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MIND, Vol. 46: 746-753, December, 1948
James O'G. Fleming, S.J.
Three years ago I attended
my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a memorable
occasion in many ways. It was my first contact with the
problem of alcoholism. Not only am I not alcoholic, but
it is possible that there are few persons who knew so little
about alcohol in its properties or its effects at that time.
I make this statement to reassure those in the same position
as I was, who may feel diffident about investigating this
very important movement. This evening was also one of the
most pleasant that I have ever spent. This will sound incredible
to any one who has had any experience of the curse of alcoholism
in themselves or in others. Yet, having attended an average
of a meeting a week during the past three years, I am happy
to say that every one was enjoyable.
This was an occasion that
I will remember for other reasons. A number of men related
their alcoholic history during this meeting. One of them
was an admitted agnostic. I have had the great happiness
to hear this same man, some months later, admit before a
large group that the evidence of God's power and love in
his life since entering A.A. compelled him to a belief in
God's existence and to an acknowledgement of it. There was
another present who had just recovered from a severe drinking-bout
and was still very shaky. He had been helped by many men
and especially one who had tried for twelve years, but without
success, to free him from the terrible slavery of alcoholism.
Unfortunately, he never did shake off this bondage. He ended
his life later by suicide. Others of the group that evening
had fully grasped the blessing of the A.A. program and are
now living happy fruitful lives. A few drifted away again.
Some came back. Others haven't. This is in miniature the
history of many groups in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Throughout the history of
man, almost from the first, alcohol has been a problem.
It has reached the proportions of a most appalling problem
in our times. It has well been said that everyone knows
at least one alcoholic. I mean by an alcoholic one who is
unable to control his drinking. There are those called heavy
drinkers, but who, though drinking constantly, can leave
it alone without a struggle. Then we have some who occasionally
go on what is termed a spree. But the true alcoholic simply
cannot control his drinking, once he has started. Occasionally
he may go for a short time drinking in moderation. Eventually
he begins again the dreadful cycle of wild excess, dismal
remorse, recovery and excess once more. In A.A. it is said
that for such a man one drink is too many and a thousand
not enough. Once he has started, he is utterly incapable
of control. Why is this? No conclusive answer has been reached
on this important question. It does appear that this is
an illness just as truly as any other; an obsession of the
mind coupled with an "allergy" of the body.
It really does not matter
a great deal, for the purpose of this article, just what
does make an alcoholic. What is of the utmost importance
is that at long last we have a definite relief for this
affliction. I did not say a cure. Once an alcoholic, it
appears, always an alcoholic. But Alcoholics Anonymous claims
that it can arrest the disease and restore the patient to
a great measure of physical and mental health. With reason,
A.A. asserts that it has had almost seventy-five per cent
success. Fifty per cent of those who try this program are
successful immediately. Another twenty-five per cent, after
a few "slips," join this happy band. Any program
that has statistics to prove such a claim is worthy of a
hearing. Any program that has brought restored bodily and
mental health in varying degrees to over 60,000 men and
women cannot be ignored. It is my happy privilege, as a
priest, to report to all who will listen what I have learned
about this unique blessing to countless people.
The very essence of the
program of Alcoholics Anonymous is found in the famous "Twelve
Steps." Here they are in full, since no explanation
of A.A. can be intelligible without them: We
1. Admitted we were powerless
over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to
the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing
to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were
wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our
conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying
only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and
to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The most superficial study
of the Twelve Steps indicates that they embrace a spiritual
program. It is also evident that they are familiar to any
Catholic acquainted with the fundamentals of his own religion.
This first attracted me to A.A. It was completely orthodox.
It was free from "queer quirks." It taught the
great virtues of honesty, humility, self-denial and resignation
to God's Will. It insists on the importance of prayer, examination
of conscience, admission of guilt, and the necessity of
repentance and restitution. There was nothing in the program
that any man of good-will could not accept and carry out.
This expression "good-will" is used advisedly.
A.A. does not pretend to have anything for the man who does
not wish to quit drinking or wishes to do so only on his
It is absolutely essential
that the alcoholic accept the fact that he can not control
his drinking (Step 1), and that for him there is no possibility
of ever being a social drinker. We mean by social drinker
one who can take it or leave it alone. The alcoholic must
be prepared to refrain from drink for the rest of his life.
There have been some very tragic examples of men who thought
that they could safely resume their drinking after a period
of sobriety. It just can't be done. There is the authentic
story of one man who stopped drinking until his family was
grown up and established. He started to drink after thirty
or more years of abstinence, and was dead from alcoholism
within three years. However, all that is asked of an alcoholic
on first being introduce to A.A. is that he sincerely wish
to be freed from his drinking problem. It is presumed that,
if he is truly serious about it, he will be ready to take
whatever steps are necessary, even if this means total abstinence.
The new member is urged
to keep several important points in mind:
1. Let him attend the meetings
and read the literature and listen to A.A. members with
an open mind. He is not expected to grasp the program, or
even a part of it, immediately.
2. He should attempt to
live the suggested new way of life one day at a time. Try
it for twenty-four hours, he is advised, or limit this period
if that seems too long to look ahead. If a man feels really
desperate, he is assured that he need only strive to spend
the next hour sober. Having completed that much, he will
probably have the hope and the courage to continue another
while. Thus, bit by bit, he is brought to realize that the
impossible, as he has thought, can be accomplished.
3. Finally, he is told that
"easy does it." Don't try to change the habits
of a lifetime or of many years in a few days. It takes a
man a considerable time to become an alcoholic. He cannot
remedy this in an instant.
Such cautions are very necessary
for the alcoholic. He needs an open mind, because his more
or less serious efforts to conquer his weakness have always
ended in failure. This has developed in him a sort of fatalism
or even despair about ever getting relief. He must plan
no more than a twenty-four hour program, since the alcoholic
is notorious for quitting when the task involves too long
a period or too great an effort. As a corollary of this
he has to remember that "easy does it," knowing
that his tendency is to attack an arduous problem with too
much vehemence, as though he could in this way dissolve
its more disagreeable aspects. Having, this many a day,
fled from reality, he has formed a habit of seeking what
are often most absurd solutions for apparently insurmountable
This striving to escape
from reality is at the heart of the alcoholic's problem.
He suffers from a form of mental obsession. There is a distinct
similarity in the personality pattern of most alcoholics.
He is usually a man with what is called an "inferiority
complex." He has a profound awareness of his limitations
and at the same time a compelling urge to appear the exact
opposite to others. This causes him often to attempt schemes
which are considerably beyond his powers. He will go to
most extraordinary lengths to impress those about him. This
state of mind necessarily creates a state of urgency, almost
of panic, lest he fail. Such a struggle between the exaggerated
desire to be appreciated and the quaking sense of inadequacy
can result only in great mental torment. Even success brings
little relief, because he is conscious of how trivial, even
unworthy, are his motives, and how very much he is wearing
a "false front." Introduce such a temperament
to alcohol, with its initial stimulus and eventual narcotic
effect, and you have sowed the seeds of disaster. He will
seek drink for a while, because this stimulus gives him
a sense of power and general adequacy which he usually lacks.
Ultimately, having received little relief for his anguish
of spirit from the false stimulation, he turns to the narcotic
influence for refuge. He discovers in this drug a blessed
oblivion wherein the "arrows of "outrageous fortune"
no longer trouble him. Unhappily, the physical sickness,
the mental stupor and the acute remorse which result from
alcoholic excess are too great a price to pay for this temporary
The drunkard is a most miserable
and unfortunate person. Whether he reached this state through
the causes I have very summarily mentioned or not, he finally
comes to a condition common to all alcoholics. He becomes
a man profoundly distressed in body and soul, because he
simply cannot control his drinking. His fault is not gluttony,
as most non-alcoholics suppose. He is not interested in
the taste of alcohol to any great extent. He uses alcohol
to ease his mental discomfort or, as we would surmise, frequently
to smother his conscience. Far from bringing the desired
results, this pitiful attempt to escape from unpleasant
reality, to shirk responsibilities, to run away from care,
culminates in return to a starker reality, added responsibilities
and a multitude of new ones. The alcoholic lives in a veritable
squirrel-cage of constantly renewed physical torture, accumulating
mental bewilderment and ever increasing spiritual demoralization.
His tragic condition is
greatly aggravated by his relations with other people, especially
those nearest and dearest. he often suffers intensely because
of the pain and the misfortune which he brings upon innocent
persons, and which he feels himself hopeless and helpless
to prevent. He develops a definite persecution complex from
their failure to understand and so to sympathize with his
predicament. Is it any wonder that he frequently tries to
solve the apparently insoluble by deliberately hardening
himself to all appeals of morality or affection, and sometimes
ends it all in tragic suicide?
The alcoholic is not without
fault and indeed many and serious faults. Nonetheless, upbraiding
him with angry accusations, appeals to his better nature,
while expressing doubt that he has such an attribute, physically
obstructing his drinking, hospitalization or incarceration,
will not remove such faults. He is not altogether at fault,
as we now know. He needs what the blind man in the gospel
found, when he cried out: "Lord, that I may see!"
He needs a sympathetic and understanding heart.
How then does A.A. help
the alcoholic? It provides him, we might say very briefly,
with a sympathetic and understanding heart. If he is fully
conscious of his desperate state and honestly anxious to
find relief, he will discover in the fellowship of other
alcoholics who have won release the sympathy and the understanding
which only a fellow sufferer can give. When he talks to
the members of A.A. or hears them relate their own sad history,
he comes at last upon people who speak his language. They
do not reprove or criticize him, since they have been as
bad or even worse. They show by words and attitudes that
they know exactly how he feels. They encourage him from
advice which is wise from bitter experience. Also - and
this is important - they easily see through his elaborate
self-justification, alibis and outright lying; they inform
him, perhaps quite bluntly, that he is deceiving only himself.
Most of all, insofar as their influence is exerted upon
him, they bring him a faint glimmer of hope, which he so
sadly craves. But no genuine member of A.A. will maintain
that these gifts of their fellowship are of so much importance
as the program of the Twelve Steps. Just as the poor blind
man who cried for assistance received more than sympathy
and understanding when he met Our Lord, so does the alcoholic
when in truth he meets God in the Twelve Steps.
A.A. is strictly non-sectarian.
It be like St. Paul, that you must go through each man's
particular door, if you are to bring him out your own. It
does not even ask that a man be a Christian or, for that
matter, believe in a personal God. All that is demanded
from the beginner is that he acknowledge a Power greater
than himself, call it what he may. The experience in almost
every successful case is that a man comes to a very definite
belief in God and endeavors to walk humbly in His Presence.
The Christian has the further advantage that he can approach
this God in the loving presence of Christ and be comforted
and inspired by Him Who ever had compassion on the multitude.
The Twelve Steps are an epitome of Christian living. They
establish an alcoholic in humility, nourish him with faith
and hope to make a good fight, soften and enliven his heart
with a sincere interest in his fellow men, especially alcoholics,
and a grateful love for God Who has been so good to him.
The A.A. program brings
the alcoholic into a new world, free from drink and its
attendant curses. It gives him a new way of life. If he
faithfully perseveres, it will bring him peace and happiness
that perhaps he has never known before. It cannot be emphasized
too much that A.A. makes a man not only sober, but contentedly
sober. Sobriety without this contentment would - to the
alcoholic - not be worth the struggle. He has had such sobriety
before and found it as miserable as drinking. Members of
A.A. sooner or later discover that they do not even think
of alcohol; which is understandable, since it was not their
problem, but only a symptom of their problem. Once they
have achieved a measure of right living, the need of alcohol
no longer exists. Having recognized and admitted the truth
of the first step, that the disorder in his life had made
him an uncontrolled drunkard, the alcoholic is prepared
to face the next two steps.
The second and third steps
call for a recognition that a Power greater than himself
can restore him to sanity and a submission of his will and
life to that Power. If the alcoholic has a full appreciation
of his desperate state, the result in great part of his
trying to run his own life, he will not find it too hard
to resign himself to a higher Power. He has nothing to lose
and soon discovers that he has gained more than he even
The forth and fifth steps
ask that he make a searching and fearless examination of
his conscience and confess his sins. These steps bring self-knowledge,
a sharper awareness of his problem, and deepen the humility
of spirit so necessary for a thorough change.
The sixth and seventh steps
are said to separate the men from the boys in A.A. If an
alcoholic is sincerely intent upon following this program,
his acceptance and fulfillment of these steps will prove
it. Convinced that it is mostly because of his moral failing
that he has come to such a sad plight, he is entirely ready
to relinquish even his pet vices.
The eight and ninth steps
provide a means of making restitution for the injuries that
he has done to his family, relatives and acquaintances.
They tend to free him from his sense of guilt, as he pays
his debts to society.
The tenth step, if conscientiously
observed, ensures that he will not be caught off guard by
a recurrence of old weaknesses, which, if not corrected,
inevitably lead to a fall. Prompt correction safeguards
against the dangerous complacency which follows procrastination
The eleventh is a step toward
the highest spiritual living. It leads to the habit of walking
constantly in the Presence of God through persevering prayer.
It also inculcates that most noble and efficacious virtue,
conformity to the Will of God.
WAY OF LIFE
The twelfth and final step
brings the alcoholic through a sense of gratitude for what
he has received, to take upon himself an apostolate among
other alcoholics, so that they may have the chance to share
in his good fortune. It concludes with the very important
advice that they carry out these principles in all their
affairs. This points up the conviction of the members of
A.A. that this is in truth A NEW WAY OF LIFE. These principles
must permeate and influence every thought, word and deed
Though it is necessarily
limited, I trust that this explanation of the program of
Alcoholics Anonymous will be of some use to those who require
it for themselves or their friends, and may persuade them
to investigate it more thoroughly.
We advise those who are
interested in the program for any reason, be it personal
or not, to get in touch with the most convenient A.A. Group.
There they will meet those who can best explain it and provide
the help which only experience can make truly valuable.
I am closing this article with a simple statement on A.A.
taken from a recent issue of their monthly publication,
is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience,
strength and hope with each other, that they may solve their
common problems and help others to recover from alcoholism...
The only requirement 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; it does not wish to engage
in any controversy, and neither endorses nor opposes any
causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help
other alcoholics to achieve sobriety."