CATHOLIC DIGEST, Vol. 26: 70-73, August, 1962
"ONLY ONE GLASS"
For the reformed alcoholic, there is no such thing:
it's always "the first glass"
and it leads back to disaster.
by Joseph Kessel
The reformed alcoholic who is still tormented by his craving for drink has to fight against one final false hope, the biggest illusion of all: "One glass can't do me any harm. Only one."
But Alcoholics Anonymous says, "There is no such thing as 'only one glass' for us. That glass is only the first. Because of the nature of our disease, it will start an uncontrollable chain reaction. That first glass will become two, three, and ten; then one, two, three, and ten bottles. You'll be back where you started: in the gutter.
"And don't say: 'I know to my cost what the danger is. Only one glass, that's all.' By saying that, you're telling yourself what you want to believe, making excuses for your craving. You won't stop. You can't."
Every A.A. sponsor hammers home this truth for the benefit of the newcomer in his charge. It comes up at every meeting of recruits. It is confirmed by the life stories related at the open meetings. And what stories they are!
Lives are rebuilt after a painful struggle; material security returns; peace of mind and happiness begin to flower again. Then comes the first glass, the complete blind relapse and hell once more.
I heard many terrifying stories about that first glass, stories that made me feel physically ill. But when I showed the horror and incredulity I felt, I was told, "Well, go and see N. He was really an extreme case."
N. is a talented writer, and I would have been glad to meet him under any circumstances. After the war, he published an admirable novel with an alcoholic for the hero. The book had a great success all over the world.
He invited me to lunch with him at Ansa, one of the clubs run by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is housed on the ground floor of the Columbia University Club building. I walked down an ancient, thickly carpeted, paneled passage hung with portraits of venerable professors and generous benefactors. But the club itself is decorated in gay colors and simply furnished. Everyone there seemed friendly and cheerful.
I recognized several persons I had met before; a banker, an actor, a young woman who had tried to commit suicide three times before joining the association; and Kay, the old lady who had for a long time a paralyzed tongue and vocal cords after drink had dragged her into the gutter.
A short, bald, red-faced man of about 50 detached himself from the crowd. He had a clipped mustache and wore glasses. His high forehead shone like polished copper. His fine, rather narrow, reddish-brown eyes shone with good humor from behind his glasses. It was N.
When we had ordered our lunch, I begged him to tell me the story of his life, with many apologies for my inquisitiveness.
"Apologies for what?" he exclaimed. "Quite unnecessary, I'm delighted. We alcoholics are the greatest show-offs in the world!"
His eyes were so full of mischief, intelligence, and good humor that the thick lenses of his glasses seemed to sparkle.
"I began writing when I was sixteen," he began. "But I didn't want to publish anything till I was 40. Meanwhile, I earned my living writing sentimental stories for the radio. Nonsense in fact. At the time I was drinking a lot. I had become a professional alcoholic, and I was heading for disaster. I realized what was happening. So I stopped drinking altogether, entirely on my own."
A large jovial man stopped at our table on his way out of the dining room.
"Hello, Jack," he said. "Will we see you tomorrow?"
"No," said my companion. "I'm going to Texas tomorrow. I've got to address some of our groups there."
The man went out and N. took up his story.
"Yes," he said, "I stopped entirely without help, by my own will power. You can imagine what sort of reception I gave people who sang the praises of Alcoholics Anonymous to me. What had I in common with these weaklings who had to huddle together so as to meet the shock?"
"Then at the time your novel came out," I asked, "You weren't drinking?"
"I hadn't tasted alcohol in any form for eight years," said the novelist.
For the first time I noticed a look of deep sadness come into his eyes.
"And I had a success," he went on, "such as I will never have again. First the book, then the film, ecstatic reviews, enormous royalties. I bought a fine house in New York City and another in the country. I sent my two daughters to expensive private schools. And in spite of my success, which really might have turned my head, I still kept off drink."
His eyes were twinkling again.
"However," he said, "A.A.'s reputation was spreading all the time. I laughed at it. What could these chattering, gregarious people tell me - the man who had written a classic on alcoholism, who was publicly referred to by doctors and psychiatrists specializing in the subject? The man, who, had kept sober for 11 years without the slightest relapse?"
He cheerfully rubbed his shining copper-colored forehead, and went on. "Thereupon, rich, proud, and very pleased with myself. I went off to Bermuda for a holiday. It's a paradise. But at times it's very hot there. One day, simply on account of the heat, I longed for some ice-cold beer.
"It's madness. I thought immediately; I've not touched alcohol for 11 years! I'm not going to start now. And the intellectual part of me replied, "Exactly, after 11 years of complete abstinence a glass of beer can't possibly do you any harm. Only one glass! After 11 years! Just one glass!"
He went on rubbing his polished forehead, and smiling.
"And then?" I asked.
"Then," said the novelist, "the result of this 'one glass' of beer was that in the next 18 months I was taken 15 times to mental homes' in a desperate state of alcoholism. Yes, me, the superior being, the man whose remarkable will power had been enough to save him."
"It's incredible," I murmured.
"Wait, that isn't all," replied the writer. "Naturally, I ran through all my money. The house in New York and the house in the country both went the way of the bottles I'd drunk. And my children didn't go to fancy schools any more. I'd nothing left to feed my family with. I had to fall back on shameless borrowing, 'touching' my friends, lies, near swindling....
"At last I began to wonder whether Alcoholics Anonymous couldn't do something for me. I went to one of their meetings. And there I did make a strange discovery. The people around me were certainly not intellectuals. But I shared with even the simplist and least educated of them a common denominator that I couldn't find anywhere else; it was the problem of alcoholism, and our earnest, desperate desire to solve it.
"I left that meeting in a disturbed frame of mind. It didn't prevent my going back to the madhouse four more times. Yes, four times - which brought the number of my cures in less than two years up to 19. And all because a successful, rich, happy novelist had drunk just one glass of beer in blissful Bermuda."
He was still smiling. Was he smiling at himself? Or at the horror his story was arousing in me? Whatever it was, he went on.
"The 19th time they shut me up, after treatment and sedatives had restored my reason, I took a good look at the lunatics around me. I said to myself, 'you've got to be honest with yourself once and for all. Stop deceiving yourself that it's pure chance you keep coming here. If you go on drinking you will spend the rest of your life among these people and others like them.'
"When I left the hospital, the first thing I did was to join Alcoholics Anonymous. And my problem was solved. I've lost my self-satisfaction, I feel I'm among comrades who have suffered as I have. Our common suffering makes us love each other. I need them more than they need me. So much that after years of sobriety I still go to a least six meetings a week. Whenever I have time I speak to distant A.A. groups all over the States."
"How do you earn your living?" I asked him.
"Oh, I scrape along. I write for radio and television. I'm working - very slowly - on a new book. We shall see."
The writer wasn't smiling now.
"What really matters," he added, "and this I've learned from A.A. is not intelligence, or talent: it's the life of the spirit."
He got up. He had to leave for Cleveland that afternoon, to get to Texas next day.
We crossed the dining room together. Everyone gave him a friendly smile as he passed, and many of them added, "God bless you."
It wasn't just a polite formula.