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ME AN ALCOHOLIC?
wringer squeezed this author—but he
escaped quite whole.
WHEN I TRY to reconstruct what my life was like "before,"
I see a coin with two faces.
One, the side I
turned to myself and the world, was respectable—even,
in some ways, distinguished. I was father, husband,
taxpayer, home owner. I was club-man, athlete, artist,
musician, author, editor, aircraft pilot and world traveler.
I was listed in "Who's Who in America" as
an American who, by distinguished achievement, had arrived.
I was, so far as anybody could tell, quite a lad.
The other side
of the coin was sinister, baffling. I was inwardly unhappy
most of the time. There would be times when the life
of respectability and achievement seemed insufferably
dull—I had to break out. This I would do by going
completely "bohemian" for a night, getting
drunk and rolling home with the dawn. Next day remorse
would be on me like a tiger. I'd claw my way back to
"respectability" and stay there—until
the inevitable next time.
of alcoholism is an appalling thing. In all the twenty-five
years of my drinking there were only a few occasions
when I took a morning drink. My binges were one-night
stands only. Once or twice, during my early drinking,
I carried it over into the
day, and only once, that I can remember, did it continue
into the third. I was never drunk on the job, never
missed a day's work, was seldom rendered totally ineffective
by a hangover and kept my liquor expenses well within
my adequate budget. I continued to advance in my chosen
field. How could such a man possibly be called an alcoholic?
Whatever the root of my unhappiness might turn out to
be, I thought, it could not possibly be booze.
Of course I drank.
Everybody did, in the set which I regarded as the apex
of civilization. My wife loved to drink, and we tied
on many a hooter in the name of marital bliss. My associates,
and all the wits and literary lights I so much admired,
also drank. Evening cocktails were as standard as morning
coffee, and I suppose my average daily consumption ran
a little more or less than a pint. Even on my rare (at
first) binge nights it never ran much over a quart.
How easy it was,
in the beginning, to forget that those binges ever happened!
After a day or two of groveling remorse I'd come up
with an explanation. "The nervous tension had piled
up and just had to spill over." Or, "My physical
plant had got a little run down and the stuff rushed
right to my head." Or, "I got to talking and
forgot how many I was taking and it hit me." Always
we'd emerge with a new formula for avoiding future trouble.
"You've got to space your drinks and take plenty
of water in between," or "coat the stomach
with a little olive oil," or "drink anything
but those damn martinis." Weeks would
go by without further trouble, and I'd be assured I'd
at last hit on the right formula. The binge had been
just "one of those things." After a month
it seemed unlikely that
ever really happened. After three months it was forgotten.
Intervals between binges were, at first, eight months.
My growing inward
unhappiness was a very real thing, however, and I knew
that something would have to be done about it. A friend
had found help in psychoanalysis. After a particularly
ugly one-nighter, my wife suggested I try it, and I
agreed. Educated child of the scientific age that I
was, I had complete faith in the science of the mind.
It would be a sure cure and also an adventure. How exciting
to learn the inward mysteries that govern the behavior
of people, how wonderful to know, at last, all about
myself! To cut a long story short, I spent seven years
and ten thousand dollars on my psychiatric adventure,
and emerged in worse condition than ever.
To be sure, I learned
many fascinating things, and many things that were to
prove helpful later. I learned what a devastating effect
it can have on a child to coddle him and build him up,
and then turn and beat him savagely, as had happened
to me. I came to understand the intricate processes
of projection, by which we cast into our adult world
the images of the horrors of our childhood. Under the
skilled guidance of an expert practitioner I wallowed
in the world's individual and collective mental agony.
Meanwhile, I was
getting worse, both as regards my inward misery and
my drinking. My daily alcoholic consumption remained
about the same through all this, with perhaps a slight
increase, and my binges remained one-nighters. But they
were occurring with alarming frequency. In seven years
the intervals between them decreased from eight months
to ten days!
they were growing uglier. One night I barely made my
downtown club; if I'd had to go another fifty feet I'd
have collapsed in the gutter. On another occasion I
arrived home covered with blood. I'd deliberately smashed
a window. With all this, it was becoming increasingly
hard to maintain my front of distinction and respectability
to the world. My personality was stretched almost to
splitting in the effort; schizophrenia stared me in
the face, and one night I was in a suicidal despair.
My outward professional
life looked fine, on the surface. I was now head of
a publishing venture in which nearly a million dollars
had been invested. My opinions were quoted in Time and
Newsweek with pictures, and I addressed the public by
radio and television. It was a fantastic structure,
built on a crumbling foundation. It was tottering and
it had to fall. It did.
After my last binge
I came home and smashed my dining room furniture to
splinters, kicked out six windows and two balustrades.
When I woke up sober, my handiwork confronted me. It
is impossible for me to reproduce my despair. I can
only list a few of its elements.
I'd had absolute
faith in science, and only in science. "Knowledge
is power," I'd always been taught. Now I had to
face up to the fact that knowledge of this sort, applied
to my individual case, was not power. Science
could take my mind apart expertly, but it couldn't seem
to put it together again. I crawled back to my analyst,
not so much because I had faith in him, but because
I had nowhere else to turn.
After talking with him for a time I heard myself saying,
"Doc, I think I'm an alcoholic."
he said, surprisingly, "you are."
in God's name haven't you told me so, during all these
he said. "First, I couldn't be sure. The line between
a heavy drinker and an alcoholic is not always clear.
It wasn't until just lately that, in your case, I could
draw it. Second, you wouldn't have believed me even
if I had told you."
I had to admit
to myself that he was right. Only through being beaten
down by my own misery would I ever have accepted the
term "alcoholic" as applied to myself. Now,
however, I accepted it fully. I knew from my general
reading that alcoholism was irreversible and fatal.
And I knew that somewhere along the line I'd lost the
power to stop drinking. "Well, Doc," I said,
"what are we going to do?"
I can do," he said, "and nothing medicine
can do. However, I've heard of an organization called
Alcoholics Anonymous that has had some success with
people like you. They make no guarantees and are not
always successful. But if you want to, you're free to
try them. It might work."
Many times in the
intervening years I have thanked God for that man, a
man who had the courage to admit failure, a man who
had the humility to confess that all the hard-won learning
of his profession could not turn up the answer. I looked
up an A.A. meeting and went there—alone.
Here I found an
ingredient that had been lacking in any other effort
I had made to save myself. Here was—power!
Here was power to live to the end of any
day, power to have the courage to face the next day,
power to have friends, power to help people, power to
be sane, power to stay sober. That was November, 1947.
It is now past November, 1954, and I haven't had a drink
during those seven years. More over, I am deeply convinced
that so long as I continue to strive, in my bumbling
way, toward the principles I first encountered in the
earlier chapters of this book, this remarkable power
will continue to flow through me. What is this power?
With my A.A. friends, all I can say is that it's a power
greater than myself. If pressed further, all I can do
is follow the psalmist who said it long, long before
me: "Be still, and know that I am God."
My story has a
happy ending, but not of the conventional kind. I had
a lot more hell to go through. But what a difference
there is between going through hell without a power
greater than one's self, and with it! As might have
been predicted, my teetering tower of worldly success
collapsed. My alcoholic associates fired me, took control,
and ran the enterprise into bankruptcy. My alcoholic
wife took up someone else, divorced me, and took with
her all my remaining property. The most terrible blow
of my life befell me after I'd found sobriety through
A.A. Perhaps the single flicker of decency that shone
through the fog of my drinking days was a clumsy affection
for my two children, a boy and a girl. One night my
son, when he was only sixteen, was suddenly and tragically
killed. The Higher Power was on deck to see me through,
sober. I think He's on hand to see my son through, too.
I think He's on hand to see all of us through whatever
may come to us.
There have been some wonderful things, too. My new wife
and I don't own any property to speak of, and the flashy
successes of another day are no longer mine. But we
have a baby who, if you'll pardon a little post-alcoholic
sentimentality, is right out of Heaven. My work is on
a much deeper and more significant level than it ever
was before, and I am today a fairly creative, relatively
sane human being. And should I have more bad times,
I know that I'll never again have to go through them
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