Milt Schwartz was anxious. Any chief executive would be, summoned this way before his board of directors. Sure enough, they told Schwartz that his addiction had to stop, and they bundled him off to a treatment center.
What an encounter for the founder and publisher of Sober Times, a San Diego-based monthly that bills itself as "the recovery magazine."
Schwartz is not a product of today's fashionable recovery movement, as much as his career as a businessman may have benefitted by it. His inner child is not his trouble.
No, Schwartz was an alcoholic and a drug abuser, as he freely admits. Drink ruined his marriages and his academic career. When confronted by the directors of Sober Times awhile back, his problem was prescription medication.
His problem now is the brutal California recession, which is taking its toll on his business and others born of the insight that, as Schwartz puts it: "The recovery movement is moving out beyond just being sober."
By now it's not news that California is the center of a burgeoning movement in which Americans are busy recovering from addictions to drugs, alcohol, God and one another. Twelve-step programs, based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, abound.
So do businesses aimed at the "recovery community." In fact, a whole recovery industry has sprung up in this state, one by no means limited to hospitals and therapists--or for that matter, to alcoholics and drug addicts.
"There's a very large market for recovery products in California," says J. C. Cahill, a supplier of recovery greeting cards to retailers here. Adds Wendy Kaminer, whose book "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional" is a critique of the widening recovery movement: "It's rooted everywhere. It blossoms in California."
Sober Vacations International, for example, is a Westwood travel service that grosses $2 million a year organizing trips for recovering vacationers. About 500 of them took a Sober Vacations Alaskan cruise; in addition to the usual pleasures, the vacationers could choose from a smorgasbord of daily support groups.
"Twice a year, we rent a Club Med," says Sober Vacations co-owner Steve Abrams.
Recovery stores also abound in California. In San Diego, Don Vigneault's Serenity Shop has more than 2,000 square feet of books, mugs, greeting cards, sobriety tokens and other products aimed at those recovering from alcoholism, incest, cancer, wife-beating and other woes. He also has a 1,400-square-foot store in suburban El Cajon.
At Crossroads Books, a recovery store in Pasadena, the inventory includes stuffed bears and bunnies. Explains owner Pat Matke: "A lot of people in different programs carry stuffed animals. Sometimes people didn't get to go through their childhood."
Dial (800) ALL-1040 and you can get referred to someone in Encino specializing in "tax and accounting, recovery-style." In San Mateo, Dr. Lynn Gitlin is a "recovery-oriented" dentist. And throughout California, a number of computer bulletin boards offer on-line support for recoverers with modems.
Many in this business have themselves conquered addictions, just like their customers. But as Schwartz says, "recovery" has expanded far beyond merely staying sober and drug-free to encompass an array of real or perceived injuries and addictions, a phenomenon that critic David Rieff scorns as "an outbreak of self-pity among the ruling classes."
Unfortunately, one thing in California not in recovery is the ailing economy, which has especially hurt the wider recovery industry.
The recession has hurt alcohol and drug abuse treatment facilities too. But these facilities, whose patients' problems are genuine and serious, have seen their business constrained mainly by firms that pay for health insurance. Alarmed at soaring expenditures for psychiatric and chemical-dependency care, employers in recent years have begun adopting "managed care," whereby outside firms are hired to keep down costs.
The recession, meanwhile, has staggered many smaller recovery businesses. Recovery stores report lower sales and the demise of some competitors. Two years ago, Sober Times reached $42,000 a month in revenue and 44 pages per issue. Since then, Schwartz says, it's down to $30,000 and 28 pages.
Schwartz is an example of what might be called a recovery entrepreneur. A former history teacher who had abused alcohol and drugs since he was 15, he started Sober Times in March of 1987.
Sober Times offers a mixture of articles, reviews and confessions, as well as advertising for a range of products and services appealing to its readers, such as programs associated with recovery guru John Bradshaw, legal services to sort out the financial wreckage often left by addiction, and a San Fernando Valley synagogue "incorporating the 12 steps into the worship."
Celebrity stories are a Sober Times staple. The July issue, for example, featured actress Mariette Hartley, who was interviewed about having been the child of alcoholic parents.
Sober Times is not without competition. In San Francisco, a nonprofit publication called Recovering fills a similar function, in perhaps a more earnest tone. Its financial troubles are such that the September issue carried a front-page appeal for donations.
That may be a harbinger. Author Kaminer says the recovery movement is losing momentum now. Contrasting the hard lives of earlier generations with the relative comfort of most Americans today, she sees the movement as a child of the affluent Eighties.
"These are the kinds of movements you get in a culture of excess," she says.