Alcoholics Anonymous

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-028 Alcoholics Anonymous, by Edward Duff AMERICA, June 10, 1950

AMERICA, June 10, 1950

by Edward Duff

Dr. Harry M. Tiebout, psychiatrist at Blythewood Sanatarium, Greenwich, Connecticut, faced his professional confreres at the 34th Annual Meeting of the American Psychopathological Association held in New York City five years ago this spring. There was much interest in professional circles in a dramatic new cure for alcoholism. The ingenuity of psychiatrists had been exercised to explain the success of the program in terms of "homosexual outlet," "dependency upon a father person," "opportunity to exploit exhibitionistic, narcissistic trends" and the all-encompassing efficacy of "group therapy." Obviously, there must be some "X-factor" explaining the success of this amateur technique that duplicated so much of the standard - but pretty fruitless - recommendations of medicine and psychology. Dr. Tiebout identified this "X-factor" for his fellow psychiatrists. It was, he said, "a religious component, a spiritual development, a belief in God - a conversion."

Dr. Tiebout was appraising the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, an informal fellowship of arrested alcoholics, then numbering nearly 15,000 men and women. If he were addressing the psychiatric profession this year, he could count on a much wider understanding of his theme. For 96,475 people in 34 countries will tell you today that they have stopped drinking through A.A. The fraternity and sorority of ex-drunks is increasing at the rate of more than 20,000 a year - an achievement that has won the interest and the applause of prominent spokesmen for medicine and religion.

As a matter of fact, Alcoholics Anonymous had been in existence for a decade before it became the subject of discussions before medical societies. Its beginnings go back to a night in November, 1934, with a former Wall Street broker sitting in his kitchen wondering where, before his wife returned, he could hide the bottle of gin needed to tide him over till morning. He desperately desired to stop drinking but found himself helpless. Promising business opportunities he had ruined beyond remedy. Continuous trips to hospitals and sanitariums had at last brought the verdict that he faced no more than a year of life before the inevitable heart attack during delirium tremens. Blank, terrifying despair coupled with an insatiable, murderous craving for alcohol made the hiding of that bottle the most pressing concern of his life.

His reverie was interrupted by the visit of an old school friend, a familiar drinking companion of former days, rumored to have been committed as an alcoholic psychotic. The rumor was obviously mad, triumphantly false. For here was the former drinking companion with hew health, a new and strange serenity and a new and curious idea: God could manage our lives if we would only allow Him. It was an idea he had learned from the Oxford Group, the disciples of Dr. Frank Buchman, with their teaching of Surrender, Sharing, Change, Quiet Time and Witnessing, and the four imperatives - Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness and Absolute Love. That had been enough to beat John Barleycorn and supply a new vision of a God-centered way of living.

Ancient prejudices against religion were mocked by evidence of the buoyant happiness that came from someone's saying very simply that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. The protestations of the ex-stockbroker that he knew little about God and believed less were met with the suggestion that a willingness to believe in a Power greater than one's self would suffice. A trip to the hospital to dry out provided an opportunity for a complete surrender to God. A determination to make personal reparation for wrong done to others brought a wonderful sense of victory, a fresh confidence and a resolve to bring to other hopeless alcoholics the encouraging and saving message of God's nearness to those who want Him.

A business trip to Akron the following spring gave the sometime broker an opportunity - indeed a compulsion - to carry out his resolve. Tense because of a setback in a dragged-out law suit, he felt he must help someone or lose himself in self-pity and, consequently, in alcohol. Providentially, he was introduced to a surgeon, a despairing victim of drink, who responded to the message of hope - that God exalts the humble and strongly supports those who put their lives in His keeping. In the local Catholic hospital the doctor and the businessman brought fellow alcoholics the assurance that there is a way out for those who want to stop drinking. The two were soon five, then a group overflowing the doctor's home for the weekly gatherings, then a fraternity spread across the country by salesmen who carried with their lines of goods a new and compelling idea.

By April, 1939 there were a hundred whose pooled experience was set down in a book that reached Dr. Tiebout at his Greenwich sanitarium in its provisional multilithed form. He gave it to a thirty-four-year-old woman alcoholic whose character structure, he confessed, defeated all of his skills and all of her own pitiable resolves. The book she read contained a collection of case histories of people who had conquered their addiction to alcohol. It contained also a good deal of hard headed advice, and it outlined a Program of Recovery. The way out of the squirrel-cage of shakes, night sweats, jittery nerves and horrible dreams, she read, consisted of twelve steps, none of which could be skipped. The ladder to sobriety for a hundred ex-drunks had been sealed, these ex-alcoholics said, when:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

(In the Twelfth Step "spiritual awakening" was substituted for the phrase "spiritual experience" employed in the first printing of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. An overwhelming and sensible emotional upheaval, it was learned, did not always accompany acceptance of the Twelve-Step Program of Recovery. Nor was it needed: an inevitable alteration of attitude followed gradually any honest determination to give the greater Power management of one's life.)

Dr. Tiebout's patient was impressed by the book he gave her. She attended a meeting of a group of Alcoholics Anonymous, listened to personal accounts of how the program had worked for others and soon became an active member of the group. The psychiatrist described the consequent personality change in his patient as a dissolving of the character structure which had been blocking all help.

Intensive research over the past several years has failed to establish a common "character structure" in people for whom one drink is too much and a thousand not enough. Perhaps, as some scientists hold, there is a physical rather than a psychic deficiency afflicting our three million problem drinkers. Whether excessive drinking produces or is the product of personality disorders, there is certainly an emotional immaturity noted in alcoholics of which addiction to the bottle is only a symptom. There is a rooted dissatisfaction with life, manifesting itself in festering resentments, flight from responsibility, displays of grandiosity, all operating in a penumbra of fear, concealed self-doubt and whining self-pity. Spiritual writers have always labeled such self-centeredness as "pride," and have acknowledged that pride can flourish in a person who is not all vain. The classic cure for pride, religion teaches, is humiliations.

Humiliations engendering humility are inevitable for anyone attempting the A.A. Twelve Steps. There is the initial acknowledgment of helplessness, jettisoning the protestation that the alcoholic can somehow by some ingenious change of habits join the ranks of America's 60 million "social drinkers." The false and grasping self, getting in the way of God's management, must be cauterized by ruthless self-examination, the smothering of all resentments and the honest reparation of all injuries to others, whatever the cost to self-esteem. Prayer to keep one's mind responsive to God is imperative, despite all ridicule of religiosity. Apostolic activity on behalf of other alcoholics, however inconvenient and unpleasant, is held essential as an expression of gratitude to God and a self-strengthening service of others.

For the Twelve Steps are to be a new way of life, a kind of living that counts on God's incessant interest and expresses that reliance by unconcern for the future. Living is reduced to a manageable Twenty-Four-Hour Plan, with "Easy Does It" as the motto of a trust that relaxes tensions.

That is the program that an A.A. will explain when called to help a fellow alcoholic. There will be no talking down to the inebriate (the A.A. realizes that he is only one drink away from sharing the same plight). There will be no moralizing (the A.A. will freely give him another drink if needed to steady him). There will be no excuses putting off the central point of the discussion: does the drinker want to stop drinking? The A.A., you phone service that will gladly supply information and, if necessary, assistance.

Alcoholics Anonymous, as all its literature is labeled, "has no opinion on any controversial subject, nor does it oppose anyone." It is neutral on the "Wet versus Dry" debate. It is deliberately and officially neutral on the question of religious affiliation, leaving that matter to the personal choice of each member. It rather expects that the A.A. "Way of Life" will make a member a more ardent believer in his personal faith, a better Protestant, a more faithful Catholic, a more loyal Jew. In this its claims are reminiscent of its Oxford Group heritage, with its emphasis on "the simple message of Christianity" and its preoccupation with moral effort. Whatever danger there is for Catholics that a vague moralizing and subjective feeling of God's omnipresent guidance might be substituted for dogmatic belief in the Church and the spiritual resources of the sacraments is readily forestalled. Alcoholics Anonymous welcomes the interest and cooperation of the Catholic clergy. It urges its Catholic members to use the full spiritual supports of the faith.

AEvery A.A. carries in his pocket (or in her purse) this prayer : "God grant us the serenity to accept things we cannot change, courage to change things we can, and wisdom to know the difference." That expresses a spiritual stance helpful towards peace of soul for non-alcoholics as well.


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