CATHOLIC DIGEST, Vol. 25 (12) 108-112, October, 1961
SUCCESS FOR THE A.A. PROGRAM
by Collie Small
Alcoholics Anonymous is 25 years old this year. Yet it still cannot altogether explain its remarkable success in rehabilitating hopeless drunks. Some years ago A.A. asked some prominent doctors to explain its program to a group at the New York Academy of Medicine. To a man, the doctors hastily declined, although each of them was an enthusiastic supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Suprised, A.A. wanted to know the reason for the brusque refusals.
“We do recognize most of the forces at work in A.A.,” the doctors said in substance, “but we cannot explain the speed of the results. A.A. accomplishes things in weeks or months which ordinarily should take years. On top of that, tremendous changes follow in the personality of the alcoholic. There is something at work here that we don’t understand. We call it the X factor. You call it God. Well, you can’t explain God and neither can we; at least not at the New York Academy of Medicine.”
A.A. means many things to many men and women, but it works – if an alcoholic genuinely wants it to work. And that, of course, is all A.A. needs to know. Thus has A.A. come of age, both statistically, in its more than 8,500 groups in approximately 82 countries, and in its working philosophy. It has salvaged at least 300,000 wrecked and sodden lives.
A.A. inevitably made mistakes in its early days, and lives were doubtless lost because of them. It was hard for the early members of A.A. to recognize what it was that was keeping them sober. Suddenly they realized that they were men and women who not only had discovered their inability to control alcohol, but had admitted to themselves that they were unable to control it. It was a vital realization.
Although Bill W., a New York stockbroker, along with an alcoholic physician, Doctor Bob, of Akron, Ohio, founded A.A., no one invented it. It just grew. And the process was one of bitter trial and painful error.
Early in its history, A.A. discovered that one of the fastest ways to get a sober alcoholic drunk again is to generate guilt and rebellion in him by demanding virtually unattainable standards of behavior. Today, no one demands anything of anyone in A.A. There are no rules whatever. There is nothing in the entire program any stronger than 12 suggested steps to sobriety.
The futility of trying to force an alcoholic into sobriety was learned in another way from a New York physician, Dr. William D. Silkworth, known affectionately as “the little doctor who loved drunks.” It was estimated that Dr. Silkworth had salvaged some 30,000 alcoholics. After Bill W. had vainly spent six discouraging months in trying to sober up his first drunk, it was Dr. Silkworth who spotted the trouble.
“Stop preaching,” he said. “That won’t work. Instead, give them the brutal medical facts about their obsession with alcohol and their physical incapability of handling it. The medical facts alone are enough to frighten anyone. Then maybe you can soften them up enough to make them want to do anything to get well. That is when A.A. is most likely to succeed.”
Dr. Silkworth was right. Every alcoholic is emotionally unstable. Defiance and resentment against society are among his characteristics.
It is still a medical mystery why one person should be abie to tolerate alcohol and another should not. Although the early A.A.’s had much to learn from both medicine and religion, they were also realizing that it takes an alcoholic to help another alcoholic. “Fellowship” became an extremely important word in A.A., along with “humility” and “sacrifice,” all of them qualities that a troubled world does not seem to be able to assume as well as some 300,000 drunks have been able to do.
Will power alone, it quickly appeared, was not enough to keep an alcoholic sober. Whatever it was called, there had to be a stronger force, a higher power to be accepted by, but not forced upon, the alcoholic. Strength from God was vital, but the idea of God had to be strictly an individual matter.
A.A. readily accepted the fact that alcoholism is an illness which cannot be cured but can only be arrested. Its byword became: “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” It emphasized that it is the first drink that does the total damage, not the 10th or 12th. Switching drinks was certainly no answer, a grievous error made by a group of A.A.’s in Richmond, Va., who experimented briefly with beer instead of hard liquor, with disastrous results.
A.A. quickly learned that long term pledges of sobriety were meaningless in the case of an alcoholic. With too difficult a goal, it was inevitable that he would fall off the wagon at some point. So the “24-hour plan” was developed to keep the alcoholic’s goal within his reach. Here was a simple but powerful bit of psychology which suggested that the alcoholic relax and merely concentrate on staying sober for 24 hours. “If I feel the urge to take a drink,” he could tell himself, “I will neither yield to the temptation nor resist it. I will just put off taking the drink until tomorrow.” By this happy quirk of time, tomorrow never comes. It is always today, a day of sobriety.
Along with the personal problems of the alcoholic grappled with within A.A., there were critical group problems to be resolved. Was there, for example, a real need for anonymity?
This was a sticky problem indeed. Certainly there was a crying need for publicity to call attention to A.A. and install public confidence in it. But when a A.A. group in Cleveland sobered up a famous major-league baseball player and revealed his identity, the newspaper stories were sensational. Bill W. decided that personal anonymity was absolutely essential.
Many alcoholics desperately wanted the assurance of anonymity because of the social stigma which was then much greater than it is now. Other members, however, became so enthusiastic over their success with A.A. that they were trumpeting its praises from the rooftops. They could do a great deal of harm should they slip, however briefly, and get drunk again in public, as more than a few did.
At the core of every group’s survival lay the need for absolute humility and equality on the part of the members. So a firm policy of principle before personality was adopted.
A.A. decided early not to accept outside contributions but instead to pay its own way through profits from its several publications and by passing the hat at meetings. In the end, A.A. concluded that it had no need for large sums of money. It needed no temples.
A.A. has had to guard constantly against becoming a commercial enterprise in which material values might challenge the spiritual values on which A.A. was founded. In the face of countless tempting offers of outside financial help, A.A. took the vow of poverty, restricting even its own members to $100 in contributions in any one year.
A.A. saw at the outset the wisdom of never engaging in public controversy. Such a decision might have saved the Washingtonian society, a movement among alcoholics in Baltimore 100 years ago. At first, the Washingtonians saw themselves simply as alcoholics trying to help one another, and at one point their total membership exceeded 100,000. Then their egos took command, and they made a series of disastrous mistakes by associating themselves with various reform groups, by taking violent sides on the explosive question of abolition, and to cap it all, by taking it upon themselves to reform America’s drinking habits.
That was the end of the Washingtonians. Their unity was lost for good. A.A. learned the lesson well. From the beginning it has tried to be neither a debating society nor a temperance society. It is concerned with no problem other than its own.
Many early A.A. groups made a whopper of a mistake on the simple question of membership. For all their high principles, they were amazingly intolerant in their initial determination to restrict membership only to “pure” or “qualified” alcoholics. Convicts, alcoholic inmates in mental institutions, drug addicts who were also alcoholics: all these had to be shunned.
Looking back, one can see why they tried to errect barriers. The early A.A.’s were afraid. They were grimly trying to keep their lives and their homes intact in the face of tremendous personal pressures, and wide open membership frightened them. Gradually, however, as their confidence increased, they began to realize that, of all groups, A.A. had no right to take away an alcoholic’s last chance. Instead, it was A.A. which had to give him his last chance. One by one, the various groups abandoned all membership restrictions until the one requirement for membership was a simple desire to stop drinking.
That decision took A.A. into places it might otherwise never have penetrated. Beginning with San Quentin, in California, A.A. groups have established themselves in more than 400 prisons, and there are now A.A. groups in almost 350 mental hospitals.
The results have been genuinely spectacular. Whereas only 20% of the alcoholics paroled from prisons and hospitals used to make the grade on the outside, more than 80% now find permanent freedom as members of A.A.
The importance of A.A. in industry is also being increasingly appreciated. Not long ago, absenteeism among known alcoholics in American industry was estimated by the Yale University Center of Alcohol Studies at 22 days a year: almost a full work month. The total loss to industry was more than $1 billion annually. Many company officials are now being urged to watch for the telltale sign of the Monday morning absence, followed by the Tuesday hangover, and to do something about it.
At DuPont, the alcoholic employee is urged to visit the company doctor, who in turn recommends A.A. (one A.A. member is on Du Ponts home medical staff in Wilmington, Del., and helps start A.A. groups in other Du Pont communities). Eastman Kodak has spearheaded a community program in Rochester, N.Y., which involves the closest kind of cooperation between doctors, law-enforcement officials, social agencies, and Alcoholics Anonymous. North American Aviation Inc., Allis-Chalmers, and scores of other companies have initiated comparable programs.
There will always be alcoholics who won’t admit it and are therefore tragically unreachable. And there will always be A.A. members who do admit it and then slip back to the bottle anyway. As Co-founder Bill W. once said in comparing those alcoholics who catch themselves in time and who don’t, “There is a saying that there are ‘high-bottom’ drunks and ‘low-bottom’ drunks.
“Both are lying in the gutter, but the high-bottom drunk has his head on the curb. We A.A.’s are all drunks. If you think you are one we invite you to join us.”