Drunkenness is on the decline in this country. But a tragic few still
abuse the harmless pleasures of moderate drinking. For the first time,
ILLUSTRATED investigates an experiment to help chronic inebriates
by WILLI FRISCHAUER
For a few days I have lived in a world of trembling hands, twitching faces and stumbling feet, among a group of self-centered, talkative yet hesitant people, whose moral and physical powers of resistance had reached rock bottom. I have spent my time with men and women superficially normal but actually in the grip of a malignant, soul-and-body-destroying disease. All my companions were chronic alcoholics. I met them at “Hangover House,” a clinic in a south coast holiday resort.
By meeting them I am able to lift one corner of the veil of secrecy which has covered the mysterious organization Alcoholics Anonymous, with its hundred thousand members in the United States and many branches in Britain. For the first time in the history of the organization, created to help inebriates rid themselves of the craving for harmful drink, a member is prepared to shed his anonymity. It was his house and his work which enabled me to investigate the scourge of alcoholism in this country.
Do not think that they are the least worried by the ordinary man who occasionally over-celebrates in the local. They are concerned with the men and women whose drinking is not only destructive of themselves but an embarrassment to those in what is popularly known as “the trade.” Every licensee in the country will confirm that it is the habitual alcoholic who gives the business a bad name and leads to misguided agitation for Prohibition. It is an obvious irony that America during its Prohibition days saw the birth of the bootleg liquor rackets and an all-time high in crime and drunkenness.
Until a few weeks ago, Alcoholics Anonymous was only a cypher, an address – “BM/AAL, London, W.C.I.” Few people knew anything about the organization. Even “interested parties” had difficulty in tracing it. Then, in quick succession, members intervened in police court cases at Worthing and Hasting on behalf of people charged with being drunk and disorderly. Without revealing their names, they told the magistrates that, in their opinion, the accused could be cured.
The anonymous witness at Hastings Police Court was a man who had risen to a high position among his fellow-citizens, but had been on the brink of disaster through his addiction to alcohol. He succeeded in re-establishing himself as a useful member of society. Like all members of Alcoholics Anonymous, he frankly describes himself as an ex-alcoholic. He now reveals his identity as Mr. E.C.V. Symonds. “Less than a year ago,” he says,”I was a three-bottle a day man, drinking pernod, vodka, calvados – anything to get strong drink.”
Mr. Symonds conquered his craving, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and does not now touch alcohol. Like all members, he is determined to help others overcome their handicap. An expert in “natural therapy” and “hypnotism, “Vernon” (members of Alcoholics Anonymous are only known by their Christian names) has gone further than the fellowship in his determination to combat alcoholism and to help individual drunkards.
While Alcoholics Anonymous concentrates on a spiritual cure, Vernon adds very practical measures which, strictly speaking, are outside the province of the organization. The basis for his curative efforts are the “twelve steps” which can be described as the constitution of Alcoholics Anonymous. First of these is “honest self-appraisal”: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
The next points consist of statements of belief in a greater power which can restore alcoholics to sanity: a “humble request to God” to remove shortcomings; a decision to make amends to all persons wronged.
The monthly journal: The A.A. Grapevine, published in the United States, puts it like this: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. A.A. has no dues or fees. It is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”
That is the catechism of the “alkies” – as alcoholics call themselves in America. They hold meetings once or twice a week, discuss their experiences, exchange ideas, strengthen each other’s beliefs and offer moral support to fellow-members. It has been like this since the movement began in Ohio in 1935, when a stockbroker and a doctor, both alcoholics, resolve to cure each other. Within a year, there were forty members. Today there are more than 100,000 in the United States. After the war, British groups began to function, chiefly in London, Manchester, Bolton and along the south coast.
At first it was chiefly hurried notes scribbled in a police cell by a drunken man, or calls from patients in mental homes which brought members of A.A. to the side of a new aspirant for membership. Now alcoholics Anonymous is open to a wider circle. Their telephone number is appearing in the new directory this month. Ring Bishopsgate 9657, and your call will be answered by Alcoholics Anonymous.
Medical authorities, in fact, are not quite agreed on what constitutes alcoholism. But my inquiries have produced a startling common denominator. All the self-confessed alcoholics I met hate alcohol in their sober moments. They know that it is the enemy, and that they are powerless once they begin to drink.
“For months I keep off it,” said a successful doctor when I met him at the clinic. “Then by accident, or because of some upset, I have a couple of drinks. At once I get a craving for more and my capacity is great. When ‘time’ is called at a pub I move on in search of more liquor. Why, when ever the night clubs close I make my way to Covent Garden, where the pubs for the market people open early in the morning.”
This man’s latest debauch lasted a full fortnight until he was eventually picked up by Vernon, who took him to his clinic. Covered in mud, the doctor had literally dragged himself through a dozen gutters. His experience is typical. A well-known woman author and alcoholic told me that she disliked the taste of liquor but that she drank two bottles a day until her collapse. And an accountant who in his normal moments looks “as sober as a judge,” confessed that after a domestic conflict he drank eau-de-Cologne and switched to lighter fuel before ending up with methylated spirits.
It is with such situations that Alcoholics Anonymous must cope. They insist that most doctors, clergymen, psychologists and probation officers who are called in to help an alcoholic, have the disadvantage of not really understanding his mind” “Only a habitual drunkard can understand his fellow-sufferer,” is the view of A.A. The secretary of the British branches, who calls himself “Dick,” is satisfied with the progress and success of the fellowship. “We now number around 500 members,” he told me, “and meet regularly to discuss our problems. Yes, I was an alcoholic myself.”
The small membership of Alcoholics Anonymous in Britain is a testimony to the sobriety of the people. Charges have been steadily declining for many decades.
A well-known publican said that drunkenness is today the least of his trade’s worries. Only very occasionally does he have to deal with customers who have overstepped the mark, and long experience in observation across the bar enables him to discover a potential trouble-maker long before the man himself realizes that he is getting “under the influence.”
Practically every one of these customers is outside the demoralization, pernicious real of real alcoholism. For the true alcoholic, many experts claim, there is no cure – except rigid teetotalism. Doctors in this country are now experimenting with a new drug, antabuse, and are reporting a fair average of success. This drug turns people against the taste of alcohol, but it is too early yet to say whether it can achieve a permanent cure. Such results, according to Alcoholics Anonymous, can only be obtained by an act of faith, as their fellowship suggests.
My investigations show that the most difficult aspect of such a spiritual cure is the “first step.” It is extremely difficult foe an alcoholic who has reached a low moral and physical standard after prolonged indulgence to “snap out of it.” Even if his bout lands him in jail his cravings persists because he faces another personal crisis from which the only escape seems to be renewed alcoholic insensibility. As soon as the victim of alcohol is released he again begins to “drown his sorrows” to sink his shame and dishonour.
That is where a combination of spiritual approach and physical treatment comes in. “I have been through it all myself,” Vernon explained, when I visited his clinic, where he treats no more than four patients at a time. “Therefore I am never amazed, never surprised by alcoholics; I am not unconcerned with their worries but I do not pander to their tendencies of egocentricity. Neither, frankly, will I stand any nonsense from the recalcitrant.”
His view is that all appearances of an “institution” should be avoided. His own home is a pleasant country house standing in its own grounds. Here patients, distinguished, dignified-looking people, go for walks, spend their time gardening, exercise their bodies, take steam baths and electrical treatment, eat mostly fruit and vegetables, and enjoy the companionship of fellow-sufferers. In no circumstances are drugs administered. A drop of alcohol to calm down a “bad case” is the limit.
Emphasis is still laid on re-education, and hypnosis plays its part. But it is essential to develop in the alcoholics, a strong feeling for his fellow-alcoholic, and in this respect Vernon recalls some spectacular successes. “On one occasion,” he told me, ”A patient was in bed anxiously awaiting the visit of a business partner. The latter, alas, arrived very drunk. There being no other bed free, the patient got up to vacate his own to the greater sufferer.”
Such reaction seems to show that the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous are sound. Alcoholism, it is said, is a mental defect which rigid application of all available will power is best able to counteract. One an alcoholic can summon up enough moral courage to keep away from that first drink he will steer clear of the dark and dangerous passage which leads him through the mists of alcohol fumes down the road to demoralization- and mental and physical destruction.
In this country, as in the United States, the pioneering work of Alcoholics Anonymous is watched with the closest interest by religious bodies, doctors, psychologists, social workers – and the police.
(Source: Illustrated, April 8, 1950)