Sept. 9, 2009

Videos portray despair of alcoholism, promise of recovery

The personal stories of recovering alcoholics as they reflect on their lives and struggle to remain sober have been filmed by ILR School Professor Sam Bacharach and his colleagues at the Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Studies in New York City. The stories on the Smithers Web site are being introduced to the Cornell community to coincide with National Alcohol and Drug Recovery Month, an annual government-sponsored event each September that calls attention to the benefits of substance abuse treatment.

Bacharach, director of the Smithers Institute and the Institute for Workplace Studies, said the videos are meant "to reach out to people from the voice of experience rather than the voice of academic research." His subjects "are leaders who are in recovery themselves and have been fighting the disease of alcoholism on the front lines, in many cases for 30 to 40 years. Watching these stories, people ask themselves: Is there something here that speaks to me? Are they speaking about someone I know?" Bacharach said.

Interviews focused on specific topics and are meant to serve as instructive resources. "I think these interviews are the kind of thing that could tap someone on the shoulder and whisper to them that they or someone they know needs help," said Bacharach, the McKelvey-Grant Professor of organizational behavior.

In one video Mickey Diamond, an early architect of employee assistance programs, describes how, during World War II, he was fired from the New York Central Railroad at age 14 for being drunk on the job; he died two weeks after being filmed. Diamond "served as a mentor to me, educating me as to what the issue of substance abuse in the workplace is all about," said Bacharach. "While I became the academic voice, they [interview subjects] are the voice of reality. In many ways they helped guide the Smithers Institute's direction and thinking.

"It's important whenever you do quantitative research to find people whose voices make your argument relevant," Bacharach said. "I as an academic can give you numbers, but I can't tell you you've got a problem or don't have a problem. These people can. They make what we do real."

Five interviews appear on the Smithers Web site, and more are being produced.

"The well-being of all members of the Cornell community is a paramount concern," said Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, who along with Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs John Siliciano is promoting the videos. "As we pause this month to reflect on the extraordinary suffering substance abuse can cause, it is especially heartening to watch the video testimonies Sam Bacharach has assembled. They remind us that profound change is possible through recovery."

On campus, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held every weekday at 12:15 p.m. in Annabel Taylor Hall.