Ralph Campbell likens treatment for alcohol addiction to a walk through a funhouse of mirrors.
"Alcoholics who are newly in recovery do not see the world as it is and do not see themselves as they really are," he said. "They see the world and themselves in a distorted fashion."
When many alcoholics sober up, they see themselves more clearly — the real mirrors, he said, that reflect promise and hope.
Twenty-nine years sober, Campbell, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, has been what his colleagues call the glue of the Hennepin County DWI Court since he began volunteering in 2008. His character has transcended the court and nurtured a network of former offenders who mentor new clients. Campbell, of Edina, turned 67 last week and sees his volunteer work not as an obligation, but an opportunity.
"It's easy to forget where you came from — we all clean up real good," he said. "If I forget [my addiction] too many days in a row, I may think that I'm not an alcoholic anymore and think it's not a problem."
After seeing family and friends die from alcoholism and struggling with it himself, Campbell, 38 at the time, was driving drunk from one bar to the next through a blizzard when he had a realization about his alcohol use.
"It was rare when I wasn't driving drunk," he said. "It wasn't a 'white light' experience, but a thought flew into my head: 'It's not actually sustaining you, it's killing you.' "
Two days later, he swore off alcohol and sought out a support group that has helped him along his path to recovery. Campbell describes alcohol as an addict's best friend, and letting go can be difficult.
He went back to school 14 years ago for a chemical dependency certificate and continues to mentor those in recovery.
"He has a wonderful sense of humor — very gregarious. He's larger than life," said Hennepin County Judge Marta Chou, who oversees the Adult DWI Court. "Everybody knows Ralph, and once you meet him, he knows you forever."
Repeat DWI offenders who are seeking sobriety enroll in the 18-month program, where they're expected to comply with a set of expectations: random drug tests, regular court appearances, attendance at support groups, a court-ordered curfew and meeting with sponsors.
After completion, program graduates are discharged from probation early. Participants who fail are subjected to more stringent probation supervision and could face jail time if they violate the terms of the program. Their next DWI often becomes a felony charge due to past offenses.
Still a criminal court, the DWI Court has a stringent policy that puts offenders in a high-pressure program at a time when many have reached a high degree of motivation to change their lives. Campbell aims to alleviate the added stress with humor, while also pressing clients to let that change happen.
"He's the right amount of pushy for someone needing to address an issue that involves shame and regret," Chou said. "He's pushing for change but not over the edge. It's a delicate balance."
That balance was breached once when an offender he was visiting in jail became upset, grabbed Campbell by the tie and slammed his head against the table. Campbell now wears vibrant bow ties, a decision he attributed to that altercation and an effort to keep things light.
Campbell's involvement is mostly at the beginning of participants' recovery. He runs the program's orientation and an early Alcoholics Anonymous group while many members are still struggling to kick their addiction. While his successful graduates may see him only periodically, he continues to stay involved outside the courthouse in creating connections between clients and graduates. His latest initiative is to cultivate graduates who will remain involved in the DWI Court as a self-sustaining volunteer pool.
"Those are the people who know what's going on in this court," he said. "You get somebody who's thrived in recovery and the court program and they reach back in and help the next person."
Campbell finds rewards in seeing clients rebuild the relationships and trust that alcohol had severed.
"I have a front-row seat to watch a mother be restored to her family, when they bring their kids in for graduation and they're weeping because their mother is OK and not dying from alcohol. I have season tickets in the front row in DWI Court," he said. "What are scalpers getting for those? It's awesome."
Minneapolis City Attorney Jennifer Saunders called Campbell the glue that holds the court team together, a bridge between clients and the legal system.
"He's enigmatic," Saunders said. "His personality, commitment and gratitude and passion for us is infectious — it makes the team hum. You can't describe Ralph. You experience him."
Trevor Squire is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.