Club helps alcoholics overcome their addiction

Carolyn Dean is smoking again. A decade off tobacco proved not long enough.

Addictions are big nasty bears, of course.

They know all about that where Dean hangs out, where she lights up without being treated like a leper. It is the Floyd County Token Club, a one-time auto-parts store in New Albany's downtown that is home to 12-step meetings, about 20 each week.

Alcoholics come to listen, to talk. They need the support they hopefully want. "I just like to think I'm one drink away from a drunk," said Dean, a 67-year-old former social worker who says she turned to alcohol at 14 and turned away at 36.

"This is life and death, for me."

Like it is for others there, if not for all. The afternoon I met Dean at the club, news spread of a former member who had lost her struggle and had died. Members were to eulogize, to be confronted surely by their own demons.

They also have reason to celebrate, however. The 19-year-old club has just paid off its mortgage, through hat passing and other fundraising. An organization not always on anything close to sure footing counts on remaining for the 500 or so Dean figures show up sometime during each week.

"It's a safe place," she said.

Denny Sims, its president, is a 59-year-old factory retiree who said he has been sober 12 years. The words differ each meeting, Sims said, but the message is basically the same. In speeches and discussions, the moral of the stories remains vital no matter how familiar. Sims said by helping himself, he helps others.

"We just have to be sure we don't put the first drink in us," he said.

The club is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Meetings are both mornings and evenings. Some people, like Sims, show up voluntarily. Others are sent by courts and by treatment centers. They are teenagers and they are grandparents. They attend routinely, or occasionally. "When you come back," Sims said, "you're welcome just like you've never left."

If they expect magic, they quickly learn otherwise. If they acknowledge their problem and are finally fed up with it, they are on their way to change. Sims said he attended two or three meetings each day, for quite awhile. "They know down deep it doesn't come overnight," he said.

"Denial is so strong," said Dean, a charter member who has been active off and on.

Come once and receive a white token -- akin to a poker chip -- that validates a day of sobriety. Return and trade it in for other-colored tokens that reflect ongoing progress. After one year, the token is bronze. It is typically kept handy for reassurance, a symbol of an important, maybe unlikely goal met. "It's a big deal to people who come around here," Sims said.

Sims drank for years yet somehow dodged legal consequences. Dean was not so lucky; she said she lost custody of her children.

When they were ready for better, they did better. Dean even led the establishment of Our Place, a center in Floyd County that counsels people with drug and alcohol issues.

Dean likens alcoholism to an elevator she wishes she had got off much sooner. "We get sober when we get sober," she said.

The club is in a rambling, old building with a roof and heating and cooling systems replaced not too long ago by a grant from the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County. A card game often goes on, and the pool tables stay pretty busy. There are Token Club dances and bowling teams. The club kitchen is operated by a contractor; otherwise, management is volunteer. The club receives no aid from the government or United Way, and Dean seeks broader backing.

"It's just like this disease," she said. "I'm chipping away at a rock."

"We're doing well, as far as helping people," Sims said.

To help, send checks to the Floyd County Token Club, 506 Pearl St., New Albany, IN 47150. Its telephone number is 945-4563. A Token Club also operates in Jeffersonville, at 511 Indiana Ave.