by JOHN BOIT MORSE as told to Arthur Gordon
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Please don’t tell me I’m not an alcoholic. You endanger my life if you do. If you persuade me to take a drink, “just a little one,” I could die for it.
I am writing this article because I am alcoholic, one of five million in this country, and well-meaning friends keep telling me I’m not. “An alcoholic? Don’t be silly! Not you!” they say. “Oh, you may drink a little too much, but you were under a lot of pressure then. That’s all over, now. Come on boy – say when!”
I have known alcoholics, struggling to eliminate alcohol from their lives, who did weaken, who did “say when.” I have seen the grim trap of addiction close on them again. I have seen them die of it. Most alcoholics do.
THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS
Because alcoholism is a fatal disease, if allowed to run its course. It can be arrested, if the victim stops drinking, but it cannot be cured! Long abstinence makes absolutely no difference. An alcoholic who has not touched liquor for 20 years is just as much an alcoholic as he ever was. To tell such a person that he doesn’t have an incurable and fatal disease is absolute madness – and all too often it is exactly what the victim wants to hear.
Nobody enjoys an alcoholic. Most of us who are on a program of recovery – and we represent only a pitiful six or seven per cent of the stricken five million – have struggled to a painful acceptance of a stark fact: We are physically different in our reaction to alcohol. We cannot drink. On our constant recognition of this fact depend our happiness, our sanity, our lives. But we are like tightrope walkers; one small push can send us hurtling into the depths below.
Why are well-intentioned people sometimes guilty of giving us this push?
In the first place, friends who are fond of us don’t want us to be alcoholics because of the stigma that is attached to the label. Medical science has at least tagged alcoholism for what it is: a disease. But public opinion is slow to follow. So, when a friend tries to tell you that you’re not an alcoholic, he thinks he is doing you a kindness.
In the second place, many people still have a fixed and stereotyped conception of what an alcoholic is-a human derelict on Skid Row, or a moneyed ne’er-do-well languishing in some institution. If you don’t fit into either category, they find it impossible to believe you have lost your tolerance for alcohol.
In the third place, your admission that you are an alcoholic disturbs some of your friends because it is a threat to their own drinking habits. “If this fellow is an alcoholic,” they say to themselves uneasily, “what about me?” There is little logic in such a reaction: only one drinker out of 15 or 16 becomes an alcoholic. But I have had the distinct impression on many occasions, that the person loudly assuring me that I couldn’t be an alcoholic was really trying to reassure himself.
And finally, alcoholics often have to face strong opposition from close relatives who feel that any such admission will bring disgrace or disapproval upon the family. Recently a good friend of mine died of alcoholism at the age of 43. Doctors found her physical disabilities indicated she had been an alcoholic for a great many years. Yet six months before she died, her father told me impatiently that she wasn’t an alcoholic, and named a dozen women who drank more and behaved far worse. All her friends and relations had assured her that she wasn’t an alcoholic. Most of them still think she died of heart failure, a falsehood that the newspapers faithfully recorded.
The only way an alcoholic can begin a program of recovery is through recognition of his disease. This is never easy since addiction invariably carries with it a deadly tendency to justify, to rationalize, to deny anything that might bring about the end of drinking. Believe me, I know. I went through it myself.
A GRIM REALIZATION
A number of years ago, three people very close to me seemed to have drinking problems, so I obtained and read Marty Mann’s “Primer on Alcoholism” with a view of being of help. Several years later, my own drinking behavior was sufficiently abnormal and depressing to make me recall the book. I reread it, and I also read “Just One More,” by James Lamb Free. It was a grim experience. I tried frantically to dodge – I sought every means to prove that I wasn’t an alcoholic. But the evidence was too strong.
What evidence? Well, in one of his classic studies, Dr. E.M. Jellinek lists the characteristics displayed by the victim of alcoholism in three successive stages of the disease. I found that many of these descriptions applied to my own behavior. Black-outs, for example. These are episodes involving loss of memory, and should not be confused with “passing out.”
There were many times when I would play bridge quite competently all evening, and have little or no recollection of it the next day. Once I drove 120 miles from San Francisco to my home in pebble beach, and woke up the next day with no awareness of having made such a trip.
Many other symptoms listed by Dr. Jellinek were present in my drinking pattern, although, like many alcoholics, I usually succeeded in keeping them from my friends. Sneaking drinks, evasiveness about drinking habits, excessive remorse the morning after – the signs were all too plain. I was still years from Skid Row, but I was on my way. I didn’t look like an alcoholic, and I obviously didn’t act like one-but when I finally described my symptoms to a doctor, he confirmed my fears – I was one!
I remember very well the reaction among some of my closest friends. It was almost violent: derision, denial, anger, endless proof that I could be an alcoholic. Soothing, wonderful words to a man who craves a drink! Welcome justification for starting all over again!
I remember very well the reaction among some of my closest friends. It was almost violent: derision, denial, anger, endless proof that I could not be an alcoholic. Soothing, wonderful words to a man who craves a drink! Welcome justification for starting all over again!
I know now that these reactions were based on ignorance – false conceptions of what an alcoholic is and how the disease works. Nobody knows all about alcoholism; even to the experts, some aspects of it remain a mystery. Let me try to dispel a few of the major misconceptions.
To begin with, please don’t consider the alcoholic a moral weakling. Actually, he may have more will power than you have. But he is ill-the sickest of men.
Next, don’t limit your mental picture of an alcoholic to the derelict in the last stages of the disease. There lies the derelict in the gutter, close to insanity or death. Has he just recently become an alcoholic? Was it five years ago when he became a dishwasher? Was it ten years ago when his wife divorced him? Was it 15 years ago when he lost his bank job? Was it twenty years ago when he first began sneaking his drinks to make sure of “getting his share?” Was it 25 years ago when he had his first blackouts? Today science knows that he became an alcoholic at least 25 years back-and that he was just as much an alcoholic then as he is now.
Try to remember that alcoholism is an iceberg disease – the symptoms are largely hidden, at first. In fact, during the first five or ten years of their addiction, alcoholics generally take great care to appear as normal social drinkers. It is the heavy drinkers or occasional drunk who misbehaves. It is the alcoholic who apparently remains sober. But it is the alcoholic who slips away first from a cocktail party, often on the pretext that he has “work to do” but who then goes home or to an out-of-the-way bar and satisfies his grim, compulsive need.
Don’t be misled by appearances. My wife, Virginia, who recovered from alcoholism when she was 29, is a youthful and energetic woman. People meeting her for the first time and learning of her disease invariably protest, “You can’t be an alcoholic, you look as healthy as a child!” She is an alcoholic-and looks as youthful as any victim of the disease who has been blessed with an early recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous leaves statistics to the authorities and the research groups, but it is a generally accepted fact that in the beginning, some 24 years ago, the average age of AA members was 50 or more because only end-of-the-liners were thought to be alcoholics. Today, thanks largely to the remarkable educational work of the National Council on Alcoholism, younger people are joining in various programs of recovery. Most newcomers to AA nowadays range from teen-agers to persons in their 20’s, 30’s or 40’s. They are recognizing the disease early.
THE INVISIBLE LINE
This brings me to one last recommendation. Sometimes the young recovered alcoholic is told that he must have had a light case since it didn’t progress very far, and that surely he must be able to take a little wine or beer. In the first place, there is no such thing as a “light” case. The alcoholic who crosses the invisible line is – and will remain – an alcoholic all his life. And there is no such thing as a partial alcoholic: either you are one or you are not. In the second place, it doesn’t matter whether the fatal drink is wine, beer, 100-proof bourbon—or for that matter a cough syrup with an alcohol base. It is the alcohol that does the damage, in any form.
So please try to help us. Recommended to those who may be problem drinkers that they write to the National Council on Alcoholism in New York or one of the 55 community committees throughout the country, or call AA. Or read Marty Mann’s “Primer on Alcoholism,” or James Lamb Free’s “Just One More.”
But don’t tell them they’re not alcoholics. If you are wrong and they believe you, they may die.
(Source: This Week, April 26, 1959)