EXTENSION, Vol. 45: 8-9+, November, 1950
I WAS A DRUNKARD
A Catholic member looks at Alcoholics Anonymous.
Ten years ago I was a drunkard. Then some erstwhile drinking companions became members of Alcoholics Anonymous and shortly thereafter invited me to join. I haven’t had a drink since. And there has been a decided improvement in my knowledge and observance of things Catholic.
Because I am a newspaperman, I get to meet a great many people. Some priersts and laymen, hearing of my drinking days, have wondered aloud on occasion about the effect of Alcoholics Anonymous on my life. Their questions might be summed up somewhat like this: “Why was A.A. able to help you? Couldn’t you have got the same help from the Catholic Church?”
The question is an unfair one. It seems to pose the Catholic Church and Alcoholics Anonymous as rival systems in the treatment of alcoholism. That, obviously, is not only unfair but nonsense. Such thinking might go a step further and suggest that Alcoholics Anonymous is a kind of religion. And that, indeed, would be double-distilled nonsense. But dangerous nonsense. Because it might lead some Catholic alcoholic to refuse to enter A.A. in the mistaken belief that in his quest for sobriety he might endanger his salvation.
From my experience in A.A., I can say in all honesty: I am a better Catholic because I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I am a better A.A. because I am striving daily to be a better Catholic.
Fifteen Years Old
Alcoholics Anonymous is just more than fifteen years old. There came a belief to a New York investment consultant that, with the help of God, he could cease drinking. The belief came as he lay in an alcoholic hospital. And through what psychologists describe as an ecstatic religious experience – something akin to what happened to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road.
The New Yorker ceased to drink. Though he strove earnestly, he won no converts. Some six months later, he was in Akron on a business trip. Always in his work with other alcoholics, he thought that he was conferring a favor on them, that he was helping them for their sake. That Saturday afternoon in Akron, he realized he must talk to another alcoholic; that if he didn’t find an alcoholic and talk to him that he would get drunk. There followed a providential meeting with an alcoholic surgeon of that city and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. But the experience of that Saturday afternoon, the need for an alcoholic to talk with another alcoholic, has been of the very warp and woof of the A.A. code. So it is that when we A.A.’s work with another alcoholic, when we strive to show him the road to sobriety, we are doing it no only out of our gratitude to God but for the very selfish reason that this helps us to keep ourselves sober. Very definitely, it is not done as a favor to the other alcoholic, nor in the spirit of evangelism or reform.
It is an important point. A man can’t become overly self-righteous, he can’t develop the reformer complex when the thing he is doing is primarily for himself. It is one of the things that differentiate A.A. from many a temperance movement of the past.
Another thing is that we stick to our own knitting. We don’t engage in controversy. We have no official position, for or against anything. We operate under the naive belief that what God wants us to do, for the most part, is to keep sober ourselves and to help other alcoholics get sober and stay sober.
A member’s attitude toward Prohibition, toward liquor, is his own. I continue to serve drinks on occasion in my home to non-alcoholic guests. My Irish relatives would object strenuously were I to change. And well they might. I’d object, too, if I were a guest in a diabetic’s home and he forbade me the use of sugar.
Alcoholism – a Disease
Which brings us to the question of alcoholism. Following the general belief in the medical profession, we in A.A. look upon alcoholism as a disease, a symptom of a disease or something in the nature of an allergy.
This is not done with any intent to evade or disclaim our own moral responsibility in the matter. The Twelve Steps of the Recovery Program, printed elsewhere in this article, are a direct denial of any such thought.
We emphasize the point of disease or allergy to help the alcoholic hold out his alcoholism at arm’s length and examine it. We want him to look upon it with rational objectivity. e want him to consider it as he would consider a heart ailment, hypertension or any disease. To separate it from himself. We as alcoholics know that the alcoholic has an obsession that his drinking problem is peculiar to himself, that he is the only one in the world who is so afflicted that he drinks because he has to, that other drunkards drink too much because they want to.
We go to see a prospective member of A.A. We tell him of our own drinking experiences – the things we did, the thoughts we had, the futile attempts at seeking to control our drinking. We tell him of the black despair and the bitter remorse we suffered.
We know that at first he’ll listen to us with doubt, with suspicion, with the belief, perhaps, that these clear-eyed men are just a couple of reformers, busybodies who mean well but who just don’t know the score.
But as we tell about ourselves, the alcoholic knows that we know about alcoholics. He has been a stranger in an alien land and suddenly he hears his native tongue. And often he takes the conversation away from us. He has found someone who understands and he wants to pour out the thoughts that have been bottled up – no pun intended – within him. And often, within minutes, he is confiding to us things that his wife, his relatives, his friends have never been told.
I recall a woman whose husband came into A.A. Half indignantly, she remarked: “For years I begged John to quit drinking, for his own sake, for my sake, for the sake of the children. And he wouldn’t do a thing. Now along comes a couple of strangers and John quits drinking – just like that.”
Her error, apart from the fact that she should have been thanking God for John’s sobriety, was in thinking of the A.A.’s as strangers. John knew otherwise.
We tell the prospect not to quarrel with the word “alcoholic” that an alcoholic is simply an uncontrolled drinker. Alcohol does something to us, we say, that it does not do to the ordinary person. When we start to drink, chances are that if nothing drastic interferes, we’ll keep on drinking until we are drunk.
“The More You Eat”
You who are not alcoholic have sat down with a bag of peanuts or a bowl of popcorn and started to nibble away. Each bite you took, led to another. That “the more you eat, the more you wantu appetite multiplied by a million (I am being slightly conservative) might give you some idea as to the desire set up in an alcoholic by his first drink.
There’s another obsession we must combat. The practicing alcoholic suffers from the delusion that somehow, somewhere, some day – maybe “the next time” – he is going to drink in a controlled manner. This despite his record, this despite the thousand and one failures in his attempts to be a normal drinker.
We have to hammer home to the man we are calling on that once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Never in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, with its hundred thousand members, never in the history of medicine or psychiatry (so far as we know) has a man ever been able to drink in a controlled manner once he has passed the line that separates the uncontrolled drinker, the alcoholic, from the social drinker.
Never, we say out of our experience, can such a man hope to drink in a controlled fashion. So we point out that it isn’t the fifteenth drink that gets us into trouble – it’s the first one.
“We are all one drink from being drunkards, we A.A.’s.
No man that I have heard of set out to become an alcoholic. He drank for the reasons other people drink – for sociability, in a festive spirit, to accentuate a mood. His predisposition to alcohol did the rest.
There’s a Texas physician, a member of A.A., who says: “Alcoholism is like the seven year itch. It’s no disgrace to get it. But its a disgrace to keep it.”
Which brings to mind some of the remarks that relatives of alcoholics have been making these many generations:
“Why don’t you just have a couple of drinks like your Uncle Gus? Why don’t you exercise your will power?”
The only time an alcoholic can exercise his will power is before the first drink, a thing most non-alcoholics do not understand. That first drink shatters the alcoholic’s will power. The reason for this, perhaps, is that alcohol is not a stimulant, as so many fondly believe. It is a narcotic, a depressant, a drug, and the alcoholic is particularly and peculiarly sensitive to its effects.
Our first effort with the new man is to seek to bring him to the firm conviction that he is an alcoholic, that being an alcoholic he can never drink without drunkenness and ruin. We have seen alcoholics, after periods of sobriety up to ten and twelve years, make the experiment of trying to drink normally. We have seen the tragedy that followed.
That is why “the pledge,” as given in the Catholic Church, ordinarily protects the drinker only for the duration of the pledge and rarely has lasting results. A period of sobriety adds nothing to an alcoholic’s ability to control his drinking. That’s from the record.
“OK,” says our prospect, “so I’m an alcoholic, so I can’t ever drink again. Now what do I do?”
The Twelve Steps
Then we tell him about the rule of life in the Twelve Steps of the Recovery Program of Alcoholics Anonymous. These, translated into Catholic terms, are what A.A. demands of a man.
He must admit he is an alcoholic.
He must seek to live in all things in accordance with the will of God.
He must make a thorough examination of conscience plus an analysis of his character.
He must make a general confession.
He must seek with the help of God to rid himself of his sins, his shortcomings, his character defects.
He must make amends to those he has harmed, except where to do so would bring another greater harm.
He must continue to examine his conscience regularly and when wrong “promptly admit it.”
He must seek “through prayer and meditation” to come closer to God, “praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
He must, following a spiritual awakening, try to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all his affairs.
Now a priest, someone schooled in Theology, might out of his learning have devised some such set of exercises. You will note that they are in accord with principles for the devout life, ancient in the Catholic Church: Contrition, a turning to God, seeking to rid ourselves of the things that keep us from God and then doing the things that will bring us closer to God.
But no. The Twelve Steps were devised by men who had little religious background. They had been exposed but briefly to Dr. Frank Buchmanls Oxford Group movement. We think it beautifully strange that a spiritual program so sound should be thought of by men whom any theologian, Catholic or otherwise, might well regard as spiritual ignoramuses, theological tyros.
The similarity between the Recovery Program and the first week of St. Ignatius’ Exercises has been remarked by more than one Jesuit.
One of the greatest gifts of A.A. over and above sobriety is the 24 hour idea. When a man becomes an A.A., he makes no promises, signs no documents, takes no pledges that naver again will he drink.
He is asked to quit drinking just for today.
This may seem a childish device – this 24 hour idea. But it works. First thing in the morning I ask God to help me not to drink today. When night comes, I thank God for His help in keeping me from alcohol that day.
So the days pass, one at a time, without alcohol. The days become weeks. The weeks are now months. We have been dry just a day at a time but now we have been dry for months.
My mind is clearer. Hope, long dead, lives again. Faith, once submerged in alcohol, begins to rise. And charity. It is an old saying among us that A.A. is charity in action – not merely something believed, but something lived.
“Give Us This Day”
We begin to live all of our lives within the compass of 24 hours. “Give us this day our daily bread” takes on a new meaning. We close the door on the pastr leaving it to God’s mercy. We refuse to thrust ourselves into the future, leaving that to God’s providence. We concentrate on living in the here and now to the fullest. A Catholic writer refers to the Sacrament of the Present Moment. I knew just what he meant. So would any Catholic A.A.
The new man coming into A.A. is told of the necessity of asking for His help.
The Catholic might protest that he had prayed. We say to him, out of our own experience, that his prayers had been like this:
He prayed only to get out of trouble and the moment the jam was over, he lost fervor. Or he prayed for what we alcoholics believe the impossible – that he is able to drink “like a gentleman.” Or he prayed with his lips and did nothing to merit the help of God.
He must pray, but he must also seek to do the Will of God.
The scientists, looking at A.A.’s amazing success, speaks learnedly of group therapy. We Catholics know that God seeks to work His wonders through natural means. When He does otherwise, it is a miracle. It is an axiom of biology that every living thing tends to adapt itself to its environment. So the novice finds himself with alcoholics who understand him because they have come to know themselves. They give freely of their experience, their counsel, of their time and of themselves.
There is the misguided belief among some that A.A.’s sit around bragging about their drinking days, about the amounts they consumed; or that they sit about mourning the days that were, as a man now poor might recall the days of his wealth, or a man now old, the days of his youth.
We do talk a bit about our drinking careers. We do it to illustrate a point or to raise a laugh. We laugh easily in A.A. We laugh frequently. It’s easy to laugh when a man is happy.
But, for the most part, our conversations, our bull sessions, our meetings are concerned with God and the things of God. We discuss the steps of the program – how best to do them. What living according to the Will of God actually requires. What’s the best way to combat pride and develop humility? How to rid yourself of resentments, jealousies, angers, fears, doubts, suspicions?
Many a Catholic has achieved a reputation among the non-Catholic brethren of being a minor Thomas Aquinas by reciting to them the words of the Baltimore catechism.
He Learns Things
A Catholic isn’t long in A.A. before a fellow Catholic, older in the movement, invites him to a Catholic lecture, a day of recollection, a week-end retreat. The new man finds that many of the Catholics are weekly communicants, that no few of them have a daily routine of Mass and Communion.
He learns, too, that not always were these Catholics thus. He learns that this one, prior to A.A., had been a careless, indifferent Catholic. He learns that that one, prior to A.A., had been away from the Sacraments for nineteen years.
What changed them?
Some sage has said: “Character is right thinking become a habit. But it is easier to live yourself unto right thinking than it is to think yourself into right living.”
There is the principle that a man becomes Christlike by seeking always to do the Christlike thing. It is a principle used much in the formation of apostles in Catholic Action.
Because it is a principle, it operates in A.A. as elsewhere. The essence of the A.A. program is in the step wherein a man decides to turn his will and his life over to the care of God.
A man seeking to do the Will of God must seek to do the good thing, the honest thing, the pure thing, the unselfish thing, the loving thing, the Christlike thing.
And little by little, he becomes good, he becomes unselfish, he follows in Christ’s steps.
We Catholics in A.A. come eventually to these thoughts: We need A.A. to remind us of the necessity of sobriety, to keep us alert against the things that might end our sobriety. We know we can’t stay sober without the help of God. We can best get that help through the Church and the Sacraments. The more we tend toward God, the more grateful we become for His help. We begin to look upon our alcoholism in terms of Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.” It occurs to us that had we not been alcoholics, had we not, reluctant and unwilling, turned to God for help, our Catholicism might never have become the tremendous force that it is in our lives today. To know, to love and to serve God might have remained a half-remembered phrase from the catechism. We have learned, as Augustine did, that there can be no rest until we rest in God.
We do not obtrude our Catholicism upon our fellow A.A.’s. We, as they, are scrupulous about keeping discussions on non-denominational basis. A man says: “This is my view,” or “This is what I believe.” He does not say: “This is what the Catholic Church teaches,” nor “The Methodist church insists that-“
There are Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jewsr believers and non-believers in A.A. There is a sizeable number of agnostics, a few members who insist they are Atheists. They, too, in A.A. have a right to their opinions, a right to express their views. They see nothing anomalous, these doubters, in membership in a group which is basically God-centered. After all, Faith is a gift. Some eventually come to believe in God, but others remain doubting but dry. The why of this I do not understand. It has taken me a long time and many a suffered scar to learn that God knows what He is doing. I have ceased to question Him.
The Most Tolerant
Alcoholics, by and large, are the most tolerant of people. Because of what we have suffered, there is a kinship among us that transcends color and creed. It is good for us Catholics to associate with our non-Catholic brethren. We learn to be so grateful for the Sacraments. We learn to be so grateful for Our Lady’s intercession.
Generally – there are some notable exceptions – we Catholics are better informed about God and the things of the spirit. Generally the Catholic’s concepts are clearer and he can express them better, therefore. So considerable Catholic thinking has entered into A.A. Which is understandable because of its essential agreement of basic A.A. with Catholic principles.
We like to share our days of recollection, our retreats with our non-Catholic brethren. We like to recommend books on the proofs of the existence of God, “The Imitation of Christ,” other spiritual books. We know these things will help the fellow who is having difficulty with the spiritual phases of the program. And SO, on occasion, an erstwhile Atheist becomes a Catholic, a whilom doubting Thomas embraces the Faith. And we have known Protestants after a Catholic retreat to return to the church of their youth.
Maybe you have a friend a relative who needs this help to stop drinking. First thing to do for him (or her – about 15 per cent of our members are women) is to pray. Then suggest A.A. to them. Or if you lack the opportunity or courage, ask his parish priest or physician to suggest A.A. Impress upon the alcoholic that there are no initiation fees, no dues, no officers, only the simple spiritual rules of the Recovery Program.
Make it clear to him that if he doesn’t want A.A., A.A. doesn’t want him. If, after he hears our story, what we have to offer, he does not want A.A., we’ll leave him alone until the day he does want A.A. The only investment we ask of him is a half hour of his time. And don’t forget your prayer.
Most Alcoholics Anonymous groups are listed in local telephone books. If one is not listed in your community, information as to the nearest group may be obtained by writing the Alcoholic Foundation, P.O. Box 459, Grand Central Annex, New York 17, N.Y.