Reflections on the coldest night of the year

[fa icon="calendar"] Jan 30, 2019 8:03:10 AM / by John MacDougall


It’s Tuesday afternoon at The Retreat, and it’s cold. Right now it is 6 degrees below zero. The forecast for tonight is 26 below. Tomorrow’s forecast is 15 below in the daytime and 29 below at night. The all-time low was 32 below, set on the evening of February 3, 1996.

I remember where I was that evening. I was at a performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul. The host, Garrison Keillor, called the fire chief in Tower, Minnesota to ask how they could start the fire trucks at night when it was that cold. The chief replied that they just never turned them off, they kept them running all night long. Tower Minnesota set the all-time state record that night of 60 degrees below zero, without wind chill.

Our Retreat guests are nice and warm. The new construction site for our expanded women’s center is sealed off, so there are no cold drafts. This afternoon most will walk three tenths of a mile in about six minutes to go to Lunds supermarket for their weekly shopping trip for snacks and toiletries. We’ve made sure everyone knows to shield their faces from the cold and wind. Our Retreat guests are enjoying plenty of great, hot food. Kenny, our chef, along with Steve and Phil are producing the same robust menu we have had all along, even though we have no kitchen! All the food is being produced in a temporary trailer in the parking lot. They hustle the food over to the dining room in hot trays through the biting cold.

The alcoholic who has been on my heart during the twenty years I worked at Hazelden and the four and a half years I’ve been at The Retreat is the alcoholic who didn’t get in to treatment or residential recovery, perhaps the alcoholic who is literally out in the cold tonight. I can identify.

At my bottom, I was tossed out of college on a very cold January day with nowhere to go, just 69 cents in total assets, and too drunk to think clearly. I only spent a few days being homeless until I found somebody to loan me some money and I began to cut back on my drinking and struggle to become what we now call a “functional alcoholic”.

I remember how it felt when it was cold and dark at night, when it didn’t matter what direction I walked, because every direction was the same: there would be nothing there for me. I remember looking for unlocked public buildings where I could get warm, and asking for handouts from people who wanted nothing but to avoid me.

I heard on the radio today that the Union Gospel Mission in Saint Paul has brought in a bunch of extra beds to their facility downtown, so that they can accommodate everyone who shows up. It will be a challenge to fit more beds in, but I’m glad they will not turn anyone away, on the coldest night of the year.

When it is warm again, alcoholism and addiction will still be a reality. What will we do? In AA our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. I stay sober. I’m no help to anyone if I’m drunk. I help other alcoholics and addicts achieve sobriety. I contribute to The Retreat, and to the Union Gospel Mission. I also remember AA’s “responsibility declaration”, which is found in each issue of the “Grapevine” magazine:


“I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”


John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat
His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from



Topics: Alcoholics Anonymous, Older Adult Recovery Programs, Men's Sober Residential, Women's Sober Residential, Drugs Adiction

John MacDougall

Written by John MacDougall

John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat.
His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from

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