THE SIGN, Vol. 25: 14-16, July, 1946
By James P. Timmins
It was Fred who, nearly three years ago, introduced me to the Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the greatest social movements of modern times, a movement whose implications have not even begun to be realized by the world at large.
In the early evening of that far-off day, the doorbell of St. Bridget’s Rectory rang. I didn’t know that something new was entering into my life. I didn’t even know it when I opened the door and found there a old friend, but a friend in what a state! He was bedraggled, down-at-the-heels, clothed in a ancient sweater and a pair of pants which had long ago seen their best days. And he was drunk. Not stupidly or staggering, but excitedly drunk. More than that, in the midst of his drunkenness he was ashamed. I could sense the thought passing through his mind. For five years I had not seen him or even heard of him, save rarely, and now, down and out, he was in the sorry position of standing on my doorstep seeking help. Fred who, a few years back, had often welcomed me into his pleasant home.
I could hardly believe my eyes. Was this friend the clean-cut, affable, ambitions young business man whom I once had known? I knew that he drank in the old days, but not, to my knowledge, to excess, I knew too, that he had never been and was not now anything like the classical conception of the weak-willed, heedless, and irresponsible drunkard. He loved his home, his lovely wife, and their child, a bright, intelligent boy. He was ambitious and able, diplomatic and efficient in his work of selling. But something had happened to him in the years during which we had lost contact, in the years when he drifted away not only from me but from every friend that he ever knew. Something had torn him loose from everything bright and beautiful in life and dropped him into an abyss where all was sordid and mean and ugly. What was it?
Fred himself didn’t know. He came into my rectory, sat down with me in the office, and poured into my ears such a tale of bewilderment, confusion, and utter despair as I have never before heard. That night I looked into the mind of a man in hell. For two hours, in broken, stumbling words, he poured out his story of the wracking, futile, hopeless struggle with the demon of alcohol that possessed him and drove him further and further into the dark and devastating loneliness of the pit. Now he was nearly at the end. He could no longer stand the the utter desolation, the panic fear that alcohol itself was not capable of taking from him save in the hours of complete unconsciousness. With tears streaming down his face, this drunk begged of me to give him the answer. Was it death? Or was there some secret which I possessed, some life line which I could throw to him by which he could lift himself out of the monstrous inferno in which he found himself. I had to answer him that I did not know. I assured him that suicide was not the solution. Beyond that I had nothing to offer. Before my friend, who I would have given anything to help, I sat troubled and helpless.
All that I might have suggested he had already done. A good Catholic, with a well-founded and strong faith, he told me of wild prayers before the alter, begging God to take away this devil that drove him to drink against his will, this devil that was robbing him of everything that he held dear in life. He told me of the business he had wrecked, of the final job from which he had resigned before he was fired. He told me of the shame and misery of dependence on his wife, compelled to work to support him and hold their home together. All meant nothing. Week after week after week, and month after month, he drank with only the intervals of nauseating physical sickness and shaky recovery to interrupt. He told me, among other things, one of the saddest stories of futile appeal to the better self of an alcohol addict that I have ever heard.
His mother-in-law lay dying. She knew that her end was near, but, forgetful of herself, good, religious woman that she was, she thought this was the opportunity to bring back Fred to his senses and to restore him to a normal life. She summoned him to her sick chamber, and there, in the presence of his wife, she asked him to kneel by her bedside, put his two hands in hers, and promise, before God, that he would reform his life and be the husband and father that he should. Shocked and moved as he had never been before, he knelt beside the dying woman, and with his hands in hers, promised with all the sincerity in his soul that he would never touch another drop of liquor, and he walked out of her presence, and with her words and his own promise ringing in his ears, got drunk.
To this man, my friend, I could give nothing. All that I could think of was, “This is no ordinary drunk. This man is abnormal. Maybe he is crazy.” I thought an able psychiatrist might be able to tell Fred what was the matter with him. If it were a mental illness, maybe it might be curable by some therapy which a layman would not know.
The next day I saw his wife and heard from her the usual story of worry, uncertainty, insecurity, and anger at her husband for his apparently willfully senseless course, and a gnawing fear of what the future might bring. She was willing to do anything. Fred himself had not come back. Following what she said was a regular customer, he had disappeared, moved by some vague desire of not annoying his family by his drinking. But he had come back late that night. She called me and told me he, too, was willing to do anything. An appointment with a Hartford psychiatrist was arranged for the following Monday afternoon, by which time Fred, it was hoped, would be reasonably sane and sober. The three of us went in, and the able doctor, an unsuspected angel in disguise, examined my friend alone for a long time. Afterward, he sat down with the three of us and told us in plain, blunt terms, “This man is physically all right, and he is mentally all right; he is not crazy, but he has a disease. He is an alcohol addict. As far as I am concerned, the case is hopeless.”
Thank God that was not final. It might have been. except for what the doctor added: “There is, perhaps, one chance for him. Here in Hartford, there is a group of people called the Alcoholics Anonymous, alcohol addicts who are trying to help each other to stay sober. In some cases they have been quite successful. I have the telephone number of one of them here. I suggest that you get in touch with him.” Right there and then, in the doctor’s office, we did. This man urged Fred to waste no time, to attend the meeting that night at the Blue Plate Restaurant on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford. Fred went, but not without the company of his wife, who was afraid to trust him out of her sight. At that, he had to fortify himself with a couple of drinks before venturing into the strange, unknown territory of an A.A. meeting; and here comes the marvel, the joyous, unbelievable marvel. Those were the last drinks that Fred, the hopeless, irreclaimable drunk, has had from that day to this. I was confronted by the miracle of the A.A.
Oh, I was incredulous enough at first. A week went by, and Fred stayed sober. But anyone, even an alcoholic addict, might be able to do that by strenuous effort. Then other weeks went by, stretching into months, and Fred still was sober. I began to ask myself,”What is this thing called Alcoholics Anonymous? What is its secret?” There must be some very powerful remedy in it when it could halt a hopeless drunkard in his tracks and put him on the road to reason and a new life. I got the book and read it, and I went to a meeting to see, and I was conquered.
Now, subject to the proviso that all I say is my own opinion, I will try to trace the A.A. pathway to success.
When Fred came to me, he was, even in his drunkenness, battered and beaten down until he had reached his bottom. There was no more pride, no more egotistical self-reliance left in him. He was willing to accept help from anybody or anything. He had acquired what I consider the basic virtue necessary for any man who wants to work the A.A. program successfully, the virtue of humility.
It is neither an abject nor a crawling virtue. It is, as the word itself from the Latin humus, the earth, signifies, a down-to-earth, realistic view of one’s self, not as the center of the universe and the lord of the world, but as a very small and insignificant unit in the vast sea of humanity. When one looks at the matter objectively, and not through the veils of self-deceit with which the alcohol addict beclouds reality, he sees that humility is an active, common-sense admission of the hard fact that nobody can shape the world to his liking or ever walk the ways of the world successfully in lonely independence. But the alcoholic, isolated by his terrible pride, must try it, and he is hurt, deeply hurt, when the world rolls on, indifferent to his needs and his demands, careless of his independence, rubbing raw his self-esteem. No wonder he seeks the solace of the anesthetic, alcohol, to him release from the painful prodding’s of his own intelligence constantly reminding of his actual inadequacy, of his failure to live up to the lofty concepts of his egotistical self-appraisal. With his intellect deadened, plunged into the realms of alcoholic illusion, he can set up a dream world where, paraphrasing the words of Henley, he can be the imaginary master of his fate and the pretended captain of his soul. But the real world forever crumbles the dream, and the illusion is harder to seize as the years go on. And finally there is little left but wrath and horror and degradation, and the refuge of oblivion. Yet, even at that stage, when the anesthetic has lost its power to give anything but a living death, there are alcoholics who cling with devilish persistence to their pride, who will not admit to themselves “I am powerless over alcohol – my life has become unmanageable, and I need help.”
Who can depict that soul-searing loneliness of the alcoholic? He lives in the bosom of his family; he eats and drinks with them; but he is as removed from them as the inhabitant of another planet. They do not understand him, nor he them. They look upon him as a heedless and irresponsible destroyer of their peace, a shirker of duty, and a willful devotee of the dreadful vice of drunkenness. They argue with him. They reproach him. They strive in every way possible to get him to stop drinking. To them, it seems a simple matter of using his common sense and will power, but the alcoholic knows it is not. He knows that he is driven by some incomprehensible compulsion, so his sensitive soul shrinks into itself. He lies and evades and cheats to protect it from the painful wounds inflicted on it not only by his family, but by his friends and his associates in the business or social world. Even in the midst of those who love him, he lives alone with no remedy against the stark terrors of isolation save the old enemy, the anesthetic, alcohol.
In the companionship of the A.A. what a remedy for loneliness the alcoholic finds! He cannot deceive these people. He cannot evade them. They know him through and through. They have endured his sufferings, borne his terrors, and felt his remorse. In short, they talk his language.
With humility and hope, Fred proceeded on his road into the A.A. By example he learned the value of relaxation. “Easy does it,” he heard repeated again and again. He learned to narrow his problem down to manageable proportions. He learned, in the words of Sir William Osler, “The load of tomorrow added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter.”
He came to the core of the Alcoholics Anonymous way of life, the religious element. That, for him, was not too difficult. Born and brought up a good Catholic, holding on to his faith even in the worst days of his addiction, he believed in God and the necessity of God’s grace if he was to live soundly and sanely. Not all alcoholics have as much when they enter the A.A. Self-centered as they are, making idols of themselves, they shy like frightened horses at the bare mention of a higher Power. How many times the addict has said, “I like the Alcoholics Anonymous; but this God business, I will have none of it.” Yet there it is. Seven of twelve steps in the A.A. way of life refer to God. How can one get around that fact? All that I can say is that the higher Power in those seven steps of the A.A. grows upon the alcoholic, even if he has little religion or no religion at all. I have seen it grow, even in Catholics. For they, too, by their addiction, withdraw themselves from the God in whom they believe, from the Church which is their mother. It is as if, even against the father of the family of the Faith they build for themselves the same wall which separates them from their wives, their children, and their friends. In rare cases like that of the holy and devout Matt Talbot, potential saint of the alcoholic, the battering ram of a great and all-absorbing devotion breaks down the wall and frees the alcoholic from the domination of his obsession, but not too of ten.
A single instance will suffice to show what I mean by the growth of faith in a Catholic member of the A.A. A Catholic member who is a resident of a city not far from Hartford, sober now and happy in his sobriety, went to a church to pray. “I had no particular thought in doing SO,’^ he said, “save to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Yet as I knelt before the alter, there came over me a peace which passes understanding, and I felt the presence of God as I never felt it before. I found myself praying, not for any gifts from God, but that He would walk with me and direct my will and my life so that I might continue in this way of happiness I had found. And I thought of myself as I was a year ago, kneeling in front of that same alter, praying wildly that God would get me out of this drunken debauch, that He would not let me lose my job, that I wouldn’t have the jitters too bad, that He would keep my wife from bawling me out when I came home. That was not a prayer. That was the screaming of a soul in torment, as remote from God as the devil in hell. I thank God that through the A.A. my faith has been restored to me to be my solace and my strength instead of my reproach.”
In the A.A., if the addict does his work well and sincerely, something happens. The self-god is toppled from its pedestal, and in its place a new image begins to take form. It is the shape of a Power beyond himself, whose nature he may not even be able to formulate in words, but which, nevertheless, becomes an ever-increasing reality in his life. I can put that remarkable and beautiful experience into no better words than those said to me by a one-time suspicious, cynical, self-centered alcoholic. “Father, I can hardly believe what has come over me. You know that less than a year ago, I told you that I could take everything in A.A. except its spiritual angle. I simply didn’t and couldn’t believe in any kind of a God. This morning, by the Lord Harry, I find myself driving through the sunlight, looking at the grass and the trees, and the blue sky like a sentimental sap, happy as a lark, and feeling, mind you, feeling that in back of it all was Someone or Something bigger than I am, and that I needn’t worry about anything as long as that Someone or Something was with me. I must be nuts but it is a nice way to be nuts.” There, put crudely, is the spiritual experience of the A.A., the experience of the birth of a living faith.
Out of faith and hope in the heart of the addict are born charity, not John Boyle O’Reilly’s “organized charity, scrimped and iced, in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ,” but rather the virtue of which St. Paul tells: “Charity is patient,is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” With that charity, which is essentially nothing but the love of God and the love of neighbor, the whole way of a man in the A.A. becomes easy, and not only easy, but happy. If he has true charity, how can he help searching out his own defects and with the aid of God, trying to remove them? How can he help making amends for wrongs done? How can he help praying that he may conform with the will of God who has become his rod and his staff? God and my neighbor are now the watchwords of his life. In those watchwords is a challenge to the world.
The A.A. itself challenges nobody, has no quarrel with anybody. Its sole aim, its single purpose, is to give the alcohol addict the tools with which, if he wants to use them, he may rise from the slough of addiction, become sober, and be happy about it.
Its seed was formed a decade ago in the mind of a despairing drunk whose black shell of isolation was shattered into bits by an actual grace of God, and whose hope was reborn in the sunlight of God’s presence. The seed germinated in the warmth of companionship between that drunk and another, sitting in a room together, talking of their problem. Out of the seed has grown a strong tree made up of the approximately twenty thousand addicts who have attained sobriety through the A.A. It will continue to grow without diversion and toward one end only, the salvation of the alcoholic addict. Yet, still I say the A.A. offers a challenge to the whole modern world.
The Church, of course, always has and always will preach a way of life which is opposed to the way of the world. She must forever teach that the true mission of men in this world is to know God, to love Him and to serve Him, and that the true end of man is to be happy with God forever. The real secret of peace on earth, she declares persistently, is to be found, not externally in the riches of science, but internally in the riches of the grace of God bringing a security and a peace that the world can never know.
The fierce irony of it all and the world challenge of the A.A. is that the secret of happiness has existence now in the living philosophy of a bunch of ex-drunks endeavoring to stay sober. For their sobriety, and their happiness in sobriety, are based on actual day-by-day observance of two ancient commandments for which the world has professed profound admiration, and, which, for the most part, the world has entirely neglected to follow. These commandments are found in the Old Testament and in the New: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the living of them is the whole secret of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead of “Me and Myself,” “God and my neighbor” have become the passwords of its members. The world might well sit at their feet, for they, men and women, have, through travail and sorrow and pain, learned the secret of life, a secret that is summed up in five words, “My neighbor and My God.”