The Healing Place

Jay Davidson: The Man Behind the Model

Jay Davidson: The Man Behind the Model

The following is a profile on Jay Davidson written by John Mulder. It was first published in 2005.

His first memory is of alcohol and violence. When he was five or six, he witnessed his drunken father abuse his mother. His father cut the bottom off all her dresses and then pushed her through a first-floor window. He never saw his father again for 27 years. When he did, his father was in the advanced stages of alcoholism and subsequently died of his disease.

More than a half-century later, Jay P. Davidson is the Chairman of The Healing Place.

A half-century after his earliest recollections, Davidson is a humble man – sobered by his own alcoholism and his own human pain. He is also a passionate man – driven by his relationship to God, the vision of the model of recovery that he led in developing, and his conviction that recovery should be available to everyone, anywhere.

Davidson was born in 1942 in Denver. Because his father deserted the family, his mother always worked outside the home. He and his younger sister had a babysitter who became a second mother to him. “She spent more time raising me than my mother did,” he recalls.

Davidson and his sister took care of the house, and he was his sister’s guardian. When he was 12, he went to work cutting grass and started paying rent to help cover living expenses. When he was 15, he started work at an amusement park. There he began his drinking career, consuming glasses of leftover liquor from the patrons who partied the night before.

In high school, he went to classes and worked. “I wasn’t social, and I never dated,” he remembers. “I was too small for football and basketball and too slow for track.” In his junior year, he found his niche – ROTC. He excelled in the military training program, and by his senior year he was battalion commander. He also forged his life’s dream – to be a lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Army.

After finishing high school, he found a job with GMAC. He also applied for admission to West Point Military Academy but was denied. This, he says, fed his inferiority complex. He stayed with GMAC, rising steadily in the ranks, and attended night school at the University of Denver, studying accounting. “I hated it,” he recalls.

In 1963, he met Carolyn Sue Miller. “She was the first woman to show interest in me,” he says. “I was dumbstruck. I saw it as the only opportunity I would ever have to get married.” They did – on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He was 21; she was 19.

His wife had an alcoholic father and mother. Jay had an alcoholic father and a mother who abused alcohol. “I think we were both trying to escape,” he says.

Two years into their marriage, the Vietnam War was escalating, and Davidson started receiving letters from his draft board. With his wife’s approval, he decided to enlist so that he could have a choice of duty. One month before he was to report, his wife discovered she was pregnant. Davidson might have received an exemption because of his wife’s pregnancy, but he chose to go into the Army anyway.

When the baby was due, Davidson was at Ft. Benning, Georgia. His wife went into premature labor. Their son, Erik, was born with a lung disease and died 36 hours later. His wife sank into a severe post-partum depression and was hospitalized for three weeks. Davidson buried his son by himself.

They never addressed their grief. Davidson was on property restriction at Ft. Benning for 11 weeks. He saw his wife only to exchange laundry. Eventually he was shipped to California, and she accompanied him. She contracted mono and spent his entire California tour in bed. In the Army, Davidson reported to two officers “who knew nothing,” so he ran an entire Basic Training Company even though he was only a second lieutenant.

In June 1967, Davidson was shipped to Vietnam and assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division. He was promoted rapidly – to 1st Lieutenant, then Company Executive Officer. “Combat was the key,” he says. He and his men were good. They fought in several key battles and were especially skilled in counter-insurgency. If he had stayed two more weeks, he would have had another promotion, but “I had had enough.” “I saw life snuffed out, men reduced to a mass of flesh,” he says.

During his tour in Vietnam, he had one R & R with his wife in Hawaii. “It was a disaster – kind of a blur,” he reports. “I couldn’t adjust.”

When he returned to the States, he and his wife settled in Columbus, Georgia. At Ft. Benning, Davidson taught at the Officers Candidate School, focusing on counter-guerilla operations and air mobility operations. “It was the same thing as what we’re doing in Iraq,” he says.

His wife had been told she couldn’t have any more children, so the Davidsons adopted a baby boy, Matthew, when he was seven days old. “He was the perfect baby. He never cried,” Davidson says. “We thought he would fix our marriage.”

Two months later his wife was pregnant. Jeffrey was born with the same lung disease that claimed his brother’s life, but he survived. “He had a rough go of it,” Davidson recalls – club feet, crossed eyes, colicky. “Matthew was the child from heaven; Jeffrey was the child from hell.”

Caring for the children “drove Sue practically insane,” he remembers. Davidson spent “more time drinking away from the house.”

Doggedly he pursued his Army career. He was sent to the University of Omaha to complete his bachelor’s degree in general studies and then to Ft. Knox, where he and his wife separated. She left a note on the door: “I’ll tell you where to send the furniture.” Six months later they divorced.

Davidson remembers that he knocked around the base. His friends “felt sorry” for him, but he was “emotionally wasted.” He knew his marriage was falling apart long before it ended, but “I would not admit that drinking was a factor.”

Ft. Benning was a turning point not only in his marriage but also in his life. Although he had gone to a Methodist church until he was 12, religion meant very little to him. A friend invited him to a Bible study at his home on the base. A couple from the Christian outreach group, the Navigators, was visiting. They shared their story of losing an infant son but finding God. Davidson said it was “the most moving experience of my life up to that point. I sat sobbing. I wanted what they had.”

He went into a bedroom with the couple and prayed with them. “I became a Christian that day,” he declares.

But, he quickly adds, “I became a man of two worlds – the spiritual world and the drinking world.” His drinking continued unabated.

He began to teach Sunday School on the base, joined a choir, and there he met Shirley. “It was love at first sight for both of us, even though we denied it,” he says.

Davidson was shipped to Connecticut, and on Jan. 27, 1974, they were married in a gazebo in the town square of Milford, Conn. Because they were both divorced, they tried three different ministers before they found one who would perform the ceremony.

The newlyweds had a year together before his ex-wife sent Matthew and Jeffrey (ages 6 and 7) to live with them. A month later Shirley’s ex-husband sent her two girls (ages 9 and 15) to be with them. “We went from two people to a family of six in two months,” he recalls.

The Army moved them – relentlessly – to New Jersey, Germany, and back to Ft. Knox. Along the way, Davidson earned a master’s degree in logistics through Florida Institute of Technology and became a major.

By then, his drinking had become an addiction. He made a trip with his commander, and on the commercial flight home “I got really plastered,” he says.
His commander told him he would kick him out of the Army unless he got control of his alcoholism – no pension and no promotion to lieutenant colonel.

“That’s what really got to me,” he says. “Even though I destroyed my first marriage and nearly lost my children because of alcohol, it didn’t stop me. But when I confronted losing my dream of being a lieutenant colonel and losing my pension, that shook me completely.”

Davidson “finally knuckled under,” he says. “I decided I would do anything to save my career.”

He entered intensive outpatient therapy for six months and attended 90 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 90 days. It was very difficult; “I was one of the first officers to go to rehab,” he says. But it was also liberating. “It was in AA that I found unconditional love,” he says. “It’s a love that accepts you for who you are in spite of what you’ve been.”

He received his promotion to lieutenant colonel, was transferred to Washington but not the Pentagon, and realized his Army career was probably over. He retired in 1986 a much-decorated officer – the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Silver Star, Bronze Star for Valor (two awards), and the Army Commendation Medal (four awards). New to recovery and new to civilian life, he began to sort out his options.

He decided – literally – to join a carnival, owned and operated by friends. He loved the work (designing the layout of rides, payroll, everything), but his tenure there was cut short by the owner who became jealous of Davidson’s success and fired him. “Not many men can claim to be fired from a carnival,” he jokes.

From 1988 to 1990, he served in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as an adviser to the Royal Saudi Air Defense Force. Those were hard years for Davidson and Shirley and their family, but he recalls his work with the underground house churches there with deep satisfaction. “We had fellowship services,” he says. “They were ⅓ prayer, ⅓ praise, and ⅓ message. For one hour everyone put away their differences.”
When he returned from Saudi Arabia, he says, “I wanted to get involved in helping people.” He enrolled at the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville and pursued a master’s degree in counseling. “I wanted to be a therapist for individuals and couples from a Christian perspective,” he recalls.

Working with fellow alcoholics was “the last thing” he wanted to do. But in December 1991, Dr. Will Ward asked him to take over the Morgan Center, a homeless shelter started by Father John Morgan. “I never told anyone I was an alcoholic at first,” he says. “I didn’t think they would hire me. I wanted to keep my recovery personal, but God had other ideas.”

Within 60 days he knew that homelessness could not be addressed without focusing on the underlying problems – alcoholism and drug addiction. Davidson lived at the shelter for two months. “The men knocked me over with their breath,” he remembers.

“I learned that the men were suffering from the same disease that I have. I knew that any psychoanalytical treatment was doomed to failure without AA and the 12 steps. These men had access to all the social services, but addiction was the root of their problem.”

During that first year, Davidson hired Chris Fajardo, and between them and with changes along the way, they forged “the program” of The Healing Place. It is a combination of AA’s 12 steps, a course of study called “Recovery Dynamics” developed by two AA leaders, and peer mentors who bring their “experience, strength, and hope” to each client in the program.

In 1995, Davidson launched a program for women alcoholics and addicts, modeled after the men’s program but adapted to the special needs of women. Today the men’s program serves approximately 260 clients; the women’s program serves half that number. But the new strategic plan for The Healing Place calls for doubling the women’s program in the next five years so the two programs will be the same size.

Since Davidson arrived at The Healing Place, its financial situation has nearly always been in jeopardy. Key doctors from the Jefferson County Medical Society helped provide the critical start-up money; Davidson wrote successful grant proposals. Yet, The Healing Place got by “on a shoe string.” When he feared he would not be able to meet payroll, he often appealed to Dr. Ward, who raised the emergency funds.

“I lost a lot of sleep over finances,” he confesses. “Learning how to trust God in my profession was much harder than trusting in my personal life. I finally learned to let it go. Money would show up every time.”

Finances were not the only challenge. In 1997, Davidson’s professional peers tried to close The Healing Place. The Healing Place was accused of treating clients without a license and even mistreatment of clients. Davidson and two of his colleagues were criticized and their social work and drug and alcohol licenses questioned. Finally, the Inspector General of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ruled that The Healing Place was not a treatment program but a recovery program. All claims against it were deemed unsubstantiated.

The acrimony wore Davidson down. “It was the year from hell,” he admits.

Despite the criticisms and financial anxieties, Davidson continued to dream of reproducing The Healing Place in other communities. First came the Hope Center in Lexington; then The Healing Place of Raleigh, NC; and in January 2005 The Healing Place in Richmond, VA.

In late 2004 as he heard about the plans for using The Healing Place as the model for the statewide system of 10 recovery centers, the news seemed too good to be true.

The man whose remembered life began in alcohol and violence, the man who distinguished himself as an Army officer but was afflicted with alcoholism, the man who sought a private recovery but found a public role as the leader of a recovery center – Jay Davidson now saw a his dream becoming a reality.

When the news of Gov. Fletcher’s plan broke in the press in 2004, Davidson made two comments. The first was characteristic: “This is God’s work.” And the second was justifiable: “This is the happiest day of my life.”