Alcoholics Anonymous in a Postwar Emergency
Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 6, No. 2, September 1945
By Bill W.
What is the picture of alcoholism in the days ahead? The opinion of one of my friends indicates what the possibilities may be. With the emphasis characteristic of true alcoholics he said, “It looks like hell to me.” I asked why. “Practically the whole world has gone neurotic,” he replied. “Mankind is on an emotional jag. Nation against nation, class against class – all clamoring for security, all crying that if only other people were different how happy we would be. Hate, fear, envy, boredom, insecurity, acquisitiveness – all the negatives – running riot as never before, breeding neurotics as a malarial’ swamp does mosquitoes. Conflict – national, social, personal – conflict that gets nowhere, that never gets settled. This is our modern world.”
“Now, I ask you,” he continued, “under these appalling conditions what will sensitive, frustrated people do? Aren’t they going to drink – and not for fun, either? Aren’t they going to use alcohol as an emotional pain killer? Yes, they will try to get away from themselves and their problems — not for temporary release but for keeps. Even as you and I once did, they will try to find release in alcohol. Many of them will become alcoholics -you and I ought to know!”
Since the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol is primarily a scientific journal, my friend’s statement may seem somewhat out of place here. It may not too accurately forecast the future. But this one opinion does reflect what most members of Alcoholics Anonymous think they see coming.
The question then arises: What can our 17,000 members do that will alleviate this picture? Although our contribution to recovery from alcoholism has been described by friends as significant and encouraging, no one is more aware than we that what has been done is but a start. Our work so far is but a beginning in helping to overcome an extensive malady to which the recent war gave fresh and ominous import.
The average member of Alcoholics Anonymous does not suppose that we have a cure all. What we promise for the future, however, is that we shall offer unstinted aid to those alcoholics who wish to recover.
We members of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that we shall be able to handle almost any number of alcoholic cases — tens of thousands if necessary — which may be referred to us in the postwar. period. Nor is this statement purely surmise. Today some 500 groups comprising 17,000 members are to be found in America. We have groups in nearly every state of the Union and in several Canadian Provinces. This means that most cases of alcoholism are within easy reach of Alcoholics Anonymous groups.
The question is often asked, “Wouldn’t too rapid growth be bad, both for new alcoholics and for Alcoholics Anonymous itself?” Some of us used to think so, but several experiences of quick expansion have largely dissipated that fear. We had a striking experience at Cleveland, Ohio. In the fall of 1939 Cleveland had, perhaps, 30 members. Most of. them had become Alcoholics Anonymous by traveling to the nearby city of Akron where our very first group had taken root in the summer of 1935.
At this juncture the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a striking and forceful series of articles about us. Placed on the editorial page, these pieces told the people of Cleveland that Alcoholics Anonymous worked; that it cost nothing; that it stood ready to help any alcoholic in town who really wanted to get well. Cleveland quickly became Alcoholics Anonymous conscious. Hundreds of inquiries by phone and mail descended upon the Plain Dealer and the expectant but nervous members of Alcoholics Anonymous. The rush was so great that new members, sober themselves but a week or two, had to be used to instruct the still newer arrivals. Several private hospitals threw open their doors to cope with the emergency and were so pleased with the result that they have cooperated with us ever since. To the great surprise of everyone, this rapid growth, hectic though it was, did prove very successful. Within 90 days the original group of 30 had expanded to 300; in 6 months we had about 500; and within 2 years we had mushroomed to about 1,000 members distributed among a score of groups in the Cleveland area. Although we have no precise figures, it is probably fair to say that 3 out of 4 who came during this period, and who have since remained with the groups, have recovered from their alcoholism.
Growth so spectacular as this sometimes does cause a certain amount of internal confusion. And it may be, during such periods, that some of the more difficult alcoholics cannot be helped adequately. We know, however, that most of these seeming failures receive enough indoctrination to come back later on. In any case we are sure that the net benefits of even the most rapid growth far outweigh any possible liability. Most of us are satisfied, from this and like experiences, that any Alcoholics Anonymous group could double its membership every few months if put to the test. This is why we believe that with some 500 active centers we have the basis for taking care of practically any number of alcoholics as fast as they may come to us.
We have been able to give so many groups their start with little or no personal contact that we do not anticipate any great difficulty in foreign countries. It was discovered several years ago that the “A.A.” job could be done solely through correspondence and our literature. At New York we maintain a Central Office. Writing from this point our national secretary has often been able to bring together groups of alcoholics in distant communities who had previously responded to our publicity. By sending our literature and writing them as their problems arose our secretary has fostered many successful groups of Alcoholics Anonymous. Besides those so started in this country, there are now conspicuous examples in Hawaii and Australia. Sooner or later, of course, such “mail order” groups are reached by our traveling members whose business or pleasure takes them to distant places.
Now that our methods and results are better known we are receiving splendid cooperation every-where from clergymen, doctors, employers, editors – in fact, from whole communities. While there is still a well understood reluctance on the part of city and private hospitals to admit alcoholic patients, we are pleased to report a great improvement in this direction. But we are still very far, in most places, from having anything like adequate hospital accommodations.
Over and above this traditional activity, we may give some counsel to those who work upon various aspects of the total problem. It may be possible that our experience fits us for a special task. Writing of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said: “Gothic cathedral windows are not the sole things which can be truly seem only from within. Alcoholism is another. All outside views are clouded and unsure.” Thus, with our inside view – one best seen by those drinkers who have suffered from alcoholism – we would help those working on alcohol problems who have not had our first-hand experience.
While we members of Alcoholics Anonymous are not scientists, our special insight may help science; while we are of all religions and sometimes none, we can assist clergymen; although not educators, we shall, perhaps, aid in clearing away unsure views; not penologists, we do help in prison work; not a business or organization, we nevertheless advise employers; not sociologists, we constantly serve families, friends and communities; not prosecutors or judges, we try to promote understanding and justice; emphatically not doctors, we do minister to the sick. Taking no sides on controversial questions, we may sometimes mediate fruitless antagonism which have so often blocked effective cooperation among those who would solve the riddle of the alcoholic.
These are the activities and aspirations of thousands of the members of Alcoholics Anonymous. While our organization as a whole has but one aim – to help the alcoholic who wishes to recover – there are few of us, indeed, who as individuals do not wish to meet some of the broader responsibilities for which we may be especially fitted.
That alcoholism, compulsive drinking, is becoming recognized as the illness which it really is – as not only a moral problem but our fourth largest public health problem; and that so many constructive forces are being assembled to cope with it – notably those stemming just now from Yale – these are the things for which we Alcoholics Anonymous are deeply grateful. If alcoholism should increase in the postwar period, the hope of its ultimate control seems possible. Brighter pages ought soon to relieve the long, dark annals which record the problems of this baffling malady. Of that increasing knowledge and guidance, we of Alcoholics Anonymous are supremely confident. Our collaboration will be available to all individuals and agencies who may engage in helping the problem drinker in the postwar world.