IF YOU JOINED ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
Pink elephants are trumpeting in your ear and
your body is screaming for a shot. Here’s what
it takes to get off the treadmill of alcoholism.
by JOSH GREENFELD
When Gregory Garrity entered the bar
The church lost a bishop
The opera lost a star
When Gregory Garrity entered the bar.
In the neighborhood gin mill, Garrity stood in his usual position, one foot on the rail, one hand on a whiskey glass, repeating his favorite chant before a disinterested audience of two-a bartender who was busily tallying up the day’s receipts before closing time and a stranger who was staring moodily into his drink in a corner booth. Garrity was a robust man, in his late 30s, red-faced, and endowed with an infinite capacity. He had downed 14 whiskey sours, but he could still see his own image clearly in the mirror behind the bar. What I need, he thought, is another drink.
“Jack, m’boy,” he called out to the bartender, ”won’t you fill her up again, lad?”
“Just show me your silver,” the bartender said.
Garrity fished into his pockets. All he could come up with was a buffalo nickel and two steel pennies. He checked his wallet. It was empty. "Well,” he coughed, “I guess you’ll have to put it on my tab, Jack.”
“You know what the boss said about your tab,” the bartender said.
Garrity smiled softly. “Just one little drink.”
“I got my orders,” the bartender said.
“For old times’ sake,” Garrity begged. “I’m a good customer here.”
“You owe $400 here,” the bartender said.
Garrity took his foot off the rail and straightened up with a poised dignity, “I happen to be the attorney for this establishment,” he said. “And the trifling sum of $400 would certainly be considered a modest retainer for a man of my legal talents.”
The bartender smiled coldly. “Yeah, that reminds me. The boss said he didn’t want to have no lush for a lawyer anymore.”
“I’m not a lush!” Garrity said angrily.
“Then what the hell are you?” The bartender turned away.
Garrity followed him down the bar. “Please Jack,” he whined, ”you’ve got to give me a drink.”
“No,” the bartender snapped. “No.”
Garrity stood there limply, his hands extended palms upward. He was a pathetic-looking figure, and the image of himself in the mirror showed it. Suddenly, with great violence, he hurled his whiskey glass against the mirror, cracking it in a zigzag pattern.
“You’ll have to pay for that, Mr. Garrity,” the bartender said calmly.
“Sue me!” Garrity roared, and with great haughtiness he pushed out into the street.
The stranger looked up. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Just another drunken bum,” the bartender said.
That night Garrity paced through the streets restlessly. The bars were all closed, but he still craved a drink. He had no money, so he could not go to an after-hours club. Suddenly, he paused at a street corner and his face lit up in happy thought: perhaps he had left some money back in his hotel room; perhaps he had hidden it for just such an occasion as this; perhaps he had even hidden a bottle. There’s no telling, he decided how clever Gregory Garrity was when he put his mind to it. As he hurried toward his hotel room, he began to chant: When Gregory Garrity entered the bar.
But his song stopped as he frantically rummaged his room. He opened drawers, shook out pillows and emptied pockets. But he could not find any cash. He looked on the top shelf of the closet, under the bed and outside the window ledge. But he could not find a bottle.
Garrity slumped down on the edge of his bed, holding his head in his hands. His throat was dry, his body quivering. He needed a drink now, he felt, more desperately than he had ever needed one before in his life. He had to have a drink or he’d die. But how? Where could he get money at this hour of the night? “Of course!” He snapped his fingers. “The office.” He reached into his pocket and felt for the key. It was there.
Momentarily, his conscience rebelled. The office wasn’t his. His own office, like most of his practice, had ling since slipped away. The office belonged to an old friend, who allowed him to use it on the rare occasion when he was meeting prospective clients. But whose office it was, he decided, was not important. The important thing was to get the money for a drink-immediately. He ran from his room, scampered down two flights of stairs, and hailed a taxi in the street. “Hurry!” he told the cab driver, “Hurry!”
It was after four o’clock when he pulled up in front of the downtown office building. He told the cab driver to wait.
The night watchman took him up on the elevator.
“Working overtime?” the watchman asked.
“Yes,” Garrity said. He mumbled something about an “important case” and walked away from the elevator, across the marble-topped floor.
The key slid into the office door easily and the lock snapped back. Garrity flipped the lights on. He rifled through the drawers of the secretary’s desk until he found what he was looking for-the petty cash box. Thirty-four dollars were in it. He took the money and stuffed it into his pocket. He signed a voucher for it, adding the notation, “entertainment expenses.” Then he replaced the box in the desk, locked the door, and walked from the building to the waiting cab.
In the gray half-dawn, he entered an after-hours club and, with a sigh of relief, ordered three whiskey sours. He gulped them down quickly. This is more like it, he thought, settling down to some steady, serious drinking.
By morning, when he finally staggered out of the club, he was loaded. But he still had enough money left to pick up a bottle of brandy in a liquor store, to have around as “a pick me up.” Then, when most people were heading toward work, he returned to his hotel room.
Now he tried to sleep. But when he got into bed, sweat began to roll off his body. He kicked off the blanket. Soon his feet became cold, and he began to shiver. Then he thought he heard voices outside the door. He could not distinguish what they were saying, but he knew they were talking about him. He rushed to the door and opened it. There was no one there. In terror, he slammed the door and stood with his back to it, his heart pounding. He was convinced that someone wanted to break into his room and kill him. Frantically he barricaded the door, piling up every piece of furniture in the room before it. Then he downed half a tumbler of brandy to steady himself.
When he returned to bed, he still could not relax. His head ached terribly and he was nauseated. He held out his hand and watched its tremblings. Then the room began to spin. It whirled about him in a dizzy confusion. “Stop! Stop!” he cried out. But the room only spun faster. The furniture seemed to be coming straight at him. He held up his hands as a shield before his face. It was unbearable. Abruptly, the spinning stopped, and he began to sob, his teeth dug into the pillow, his big body shaking like a baby’s.
He was full of remorse over his petty cash theft; it went against all his concepts of morality. Never before had he sunk so low. He hated himself with a bitter loathing. He cursed himself vehemently for drinking. He did not really enjoy alcohol, yet he could not stop drinking. If only he could stop. Tonight, I’ll go on the wagon, he promised himself. Then he laughed sardonically. How many times had he tried to stop? How many times had he told himself that he had the will to do it all by himself, taking the pledge, only to slip again? His life was just a steady downhill roll. Because of drink, he had lost his family, his home, his career. Above all, he had lost his self-respect. And there seemed to be no way out.
Gregory Garrity was a very sick man. He was one of the estimated 4,000,000 potential sufferers of alcoholism in America. Alcoholism is both a physical and mental disease. The victim suffers from a physical susceptibility to alcohol and, at the same time, he has a compulsion to drink. Whereas, most of us, when it comes to drinking, can take it or leave it, an alcoholic can’t. For him, one drink is too many and a thousand aren’t enough. He is like a diabetic who must constantly eat sweets.
However, on that day, April 17th, 1952, Gregory Garriety, by the commission of a simple act, found a way out for himself. He picked up the telephone and dialed an old law school buddy who, he knew, had once faced a similar drinking problem. This friend, somehow, had managed to stay on the wagon for over three years.
“Hello, John,” Garrity said into the phone, “I want you to tell me something.”
“Sure thing,” John replied.
“How in the world did you stop drinking?”
“I joined Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“Oh, I see,” Garrity said slowly. “I’d like to stop drinking. But I don’t think I’m really an alcoholic, so I don’t see what good that outfit would do for me.”
“Well, look in at a meeting anyway,” John suggested. “In fact, I’m going to one tonight. Can I drop by and pick you up on the way?”
Garrity looked about his disordered room. “No, don’t bother,” he said. “Well, let me give you the address and you can come along by yourself if you want to.”
Garrity copied down the address and hung up. Hell, he decided, I have nothing to lose. I might as well go to that meeting. He also decided that he might as well have the last drink for the road. He poured a stiff one and gulped it down-before he left his hotel room he had six more.
That evening he showed up at the designated Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place; it was a church basement. He expected to find a bunch of Skid Row derelicts assembled there. Instead, he found a group of sober, clear-eyed citizens. A pert young blonde approached him. “Is this your first meeting? She asked.
Yes, she nodded.
“Then perhaps you’d like to see some of our literature.” She handed him several pamphlets.
“Thank you,” Garrity said and took a seat in the back of the room.
A vivid sign, in ornate lettering, hung from the speaker’s lectern:
“God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
“Courage to change the things I can,
“And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Garrity noticed that most of the people present were about his age, in the late 30s. They all seemed to be chain-smokers.
His friend John slid in beside him. “Didn’t think you’d make it Greg,” he said.
“I’m just curious,” Garrity told him.
“Sure,” John said. “I understand.”
“After all,” Garrity said, “I’m not an alcoholic.”
“If you say you’re not an alcoholic, then A.A. can’t do much for you,” John explained. “But if you admit that you are one, A.A. can do a great deal for you.” He picked up one of the pamphlets that lay in Garrity’s lap. “Ask yourself these ten questions. If the answers are yes that’s a good indication that you are an alcoholic.”
Garrity felt uncomfortable when he heard the word “alcoholic” used in reference to himself. It had a repulsive sound, and he did not like being identified with it. But he read the questions:
1. Do you crave a drink at a definite time daily?
2. Do you gulp your drinks, and sneak extras?
3. Do you drink to relieve feelings of inadequacy?
4. Do you drink to escape worry and dispel the blues?
5. Do you drink when overtired to brace up?
6. Is drinking affecting your peace of mind?
7. Is drinking making your home life unhappy?
8. Do you prefer to drink alone?
9. Do you require a drink the next morning?
10. Do you lose time from work due to drinking?
When Garrity tallied up the score, he almost choked. It was a perfect 100 per cent. He felt like leaving the meeting, but at that moment, a tall muscular man, stood up at the lectern and pounded away with a gavel. As chairman of the group, he called the meeting to order.
“Welcome to our weekly open meeting,” he began. “I see some newcomers here, as well as many familiar old-timers. Let’s all get to know each other because misery loves company. Would you each please shake hands with the person sitting next to you.
“For the benefit of the newcomers, I’ll explain that in A.A. we hold two types of meetings-open and closed. The closed meetings are for alcoholics only. There we sit around a table and discuss our own individual alcoholic problems. Those are private. But at an open meeting everyone is welcome, and, of course, your anonymity is protected. It’s a funny thing about alcoholics. We never used to mind staggering around town obnoxiously drunk. But when we’re cold sober we’re a little uneasy about our alcoholism. Because, you see, we’re no further away from our next drunk than our next drink.
“I used the expression ‘oldtimer’ before. But there really isn’t such an animal in A.A. All of us are just drunks-that is if we drink.”
“Our disease is alcoholism. It’s a progressive illness and there’s no in between. Unless we curb it, most of us will wind up in a mental home or in the city morgue.
“I myself, like most A.Aers, just try to get by from one day to the next, 24 hours at a time. Every morning when I get up, I say to myself: ‘Tomorrow I may go off on one of the damnedest benders you ever saw, but today, with God’s help, I’m going to stay sober.’ So far, for eight years, I’ve avoided that tomorrow.
“Tonight we’re going to hear from three speakers, each with a different story to tell. Listen carefully to these stories. Because if you keep coming to A.A. meetings, sooner or later, you’ll hear your own. It may not happen tonight. But eventually you’ll recognize your own pattern of drinking. And sometimes it’s only that-hearing your own story from someone else’s lips-that can make you acknowledge to yourself that you are really an alcoholic. That’s the first step toward recovery.
“One more word for the benefit of newcomers. Here, at A.A., we don’t care what your religion is, or if you don’t have one at all. But we do like to end each meeting by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It’s up to you if you want to join in or not.
“Now for our first speaker…”
Each speaker began with a pat introduction: “My name is _________, and I’m an alcoholic.” He then recounted his battles with John Barleycorn. Garrity expected to be bored, but he wasn’t. He often found himself laughing up-roariously. Those gin mill graduates really knew how to spin a yarn. Listening to their speeches, Garrity was also touched by their honesty. They spoke openly about what he had long considered to be deep dark drinking secrets. They spoke completely without shame, yet with a sure-footed understanding. And they all seemed to be happy individuals. A sense of challenge began to well up within Garrity. If they can stop drinking, he thought, then I can too. I’m no less a man than they are.
After the meeting, when coffee and cake were being served, Garrity told John: “I’d like to give this A.A. stuff a try.”
“It won’t be easy,” John warned.
“Drinking isn’t easy either,” Garrity said.
“Then I’ll be your sponsor’ if you’d like,” John volunteered. “I’ll explain the A.A. program to you. I’ll try and help you get over the rough spots; any time that craving for a drink becomes too much, call me, night or day, and we’ll talk it over. Don’t forget, I’m a drunk myself and I understand.”
“Oh, I don’t want to put you out any,” Garrity said.
“You won’t.” John grinned. “You’ll just be helping me keep sober too. That’s the way A.A. works.”
As he walked home from the A.A. meeting, Garrity was convinced that he had an earnest desire to stop drinking. But almost automatically, he found his way into a saloon. Before he knew it he had ordered a whiskey and was raising it to his lips. One drink won’t kill me, he thought. But then he reconsidered: If I’m going to give this A.A. stuff a try, I might as well go about it whole hog. He placed the whiskey down on the bar and walked out. He was mighty pleased with himself.
However, the feeling of self-satisfaction soon wore off. Later that night, as he tried to sleep, the old urge for a drink became overpowering. He reached for the brandy bottle. Then he recalled John’s suggestion. And instead of taking a drink dialed his number.
“Hold the fort,” John begged him. “I’ll be right over.”
Garrity was miserable as he writhed on his bed. The sweat rolled off him and he had the shakes.
Within a half-hour John, and a fellow A.Aer, whom Garrity recognized as one of the speakers he had seen at the meeting, were at his bedside.
“Here, have some coffee,” John said, handing him a container. “By the way, Greg. This is Jim Carroll.”
“I don’t envy you any,” Jim sympathized. “these first few days are rough. But I’ll tell you something, Greg. You have more sense than I had. I was too ashamed to even call my sponsor. So I went out on a four-day bender, and it took me two months before I had the nerve to show up at an A.A. meeting again.”
The two men stayed with Garrity for over an hour, until the crisis passed. Then Garrity went to sleep, for the first time in years, without the benefit of a night-cap.
During the next few months Garrity attended numerous A.A. meetings. There, he found enjoyable companionship and comradeship. Sometimes his old gin mill cronies rebuked him for not drinking, but Garrity didn’t care. Staying sober, he discovered, made his life a happier one. It wasn’t always easy though. The craving for a drink still remained. But his sponsor, John, was always at hand to help him.
Then Garrity became cocky. He hadn’t touched a drink for over six months, and his law practice had begun to boom. One day as he was leaving court, after winning a $15,000 judgment, his client insisted on a little celebration.
“All right,” Garrity broke down. “Just one.”
He forgot that as an alcoholic, he was powerless to limit his intake of alcohol. The one drink became several drinks. And before he knew it he was off on a bender.
He woke up two days later, twisting and squirming in a bed. He had no idea where he was or how he got there. He sniffed the air and smelled paraldehyde. Then he realized that e was in the alcoholic ward of a hospital. He called over an orderly and gave him John’s phone number.
When John arrived Garrity apologized for his pitiful condition. “I’m sorry I let you down.”
“You didn’t let me down,” John said. “You let yourself down. But don’t take it too hard. Many of us have a slip or two and backslide. We try and stand on our own two feet and fall flat on our face instead. It’s not easy to admit to yourself that you’re simply helpless when it comes to alcohol. But it’s the truth. I’m that way. You’re that way. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Several days later, Garrity left the hospital. He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since. “In that hospital,” he recalls, “I finally realized deep inside of me, that I was an alcoholic-but there was nothing morally wrong about being one either. I faced the facts about myself squarely. I couldn’t stop drinking by myself. But through A.A. I could. And, with God’s help, I would.
Garrity is typical of the 200,000 alcoholics who find a mutual strength in their common weakness. Fifty per cent of the men and women who join A.A. achieve sobriety at once. Another 25 per cent become sober after some slips similar to Garrity’s. The remaining 25 per cent show, at least, some form of improvement. These statistics are not rigged. For no one is denied membership simply because he or she is a “hopeless case.”
In the strange confraternity of Alcoholics Anonymous are state supreme court justices, well know major league ball players, celebrated night club comedians and distinguished college professors. There is even one group composed entirely of clergymen. They all try to help themselves by helping each other.
It was this principle that resulted in the founding of A.A. back in 1934, in Akron, Ohio. Bill W., an engineer, and Dr. Bob S., a surgeon, were in the last stages of alcoholic disintegration when they first met. Happily, they discovered that, as two long-suffering and desperate drunks, they understood each other implicitly-both knew every trick and alibi in the alcoholic’s book-and were able to help each other get “on the wagon.”
By the end of that year, they had recruited a third convert. The following year the membership increased to 15. And by 1938, there were 60 members, all anonymous alcoholics, living in Akron, Cleveland and New York.
Then the spotlight of national publicity fell upon the idea and it spread like wild fire. Today, A.A. has 6,300 groups in 60 countries throughout the world. Two hundred groups meet in hospitals, 300 within prisons, and over 200 different groups meet in large cities such as New York and Chicago.
The organization is completely self-sufficient. Every penny of its finances comes from alcoholics themselves. (Outside individual contributions as high as $10,000 have been declined.)
Far from a quack outfit-A.A. does not concern itself with prohibition or the outlawing of drink-A.A. works hand in hand with both church and psychiatric groups in relieving the plight of alcoholics. In 1949, Bill W., it’s co-founder, addressed the American Psychiatric Association. “There seems safety in numbers,” he said in describing A.A. “Enough sandbags muffle any dynamite. We think we are a pretty secure, happy family.”
A look in at any A.A. meeting is proof of this point. In fact, at one recent meeting, an athletic man with a winning smile was introduced as a highly successful trial advocate “in the very thirsty business” of law. “My name is Gregory Garrity,” the speaker began in the traditional A.A. manner, “and I’m an alcoholic.
“Five years ago I became sick and tired of being sick and tired. It began one night when I was standing in a gin mill feeling sorry for myself. And there was this little refrain I used to sing:
When Gregory Garrity joined the bar…
At that point a newcomer, who had slunk into the back of the room, looked up and craned his neck forward.
The A.A. process of conversion was beginning again.
(Source: SAGA, September 1957)