A Link in the Chain: A Nonalcoholic Trustee Provides a Look Back and a Glimpse Ahead
During the 69th General Service Conference in the spring of 2019, Dr. Al J. Mooney, of Cary, North Carolina, was selected as one of the new Class A (nonalcoholic) trust- ees to serve the Fellowship over the coming six years. Like many, Dr. Mooney was born into a family of alcoholics; that said, he didn’t become an alcoholic himself. Instead, he became an advocate of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Born in 1948 in Statesboro, Georgia, Mooney was the son of a physician/surgeon and a nurse. His father, John, was a medical paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, and eventually transitioned to piloting gliders that he flew behind enemy lines to trans- port critical medical supplies. During one such mission in Holland, he crashed his glider and suffered severe back injuries. Due to this accident, Mooney’s father developed an addiction to alcohol and opiates. Soon, his father’s medical practice was destroyed by his addiction, and he was sent to prison for six months for writing illegal prescriptions for narcotics. Initially, his father was considered a hopeless case and was diagnosed a sociopath. His wife, Dorothy, was left to care for their three boys, and was on her way to becoming an alcoholic and addict herself; she ultimately became addicted to the sodium pentothal injections that were a part of her electroshock treatments meant to alleviate her debilitating depression. Thankfully, Mooney’s father discovered the message of A.A. while he was imprisoned in the Narcotic Farm, a federal narcotic prison in Lexington, Kentucky. He was released in 1959, and the young Mooney didn’t recognize his dad. “He came back in the same body that I always recognized,” Mooney remembers, “but he was a different person. It was like I met my dad for the first time when he came home sober.” At the time, Mooney was eleven years old, and soon he learned more about A.A. because his mother started to attend meetings with his dad and she got sober, too.
Eventually, his parents opened their home to alcoholics attempting to get sober. “At different times, there were 25 people living in our home with us,” recalls Mooney. The family’s dining room was transformed into a detox unit with several beds for recovering individuals. “My parents thought of it as Twelfth Step work, but then an accountant convinced them that they were performing services, such as medical treatment, outside of A.A. and that they should consider opening a hospi- tal.” In 1971, Willingway Hospital was established by his parents in their hometown of Statesboro. (Still, today, the rehab center operates as a private family-owned hospital on an 11-acre wooded campus. Over the years, Mooney has served in a variety of capacities, such as a physician, the medical director, and later a board member.)
As his parents’ involvement in A.A. grew, Mooney joined Alateen and eventually became a lifelong member of Al-Anon. In 1965, Al attended the A.A. International Convention in Toronto with his parents and siblings, and got a chance to hear Bill W. and Lois speak onstage. On this same trip, the family stopped by the General Service Office — which was located on Madison Avenue at that time — before taking in the World’s Fair at Shea Stadium in Queens. Bill W. had a modest office that was simply appointed with a leather couch and a desk.
“My dad had a personality of self-assurance as a surgeon and a doctor,” says Mooney, “and his whole demeanor changed when we stepped inside Bill’s office. I found myself thinking, ‘What the hell is going on with my dad?’ I was so awed by this unexpected change in my dad that I almost missed our visit with Bill complete- ly.” Mooney remembers Bill’s lanky, tall physique, and how he had to awkwardly maneuver to get out from his desk and greet the family. “At the time, as a teenager, I didn’t realize how monumental it was to meet Bill,” says Mooney, “but I realize now how wonderful it was to experience Bill face-to-face.”
As Mooney’s parents moved further into their recoveries, they often spoke at A.A. events around the country and Al often traveled with his parents to these engagements. In addition, his parents spoke at Founders’ Day in Akron, Ohio, in the late 1960s. As mentioned already, drugs were an integral part of his mother’s story, and she was nervous about mentioning this element of her story at Founders’ Day as well as at other meetings where she spoke. She decided to ask Bill what he thought about her talking about drugs in her A.A. story; after
all who would be a better authority than Bill W.? He gave her the following advice: “Dot, I think it’s good to talk about anything that will help you stay sober.” And Mooney’s mother did just this — told her story as she experienced it, including the details related to her drug-related addiction.
Throughout the decades, Mooney’s parents maintained a friendship with Bill and Lois. They made several trips to Stepping Stones, the Wilsons’ home in Bedford, about an hour north of New York City. “My dad often would take a Big Book and have Bill sign it,” says Mooney with a soft chuckle, “but he never kept the book for him- self. Instead, he would give out these autographed copies to people trying to get sober.”
Growing up in a sober home and attending open meetings certainly gave Mooney a firm foundation in recovery. “From an early age, my parents shared their recovery with me. As a result, I developed a cultural competence of A.A. and a vocabulary of recovery. This was a very important part of my journey,” Mooney explains. “It helped me to grow up in a family where I was given tools to cope with fear in society and the courage to keep working my own steps and program.” His father passed away in 1983 from lung dis- ease with 24 years of sobriety, and his mom died with 44 years of sobriety in 2004. “I have huge gratitude for the force of recovery that surrounded me in my own life,” reflects Mooney.
When it came time for him to make a decision about his own education career, it wasn’t much of a choice. “I’m a sixth-generation physician,” he says. “Going into medicine was what our family did.” When Mooney was enrolled at the Emory University School of Medicine, he questioned one of his psychiatric professors if it would be possible for a sociopath to become philanthropic and generate goodwill toward others. “I didn’t tell him that I was talking about my dad,” recalls Mooney. His professor’s answer was definitive: The sociopathic individual was hardwired and would never get better. “If I hadn’t known my dad, I might have believed the guy,” remembers Mooney, “but the experience opened my mind and prepared me for what I might discover during my own professional development.”
Later, when he was a resident in family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mooney often heard other residents and professors talking about the hopeless nature of alcoholics. “One resident in internal medicine suggested that I identify all of the alcoholics in my practice,” remembers Mooney, “and then he suggested that I give all of my attention to everyone else because they can’t be helped.”
Not surprisingly, Mooney built a professional career and practice where he could help alcoholics as a part of the continuum of recovery. “I saw my job as preparing people to get to A.A. through treatment and rehab,” he says. “I knew once people got to A.A., the program would take care of them.” Over the decades, Mooney became recognized as an expert and leader in the field of addiction medicine. He has worked and been affiliated with multiple institutions, hospitals, and universities.
In 1992 , Mooney coauthored and published The Recovery Book, which examines the phases of recovery and how the process can take years in terms of an individual fully recovering his/her own sense of self. “As Bill W. gained more sobriety, he moved into a phase called emotional sobriety,” says Mooney. “He was inter- ested in becoming a citizen of the world, and his purpose was to put back into the world as much as his active alcoholism took out of the world. How do people get there? This is what I was interested in exploring in my book.” In addition, Mooney is an inaugural diplomat in the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and helped to establish the certification standards for the specialty in the U.S. while serving on the board of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Mooney is still involved with the establishment of recovery programs — twelve- step and professional — in countries such as Egypt, Bosnia, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.
During his lifetime, Mooney has also been drawn to the concept of the psychic change necessary for an alcoholic’s recovery, as described by Dr. Silkworth in the chapter titled “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book — and how this critical change might be measured in a qualitative sense to demonstrate the efficacy of A.A. As a part of this conversation of scientific investigation, Mooney notes the concluding sentence in the Foreword of the First Edition of the Big Book, which reads: “Inquiry by scientific, medical, and religious societies will be welcomed.” This sentence has served as a true north of sorts for Mooney throughout his career. “As a medical person, this is a way that I can contribute. Without good science, it’s going to be difficult to reduce the suffering,” adds Mooney.
When his parents were still alive, they often mentioned that they were a little disappointed that Mooney wasn’t an alcoholic himself, so he couldn’t experience all of the gifts that A.A. has to offer. With his appointment to the General Service Board, he has finally found a way to get inside the Fellowship. “I do think I have something to offer,” says Mooney. “It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as a trustee.”