America’s Chronic Drunkards, Once Shunned as Social
Outcasts, Are Being Redeemed by New, Humane Treatment
That Restores Them to Health and Respectability
by Austen Lake
A new sun is dawning for America’s estimated 900,000 alcoholics-a sun of public intelligence which radiates from the Yale Clinic Plan. The American Weekly printed the first comprehensive, authoritative report on the Yale Plan in February 1945, and since that time use of the new method has been spreading.
As yet the dawn is in its early shell-pink, but its light has already touched 12 U.S. cities and nine states.
In Boston, the chronic drunkard is regarded as a sick man, whose disease is a involuntary and consuming as infantile paralysis or malaria.
In New Haven, Dallas, Des Moines, Daytona Beach and Rochester, N.Y., the alcoholic is treated with the same dignity as any invalid.
In Fort Worth, Austin, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Washington, D.C., and Charleston, addicts are sympathetically screened through social and medical centers and helped back to normal.
As yet the light is a candle flicker in the century-old gloom of prejudice. But it is still growing brighter. The Yale Plan was its kindling point. Charles Jackson’s memorable book, “The Lost Weekend,” and the movie made from it, made a tremendous impact on national consciousness. The expansion of Alcoholics Anonymous has been a profound educational factor. The American press has given the subject more attention since 1940 than during the entire preceding century.
The Yale Clinic Plan was conceived ten years ago by a New Haven scientist, who approached alcoholism not as a temperance zealot, but as a skilled specialist seeking a preventive formula.
It works as many thousands of “ex-incurables” can attest.
Rehabilitated “drunkards” once deemed hopeless have become the Yale Plan’s most enthusiastic workers in redeeming other members of the ancient fellowship of the uptilted bottle.
Ten years ago Dr. Howard W. Haggard was investigating the effects of noxious gases on the human system in his laboratory at Yale. He was familiar with the reaction of such poison vapors as diphosgene, which clogs the respiratory glands. He know that Lewisite corrodes the mucous membranes and sears the flesh. Chlorpicrin swells the eyeballs and causes nausea.
So he came to pure grain alcohol, which in repeated dosages over a long period also reacts as a noxious gas, and after years of excessive drinking causes vitamin deficiency, mild paranoia, hallucinosis and depressive psychosis.
A Yale biometrician, Dr. E.M. Jellinek, was already engaged in alcohol research, and together they attacked the mystery. They wanted answers to such riddles as: “When does the use of alcohol become excessive?” “What does it do to the human system?” “Why are some drinkers more allergic than others?”
For five years they assembled their data from across the nation, and by 1940 they found that of an estimated 50,000,000 drinkers, all but a small percentage of them used alcohol moderately and only for the purpose of social relaxation.
Three million people were “excessive” drinkers, who like to go out on fraternal binges periodically, and get out of control, but at other times took their drams temperately or not at all. But of this number approximately 2,000,000 were potential threats, in danger of crossing the thin, wavering line of self abandon.
Lastly there were about 900,000 liquor addicts, or habitual alcoholics who drink for various reasons and in different ways, but to whom alcohol is a principal reason for living. They were folk who could not adjust themselves to a world of reality and used drink to escape into a shadowy twilight. They had crossed the borderline of normality and had become diseased.
Thus the Yale Clinic found that a ratio of nearly one in every 40 adult Americans were either confirmed addicts or potentials, at appalling cost to the nation’s economy. Male alcoholics vastly outnumbered women. Of the total arrested drunkards, 97 percent were men between the ages of 30 and 60 – the age peak of production. Racially, the Irish, English and Scandinavian were more susceptible than Jews and Latins.
The clinic found that, contrary to accepted opinion, alcohol does not act as a stimulant, but actually is a depressant to the higher brain centers, as reason yields to emotion.
At what stage does a man become drunk?
A third New Haven doctor had the answer to that. Dr. Leon A. Greenberg invented a machine which resembles a large portable radio, with a nozzle in one side, into which the patient breathes and reveals the alcoholic content in his bloodstream. A dial like an automobile speedometer registers the percentage – a .05 saturation being reasonably sober, .15 being genuinely intoxicated. The amount of alcohol that the average size man can absorb depends on how much food he has in his stomach, how long he took to drink the amount, and what his natural allergy is.
The Yale Plan is no sawdust trail to salvation. It dovetails realistically with the local police, the district courts, social agencies, medical centers and Alcoholics Anonymous. Thus a sample case in New Haven today is any chronic drunkard brought before a court.
From long experience the judge knows that it does no good to throw the inebriate into jail. Fines and terms to the county farm fail to reform. Tongue lashings and threats are futile.
“You’ve been here many times,” she says. “you tell me you want to quit, but don’t know how. I’ll give you the chance. Your sentence is suspended, if you agree to keep your regular appointments at the Alcoholic Clinic, and do as they say.”
The alcoholic at first is fearful lest he be made an experimental guinea pig for some strange purpose. But rather than go to jail, he consents, and is taken to 434 Temple Street, where he finds a brick building and a neat, well lighted interior. He is greeted by a cheerful girl receptionist, who ushers him into an inner office where an alert, calm mannered man in a white coat begins to chat quietly.
The alcoholic is put at ease and encouraged to talk. Like most of his kind he has known years of loneliness, bitter self-reproach, despair and self-condemnation. He has developed a persecution complex and drinks in proportion as his troubles mount. His wife has left him. He cannot hold a job. He is out of control.
But now for the first time he finds himself treated sympathetically as a sick man instead of sharp rebuke and rough handling. He responds and begins to talk.
The Clinic learns that he is in need of high vitamin therapy due to prolonged dependency on alcohol instead of food. Pure alcohol contains 210 calories per ounce by weight, but provides no vitamins and even impedes absorption of vitamins from food. A further checkup shows intestinal inflammations. He needs a balanced diet, rest and security. So he is hospitalized, the cost being paid out of the 9 per cent which Connecticut takes from its liquor taxes and earmarks for treating alcoholism.
The Yale Clinic finds that the man also has several deep-seated fears. A psychiatrist helps him to get rid of these. He requires counsel, supervision and encouragement from trusted friends. The Clinic calls the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous and finds him sympathetic, helpful fellowship from folk who thoroughly understand his problem. As he is now, so they were. He gets a job, however significant, and begins to feel a new pride in his capabilities.
It works! Not always, but he has a 60-40 chance of recovery!
Some backslide and try again. Some fail utterly. But the majority win back to total health, are reconciled with their families and become successful citizens again. It works!
Though the Yale Plan is now operative in 11 other cities and nine states, Connecticut is the only state which has modern, intelligent alcohol legislation. It earmarks a percentage of its liquor taxes for rehabilitation.
Elsewhere in the above mentioned cities, the Clinic Plan operates under the Committee for Education on Alcoholism or the CEA, and depends on public spirited citizens who solicit aid and needed funds and distribute printed matter.
In Boston, among the most energetic cities in the campaign, the CEA has headquarters at 419 Boylston Street, a few doors above the offices of Alcoholics Anonymous, and functions through public subscription and a large list of judges, doctors, psychiatrists, clergymen, educators, social workers, law enforcement officers and business folk. For more than a year the old brownstone building has received a steady stream of alcoholics. Some come voluntary. Some are sent by the courts, some by clergymen.
By sifting through the index files of the Boston, CEA, one finds entries such as these:
“Mr. H.Y. Married, 2 children, owner small business, quiet, slightly morbid type. Expressed great fear of inherited nervousness from neurotic mother. Wife too inclined to neurosis. Became periodic “binge” drinker with binges running closer together till they merged.
“Was given short period hospitalization, and after treatment from psychiatrists, fears dissolved. Faithful visitor. Has been totally abstinent since first appearance at CEA. Has adjusted home life and accepted allergy to alcohol.”
Here is another index card:
“Miss R.M. Factory worker, arrested 7 times for drunkenness. Referred to CEA by courts. Placed in contact with Alcoholics Anonymous and met regularly with members. First three months had trouble with adjusting self to A.A. program, but persistence of members finally convinced her of practical value of such help. Now has been totally abstinent for two months.”
Next to unenlightened public opinion, say the Yale Planners, the most serious barrier to intelligent treatment of alcoholism is the prejudice in many hospitals, which don’t welcome alcoholics and regard them as pernicious nuisances.
Alcoholic hospitals are needed, the Yale Planners say, and should be provided from taxpayers’ funds in the assumption that the taxpayers are the most immediate beneficiaries.
Yet oddly, rehabilitated alcoholics, such as are found in Alcoholics Anonymous, rarely advocate national return to prohibition. They frankly acknowledge that they are among the unfortunate minority who cannot handle drink in moderation.
The solution is public enlighten-ment, intelligent control, and sympathetic regard for the alcoholic as a sick man, instead of a minor criminal and social renegade. The same light has been kindled and its beam is spreading.
(Source: The American Weekly, October 27, 1946)