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was a hot night in the midsummer of 1934. I found myself
at a noted address in Central Park West, New York City.
It was in Charlie Towns Hospital for drying out alcoholics.
and sweltering out a fearful hangover I laid abed in an
upstairs room. Downstairs the doctor looked across his desk
at my wife Lois.
was saying, "Doctor, why can't Bill stop drinking?
He always had great willpower. Yet here he is, facing ruin
again, and still he can't stop. The more he struggles, the
worse he gets. I am scared, heartbroken and confused. I
know he is, too. He'd do anything - anything at all to stop.
Tell me, Doctor, why can't he?"
was asking the same terrible question that uncounted women
had asked before. Her's was a riddle quite as old as man's
first discovery that alcohol could be made from grapes and
she said, "Please tell me the truth doctor. Why can't
his long experience with serious drinkers the good doctor
had faced that terrible heartbreaker a thousand times. By
nature compassionate, he never failed to wince whenever
a distraught wife, husband or friend of a sufferer had profounded
anew the burdened riddle of alcoholism. Bill's dilemma had
interested and moved him deeply. How could he now bring
himself to tell Lois the truth?
benign little doctor's face turned grave as he began to
speak. "When Bill first came to this hospital three
years ago, I felt that he might be one of those rare cases
who might recover. I hoped that when he better understood
himself and the nature of his illness, he might win out.
In spite of his several severe relapses since then, I have
gone on hoping. For, as you say, he desperately wants to
quit and his will to do so is very great. But now I'm discouraged.
I'm afraid he's going to be like nearly all the other alcoholics
who come my way."
Doctor," cried Lois, "just what do you mean by
that. Won't he ever get better?"
the Doctor went on, "Mrs. W.," said he, "As
you already understand, your husband is a sick man. But
I've never told you just how sick an alcoholic can be, nor
have I ever explained this illness to you as I understand
it from my long observation. I think the time is here to
tell you more about his illness and how really serious his
condition now is. There are a lot of theories about the
underlying causes of compulsive drinking like Bill's. Of
these we can take our pick. But there are some solid facts,
too, which no one who has watched many alcoholics could
one is that innumerable alcoholic men and women really want
to control their destructive drinking and then find, to
their dismay, that they cannot. They cannot moderate their
drinking as other people do. Nor, even when faced with the
most terrible consequences, can they stop altogether, no
matter how desperate their plight. Never do the excuses
they make for their sprees justify their pattern of continuous
self-destruction. Their behavior becomes completely illogical
and irrational - it really verges on insanity. And even
when they well understand all this, they go on as before.
Where alcohol is concerned, their minds no longer rule their
new spree can be started upon the slightest of excuses or
rationalizations. Sometimes the provocations seem great,
but it's always very small when the certain destructive
results are considered. When for example life gives the
average man a heavy bump, he doesn't seize a hammer and
beat himself into insensibility. Yet, in effect, that's
what the sick alcoholic does, over and over. All reason,
all incentive, even the greatest desire to stop, seems to
be swamped when the craving for alcohol takes hold.
the biggest fact about alcoholism is its obsessional nature.
It is one of the most subtle yet most powerful compulsions
known. Once it's grip is firm, the chance for recovery is
diminished. How to help the alcoholic to expel his obsession
is the problem. But we doctors have had little success:
I've seldom helped even one case in a hundred.
is the drinkers obsession the whole story: alcoholism is
a physical malady too. In nearly all cases the bodies of
problem drinkers become painfully sensitive to alcohol.
In the early stages of their malady some alcoholics can
drink quantities of liquor without serious physical reaction.
But continued excesses finally cause them to lose that ability;
they seem to get allergic to the stuff; so much so that
hangovers produce great physical agony and sometimes delirium
tremens or convulsions too often followed by brain damage
and mental deterioration than can be permanent."
she asked, "Doctor, what can we do?"
he had to tell her that I would have to be locked up or
go mad and die. That it would all end with heart failure
during delirium tremons, or that I would develop a wet brain,
perhaps within a year. That soon I would have to be given
over to an asylum or an undertaker.
again relapsed, and on December 11, 1934, he was again admitted
to Towns Hospital for the last time. For the story of what
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