MY home town in Nebraska has a place
on the northeast side which local people refer to as
"out on the Hill." It is the state hospital.
As boys, we considered it great sport to ride out there
on our bicycles, often hooting derisive comments while
racing past shuffling groups of patients, who stared
at us oddly or grinned in what we thought was the weird
manner of "crazy people." We no doubt felt
we were taking great risks in daring to venture upon
the premises at all.
This may have happened once or twice
during the summer of 1935, when I was nine years old.
I was too young to know that the people we taunted were
mentally ill, and of course I did not perceive that
a variation of mental illness would someday bring me
to the same place. And, like thousands more, I could
not possibly have known that my own future redemption
was being carefully worked out that same summer by a
couple of strangers in Akron, Ohio.
Fifteen years later, the world had changed
radically and so had I. I had joined the ambling groups
of patients "out on the Hill." I was only
twenty-four, but my past life was so disorderly I could
hardly bear to look at it. I had been a high school
"dropout." I had made false starts on a dozen
or more jobs. The previous year, the Army had turned
me loose in New Brunswick, N.J., with an undesirable
discharge, and I had lost even that dubious certificate
as a result of being rolled in a drunken stupor. I had
no confidence, no known goals, no firm principles and
hardly any friends. I knew nobody who had become so
complete a failure in such a short time.
At this point I was almost without hope.
I feared that frequent and long commitments to state
hospitals would now become part of my life also, as
had other troubles. But what really disturbed me was
the realization that I no longer had control over my
own life. I hated the life I was leading, but, to my
despair, I perceived that I didn't have the power to
change it. Despite my determination and resolutions,
I always seemed to drink again. One evening early in
my hospital stay I became so despondent that I actually
believed I had finally made a firm decision to kill
myself, something I had often considered during previous
periods of depression.
But some remarkable things were about
to happen. A day or two following this dark night I
found a stray copy of "Alcoholics Anonymous"
while picking through a pile of books on the ward. I
had gone to AA meetings before, but without really accepting
the idea that alcoholism is a permanent kind of disease
which a person is stuck with for the rest of his life.
But now I had a different attitude, and the book began
to make a great deal of sense to me. I studied it almost
every day, and fought a savage battle with myself every
time I started to rebel against some of its suggestions.
It was fortunate, I believe, that AA urged only "willingness"
instead of "action" on some of the tougher
parts of the program, for I was scarcely capable of
I began attending AA meetings, first
at the hospital and then in town. At some point during
the next seven weeks I suddenly came to the breathtaking
realization that I never had to drink again if I didn't
want to. It was almost unbelievable that such a contrast
of feelings could have occurred in the same person during
a hospital stay of less than two months. But it must
have been the beginning of a true spiritual awakening,
for I haven't had a drink since and my life has improved
I believe that AA members were then
somewhat more skeptical about the prospects of younger
alcoholics than they are today. "You've got a tough
fight ahead of you," an older member said to me,
shaking his head slightly. "You'll sure be lucky
if you get the program at your age," other hoary-headed
members remarked, but in a manner that plainly revealed
their strong doubts. And one elderly member, who never
in his life lost a job or reached a moment of suicidal
despair or was ejected from the Army in disgrace, patted
me on the shoulder and said he was glad that I would
avoid all the suffering he had endured.
All of these well-intended remarks served
a good purpose, for they made me acutely aware of the
fact that I was different from most of the other AA
members. I was far more unstable, and my emotional development
had been so retarded that I hadn't even acquired the
simple social skills that other people largely take
for granted. "Mel has to learn everything,"
one of my friends was to say a few years later, and
he was quite right. And even at that late date, he was
making such a remark to excuse crude behavior that I
hadn't as yet corrected.
So pain and humiliation continued long
after my last drink, but this was the pain and humiliation
of the growing-up process. It eventually brought the
pleasure of achievement, and as I look back over the
road I've traveled in the past thirteen years, I wonder
if enough people realize what marvelous changes can
be made in a human life as a result of following the
AA program. I am absolutely certain that "with
God, all things are possible."
Today I live in a central Michigan city
with my wife and two young boys, and I am almost thirty-eight.
Almost every year for the past twelve years I've returned
to Nebraska to visit my old home town and the cluster
of AA friends who carried this message "out to
the Hill." I consider it a great and humbling experience
to drive out there in my car, past the shuffling groups
of patients whom I came to know so well since first
meeting them twenty-eight years ago.
We understand one another better today.