It's the Booze Talking

They say the first step to recovery is admitting your addiction. And now they say it on the radio.

Sean was one of those people who never drank in public but who was always drunk. Without too much trouble, she was managing to put down a case of beer every day and still work. Totally dependable. She'd stay up emptying the case until midnight or 1:00 a.m. and then get up four hours later, still drunk, to make it in for the early shift. Over the past ten years Sean had whittled her life down to that: the case of beer and the eight hours of work. On her days off, it was just the case of beer.

Sean was a belligerent drunk, her large blue eyes almost always clouded over to a leaden gray. She argued with her friends and her family until they stopped bothering with her. Her roommate moved out. Boyfriends couldn't begin to compete with her addiction. "I would rather give up anything than drinking. Little by little, everybody was out of my life," Sean recalls. "Even that would have been okay with me, but I was, like, in total terror. I don't really know what I was afraid of. But I was afraid from the moment my eyes popped open till I could pass out."

At her job, where the dread ruined even small talk with co-workers, Sean (the name is a pseudonym; she doesn't want her real name or place of work made public) usually wore a Walkman on her belt and headphones in her ears. That was how, one Sunday morning around 6:00 as she scanned the radio dial, she happened to tune in to a call-in show called the Clean and Sober Hour on ZETA-4 (WZTA-FM 94.9), a "classic rock" station she didn't usually listen to. But here were these people talking about drug addiction and alcoholism, in terms she understood so perfectly that she had to listen, even though by that time she had no illusions she would ever live without alcohol. She heard people she could tell were as desolate as she was A drunk, high, and crashing, calling from parking lots and bus stops and lock-ups, some asking for help, others trying to convince themselves they didn't need it.

The host was a woman named Leslie Armstrong, a self-described recovering alcoholic and addict who did not mince words when she talked about the disease from which she and her callers suffered. "You're gonna die," she warned a panicky-sounding kid who told her he'd been clean for six months but had just spent the past eight weeks on a cocaine relapse, scamming drugs and money from dealers. Now they were threatening him. "How old are you?" Armstrong asked.

"Eighteen, man. You've got your whole life and future ahead of you. You've got to make that commitment to do whatever it takes [to stay clean], get off the fence. Do you understand that? People before you have done it, myself included. I was a pretty insane maniac. Alcoholic, drug addict. And I know I made the change. Of course, I was willing, 100 percent."

Since March 1990 the Clean and Sober Hour has aired on ZETA-4 every Sunday morning from 6:00 to 7:00. Local television reporter Ron Sachs, the original host, had approached the station with tapes of a call-in program for people with addiction problems he had been conducting on WVCG-AM (1080), a "vanity radio" station in Coral Gables. As is usual with such stations, Sachs had to buy the air time and then, to recoup costs, sell advertising spots to any sponsors he could find. The audience was small, but Sachs says his phone lines were always lit. "It was an interactive program I thought was seriously needed and unique," he says now. "When I presented the concept to [ZETA-4's then-program manager] Pete Bolger, I didn't expect them to gush over it, but in fact they did. The Clean and Sober Hour was the first, to my knowledge, and now the longest-running, regular programming on the airwaves on this single subject." No one involved with the show is aware of any other program with the same format, with the exception of an occasional special.

About six months after Clean and Sober debuted on ZETA-4, Sachs took a job as Gov. Lawton Chiles's director of communications and moved to Tallahassee. Before he went, he persuaded Leslie Armstrong, his cohost and a professional therapist, to take over the show.

Sean became a listener after Armstrong had been doing Clean and Sober for about a year. Week after week she tuned in, telling herself she'd never stop drinking but hoping, in some remote part of herself, that "maybe some miracle would happen." She knew she had a problem, but what good would calling in to a radio show do her? She'd gone to Alcoholics Anonymous for a while a few years back, but she never felt a part of it and she certainly hadn't stopped drinking. Anyway, she was doing pretty well right then. She wasn't on the edge, she wasn't ripping people off, wasn't missing work. But the terror kept mounting. One day it got so bad she went to the company nurse asking to lie down for a while. When the nurse discovered Sean's pulse rate was alarmingly high, she sent her to a hospital emergency room, thinking she might be having a stroke or a heart attack. At the hospital they told her she was having an anxiety attack. She decided to see a psychologist, but she got angry when the therapist concluded alcohol was causing her problems.

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