My lost seven years
by NORMAN BROKENSHIRE
This is the story of a man who was able to struggle back from a tragic wasteland after discovering a new set of values for an old way of life
The other day, a teen-age boy stood across the desk from me, here in my office in New York’s Radio City and said, “I’m in trouble, Mr. Brokenshire,” and when I asked, “What kind of trouble, son?” he said, “I am an alcoholic.”
We think of alcoholics, generally, as men-and women of mature years. As a matter of fact, research studies show that there are about half as many women as men alcoholics in the United States-and here is a lad who, at nineteen years of age, has lived through nearly all the horror and torment, through all the sordid, sad and shabby experiences I have suffered, and caused those who love me to suffer-for I, too, am an alcoholic.
Those who have worked with me and played with me in the recent busy active years may pause here to ask themselves, “What does Broke mean by saying ‘I am an alcoholic-he hasn’t had a drink in seven years!”
Nor have I. For me to take a drink now would be exacctly like an intelligent man putting his hand on a red hot stove to see if it would burn. Just as unthinkable. Just as idiotic. Nevertheless-and I can’t say it too often-once an alcoholic always an alcoholic, and when one finally “dries up,” as I have dried up, he stays dry only when he keeps in mind the fact that he is an alcoholic and accepts the fact. You accept it only when you no longer say, vaingloriously, “I will never take another drink as long as I live!” but instead, and humbly, “I have not had a drink today-please God I will not take one tomorrow.”
I am trying to help this young lad I have mentioned, as I am trying to help others, by helping him to help himself. I tell him, as I tell each and everyone, that alcoholism is no respecter of persons-the truck driver and the movie star, the chorus girl and the school-teacher, they have all come to me with their problems and I am glad they came to me, for these contacts are very potent reminders that I am an alcoholic and that the meager measure between their stagnant hopelessness and my joyous activity is-just one drink.
Why they come to me may be difficult to understand-unless you realize that alcoholism is a disease of body and mind which fact, for years, has brought it beyond the ken of the purely physical or purely mental healers. The pleadings of wives and sweethearts, the terrifying threats of physicians and psychiatrists, the sincere well intended help of spiritual advisers makes no lasting impression on the alcoholic for the simple reason that the understanding is not there and the consequent approach is always wrong.
It seems that only an alcoholic really understands an alcoholic. When this teen-age boy tried to justify himself by saying, “My father is an alcoholic, my mother a drinking woman so what but alcoholism should be expected of me?” He knew that I could talk his language when I promptly punctured his alibi by telling him, “I am the son, the grandson of ministers and missionaries. My home atmosphere and teaching were of the very best-so what but total abstinence should have been expected of me?” I added that just as no man and no woman can be held responsible for causing the disease of alcoholism in another, so no man and no woman can be expected to cure it.
“Then to what, or to whom,” the lad asked me, “can I turn for help?”
“To your own desire for a full and happy life,” I answered him, “and to faith in a power greater than yourself.”
“What is this power greater than myself?” he asked quietly.
I said, “I choose to call it-God.”
The story of how I tried every human agency before I found the Truth that made me whole is the story I now wish to tell the readers of RADIO MIRROR-the story of my lost seven years. Not merely a lost “week-end,” mind you, but a story of seven lost years at a time when I should normally have been at my best and how a meeting with others like myself made the difference between the outcast that I was and the happy man that I am.
Friends have said of me, “In the beginning, it was just innocent social drinking with Broke-just going the usual rounds of social and business parties, being one of the boys.”
Nonsense. Kindly and well-meant rationalizing but-nonsense. It was never just “innocent social drinking” with me. Mt drinking right from the start, was secret drinking.
Since it was considered a sin at home to take a drink, I “snuck” my first one when I was a senior in high school. Nothing particularly ominous in this, mark you. A fairly routine gesture of boyish bravado, nothing more. The evidence that I was an alcoholic was handed down when, long after maturity had removed the necessity for secret drinking, I found myself avoiding the bars where my pals drank, preferring to go off by myself and drink solo, or with complete strangers. To me, drinking was a sin. This, had I but known it, was the first symptom of alcoholism.
I didn’t know it. No man knows, no boy, girl or woman knows whether pr not he, or she, is a potential alcoholic. Like other dread diseases, alcoholism attacks in the dark. It is gradual and by the time it can be diagnosed, it is mighty serious and the victim is in a bad way. But, also like most diseases, there are symptoms-and a sense of guilt in your drinking is one of them.
The “social drinker” indulges in alcohol as a beverage, to stimulate fellowship or to loosen his inhibitions. The alcoholic drinks for an anodyne and for the escape it gives him. The social drinker never thinks of drinking as anything but a social pastime-he wants to relax and have fun openly, and does. The alcoholic soon finds himself alone and unhappy in his drinking. It is as though each drink was added to the last drink in an effort to keep reality at a distance, an effort to stay in an alcoholic suspension where Conscience cannot reach. In my seven years of alcoholism, I can’t remember one happy moment, drunk or sober.
There are other warning symptoms, too, and I had them all. It took ever increasing amounts to give me the lift others got with one or two drinks. I always wanted to be the last one at a party and when the festivities were over and the social drinkers went home, I went on, and on…..
Let’s flash back, momentarily, to those years before the symptoms in my case became apparent. From school days through high school and college I had worked at some forty different jobs-printer, mechanic, the “repertoire”-such as the average boy undertakes. After World War I activity in the Students Training Corps, there followed several years of welfare work. From YMCA “hut” secretary, I went on to campaign work and lay preaching for the Near East Relief. The transition to radio took place in 1924, at which time I became staff announcer for station WJZ. Among my earliest assignments were the now historic broadcasts of the National Democratic Convention held in the old Madison Square Garden, the inauguration of President Coolidge, the Zev-Epinard race, the first two-way conversation between a plane in flight and myself on the ground, the first air interviews with movie, radio and the theatrical stars, the funeral of William Jennings Bryan, the Lindbergh “Welcome Home” reception and many others.
Yes, as early as 1926 mine was one of the best know voices on the air-the other being that of the late Graham McNamee. When, as the result of a popularity contest, New York’s Mayor, the beloved Jimmy Walker, crowned me “King of Announcers,” I was earning five hundred a week and no ceiling on potential. My fan-mail was phenomenal.
This brief brochure on the early Brokenshire is not to boast, but simply to make the point that, from the very beginning, I was a potential success in this new medium of radio-and I was scared! I found myself in a job that I felt was too big for me. Each day, each program was a fearful thing. I was afraid I couldn’t do the wonderful things expected of me. I wanted to hide, I wanted to get in a hole and pull it in after me. I did. I drank. I drank to find courage to work and I drank in relief when the work was done. When I had enough alcohol, I wasn’t the simple lad born in an Ontario backwoods cabin, son of an unknown circuit minister. I wasn’t the misunderstood youngster being “let go” from job after job. When I was drinking I wasn’t tired or worried, I wasn’t afraid…In my cups, I could keep pace with the glamorous life I was living, could rub elbows casually with the name men I was meeting. When I was drinking I had, in short, escaped reality altogether.
The habit-patterns of alcoholics are all the same. Every alcoholic has a “reason,” an excuse for his excessive drinking. Some alcoholics drink to "steady their nerves,” some because they’re so happy, others because they’re so sad. Each individual thinks his, or her case is different from every other case in the annals of alcoholism, but this, too, is a common denominator of the disease. Basically, these are all attempts to rationalize a behavior we inwardly know is wrong.
Flashing back once more to my early days in radio, I got through the first year without manifest mishap. But by 1925, I began to be late for appointments. I drank at rehearsals and before broadcasts. I had an over-abundance of jubilance. During one such moment I smashed the window of the control room. When my escapades became such that they could no longer be overlooked, I was punished by being sent to a local station in Washington, D.C.
Not long afterward, as a reward for good behavior, I was recalled to New York and made Chief Announcer, of the super-power station-for WJZ had been given a license to operate at 80,000 watts. However, restlessness was soon to overcome me, for I was under very restraining rules as a staff announcer. I was offered the job of heading up the Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City by the municipal radio station there. This and other offers prompted me to go free-lance. Broadcasting from all the gay nightspots and the atmosphere of the “world’s playground” added fuel to the fire, and I soon hit the skids again.
Others could see it, if I could not. My bosses for instance, and a wonderful girl-the girl I married.
My wife married me because she loved me. Since she had worked in the publicity department of Station WJZ and, later, in charge of the station’s announcers, she married me in the knowledge that I had a problem. She also married me, I have no doubt, with the idea of helping me and straightening out my faults. This, believe me, seldom works out.
I took, in the course of my seven lost years, many so-called “cures” and when I left the last “cure,” I was waved off with cheery, “Bye, now, but you’ll be back old man-all our friends come back!” So they do. All but those who have been blessed, as I have been, by the revelation that the cure for alcoholism is not entirely in human hands.
For two years, I worked with a psychiatrist and during those two years I dried up. My habit pattern improved. I hung up my clothes. I thought a little straighter but became very egotistical about the fact that I was “dry.” I boasted that I could now eat in bars without drinking in them, could look at other unfortunate drinkers and pity them-and this very attitude proved that I was not on the right track. Done with no recognition of, or reliance upon God, there was nothing to sustain the habit-patterns the psychiatrist had given me. This being so, the patterns fell apart-and so did I. But this comes later….
Meantime, I was still wearing the crown of “King of Announcers,” still getting by with it…In the earlier stages, the alcoholic usually manages to pull the wool over the eyes he wants to blind. Or he thinks he does. And so did I. But although my assignments continued to be king-size, so did my lapses and I was warned that if I ever again came to work with so much as a suspicion of liquor on my breath, “You’re through.” It happened one day at a rehearsal. The word that I was through spread over the entire field of radio like a flash of lightening.
Unable to get work in New York, I made a tour of the West Indies and the Canal Zone as narrator for a travelogue of which, it soon developed the director, like myself, was an alcoholic. The tour turned out a complete dud.
Still persons non grata in New York City, I went to the West Coast but an alcoholic knows better than anyone else that you cannot run away from yourself.
During the next year, a few independent stations gave me work but not for long. IN between the spot engagements that became spottier and spottier, I worked as a carpenter, an odd-jobs man, anything I could get in order to keep going. IN my sober moments, I worked on completing my own house.
In my better days of the early Thirties, I bought a piece of land, a little acre among the birches of Long Island’s Lake Ronkonkoma and there, with the understanding help and love of a few relatives and friends evolved the house which I believe, I do believe, was the basic interest that kept me fighting all through these years-fighting to hold on to it. It is curious, but no matter how discouraged I might be, that dream of a home-to-be stayed with me and, in some far reach of my sick spirit, sustained me.
When I dried up in 1943 that house, the now finished home we call Trianglen, was the only thing that was left me from the lost years.
But busy as I was in those early Thirties, together with trying to “dry up,” the struggle was like the losing fight. By the end of 1937, I “retired.”
The days, the weeks, the months and years that followed are, mercifully, almost oblivion…until, one day, walking down Broadway, I met a man I’d known in radio. He, too, had been an alcoholic. Now, he was clear-eyed, had a spring in his step, a happy smile. He told me he was in Alcoholics Anonymous. He asked me to come to a meeting with him. I went. This was in 1943. I haven’t had a drink from that day to this day-and God give me the strength and the courage to hope that I won’t have a drink tomorrow. That I say this, say it every day of my life, tells the story of what AA did for me.
“Dry” AA’s have learned there is a power greater than ourselves and that in the recognition and use of this power lies our healing and our hope.
My spiritual experience was, as great experiences are, very simple.
There in a quiet room were men and women, who, until these meetings, were completely alone, but here they came to the knowledge that many others had the same fears, and had gone through the same dark abyss. Now they seemed secure in the knowledge that they were no longer alone, for the Power that had aided these others was around them, too. Each new meeting one lent strength to the conviction that this was the way to normalcy and to freedom. So many alcoholics, including myself, resist for years the simple message of AA, for in them is the fear that in giving up their bottle, they are giving up their freedom-when, in truth, there is no greater slave than an alcoholic. Only when he is enabled by right thinking to drop forever the chains of habitual fear that drink is to the alcoholic, is he truly free.
There lay ahead of me now the challenge of the “come-back.” It wasn’t going to be easy. “You can get a job, Broke,” friends told me, “But you’ll never get one in New York.”
We went to Washington, my wife and I, and for a year I worked there. Upon returning to New York, I began making the rounds of everyone I had ever known in radio. But doors, once so wide open, were closed to me.
Finally, after months of trying to get the attention of averted eyes or close my ears to the repetitive “Sorry, old man,” one day Phillips Carlin, then program director of Mutual Broadcasting System decided to give me a job announcing.
This was the first hand-up, the first stone in the build-up.
One and one-half years later, U.S. Steel asked me if I would be available every Sunday night for five years!
The lapse of another year-and Chesterfield called me for minute spots. It was the most constructive thing that could have happened to me for my old sponsor to call me. It healed an old wound.
Later I was approached by WNBC for the Take It Easy Time show. And in four months I was offered the 9:15 morning program. Now five days a week comes the old familiar greeting, “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen, how do you do?”
When I go off the deep end now, it’s for things like porterhouse steaks, barbecue, or the swimming pool-or chess or rummy. And am at peace as of today. “As of today,” for I must still take it twenty-four hours at a time, thankful for today and believing that, by the grace of God, I will have reason to be thankful for tomorrow.
(Source: Radio and TV Mirror, March 1950)