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The Sick Person We Call an Alcoholic
Mann, once a victim of liquor, tells what
we can do to help those who would quit but can’t.
By B.J. Woolf
University is sponsoring a new course in education. It is
not being given in the college buildings, but it is one
which its sponsors hope will affect the entire country and
foster a better understanding of one of the most common
of all diseases.
The National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, in existence
for a year and a half, is being largely financed by the
university. Its primary function is to change public opinion
regarding alcoholism and to aid in establishing a program
for its treatment.
For, according to the executive director of the committee,
the drunkard who rolls in the gutter is as sick as the man
suffering from some mortal disease. The only difference
between the two is that there is hope for the former; with
the proper treatment he may become a worthwhile citizen.
And, judging from the executive director herself, one must
be tempted to believe what she says. For Marty Mann, according
to her own story, was a victim of the craving for alcohol.
The only reason she did not lie in the gutter was that she
had enough money to have a place where she could be helpless
and sodden. Today Mrs. Mann is an attractive, smart- looking
woman in her thirties. Her clear complexion, her alert blue
eyes and her manner bear no trace of years of hard drinking.
As she told me her story she might have been recounting
the trials and sufferings of another. She seemed detached
from the victim whose longings she recalled, as separate
an entity as Dr. Jekyll was from Mr. Hyde.
Moreover, although she said her illness was not cured but
arrested, she expressed no fear of a relapse. And when I
asked her to what she attributed the change, she ascribed
it to Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization founded in 1934
by a former drunkard who had successfully reformed another
habitual drinker. The organization now has nearly 400 chapters
in the United States and Canada and claims a national membership
of more than 15,000. Its members are not ashamed of having
been sick and are so grateful for their own recovery that
they try to help others, offering at their meetings friendship,
counsel and guidance.
was not only what Alcoholics Anonymous did or her but also
what it has done for others which influenced Mrs. Mann to
undertake her present work. Now, in addition to directing
the activities of the national committee from its New York
headquarters, she tours the country, giving lectures on
the best ways to conquer alcoholism. "The alcoholic,"
she says, "is a sick person who can be helped and is
worth helping. This is a public health problem. Apart from
the economic aspect - for the alcoholic is an expense not
only to himself and his family but also to the community
at large - the humanitarian side is tremendously important.
committee is endeavoring to teach the public that alcoholics
must not be shunned but helped. We are getting local programs
started throughout the country to make clear the basic facts
about alcoholism, the need for a change in attitude towards
those afflicted and the best methods for solving the problem
through community action. We are assisting in the establishment
of local committees, composed of representative citizens,
which will act with our assistance in combating the evil.
are making available literature on the subject, explaining
the treatment of the disease either at home or in clinics,
and encouraging the transfer of alcoholics from jails to
hospitals. A man should not be jailed for being drunk; he
should be sent to a hospital to be cured.
the present time there are but two clinics for drunkenness
in the entire country; yet alcoholism is as prevalent a
disease as either tuberculosis or cancer and one that, rightly
handled, is more easily treated. Our committee proposes
to play the same part in fighting the disease as the tuberculosis
committee does in its field. We are certain that when people
in general become aware of the true state of affairs they
will help in stamping out this evil. Do you realize that
there are few places in the whole country with adequate
facilities for the care and treatment of alcoholics?
the first place, alcoholism must be correctly diagnosed.
One type is the symptom of an underlying mental ailment.
This requires the care of a psychiatrist and will not yield
to ordinary treatment for alcoholism. To cure it, the mental
condition must be cured. On the other hand, so-called secondary
alcoholism responds to simple re-education - that is, making
the patient realize his illness and convincing him that
his physical make-up is such that it is impossible for him
to drink in moderation. This is the method employed by Alcoholics
Anonymous. In some cases this re-education must be accompanied
by either medical or psychiatric treatment and sometimes
even by institutional care.
the clinics are established with experts in charge, all
drunkards will be handled in the same way, and there is
little chance for their recovery. But in establishing these
clinics we must watch one important thing: they must not
be too closely allied with courts. They must be places no
one need be ashamed to go to, places which to not brand
the patients as lawbreakers. One of the principal aims of
our committee is to encourage the establishment of such
clinics throughout the country and to assist them with all
the scientific data on the subject."
As she puffed a cigarette Mrs. Mann went on: "Alcoholism
is like greatness. Some people are born alcoholics, some
achieve alcoholism and others have alcoholism thrust upon
them. I belong to the third class, for it was prohibition
that did the thrusting.
was born in Chicago and my people were well-to-do. I had
everything for which a girl could ask, including a year
at school in Florence. When I came back to this country
I was in many ways just like other girls in my set. The
usual coming-out party, dances and other social events filled
America's noble experiment was being tried out and decent
young men thought it was smart to go around with hip flasks.
In addition, they would take us girls to little places where
they must be recognized through a peephole before being
allowed to enter. I was young and happy and gay and I thought
it great fun to take a drink.
thing I did not realize then - I did not learn it until
years later - was that I, like three-quarters of a million
others who are known and countless others who are not known,
may be called allergic to alcohol. We are the unfortunates
who are not immune to it. And there is no Schick test as
there is for diphtheria, which can determine a person's
immunity. One only finds out too late."
She went on to say that there are those who drink in moderation.
They enjoy a certain release after a drink or two. Their
tensions are eased and this, she believes, is a perfectly
legitimate reason for their drinking. But they do not need
to drink. A movie, a theatre or a visit to friends serves
the same purpose.
she continued her story it was hard to believe that she
was talking about herself. She seemed calm and detached.
There was humor in her talk and there was nothing of the
"professional dry" in her manner. While apparently
a certain emotional urge brought about her recovery. It
was not accompanied by the jingle of tambourines or the
"step-up-and-be-saved" shouts of the sawdust trail.
told of her marriage a year after her debut and the discovery
that her husband was an alcoholic. She does not blame him
for her drinking, for she had the disease when she was married.
But even his example did not stop her. Within a year she
divorced him and drank more than ever. Then she went to
England to get away from herself.
While she was there her family suffered financial reverses
and she had to go to work. At first she became an interior
decorator and later became associated with a photographic
establishment. And all the time she kept drinking more and
more to feel "normal."
course," she said, "like all alcoholics, I made
the usual excuses. I kept saying to myself that I could
stop it if I wanted to, and I persuaded myself that I was
drinking for business reasons. But I was miserable and finally
I became convinced that I was going crazy. Strangely enough,
I never once attributed my mental state to my drinking,
but was sure that I was drinking to calm my nerves.
got worse and worse. I became melancholic. Twice I tried
suicide and finally one of my business associates insisted
that I go to a sanitarium. I decided to return to America
this time I was a confirmed drunkard. For weeks I would
stay in my room, too drunk to do anything but lie in bed.
Even then I did not attribute my condition to drink. I was
sure that it was my brain and that I would end my days in
a mad house.
friends persuaded me to go to a sanitarium in Greenwich.
I did not seem to improve much, but one day the doctor handed
me a copy of 'Alcoholics Anonymous.' I glanced through it
and became angry. I was not an alcoholic. This had nothing
to do with me. So in a fit of temper I threw the book across
the room. Then something happened which I cannot explain.
The book lay open on the floor and as I picked it up my
eyes lighted on the words, 'We cannot live with anger.'
They attracted me and I sat down with it and began to read.
I became interested and suddenly the truth swept over me.
I was an alcoholic. I had an obsession of the mind coupled
with an allergy of the body."
She wrote to Alcoholics Anonymous and began getting letters
of encouragement from them. Then she came to New York to
attend their meetings. "Here were decent people,"
she said, "all in the same boat as I. They did not
look down on me nor did they lecture me. They did not say
they were cured, but that their illness had been arrested.
They did not touch liquor because they knew if they did
they would become sick once more. They did not suggest that
I sign a pledge. All they did was to advise me to promise
myself that I would not drink for twenty-four hours and
when the twenty-four hours were passed to make myself the
same promise again."
Their tolerance, their understanding and their desire to
help all made a deep impression upon her. Once or twice
she slipped, but when they heard of it, instead of lectures
they gave her sympathy. They themselves had done the same
Mrs. Mann is a firm believer in the efficacy of this system
in the treatment of many cases of alcoholism. She does not
attempt to explain why it works. But she says it is successful
in about 80 per cent of the cases. Undoubtedly group therapy
plays an important part. Being able to talk plainly with
no shame to others who have been through the same distress
means a lot. For, she says, no one except an alcoholic can
truly understand the feelings of one.
who have attended our meetings," she said, "who
came to scoff have remained to pray. At these meetings men
and women who have recovered get up and tell their experiences.
All of them are intensely sincere in their desire to help
and, while there is no particular religious dogma involved
all of us recognize a power higher than ourselves which
has helped us. To some it is God, to others a spiritual
force which cannot be explained."
In carrying on the work of the committee, Mrs. Mann sees
Alcoholics Anonymous playing an important part.
she says, "please don't get the idea that our committee
is a crusading outfit that is going around the country with
hatchets trying to smash up gin mills. Those of us who are
alcoholics are personal drys because we realize that we
can't take liquor in moderation. But this does not mean
that we believe that those who can should be deprived of
it. For us it is drunkenness or dryness. For those not afflicted
as we are, to drink or not to drink is not such an important
The New York Times Magazine, April 21, 1946)