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CRITIC, Vol. 43, No. 3, Spring, 1989
Name is Bill H.
And I Am a Member of the CIA
acronym for Catholic, Irish, and alcoholic, CIA, brings
instant recognition and support for those of us gaining
through the grace of God and the fellowship of Alcoholics
Anonymous. We have the "Irish virus." I've heard
it called the
"Murphia." Others say that if you removed us from
the ranks of A.A.
- now numbering about one million in the United States alone
meeting could be held in a phone booth.
was a quid pro quo relationship between my drinking and
the way I used the Catholic Church and its sacraments almost
the beginning. One hand washed the other. Drinking helped
over sex I felt as a Catholic. Confession helped me confess
"sin" of excessive drinking when it became symptomatic.
both lost their allure for me. But by then it was too late.
was physically addicted to alcohol and continued to receive
the sacraments merely out of rote obedience and an immature
compliant personality. In my mid-thirties, drinking was
no longer a
matter of choice. At the same time, long since away from
influence, I could no longer honestly accept the church's
and, especially, its dogmas. I continued to attend solely
out of my
Irish inbread sense of loyalty to "one's own kind"
and a real fear
of external damnation.
was my pattern for years as the ecstasy I received from
alcohol and the church became twin sources of agony. The
alcohol was a disease in a very real medical sense. I was
against my will. Catholicism became a disease in its simplist
sense. A source of discomfort; or disease. Today, after
years of sobriety and fourteen years of professional counseling
other CIA's, I can look back with some perspective.
took about thirty-seven years of drinking for alcohol to
become the "rapacious creditor," as A.A. describes
it. For me, "it
gaveth, then it taketh away." My dues for becoming
a member of the
CIA add up to the loss of a good wife, five children, a
my spiritual, religious and moral values, financial bankruptcy
in the end, a rendezvous with suicide.
is no blame attached on my part for either the Catholic
Church, my Irish background, or even alcohol itself. I am
anti-Catholic nor a moral crusader against the demon rum.
Alcoholism ran in my father's family. It is genetic. My
"processed" alcohol the way it does in four out
of five drinkers.
Therefore, it is a "no-fault" disease.
I am a "cradle Catholic," I was never exposed
alternatives until I was an adult. Bu then I was hooked
rituals and had developed a tunnel vision which did not
other means to salvation. I have had a "Catholic personality"
at least half of my life. I never had an "alcoholic
until I had been drinking a fifth a day for years. Research
long since demolished the myth of the "pre-alcoholic"
The alcoholic develops a damaged personality because of
too much too long. It is not the other way around. When
that, a great load was lifted from my back.
for the Irish part of the CIA trinity, I am proud of my
ancestry but I feel I must keep the American part of it
place; I contain it, like John Foster Dulles did with communism
the fidties. I have always had an allergy to the Pat O'Brien
of Irishman portrayed in fiction. Too many of them exist
life. I grew up in Bridgeport, an area where Irish drunks
was born in Chicago shortly after Prohibition began, the
youngest in a loving, well-disciplined and structured family
four boys and two girls. One of my father's brothers died
alcoholism in his thirties. But there was heavy drinking
uncles on both sides. My mother and father, my greatest
models, were social drinkers and moderate in every other
their lives. To this day they lead in my prayers of thanksgiving.
once in my memory did my parents ever lose control of
their lives, have temper tantrums or resort to physical
vile language. That may account for the fact that I have
my feelings all my life. Mother and dad wouldn't like it!
the same reason, I did not openly stop receiving the sacraments
until they were long gone. For this reason I was a very
hard nut to
crack in group therapy. On the surface, everything was always
of us were not the "emotional" type, though I
older brother who would often release the lid on his temper.
minutes, he was "normal" again, never holding
a grudge. I formed
the opposite temperment, which may explain why I went to
different alcoholism treatment centers before I thought
behavior was "OK" for me.
most leavening characteristic I inherited from the family
genes was humor. It kept us all in our "place;"
there was no room
for ego enlargement. It still prevents me from taking myself
seriously, a deadly trait for an alcoholism counselor to
of his family drinking rotgut in speakeasies, my dad
posted a reward of a hundred dollars or a gold watch for
any of his
children who could abstain until the age of twenty-one -
were on their own. My oldest brother walked off with it.
I was far
too young and too far removed to be tempted. When Prohibition
repealed, dad as the family role model again urged moderation.
was raised in a ghetto-like environment, rarely meeting
people of other faiths, color or origin. The church still
somewhat defensive "them or us" posture about
the rest of the
world. Communism was the favorite bogeyman. Some of us might
be asked some day to "stand up for our faith"
and reach heaven via
martyrdom before a firing squad! Priests and nuns were doing
that in Mexico. Secularism and "modernism" were
the chief heresies.
One had to get a note from the parish priest to swim at
brother and I got the full treatment of sixteen years of
Catholic education. Three of us survived the rigors of the
"Ratio Studiorum." It was a totally male orientation
for me, right
through college. In grammer school their favourite "punishment"
to send us to the other building to "sit with the girls."
were no girls within sight in prep school or college.
first twelve years of school were undistinguished for
scholastic achievement or extracurricular activities. I
tour of duty as an alter boy but was drummed out of the
in a formal courtmartial for minor criminal activities.
By the time
I had reached the Jesuit prep school from which I eventually
graduated, I was more noted for a lack of charisma and a
for organized activities than for anything else. The senior
yearbook summed me up in one charitable sentence: "Still
deep." In fact, they ran no deeper than pubescent fantasies
the contours of the current stripper appearing at a local
such "immediate occasions of sin" ended up in
"heinous crime of self-pollution," as the Jesuits
called it, I ran
the risk of "insanity and death" in that order,
followed by eternal
punishment. Thus began a pattern of guilt over sex. When
discovered a cure for this in alcohol, I eventually had
both as forms of "self-indulgence"! Confession
and drinking served
dual purposes in "solving" sex and alcohol - the
twin ogres of my
life - for a long time before I was forced to seek other
first drink at age fifteen was more than the usual rite
passage young men experience. The event was every bit as
as my First Holy Communion and just as spiritual, mystical,
magical in its effect on me. Both substances truly enlarged
life. Now I knew why alcohol was called spirits, from the
spiritus. Social drinkers, if they remember their first
all, do not describe it as a sacramental experience.
made another discovery on that day which I regarded as a
great gift. It was my tolerance for alcohol. I had gulped
stiff old fashioneds at my brother's swank wedding. Instead
performing its usual function as a central nervous system
depressant, it actually served as a stimulant when it surged
through my body. This alcoholic symptom, high tolerance,
me right from the beginning. The guarded feeling I had about
the need to keep it under control at all times, was another
had been an avid reader since learning the alphabet and
devoured all the literature I could get my hands on. Most
heroes were "heroic" drinkers - in sports as well
as in literature
- men who were as noted for their drinking feats as they
turning out great stories or breaking batting records.
I also developed a precocious interest in
alcoholism and its current "cures." Men of my
including his alcoholic brother, had taken the "Keeley
downstate, a dry-out farm where the alcoholic could not
simultaneously downed huge doses of health food and strange
of one sort or another. Wealthier people went to psychiatrists
immedately wanted to find out "why" they drank
so much. A drunken,
gap-toothed cockney I met in an East End bar in London once
answered the same question for me in a very succinct way:
because I'm a bleed'n alcoholic, that's why." It took
and psychiatric professions many years to come to that same
later as a Jesuit college student under the GI Bill, I
wrote a paper for a psychology course on the "Causes
of Alcoholism." In 1945, psychologists were still determined
find out why some people drank to the point of self-destruction.
What was the "cause" of alcoholism? Latent homosexuality
gratification ranked neck and neck for the honor. The American
Medical Association did not list alcoholism among its primary
diseases until the mid-1950s.
prep school the Jesuits left me to my own devices in the
pre-war non-Catholic world of Chicago with all its "occasions
sin." There was more to follow during a fifty-month
stretch in the
Navy. I was still limiting the alcohol to "patriotic"
Occasionally, I played the role of the drunken sailor when
thought it appropriate. Previously, the only other time
deliberately got drunk was at my senior class "beer
finished college in less than three years and decided to
follow the same career as an older brother, journalism and
free-lance writing. It was many years before my drinking
directly with these goals. They were the last to go. This
fairly typical pattern of the male species of CIA.
was now away from the womb of a totally Catholic environment
and the influence of my family. I was an atypical CIA in
department. There were no apron strings around me. I had
taste of the secular world by now and liked its freedom.
about church claims had crept in but I brushed them aside.
settled down in Washington, D.C., an area of the Mysterious
in the U.S. peopled by a more liberal brand of Catholicism
had been accustomed to. Congressman Gene McCarthy, the "other"
McCarthy, in the nation's capital at that time, carried
for Commonweal Catholics like myself. I found survival as
Catholic more palatable now. Happily employed as a journalist,
had begun to enjoy moderate success selling an occasional
1950, following St. Paul's advice to Catholics of my ilk,
had married my kind - college-bred, liberal and "literary,"
raring to fight social injustice on all fronts. Fortunately,
was also very attractive and enjoyed a drink. The poor woman
unaware that the first symptom of my physical addiction
had reared its ugly head on our wedding day.
started the morning with the shakes - a "first."
It was the
end of a night of revelry with a bachelor brother. We were
under the strict midnight fast rules. But the end justifies
means in situational ethics of this type, so the Jusuits
I went ahead and downed my very first "hair of the
dilemma I faced would have delighted novelist Graham
Greene. The risk of scandal dictated that I receive Holy
with my bride. What horrible thoughts would have crossed
of her family and mine had I not. It was not a "viable
we say in the eighties. The price of this decision to a
scrupulosity was incalculable. A disaster thinker from birth,
reasoned that a priest hearing this in confession would
detect it as a symptom of alcoholism and send me to treatment
instead of "forgiving" me, or declare my marriage
invalid and have
it annulled. My decision to go or not go to confession over
monumental sin was put off for the rest of my life. Fortunately
me, I did not have to worry about external damnation. I
nailed down "dying in the state of grace" by having
"Nine First Fridays" twice - and back to back!
years and two children later, Louise awoke me one morning
- I was the overnight rewrite man at the Washington Times-Herald
- to tell me that the paper had folded. Our prayers for
a better job
with more money were answered shortly, or so we thought.
since learned as an A.A., to pray only for what I need -
even if I
don't know what that is - rather than what I want.
I got was exactly what I didn't need as a budding
alcoholic - a job in public relations in "The Big Apple"
unlimited expense account. My nineteen-year pursuit of intoxication
and addiction to alcohol had begun. I held the position
publicity director for three of the largest publishing companies
the world, one after the other, without ever being fired
loss of a good wife and five children, meanwhile, was not
enough to stop me. The more I drank, regardless of the undeniable
(except for me) symptoms of alcoholism, the more promotions
received and the more money I made. This is called "falling
upstairs." Many of us experience it, especially if
our job means
more to us as a symbol of ego nourishment and self-esteem
wife and children. Until I got sober, what I did was much
important than who I was.
in New York, moving from place to place almost every
two years, and producing reasonable facsimiles of ourselves
at the same rate via the "safe Vatican Roulette"
so-called birth control (rhythm) put a strain on the marriage.
home I began to use alcohol as a second means of "Irish"
control. Outside of that, everything about our marriage
disagreed and eventually solved my marriage problem in
on stroke - she divorced me. What led to this rational decision
her part to take to the lifeboat before the ship went down
story of the progression of physical addiction. The reputation
alcoholics have as "con men" before our first
drink. I wasn't. But
by the mid-1950s I needed "permission" to continue
drinking so bad
that I had unknowingly surrounded myself with a "bodyguard
to protect myself from the unspeakable truth that I was
against my will.
as I had at one time, Louise understood alcoholism well
- she was an avid reader on the subject by then - but,
understandably, only on an intellectual level. She did not
me for being an alcoholic. She divorced me for not doing
about it after repeated confrontations. I could not dare
that then. I spent all my energy - which included working
Saturdays and selling articles - to "prove" that
I had a
"different" kind of alcoholism. I was certainly
not your "average"
drunk, losing jobs, beating up the wife and kids, being
to jail by the cops, etc.
back over the marriage/divorce part of this CIA story
may shed some light on how I managed my life then as a
hell-for-leather Catholic and full-blown alcoholic. I was
"gamma" type of drunk, characterized chiefly by
a slow but steady
progression. The pattern of daily drinking, no binging,
"fights" about alcoholism, no staying home with
a hangover, no
embarrassing displays at parties or in the presence of coworkers.
my image as a man who could hold his liquor became
as vital to me as breathing and eating. Sex faded into the
background. I clung to my facade as the perfect husband
I was a good Catholic too, insisting that my children attend
and go to parochial school.
had dropped out of church by this time so I slipped
into the mantle of the hero Catholic keeping the faith.
saints, the North American Martyrs, had nothing on this
the beginning of the marriage, when I saw that Louise
could not maintain my drinking pace with the decorum a good
Catholic husband expects of his wife - the mother of his
children! - I went underground with some of my drinking
by storing half-pints
at strategic locations around the apartment. It didn't last.
takes a creative person to explain the presence of a half-pint
vodka in his rolled-up socks. It worked, but not for long.
glad when we started renting houses in Westchester County.
thanked God every day for the rafters in the basement.
confrontations had begun and they were filled with the
ironies and the paradoxes that go with trying to be a good
and a practicing alcoholic simultaneously. One morning my
conscience got the better of me and I confessed to Louise
near-miss, a sexual encounter as they would call it today,
girl at a drinking business party. It showed how honest
board I was with her!
stunned me with the casual but straightforward reply that
she wasn't worried about her Catholic husband committing
What had bothered her for some time was my drinking and
to do anything about it. She could not have known that alcoholism
ranked way below adultery in my hierarchy of values. But
drinking was still a moral problem with me. It had to be.
could I be forgiven for it in confession?
growing dilemma called for caution in the confessional.
Once I went too far and the priest sentenced me to quit
days as a condition of ego te absolvo. I never went back
Nor did I return to the priest who told me my drinking was
symptom of a disease and not a matter of confession. "Go
treatment," he said, and slammed the window shut in
my face. Such
embarrassment always called for a drink to blot out my "Catch
the late fifties and early sixties, I was maintaining
an average intake of a fifth of vodka a day along with the
amphetamine, Dexedrine. It speeds up one's metabolism,
counteracting the slowing-down action of its opposite drug,
ethanol. I could work like a trooper right through lunch
disdaining to drink with the three other members of our
who were also alcoholics. Louise always had a few Dexedrines
the house, prescribed by her obstetrician. It keeps pregnant
from eating too much. It helped in that department with
too, a paunch is regarded as another symptom of alcoholism.
I made sure that I was "not that bad an alcoholic"
with some very concrete examples for my wife to ponder.
researching a feature article on alcoholism for Sign magazine,
spent a day at the Mt. Carmel Treatment Center across the
Patterson, New Jersey, with some skid-row type alcoholics
sight of such down-and-out human wrecks only reinforced
conviction that I still had things under control. When it
published I brought home a copy to Louise and showed her
"real" alcoholics look and act like. Most of them
had long since
lost wife, family, children, self-respect and careers. They
left with no more than the clothes on their backs. Louise
and shook her head sadly as I sipped a Scotch and reminded
lucky she was to have a husband who could control his drinking.
1972, I was in the same condition as the Mt. Carmel alcoholics
in much the same kind of facility.
went all out to maintain my facade as a "good Catholic"
"good drinker" right up and through the divorce.
By this time we
were in Chicago and I held the position of publicity director
a even more prestigious international publisher. I was also
surrounded by family enablers in my brothers, sisters (one
and my eighty-ish mother, none of whom had ever found one
hidden bottles. An alcoholic needs enablers to keep drinking,
people who will confirm his reputation as a controlled drinker
a good father and husband. No wife was going to accuse their
brother of child abuse or wife-abuse! How could I then know
knew twenty-years later; that the marks of alcoholism left
children are invisible and don't go away easily.
made every effort to make the divorce as cosmetic as
possible by insisting on an annulment with a clause mandating
parochial education for the children - now numbering five
- at my
expense. This added another halo over my head. I know today
the "Big Book," Alcoholics Anonymous, describes
the true alcoholic
personality as "self-will run riot."
divorce was finalized and I moved into my own apartment.
Within a few years Louise remarried an old friend and moved
to New York to take up residence with him and their children
marriages. He was, of course, a CIA like her ex-husband.
lost his sobriety and she also divorced him. Eventually,
regained it and went into alcoholism counseling as I did.
1980s all three principals in this little soap opera had
friends, thanks to the healing properties of A.A.
in Chicago things began to close in on me. Child support
arrearage, unpaid income tax levies, and increased impatience
the company's part at my wage assessments and a federal
tightening the noose. Add to these my oldest son's drug
addiction - I was getting calls about him from every precinct
in the city - and
you have more "reasons" for the alcoholic to go
on drinking. A
broken hip from a nonalcohol-related accident rounded out
picture of myself I wanted everyone to see; a harassed,
father of five with a druggie son struggling to get to the
on crutches. There is another acronym in A.A., it is PLOM
stands for "Poor, Little Old Me." I had all the
it in my sick alcoholic mind.
I was in the reverse tolerance stage of the
disease; it took only a pint to achieve the same effect
as a fifth
once did. I had thrown away my amphetamines on the advice
drug-addicted, alcoholic seventeen-year-old son who discovered
in my coat pocket. He shamed me with: "DO you want
to wind up a
dope-fiend like me, Dad?" They too had reversed their
me. Nothing was working any more.
was fired from my second publicity job. The controller got
tired of sending my checks to my debtors. Once again, I
rousing letter of recommendation and the best wishes of
with no mention of John Barleycorn. I had lost my previous
natural attrition. When sales go down, public relations
advertising people are the first to go. We are an expendable
which accounts for much of the enabling in the business.
dares bum rap another when it comes time to go; it's the
for the grace of God go I" syndrome.
held the same position with another firm, but that fell
through in a year. This time it was nepotism. It didn't
since by this time, alcohol was eating into my job habits.
longer had the energy to turn out the simplest of press
with the same old enthusiasm.
brief job with the Department of Public Aid turned into
alcoholic fiasco which ended up with me at the Chicago Alcoholic
Treatment Center, a drunk tank for indigents. This, compounded
diagnosed case of alcoholic cirrhosis, sent my handwringing
to Al-Anon and Open A.A. (public) meetings for education.
learned fast. My older sister, a B.V.M. nun for forty
years, confronted me with the blunt information that I was
the church" to drink on. I would be the first to open
up a liquor
Store after early morning mass. Her logic, though it escaped
a practicing addict, was sound enough. She suggested A.A.
of mass. "You wouldn't see a priest for a toothache,
You'd get to the nearest dentist as fast as you could."
with that was that, despite completing a treatment program,
hadn't reached bottom yet. Mass made me feel better than
they didn't seem to understand alcoholism the way I did.
had ever written about it or published anything on the subject?
other sister was more direct. She drove me directly to skid
row on the theory that she could "hurry" or "raise"
out by saving me the trouble of drinking myself there. The
place I stopped at was the Cathedral Shelter, run by Episcopalians.
I summarily dismissed it as inappropriate and went down
to Catholic Charities. Since they had no bed I wound up
Salvation Army. It may have been Protestant but at least
nondenominational! They let me in. Telling them I was a
Catholic didn't work.
major in charge, impressed by my knowledge of alcoholism,
promptly put me in a supervisory position, where I could
eye" on those alcoholics who worked in the Red Shield
bore the title of Stores Manager, stayed six months without
drinking, and left thankful to God that I wasn't a "real"
bum. I know now I was on a "dry drunk" - abstinence
does not equal
sobriety. Incidentally, the major let me out of chapel -
and brimstone lectures - so that I could go to daily mass,
condition I had made contingent on my stay there. He paid
hundred dollars a week and gave me an air-conditioned room
it off. Give an alcoholic an inch and he'll take a mile.
were other incidents which would give some alcoholics
pause in their downward spiral, but they didn't have much
me. Kicked out of my apartment for nonpayment of rent, I
a second rate hotel on Ohio and Michigan for a few days
money ran out. One bright sunny morning, Michigan Boulevard
strollers were treated to the sight of a middle-aged,
three-piece-suited man gingerly descending a hotel fire
suitcase in hand. He had six floors to go. Traffic stopped.
gapers-crowd gathered. Some cheered. A cab driver stuck
out and shouted up at me: "You'll never make it, buddy!"
the evening of February 26, 1973, in a cheap studio in East
Rogers Park, I lay across my bed weary and depressed after
binge without eating - another first. While fingering a
drew a razor blade across my left wrist. I was not drunk.
was I sober. There is a twilight zone in between wherein
flees. I had given up the ghost and put myself in the arms
Mother Church in the fastest way I knew.
I awoke in a few hours the blood had congealed and I had
nothing but a scar to show for my "heroic" efforts.
A doctor at the
VA said later I missed the artery by a hair. I call it my
on Morse Avenue" and God's way of finally getting my
There is an old Irish saying particularly apropos for CIAs
"For some people, the only way God can get their attention
a brickbat." Some gifts come in strange packages.
was my last drink. Sobriety took years more to achieve,
with the assistance of a five-month stay in a VA psych ward,
one more two-month alcoholism rehab, and ten months in a
house. I was not your "instant" alcoholic; I had
to work at it.
Likewise, I had to work hard at sobriety.
were mileposts along the way. One was the VA psych ward
experience. I was not allowed to go to the bathroom alone.
nurse attended me, pointing out that you might want to slice
wrist again. That's your business. But you're not doing
it on my
shift." It was my first sight of "tough love"
in action. I was to
use it many times as a counselor a few years later. My sisters
brothers were catching on too. None of them paid me a visit
my stay there, wisely deciding to leave me to the professionals
sense of humor helps and there's plenty of it to go around
in a VA version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On discharge,
the psychiatrist on duty sized me up with this pithy sentence:
patient is oriented in all spheres. He seems motivated to
alcoholism treatment unit and finally realizes that his
for drinking may be the cause of some of his problems."
ranked this understatement next to Hirohito's opening remarks
broadcast to his people and the world on the day he surrendered:
"The war has not necessarily gone to Japan's advantage."
took me two more months in the milieu of other patients
with "wet brains" to convince me and force my
alcoholism was my "primary" disease and not a
result of my problems
or "Catholic personality." "Wet brain"
is a euphemism for a
diagnosis of OBS, or organic brain syndrome. It is irreversible
stems from one drink too many. I'll never know how close
is not the same as acceptance which, with me, was
more intellectual than a "gut" feeling. The first
sign of recovery
was realizing that I should stay where I was and go through
alcoholism treatment again. No longer did I trust myself
independently. Just to admit that I was dependent on someone
besides myself marked a change in personality.
came during the three-month stay at the VA alcoholism
unit - without one overnight pass. A therapist pinned me
wall describing me as an "injustice collector":
"You collect little
hurts and fancies, save them up and then drink on them."
description. "Never complain, never explain. Don't
get mad. Just
keep score. You'll get even some day."
this time, although I was sure I hadn't "caught alcoholism
from a toilet seat, I was beginning to suspect that recovery
contagious. After discharge from the VA unit I entered a
halfway house for men and stayed ten months, working outside,
to A.A., and coming home at night to talk about it - openly
change. Just as I was beginning to enjoy the shelter of
environment, I was told to go out and get some "real"
was 1974. The state of Illinois was preparing a
certification system for alcoholism counselors in anticipation
new alcoholism decriminalization statute, at which time
need to open up and staff treatment facilities. I was one
first to sign up.
my old Catholic fears of the wrath of God have been
replaced by gratitude, a word used in A.A. almost as often
word God itself. I no longer, as in the Act of Contrition,
the loss of heaven and the pains of hell." I've had
as much of hell
as I think God ever intended for me, if he ever intended
any for me
to begin with.
the top of my list of things to be grateful for is the
sobriety of my son, also in A.A., who was unfortunate enough
inherit his father's alcoholic genes. He is sharing God's
with me. It is indeed prodigal; I've always had more of
it than I
also believe that God reveals himself to us only as we
reveal ourselves to each other. This comes to me out of
"theology of alcoholism." It's a discipline not
found in any