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Book Stories - Updated (2 of 5)
This is the second article in the Grapevines new series
by authors of the personal histories in the Big Book, Alcoholics
Anonymous. First published in 1939, a revised, enlarged
Big Book was published in 1955. Now, twelve years later,
the author of He Who Loses His Life, page 540
in the Revised (Second) Edition, looks back over twenty
years-plus of sobriety.
ON! BE HAPPY TOO
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., September 1967
Twenty years later? Dry, one day at a time, for twenty
years? Once that would have seemed an unendurable
sentence to be faced. In retrospect, the years have
been so busy, so happy, so full of fulfillment that no one
of those seven thousand three hundred days has been long
enough. And I have been happy - not frivolously and
determinedly cheerful - but deep down happy. A happiness
so basic that it can withstand the occasional shocks of
anger, frustration, impatience and bone fatigue that once
would have sent me to the nearest and quickest alcoholic
Fifteen years ago I wrote my story for the Big Book.
In it I said that I belong to the school of AA thought which
teaches that successful membership in AA frees us, so that
we may range the world - in a manner of speaking - like
any other human being. Practically expressed, this
viewpoint means that I do not feel the necessity of going
to meetings constantly. I go whenever I have a Twelfth
Step case to work with (I never turn down a Twelfth Step
case) and on my anniversary. I do not go out looking
for Twelfth Step cases as a means of insuring my continuing
sobriety. Yet I always tell my new friends and even
casual strangers, when I am in their company and they are
having a drink, why I do not drink: I am in AA. A
friend has remarked that she considers me the alcoholic
the least anonymous she ever heard of. This procedure
has brought me more than a few Twelfth Step cases.
Always it elicits inquiries and usually intense interest
about the unorganized organization called AA. If there
is this interest, I explain briefly my own experience before
and after joining AA, smile, accept congratulations, secretly
giving thanks inside myself for the philosophy I have hooked
onto. For I am hooked on AA; that is the most certain
thing I know. And it makes me happy to shoot arrows
into the air.
I also believe that as soon as they are a bit competent
in AA, the newcomers should carry the Twelfth Step work.
That’s how I got well - doing constant and intense
Twelfth Step work, privately, in groups, and in hospitals.
I did it for a number of years, joyously. Now when
I acquire a new customer, as soon as it’s sensible
to do so, I transfer him to an AA member younger in AA than
I am, and so (I am convinced) provide him with some of the
help and opportunity he needs to better himself as well
as the new candidate.
I keep liquor in my home and serve it to friends.
I literally do not want any. It’s no deprivation
for me to act as bartender for everyone except myself.
I go to cocktail parties early and leave early, before my
friends and the other guests get silly and argumentative
and boring. I have served my time paying back for
the boredom I inflicted on others when I got drunk.
Sometimes I pick up a Twelfth Step case at one of these
Anyone tailing me as I move around the big city where I
live might think me a liar and a hypocrite, for on occasion
I go - alone - into a bar. The answer is simple: from
the old, bad days I know where the washrooms are and, of
course, when you gotta go, you gotta go. American
cities are notoriously short of this kind of convenience;
the most likely place always is in a bar.
My intent in writing such details is, hopefully, to reassure
the candidate for AA who hesitates about coming to that
first meeting or keeping on coming. Joining AA does
not mean to me the taking of perpetual vows of abstinence
through years that loom ahead bleakly. Of course this
is why we have the twenty-four-hour plan. But even
so, two years before I achieved sobriety in AA, a friend
told me not to come near her again until I had been sober
for ten years. I yelled, “I’d rather be
dead than face such a terrible future!” Her
reply did not comfort me: “Keep on as you are and
you will be dead.” I knew that; but I
did not know that in achieving sobriety in AA I’d
also achieve the free-est kind of freedom, if freedom can
be qualified. I would achieve the freedom of choice.
I’d like all hesitant candidates to know that and
to accept it: that they are not necessarily committing themselves
to a life of bondage, however healing that bondage might
No one would be in despair because his body cannot handle
strawberries. Well, my body just can’t handle
alcohol, that’s all. It so happens I’ve
had my gall bladder out and can’t eat grapes, but
that circumstance does not make me contemplate suicide.
(The doctors assure me that my past drinking had nothing
to do with the gall bladder trouble, for any possibly curious
readers of this essay.)
Now, while I go to meetings only occasionally, I use AA
daily, hourly, I might say every waking hour of my life.
I have to deal with a lot of people. Frequently, I
am in the position of being able to help them in many ways.
Thanks to AA, I am more tolerant and, I hope, more understanding
of others. A certain former impatience is minimized;
I’m working on it. The sarcasm is replaced by
- at least in intention - wit, or maybe just good humor,
good nature. I hope I am easier to live with.
And behind the anonymity of this essay, I will confess to
a joy that approaches smugness in performing good deeds,
also kept anonymous, if possible. You wouldn’t
think that at my age anyone could be so naïve?
Ah, truly, it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Let not your right hand know what your left hand doeth.
Retire to a private place for your prayers. Bread
cast on the waters, and so on. Believe me, it’s
all true. At least, it’s true for me.
Selfishly, for me, the best is that I’m in command.
No compulsion by anything drives me to actions that I don’t
really want to do, don’t approve of, and know are
wrong. I hope I am no less human for being dry, twenty-years-plus
dry, in AA.
The bad old years, the years of suffocating in the deep
morass of alcoholism, are years I could have used to good
advantage had I not been trapped by this hideous disease.
There were seven or eight years before I found AA - oh,
how I could have used those years! But they were not
wasted; they stripped me of everything, including self-respect;
but they made me ready for the happiness of the last twenty
years in AA.
Come on, man, join us! Be happy, too. All you
have to do to change your life is change your mind.
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.
I 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 were chosen 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
on 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 threw
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:
That 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 approval, 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
in them, and 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
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
and 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
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 down
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.
I 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
town, 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 become.
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 meant 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.
Please do 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.
There were 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 family 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
For me, 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
I still 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 less you think of yourself the
more of a person you become.
In A.A. 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.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., September 1967
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