A FLOWER OF THE SOUTH
Somewhat faded, she nevertheless bloomed afresh.
She still had her husband, her home, and a chance to
help start A.A. in Texas.
I KNOW THAT if I do daily what I have done for these last thirteen and a half years, I will stay sober. I didn’t know that when I came into A.A. I knew that I wanted to try A.A. and if that didn’t work, I didn’t think anything would. I wish I could tell you how and why A.A. works, but I don’t know. I only know that it does—if you desire it with your whole heart and without reservation. I think that no one comes to A.A. until he’s tried everything else. As I grow in A.A., I realize that a person with as much self-will as I had, as hard a head and as diseased an ego, had to try everything that I could think of, butting my head against every stone wall before I was ready to come in. The only thing I have really to offer you is my own story, telling you just what sort of a drunk I was.
I came from a family where alcohol was socially acceptable. I lived in New Orleans where, in the twenties, cocktail parties, dances and night spots were almost the order of the day—or rather the night. I can’t remember a dinner at home that we didn’t have a white wine or claret on the table. We always had cordials after dinner and I know my sister and my
brother and I loved creme de menthe. So I was used to it, but I didn’t know what the effect of alcohol was because I always had wine, usually with dinner, but always with a lot of ice and about two tablespoons of sugar in it. Drinking it with your meals, you didn’t feel it.
I believe the first time I ever realized what alcohol would do for me was at my own wedding. I was an extremely sensitive person and so self-conscious that I hurt all over.
The night that I was married I had a big church wedding. But I couldn’t enjoy anything; I was scared to death. Scared that my dress wasn’t going to fit right, that the church wasn’t going to be filled, that I’d fall flat on my face walking up the aisle; in fact; I was afraid I wasn’t going to be a prima donna in the place where I should be. You didn’t carry a little orchid up the aisle in those days; you carried a great big bouquet, like a funeral spray, and you didn’t have your picture taken until just before you went to the church. As self-conscious as I was, I had to pose for those pictures, holding this huge bouquet. By the time all this was over, I was really in a terrific state, and my father taking in things said, “Miss Esther is about to faint. Get her something to drink.” The servant he turned to was our old cook, and she liked to drink. Emma ran out to the kitchen and came back with a water glass full of bourbon and made me drink it down. The church was just three blocks from our home. I got right into the car and they drove me over, and just as soon as I got to the church they started the wedding. As I started down the aisle, that bourbon went right through me. I walked up that aisle
just like Mae West in her prime. I wanted to do it all over again.
I don’t think that I was conscious of what had happened to me, but I think that it registered sub-consciously. It was really medicinal that night, that whiskey, and it was a medication after that. As long as it eased situations socially, it helped just fine, but somewhere along the line, it backfired. When I crossed that line, I don’t know. Something went haywire and I got to depend on it so I could do nothing without it.
I think that it was about 1931 that it first dawned on me that I had a problem, and yet nobody was very critical about it except my family, and that was only because I decided, after seven years of marriage, that I would divorce my husband. I did divorce him in July. It only took a month to get a divorce in Texas. Then I went home. I was free, white and twenty-one and I had a time for myself. I put my poor mother and father through agonies but, finally, I couldn’t stand living with them and having them watch everything I did. I had no feeling of security, and I knew that I had done a very stupid thing, so I went back to Texas and remarried my ex-husband. Then we moved up to Oklahoma. That was when all the boys and Esther got drunk and the wives didn’t. They would talk about it. That went on for about three years, and then we moved back to Texas again. I really started drinking then.
Frank, my husband, would come home day after day and find me passed out. Or he would leave on a trip and by the time he came home, I’d be passed out. So finally, he said to me one morning, “Esther, why do
you do this?” I said, “Well, I don’t know why.” I had been reading a lot about psychiatry and I thought, “Maybe if I talk to a psychiatrist he can find out what is happening, and then I can drink like a lady.” Frank said, “If you’d like to talk to a psychiatrist, I’ll see a doctor and find out who to go to here.” Frank left to find the doctor and I got drunk.
Frank found the doctor, but the doctor didn’t want to take an alcoholic. He called me that because I was drinking too much. So I got drunker and drunker, and then, suddenly, I woke up in the booby-hatch.
I had never been inside of an insane asylum and I really thought I was going to a private hospital. I woke up in this bare room with nothing around me but bars; they wouldn’t let me smoke and treated me, well, like I was nuts. I knew this, and right away I got furious and would not even talk to the doctor in the place. I wanted to go home. But they kept me there—I was supposed to stay a month, but they only kept me there seventeen days. I know that I was terribly screwed up inside, but I came out much worse. I could not identify myself with the people with whom I found myself and there was no understanding, and I can’t stand confinement anyhow. Because of this state of confusion and frustration I had hysterics on the seventeenth day for the first and only time in my life. So the doctor let me go home on one condition. He asked if I would cooperate with him after I went home, and if I would have a trained nurse stay with me for at least two weeks.
I was so happy over getting home that I changed overnight, but not enough!
This was in 1936 or 1937. I was crazy about my
doctor. I cooperated with that man one hundred per cent! That is how dishonest I was with myself. I know now that I asked questions and told him that I wanted to learn, but I told him only what I wanted to believe about myself. The questions he asked me that I didn’t answer honestly, I thought were none of his business. I could see no reason why they should have any relationship to this problem of getting drunk every now and then. So it drove me deeper into the psychosis or neurosis that I had, and that I hated deep down in my heart. I resented the fact that Frank had done this to me, and I just didn’t know what was going on. Life was pretty miserable.
About this time, at Christmas, after being under this doctor’s care, we decided that there wasn’t anything more to do. Every time I got drunk, my husband would send me to a nursing home. He hesitated to send me back to that hospital. I think I disrupted the hospital.
Anyhow, after Christmas my husband gave me a cocker spaniel who is, I think, just as notorious in A.A. as I am. Frank had to go to New York, but because I had a dog, we had a duplex, and I thought—if only we had a house! A duplex apartment isn’t any place to raise a dog. So I located a house, and I thought we ought to move into it immediately, but Frank was horrified, because he never knew what was going to happen to me. He always thought that maybe I was safer in a building where there were other people. He said that because of my drinking, he shouldn’t leave, but that he had to go to New York for two weeks. Then he said I couldn’t possibly move on the first of February because I couldn’t stay in that place by myself.
He said, “If your father will come out and stay with you, you can have the house.” So I called my father and he said, “Yes,” he’d come out and stay with me for that time. I loved my father dearly and I adored my dog, and I’d gotten this new house and Frank had just given me a new fur coat and I was thrilled to death. So Frank went to New York and despite all these things, I got drunk.
My father, as I have said, was very indulgent and loved me dearly, and knew how to get around me. He talked me into taking the Samaritan Treatment. He even had the people come out, and tell me what kind of a room I was going to have, and that he could come and see me, and that the dog could come and see me. So I took the Samaritan Treatment. I guess there are plenty of other graduates of this treatment around. There are no easy ways to sober up, but that’s the most excruciating. I took that treatment three times and it didn’t work—at least, for me.
There was a doctor in our church congregation who was interested in my case, and he thought it was a vitamin deficiency. So I went down to him quite a few times a month and had him shoot me full of the stuff; and then I went across the street to a little drug store to take a glass of beer or two beers, and then stopped at the liquor store to get myself a pint and go home. You know those vitamins just don’t keep you sober!
In 1940, we moved once more, to Houston; my husband thought maybe a change of environment would help and I’d be all right. There was nothing else left to try. We had tried everything. The only thing that I could do would be to call the doctor to help sober me up.
I wouldn’t go to hospitals because I wanted my dog there, so I had to have a trained nurse. The only time my dog would have anything to do with me was when I had a hangover, and when I was so sick he was the only one who would have anything to do with me at all.
I have told you some of the funny things, but not much of the shame and degradation. I fell down and knocked out my front teeth. I dropped a two-quart water bottle on my big toe. I couldn’t walk, having it in a cast, and the doctor left the cast on three weeks longer than was necessary because he never found me sober enough to take it off. It was one bang after another, so finally, one afternoon in April of 1941, I got as drunk as a skunk, and while I do not walk very straight sober, you should see me when I’m drunk! I was just as drunk as I could be, getting ready to take an afternoon walk. I got into slacks and out I went, weaving with the dog. A patrol car passed. The cop must have seen the condition that I was in because he decided to take me home. When he picked me up, I must have gotten sassy and told him that he couldn’t do that, so he took my dog home and took me to jail! As I said before, I don’t like to be fenced in, and with those bars you don’t get hotel service. They phoned my husband that I was in jail and in such terrible shape that they didn’t know what I would do to myself; and they realized that jail was no place for me, but that he was to wait a while before he got me, because at the time they called him to come over for me I was beating a tin cup against the wall. I wanted a cigarette and room service, which I didn’t get. So I was in just a few hours. But somewhere during that
time, I remembered going back on the bunk and crying my eyes out. I think that is when I hit bottom.
My husband couldn’t tell whether I wanted to do something about my drinking. I was as defiant as anybody could be because I was scared. I didn’t know which way to turn. So when he came for me, as he walked down the stairs, I could see him through the bars, and he was signing for me; I looked at him and said, “Don’t you sign anything in this place!” I was going to sue the city for what they did to me. But Frank turned around and looked at me and said, “Esther, remember you’re in jail and not at home.” I don’t want anybody ever to look at me like that again. The contempt and disgust that was in his face and thoughts! I think I actually read more contempt than was really there because just a week before someone had sent him the Saturday Evening Post article on A.A., and there was a glimmer of hope in it for him.
There was something else that I could try—A.A. But Frank was frightened to death to give it to me, because I resented everything he said and did. So he waited another week or two and I don’t think I stayed sober hardly at all. Frank was out of town, and I remember that he’d gotten in this one night and found me drunk. The next morning he came into my room and said, “Esther, I’m not going to lecture you any more, but I want you to read this article. If you will try this thing, I’ll go along with you. If you don’t, you will have to go home. I cannot sit by and watch you destroy yourself.”
When he left I thought, what is this crack-pot thing? I took two or three drinks so my eyes could focus, and
I could see that horrible picture of the awful drunk on the first page; he couldn’t get the drink to his mouth, he had a towel around his hand and he needed a shave. But, from the very first paragraph on, something happened to me. I realized that there were other people in this world who behaved and acted as I did, and that I was a sick person, that I was suffering from an actual disease. It had a name and symptoms, just like diabetes or T.B. I wasn’t entirely immoral; I wasn’t bad; I wasn’t vicious. It was such a feeling of relief that I wanted to know more about it and with that, I think for the first time, came the realization that there was something horribly, horribly wrong with me. Up to that time, I was so completely baffled by my behavior that I had never really stopped to think at all.
So, as I have said, I don’t know how or why A.A. works. I only know that it first reached me through that Saturday Evening Post article. There was no one I could call. I know that when Frank came home, I said, “I want to try this thing,” and he said, “There’s a box to write to in New York.” It was the A.A. General Service Office in New York that I wrote to, and that office has always meant a lot to me. Today, because of A.A.’s growth during the intervening years, it is of course much bigger than it was then.
I wrote on a Saturday. I was shaking so, I asked my husband to write the letter for me, but he said no. This was something I had to do all by myself. So I wrote this letter in very shaky handwriting, and in just one week came back a letter with A.A. literature from New York. They sent me the regular letter they
send to everybody else, but along with it, Ruth Hock, the nonalcoholic secretary, wrote a little note in long-hand because she could see from the letter that I really needed help badly. That personal touch did help me too.
That was on Saturday and my husband was leaving town Sunday night. He said, “Wait until I get back and I will go with you to see this man.” (That was the man the A.A. office had referred me to.) So Frank left town, and by Monday morning I had been sober for that whole week. I wanted to try A.A. with my whole heart and soul. I had learned an awful lot about myself in that one little article. Monday morning I was feeling just like a million dollars—all I needed was half a pint! So I got a half pint and at midnight that night, I called the number I had been given, but the man who had started the group was in the hospital so I didn’t know what to do. The letter from A.A. had said this man would see me—there weren’t any women.
I stayed drunk from Monday until Friday, and I call that my spill into A.A. I’m glad I had it then. In spite of knowing that my drunkenness was a symptom of the things that were wrong with me, and that I could never drink again, I thought I couldn’t yet give it up, although I was going to try. I never want to forget that last drunk as long as I live. It was one of the worst I ever had. It was the first time in my life that I could not get a lift out of what I was drinking; and so one Friday night, May 16th, 1941, at five minutes to six, I had half a water glass of warm gin, and that is when I first asked God to help me.
There are so many to whom I feel deeply grateful; to my husband (and best critic), whose generous love, compassion and understanding have helped me along
the way; to those before me in A.A. who inspired the first article I read, and the friend who sent that article to Frank; to Ruth for her personal note, and the first A.A. to talk to me; to my Bishop, whose loving and believing spirit inspired me; and to all the members of the Houston Group who were so patient, kind and helpful—and to countless others.
In my second year in A.A. we were transferred to Dallas. However, I threw myself into Twelve Step work, and what I feared would be a calamity turned out to be the most blessed of blessings. My work with other alcoholics has led me, day by day, into ever wider and richer experiences.
I wish I could tell you all that A.A. has done for me, all that I think and feel about A.A., but it’s something that I have experienced and have never been able to put into words. I know that I must work at it as long as I live; I know that it is only by working at it that I can stay sober and have a happy life. It is an endless career.
It has changed not simply one department of my life—it has changed my whole life. It has been a fellowship with God and man that has held good wherever I’ve turned and whatever I’ve done. It is a way of life that pays as it goes, every step of the way, in compensations that have been wonderfully rich and rewarding. It has made life a thousand times easier and simpler than did the endless compromises and conflicts by which I lived before. It pays daily in more harmonious relations with my fellow men, in ever clearer insight into the true meaning of life, and in the answering love and gratitude wherever and whenever I have been the instrument of God’s will in the lives of
others. In all these ways I’ve experienced, in ever growing measure and beyond all expectations and rewards, a joy which I had never before imagined.
The words of Dr. Bob and Bill are with me all the time. Dr. Bob said, “Love and service keep us dry,” and Bill says, “Always we must remember that our first duty is face-to-face help for the alcoholic who still suffers.” Dr. Bob tells about keeping it simple and not to louse it up. It’s the last thing I ever heard him say, and I think there are some of us who, at times, try to read extra messages and complexities into the Steps. To me, A.A. is within the reach of every alcoholic, because it can be achieved in any walk of life and because the achievement is not ours but God’s. I feel that there is no situation too difficult, none too desperate, no unhappiness too great to be overcome in this great fellowship—Alcoholics Anonymous.