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‘Don't give up on us’

February 1, 2011
by Gary A. Enos
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Wayne Barber
Wayne Barber

Wayne Barber's odyssey offers proof positive of the value of persistence, both for the addicted client and for his clinical professionals. A 30-day inpatient program for medical workers in the late 1980s got the Tennessee nurse sober for a time, but sobriety would not blossom into recovery. Years later, Barber would begin to receive treatment for underlying mental health issues, but until he became more open he wouldn't receive a precise diagnosis.

Three years ago Barber became a patient at Centerstone, an integrated behavioral healthcare agency with operations in Tennessee and Indiana. Now 62, he receives medication for his bipolar disorder and he leads 12-Step meetings at a hospital detox unit, where desperate patients hang on every word and keep him there with question upon question afterwards.

“The number one thing my treatment gave me was emotional stability, and right on the heels of that would be the collaborative care,” says Barber. “I'm right on the edge of being able to step back from my treatment, although I will continue to be involved to some degree.”

Barber knows he has come a long way from a period during which he made three suicide attempts, once ending up with a blood alcohol level so high that he shouldn't have survived. His message to treatment professionals is simple: “Don't give up on us. And involve the patient. You're always right on the threshold of saving people's lives.”

Lure of alcohol

Barber dabbled in the psychedelic era on the West Coast in the late 1960s, but in his early 20s he would discover alcohol in the unlikeliest of places: Indonesia, a Muslim nation where he had lived as a child.

“My first drink, my first drunk, and my first blackout were all at the same time,” says Barber. “It was instant love. It answered all those deep-seated needs I had had for some time: belonging, being good enough.”

Barber says he didn't immediately begin drinking every day, but he always got drunk when he drank. He and the woman whom he would marry had been “renegades” from their strict church upbringing, and drinking essentially served as their only common thread, he says.

He was able to complete a nursing training program and work as a nurse, although his drinking continued. He first entered treatment after the director of the operating room where he worked told him he was on the verge of being dismissed. The program involved 30 days of inpatient treatment, a month of intensive outpatient treatment and two months of programming where he became a co-facilitator.

“At that time I don't remember them talking a whole lot about recovery,” says Barber. “The focus was on abstinence, and frequent random screens.”

He would stay sober for “a miserable six years,” until one day he found himself back in a liquor store. His marriage ended two years after his relapse, and the ensuing years marked a period of deep despair Yet during that period he also would receive a mental health diagnosis.

First it was believed that Barber had clinical depression, but that would change one day when he began to share more details about his life with his psychiatrist. “All of a sudden she said, ‘We're treating the wrong disease,’” Barber recalls.

As a patient with bipolar disorder, Barber understands the complexity of the treatment challenge for his dual diagnosis. “The dually diagnosed require a little more help,” he says. “They have a harder time of it.”

Surprises in life

Barber says that while Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) contributed greatly to his sobriety, his most recent treatment at Centerstone has helped to bring about a true recovery. Once physical sobriety leads to spiritual recovery, “All these neat things start happening,” he says.

For Barber this includes re-establishing contact with a brother with whom he now travels and considers a best friend. He also beams when talking about his son, who in late December reached 60 days of sobriety. “The deck was stacked against him,” he says.

Barber no longer works full-time and is on disability, but he finds great meaning in his work at the hospital detox program. Dually diagnosed patients constantly ask him whether they drink because they're depressed or are depressed because they drink, and Barber has a simple reply.

“What difference does it make?” he says, calling the relationship between the two illnesses a ‘malignant synergy.” He says, “I prefer to talk about what you need to do when you step out of that place.”

Addiction Professional 2011 January-February;9(1):40