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WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
ambitious playwright, his brains got so far
ahead of his emotions that he collapsed into suicidal
drinking. To learn to live, he nearly died.
REMEMBER the day when I decided to drink myself to death
quietly, without bothering anyone, because I was tired
of having been a dependable, trustworthy person for
about thirty-nine years without having received what
I thought was a proper reward for my virtue. That was
the day, that was the decision, I know now, when I crossed
over the line and became an active alcoholic. Perhaps
a better way of saying it is that, on that day, with
that decision, I no longer fought drinking as an escape.
Rather, I embraced it—I must in honesty admit it—with
a great sense of relief. I no longer had to pretend.
I was giving up the struggle. Things weren't going as
I thought they should, for my greater enjoyment, comfort
and fame; therefore, if the universe wouldn't play my
way, I wouldn't play at all. I, a man of steel, with
very high ideals, well brought up, an honor student
and the recipient of scholarships and prizes, a boy
wonder in business—I, Bob, the author of this essay,
looked and saw that the universe was beneath my contempt,
and that to remove myself from it was the only thing
of dignity a man could do. Since, perhaps, suicide was
a bit too drastic (actually, I was afraid), dry martinis
WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
as the slow, pleasant, private, gradual instrument of
self-destruction. And it was nobody's business, nobody's
but mine. So I thought.
Within a month,
the police, the hospital authorities, several kind strangers,
most of my friends, all of my close relatives, and a
few adepts at rolling a drunk and removing his wrist
watch and wallet had been involved. (There was a time,
for about three months, when I bought a ten-dollar wrist
watch every pay day—that is, every two weeks. Since
it was wartime, I explained to the somewhat startled
shopkeeper that I had many friends in the service whom
I was remembering with a watch. Perhaps, without realizing
it, I was.)
On that day of decision,
I didn't acknowledge that I was an alcoholic.
My proud southern blood would have boiled if anyone
had named me such a despicable thing. No, it can best
be explained in a little phrase I coined and sang to
myself: "What happened to Bob? Bob found alcohol!"
And having sung that phrase, I'd chuckle with amusement,
turning into irony turning into self-contempt turning
into self-pity, at the sad fate of Bob, that wonderful,
poor little motherless boy who was so smart in school
and who grew up to accept responsibility so early and
so fast and who staggered under his burdens without
a whimper until the time came when he thought he was
too good for this world and so he ought to be out of
it. Poor Bob!
That was one aspect
of it, and a true one. There were several others. There
was loneliness. There was the necessity for sticking
to a job I hated, a dull, repetitive job performed in
association with other men I had nothing in common with
. . . performed for years
end, because the money was needed at home. There was
the physical aspect; to be the youngest and the runt
of the brood of children, to have to wear glasses very
early and so to be teased, to be bookish and bored in
school because the captain of the football team could
not translate Virgil and yet was the school god
while you, you, you little shrimp, were the school
egghead, junior size and an early model.
There was the father
one lost respect for at the age of eleven, because the
father broke his solemn word in a circumstance where
you, eleven years old, had assumed guilt when you were
innocent but the father would not believe you, no matter
what; and to ease his suffering you "confessed"
and were "forgiven," only—months later—to
have your "guilt" brought up—only he and you
knew what he was talking about—brought up in front of
the stern grandmother. The sacred word was broken and
you never trusted your father again, and avoided him.
And when he died, you were unmoved. You were thirty-five
before you understood your father's horrible anguish,
and forgave him, and loved him again. For you learned
that he had been guilty of the thing he had accused
you of, and his guilt had brought suffering to his entire
family; and he thought he saw his young son beginning
his own tragic pattern.
These things were
all pressures. For by thirty-five I had been drinking
for a few years. The pressures had started long ago.
Sometimes we are told in AA. not to try and learn the
reasons for our drinking. But such is my nature that
I must know the reason for things, and I didn't stop
until I had satisfied myself about the reasons for my
drinking. Only, having found them, I
WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
them away, and ordered another extra dry martini. For
to have accepted the reasons and to have acted on them
would have been too great a blow to my ego, which was
as great, in reverse, as my body was small.
In my twenties,
I found Edna St. Vincent Millay's verse:
me the heart that is slow to learn What the quick
mind sees at every turn."
couplet contains most of my reasons for drinking. There
was the love affair which was ridiculous—"imagine
that midget being able to fall in love!"—and my
head knew it while my heart pumped real, genuine anguish,
for it hurt like hell, and since it was first love,
things have never been quite the same. There was the
over-weening ambition to be the world's greatest author,
when—at thirty-nine—I had nothing of importance to say
to the world. There was the economic fear which made
me too timid to take any action which might improve
my circumstances. There was the sense of being "misunderstood,"
when as a matter of fact by my middle twenties I was
quite popular, although I hadn't grown much bigger physically.
But the feeling was a crutch, an excuse. It was my "secret
garden"—bluntly, it was my retreat from life, and
I didn't want to give it up.
For a while, for
a long time, we can endure the intellect's being ahead
of the emotions, which is the import of Millay's couplet.
But as the years go by, the stretch becomes unbearable;
and the man with the grown-up brain and the childish
emotions—vanity, self-interest, false pride, jealousy,
longing for social
to name a few—becomes a prime candidate for alcohol.
To my way of thinking, that is a definition of alcoholism;
a state of being in which the emotions have failed to
grow to the stature of the intellect. I know there are
some alcoholics who seem terribly, terribly grown-up,
but I think that they are trying to make themselves
think they are grown-up, and the strain of their
effort is what is causing them to drink—a sense of inadequacy,
a childish vanity to be the most popular, the most sought
after, the mostest of the most. And all this, of course,
is, in the popular modern jargon, "compensation"
I wish I knew a
short cut to maturity. But I wanted a cosmos, a universe
all my own which I had created and where I reigned as
chief top reigner and ruler over everyone else. Which
is only another way of saying, I had to be right
all the time, and only God can be that. Okay, I
wanted to be God.
I still do. I want
to be one of His children, a member of the human race.
And, as a child is a part of his father, so do I now
want to be a part of God. For always, over and above
everything else, was the awfulness of the lack of meaning
in life. Now, for me, and to my satisfaction, I know
the purpose of life: The purpose of life is to create
and the by-product is happiness. To create: Everyone
does it, some at the instinct level, others in the arts.
My personal definition, which I submit as applying only
to myself (although everyone is welcome to it who wants
it), includes every waking activity of the human being;
to have a creative attitude towards things is a more
exact meaning, to live and to deal with other human
beings creatively, which to me means seeing the God
WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
respecting and worshipping this God. If I write with
the air of one who has discovered the obvious, which
is to say, the eternal truths which have been offered
to us since the beginning, forgive my callowness; I
had to find these things out for myself. Alas for us
men toward whom Shaw hurled his cry, "Must a Christ
be crucified in every generation for the benefit of
those who have no imagination?"
My serious drinking
covered about seven years. In those years I was in jail
nine times, in an alcoholic ward, overnight, twice;
and I was fired from three jobs, two of them very good
ones. As I write these words, it seems incredible that
these things should have happened to me, for they are,
truly, against all my instincts and training. (Well!
I started to cross out that last sentence, but decided
to let it stand. What a revelation of ego and arrogance
still remaining in me—as if anyone, instinct
and training apart, likes to be in jail or in
an alcoholic ward or fired from his job. After nearly
eight years of sobriety in A.A., I still can set down
such thoughts, "against my instinct and training,"
showing that I still consider myself a "special"
person, entitled to special privileges. I ask the forgiveness
of the reader; and from now on I shall try to write
with the humility I honestly pray for.)
A pattern established
itself. I never was a "secret" drinker, and
I never kept a bottle at home. I'd visit one bar after
another, having one martini in each, and in each hoping
to find some one interesting to talk to. Actually, of
course, I wanted some one to listen to me, because
when I had a few martinis inside, I became the great
author I longed to be; and the right listener was in
for some pretty highflown theories of literature
of genius. If the listener were drunk enough, the lecture
might go on through several martinis, which I was glad
to pay for. If he were still sober, chances are that
very quickly I put him down as a Philistine with no
appreciation of literary genius; and then I went on
to another bar to find a new victim.
So it was that in
alcohol I found fulfillment. For a little while, I was
the great man I wanted to be, and thought myself entitled
to be just by reason of being me. I wonder if ever there
has been a sillier reason for getting drunk all the
time. Sobering up, the mind that was ahead of the emotions
would impel the question: What have you written or done
to be the great man? This question so insulted the emotions
that clearly there was only one thing to do, go and
get drunk again, and put that enquiring mind in its
proper place, which was oblivion.
Depending on the
stage of drunkenness, eventually I either fought or
went to sleep. Brandishing my "motto," which
was "A little man with a stick is equal to a big
man," sometimes I varied the literary lecture by
a fight with a big man, selected solely because he was
big and I was little. I bear a few scars on my face
from these fights, which I always lost, because the
"stick" existed only in my mind. So did the
waterboy on the high school football team attempt to
revenge himself on the big brother who was the star
quarterback; for I was the waterboy and my brother was
the star quarterback, innocent of everything except
the fact that he was a star quarterback.
When sleep overtook
me, my practice was to undress and go to bed, wherever.
Once this was in front of the Paramount Theatre in Times
Square. I was
WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
to my shorts, unaware of wrong-doing, before the ambulance
got there and hauled me off to a hospital from which
anxious friends rescued me, later that night.
Still another friend
and temporary host received me at four in the morning
from the charge of a policeman who had found me "going
to bed" in a garage far from the last place I could
remember having been, a fashionable bar and restaurant
in the theatrical district of New York, to which I had
repaired after my date for that evening, a charming
lady of the theatre who had refused my company for obvious
reasons. This time, whoever had rolled me had taken
my glasses as well (they were gold). When the policeman
released me to my stupefied and exasperated friend at
four in the morning, I went to my traveling bag and
groped until I found—well, let the officer speak: "Ah,"
said the policeman, "he's got anuder pair, t'ank
God!" Thank you, Mr. Policeman, wherever
you are now.
I mentioned that
this friend was my temporary host. Need I add that such
was the case because I had no money to provide a roof
over my head? Still, I had had funds sufficient to get
plastered because that, of course, was more important
than paying my own way.
Once, or even twice,
such incidents might be amusing. Repeated year on end,
they are horrible—frightening and degrading; a chronicle
of tragedy which may be greater because the individual
undergoing the tragedy, myself, knew what was happening,
and yet refused to do anything to stop it. One by one,
the understanding friends dropped away. The helpful
family finally said, over long distance, that there
would be no more money and that I could not come home.
say, "refused to do anything to stop it."
The truth is, I did not know how to stop it, nor did
I want to, really. I had nothing to put in the place
of alcohol, of the forgetfulness, of the oblivion, which
alcohol provides. Without alcohol, I would be really
alone. Was I the disloyal sort who would turn his back
on this, my last and truest friend?
I fled, finally,
after having been fired from my war job by a boss who
wept a little (for I had worked hard) as he gave notice
for me to clear out. I went back home, to a job of manual
labor where for a little while I was able to keep away
from alcohol. But not for long; now, for five Friday
nights in a row, I went to jail, picked up sodden with
beer (which I always disliked, but which was the only
drink available); in jail five consecutive Friday nights
in the town where I had grown up, where I had been an
honor student in high school, where a kindly uncle,
bailing me out, said, "Bob, our family just doesn't
do this sort of thing." I had replied, "Uncle,
give the judge ten dollars, or I'll have to work it
out on the county road." I was in hell. I wandered,
craving peace, from one spot to another of youthful
happy memory, and loathed the man I had become. I promised
on the grave of a beloved sister that I would stop drinking.
I meant it. I wanted to stop. I did not know how. For
by now I had been exposed once to A.A., but I had treated
it as a vaudeville and had taken friends to meetings
so that they too could enjoy the fascination of the
naked revelation of suffering and recovery. I thought
I had recovered. Instead, I had gotten sicker. I was
fatally ill. A.A. had not worked for me. The reason,
as I learned later, was that I had not worked for A.A.
I left this home
WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
then, after I had made a public spectacle of myself
in the presence of a revered teacher whose favorite
pupil I had been. I could not face the boy and youth
I was in the reality of the contemptible man I had
Back to the
big city, for another year of precarious living,
paid for largely by one or two friends I still had
not milked dry or worn to exhaustion with demands
on their bounty. I worked when I could—piddling
jobs I thought them. I was not capable of anything
better. I stumbled agonizedly past the theatre where
in years gone by a great star had played my play.
I had even borrowed money from her, over her protest:
"Bob, please don't ask me to lend you money—you're
the only one who hasn't." I took her money,
though; I had to have it. It paid for a ten-day
binge which was the end of my drinking days. Thank
God that those days are gone.
On another small
borrowed sum, I went up into the country to the
home of a doctor I had known since boyhood. We worked
in five below zero weather, fixing on an elm tree
a wrought iron device which modestly proclaimed
that he was indeed a country doctor. I had no money—well,
maybe a dime—and only the clothes I stood in. "Bob,"
he asked quietly, "do you want to live or die?"
He meant it.
I knew he did. I did not remember much of the ten-day
binge. But I remembered the years of agony preceding
the binge, I remembered the years I had thrown away.
I had just turned forty-six. Maybe it was time to
die. Hope had died, or so I thought.
But I said humbly,
"I suppose I want to live." I
it. From that instant to this, nearly eight years
later, I have not had the slightest urge to drink.
I chose to believe that the Power greater than
ourselves we ask for help, wrapped my shivering
body in loving warmth and strength which has never
left me. The doc and I went back into the house.
He had a shot of brandy against the cold and passed
me the bottle. I set it down and made myself a
cup of coffee. I have not had a drink of anything
alcoholic since January 12, 1947.
not think it ended so simply and so easily. Simply,
yes, it did end; for I had changed my mind about
alcohol, and it stayed changed. But for the next
years, I worked hard and exultantly in A.A. In
the nearby little town there was a plumber who
once had tried to get an A.A. group going. I went
over and met him, and we two started the group
up again. It is going strong still, these eight
years later, and some of its members have been
of great influence for good in state-wide A.A.
work. I myself have been lucky enough to help
out. I have had the joy of seeing many a human
being, down and out, learn to stand straight again,
and to proceed under his own power to happiness
in life. I learned the true meaning of bread cast
upon the waters.
debts totaling nearly ten thousand dollars to
be paid off. They are almost paid; the end is
in sight. I have been allowed to build an entirely
new career in a field I had never worked in. I
have published a book covering certain aspects
of this field which has been well-reviewed and
which is helping other people. I have been appointed
to the faculty of my old school, to teach in my
new field. All of my
WHO LOSES HIS LIFE
and loved ones, all of my friends, are nearer
and dearer to me than ever before; and I have
literally dozens of new friends who say they
cannot believe that a short eight years ago
I was ready for the scrap heap. When I remark
that I have been in jail nine times, and in
an alcoholic ward twice, they think I'm kidding,
or possibly dramatizing for the sake of a good
yarn. But I know I'm not. I remember how horrible
jails are, how dreadful a thing it is to be
behind steel bars. I wish we did not have to
have jails; I wish every one could be in A.A.
and if every one were there would be no need
for jails, in my opinion.
For I am
happy. I thought I could never be happy. A happy
man is not likely to do harm to another human
being. Harm is done by sick people, as I was
sick, and doing dreadful harm to myself and
to my loved ones.
A.A. is a synthesis of all the philosophy I've
ever read, all of the positive, good philosophy,
all of it based on love. I have seen that there
is only one law, the law of love, and there
are only two sins; the first is to interfere
with the growth of another human being, and
the second is to interfere with one's own growth.
want to write a fine play and to get it on.
I'd gladly do it anonymously, as I have done
this brief account of my struggle with alcohol—merely
to present certain ideas for the consideration
of the reader. I don't care too much about personal
fame or glory, and I want only enough money
to enable me to do the work I feel I can perhaps
do best. I stood off and took a long look at
life and the values I found in it: I saw a paradox,
that he who loses his life does indeed find
it. The more you give, the more you get. The
think of yourself the more of a person you
we can begin again no matter how late it may
be. I have begun again. At fifty-four, I have
had come true for me the old wish, "If
only I could live my life over, knowing what
I know." That's what I am doing, living
again, knowing what I know. I hope I have
been able to impart to you, the reader, at
least a bit of what I know; the joy of living,
the irresistible power of divine love and
its healing strength, and the fact that we,
as sentient beings, have the knowledge to
choose between good and evil, and, choosing
good, are made happy.
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