James L. Fenley Jr., MD, recalls that even though the lectures he would conduct at Talbott Recovery Campus represented only a sliver of patients’ treatment experience, patients on their departure from the program would rank his talks among their most meaningful moments. He believes his honesty in sharing some of the painful details of his own life journey has been instrumental in the impact he has been able to have.
Now the longtime addiction medicine specialist affiliated with Anchor Hospital and Talbott in Atlanta has combined ideas from his lectures and his experience into a powerful book titled Finding a Purpose in the Pain, released last month by Central Recovery Press. The book chronicles the odyssey of an addiction-focused physician who considers himself to be among a dying breed in the field.
“I see us going away,” says Fenley, who transitioned from internal medicine to addiction medicine in the 1980s after a period where he dealt with his wife’s addiction and then his own battle with panic attacks and depression that led to a hospitalization. “I still do art therapy with my patients. [But] so much of what I see in the field has become medical management.”
Fenley adds, “We talk about all the research and everything else, and we’re missing out on the basics. The basics get people well.”
Fenley focuses a great deal in his conversations on the dynamics of the one-on-one relationship between the patient and the professional. He also is a passionate believer in the achievements of 12-Step recovery. “I believe that 12-Step recovery makes sense,” he says simply.
Fenley, who for more than a decade co-chaired the former SECAD conference for clinical professionals, says the two dozen or so lecture topics that form much of his book’s content came largely in an organic fashion to him. “I often didn’t have to prepare for them,” he says of the lectures. “I would look at the community of patients in front of me and decide in a topic right there, based on what I saw.”
The book, a project that Fenley put down for a time but then completed in about nine months once he resumed, became less of a guide for addicts and alcoholics alone and more of a message to anyone who has experienced an emotional crisis.
“Another group I think this book would be great for is medical students,” Fenley says. He adds with a laugh, “They have no insight into addiction, outside of having a patient throw up on them in the emergency room.”