PROMOTED TO CHRONIC
This career girl preferred solitary drinking, the
blackout kind, often hoping she’d stay that way for
keeps. But Providence had other ideas.
I WASN’T ALWAYS an alcoholic.
In fact it has been only within the last fifteen years that I changed from a fairly normal, controlled drinker into an alcoholic. I don’t mean that I went to bed one night a normal drinker, and awoke the next morning an alcoholic.
It wasn’t that simple.
I started drinking socially and at parties and proms when I was about twenty years old. I didn’t like it particularly at first, but I did like the effect I got from it. It made me feel quite grown-up and mature, and I think another added attraction was the fact that so far as my family was concerned, it was forbidden, and it had a special attraction for that reason. After a while I really did enjoy drinking and what it did to me, and I became dependent upon it for every occasion. Eventually the day came when I was dependent upon it even when there wasn’t any occasion. When I didn’t have anything else to do—a dull evening at home—I’d sneak a few drinks upstairs in my room, and that began to be a habit.
In 1939, I went on my first week’s bender of solitary drinking, locked up in a hotel room, because my family
opposed my coming marriage. I figured that perhaps if I went ahead with that marriage, which I was sure was right for me, that would be the answer to my drinking problem. I thought I would be quite happy and never would I drink too much again. So—I tried that.
(I think my first feeling of fear came with my first week’s solitary drinking, locked up in that hotel room. The hotel management, knowing that something was wrong, sent for a doctor. The doctor, apparently realizing that one thing that I certainly needed was sleep, left a bottle of sleeping pills there and in my drunken state I took them all, instead of the one or two he had prescribed. If it hadn’t been for an alert hotel maid, I might have died then. From that time on, fear was with me because I realized that not only would I not rememberwhat happened to me while I was drinking, but apparently I couldn’t control what happened. And there didn’t seem to be anything to do about it.)
Having passed over the border line, the next five years were filled with fear, failure and frustration. Tragedies during those years that were caused by my drinking, such as the breaking up of my marriage, the death of my child, other things—had little restraining effect. In fact, sometimes they served as good excuses to drink more, to forget. It was in Washington D.C., that this transition took place, and that the really bad part of alcoholism began happening.
The last Christmas I spent in Washington, fourteen years ago, comes to mind. Only a few days before Christmas I went to the dentist for a periodic check-up. X-rays showed that a couple of teeth had to come out. I hadn’t been drinking much about that time, for
I had begun to realize that there was something abnormal about my drinking, although as yet, I didn’t realize that it was so out of control. On the day set for the extractions, on my way to the dentist’s I felt a little nervous, so I had a couple of drinks, and after the teeth were out I was very nervous, so I had a few more.
When I got home my mouth was very painful, so I got an ice-bag and went to bed. The next day the ice-bag and I were still in bed—but we had a bottle too! My pattern of drinking at that time had reached the point where once I really started, I would retire to my bed and drink myself into oblivion. The rest of that week is pretty hazy.
And so it went. I remember vaguely violent quarrels with my husband, his finding my liquor supply time and time again and throwing it out. And then my waiting until I was sure he was asleep, and stealing money from him to replenish the supply.
Then I remember him coming into my room one night with a friend, and telling me to get dressed—we were going away.
I fought and struggled, but to no avail. I was taken out of the house and put bodily into a waiting car with nothing on but a robe and gown. We were on our way to New York, where he planned to leave me with my sister. On the way I tried, and I mean really tried, to throw myself out of the car. Finally they stopped and bought me a bottle; they knew so well that would keep me quiet.
We pulled up in front of my sister’s house just as dawn broke. There was a long discussion between my husband, my sister and her husband. It was ob-
vious even to me, in my drunken state, that I wasn’t wanted. My parents were due for the holidays that day, and she didn’t want them to find their drunken daughter there. So we turned around and started back to Washington. I was too weak and exhausted to even try to throw myself out of the car. The trip back was completed in one of those dead, awful silences.
My husband helped me into the house, packed himself a bag, and gave me some money. He said he didn’t care what I did with the money, but there was going to be no more until I was completely sober. He said he was finally and completely through—that he never wanted to see me again.
I was frightened—terribly frightened, and in about three days I was sober. On the day before Christmas I telephoned him and told him I was sober and asked him to come home. He said he’d see. I waited all the rest of that day and paced the floor all that night.
At noon on Christmas Day I called my family in New York, wished them a Merry Christmas, and assured them everything was fine with me. I almost broke down and cried when I talked with them but I didn’t. It was the one redeeming act of that Christmas.
Then in a couple of hours, when there was still no word from my husband and no sign of him, I had the feeling we alcoholics all know. “What’s the use? What’s the sense in trying to do the right thing?” There was that awful alcoholic loneliness.
I went out to a restaurant, found a booth way back in the rear, and started drinking. All afternoon I sat there and drank and played Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silent Night” over and over again on the juke box.
To this day I can’t hear that song without remembering that awful Christmas of 1940.
What happened afterwards I don’t know. I completely blacked out. The next recollection I have is of my husband coming into my room (I later found out it was on New Year’s Eve) accompanied by two policemen. This time I didn’t put up any fight because I knew why they were there and where I was going, the psychopathic ward of the City Hospital, where I had been once before.
Did that stop my drinking? Temporarily, but not for long.
Things went from bad to worse, and since I had finally and completely failed at the job of being a wife and a mother, my marriage ended. And then I went back home to live with my parents, and the merry-go-round started again—only this time I didn’t have to worry about waking up behind bars in a psychiatric ward.
Instead, I started going to a nice private sanitarium which, after the first visit, turned out to be more like a country club than anything else. After the first two or three days you were allowed the run of the place and it was a lot of fun. Also, after the first visit I learned I could refuse to sign myself in unless they gave me a glass of whiskey in one hand and a glass of paraldehyde in the other. This easy method of sobering up would last at least three days.
There were doctors and psychiatrists there who tried to help me, but at that point I wasn’t having help from anyone. I didn’t want help. I had decided I was no good—never would be any good, and the sooner I could drink myself out of this life, the better.
My visits to that sanitarium went on for nearly three years, until in March of 1944, my father died and I was too drunk to attend his funeral. At that point everyone decided something drastic had to be done. They held consultations and discussions, and finally decided to give me the “Conditioned Reflex” treatment. I won’t go into detail about that, but I can assure you it’s no fun.
The idea behind it is that, having taken the treatment, your system is so “conditioned” that the mere sight or smell or taste of alcohol produces a violent reaction, and you become ill. But it didn’t condition this girl’s thinking.
You may wonder why, since I was having all this trouble, and was having to seek the assistance of others, A.A. hadn’t come into the picture. Actually it had, way back in 1940.
The same doctor who had sent me to the psycho had asked my husband, “Why don’t you send her to this Alcoholics Anonymous?”
My husband said, “What is A.A.?”
At that time there hadn’t been any publicity such as we have now. Even the Jack Alexander Saturday Evening Post article hadn’t been written, and there was only a tiny group of people in Washington.
So the doctor said, “I really don’t know too much about it, but they tell me it is a bunch of drunks who get together…”
My husband interrupted, “She’s bad enough now without getting mixed up with a bunch of drunks.”
And so, in those following years, whenever A.A. was mentioned I would have no part of it. In my screwed up mind I kept thinking I could have gone to A.A. way
back there in 1940, and perhaps saved my marriage and home. I even wanted to—but I wasn’t allowed to, so I won’t go now.
Finally, however, in November of 1944, at long last I went to A.A.
And A.A. took this wreck of a woman and brought her back to life.
Why did it work for me when all other agencies had failed? Was it because they told me in A.A. that I was an alcoholic?
No, I had known that.
Yes, I even knew I was a “chronic alcoholic.”
On one occasion when I was serving time in my favorite drying-out place while I was having a session with the psychiatrist, she left my case history on her desk when she was called away from the room. Sly and crafty, I thought now I’ll find out what they think of me here, what they “have on” me, what I’ve said coming in here drunk. There at the top of the folder was my name, age and address, and underneath were the words, “Periodic Drinker.” Only they had been scratched out and over them was written, “Chronic Alcoholic.”
As an indication of just how confused and mixed up I was, just as soon as I could I left the office and hurried around to tell other patients that I was getting better. I had been promoted from a periodic drinker to a chronic alcoholic! I honestly didn’t know the difference. A.A. didn’t teach me I was an alcoholic; rather it taught me that because I was an alcoholic my life had become unmanageable.
It seemed to me that those A.A.’s to whom I talked knew all about me. It is true that the doctors and
nurses in the various institutions I attended knew too. But the difference lay in the fact that the A.A.’s knew from their own bitter experience.
In other words, the kindest doctor in the whole world, and I had one such, couldn’t help me because I always felt, “You can’t know about me—you can’t possibly know—you don’t even drink!”
But to another woman, the first woman I met in A.A., I could talk. In all the sanitariums and psycho wards I had never met a single woman who said she was an alcoholic. They were always there because of a nervous breakdown, or for a “rest cure”—any reason except because of drinking.
(I’ve met some of these same women since in A.A.) But by listening and talking to these A.A.’s—talking to them as I had never talked to anyone in my whole life, I saw that it was my life that was unmanageable—not just my drinking. With their help I also saw that certainly, because of some of the things I had done during the years, I was bordering on insanity, and so, facing the record, I tried to believe that a Power greater than I could and would restore me to sanity.
The other of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous seemed insurmountable to me at first.
But the older members in A.A. told me, “Easy does it.” In the light of subsequent events it became evident that I took their advice far too literally, for, after some months of happy sobriety I drank again. Had I tried honestly and sincerely to practice the Twelve Steps I would have seen from my continuous moral inventory that I was getting off the beam—I would have found that there were some active resentments in my life, a terrific amount of self-pity. But more
important, I would have found that once again I was sitting in the driver’s seat—I was running the show.
The Higher Power to whom I had turned, and who had sustained me, had once again been thrust into the background, while my emotions were running my life and, as always, my emotions ran me to the bottle.
It came about in this way.
When I first came into A.A., the woman who was my sponsor was the first woman I had ever met who admitted that she was an alcoholic. And she was a charming, delightful, lovely person. She gave me such hope and inspiration that I set her right up on a pedestal. And so for three months this one woman was my A.A. I went to meetings, I spent a lot of time at the clubroom, but it was all centered in this one woman. But she couldn’t carry me forever. She realized that, and the way I felt, and so for my own good she gradually began to pull away. Of course, I had the sensitive, hurt feelings of the alcoholic. I thought, “Oh well, these people are just like all the people I’ve known all my life. They build you up with a lot of false hopes and promises, and rush you around here and there and then, all of a sudden, it’s gone.” And when she broke a luncheon date with me one Saturday, after I had been in A.A. for about three months, I said, “I’ll show her! She can’t do that to me!” And I got drunk.
Well, you know who I showed. I showed myself. And I landed right smack back in that sanitarium that I had gone to so often. While I was there I realized that I had missed something. I realized that I was trying to pin everything on an individual—not the book or the group or the Higher Power, or anything else. So I concentrated and studied the book during
that time, and I liked a lot of the things it said in there. I remember particularly one sentence that seemed to say, “This is for you.” It read something like this: “Faith without works is dead. Carry this message to other alcoholics. You can help where no one else can.” Here was a book that said I could do something that all these doctors and priests and ministers and psychiatrists that I’d been going to for years couldn’t do!
That was over seven years ago, and thank God and A.A., I haven’t had a drink since. During these seven years a thing called the Twenty-four Hour Program—a gadget I used to think was only a snare to trap the newcomer—has come to mean much to me, not only as regards my drinking but in the whole pattern of my life.
I realize that all I’m guaranteed in life is today. The poorest person has no less and the wealthiest has no more—each of us has but one day. What we do with it is our own business; how we use it is up to us individually.
I feel that I have been restored to health and sanity these past years not through my own efforts nor as a result of anything I may have done, but because I’ve come to believe—to really believe—that alone I can do nothing. That my own innate selfishness and stubbornness are the evils which, if left unguarded, can drive me to alcohol.
I have come to believe that my illness is spiritual as well as physical and mental, and I know that for help in the spiritual sphere I have to turn to a Higher Power.