AMERICA, DECEMBER 6, 1941
REFORMED DRINKERS AID THE POOR DRUNKS
By DANIEL M. O’CONNELL
Alcoholism goes back far in human chronicles, probably to the sad exodus from the Garden of Eden. Materialistic evolutionists who jauntily throw around millions of years have not cast any light on this particular phase of man’s leap into “civilization.” The first certain historical narrative deals with the patriarch, Noe. The plain description is typical of many men and women today: “noe, a husbandman, began to till the ground, and planted a vineyard, and drinking of the wine was made drunk.” While Cham was whispering the unfortunate incident to others, Sem and Japhet immediately assisted Noe. In gratitude the two were blessed by Noe. The patriarch himself must have learned his lesson, for he lived “in the whole nine hundred and fifty years.” It is doubtful that any moral guilt can be attributed to Noe. While his inebriety is the first, alas, it is not the last recorded in the spotted record of God’s gift of alcohol to man.
Likewise there have always been sympathetic and helpful Sems and Japhets to care for unfortunate Noes. The latest to have their good deeds proclaimed to the American nation are called, strangely enough, Alcoholics Anonymous. They believe, what ancient and very modern history points out, that the virtue of temperance does not abide in such whirlwinds as Manichaean or Prohibitionist movements.
In fact, as this Review, especially in the writing of Father Blakely, pointed out frequently and forcibly in the days of prohibition, such a hurricane of reform was certain to leave in its path almost irreparable damage. At this safe period of calm retrospection, one may conservatively say that the greatest harm done to the holy cause of temperance (it is a cardinal virtue) in the United States since its European foundations, was the imposition of national prohibition. It is unsafe to say which phase or result of prohibition was directly or indirectly the most harmful. One dire result was that instructions on the virtue of temperance in drinking became too rare.
But to return to Former Alcoholics Now Anonymous. They have been cured of excessive drinking through the use of their will, aided by various other helps, particularly by systematic efforts of others, formerly inebriates. Sympathetic help is their outstanding characteristic. The movement, however, is not confined to the services of former alcoholics. It welcomes and fully recognizes the help of medicine and religion. Thus we are told by Genevieve Parkhurst in an enlightening article, “Laymen and Alcoholics” (Harper’s, September, 1941), that doctors who once, in their own words, looked on the movement as composed of “dangerous meddlers in a dangerous province” now welcome the help given by the group of Alcoholics Anonymous. Further, the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol was told recently that I1physicians in general are admitting that the lay healers are doing remarkable work.” The speaker, Dr. Merrill Moore, Associate in Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, later developed his rather startling statement:
“We know that if we are going to make any real advance we must tap every source of knowledge and healing there is….Not only lay therapists, but lawyers, clergymen, and social workers are successfully helping and treating the alcoholic….This means treating someone who is emotionally sick or hurt or down or sometimes weak. Certainly physicians have no corner on it. There is no magic to it. And no royal road.”
A full paraphrase of the above might place together simultaneously and succinctly 1) sympathy, 2) medical science, 3) the Grace of God. The Supernatural, we know, builds on the natural, and many lay students of inebriety have long thought that its psychological as well as biological sides have not been sufficiently considered.
Alcoholics Anonymous stress the psychological element involved. With them sympathy is the fundamental approach. Doubtless they know from experience the value of this virtue, whose generic nature is after all that of charity. A kindly mode of expression is most important. Human nature objects to any show of paternalism in charity; but to fraternalism in good deeds, there is always a ready response. The St. Vincent de Paul Society has followed this human technique in accomplishing its noble results.
A patient, as well as a penitent, appreciates anonymity when his self-revelation involves deep humiliation. But his will power is thus strengthened, and without it, there can be no diametrical change of life. Statistics might be called negative in the following more generic enunciation by Genevieve Parkhurst: “Nor is there any record of a reformed drunkard who was ever able to drink moderately without going the whole way down hill again.” The view is confirmed in the practice of Catholic Temperance Societies and, I believe, in the advice given by Catholic priests in the confessional.
While Alcoholics Anonymous have not printed any Manual of Instructions, and I guess are not likely to do so, the approach of the individual member is something as follows.
He has been told of or knows a person who lacks self-control in drinking. The latter is sought out, preferably in his favorite place of over-indulgence. A casual conversation is begun. Quickly it leads to the subject of intemperance, with the A.A. freely admitting that he had been a victim of inebriety, but through his own determination has overcome the malady, not the first time, likely, but the fifth or sixth!
The essential point of the cure is total abstinence: “To take a few drinks without getting drunk does not work, according to the principles of the A.A.’s. After establishing a sympathetic approach to the individual’s peculiar personality, the A.A. works to secure a doctor’s checkup and the establishment of regular meals, physical exercise and employment, if this last is lacking. “If he can be kept healthy in body and contented in mind, he has a far better chance of complete recovery than in an environment where he is constantly on the defensive” concludes Genevieve Parkhurst.
“Freed slaves of drink, now they free others” was the sub-title of Jack Alexander’s article on Alcoholics Anonymous in the Saturday Evening Post. The following brief excerpts are characteristically objective.
“A band of ex-problem drinkers who make an avocation of helping other alcoholics to beat the liquor habit …. They (the A.A.’s) would leave their work or get up in the middle of the night to hurry where he was….In the past six years (the A.A.Is) have brought recovery to around 2,000 men and women, a large percentage of whom had been considered medically helpless …. Alcoholism….remains one of the great unsolved public-health enigmas …. The alcoholic likes to be left alone to work out his puzzle.”
Characteristic of the honesty of the movement in addition to its anonymity is its forthright admission of being no “cure-all” nostrum. But it has been the occasion for certain human beings to retrieve their native dignity.
I have not found any physical requirements for the work of Alcoholics Anonymous. There may be some to judge from the following taken from an editorial in the sober (no pun intended) Illinois Medical Journal, December, 1940.
“It is indeed a miracle when a person who for years has been more or less constantly under the influence of alcohol and in whom his friends have lost all confidence, will sit up all night with a ‘drunk1 and at stated intervals will administer a small amount of liquor in accordance with a doctors order without taking a drop himself.”
Or, as Mr. Alexander puts it: “Only an alcoholic can squat on another alcoholics chest for hours with the proper combination of discipline and sympathy!”
Aside from these not essential feats, is there any reason why Catholics should not be interestedly active in the cause of Temperance, a supernatural virtue? A certain amount of success seems assured from a natural point of view. But prevention should be first. I have ventured the opinion that there is less effort in this than in pre-prohibition days. Surely there is not less need. Secondly, we must deal with the great problem of cure. Here Mr. Alexander’s statement in his article is encouraging: “One-hundred-per-cent effectiveness with non psychotic drinkers who sincerely want to quit is claimed by the workers of A.A.” Further, “A.A…. is a synthesis of old ideas rather than a new discovery.”
The virtue of Temperance, of self-denial, is not a new idea. Does it need more American Catholic Action for a neglected harvest?
Undoubtedly. But let us learn from prohibition kindness, not violence; the Good Shepherd, not the Pharisee, is needed.