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the Alcoholic Owes
to Marty Mann
of her suffering has been born a network
of hope and help for thousands.
by Floyd Miller
ashen-faced man in search of help made his way into a quiet
office on New York's upper Fifth Avenue. He was an alcoholic,
and he poured out his despairing story to a handsome woman
in her 50's who sat behind a large desk. After a few moments
he paused, spread his hands helplessly and said, "its
difficult to make you understand how I feel."
but I know exactly how you feel, " she said. "I,
too, am an alcoholic. I wouldn't be here if I hadn't gone
through the valley of the shadow."
The woman was Mrs. Marty Mann, executive director of the
National Council on Alcoholism, a voluntary health organization
she founded 18 years ago. A remorseless crusader against
ignorance and prejudice concerning alcoholism, she has been
largely responsible for the fact that the nation's attitude
toward the "drunkard" is changing, that alcoholism
is now recognized as a disease and that thousands of our
five million alcoholics are today being successfully treated.
(Only one drinker out of 15 or 16 develops alcoholism. Like
an iceberg, the symptoms are below the surface at first;
but the disease progresses relentlessly until the victim,
once he takes a drink, stops only when he is too drunk to
continue. It usually takes 10 to 15 years of drinking for
a potential alcoholic to acquire the disease full-blown.
If un-checked, it can end only in insanity or death.)
the lecture platform Marty Mann is electric. Her handsomeness
is deepened by marks of suffering, and she summons up a
power of purpose that transfixes her audience. Her husky
voice speaks of reasoned facts, but with a spirituality
that drives them hard into the hearts as well as the minds
of those who hear.
Once in Jacksonville a man awoke in a hotel room after a
week of drinking, turned on the radio and heard Marty Mann
speaking from New Orleans. "No alcoholic wants to be
the way he is," she was saying. "Alcoholics are
not bums. They are sick, and they can recover from this
disease just as from others."
words penetrated the man's numbed brain, and for the first
time he began to hope. He picked up the phone, called the
radio station and asked to speak to the woman who had just
broadcast. Marty not only talked with him; she put him in
touch with someone in Jacksonville who could give him immediate
Marty Mann can supply almost immediate help from coast to
coast through NCA's network of affiliates operating Alcoholism
Information Centers in 74 cities. Without charge and without
humiliation, the alcoholic or his family can telephone or
come to these centers for consultation and referral. Depending
on the individual's condition and need, he is sent to a
doctor, a hospital, a clinic or to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Science now believes that two basic conditions must be present
to make a person prey to alcoholism: an emotional vulnerability,
and a body chemistry which makes him sensitive to the alcohol
he consumes in an effort to ease his emotional stresses.
Marty Mann's own case demonstrates these concepts with classic
Born to a wealthy Chicago family, she went to the best private
schools. As a debutante she entered a world that was all
champagne and caviar. In her set it was gay and smart to
go to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. On the spur of the
moment she married a young man she met there; she was 22.
A year later tuberculosis, with which she had had a bout
as a child, flared up, and she went to a Western ranch for
both recovery and divorce.
Though she did not realize it until much later, her real
descent into the hell of alcoholism began when she was 24,
the year her father lost his fortune. Suddenly thrust against
the buzz saw of life, she went to New York to look for a
job. She moved into a small Greenwich Village flat with
two other young women, and if there were days when they
were without food, they were seldom without bootleg whiskey.
For this was the Roaring Twenties.
Marty got a job reviewing books, and then became an editor
of a glossy magazine. Her talent was apparent and her career
well launched, but so was her social life. A writer who
squired her to speakeasies and flamboyant parties of the
era recalls with awe, " I can't remember dating a more
beautiful and intelligent girl. And she could drink any
man under the table. A hollow leg, that girl!"
high alcohol tolerance - the ability to drink a lot without
showing signs of drunkenness - is one of the early symptoms
of alcoholism. Others soon followed for Marty. She became
dependent on alcohol in order to enjoy a party; then dependent
on it to cope with difficult events.
The death of her grandmother brought a small inheritance,
and Marty quit her job and travelled to London. She was
as sought after there as in New York, for she was bright,
witty, the gayest of companions.
Now the first drink of the day was advanced to noontime
and became increasingly important. Also, she began to drink
surreptitiously at parties, belting down two while others
were taking one. And she began to have memory blackouts.
Then, in 1931, her tolerance for alcohol reversed. She began
getting drunk on lesser and lesser amounts.
has happened to you?" her friends demanded. "Why
can't you drink the way you used to?"
one asked these questions more urgently than Marty. What
frightened her most was the fact that, despite the most
desperate exercise of will, she could not cut down her drinking.
One summer afternoon in 1934, at a weekend houseparty in
the country, she had the blind staggers and had to be led
upstairs to sleep it off. Her bedroom opened on a small
balcony. Below was a paved courtyard. Marty was only vaguely
aware of the events that followed. She never knew whether
she fell or jumped. Even the moment of impact on the cruel
stones was mercifully fogged by alcohol. She fractured her
leg at the hip and broke both hinges of her jaw.
After having her leg in traction for six months, she recovered
from the accident - but not from her drinking. Her inheritance
gone, she got jobs and lost them. Now she huddled in a secluded
corner of Hyde Park, sipping from a bottle. There one day
a friend found her and begged her to do something about
herself. "Maybe you should go back to New York, "
struck a response in Marty's dulled mind. Typical of the
later stages of alcoholism is the desperate conviction that
a geographical change will somehow work a cure. Marty borrowed
money and sailed for New York. But the transfer only changed
the location of her drinking.
rare moments of clarity she was completely disgusted with
herself, and concluded that she must be insane. She went
to a series of psychiatrists, none of whom would accept
her as a patient after she described her drinking. The only
suggestion the doctors could make was that she commit herself
to a mental institution. This compounded her fears, and
she returned to alcohol for forgetfulness.
Some hard, brave corner of her mind refused to give up the
search for help, however, and finally Dr. Harry Tiebout
agreed to take her, free of charge, as a resident patient
in Blythwood Sanitarium in Connecticut. Here, for a year,
she had regular psychiatric sessions, but the doctors remained
morning Dr. Tiebout brought a manuscript to her. "This
was written by people like you," he said. "They
seem to have found a way out of trouble. Perhaps it can
help you. Let me know what you think of it."
began to read slowly, skeptically. As she read on, her skepticism
gradually began to lift, to be replaced by a mounting excitement.
These people were drunks; they had suffered just as she
had suffered, and they had survived!
She discovered that her ailment had a name - it was called
"alcoholism." It seemed a blessed thing just to
have a name pinned to her. As she read on the fog or fear
and ignorance began to part, and she learned that alcoholism
was a disease! They described it as "an allergy of
the body coupled with an obsession of the mind." She
learned that the "allergy" was irreversible and
that the affected person could never put alcohol into his
sensitized system. The "obsession" was that the
alcoholic was driven to take a drink despite his knowledge
that disaster waited.
was the answer?
came with stunning simplicity: she must discard attempts
at moderate drinking; she must give up all drinking. But
wasn't this beyond her power? The manuscript spoke of God's
help. Through the recent hellish years, though, she had
lost God. Now, suddenly, she knew for a certainty: He could
As she pondered this, something happened that she cannot
fully explain. She seemed to lose the upper-most level of
consciousness, and when she regained it she found herself
on her knees beside her bed, her pillow wet with tears.
And through her body surged a feeling of serenity and soaring
confidence such as she had never known.
ran to Dr. Tiebout to tell him what had happened. "have
I lost my mind? Am I insane?" she demanded.
he said, "Something very real has happened. Let us
watch and learn together."
did watch and learn. The road back to health was difficult,
but Marty was never again to feel alone, to know despair.
Old friends noted the difference in her appearance; there
was a new radiance about her. She explained, "You let
God in, and He comes out of you."
a year she had an excellent job, but she knew now that her
life would have real meaning only if she served other sufferers.
Alcoholics Anonymous was helping many, but it could assist
only those who sought it out. Most alcoholics were hidden,
closed in by their ignorance and fear and shame. Marty dreamed
of a vast program of education that would remove the stigma
from alcoholism and allow alcoholics and their families
to seek help openly, without shame; a program that would
marshal sufficient public interest and support to provide
adequate diagnostic and treatment facilities.
February night at 3 a.m., Marty got out of bed, went to
her typewriter and outlined a plan of action, which was
to become the National Council on Alcoholism. It was presented
to a group of scientists who had founded the Yale Center
of Alcohol Studies. They underwrote it financially. On October
2, 1944, the NCA opened a modest suite of offices in the
New York Academy of Medicine at 2 East 103rd Street.
Marty now found support for her dream from many sources.
Within five years the NCA was able to function without the
subsidy from the Yale group, and took its place as a full-fledged
voluntary health organization. The bulk of its money came,
as it does today, from individuals gifts. The council now
employs 45 persons in national headquarters, and its affiliates
across the country employ 150 full- time counselors in the
Alcoholism Information Centers.
flood into the NCA, and since each represents a personal
need, it receives a personal answer, many from Marty herself.
Besides, Marty travels more than 50,000 miles each year,
speaking at meetings of all kinds, appearing on TV and radio.
Largely because of NCA's educational work, more than 80
large corporations have established procedures to handle
their problem drinkers as sick persons; the AFL-CIO has
installed programs in unionized industries and shops; some
3000 general hospitals now accept acute cases.
Most important, out of Marty Mann's suffering has been born
a network of hope and help immediately available to any
lost or frightened individual. In the areas served by the
NCA's Information Centers, no man or woman need face his
illness alone - he has only to lift the telephone.
Reader’s Digest, January 1963)