Most people have a few days in their
past that stand out in flaming colors. They are marked
by signal events that were either so bad or so good
that they became unforgettable.
One such day for me was April 15, 1950.
You could call it a very bad day because I had been
drinking for the previous week or so and was trying
to medicate my awful feeling of sickness with several
bottles of beer. You also could call it a very good
day because it was the last time I ever picked up a
drink. Fifty years have passed, but I still have deep
gratitude for the recovery from alcoholism that followed
in Alcoholics Anonymous and continues to this day.
I was only twenty-four then, which at
the time was considered young for AA, and this made
me feel different, even in the Fellowship, where people
bend over backward to accommodate anyone and everyone.
Drugs were not part of the scene when
I was drinking, but I suspect that I could easily have
become a drug addict. In a military hospital in 1949,
I was given morphine for three days following surgery.
This was such a flight in ecstasy that I almost fought
the nurses for more. Had there been a place called Joe's
Morphine Saloon outside the hospital gate when I was
released, that might have been my first stop. I got
Like most AA members, I take no personal
credit for my sobriety. Nor do I feel that I have it
made in staying permanently sober. In fact, many of
us in AA say that we are "recovering" rather
than "recovered," which implies that getting
well is an ongoing, day-at-a-time process. If we deserve
any personal credit for getting sober, it should probably
be for tenacity in staying with the AA program in spite
of all the troubles, frustrations, and boredom we might
face. While most of us do find a measure of happiness
and some peace of mind, we also have to deal with the
problems that confront all human beings. There are very
few people anywhere who have trouble-free lives full
of absolute bliss.
Many of us feel fortunate in having
had a problem that forced us to seek help, which has
been a great advantage in our lives. If AA members have
any advantage over nonalcoholics, it's in having the
marvelous Twelve Step program as a guide for living.
It surprises some people that AA members
continue to attend meetings after years of recovery.
But I find at least three good reasons for this practice:
first, it helps me maintain and enhance my personal
sobriety; second, I can contribute to, and benefit from,
AA's caring community; and finally, I can stay close
to the spiritual ideas which are the basis of our Twelve
If AA members are firm and unyielding
on one point, it's our shared conviction that alcoholics
have a lifelong problem that can be arrested but never
cured. "We are like men who have lost their legs;
they never grow new ones," the AA founders said.
While this extreme view of alcoholism is occasionally
challenged, our experience seems to show that it's true.
And AA members who have picked up the bottle after years
of abstinence have, to their sorrow, confirmed it.
It's also true that many people discontinue
AA meeting attendance without returning to drinking.
But I like to play it safe. AA has worked so well for
so many years in keeping me away from the bottle that
I don't want to change anything. It is very easy to
establish a routine of attending from one to three meetings
a week--and this keeps AA in the forefront of my life.
I also take every opportunity to remind people that
a long time away from the bottle is no guarantee of
continuing recovery; there is always the danger of lapsing
into over-confidence or indifference.
A few months before his death in 1961,
the eminent psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung said in a letter
to Bill W. that alcoholics have an unmet spiritual need
that is part of their problem: "I am strongly convinced
that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads
the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it
is not counteracted either by real religious insight
or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary
man, not protected by an action from above and isolated
in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is
called very aptly the Devil."
"The protective wall of human community"
describes AA for me. To outsiders, an AA group may seem
like a ragtag bunch of people who smoke too much, overdose
on coffee, and still have too many problems to be called
well-adjusted or in any sense recovered. But to most
of us in the Fellowship, AA is a caring community that
is now worldwide. I've attended AA meetings in many
parts of the United States and Canada, and it's always
the same: people who care about helping one another
find and maintain recovery. It is also a community of
people who understand how others can be trapped in deep
loneliness and despair. Being a part of this caring
community is so important to me that I can't imagine
getting along in life without it.
AA, along with building a protective
wall of human community, also has a spiritual program
which is outlined in the Twelve Steps. The spiritual
side of AA has been difficult to explain and is sometimes
used by alcoholics as a convenient excuse for rejecting
AA's help. But many older members--myself included--view
the spiritual program as AA's rock-solid foundation.
Some of us even go overboard in thinking that these
spiritual principles may eventually have a role in saving
society and the world, though Bill W. warned against
It is satisfying to believe that AA's
work with alcoholics is making some improvements in
society, however. Every recovery, though it may go unnoticed,
improves the world in some way. We say that AA saved
our lives, but it may also be saving the lives of people
who never touched a drop. Every AA recovery, for example,
is one less person who may be driving drunk or causing
havoc in other ways.
How effective is AA in helping the majority
of alcoholics? We have no magic wand to influence those
who are not ready to change their lives. But I am convinced
that the recovery rate is very high among people who
have a burning desire for a sober way of life and are
willing to go to any lengths to accept and practice
AA's ideas. The AA pioneers had this same belief, which
is repeated at many of our meetings: "Rarely have
we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our
path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot
or will not completely give themselves to this simple
program, usually men and women who are constitutionally
incapable of being honest with themselves. . . . There
are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and
mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they
have the capacity to be honest."
That's what I was on April 15, 1950--a
person suffering from grave emotional and mental disorders
that had exploded into alcoholism within a few short
years. After a seven-week stay in a Nebraska state mental
hospital, I went out to face a world that still seemed
harsh and chilly. By staying close to AA's caring community
and distancing myself from even one drink, I've been
able to live in a different sort of world, and one that
has become noticeably warmer. After fifty years, AA
still works for me, and even the mental and emotional
disorders no longer seem so grave. And there are at
least two million recovering alcoholics world wide who
can say the same about their own lives.