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Alcoholics Cured by Faith
Condensed from The American Journal of Psychiatry
by Harry M. Tiebout, M.D.
Anonymous is the name applied to a group of ex- alcoholics
who, through a therapeutic program which includes a definite
religious element, have successfully combated alcoholism.
group stems from the efforts of one man, William Wilson,
who in 1934 found an answer to his drinking problem in a
personal religious experience. Since then, many alcoholics
have become sober by using this approach.
Alcoholics Anonymous claims a recovery rate of 75 percent
of those who really try their methods. This figure, coupled
with their mushroom growth, commands respect and demands
of the so-called typical alcoholic is that he is completely
self-centered, dominated by feelings of omnipotence, intent
on maintaining at all costs his feelings of self- importance
Among problem drinkers these qualities have been described
as "defiant individuality" and "grandiosity."
Inwardly the alcoholic books no control from man or God.
the alcoholic, is and must be master of his destiny.
is easy to see how the person possessing the more or less
constant presence of these character traits, has difficulty
in accepting God and religion. Religion demands that the
individual acknowledge the presence of a God and so challenges
the very nature of the alcoholic.
But if the alcoholic can truly accept the presence of a
Power greater than himself, he modifies at least temporarily
and possibly permanently his deepest inner structure and
when he does so without resentment or struggle, then he
is no longer typically alcoholic.
Wilson states that the success of the group with any alcoholic
depends upon the degree to which the individual undergoes
a conversion. His own experience was of the sweeping, cataclysmic
type which lifted him out of a slough of despond and transported
him to heights of ecstatic joy and happiness where he stayed
for some hours. This state was then succeeded by a feeling
of peace, serenity and the profound conviction that he was
freed from the bondage of liquor.
He states that roughly 10 percent enter Alcoholics Anonymous
on the strength of such an experience. The remaining 90
percent who stay dry achieve the same result by developing
slowly and much more gradually the spiritual side of their
nature through following the various steps in the program
What then is a spiritual awakening? Here the personal experience
of Mr. Wilson is again informative. A man of energy, drive
and great ability, in his thirties, he found himself completely
bogged down by drink. For at least five years he fought
without success the downhill process that was going on in
He was desperate, depressed, with all the fight knocked
out of him. He was willing to try anything because he knew
that the alternative facing him was a state hospital and
a life of permanent insanity.
Suddenly in this agony of spirit, he cried aloud, "If
there is a God, let Him show himself now." And with
this plea his religious experience started. He points out,
and I think rightfully, that it was not until he became
utterly humble that he could and did turn to God for the
help that was there.
other words, in the light of Mr. Wilson's own experience,
a religious or spiritual awakening is the act of giving
up one's reliance on one's omnipotence. The defiant individuality
no longer defies but accepts help, guidance and control
from the outside. And as the individual relinquishes his
negative, aggressive feelings toward himself and toward
life, he finds himself overwhelmed by strongly positive
ones such as love, friendliness, peacefulness and pervading
contentment, which state is the exact antithesis of the
former restlessness and irritability. And the significant
fact is that with this new mental state the individual is
no longer "driven to drink.
insight into the phenomenon of spiritual change came from
a patient whose case I now wish to cite. He is a man in
his early forties. From a family of wealth and the youngest
of several children, he was the pampered darling of a neurotic,
began in late adolescence. Almost at once he learned to
rely on liquor to help him meet social situations, and as
the years rolled on, this reliance became more pronounced.
proved to be an exceedingly responsive patient, readily
acknowledging his alcoholic tendency, and quickly becoming
interested in Alcoholics Anonymous. After about a month,
he was convinced that he had the problem in hand. Within
a short time, however, nipping set in and four months later
he returned after some weeks of steady drinking.
Again he showed himself responsive to interviews, but it
now became apparent that there was a real battle ahead.
The traits already described reared themselves as insuperable
barriers to therapy.
During the weeks that we were discussing these obstacles
the patient began to nip on the sly and finally went off
on a full-fledged spree. As is usual with all alcoholics,
as he sobered up he was filled with remorse, guilt and a
tremendous sense of humility.
defiant personality was licked by the very excesses of its
own behavior and, in that mood, he was utterly sure he would
never take another drop. On the third day of his recuperation,
however, he informed me during an interview that I had better
do something about it, and when I asked him what "
it" referred to, he replied, "My old feeling is
coming back over me; I just feel myself closing in from
you and all that has just happened."
The indifference to his problem, the aggressive sureness,
the utter lack of any real sense of humility and guilt,
all the character traits which he had come to identify with
the frame of mind that led to drinking were returning and
crowding out the feelings, the thoughts, almost the sensations
which filled him as he came out of his drinking bout. He
knew that if these returning feelings again took hold of
him sooner or later he would go on another alcoholic spree.
He realized that somehow he must cling to the attitudes
at the end of the bout.
next day he began his interview with the statement, "Doc,
I've got it." He then went on to report his experience
of the previous night. This experience I label for want
of a better term, "a psychological awakening."
What happened was a sudden flash of understanding about
himself as a person. This occurred around eleven o'clock,
and he lay in bed, wide awake until four o'clock in the
morning fitting his new insights and understanding to his
knowledge of himself.
is not easy to reconstruct the events of that five hour
period, yet those events constitute a major experience in
the life of that patient which gave him a basic appreciation
of himself as an alcoholic. Moreover, for the first time,
he could see himself as he had always been, and in addition
he could sense the sort of person he must become if he were
to remain sober. Without being aware of it at the time,
he had switched from a completely egocentric, subjective
point of view to an objective, mature understanding of himself
In retrospect, it is apparent that the patient became aware
of his basic egocentricity. For the first time he was able
to penetrate behind the facade of his rationalizations and
defense reactions and to see that always hitherto he had
put himself first.
He was literally unaware that other souls existed except
insofar as they affected him. That they, too, might have
separate existences, similar yet different from his, just
never had taken on the aspect of reality.
Now he no longer felt himself the omnipotent being who viewed
the world only in relation to himself. Instead, he could
see himself in relation to the world and could realize that
he was but a small fraction of a universe peopled by many
other individuals. He could share life with others. He had
no further need to dominate and to fight to maintain that
domination. He could relax and take things easy.
His new orientation can best be described in the patient's
own words. As he put it, "Why, Doc, do you know I've
been a fraud all my life, and I never knew it. I used to
think I was interested in people, but that wasn't really
so. I wasn't interested in my mother as a person who was
sick. I didn't realize that she as a person might be suffering;
I only thought what will happen to me when she is gone.
People used to point me out as a dutiful son and an example,
and I believed it. But there wasn't anything to it. I was
just anxious to keep her near, because she made me feel
better. She never criticized me and always made me feel
that whatever I did, I was O.K."
New insights illuminated his previous relationships with
people. With respect to this point, he remarked, "Do
you know, I'm beginning to feel closer to people. I can
think of them sometimes. And I feel easier with them, too.
Maybe that's because I don't think they're fighting me,
since I don't feel I'm fighting them. I now think maybe
they can really like me."
In conclusion, it is my belief that Alcoholics Anonymous
relies upon an emotional force, religion, to achieve an
emotional result. It overthrows a negative, hostile, act
of emotions and supplants them with a positive set in which
the individual no longer need maintain his defiant individuality,
but can live in peace and in harmony with the world.
Science Digest, May 1944)