OF US have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics.
No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different
from his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that
our drinking careers have been characterized by countless
vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people.
The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy
his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal
drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.
Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.
We learned that we
had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were
alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion
that we are like other people, or presently may be, has
to be smashed.
We alcoholics are
men and women who have lost the ability to control our
drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers
control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining
control, but such intervals—usually brief—were inevitably
followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful
and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced
to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of
a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we
get worse, never better.
We are like men who
have lost their legs; they never grow new ones. Neither
does there appear to be any kind of treatment which will
make alcoholics of
kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable remedy.
In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed
always by a still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar
with alcoholism agree there is no such thing a making
a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one
day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.
Despite all we can
say, many who are real alcoholics are not going to believe
they are in that class. By every form of self-deception
and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves
exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic. If anyone
who is showing inability to control his drinking can do
the right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats
are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough
and long enough to drink like other people!
Here are some of the
methods we have tried: Drinking beer only, limiting the
number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking
in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it
in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking
only at parties, switching from scotch to brandy, drinking
only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on
the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off
forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more
physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going
to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment
to asylums —we could increase the list ad infinitum.
We do not like to
pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly
diagnose yourself, Step over to the nearest barroom and
try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly.
than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if
you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth
a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your
Though there is no
way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking
careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the
difficulty is that few alcoholics have enough desire to
stop while there is yet time. We have heard of a few instances
where people, who showed definite signs of alcoholism,
were able to stop for a long period because of an overpowering
desire to do so. Here is one.
A man of thirty was
doing a great deal of spree drinking. He was very nervous
in the morning after these bouts and quieted himself with
more liquor. He was ambitious to succeed in business,
but saw that he would get nowhere if he drank at all.
Once he started, he had no control whatever. He made up
his mind that until he had been successful in business
and had retired, he would not touch another drop. An exceptional
man, he remained bone dry for twenty-five years and retired
at the age of fifty-five, after a successful and happy
business career. Then he fell victim to a belief which
practically every alcoholic has—that his long period of
sobriety and self-discipline had qualified him to drink
as other men. Out came his carpet slippers and a bottle.
In two months he was in a hospital, puzzled and humiliated.
He tried to regulate his drinking for a little while,
making several trips to the hospital meantime. Then, gathering
all his forces, he attempted to stop altogether and found
he could not. Every means of solving his problem which
could buy was at his disposal. Every attempt failed. Though
a robust man at retirement, he went to pieces quickly
and was dead within four years.
This case contains
a powerful lesson. most of us have believed that if we
remained sober for a long stretch, we could thereafter
drink normally. But here is a man who at fifty-five years
found he was just where he had left off at thirty. We
have seen the truth demonstrated again and again: “Once
an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Commencing to drink
after a period of sobriety, we are in a short time as
bad as ever. If we are planning to stop drinking , there
must be no reservation of any kind, nor any lurking notion
that someday we will be immune to alcohol.
Young people may be
encouraged by this man’s experience to think that they
can stop, as he did, on their own will power. We doubt
if many of them can do it, because none will really want
to stop, and hardly one of them, because of the peculiar
mental twist already acquired, will find he can win out.
Several of our crowd, men of thirty or less, had been
drinking only a few years, but they found themselves as
helpless as those who had been drinking twenty years.
To be gravely affected,
one does not necessarily have to drink a long time nor
take the quantities some of us have. This is particularly
true of women. Potential female alcoholics often turn
into the real thing and are gone beyond recall in a few
years. Certain drinkers, who would be greatly insulted
if called alcoholics, are astonished at their inability
to stop. We, who are familiar with the symptoms, see large
numbers of potential alcoholics among young
everywhere. But try and get them to see it! *
As we look back, we
feel we had gone on drinking many years beyond the point
where we could quit on our will power. If anyone questions
whether he has entered this dangerous area, let him try
leaving liquor alone for one year. If he is a real alcoholic
and very far advanced, there is scant chance of success.
In the early days of our drinking we occasionally remained
sober for a year or more, becoming serious drinkers again
later. Though you may be able to stop for a considerable
period, you may yet be a potential alcoholic. We think
few, to whom this book will appeal, can stay dry anything
like a year. Some will be drunk the day after making their
resolutions; most of them within a few weeks.
For those who are
unable to drink moderately the question is how to stop
altogether. We are assuming, of course, that the reader
desires to stop. Whether such a person can quit upon a
nonspiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he
has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink
or not. Many of us felt that we had plenty of character.
There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found
it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism
as we know it—this utter inability to leave it alone,
no matter how great the necessity or the wish.
How then shall we
help our readers determine, to their own satisfaction,
whether they are one of us? The experiment of quitting
for a period of time will be helpful, but we think we
can render an even greater service to alcoholic sufferers
and perhaps to the medi-
True when this book was first published. But a 1989 U.S./Canada
membership survey showed about one-fifth of A.A.'s were
30 and under.
fraternity. So we shall describe some of the mental states
that precede a relapse into drinking, for obviously this
is the crux of the problem.
What sort of thinking
dominates an alcoholic who repeats time after time the
desperate experiment of the first drink? Friends who have
reasoned with him after a spree which has brought him
to the point of divorce or bankruptcy are mystified when
he walks directly into a saloon. Why does he? Of what
is he thinking?
Our first example
is a friend we shall call Jim. This man has a charming
wife and family. He inherited a lucrative automobile agency.
He had a commendable World War record. He is a good salesman.
Everybody likes him. He is an intelligent man, normal
so far as we can see, except for a nervous disposition.
He did no drinking until he was thirty-five. In a few
years he became so violent when intoxicated that he had
to be committed. On leaving the asylum he came into contact
We told him what we
knew of alcoholism and the answer we had found. He made
a beginning. His family was re-assembled, and he began
to work as a salesman for the business he had lost through
drinking. All went well for a time, but he failed to enlarge
his spiritual life. To his consternation, he found himself
drunk half a dozen times in rapid succession. On each
of these occasions we worked with him, reviewing carefully
what had happened. He agreed he was a real alcoholic and
in a serious condition. He knew he faced another trip
to the asylum if he kept on. Moreover, he would lose his
family for whom he had a deep affection.
he got drunk again. we asked him to tell us exactly how
it happened. This is his story: “I came to work on Tuesday
morning. I remember I felt irritated that I had to be
a salesman for a concern I once owned. I had a few words
with the brass, but nothing serious. Then I decided to
drive to the country and see one of my prospects for a
car. On the way I felt hungry so I stopped at a roadside
place where they have a bar. I had no intention of drinking.
I just thought I would get a sandwich. I also had the
notion that I might find a customer for a car at this
place, which was familiar for I had been going to it for
years. I had eaten there many times during the months
I was sober. I sat down at a table and ordered a sandwich
and a glass of milk. Still no thought of drinking. I ordered
another sandwich and decided to have another glass of
“Suddenly the thought
crossed my mind that if I were to put an ounce of whiskey
in my milk it couldn't hurt me on a full stomach. I ordered
a whiskey and poured it into the milk. I vaguely sensed
I was not being any to smart, but felt reassured as I
was taking the whiskey on a full stomach. The experiment
went so well that I ordered another whiskey and poured
it into more milk. That didn’t seem to bother me so I
Thus started one more
journey to the asylum for Jim. Here was the threat of
commitment, the loss of family and position, to say nothing
of that intense mental and physical suffering which drinking
always caused him. He had much knowledge about himself
as an alcoholic. Yet all reasons for not drinking were
pushed aside in favor of the foolish idea that he could
take whiskey if only he mixed it with milk!
Whatever the precise
definition of the word may be, we call this plain insanity.
How can such a lack of proportion, of the ability to think
straight, be called anything else?
You may think this
an extreme case. To us it is not far-fetched, for this
kind of thinking has been characteristic of every single
one of us. We have sometimes reflected more than Jim did
upon the consequences. But there was always the curious
mental phenomenon that parallel with our sound reasoning
there inevitably ran some insanely trivial excuse for
taking the first drink. Our sound reasoning failed to
hold us in check. The insane idea won out. Next day we
would ask ourselves, in all earnestness and sincerity,
how it could have happened.
In some circumstances
we have gone out deliberately to get drunk, feeling ourselves
justified by nervousness, anger, worry, depression, jealousy
or the like. But even in this type of beginning we are
obliged to admit that our justification for a spree was
insanely insufficient in the light of what always happened.
We now see that when we began to drink deliberately, instead
or casually, there was little serious or effective thought
during the period of premeditation of what the terrific
consequences might be.
Our behavior is as
absurd and incomprehensible with respect to the first
drink as that of an individual with a passion, say, for
jay-walking. He gets a thrill out of skipping in front
of fast-moving vehicles. He enjoys himself for a few years
in spite of friendly warnings. Up to this point you would
label him as a foolish
having queer ideas of fun. Luck then deserts him and he
is slightly injured several times in succession. You would
expect him, if he were normal, to cut it out. Presently
he is hit again and this time has a fractured skull. Within
a week after leaving the hospital a fast-moving trolley
car breaks his arm. He tells you he has decided to stop
jay-walking for good, but in a few weeks he breaks both
On through the years
this conduct continues, accompanied by his continual promises
to be careful or to keep off the streets altogether. Finally,
he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he
is held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to
get the jaywalking idea out of his head. He shuts himself
up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the day
he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which
breaks his back. Such a man would be crazy, wouldn’t he?
You may think our
illustration is too ridiculous. But is it? We, who have
been through the wringer, have to admit if we substituted
alcoholism for jay-walking, the illustration would fit
exactly. However intelligent we may have been in other
respects, where alcohol has been involved, we have been
strangely insane. It’s strong language—but isn’t it true?
Some of you are thinking:
“Yes, what you tell is true, but it doesn’t fully apply.
We admit we have some of these symptoms, but we have not
gone to the extremes you fellows did, nor are we likely
to, for we understand ourselves so well after what you
have told us that such things cannot happen again. We
have not lost everything in life through drinking and
do not intend to. Thanks for the information.”
That may be true of
certain nonalcoholic people who, though drinking foolishly
and heavily at the present time, are able to stop or moderate,
because their brains and bodies have not been damaged
as ours were. But the actual or potential alcoholic, with
hardly any exception, will be absolutely unable to
stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. This
is a point we wish to emphasize and re-emphasize, to smash
home upon our alcoholic readers as it has been revealed
to us out of bitter experience. Let us take another illustration.
Fred is a partner
in a well known accounting firm. His income is good, he
has a fine home, is happily married and the father of
promising children of college age. He has so attractive
a personality that he makes friends with everyone. If
ever there was a successful business man, it is Fred.
To all appearance he is a stable, well balanced individual.
Yet, he is alcoholic. We first saw Fred about a year ago
in a hospital where he had gone to recover from a bad
case of jitters. It was his first experience of this kind,
and he was much ashamed of it. Far from admitting he was
an alcoholic , he told himself he came to the hospital
to rest his nerves. The doctor intimated strongly that
he might be worse than he realized. For a few days he
was depressed about his condition. He made up his mind
to quit drinking altogether. It never occurred to him
that perhaps he could not do so, in spite of his character
and standing. Fred would not believe himself an alcoholic,
much less accept a spiritual remedy for his problem. We
told him what
knew about alcoholism. He was interested and conceded
that he had some of the symptoms, but he was a long way
from admitting that he could do nothing about it himself.
He was positive that this humiliating experience, plus
the knowledge he had acquired, would keep him sober the
rest of his life. Self-knowledge would fix it.
We heard no more of
Fred for a while. One day we were told that he was back
in the hospital. This time he was quite shaky. He soon
indicated he was anxious to see us. The story he told
is most instructive, for here was a chap absolutely convinced
he had to stop drinking, who had no excuse for drinking,
who exhibited splendid judgment and determination in all
his other concerns, yet was flat on his back nevertheless.
Let him tell you about
it: “I was much impressed with what you fellows said about
alcoholism, and I frankly did not believe it would be
possible for me to drink again. I rather appreciated your
ideas about the subtle insanity which precedes the first
drink, but I was confident it could not happen to me after
what I had learned. I reasoned I was not so far advanced
as most of you fellows, that I had been usually successful
in licking my other personal problems, and that I would
therefore be successful where you men failed. I felt I
had every right to be self-confident, that it would be
only a matter of exercising my will power and keeping
“In this frame of
mind, I went about my business and for a time all was
well. I had no trouble refusing drinks, and began to wonder
if I had not been making too hard work of a simple matter.
One day I went to Washington to present some accounting
government bureau. I had been out of town before during
this particular dry spell, so there was nothing new about
that. Physically, I felt fine. Neither did I have any
pressing problems or worries. My business came off well,
I was pleased and knew my partners would be too. It was
the end of a perfect day, not a cloud on the horizon.
“I went to my hotel
and leisurely dressed for dinner. As I crossed the
threshold of the dinning room, the thought came to mind
that it would be nice to have a couple of cocktails with
dinner. That was all. Nothing more. I ordered a cocktail
and my meal. Then I ordered another cocktail. After dinner
I decided to take a walk. When I returned to the hotel
it struck me a highball would be fine before going to
bed, so I stepped into the bar and had one. I remember
having several more that night and plenty next morning.
I have a shadowy recollection of being in a airplane bound
for New York, and of finding a friendly taxicab driver
at the landing field instead of my wife. The driver escorted
me for several days. I know little of where I went or
what I said and did. Then came the hospital with the unbearable
mental and physical suffering.
“As soon as I regained
my ability to think, I went carefully over that evening
in Washington. Not only had I been off guard, I had
made no fight whatever against the first drink. This time
I had not thought of the consequences at all. I had
commenced to drink as carelessly as thought the cocktails
were ginger ale. I now remembered what my alcoholic friends
had told me, how they prophesied that if I had an alcoholic
mind, the time and place would come—I would drink
They had said that though I did raise a defense, it would
one day give way before some trivial reason for having
a drink. Well, just that did happen and more, for what
I had learned of alcoholism did not occur to me at all.
I knew from that moment that I had an alcoholic mind.
I saw that will power and self-knowledge would not help
in those strange mental blank spots. I had never been
able to understand people who said that a problem had
them hopelessly defeated. I knew then. It was the crushing
“Two of the members
of Alcoholics Anonymous came to see me. They grinned,
which I didn’t like so much, and then asked me if I thought
myself alcoholic and if I were really licked this time.
I had to concede both propositions. They piled on me heaps
of evidence to the effect that an alcoholic mentality,
such as I had exhibited in Washington, was hopeless condition.
They cited cases out of their own experience by the dozen.
This process snuffed out the last flicker of conviction
that I could do the job myself.
“Then they outlined
the spiritual answer and program of action which a hundred
of them had followed successfully. Though I had been only
a nominal churchman, their proposals were not, intellectually,
hard to swallow. But the program of action, though entirely
sensible, was pretty drastic. It meant I would have to
throw several lifelong conceptions out of the window.
That was not easy. But the moment I made up my mind to
go through with the process, I had the curious feeling
that my alcoholic condition was relieved, as in fact it
proved to be.
“Quite as important
was the discovery that spiritual principles would solve
all my problems. I have since
brought into a way of living infinitely more satisfying
and, I hope, more useful than the life I lived before.
My old manner of life was by no means a bad one, but I
would not exchange its best moments for the worst I have
now. I would not go back to it even if I could.”
story speaks for itself. We hope it strikes home to thousands
like him. He had felt only the first nip of the wringer.
Most alcoholics have to be pretty badly mangled before
they really commence to solve their problems.
Many doctors and psychiatrists
agree with our conclusions. One of these men, staff member
of a world-renowned hospital, recently made this statement
to some of us: “What you say about the general hopelessness
of the average alcoholics’ plight is, in my opinion, correct.
As to two of you men, whose stories I have heard, there
is no doubt in my mind that you were 100% hopeless, apart
from divine help. Had you offered yourselves as patients
at this hospital, I would not have taken you, if I had
been able to avoid it. People like you are too heartbreaking.
Though not a religious person, I have profound respect
for the spiritual approach in such cases as yours. For
most cases, there is virtually no other solution.”
Once more: The alcoholic
at certain times has no effective mental defense against
the first drink. Except in a few cases, neither he nor
any other human being can provide such a defense. His
defense must come from a Higher Power.
for chapter 3 of the pre-1939 Original Manuscript.