MAYBE YOU KNOW US ONLY AS ALCOHOLICS. YOU SCORN US… YOU SHUN US…. BUT PERHAPS AFTER YOU HAVE READ MY STORY, YOU WILL PITY US INSTEAD, AND UNDERSTAND A LITTLE BETTER-
WE ARE LONELY PEOPLE
as told to Eleanor Early
When I was graduated from college the class prophet predicted that I would marry a prominent citizen, become president of the Women’s Club, and be known as the richest, prettiest and most popular woman in town. A wholesome prophecy surely-and it rang true, because that is the sort of girl I was, fifteen years ago-likeable, attractive, and an extraordinary nice little thing.
My parents were what is known as “comfortably off.” They sent me to boarding school, bought me beautiful clothes, and gave me a car and the biggest allowance of any girl in college.
Five years later I was an alcoholic, drinking like a crazy woman. You may wonder how a woman can call herself an alcoholic, particularly a woman as genteel and delicately reared as myself. The reason is that I have joined AA and become a realist. I know what I am, and am not afraid to admit it. Alcoholics are people who are unable to drink normally. With us one drink is too many-a hundred too few. We can never succeed in becoming controlled drinkers-and we know it. Our only answer is to stop, and that, as every alcoholic knows, is a torturously difficult thing to do.
In some ways this is going to be a hard story to write. IN other ways it will not be as difficult as you might imagine, because to tell you the truth, I like to talk about myself. All alcoholics, drunk or sober, are communicative. We are the most social-minded people in the world, and born good-doers. Alcoholics Anonymous brought me back to sanity and decency, and now I want to tell what AA does, how it works, and why. In order to do this, I must confess to a congenital weakness and a life of many shameful things. But in order to help others, I am glad to write this intensely personal true confession.
Because AA pledges its members to anonymity, I cannot tell my name. I am thirty-four years old, married to a successful professional man, and live on Long Island. My father is the salt of the earth and a pillar of respectability, and my mother one of the best women God ever made.
When I was a girl we had wine at our house only on Sunday mornings when the cook served a bit of sherry on top of the grapefruit. Mother was a teetotaler except for the grapefruit, and Father never drank anything stronger than beer. I attended a convent outside of Chicago, and was graduated at nineteen from a leading women’s college. The family moved from the Midwest to New England when I entered college. They wanted to cushion life for me, to make everything as soft and pleasant as possible.
During senior year I fell in love with a boy from Tech and became engaged. Getting married seemed like fun, and the family raised no objections. Tom is four years older than I am , and for all he has been through, a good person, I guess. At least he tried to help me. And if, in the process, he was pretty badly hurt himself, that is my fault. I will tell you more about Tom later.
We were married in August in Trinity Church, and had a reception afterward at the Copley Plaza Hotel, where the guests toasted us in grape juice. We went to Bermuda on our honeymoon, and although there were a dozen brides on the boat, my clothes were the prettiest, my bathing suits the smartest, and my evening dresses the most stunning. Our wedding trip was a gift from the family. Dad had cabled that every attention be paid us, and our suite was fragrant with roses and lilies. The orchestra played our favorite tunes. The wine steward brought champagne to our table.
“I suppose,” said Tom, “we should drink it. But you know Ann, I think the stuff is terribly over-rated.”
“So do I,” I said. “It tickles my nose.” And we told the steward not to bring any more.
Tom had a chemist’s job with an engineering firm in the Midwest. He had wanted to take an apartment in the city, but my family was moving back to the suburb in which I had grown up, and I persuaded Tom to commute. He had enough money (a tiny legacy) to furnish the little flat of his dreams. But I wanted a house. I argued that Tom should spend what he could, and let my family do the rest-and, as usual, I had my way.
We lived fourteen blocks from the family, and every day Mother and I had luncheon together. Her bridge group took me up, and I joined the Woman’s Club. They thought I was “cute,” and called me the Child Bride. Looking back I know how thoroughly they spoiled me- Mother and Dad and their friends-and how tragic it was. For nearly two years I lived in this over-protective, loving atmosphere.
Then Tom was transferred. Our next home was in a fashionable suburb of New York. Mother helped us get settled, and at first I thought New York was going to be fun. But when Mother went back to Illinois and I had the whole day to myself, I soon changed my mind. In the mornings I dove Tom to the station. Then there was nothing to do until he came home.
Nobody came to call, and I did not know how to make friends. Sometimes at the Shopping Center women nodded and smiled, but the ability to respond seemed frozen within me, and I turned stiffly away.
“If people don’t want to be friendly, so what? I demanded. “I can get along all right.”
“But maybe they do. All you do is mope,” complained Tom. “Why don’t you get interested in something?”
“Because I don’t want to. For goodness sake leave me alone!”
It was my fault and we began to grow apart. When I continued to rebuff him, Tom literally left me alone.
Loneliness is the root of most misery, and salvation lies in work and service. Years later I was to pray, “For work to do and strength to do the work, I thank Thee, Lord.” But in those days I was too filled with self-pity to get a good look at myself. My husband did not understand me, I thought, my parents neglected me. Life was horrible, and it was everybody’s fault but mine.
Reviewing my life, I realize now how completely I have always conformed to the alcoholic pattern. Medical studies tell us that most alcoholics are emotionally immature, and that many are spoiled, touchy by nature, and tormented by loneliness.
Tom had been drinking for about eighteen months before I got started, but Tom is no alcoholic. He can “take it or leave it.” Competition at the plant was terrific, and he had to make good or be fired. He was frightened, he felt bad about being transplanted, and he was lonely, too.
He joined a golf club and did most of his drinking at the nineteenth hole. Once in a while he brought someone home. If I had one or two drinks with them-swell, as Tom would say. If I didn’t-okay.
Then one night two of the men had their wives with them, and for the first time in months Tom seemed glad to have me around. After a few drinks we made some sandwiches, and before long the boys were harmonizing. Our guests stayed until midnight, and we all agreed that it was a wonderful evening.
“Honey,” said Tom as we were going to bed, “you took to those high balls like a duck to water.”
“It was the first good time I’ve had out here,” I defended myself. “You’ve been drinking for ages, Tom, and now I’m going to catch up.”
I didn’t though-not that summer. Tom’s laboratory moved to Long Island, and I never saw those women again.
We rented a house halfway between a church and a golf club. This time, I thought, we’ll join the church and I’ll also take up golf. On several consecutive Sundays we attended service. A number of people said how-do-you-do, and a few tried to make conversation, but Tom was uncommonly uncommunicative, and I was too shy to respond. Although I love having people around me, I cannot reach out for them. Soon I was to discover that liquor bolstered my opinion of myself and made it easier for me to respond to friendly overtures.
It was the woman across the street who taught me how to drink. May Eldredge was a complete extrovert, energetic and capable-and with true kind-heartedness she took us under her wing. On Fridays, she told us, the crowd usually had a party. They were meeting at her house for cocktails, then going to Smith’s for dinner. If we’d like to go, maybe I would give her a hand with hors’d oeuvre?
Would I! I went over in mid-afternoon, and May and I made dozens of canapés of cheese and chicken paste. We also slipped bits of lobster into squares of puff pastry, and rolled ripe olives in strips of bacon. While I buttered rounds of toast, May mixed martinis.
“We might as well get off to a good start,” she said.
By the time the guests came, May and I were pretty high. It was a happy crowd, and by the time I had downed my sixth or seventh cocktail I thought they were the nicest people I had ever known. The party lasted until almost dawn, and the next night we were at it again.
May telephoned Saturday afternoon.
“There’s a pint left from last night,” she said. “Come over and we’ll have a ‘pick-me-up.’”
I was feeling pretty rocky, but a couple of whisky sours made me feel better and by the time the gang had assembled, May and I were on top of the world. When the party broke up, Tom and I asked everyone to our house for Sunday supper.
After that, life was just one party after another. On Monday I would awake with a throbbing head and a horrible taste in my mouth, but a “hair of the dog that bit me,” provided the stimulant I needed. In the afternoon May and I usually had cocktails, or a quickie or two before the boys came home.
May was a robust soul, and when there were community parties she did more than her share. In the beginning I did, too. I’d roast a chicken or make a bowl of salad. But liquor was beginning to get me, and before long I began reneging. When I was supposed to make spaghetti, I would show up with a few cans of Spam. Once when I promised hamburgers, I went empty-handed.
It was rather amusing the first few times, but soon my irresponsibility became plain stupidity, and I got to be a nuisance.
“I don’t know why you want to go to parties,” Tom said. “You’re always getting sick, or going home to sleep.”
Other people must have wondered the same thing, because we were not invited around as much as we used to be. Having a guest addicted to passing out is no fun, and even May grew tired of taking care of me. Then I started drinking nights at home. When Tom complained that I was ruining my health, I told him to mind his own business. Father had continued giving me my allowance and that made me unbearably cocky.
“It’s my health, isn’t it? And my money, too.” I added maliciously.
Finally Tom wrote to my parents. But before they had a chance to answer I wrote, too. Tom did not love me anymore, I said. Everything I did was wrong. He nagged me because I was not strong enough to do the housework. I was sick and tired, and he hated me because I was losing my looks. Poor Tom…
“It’s tough,” he’d said, “for a man to see the girl he loves looking like the devil because she won’t stop drinking. Everything I’ve loved about you you’re losing. For heavens sake, pull yourself together, Ann. Get your hair and nails done. Buy some new clothes. Get the house straightened out, and see if we can’t have some fun being normal for a change.”
When I became unmanageable, Tom poured all the liquor in the house down the sink. When I ordered more, he smashed the bottles.
Finally the family came to take me home. Father blamed everything on Tom.
“The poor child is sick,” Mother said. “What she needs is a nice little holiday.”
They took me to Canada, and-because I was not crossed or annoyed or bored, because everything was taken care of, and I had nothing to do but enjoy myself-I stopped drinking for awhile. But when I went home I started again, I spent three whole days, that first week, in a movie house, trying to stave off temptation. The old discontent and loneliness had returned. I was irritable and touchy, and Tom was not helping matters.
If I was going to drink, he would take charge of things he said. Then he began doling out a meager allowance to me-a single drink before dinner, for an appetizer. Another at bedtime, to make me sleep. Liquor that I had bought and paid for! I was furious. That was when I began hiding bottles around the house-under the mattress, behind pictures, in with the potatoes. Tom guessed what I was up to, and the night he caught me sneaking a drink he dashed the bottle out of my hand.
The next day I went home to the family. That time they took me to the Coast. And again I stopped drinking. They were both convinced then that everything was Tom’s fault.
“Don’t let him get anything on you, Honey,” Dad would say. “Just watch your step. We’ll get you a quiet divorce, and you’ll come and live with us.”
I had decency enough to protest occasionally that it wasn’t Tom’s fault, and by the time the trip was over I really wanted to go back to him.
Dad’s attitude illustrates a point I would like to make. It isn’t people who drive us to drink, and it isn’t situations. Alcoholism is a disease, not a weakness. And it is not brought on by incompatibility any more than cancer is, or heart trouble. As a matter of fact, I really loved Tom. It was loneliness that was my bete noire.
I have known men who abandoned their families because they thought their wives drove them to drink, and women who divorced their husbands because they imagined that divorce and a nice juicy alimony would solve their troubles, and they would stop drinking. Boys have left home to escape tyrannical parents, and girls have quit jobs they disliked, because they fancied these were the things that made me drink. For a while the escapists might go on the wagon. But in the long run, for a true alcoholic, there is no reformation.
An alcoholic will always find an excuse to drink, and if it isn’t one thing it’s another. Changing situations is not the only way out. The only way for an alcoholic to stop drinking is to STOP-period.
Many AA’s who previously blamed their drinking on family circumstances or unsupportable jobs are now living in exactly the same situations in which they lived when they were drinking themselves to death. The only answer to the alcoholic’s problem is to change himself.
All alcoholics are maladjusted and unpleasant situations undoubtedly contribute to their maladjustment. But alibis won’t mend matters, and when dad sought to place the blame for my drinking on Tom, I knew that he was being unfair. It wasn’t Tom’s fault-and it wasn’t mine. I was the victim of a dread disease, but at the time none of us knew that.
I realize now that my loving parents pampered me beyond reason. I was dependent upon them, upon my husband, and upon what friends I could make. I had no inner resources and no interests. Loneliness was the beginning, and because in my loneliness I had nothing to fall back upon, I was bereft. I had always been hypersensitive and shy. Because of my inability to accept life, or remold it, I needed a prop to brace me up and keep me going.
Alcohol was that prop, and although I could go on the wagon for a while, I didn’t see how-day in and day out-I could live without liquor. Only an alcoholic can understand the prison of loneliness and fear into which we lonely people retreat over a fancied slight or hurt.
In the midst of a crowd we are pitifully lonely. Sometimes, lying beside Tom at night, I seemed to drown in a black abyss of desolation. Then I would slip out of the bed and tiptoe across the room to the closet, to pour the drink that would bring oblivion.
Finally relations between us reached a breaking point. Tom never brought people home anymore, and I had become a solitary drinker. One night when he had destroyed all the liquor he could find, I remembered a quart I had cached in the coal bin. In the morning as soon as he left the house I crept down to the cellar, retrieved my precious bottle, and was clambering out of the bin when I stumbled. As I fell I hit my head and knocked myself out.
Tom telephoned at noon. When I didn’t answer he became alarmed and hurried home. He found me in the coal bin, carried me upstairs, bathed me, and put me to bed. When I came to and wept in maudlin fashion, Tom struck me in the face. Then he telephoned Mother. She arrived during the night.
“Poor baby,” she murmured, as she bathed my discolored face and slipped bits of ice between my swollen lips. ”What can I do for you, darling?”
“Leave me alone,” I moaned. “I want to die.”
There was a family conference, and the next day Mother and I flew home to Dad. For several days I was desperately ill.
“Ann,” said Mother one morning, “Aren’t you sorry you and Tom didn’t have a baby?”
I was too sick to speculate. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s too late now. I’ll never live with Tom again.”
A few days later a big box came from Marshall Field’s. In it was a complete layette-little shirts and booties and tinny dresses with wee tucks, sweaters and bonnets, and baby blankets. Why I cried I don’t know-weakness perhaps.
“Dad and I have arranged to take a baby from the Foundling Home,” announced Mother. “We’re just borrowing her, really. We thought you’d help us take care of her-a little girl, Ann.”
I didn’t want a baby any more than I wanted wings.
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’d love to, Mother.”
Mother patted my hand hopefully. “Then you be a good girl,” she said, “and hurry up and get well.”
My nerves were completely shot. I had the shakes so bad that I could not life a glass to my lips. I took fruit juice through a tube, and even fruit juice nauseated me.
Before I was up, the baby arrived. Mother brought her to my bed, and when that baby held out her little arms, I felt for the first time that I had something to live for.
I tried to give up drinking for Christine’s sake, and for Mother’s sake I tried to go to church on Sundays. But it wasn’t any use. I had neither the moral nor the physical strength to do what I wanted to do. Every morning I would crawl into the bathroom and pour myself half a glass of whiskey from a bottle I kept hidden in the hamper, after which I would brush my teeth, gargle, chew a piece of gum, and smoke a cigarette.
An alcoholic can almost always get liquor. I bullied Tom into bringing me a quart, and bribed the cook for another. The doctor had ordered some for medicinal purposes. I hid it and pretended the bottle had broken. I was seldom, during my career as an alcoholic, without liquor. To get it, I wept, lied, and threw mad tantrums-but I got it.
Finally I became better. An alcoholic usually does after illness. For a while I even went on the wagon. That was when Mother, in an effort to save my marriage, suggested that I take Christine and go back to Tom.
For six weeks after I went home I didn’t take a drink (this is usual after illness), and everything was fine. Tom fell in love with Christine as soon as he saw her. If she had been our own little girl, it would have been impossible for either of us to love her more. Everybody loved the child including the Eldredges-and May took to coming to the house again. While Christine was having her afternoon nap, we would have a few drinks. And before long I was up to my old tricks.
For years Tom had tried to make me stop drinking, and succeed only in rubbing me the wrong way. He did not know that alcoholism is a disease; that an alcoholic is a very sick person who cannot be reasoned with. Nagging, of course, is worse than useless. Indeed the first tenet of AA is that no one can make an alcoholic stop drinking.
When I was first told that I was an alcoholic I was horrified. It was a woman from the adoption agency who told me. Mother realized that if anyone could straighten me out it was Christine. She suggested we adopt the child but adoption is a long drawn-out process.
When the woman assigned to investigate us came to the house, I went through the customary routine of gargle, gum and cigarette-and imagined that I had acquitted myself satisfactorily. Tom and I were college graduates. Our joint income was more than $15,000 a year. We had an attractive home, and were obviously devoted to the baby we wished to adopt. That, it seemed to me was enough to make us good parents. But the adoption agency thought otherwise.
“Mrs. C------“ the report read, “although an intelligent and somewhat charming person is unfit to be awarded legal custody of a child.”
Outraged, we appealed to the courts. A stern judge heard our story.
“The social worker,” I told him earnestly, “came to my house in the afternoon after I’d had a few cocktails. Another time she came in the evening. I admit, Your Honor, that I had been drinking-a highball or two. Sometimes she came in the morning. She saw me bath and feed the baby. She knows that the child is well-cared for-that my husband and I adore her. But that woman has accused me of being an alcoholic. Why, Your Honor, I hate the taste of liquor! I drink because I am lonely and miserable, because it is the only way I can keep going. When we adopt Christine, things will be different. When she is my own…”
The judge rustled the papers of a voluminous report. “Adoption denied,” he said.
Tom says I fainted. All I remember is a feeling of desolation-of utter, terrible loneliness-a feeling of being caged. When I came to, I was in a hospital and all around me was loneliness.
Tom had taken me home and called a doctor. Then he went to a drugstore for medicine. While he was gone, I partially recovered my senses, and found a bottle of liquor. Before he came back I had finished it and passed out. They took me to the hospital in an ambulance. For days I was horribly sick, and underneath and on top of the nausea were waves of loneliness that washed over me like the sea.
One day a woman came and sat by my bed. If I really wanted to stop drinking I could, she said. There was an answer to my problem. There was a remedy that really worked. She was a graduate nurse, she said. Awhile ago she had married and had children. Then she started to drink. For fifteen years she drank. She lost her husband, her children and her home. They put her in an institution, and there, at last, she found the remedy. I could find it too, she said. And if I wished, she would help me. Day after day she came and sat by my bed.
Later I was to learn that my doctor had sent for her. At many hospitals where alcoholics are taken to “dry out” a physician or clergyman contacts a member of AA to talk to remorseful patients.
At first I only listened half-heartedly. By and by, I talked a little to her. God had forsaken me, I wept. He had taken away my baby.
“But you are completely out of touch with God,” she said. “You have done things of your own weakness opposed to God’s holy will.”
She said that I must submit my weak will to God, and let Him handle my difficulties. God’s law was the Law of Love, she explained, and all my resentful feelings were unconscious disobedience to that law. As I grew stronger, she brought a lawyer who had been a heavy drinker, and he, too, sat by my bad and talked. And the things he said made sense.
“Drinking never solves a problem-it only makes matters worse.” I thought of Christine, and tears rolled down my cheeks. “Alcoholics are allergic to drink as other people are allergic to certain foods, to dust, or flowers. There isn’t any cure for an alcoholic, except just stopping.”
When I was stronger I went, for a little while, to live with the nurse. She had several friends who were alcoholics, and they came often to call. After I went home, feeling much stronger, she asked if I would go to the hospital to visit other alcoholics as she had visited me. The first time I went, I was filled with the old shyness that furnished the “reason” for my first drinking. But the sight of every new alcoholic was an object lesson, and I soon enjoyed going. My visits served a dual purpose-by helping others I was helping myself.
“You must want to quit,” my new friends told me, “because God never forces anyone to do His will. His help is available, but must be sought in earnestness and humility.”
I soon found that by placing my life in God’s hands every day, and asking Him to help me to be a sober woman for twenty-four hours, I was able to do His will. God is all-loving and all-forgiving, and I know that he will not let me down. I know that I cannot cure myself, and that doctors cannot cure me, that my strength must come from God, and that without Him, I am helpless and alone.
There are no secrets about AA, and we are not an overly religious group. We are happy because we have found friends who understand us. No one but an alcoholic can really understand an alcoholic. Clergymen are often censorious, loving women weep and nag, men curse their brothers out-but we who have been through the mill understand one another.
A member of AA wrote a little verse called “About Love” that was read at one of our recent meetings. AA’s laughed when they heard it-but it’s the truth:
The wonderful love of a beautiful maid,
The love of a staunch true man,
And the love of a baby afraid
Have existed since life began.
But the greatest love-the love of loves-
Even greater than that of a mother,
Is he tender, passionate, infinite love
Of one drunken bum for another.
On August 14th I will be 35 years old, and on that day Tom has promised to go with me to the Judge who said we could not have Christine. I want to tell him how my honest attempt to practice a law of love has cleansed me.
I will say, “Your Honor, I am no longer weak and lonely, but fit now to be a mother to the baby I love.” And the Judge, I hope, we give me Christine for my own.
If you know someone who honestly wants to conquer the liquor habit, tell him-or her-about Alcoholics Anonymous, P.O. Box 459, Grand Central Annex, New York, N.Y
(Source: True Confessions, July 1945)