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THE COMPULSIVE DRINKER
is a disease which affects different people differently.
Whether Americans are more susceptible to it than Europeans
is a question, but there can be no doubt that Alcoholics
Anonymous, whose headquarters is in New York City and
of which this writer is a member, has inspired a cure
remarkably efficacious for those in the final and compulsive
Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name..."
At the end of my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the
words of the old prayer came suddenly alive. Black despair
melted into a glimpse of health and a good life, of relief
from suffering, remorse, anguish - just a ray of hope, but
enough to enable me to square my shoulders in new determination.
These fine people had given me something I badly needed
at that moment. They had shown me a way out of the abyss
Earlier in the meeting the chairman had called on a well-
groomed citizen to speak. He looked healthy, vigorous, and
prosperous. He began with: "My name is John, and I
am an alcoholic." Then he went on to tell how as a
sales manager of a nationwide hardware firm he had discovered
that cocktails before business luncheons softened up customers,
cocktails before sales staff dinners made him more popular,
relaxed him, encouraged the bright ideas. He told about
packing a bottle in his bag to take on the Sunday night
train to a distant city, about learning to leave a good
slug in the bottle for an eye opener Monday morning.
he began to miss Monday appointments; district salesmen
never saw him until the middle of the week. Finally he lost
his family, job, and health. But all the time John said,
"this is my problem. I'll handle it." Talks with
a psychiatrist helped, but short stretches of sobriety always
gave way to worse trouble. Down and out, almost broke, living
on liquor and far from home, he finally asked himself, "What
can I do?"
sat there thunderstruck. This man John was telling my story.
He was talking about me. He is a business executive and
I am a professional man, but our stories are the same. John's
fears were my fears, too. My will power is strong, but I
simply could not do what my friends could do: sip a couple
of drinks, eat a good meal, and get up in the morning rested
and ready for another day. I always missed one train after
another and ended the evening stumbling and dreading the
next day. I wondered if John ever had blackouts, losses
of memory such as were hitting me lately. I wondered if
he ever got up in the morning with no idea of where he had
left the car, not knowing whom he had been with or what
he had said, without a dollar left in his wallet. I could
tell him about meeting an important client for lunch and
not being sure whether I could get a fork to my mouth. I
could tell these people about the utter soul-shattering
degradation of trembling hands that spilled coffee on my
shirt or caused that match to miss lighting my wife's cigarette.
could tell them - but would I? I shrank from the prospect
of getting up before this parish house full of ex-drunks
and peeling myself open for their inspection. How could
people so earnestly reveal what seemed to me a shameful
weakness? Could I ever admit to being one of them?
chairman kept things going in friendly fashion. He said
this A.A. meeting would complete his month of presiding
over the local group's affairs and that he would appoint
another member to carry on next month. He reminded the crowd
that there are no officers in A.A., no fancy national headquarters
- only simple services that will help carry the message
to other alcoholics. "There are no dues or fees in
A.A.," he said, "but we do pay rent to use this
room every week, we buy coffee and refreshments, and right
now I'll ask Joe to take up the usual collection."
I noticed that when the basket came along my row it was
generously filled, and I whispered to one of my new friends
to inquire whether A.A. receives gifts. He said that the
organization declines outside contributions, that every
A.A. group is self-supporting, and that problems of money,
property, and prestige might divert A.A. from its primary
should like to explain to any newcomers, " the chairman
added, "that A.A. is strictly anonymous. This is the
spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding
us to place principles before personalities. We must always
maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio,
and films. This is an open meeting where visitors are welcome.
Anyone interested in learning about A.A., also members of
their families and friends, can join us at any time. The
door of A.A. swings both ways. You can come in; you can
go out. You can always come back - we'll be here."
The chairman then called on an attractive young woman who
stepped to the speakers platform to speak. "My name
is Kate, and I am an alcoholic." Kate told the intimate
story of the near ruin of her home. As soon as the children
were off to school and her husband had left for work, she
tried to remember where she had hidden the bottle the night
before. That first drink was like pulling down a shade,
shutting out her remorse and shame, blotting out the hangover.
She played records and danced around the living room in
her negligee and exchanged neighborhood gossip over the
phone with friends. Instead of eating lunch she drank it.
By the time the children came home she was in bed: "Mother
has a headache; make yourselves a chocolate milk and some
sandwiches for supper."
girl is no orator, I thought, but there she stands, looking
good, relaxed, almost smiling, talking straight from her
heart and from her own experience with though problems that
I know so well. Again I thought: Will I ever be able to
do that? Wouldn't it be great if I could sit down privately
with a man who knew exactly what I was going through and
had licked it, who talked my language and wanted to help
me? The closest I had ever come to it was a session I had
with Dr. Richard Proctor at the Bowman-Gray Medical School,
in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
your situation as it is and not as you wish it might be.
When you understand what your problem is and why you have
it - the real reasons, not your alibis and excuses - you
can enjoy a normal life again," he told me. "Most
people who drink are not alcoholics and probably will never
will be. But for five million men and women drinking is
a sickness, and you're one of these. There is just one guy
who can cure you, and that is you." Dr. Proctor recommended
that I try A.A.
ended her talk with a phrase that stuck in my mind. She
said, "But for the grace of God and A.A. I wouldn't
be here tonight." Then came the Lord's Prayer: "
"...And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us
from evil..." and the meeting broke up for coffee.
I knew that it had taken me years to get myself into an
alcoholic hole and that I could not pull out of it overnight;
but I left sobered, thoughtful, determined to do my utmost
to make the flash of hope come true.
the next three months I attended two or three A.A. meetings
a week. No one asked me any questions or gave me any lectures;
all of them were glad to see me, and I made new friends
at every meeting. I felt normal and healthy. Instead of
going from the office to the club, then making a few stops
at bars, I went directly, eagerly home. My wife was smiling,
and her voice was happy. One morning my daughter said, "Daddy,
every night I thank God, and I just want to thank you for
being well again." Doris was a happy girl, too, and
I was charged with new energy for a full day's work.
old hobbies, like fishing, which I had neglected for years,
began to look good again. The season would open before long,
and I suggested to Marge that we go over to Bill's to make
plans for May weekends. The thought of wading in fast water
at the head of a long pool fanning out to a quiet stretch
where I could drop a fly ready for a trout to strike was
tremendously exciting to me. Plans must be made, gear overhauled.
I could hardly wait.
hadn't seen Bill for a year, not since my gang carried me
into the house and left me on the divan when we were making
ready for the last fishing season. But on this Saturday
night we were talking as we used to in the old days, eagerly
planning to leave before daylight on opening morning. The
girls would join us for the weekend. Then Bill went out
to the kitchen and came back with a tray of ice water and
glasses, also with a flushed look on his face as though
he had just had a good stiff drink. "I thought it would
be nice," he said, "If we all had something to
was almost too much for me. Why the hell couldn't Bill offer
everybody a highball and be natural about it? He and the
girls wanted a drink. Couldn't I have the privilege of declining
or accepting if I wanted to? I burned with anger.
My sullen mood spoiled what little was left of the party.
Marge could sense my distress, and we made excuses to leave
early. I kept my childish fury pent up and roamed around
downstairs desperately tempted to drink anything I could
find, but brewed black coffee instead and growled at Marge,
who was entreating me to get some sleep.
I was groggy at daylight, but the idea occurred to me that
I was entirely at fault. I phoned and said, "Bill,
I'm sorry to disturb you so early, but I want to apologize
about last night. The plain fact is that I can't handle
liquor and you know it. All I ask is that you treat me like
any other friend. Whenever you want a drink, don't let me
interfere. Also please don't put ice water or a Coke in
my hand. Just ask me what I would like to have, and I’ll
name it. I am trying like the devil to be worthy of your
heard a sleepy, "Thanks for calling, Bob. That makes
me feel a lot better about the whole thing. We can have
some great times together, and I want you to know that I
am proud of you. Don't forget we've got a date for opening
gave up A.A. meetings. They were alright for somebody in
bad shape, but I did not need them anymore. This period
went on for a few weeks longer. I felt normal and healthy.
I found that anything I did with liquor I could do better
without it. I was my own man again, but I had neglected
Mark Twain's remark that quitting smoking was easy - he
had done it hundreds of times.
It was a good sign that my family was beginning to trust
me. My wife, beaming with new confidence, told me that she
planned to take the children on the following weekend on
a family visit. Out of habit, I welcomed the chance to be
alone, puttering around, varnishing my old trout rod, watching
TV - and drinking. "But my God!" I thought. "I'm
not drinking, and I don't want to start. What kind of crazy
thinking is this?"
the week wore on, I tried with less and less success to
get the idea of having a few drinks out of my mind. They
drove away Saturday morning early, and I kept busy in and
out of the house, catching up on postponed chores. That
evening I walked a mile to the liquor store and paused at
the door to wonder. Then I went in and bought two bottles.
A taxi rushed me home, and I tore off the cap and poured
half a glass. Only the first drink tasted as I had hoped.
During the rest of that bottle and half of the second I
sat cursing myself for being insane. Words for the causes
and symptoms of my sickness haunted me. "Oh, God, can
I ever stop again?"
night I had to call a doctor to get a shot in the arm before
the family got home. It was a bad night, but I kept away
from anything to drink, and next night I went back to A.A.,
shaky, overwhelmed with remorse and shame. I ought to admit
my slip. I could not make the aisle to go up front as other
did, so I just stood where I was and muttered, "this
past weekend I tried liquor. I couldn't handle it. I am
sorry I had a slip, and thanks to you for keeping the doors
of A.A. open. I have the proof now that I don't want to
go out that door again. I know that there is no way out
of the abyss, except giving up liquor."
felt much better for coming out in the open. I was encouraged
and managed a feeble grin. "I guess I forgot Mark Twain's
lesson about giving up smoking," I said.
During the next few months I actually enjoyed being sober
- not fighting that first drink, which is the one that does
the damage. I settled down to regular attendance at an A.A.
group where I felt most congenial. Perhaps I was still an
imposter, playing a masquerade. I was not yet being completely
honest with these decent people and with myself. For somewhere
in this good period the terrible thought returned that someday
I might do what no alcoholic on earth has ever been able
to do, drink normally again.
one night before closing a meeting, the chairman dumfounded
me by announcing: "For the next month I should like
to name Robert, our new member as chairman." He was
referring to me. Everybody clapped, and I wondered how in
the world I could do it. I spent every evening rereading
what we in A.A. call the Big Book and leafing through our
monthly magazine, The Grapevine, to bone up for the job
of chairman. I studied for the hundredth time our twelve
steps to sobriety: the admission that we were helpless against
alcohol but that a power greater than ourselves could restore
us to sanity if we would turn over our wills and lives to
God as each of us understands Him.
new responsibilities weighed heavily on me. The night of
my first meeting as chairman I stood near the entrance of
the parish house greeting everyone, my wife standing happily
at my side. Alcohol is no respecter of persons: I was smiling
and saying hello to lawyers, truck drivers, doctors, housewives,
business leaders, mechanics, and, accompanied mostly by
sponsors from our group, a few newcomers looking shaky and
white, sick and bleary-eyed. As is customary at all A.A.
gatherings, chatter, laughter, and smoke filled the air;
wives in the parish-house kitchen brewed coffee and made
sandwiches. It was time to start. I felt reticent and unworthy
to fill the chairmanship, so that the traditional A.A. prayer
with which I opened the meeting disturbed me: "God
grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to
know the difference."
I read along the brief statement of principles which starts
every A.A. meeting, that prayer began repeating itself.
"The courage to change the things I can" - and
the truth flashed in my mind with blinding clarity: You
are still a coward still holding out; you are not really,
not sincerely here! It probably lasted only a few seconds,
but I could see the lies I had told the doctors who were
trying to help me, the deceit of making light of my problem
to my minister, family, and associates, those endless alibis
and excuses that had always given me a getaway route for
a backslide into drinking. I had never burned all my bridges,
nor had I quite achieved
humility to admit, to accept, and to act on my problem wholeheartedly.
The next few words may have sounded natural to the audience,
but to me they represented unconditional surrender. They
meant I was not just a visitor at these meetings, looking
over the program with a skeptical eye, trying something
else to please my wife or maybe to learn some new way to
live with liquor. I finally uttered the words I had never
had the courage and humility to say: "My name is Robert,
and I am an alcoholic."
great weight lifted from my mind and body. Forgetting all
the words I had read in the literature of A.A., the thoughts
of others that I had memorized for this occasion, I plunged
ahead. "I want to thank you folks for making me chairman
this month, "I began, "I'm not sure I can do a
very good job or that I am ready for it. Perhaps older and
wiser heads around here decided that one way to keep me
good and sober for a month was to make me chairman!
though, I have just gone through a few moments of decision
that I would not swap for anything else that ever happened
to me. Most of us in this room have in common a serious
physical and emotional problem. We are trying to do something
about it. I have just learned in standing up here before
you that I can without a shadow of a doubt succeed; I can
achieve recovery and can help others as you are helping
me. Without A.A. meetings and group fellowship, I would
be lost. I can't do it alone. I thank God I don't have to."
As I had known all along, my story was similar to their
stories. But now it suddenly became not my story, not their
story, but our story - for I was finally, completely one
And then the final speaker emphasized the importance of
taking each day as it comes. "This is a twenty-four-hour
program," he said. "Today is the only day that
counts. Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow may never come."
hour was nearly up, and I concluded the meeting. "A.A.
is not a religious organization," I said, "but
many of us believe that the spiritual part of the program
is the most important. Striving to live a good life, to
be in tune with our fellow men, to be our best selves at
all times is a program that will help anybody, including
drunks. We'll all stand and close the meeting in the usual
way... Give us this day our daily bread And forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us...
" And as Marge and I that night walked home hand in
hand, we shared the serenity of accepting the things we
could not change, because some power had given me the courage
at last to change the things I could, and Marge and I continue
to know the difference.
The Atlantic Monthly, September 1959)