Second of seven articles on alcohol
In personal and public health
We in Alcoholics Anonymous-more than 60,000 men and women-have found a way of life that for us has solved the problem of alcoholism.
To some of us the word “alcoholic” presented a problem almost as great as our abnormal drinking. Our picture of the alcoholic: The stumbling creature of the skid roads of our bigger cities; the town drunkard, half clown, half bogy man, of our smaller communities; or the hapless, hopeless, desperate “repeater” of the state and private hospitals, the “cures”, the workhouses.
The majority of us weren’t that kind of drinker. We maintained a home. We supported our families. We had a position in the community. True, we drank more than most people but that didn’t make us fit our concept of the alcoholic.
For such of us Alcoholics Anonymous said: We believe that an alcoholic is simply an uncontrolled drinker. We believe that the alcoholic is one whose life has become unmanageable because of his drinking. We believe that, if a man’s drinking is interfering seriously with a normal way of life in his domestic, social or business affairs, that the man might well examine himself honestly, objectively, to determine if he has passed the thin line that separates the uncontrolled drinker from the controlled drinker.
To others of us, the word “alcoholic” and the AA definition of an alcoholic, came as a blessed relief. The thought had nagged us that no sane man would continue to drink as we were drinking. We had drifted into the twilight zone of the mind where the real and the fancied were becoming tangled. We were beginning to fear that out-and-out insanity lay just around the bend.
To both groups bitter experience lent credence to the suggestion that certain human beings were allergic to alcohol; that certain persons were so constituted as to make them hypersensitive to the effects of alcohol; that alcohol was a disease or a symptom, perhaps, of a deeper disease.
This put a new light on alcoholism. We were not wrestling merely with a moral problem. We were not simply afflicted by darkness of intellect, weakness of will and sheer orneriness of personality.
The next step was the attack on the obsession common to alcoholics-that somehow, somewhere, sometime they will be able to drink in a controlled manner. Despite the alcoholic’s past, despite the facts of the record, there is in the alcoholic this obsession that tomorrow, the next time he can drink in moderation.
The true nature of the obsession began to appear when a cold and analytic examination of the alcoholic’s record was made in company with men and women whose own records presented a startling parallel. And what did the record show? That over no considerable period had the alcoholic been able to drink in a temperate manner; that despite the devices he had tried-some elaborate, some ingenious, some just plain silly-and despite the seeming safeguards he had set up, there was always but one ending to his experiments with alcohol-he had drunk to excess.
There was the further attack on the obsession in the testimony of the group experience of Alcoholics Anonymous and in the findings of the physician and the psychiatrist, that once a man had passed the line that separates the uncontrolled drinker from the controlled drinker, there was no returning; that never again could he hope to drink in a controlled manner.
Here is the stark factual picture for the alcoholic; That never can he hope to drink except to excess; that as the years go on the little enjoyment becomes less and, if he persists in drinking, the material suffering, the physical suffering, the mental anguish grow worse. If there is any semblance of sanity left in the alcoholic, he sees the need for a decision. With the help of men and women whom he recognizes as having been through the same meatgrinder he has experienced, the alcoholic is aided in arriving at the one proper decision-to put alcohol out of his life.
When a man embraces the way of life of Alcoholics Anonymous, he makes no promise, he takes no pledge that never again will he drink.
We say to him:”Can you quit drinking for twenty-four hours?”
“Certainly,” he says. “Anybody can quit drinking for twenty-four hours.”
“Well,” we say, “that’s all we want you to strive for-to quit drinking for twenty-four hours.”
And then we add: “Twenty-four hours at a time.”
To the alcoholic the prospect of living out his life with never another drink opens a dim and dubious vista. It seems an endless, difficult trail.
But the thought of staying dry just for today, that seems simple, comparatively easy. And it is.
This may strike some as a childish device, a playing with words, a paltering with a problem.
What we in Alcoholics Anonymous are interested in is the result. And what is the result of this twenty-four hour program and how does it work out?
It cuts down the problem of alcoholism from a hugh complex, bewildering, life-long problem to the simple task of here and now.
It closes the door on the past with its sighs over what might have been, its dolorous regrets over lost opportunity, its rankling remorse.
It bars the door to the future with its daydreams of easy conquest, its castles in Spain, its substitution of the wish for the deed.
It introduces order into the life of the alcoholic. It demands an end to procrastination.
Because it is a chain of his own forging, a chain he is at liberty to toss aside if he will, the alcoholic finds the chain easy to bear. The days slip by. And the weeks. Then the months.
The alcoholic realizes of a sudden that he has achieved a term of sobriety. Meanwhile his mind has cleared. He sees the benefits of a life without alcohol. His will to remain sober is strengthened by each day of dryness.
He has found a formula for cutting life to a size he can grapple with and he adopts it for all his affairs.
He has found new friends, close friends, friends who understand him better than those of years standing. As one alcoholic tells it: “The difference between being in Alcoholics Anonymous and trying to stay dry by myself is the difference between being at liberty and in solitary confinement.” This group therapy is important, highly important.
But the driving force of Alcoholics Anonymous is spiritual, a belief in and a dependence on a Higher Power-God, as the alcoholic understands Him. No attempt will be made here at amplification of this statement because this phase of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is a highly individualistic one, a concept and a relationship that each alcoholic works out for himself.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded 12 years ago in Akron, Ohio, in a providential meeting between an Akron surgeon and the New York investment counselor who had the thought of the program.
The New Yorker was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t persuade other alcoholics to accept the means by which he had achieved sobriety after a spectacular career in alcoholism.
The surgeon suggested maybe the New Yorker had been operating in the belief that in talking with other alcoholics, he was conferring the favor; that he was Lady Bountiful with the basket of groceries visiting the poor. Out of their discussion came the recognition that the sober alcoholic, in talking with the drinking alcoholic, is conferring the favor on himself.
This has become basic in AA procedure-that we seek to aid other alcoholics primarily to aid ourselves. This has proved out the adage that he who seeks to teach others convinces himself.
It has put our whole teaching program on a selfishly realistic basis. It has kept excesses of zeal to a minimum. It has forestalled smugness with its fatal dryrot. It has tempered the evangelistic spirit with humility and humor. It has restrained more than one well meaning sobered alcoholic from becoming a “reformer,” a fanatic or a plain pest.
There is sound psychology in our work with other alcoholics. Seeing an alcoholic on his bed of pain, fresh from the horrors of a ringtailed, chandelier-hanging binge emphasizes sharply to the sober alcoholic the contrast between his present well-being and his chaotic past.
And with each new man or woman the sober alcoholic brings into Alcoholics Anonymous comes a heightened sense of responsibility, a deeper satisfaction and a buttressed resolve to continue living without alcohol.
Many a psychiatrist has suggested to the alcoholic that interest in a hobby be one to which the alcoholic can devote the rest of his life, a hobby in which his interest will never flag. The hobby? Building himself into the kind of personality he has always wanted to be. Seeking to live his own concept of the perfect life.
We have seen alcoholics tackle lesser hobbies. We have seen how, after the first flare of enthusiasm, there was a lessening interest, finally a positive distaste-and then, more drinking.
Not so with the hobby which is himself. Nor does Alcoholics Anonymous rest content with suggesting this hobby to the new member. It provides a series of exercises in self-discipline, the help and counsel of his new friends, experienced friends, and the incentives of regained self respect, the sense of achievement and of group approval by which this personality change may be effected.
Man being a social creature hungers for companionship, for fellowship. He reaches the fullness of his powers, the fullness of his content in that society which is a larger picture of himself. So it is for the alcoholic who comes into Alcoholics Anonymous. There is complete understand of the suffering he has undergone; there is sympathy, without condescension; pity, without the alloy of superiority; a fellow feeling which preaches most forcibly by example.
“All walks of life” is an ancient and hackneyed phrase. Yet in truth there is no phrase to describe the 60,000 men and women in Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcohol is no respecter of persons. Which is why we number in our ranks members from nearly every trade, every occupation, every profession, every station and every class.
In the early days of the movement most of the men who came to us were 40 and over, most of the women in their 30s. As word of our program spread, the average age of entrants began to drop. We started to attract men in their 30s, women in their late 20s.
Since the end of the war there has been an influx of younger men and women, just two, three, four years past their majority. Confirmed alcoholics at that age? Certainly. These young folk have found they can not drink in a controlled manner. Rather than waste years in a vain struggle with alcohol, they have courageously accepted the fact of their alcoholism and are building lives in which alcohol will play no part.
The war didn’t make alcoholics of them. It simply speeded up the process. Young men away from the restraints of home began their alcoholic careers at an earlier age. Young women, bored with a comparatively manless existence, turned to drinking at “hen parties,” and the customary percentage found they were alcoholic.
How does one become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous? In most of the 1,200 communities where we have groups, there is a listing in the telephone book. If no telephone is listed in your community, a telephone call to the city editor or your local daily paper usually brings the information. Or interested persons may address the Alcoholic Foundation, P.O. Box 459, Grand Central Annex, New York City.
For the relative or friend who wishes to help an alcoholic and who hesitates at bringing up the subject, we suggest the family physician or clergyman as an effective agent in directing the alcoholic to consult our group.
Sometimes desperate wives or parents have asked that members of our group call uninvited on the alcoholic, engage him with conversation about baseball, the high cost of living or the threat of the atomic bomb, and then, presto, switch the subject to alcoholism.
This subterfuge just does not work. We are not slight of hand performers nor high-pressure salesmen. Such a procedure, we have found, may well antagonize the alcoholic and set his mind against Alcoholics Anonymous as a band of meddling busybodies.
All that we ask of the alcoholic is that he know the reason for our coming, that he give us a few minutes that we may tell our story.
We know that most alcoholics have long since ceased to enjoy drinking. We know that most alcoholics are seeking a way out of their alcoholic trap.
The comic verse about the over-whelming love of “one drunken gent for another” has a deal of truth in it. There is a bond between alcoholics. Within minutes the alcoholic and the AA members are “talking turkey.”
Often the prospect admits his alcoholism but is fearful it will become known he has joined Alcoholics Anonymous. We can assure him, and with honesty, his fears are groundless. It is accepted group practice that no member divulges the membership of another member unless he has definite and specific permission to do so, and then only under unusual circumstances. Anonymity is observed and preserved.
Many times the first visit brings the alcoholic into our group. Again it may be the alcoholic’s obsession persuades him that he can handle the problem. Or it may be that he is not ready to make a decision to quit drinking. But the seed has been planted, and usually we hear from him later-if he doesn’t die meanwhile.
If the alcoholic is not yet ready, he is not badgered to join us. We have learned that the man who joins under duress has small chances of success. We are content to wait until he makes up his mind. When that comes, we know he is well on his way to victory.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a group of people bound together by their interest in solving a problem common to them. It is a fellowship rather than an organization in the formal sense of that word. It has no officers, no initiation fees, no dues. It is open to anyone who has an alcoholic problem and a sincere desire to solve it.
It is a matter of record that our program can solve the alcoholic’s problem. As a footnote, we’d like to add that it’s fun, too.
(Source: Hygeia, July 1948)