The Ultimate Recovery Reflection: “Letters to My Grandchildren”
A Q&A with recovery advocate and author William J. Lammers
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
Not only does addiction recovery enable us to change our trajectory and write new chapters in our story, but it also empowers us to take a healthy look back at the earlier chapters and see our lives anew. For former Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation board member Bill Lammers, that is more than a metaphor. Two decades into his recovery, the Ohio native and Washington, DC, resident decided to look back and explore his lineage in fascinating detail, discovering threads that surprised him and helped make sense of his journey. At the same time, he began capturing personal reflections on the highs, lows and lessons of his remarkable life as a Baby Boomer, military veteran, avid runner, successful financial leader, public servant and father of four who nearly lost everything while experiencing addiction only to gain even more in recovery. The result is a new two-volume book, Letters to My Grandchildren, that represents the ultimate recovery reflection — both because of its in-depth, intimate scope and its service to the next generation. The book is getting splendid reviews from the likes of retired U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (see below) among others, and we’re enjoying it immensely as well. To order a copy of either or both volumes, email Bill at LettersToMyGrandchildren@outlook.com.
Q — Why did you write the books? What were your motivations?
Recently, I came across a personal note from the very beginning of my project. While I had written a few snippets in earlier years, I always had a larger project or perhaps even a book in mind. However, it was not until the Fall of 2020 when the pandemic became more real, and when life became more uncertain, that I began writing on a daily basis and in a focused fashion.
It was then, over coffee and conversation with an experienced writer and neighbor, that a deeper commitment to writing was formed. Yet, as I began this more intense process, in no way did I foresee the eventual completion of a two-volume book, with each volume numbering 300 pages. Rather, my friend advised me to commit to writing a few pages per day and a certain number of pages per week. He offered to periodically review my writing and offer suggestions, as necessary. And there were many “necessary” suggestion moments as my writing progressed.
My new advisor further suggested that I focus my efforts as if I were writing to one specific person and to be very transparent. He encouraged me to dig deep and tell my personal story, not as a process to please others, but as an authentic expression of honesty and truth. In the end, some readers may even be offended, he warned, but the process would nonetheless help me to better understand myself and my life.
It was an evolutionary process as writing with one grandchild in mind evolved into 21 letters to my grandchildren — all the while reminding myself to focus on one person at a time while I wrote. What also evolved were expanded stories and information not only for my grandchildren, but to my children, siblings, cousins, other family members, and a wide array of friends and acquaintances from a multitude of circles in my life, not the least of which were members of my chosen Twelve Step recovery groups.
Q — Among the themes in your books is substance use disorder (and mental health) as a family disease that can run through generations. What did you learn about your father while researching? And did writing the book impact your relationship with your own kids?
As I began to piece together the ancestral stories of my family, I learned a significant amount. Initially though, I knew very little about my ancestors — other than stories of an American Civil War rifle that hung above our living room mantel during my growing-up years.
Early in the writing process, advice from my talented neighbor transitioned to very important and regular editorial-like advice sessions with a family friend, Allen W. Bernard, originally from my Ohio hometown. Allen is an experienced author of several books. Living several hundred miles apart and with the pandemic barreling down in full force, we spent hundreds of hours over the phone reviewing and discussing pages, letters and chapters as my book began to take shape.
As we examined themes, including possible intergenerational trauma — mental health and substance-use disorder issues — puzzle pieces started to fit together, often painfully and slowly.
After emigrating from Germany to America in 1846, navigating the Mississippi and Ohio rivers from New Orleans to Cincinnati, growing up in rural Ohio with a single father (my great-great-grandmother died two years prior to their ocean voyage), my great-grandfather and his brother signed up for the Union Army and served for four difficult years in the American Civil War. They survived and likely experienced what we refer to today as untreated PTSD as they began their lives and families in rural Ohio. Second chances are reflected often in our family stories.
My grandfather was one of the few siblings in his family to survive tuberculosis and other illnesses — another second chance for our family’s eventual survival. Through verbal stories told by elder family members, I learned that my great-grandfather (the Civil War veteran) was known to be an angry man in his later years — often taking out his emotions on my grandfather, who, although a successful businessperson, was also known to suffer from fits of depression, alcohol-use disorder, and being a “nervous” person.
Carrying forward the impact of many of these issues, my Dad — also likely affected by PTSD from his intense U.S. Naval service on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II — suffered from very serious alcohol addiction. Many other members of my talented family were also affected by mental health and substance-use issues across multiple generations. As I dealt with my own personal addiction issues and wrote about them in this book, opportunities to identify and discuss these intergenerational issues with my children became possible and are still evolving. As family secrets, largely the result of shame, are shared, reactions are understandably mixed. It may take significant time and even further generations to fully appreciate the impact.
I was very transparent in writing about growing up in an alcoholic home and in my personal addiction and cancer recovery journeys. Those stories may be difficult for some to read, but I tried to stay true to the initial suggestion I received as I began the project “to dig deep, be transparent, and tell my personal story with truth and respect.”
It is essential to recognize the impact that our actions and our addictions have had upon our families. During the course of my addiction and recovery, my family went through a very difficult marriage breakup, the emotional scars of which continue to require daily amends and attention today. Nothing can change the past but recognizing and respecting the woundedness of members of our families, and the family unit itself, can help in daily healing and recovery going forward.
Q — What feedback have you received from other family members?
As mentioned above, and perhaps like other families, issues of secrets and shame permeate our generational history. It is not surprising that family member responses to these revelations are mixed. Those who are more aware of the need to address these issues, usually from their own personal experiences of counseling, have been open and encouraging of an honest expression of family secrets of addiction, mental health, suicide, and other issues.
Others have approached these sensitive issues with a serious desire for confidentiality or silence, perhaps wishing that these topics were never addressed. Whatever one’s response, I have tried to write with a sense of respect and to practice acceptance of the varied responses received to date and those yet to come. Each of these responses is important and deserves respect.
During the course of writing this book, my family experienced the passing of my brother, Dan, from schizophrenia at age 70, and my Mom from a long life at age 100. In each case, my siblings grew closer as we cooperated, planned and celebrated the wonderful lives of our deceased family members.
Q — How has writing this book impacted your work and motivation as an advocate for recovery?
Interestingly, some of the most heartfelt responses to my book have come from people who have had very little direct interaction with recovery groups. One such person responded that my writing gave them the opportunity to address emotions and family issues that had been long covered up yet were very relevant to current emotions and actions.
The book is so new, overall responses to date have been limited. But in writing it, I have already experienced a renewed personal motivation to continue my advocacy for recovery efforts — carrying the message — to those in need of help. The impact of addiction on families and individuals continues — in many cases unabated — with the need for education and recovery even more important today than ever before.
Q — You have been an eyewitness with a front row seat and a participating role in every aspect of the Baby Boom era . How did the story of your generation weave into your own personal story?
While I had a certain awareness, writing this book and receiving important input from others, helped me to better understand the immense sociological and historical significance, simply by birth, of being on the leading edge of the “Baby Boomer” generation.
Reflecting on the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and many other rapidly changing historical events in the context of my life was just a “WOW.” I tried to weave as much of these issues into my stories as possible. For example, being on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean during my Navy ROTC cruise, experiencing Navy aircraft landing on the flightdeck a few feet above me, while at the same time watching TV as our American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969 was an extraordinary experience and memory I will treasure forever. Meeting and having a short conversation with Muhammad Ali in the Louisville airport in 1997 was another very special highlight.
The “Baby Boomer” experience weaves through my consciousness and is something I continue to ponder. Today, every aspect of our lives — particularly advertising and marketing — reflects my generation’s influence, which I think will only continue to unfold.
Q — What else did you discover about your family and self along the way, i.e. what did you take away from the process of writing the book? And what do you hope readers will enjoy, appreciate and take away?
Obviously, those close to my family, including my friends, might identify with specific individuals and stories in the book. However, (with a twinkle in my eye) I often tell others that if you grew up in a family; had immigration in your family history; experienced any intergenerational trauma from mental health, addiction, or other issues — if you had siblings, aunts, uncles, or other family members — you might appreciate the letters and stories within this book. (That, folks, includes nearly all of us.)
In many ways, these intergenerational and personal stories relate to each of our families and to each of us. For me, they were nothing short of transformational. Perhaps a fitting summary to this question is what I shared in the epilogue to Volume One, My Family History:
“My newly acquired appreciation of my parents and grandparents was particularly profound. Their lives had not changed, but I certainly found myself being transformed by a deeper and more powerful appreciation of the remarkable persons they were and still are in my heart and mind.”
Q — You’re a finance guy by education and trade — how did you become such an elegant writer?
First, let me be quick to point out that “elegant writer” is your term, not mine!
Yes, my finance training was not necessarily in the mainstream of literary education. However, as possible inspiration to others, achieving a level of writing improvement is possible for those non-English majors among us. For me, the answer of how “One Gets to Carnegie Hall” — “practice, practice, and more practice” — was relevant and essential. I also had important and influential advisors, friends and family members to provide support, inspiration and guidance along the way. Many are highlighted in the Acknowledgements section of the book. In the end, I didn’t write this alone, and I am very grateful for all of the help and support I received along the way.
I would also be remiss not to acknowledge the significant and lifesaving importance of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in my personal journey along a “Road of Marvels” that I describe in the book. I will always be deeply indebted to the staff and influence that this organization has had and the positive role it continues to play in my life and so many others’.
Twenty-three years sober, I continue to be awed by life’s wonderful surprises and inspired to be of service. I am most grateful for my incredible children and grandchildren, and the relationships we have nurtured throughout my recovery. This book is for them.
Retired U.S. Senator Larry Pressler:
“In two carefully researched volumes, Bill has compiled a wonderful work that chronicles a marvelous story of American history. From humble roots, his family immigrated to America from Germany in the 1800s, eventually settling in Ohio. Dedicated military service is evident throughout these volumes — from Bill’s great-grandfather’s Union Army infantry service in the American Civil War, his father’s Naval aircraft carrier World War II service in the Pacific, to Bill’s officer service on a U.S. Navy destroyer in the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War wound down.
Bill’s ancestors and personal family were not immune from the traumatic effects from military service, mental health, addiction, cancer, and other significant challenges. Rather, Bill transparently shares ways in which he and his remarkable family coped with these difficulties and gained salient career and personal achievements. Letters to My Grandchildren, by Bill Lammers, is indeed a special book in the American historical experience!”