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His unusual path to recovery led through science, skepticism and speeches

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 22
  • Published November 22

Dan Morris speaks at a Toastmasters meeting at the Anchorage Senior Center on Nov. 8. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

For some people, faith is the path to addiction recovery. For Dan Morris, it was reason.

Morris is recovering without God but with many of the elements some people get from church: a like-minded community, passionate commitment and the opportunity to testify.

Morris helped found the Secular Community of Anchorage, a group defined by lack of belief. Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t work for him, with its spiritual foundation, but a mostly online program of cognitive behavioral therapy did.

Now he is trying to make up for lost time. He is an avid member of Toastmasters, a club for improving public speaking skills. Recently, as part of a club challenge, he posted unrehearsed talks on his Facebook page about his childhood traumas and the destructive path he followed.

“I smoked marijuana every day for almost 10 years,” he said in a video. “I could not function without using marijuana as a crutch to get through my day-to-day life. I could not handle stress without drinking many, many shots of whiskey or having many beers.”

He continued, “I went nowhere, did nothing with my life, for over 10 years. Imagine having a 10-year gap in your resume, your emotional development, and your relationship with your friends and your family. It is nearly impossible to recover that time. The only thing I can do really is make improvements now to better my future.”

Morris contacted me because he wanted to promote his Greatland Toastmasters club. But I was more interested in Morris himself, a man with sharp intellect and drive but without higher education, who is trying to climb back into his life after skipping its formative years.

His story begins in a caring family terrorized by his disturbed older brother’s violent outbursts. Morris said his brother could be kind, but he learned to hide and protect a younger brother to avoid beatings.

He doesn’t blame the trauma for his troubles, but believes he acted out in response to the fear.

“I grew up in the Valley, and a lot of what we did out there as a teenager or young adult was party. On the weekend we’d go out to a gravel pit and have a good time. Or what I thought was a good time,” he said.

Eventually, the prospect of a day without smoking or drinking would give him a panic attack. He couldn’t imagine what everyday activities would feel like without being stoned.

He drove drunk frequently. One night he almost froze to death after driving into a ditch in cold weather. But he was lucky. A friend got into harder drugs and died of an overdose. Another went to jail for many years for robbing a liquor store while blackout drunk.

Then, over a series of years in his later 20s, Morris saw that friends who hadn’t burned out had moved on. They had earned college degrees, married and landed jobs that would lead somewhere.

Each morning, he woke up as if in the movie “Groundhog Day,” still a partying teenager, with nothing.

Five years ago, he quit, cold turkey. But, as many addicts find, hard times were still ahead, trying to survive without the social circle and daily habits that had defined life along with pot and alcohol. Morris broke with his old friends, but that left him alone.

Morris got a job doing trailer maintenance, the first time he didn’t have to choose where to apply based on avoiding drug testing. Today he lives with roommates and dogs in a situation he described as “chaotic.” We met instead at a coffee shop.

I’ve heard from others that in Anchorage, non-believers can have a hard time finding support for recovery.

To reconnect with the world, Morris joined the Anchorage Science Pub, which meets for short talks and trivia contests on scientific topics. When the event was in danger of ending, he threw all his energy into reorganizing it.

“It was pretty impressive, actually,” said Heather Aronno. “He pulled people together.”

But he was terrified onstage and forgot his planned remarks. And he felt unappreciated for all this work.

Aronno said that was miscommunication. But, looking back, Morris believes it was about his stunted maturity.

“You have the emotional stability of a 22-year-old when you’re 36,” he said. “I didn’t advance a level when all I could think about is when the next party is.”

Now, he said, this is something to work on, “Trying to be mature. What would an adult do in this situation?”

Recognizing your own lack of maturity is a sign of maturity. Tony DeHaven, who organized the secular group with Morris, was impressed by him.

The Secular Community is a social club to do good deeds and to share views without being judged. Morris and DeHaven said they had closeted their religious skepticism to avoid discrimination.

“He’s very passionate about his beliefs, or his non-beliefs,” DeHaven said. “He kind of pretends that he is a little less intelligent than most people, but the reality is that he is a really smart guy and he has a lot of good ideas when you talk to him.

“Dan has a lot of humility,” DeHaven said.

Morris regrets his lack of education, but he is working on it. His new enthusiasm is public speaking.

Dan Morris listens to a speaker at a Toastmasters meeting at the Anchorage Senior Center on Nov. 8. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Again, he has thrown himself into it, helping lead the Greatland Toastmasters. On a year traveling in Asia, he met up with Toastmasters groups in Taiwan and the Philippines to make friends and give speeches.

It’s a warm circle with a tradition of helping its members improve.

“Before Toastmasters, I really didn’t believe in myself that much,” Morris said.

He dreams now of winning speaking competitions and becoming a teacher of public speaking for others. To practice, he has talked about his own struggles. Those stories brought out family concerns about addiction from the audience.

As Morris spoke, he sensed he was getting better. He saw his listeners laugh and cry. He felt they were his people.

“There’s nothing else like it,” he said. “That’s the biggest high I’ve ever gotten in my life.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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