What Yale Teaches About Alcohol

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-019 What Yale Teaches About Alcohol, by T.N. Tiemeyer THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, September 29, 1948

THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, September 29, 1948

By T.N. Tiemeyer

"They call me a drunken bum. I want to stop drinking, but I can't. Help me, preacher, for God's sake! It was my first experience with a true alcoholic. Unsteady but wary, he came into my study, sank into a chair and eyed me dubiously for a few moments. In a little while his barriers of suspicion crumbled and a pathetic confession tumbled from his thickened tongue. As years went by I was to hear many other confessions, so similar that they seemed duplicates of each other. Each story ended with that same plea, or its equivalent: "Preacher, you got to help me stop drinking."

All that first visitor got from me was a few moral observations, some mild censure and a paternal admonition to "buck up and conquer this deplorable habit and make a man of yourself." After some desperate tears from him and a vague prayer from me, he walked out with voluble gratitude. But I soon learned, as I was to learn many times thereafter, that I had not really helped him. His problem was deeply rooted. In my condescending way I had hardly touched the surface.

An Answer to Failure

Time and again a deep sense of failure stalked through the corridors of my mind to accuse me. My tools of religion, the assorted instruments of my faith, had been inadequate. I was dealing with men who were definitely sick personalities and I was supposed to be a physician of the soul. Yet I could not bring about a healing. Why?

I found the answer to this and a multitude of kindred questions during the weeks I spent at the Yale School of Alcohol Studies this summer. Financed by generous endowments, Yale's department of applied physiology this year completed its sixth annual course on alcohol and its implications. Two hundred men and women from many walks of life were enrolled, but these were only about one-tenth of those who applied for admission. Here were a psychiatrist from California, a pastor from Manitoba, a colored "Y" worker from Florida, a leader of the W.C.T.U. from Boston, a vice-president of a distillery from Louisville, a physician from Argentina, and many more. Some were curious, some were desperate, but all had come to learn the facts on this most explosive issue. For here was a department of 26 scientists who were experimenting, probing, analyzing and recording fact on fact without bias or prejudice. They had no ax to grind; there was no piper to call the tune. With severe objectivity they not only turned new light on this ancient problem but were using their knowledge to achieve results with the so-called "hopeless" alcoholic.

Outline of the Yale Course

The course consisted of 65 or more lectures and seminars with ample additional time for questions and discussion. The coldly methodical Prof. Seldon Bacon analyzed drinking patterns and attitudes od racial and national groups. The keen and capable Dr. Giogio Lolli interpreted the physiological reaction to alcohol. Dr. Fritz Redlich probed into the machinery of the alcoholic's mind. Jurists, educators, alcoholics, social service workers, pastors and social analysts contributed. Cementing each fragment in place so that the mosaic formed a coherent pattern was the task of Dr. E.M. Jellinek, the genial head of the school, who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of many still elusive mysteries in the field of alcohol research.

I came away from New Haven with startling quantities of precious facts distilled from experiments, tabulation and analysis. I learned that alcohol is not a stimulant but a depressant, a sedative and a mild anesthetic. Because it is absorbed directly through the walls of the stomach, it quickly reaches every tissue of the body. Its effect on the central nervous system is almost immediate. Sense perception sharply decreases and response to stimuli requires a greater time lapse. Inhibitions and mental barriers are lowered, permitting the drinker to do things which he would not be likely to do normally.

But most types of alcohol wear off rapidly, usually at the rate of one hour per ounce. The use of small amounts of alcohol (one to two ounces per day) over a period of many years leaves no damaging effects on the average body. In our country today there are about 65 million users of alcoholic beverages. Most of these are controlled drinkers who will never get into serious difficulty from their drinking. But many will overstep the bounds of moderation and from time to time find themselves in conflict with friends, families and employers.

The Alcoholic

A small number, not more than five per cent of all drinkers will go down the road to addiction. Science has not been able to detect any type which is likely to become alcoholic, nor is any type immune. Any person who drinks may become an alcoholic. He may originally have been a problem drinker trying to escape reality, or a congenial social drinker trying to be a good sport in his crowd. But somewhere along the line the pattern changes. He finds himself refusing parties where there are no drinks or taking a few extras before going. He does more solitary drinking but manages to confine his sprees to week ends and escapes general criticism. Farther along the path he cares little for the opinions of others and drinks in greater quantities and at any time.

Now he runs into serious difficulty. Soon he finds himself without friends, without a job, without a family. He cannot understand the way people are treating him. He feels grossly misjudged and maltreated and finds escape in the stupor of more drinking. There is more trouble ahead. He must go through the tunnels of partial amnesia known as "blackouts," experience deep mental and physical pain, suffer delirium tremens, endless aching hangovers and grim fear of physical deterioration. Eventually he plunges into a vicious circle; the alcohol has created symptoms which can be removed only by more alcohol which, in turn, creates more symptoms. This is the sub-basement level known as alcoholism.

When All Else Fails

We know that alcoholism is a disease and must be treated as such. The victim can no more control his drinking than a patient with measels can keep his rash from breaking out. Law enforcement agencies have failed to solve the alcoholic's problem. Imprisonment merely increases his frustration and drives him to more drink. Doctors have generally regarded him as a nuisance. Most hospitals refuse to allow him a bed. The sociologist claims to understand the causes of drinking but has nothing to offer by way of a cure. The psychoanalyst can achieve a few cures but he requires three to five years of treatment at a prohibitive cost. Medicine has nothing to offer save occasional substitute sedatives during his high-tension periods.

What, then, is to be done with our nation's 3,750,000 alcoholic men and women? They have been abused, concealed, condemned, punished, ridiculed-but they have not been helped. When no one came forth with a cure, these pitiful outcasts had to find one themselves. Experts had failed them, so these amateurs had to resolve their own dilemma. Looking to a power greater than themselves, and leaning heavily on each other for support, they were lifted out of the morass and found a way back to the respect of friends and family. Thus was founded Alcoholics Anonymous. It did what science could not do by using a power greater than science.

Pastors and Alcoholics Anonymous

Here, truly, there opened a field in which the pastor could be of service. He had no more right to pose as an amateur psychiatrist than he would have to write a prescription for medicine. But alcoholism has been discovered to be out of bounds for medicine and too difficult for the psychiatrist. A.A. has demonstrated that this is a spiritual problem. The alcoholic must first admit that he has failed, then must turn to a power greater than himself, admit his mistakes, seek out those who have wronged him and set their relations right. In the stock terms of religion this means humility, worship, confession, and forgiving our debtors so that our debts may be forgiven. The A.A. member seeks help for one day at a time, even as our Lord prayed for bread day by day, and sets out to help other alcoholics with the real oldtime personal evangelism. The A.A. movement, today claiming more than 65,000 members, is the greatest revival and practical application of religion in our generation.

The wise pastor does not try to replace A.A. but to supplement it. This organization has carefully refrained from any denominational entanglements, although about half its members are now active in churches. Pastors can serve as counselors, helping the alcoholic establish contact with that power greater than himself. But no church fellowship or social group can replace the incentive and inspiration which the alcoholic receives from the camaraderie of fellow alcoholics.

Results on the Local Level

It is the significant that clergymen make up the largest professional group at the Yale school, constituting almost a quarter of the enrollment. They are now back in their scattered communities, cooperating with public health officers, instituting educational programs and undergirding the work of A.A. More ambitious pastors are establishing community clinics for the chronic addict and securing the confidence of police and judges. They may be persuading local hospitals to release a bed or two for alcoholic patients or bombarding state legislatures for a grant from liquor license fees to help in the program of rehabilitation. Many have opened their parish halls to A.A. meeting, and by wise counseling and dissemination of facts have checked excessive drinkers before they hit bottom. Above all, the pastor who has been at the Yale school is learning not to condemn nor judge nor criticize, but to use the potent instruments of his time-tested faith to restore a portion of those lost souls to usefulness and honor in their communities.


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