Executive Director, National Committee
For Education on Alcoholism
We are not dealing here with a minor problem. We are dealing with what a former Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service has rightly called “our greatest unsolved public-health problem.” It is not unsolved because it is a new problem. It remains unsolved because it is a problem we never have faced. The majority of people in their ignorance and fear scarcely admit of its existence. Alcoholism has for too long been a taboo subject, as tuberculosis used to be forty years ago. Any child can tell you that no problem can be solved by refusing to recognize its existence. Equally true is the fact that no problem can be solved while people are unaware of its nature.
Many groups have been concerned for years with the problem of beverage alcohol. Millions of words spoken and written on behalf of hundreds of organizations have dealt with this. In the last analysis this concern has resolved itself into a violent tug of war between the “wets” and the “drys.” In that tug of war it has been said that the alcoholic has been the rope-and that rope has become badly frayed. No organization until recently has concerned itself with public recognition of the alcoholic or the nature of his dilemma. This is where the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism comes in.
The National Committee is not concerned with beverage alcohol itself. We take no sides in that ancient tug of war. We state flatly, in fact, that this organization, the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, and all its affiliated committees-twenty-two of them at this date-are neither “wet” nor “dry.” We go further. We state that this organization shall not concern itself in any activities designed to promote or prevent the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Our concern is with a disease called alcoholism and its victims, those hapless, suffering human beings who are known as alcoholics.
We recognized, as did others concerned with the problem of alcoholism, that practically nothing was known by the general public of this disease. We realized that because of this lack of knowledge, the public attitude ranged from utter ignorance, through apathy and indifference, up to prejudice and active antagonism. The public attitude reflects not only a total lack of factual knowledge, but also the presence of a mass of misinformation and falsehoods. Out of this attitude has grown the type of treatment which the citizens of these United States have given and still give to that segment of the population who suffer from this illness. I think you know what that treatment is as well as I do. It is hostile, contemptuous, and punitive. It is completely without understanding and often without pity.
In most cities in this country there is no place to put the alcoholic who is in the throes of this deadly malady, except the local jail. We, as a nation, are not wont to treat our sick in that fashion. We are not cruel and barbarous. We are not medieval. We pride ourselves on being enlightened; and we are, on the whole, a kind people. Yet to a great body of sick human beings we offer only punishment for their illness. We behave as if we were still in the Middle Ages.
This attitude is shared by those who suffer from this illness. I can tell you from my own experience. I had never heard the word “alcoholic;” I had never heard the word “alcoholism.” Of course, I had heard of drunkards; everyone has, I also knew, or thought I knew, what a drunkard was. He was that unfortunate person whom one saw in the less pretty part of town, shuffling about in rags, bearded, unwashed, sleeping in doorways, in gutters, sticking out filthy hands for a dime for a cup of coffee. You hoped he wouldn’t touch you.
If I had given any thought to the subject, I would have described him as a person who had never had the opportunity to know a normal way of life. Or if by chance he had been born to better things, he had something missing, something that made him unable to take advantage of his opportunities. I would have said that there was nothing that could be done about it; and if there were, he wouldn’t be worth salvaging as there wasn’t anything there in the first place.
How can a man who still has a job or has recently lost his job through drinking come out openly and say: “I am a drunkard; I have no will power; I have no character; I am a bum”? He isn’t and knows he isn’t. He is faced with the same dilemma in which I found myself: Why is it that my will power is so strong on everything else and has no effect on drinking?
The wall of ignorance and prejudice nearly killed me, and it is killing other alcoholics every day. If we can break that wall down we can reach these people and help them. In every city where we have information centers they are coming and asking for information, and their families and friends and employers are coming. They are all asking: “What is this thing, alcoholism?” “What can we do about it?” “Where can we go in this city for help?” The centers that have been established have the answers. They know what hospital will take alcoholics and whether there are any such places in the community; whether others can be persuaded to admit alcoholics and what can be, at long last, provided for these desperately sick people. Can we provide medical treatment that will prevent their deaths? Yes, we can, and we must.
I know, by virtue of my own position as an alcoholic, thousands of men and women who have recovered from this illness. I can assure you from my personal experience that these people make better than average citizens. It is as if they felt they had to make up for lost time. They put themselves into things with twice the amount of energy of anyone else. They work harder at it and give more of themselves. These people are well worth saving, and yet today we are allowing them to die right and left.
This situation must be changed. It is our belief that it will be changed when the public is placed in possession of the facts. That is the challenging task which we have accepted. We wished to make these facts as simple as possible that they might be understood by every man, woman, and child in this country. In order to do this, we adopted three simple concepts which are printed on each piece of our literature, and which our speakers reiterate over and over again throughout the cities of this land. These concepts are simple, but they are revolutionary in content, for they embody an attitude which is exactly the opposite to that shown by our actions in the past. We believe that when these concepts are accepted into the thinking of the people of America, a change in their actions must result. The three concepts are as follows:
1) Alcoholism is a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person.
2) The alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping.
3) Alcoholism is a public-health problem and therefore a public responsibility.
The fact that alcoholism is a disease has been known to science for more than a century and a half. Many great Americans of the last century recognized this fact, although it was an English doctor who, in 1778, wrote the first modern treatise on the diagnosis and treatment of the disease of alcoholism. The Connecticut Medical Society recognized alcoholism as a disease requiring special treatment and hospitals for that treatment in a resolution it presented to the Connecticut State Legislature in 1830.
I myself was ashamed when I learned these things. Yet I was not to blame for my ignorance, for I had never been taught any such facts. Just the same, it is curious, is it not, that scientific facts well know to science for such a long period should never have become common knowledge? The normal gap, they tell me, between a scientific discovery and its acceptance by the public is twenty years. Why in the case of alcoholism should this gap be so extended? We are late in starting, but we are trying desperately to bridge that gap as speedily and as effectively as possible now. This, in short, is our primary objective.
Our second concept, that the alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping, is a statement that could not have been made even ten years ago from a public platform, because it could not have been proved. Although there have always been alcoholics who got well by one means or another and walked among us as normal human beings, they dared not mention what the nature of their illness had been. The stigma attached to alcoholism was so great that, if people knew the truth, these recovered alcoholics might have jeopardized their whole future-their jobs, their family relationships, their place in society. Not until the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous twelve years ago was there any change in this situation.
Then for the first time alcoholics began to get well in numbers. Banded together in groups, they had the strength to face the hostile world and to talk of this illness from which they had recovered. They talked so that other alcoholics might learn the truth about their condition, and seek help. Their voices were heard. Today Alcoholics Anonymous numbers more than 35,000 active members. These are well and happy people, prosperous citizens who have returned to their places in their communities. They are assets-no longer liabilities. They make good citizens, these people who a few years ago were a stone around the neck of everyone who knew them; a care and a burden and a terrible cost to themselves, their families, their employers, and their communities. Liabilities in every sense, they represented not only appalling economic waste, but also the most terrible human waste, heartbreak, broken homes, and tragedies of every sort. Yet today they are assets. These people can be seen and they are known for their accomplishments. They are the living proof of our second concept.
Our last concept, that this is a public-health problem and therefore a public responsibility, follows inevitably upon acceptance of the other two. This is our job, yours and mine, as citizens and human beings. We, the people, create public attitudes and we can change them. The majority of the estimated three million alcoholics in this country fall into the category of what I call the hidden alcoholic. These are usually persons who have some family left, and that family will go to any length to hide the fact that alcoholism has struck in their midst. In their opinion the shame and degradation of publicity far outweighs the welfare of the alcoholic. The alcoholic is “protected,” hidden from view, but actually he is being prevented from getting help. Not until the stigma is removed and alcoholism is discussed as freely and as openly as any other illness, will these people dare to seek help. We must remove this stigma if we are to save thousands from unnecessary deaths.
So our efforts cannot stop with a mere change in public opinion. We must see to it that there are other places than jails in which to put these sick people when they are in the delirium of their sickness-acute intoxication. We must set up information centers where individuals, families, friends, agencies, doctors, and ministers can go to get the facts on the disease itself, and on the facilities available in that area for its treatment. These centers must ceaselessly carry on an intensive campaign of education in their communities, aimed at uncovering hidden alcoholics and providing an environment of enlightened unstandering in which recovery will be possible.
Most communities will find that there are not many facilities other than the local group of Alcoholics Anonymous about which they can give information. Yet other facilities will be needed. Therefore, these organized groups must next undertake the difficult task of persuading general hospitals to open beds for the treatment of acute alcoholism. This is a matter of crisis, of extreme emergency, in which the lack of immediate medical treatment all too frequently causes death. Next they will need a clinic for diagnosis and treatment, and later they will need rest centers for those who require long-term care.
We can now say that we know this program of community action is a beginning toward the solution of the problem which is so appalling in its devastation and waste. We can say we know because we already have twenty-two such affiliated committees operating in eighteen cities throughout the country, and the progress they report is more than encouraging. It has convinced us that we can solve the problem of alcoholism in America, if we will.
(Source: Health, July 1947)