IN May or June of 1948, I stood on the
side of a viaduct in western Oregon and played host
to a legion of morbid thoughts. A fast freight train
rushed towards the tracks directly below. Since I had
become the victim of suicidal thoughts whenever standing
near a high place or close to the passing of a railroad
locomotive, I now rehearsed the easy manner in which
I could end it all by flinging myself from the bridge
into the path of the oncoming train. Of course I knew
I would not really do it--but I was troubled by a compulsive
preoccupation with suicide, especially when the means
were close at hand. I worried about it and secretly
feared that it might be a possible sign of insanity.
But I told nobody.
On that occasion, as always, the train
passed below and went its way, and I continued on my
way, a penniless hitch-hiker completely stricken with
self-pity, self-loathing, remorse, and despair. Only
recently I had emerged from a jail in Idaho, and I was
on my way to California where, I feared, more difficulties
awaited (they did! ). Now the point of all this is that,
at the time, I seemed to be afflicted with more troubles
than almost any person in the world, and if at that
same time you had had the inclination to listen, I would
have told you all about them. Today, thirteen years
later, I am trying to decide just what troubles I had.
And I have to admit, as AA usually teaches, that all
of my troubles were within myself!
I was twenty-two years old, in perfect
physical health, had an adequate education, and still
possessed all of my hair. The world was relatively at
peace, and there were any number of inviting job opportunities
around. It was a warm month of the year, and even sleeping
on the ground for a night or two was no great hardship.
Yet, there I was, so choked with despair that I saw
hardly any hope in further living. I didn't realize
that all my enemies were within myself. In fact, my
flight from Idaho was a "geographical cure,"
and I was hoping that I would be able to change my habits
in a new locale.
During the next few years, I found AA
and learned to deal with such things as these suicidal
compulsions and all the other mental maggots that bedevil
alcoholics. I talked with other AA members who had been
troubled in the same way, and after a short time I was
hardly bothered at all by the more serious shortcomings.
First came a pleasant hope for a better future, then
came more confidence, and finally I found real contentment
much of the time and a little joy part of the time.
Still, I frequently rebelled against
the idea that my troubles were mostly of my own making.
Bill W. had stated this idea in some of his writings,
and during moments of anger I would argue that "Bill
can't be right all the time!" Yet, after simmering
down, I would have to admit the truth in what Bill wrote.
For even when people seem deliberately to hurt us, we
are wrong to become angry or upset. Even when we seem
to be the victims of gross injustice, our only hope
of dealing with it effectively is to forgive our tormentors.
In other words, we can't control the outer world, but
we can certainly control our reaction to it. We should
wear the world as a loose garment, whether it is a gorgeous
robe or a hair shirt. (The hair shirt won't hurt as
much if worn loosely!)
Now I look back at this dark moment
in 1948 when I stood on the overpass and I marvel at
the power of alcoholism and its concomitant defects.
All the happiness I have now was possible then, but
I just did not know that it was. I did not realize the
good fortune of having health, youth, and the freedom
of American citizenship. Every person I met seemed to
be my enemy, and all my personal relationships ended
in failure. I was the world's unluckiest person, in
my own mind. Yet nobody seemed to appreciate that fact,
or to sympathize with me. Foolish souls--they thought
that a person was indeed fortunate who had health, youth,
I soft-pedal my tale of past miseries
these days! Only AA members and a few others are even
capable of understanding my agony and relating to it.
The outside world doesn't really understand very well
why a promising young man of twenty-two would ever entertain
even briefly the idea of doing away with himself. One
way or another, though, most AA members have at least
toyed with the self-destruction route. And almost all
of us today admit that we had no real enemies except
the ones within ourselves. But perhaps these are the