THE CATHOLIC WORLD, Vol. 169: 272-276, 1949
DRYING UP IS NOT ENOUGH
By Joseph B. McAllister
A member of long standing in Alcoholics Anonymous was telling a young father how all his troubles came from drinking. Once he “dried up,” said the counselor, life might not be exactly heavenly, but certainly it would be far removed from the hell-on-earth it was at present. The prospect was delightful. It was what he wanted to hear and believe.
He sat down and reviewed his many problems. Wasn’t drink the cause of them all? His troubles with his boss obviously came from his frequent absences from work, and the fact that when he was on the job, too often he was muddle-headed. His family’s poverty was due not to his low earning power but to his alcoholic spending. His relationship with his wife and children – awful and getting worse – was clearly a product of his lust for drink. He didn’t feel well most of the time. That too could be blamed on alcohol. As the young man sweated through his list of woes, it became marvelously apparent to him that he could dispose of them all by doing one thing – a difficult thing, certainly, but not impossible. He simply wouldn’t drink anymore.
He realized he would always be an alcoholic, potentially. His friend in A.A. told him that. But an alcoholic who never took a drink was just the same as a non-alcoholic – outwardly. The net effect was the same. All he had to do was stop – and then live up to the program.
As I looked at the young man I couldn’t help wondering how he would react on a not far distant day when he would have to face the fact that drying up was not enough. I recalled how a friend of mine took it. He was bewildered and bitter when, dry as a bone, he discovered that some of his troubles were worse than ever. The realization came close to throwing him back into the nightmare of alcoholism.
To build up such false prospects in the mind of the compulsive drinker is to do him a great unkindness. Drying up is seldom the complete answer to his problems. The involved and underground impulses that sent him down the alcoholic way in the first place remain with him.
Take the compulsive drinker who has an inferiority complex. Alcohol furnishes a quick, easy hurdle over repressions. Given a few drinks, the timid soul finds himself a brilliant conversationalist. His humor seems peerless. He shines. Now remove the alcohol. He is once more his diffident, self-conscious, nervous and fearful self.
A feeling of inferiority is, of course, only one of many human woes which taken singly or in combination may furnish the impulse toward alcoholism. There was Joe, for instance. After seven years of marriage he was still in love with his wife. But she had remained the sweet, irresponsible adolescent who first attracted him. His children were neglected, his home badly kept, his hard-earned money carelessly spent. The thing that bothered him most, however, was the feeling that she took him for granted. Resentment and hurt pyramided within him. Words led to words and Joe found himself playing the bully and saying cruel things he did not mean. His wife’s tears made him despise himself.
Then he discovered alcohol. Through its haze he got a flattering picture of himself – much sinned against and justly enraged. Best of all, he could think about his wife without feeling all hurt inside. She deserved what she got. The sad old process followed. Joe became a drunkard. Job, home, wife, children – everything he valued was slipping away from him when he joined A.A.
Joe stuck to the program. Month after month he stayed away from the first drink. Yet home conditions grew steadily worse. His wife, completely her immature self, more than once wished Joe would go back to his favorite tavern – he was so irritable with her and the children. His self-restraint set her on edge. Incredible as it sounds – but it will sound that way only to the uninitiated – she took to drinking herself. Whatever the collective causes of Joe’s alcoholism, drying up did not make his home idyllic.
Another compulsive drinker, Dick, started drinking because he couldn’t get along with his business associates. His temper was always getting out of hand. Trouble inevitably followed, either with his boss or his fellow employees. A kindly man at heart, he loathed himself for these outbursts of temper and the caldron of bitterness they stirred up. Alcohol became his cushion and his consolation. But it cost him one job after another. It ruined his home, got him more and more into debt, and was well on its way to destroying him physically, mentally and spiritually. Drying up surely seemed a cure-all. But he discovered that, dry as the Sahara, he still had his temper. He resented opposition and restraint as much as ever. Only now he had to face his frightening inadequacies without any anesthesia.
Then there was Eleanor, unmarried and in her forties. She had a well-paid job in which she was not particularly interested and an attractive apartment which served merely as a backdrop for loneliness. Gradually she made friends with John Barleycorn. After that, loneliness was never a problem. But the price was staggering. Her solitary drinking seemed headed for inevitable tragedy, when she joined A.A. She achieved sobriety all right; but the loneliness returned. She seemed only to have swapped tormentors. True, she found a certain amount of companionship amongst the members. But it didn’t go deep enough. Much more than abstinence was needed to bring her to a satisfactory adjustment.
Fortunately, she had access to an alcoholic clinic and through the guidance of its competent psychiatrist eventually proved herself superior to her personality defect.
Joe and Dick worked out their problems too, but their help came in a different way. They became people of meaning to themselves and of value to others through the assistance of trusted advisers. Joe and his wife were led to see the basic weakness in their marriage, and eventually to erase it. Dick came to realize that back of his temper was a terrible pride which detonated his anger. Self-knowledge sent him back with extra fervor to his religion and the imitation of Christ.
Most alcoholics, perhaps all, need psychiatric help. A man starts to drink for reasons of which he may or may not be aware. When he parts from alcohol those reasons may or may not still exist. In any case his means of escape is gone, but his difficulties remain. The dried up alcoholic still has his inferiority complex. He still has his temper. He still must suffer uncongenial moments with family! friend! employer – and worst of all with himself. He must still live in a world with painful prodding.
Recognition of the personality problem which is the substructure of his inability to adjust to conditions under which other people are living successfully is the first step in his rehabilitation; the second is the building up of attitudes and habits which will help him overcome the weakness. Both require long-term! intelligent psychiatric help – but above all, he must be convinced that ultimately he is the doctor. As in the cases of Joe and Dick, the help may come from other than professional… …alcoholic is smart enough to know that whisky is controllable – but it is just a start.
This might tend to discourage some who are struggling for sobriety. But it should not. For what every alcoholic must know is, that unless he stops drinking, there is no hope of anything else. Once dried up he can proceed to take the basic difficulties in hand.
I shall attempt to outline, first in a general and then in a specific way, the steps he must follow. First of all (in keeping with the A.A. program) the compulsive drinker seeking rehabilitation ought to turn with all fervor and humility to the faith and discipline implicit in his obligation to God. Such action will serve a twofold purpose: religious discipline will help him to overcome character weaknesses; faith in a will higher than his own, will open a source of limitless strength which he is free to make use of, when and how he needs it.
Next he must establish a motive, clearly understood and powerful enough to direct, even impel, him toward choices that will replace old defeating habits with healthful new ones. Acquiring good habits is not a mechanical procedure. It does not fall into the classification of muscle building or weight reduction, dependent solely upon a day-by-day repetition of certain prescribed exercises. Rather, the will must adhere to the principle of reasoned choice. And choice, following the cue of man’s intelligence must have motive behind it.
What then, is the motive powerful enough to impel the alcoholic toward right choice in all things that affect him – from the minutest detail of his environment to the broadest intellectual decision?
Some well meaning people still assault the alcoholic with appeals to decency, loyalty, love of wife, children, mother or father. They bring in the fear of punishment in this life and maybe hell in the next, or both. Experience has shown that none of these motives is sufficient.
The alcoholic’s own obligation to himself is the only motive strong enough and wide enough to support the construction of his new life. This may sound egotistic and selfish. Actually it is neither; for self-love is not selfishness. It is the obligation a man has to act in such a way that his conduct will conform to his destiny, which is his inherent and over-all development in terms of his highest and most truly human ideals. In the order of grace and nature, a man’s own perfection is his truest destiny. It furnishes him with the most powerful motive within the scope of human imagination.
In applying these broad, general principles toward a solution of his own problem, the alcoholic, and those who would help him, may find a few specific suggestions of value:
1. He should put himself into situations favorable to his new way of life and incompatible with his former behavior. This means choosing his physical surroundings, friends, books, hobbies, work, pleasure, and everything which bears upon him externally, with his motive firmly in mind. A persevering member of A.A. once told me that he likes everything about drinking. “I like the taste and smell and sight of liquor,” he said. “Above all, I like the men I drank with.” The day may come when the compulsive drinker can be with his friends again and not drink. But in the beginning he would be foolish to try it.
2. He should not permit exceptions – either in the resolve not to drink or in the systematic building of new habits. Each slip, says William James, is like dropping a ball of string. Just a little carelessness and much tedious work is undone.
3. He should carry out good resolutions as soon as possible. Sentiments and wishes are for the most part useless unless they end in action. In fact, they can be harmful. A wasted resolution is more damaging than a lost opportunity, for it sets a positive obstacle in the normal, wholesome path of future resolutions. William James thought there was no more contemptible type of human character than the sentimentalist and dreamer who spends his life on a sea of sensibility but never gets down to vigorous action. In short, a person should not allow himself the luxury of an emotion toward good without giving it concrete expression.
Occasionally in this article I have referred to normal living. Too much should not be read into that word normal. Most people’s lives vibrate between success and failure intermixed with peaks of tranquility and tumult. No life is free from dissatisfaction and incompleteness. St. Augustine in his Confessions, wrote: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The seeds of discontent ferment in human nature along with man’s insufficiency. Recognition of these truths is behind A.A.’s insistence that the alcoholic must admit his need for divine help.
Let the alcoholic know what he is in for. Sobriety truly means the alcoholic’s salvation – in this life and perhaps in the next. But drying up is not the complete solution. It is only the key, which opens the way for him to live successfully without the crutch of alcohol. Granted intelligent help and perseverance, the compulsive drinker can anticipate a rewarding life. Yet, it will not be that simple because he stays away from drink. But unless he does stay away, he will not be able to look forward to anything.