Smashing the Chains of Alcoholism, Addiction

El Vaquero Staff Writer

Ron Vanevenhoven first began drinking seriously at age 10.

Fueled by a chaotic home and an overwhelming sense of loneliness he was — in his own words — “a full blown alcoholic by age 15.”?
“I had a bottomless pit of need,” he explains.?

Now 41 years sober, having worked as a counselor and now a professor, he is training future substance abuse counselors. He uses his often-harrowing life experiences as a map to guide students and counselors in combating the widespread and destructive disease of alcoholism.?

The college’s Alcohol and Drug Studies is a 32-unit state-certified counseling program that Vanevenhoven created 20 years ago. “Ron believes wholeheartedly in what he teaches,” said student Joe Battaglia. “It’s his life’s work.”?

Vanevenhoven, 66, speaks and teaches like a man who has experienced the highs and lows of life and has found his niche in the world. He speaks openly, especially about his life experiences.?

He continued drinking when he entered the Navy at age 17. His out-of-control alcoholism led to four court martials, 12 captain’s masts (a slightly lesser form of punishment), nine demotions in rank and two trips to the brig (Navy prison) during his eight years as a sailor.?

“My military career was a disaster,” he says with a mischievous smile.?
After an eye-opening session with his squadron medical officer, he was honorably discharged. He returned home to Wisconsin and then found his way to Pasadena, an alcoholic 25-year-old.?

It was in Pasadena where he would have a vision that changed his life forever. Sitting at a local bar, he envisioned himself as an old vagrant sitting on a street corner. A man walks by and begins to reach down, a dollar in hand. It was then he realized the man standing over him was a former classmate voted “mostly likely to succeed.” In that moment he recalls saying to himself, “I am made of better than this.”?

It was not long before he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the world’s largest self-help recovery organizations. It was June 1963, and he had found sobriety.?

After collecting the remnants of his life, Vanevenhoven began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business at Cal State Los Angeles. That major soon became psychology even though “one year into sobriety I swore on a Bible I would never work in the [counseling] field,” he says with a laugh.?

With a master’s degree in hand he began work in the budding alcohol treatment field. Treatment was very primitive since the World Health Organization did not classify alcoholism as a disease until 1950.?
“We have learned more about alcoholism in the last 50 years than in the last 2,500 years,” explains Vanevenhoven.?

He then worked as a trailblazer of sorts at a treatment center in Pasadena. It was here in 1984, as the head counselor, he was approached by Glendale College to create a substance abuse curriculum. He is now the director of the program as well a professor, teaching the courses he was so instrumental in creating.?

“I had to go through all that stuff in my life to prepare me for what I do today,” says Vanevenhoven. “And I didn’t even want to work in the field.”?

Huge bounds are being made in understanding the disease that ranks as the third major public health problem in the United States, behind cancer and heart disease. As a sign of the severity of the chronic disease in the U.S., less than 7 percent of the population at large uses 50 percent of all alcohol consumed and 16.8 million Americans abuse alcohol. ?

“Basically, if you feel you are less than, different than and outside of the herd then you will find something that makes you [feel as though] you fit,” says Vanevenhoven, explaining the prevalent mindset that drives many people into alcoholism.?

Future counselor and student Battaglia echoes those sentiments. After a lucrative sell-off before the Internet bust of the late ’90s his already entrenched alcoholism was amplified with a drug addiction. “I blew every last dime on cocaine,” he says.?

Now one year sober, he is pursuing a counseling certificate because he “felt he had to give back.” He is working part time at the Pasadena Recovery Center and hopes to get his master’s degree in psychology.?
“Counseling is a calling,” he said. “You can’t just leave your problems at work, it is a lifestyle.”?

Highly respected in the field, Vanevenhoven is hoping to continue training students like Battaglia in combating what he sees as a certain level of ignorance professionals have about the disease of alcoholism.?
“Seventy-five to 80 percent of the people working in this field today have never been trained [in the disease of alcoholism],” said Vanevenhoven. ?

Changing that and loosening the grip that alcoholism has on so many are what drive him to continue training. ?

“The course started as a chemical dependency course but it is also a course on life.”