The late Mel Schulstad is one of the most beloved figures in the addiction and recovery field. His stories of his own recovery are the stuff of legend.
I met Mel in 1980 when he agreed to write the foreword to my first book, “Under the Influence.” As co-founder and past president of the National Association of Alcoholism and Addiction Counselors, Mel was the perfect choice.
“It is my belief that alcoholism has suffered more malpractice out of ignorance than any other disease in recent times,” Mel wrote in his foreword. “Yet it is a disease that strikes our society so severely that, if unchecked, could bring our nation to its knees.”
The disease brought Mel to his knees. A decorated Air Force colonel who flew 44 missions over France and Germany as a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II, Mel’s career almost ended in disgrace when he got drunk and blacked out on a mission to deliver top secret government papers to the Pentagon.
When he woke up at Langley Air Force base in Virginia, the papers were nowhere to be found.
Sick, desperate, knowing that his career and his life were at stake, Mel called the Air Force chaplain.
“I’m a full colonel,” Mel told the chaplain. “I am very drunk, and I am very sick. I’ve got lots of trouble, and I need help.”
Within a few hours a warrant officer showed up with three other members of Alcoholics Anonymous — a retired postmaster, a local newspaper publisher and a railroad brakeman.
At this point in his story, Mel always had tears in his eyes.
“These four men took me, the drunk colonel, under their wing for two days, sobered me up and stayed with me. .
“That first night I slept on a cot in the basement of the newspaper publisher’s house. I was shivering and shaking, about to lay my head down on a pillow when I hear a clump, clump coming down the stairs and here comes this young man with a bedroll and a little pillow.
“He came over to my cot and he said, ‘Colonel Mel, I know exactly how you are feeling tonight. You are frightened and you are shaking and I am going to sleep here alongside you so you won’t be alone.’ And he unrolled that bedroll on the cement floor and spent the night with me. That was the cleavage point between my old life and my new life.”
Cleavage point — what a lovely phrase. Pure Mel. I can just imagine him staring into the abyss of addiction and, with great hope and deep faith, stepping away to begin life anew as a recovering person.
“Those AA people pounded into me: let go of the past, God will help you, and above all tell the truth,” Mel continued his story. “So when I stood in front of the inquisition hearing preceding a possible court-martial, I told the truth, that I was in an alcoholic blackout and didn’t know what happened to the papers.
“I bet my whole life, my whole family that God would take care of me if I told the truth, and He did. Two weeks later the papers surfaced in a Pentagon vault, and I was off the hook.”
Mel retired from the Air Force in 1966 and dedicated the rest of his life to helping others find their way to recovery.
“I’m a living example of recovery,” Mel told me a few years before he died. “I tell my story to help other people who are suffering and to give back what I was given, a new life. This is a powerful message we have to give, and no one can do it better than a recovering person who is willing to ‘go forth’ with the powerfulness of this truth.”
Mel Schulstad personified the willingness “to go forth” with his own story, believing with his heart and soul in the power of a story, honestly and truly told, to change lives.
One year ago, on Jan. 6, 2012, Mel died peacefully in his sleep. He was 93 years old and 46 years sober.
I couldn’t bring myself to write about his death 12 months ago. A great light in my life had been extinguished, and I could not find the words to honor him.
I still can’t find those words. But telling his story in this column gives me peace. And hope.
Bless your sweet soul, Mel. You will always be my shining star.
Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and executive director of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.