Most people have a few days in their past that stand out in flaming colors. They are marked by signal events that were either so bad or so good that they became unforgettable.
One such day for me was April 15, 1950. You could call it a very bad day because I had been drinking for the previous week or so and was trying to medicate my awful feeling of sickness with several bottles of beer. You also could call it a very good day because it was the last time I ever picked up a drink. Fifty years have passed, but I still have deep gratitude for the recovery from alcoholism that followed in Alcoholics Anonymous and continues to this day.
I was only twenty-four then, which at the time was considered young for AA, and this made me feel different, even in the Fellowship, where people bend over backward to accommodate anyone and everyone.
Drugs were not part of the scene when I was drinking, but I suspect that I could easily have become a drug addict. In a military hospital in 1949, I was given morphine for three days following surgery. This was such a flight in ecstasy that I almost fought the nurses for more. Had there been a place called Joe's Morphine Saloon outside the hospital gate when I was released, that might have been my first stop. I got drunk instead.
Like most AA members, I take no personal credit for my sobriety. Nor do I feel that I have it made in staying permanently sober. In fact, many of us in AA say that we are "recovering" rather than "recovered," which implies that getting well is an ongoing, day-at-a-time process. If we deserve any personal credit for getting sober, it should probably be for tenacity in staying with the AA program in spite of all the troubles, frustrations, and boredom we might face. While most of us do find a measure of happiness and some peace of mind, we also have to deal with the problems that confront all human beings. There are very few people anywhere who have trouble-free lives full of absolute bliss.
Many of us feel fortunate in having had a problem that forced us to seek help, which has been a great advantage in our lives. If AA members have any advantage over nonalcoholics, it's in having the marvelous Twelve Step program as a guide for living.
It surprises some people that AA members continue to attend meetings after years of recovery. But I find at least three good reasons for this practice: first, it helps me maintain and enhance my personal sobriety; second, I can contribute to, and benefit from, AA's caring community; and finally, I can stay close to the spiritual ideas which are the basis of our Twelve Step program.
If AA members are firm and unyielding on one point, it's our shared conviction that alcoholics have a lifelong problem that can be arrested but never cured. "We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones," the AA founders said. While this extreme view of alcoholism is occasionally challenged, our experience seems to show that it's true. And AA members who have picked up the bottle after years of abstinence have, to their sorrow, confirmed it.
It's also true that many people discontinue AA meeting attendance without returning to drinking. But I like to play it safe. AA has worked so well for so many years in keeping me away from the bottle that I don't want to change anything. It is very easy to establish a routine of attending from one to three meetings a week--and this keeps AA in the forefront of my life. I also take every opportunity to remind people that a long time away from the bottle is no guarantee of continuing recovery; there is always the danger of lapsing into over-confidence or indifference.
A few months before his death in 1961, the eminent psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung said in a letter to Bill W. that alcoholics have an unmet spiritual need that is part of their problem: "I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil."
"The protective wall of human community" describes AA for me. To outsiders, an AA group may seem like a ragtag bunch of people who smoke too much, overdose on coffee, and still have too many problems to be called well-adjusted or in any sense recovered. But to most of us in the Fellowship, AA is a caring community that is now worldwide. I've attended AA meetings in many parts of the United States and Canada, and it's always the same: people who care about helping one another find and maintain recovery. It is also a community of people who understand how others can be trapped in deep loneliness and despair. Being a part of this caring community is so important to me that I can't imagine getting along in life without it.
AA, along with building a protective wall of human community, also has a spiritual program which is outlined in the Twelve Steps. The spiritual side of AA has been difficult to explain and is sometimes used by alcoholics as a convenient excuse for rejecting AA's help. But many older members--myself included--view the spiritual program as AA's rock-solid foundation. Some of us even go overboard in thinking that these spiritual principles may eventually have a role in saving society and the world, though Bill W. warned against such egotism.
It is satisfying to believe that AA's work with alcoholics is making some improvements in society, however. Every recovery, though it may go unnoticed, improves the world in some way. We say that AA saved our lives, but it may also be saving the lives of people who never touched a drop. Every AA recovery, for example, is one less person who may be driving drunk or causing havoc in other ways.
How effective is AA in helping the majority of alcoholics? We have no magic wand to influence those who are not ready to change their lives. But I am convinced that the recovery rate is very high among people who have a burning desire for a sober way of life and are willing to go to any lengths to accept and practice AA's ideas. The AA pioneers had this same belief, which is repeated at many of our meetings: "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. . . . There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest."
That's what I was on April 15, 1950--a person suffering from grave emotional and mental disorders that had exploded into alcoholism within a few short years. After a seven-week stay in a Nebraska state mental hospital, I went out to face a world that still seemed harsh and chilly. By staying close to AA's caring community and distancing myself from even one drink, I've been able to live in a different sort of world, and one that has become noticeably warmer. After fifty years, AA still works for me, and even the mental and emotional disorders no longer seem so grave. And there are at least two million recovering alcoholics world wide who can say the same about their own lives.
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