ALTHOUGH I gave myself all kinds of
rather complicated reasons, I never really drank for
any purpose except to produce a different frame of mind.
Simple enough, and yet hard to understand.
Nonetheless, about all that lay behind my alcoholism
was that single aim: to find a frame of mind more pleasant
and bearable than the troubled mental state I would
My sponsor called it "getting that
million-dollar feeling." One friend said that drinking
"was the quickest way out of Chicago." Another
believed that when he drank "the women seemed younger,
prettier and friendlier."
all three, nothing really changed except their own frame
of mind. While all believed later that they had expected
a great deal from drinking, the truth is that they had
demanded very little. They had wanted only to think
differently for a while about conditions that were otherwise
distressing. Is that really too much to ask? Not
really, and I think it's a measure of John Barleycorn's
perfidy that he couldn't grant even this much without
exacting a terrible price in humiliation and suffering.
But there is a lesson in all of this.
I discovered a long time ago that most of the self-destroying
practices of drinking could be turned to good advantage
in AA. Liabilities can become assets. We drank a day
at a time, for example, and we stay sober the same way.
We used to put alcohol ahead of everything; now we put
AA first. So it is with this desire to get instant happiness.
That can come just as it did in drinking, only now we
don't have to face the bitter aftermath. But we must
be willing to keep our demands as modest as those of
former days. We must seek a new frame of mind without
insisting on an immediate change of conditions.
"Easier said than done" might
be the bitter retort of one who is facing some trying
circumstances in his own life. It's easy enough to talk
about such things as serenity and peace of mind, but
how do you go about getting them when the whole world
is in a shambles at your feet? Fine to talk about serenity
at AA meetings, but on the way out we resume thinking
of such problems as heavy debts, poor health, nagging
wives and overbearing employers. Our chances of establishing
a better frame of mind would be much better, many think,
if our general circumstances improved.
But to believe that a congenial frame
of mind is contingent on other matters is to miss the
whole point of the thing. After all, we didn't expect
alcohol to remove our oppressive debts or reform a tyrannical
boss. At best, we sought temporary relief, and many
times we thought we had made a good bargain. We didn't
ask that our prison walls be torn down; we wanted only
a set of blinders so we couldn't see them for the time
Likewise with sober living. We would
prefer to make a beginning in better circumstances,
but we always have to start where we are--which with
some AAs has been jail, a run-down rooming house, or
skid row. Knowing that this outside world may be wretched
and hostile, we refuse to let it affect us. We tune
it out. We may be in jail, but the jail doesn't have
to be in us. We may still be in skid row, but we don't
have to keep skid-row thoughts. We can, if we choose,
temporarily ignore most of our environment.
If this sounds like escapism, it is.
But it is a form of escapism that will work wonders.
It will someday permit the alcoholic to change the things
from which he now prefers to escape, though his best
route for the time being is simply to concentrate on
getting a better frame of mind. At the proper time,
he'll then learn how to deal with the reality around
him. Besides, what chance do we have of changing conditions
if we cling to the same old depressed mental state?
By the way, there is also some evidence
that a wretched frame of mind doesn't necessarily disappear
if outer conditions change. We read occasionally of
people who strike it rich in contests, for example,
only to sink back into deeper misery a short time later.
We also read of people who destroy themselves after
winning fame and wealth. Lacking was the state of mind
that Emmet Fox described as "habitually cheerful
and happy, neither unduly elated by seeming good fortune
nor unduly depressed by temporary adversity."
One of my friends found that frame of
mind in prison. This was a horrible place where men
sometimes mutilated one another and many convicts delighted
in tormenting certain others. But through following
the Twelve Steps he found a way to keep his own mind
out of those cross currents of hate and jealousy, so
that when the gates finally opened for him, it was but
a simple matter to keep up this habit of cultivating
a pleasant frame of mind. This was also an excellent
guarantee that he would be able to meet the terms of
his parole; hence, in his case, the new state of mind
kept him from returning to the conditions that he had
once supposed to be the chief cause of his misery.
I also think a great deal of the methods
followed by AA's cofounder Bill W. during his first
year or two of sobriety. "I was not too well at
the time," he wrote, "and was plagued by waves
of self-pity and resentment. This sometimes nearly drove
me back to drink, but I soon found that when all other
measures failed, work with another alcoholic would save
the day. Many times I have gone to my old hospital in
despair. On talking to a man there, I would be amazingly
lifted up and set on my feet. It is a design for living
that works in rough going."
Nothing had changed except Bill's way
of looking at things, and even that was largely a temporary
change, perhaps for that day only. But it is only today's
thinking we have to keep in line. For that matter, which
of us ever worried about tomorrow's liquor if he was
well supplied today? So why should we demand that AA
give us a perfect world stretching out into the future
when our whole past lives have consisted of compartmentalizing
Another friend worked at keeping a good
state of mind in the same way that some people work
at weight-lifting or voice development. He was a determined
man who desired absolute personal freedom. Apart from
sobriety, one of his reasons for desiring control over
his own thinking was the freedom it gave him. He felt
that if he permitted the remarks and attitudes of other
people to upset him, he was giving them control over
his life. He stoutly refused to concede this right to
others, so he neither craved approval nor feared disapproval.
Any AA member who desires it can begin
changing his frame of mind today, regardless of outer
circumstances. We deceive ourselves if we think that
our happiness is at the mercy of something further on
down the road, of having our ship come in. We can choose
to feel better right away if we begin seeking a new
outlook for its own sake. How we do it depends on each
individual, but it can be done. The world's gloomiest
person could have a better disposition today if he only
thought he could.
We already have the past working in
our favor. All we have to do now is find ways of raising
our spirits without uncorking a jug.