesting patients and colleagues were there. After meeting Judy, I soon realized how very wrong he was on both accounts. Within weeks of our meeting, we did three things that I had never done with a colleague in NYC. We made two house calls together. She brought me to an AA meeting. We talked about how growing up in alcoholic homes had made us who we were as professionals and people. And of course, people everywhere are interesting. Judy showed me how thoroughly gratifying it is to work in a small town where all our lives are interwoven, where the blank screen therapist can’t exist, and where we can feel the impact of our work not only on our clients, but also on their neighbors, children, and spouses. I vividly remember that Chilmark AA meeting that Judy took me to. There was a glow of warmth, love and appreciation that emanated from and surrounded that room and Judy. It was striking how intimately she knew and connected with the lives of the other people there. Some had been clients, some were her friends, and in one way or another, all were people with whom she was sharing the hard work of recovery and self-realization. But regardless of how she knew people, she was always the same straight forward, pithy and open hearted Judy. It is said that there are three essential ingredients to recovery: “Rigorous Honesty,” “Doing Whatever It Takes,” and “Taking The Next Right Step.” These guidelines were three pillars of Judy’s life.Maybe more than any other quality, it was Judy’s rigorous honesty and blunt truth telling that made me realize how fortunate I was to live on the Vineyard and have colleagues like her. Perhaps, it came from growing up in a home that was characterized by toxic secrets and addiction that gave her an acute awareness of hypocrisy. But whatever the root, she had a natural way of telling clients, colleagues and friends the truth. If it was sometimes hard to hear, it was made so much easier because her words flowed through a filter of personal experience and compassion that made difficult truths feel crisp, clear and kind.
A few years ago, when I was going through a rough patch in my personal life, Judy told me, “You know Charlie, you grew up in an alcoholic family. How many years have you worked in this field? You have recommended 12 Step work to hundreds of people but you have never done the work yourself. The disease is yours too. Going to Al-Anon and working the steps would really help you.” Judy saw us all as equal, human, and having much more in common than we have differences. Anyone who was interested in hearing it was equally deserving of her straightforward advice. And for that, like so many others, I will always be grateful.
As Judy’s colleague, I learned much from her about doing whatever it takes. If someone was unable to leave their home, she went to them. If her client and she weren’t making progress, she would seek help from family members, consult with colleagues, or recommend psychopharmacology if she thought it might help. If a beloved resident of Vineyard House was relapsing or bringing drugs into the house, she was a stalwart for the rules that were there to protect everyone and insisted, as hard as it was, that the person, at least temporarily, had to move on to other shelter.
And taking the next right step seemed to be Judy’s only path. Her steps were so right! New colleague? Reach out. Collaborate. Introduce him to Twelve Step work. A friend or neighbor who is gripped by the tentacles of alcoholism? Offer time and friendship and wisdom. Have a client who calls late at night? Pick up the phone. Meet him early in the morning. Take him to a meeting. And if you are dying? Face it with honesty.
Judy knew that death was imminent for some weeks before she died. As she had done with so many aspects of her life, she faced her death with honesty and courage. She met with friends and clients. She let us feel how much she valued us, and she allowed us to love her. She let her family know how much she loved and appreciated them. So many of us will miss Judy’s right steps. She helped me and countless friends and colleagues to take our own right steps. Her impact was so powerful that in many ways she is still with us, and probably always will be. So I am going to speak directly to her: Thank you Judy, from the bottom of my heart.
Dr. Charles Silberstein is the chief psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and writes regularly about issues Islanders have with mental health.
To learn more about Dr. Ghaemi’s ideas, go to his website and newsletter, The Psychiatry Letter (psychiatryletter.com)