This is the story of a brilliant man who very
nearly sacrificed his whole life to liquor. It makes
shocking reading, but every word of it is true
I WAS AN ALCOHOLIC
As told to Gerald Mygatt
Memo From The Editor: the name of the teller of this story is purposely omitted. He says his friends and former associates will recognize him. To others his name does not matter. But if your interest is not merely casual, if you or a friend or a member of your family need his help, write to The Alcoholic Foundation, P.O. Box 459, New York 17, New York You will be put in direct touch with him or with the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous group.
In the fall of 1938, I was working in a small radio station in Plattsburg, New York. On a cold night in November I had chills and fever. I sent for a doctor who told me I had incipient pneumonia.
Some time during the night, delirious, I fell down the stair well of my rooming house and smashed my hip. I was in the hospital for three-months and when I came out I knew I was crippled for life. But none of that annoyed me as much as the fact that some well-meaning ambulance attendant had given me a drink of whisky before my late-night arrival at the hospital. Because they could smell it on my breath, I was booked as drunk…
Now I’ll tell you the real story of what happened. I had been sent to Plattsburg by some friends who wanted t get me out of New York City. I had been making a mess of myself in New York, cadging money for drinks. So my friends found a job for me in Plattsburg. At $25 a week.
I had been earning nearly ten times that much; $25 a week was pin money. So-you guessed it-I hit the bottle a little harder. On the night I fell down the stair well I wasn’t delirious. I was drunk and I fell over the bannisters.
The ambulance attendant who gave me the drink was only doing the humanitarian thing. When you’ve got an alcoholic on your hands the first rule is to give him the alcohol he seems to need. You leave it to the doctors and nurses to sober him up.
But I fooled the doctors and nurses during the three months that I was confined in the hospital. At least I thought I did, which is the same thing to an alcoholic. The first day there I managed to get a quart of rye. There are usually people in hospitals who think they are being kind in smuggling booze to you.
When I was nearing the end of my stay my nurse came and sat on my bed. “Of course you won’t admit it,” she said, “But you’re an alcoholic. Why don’t you do something about it?”
“Of course I’m not an alcoholic,” I said. “I’ve simply had a little bad luck.”
She whipped out of the room with a crisping of her starched skirts. I reached under the covers of my bed. I took a long pull at a pint I had hidden there. Stupid fool! Me, an alcoholic.
Let’s go back a little. I started what was then called social drinking a few years after college. I got married. I entered radio publicity. In 1927 I went with National Broadcasting Company and was soon promoted. I was going great guns.
At the same time I was doing more drinking. At home I drank only when we had quests, though I always found the need to have three or four extra snorts on the side. I was beginning to fall into a drinker’s pattern, but I didn’t know it.
Then my wife left me. She took my two sons with her. This startled me, because she said that she left me because I drank too much. Ridiculous! Why, I only drank as every other businessman did. But she left me nevertheless. Within two years I was married again. This time I was going to show the world, particularly my first wife.
I showed her all right. I was now living in a 14-room house in a swanky Connecticut suburb; sitting pretty. I left the National Broadcasting Company to go with a famous advertising firm. I did a lot of traveling and naturally I did a lot of drinking on my trips. How, otherwise, could you entertain the customers? Ah, how otherwise!
Eventually I was eased out of that firm and it never occurred to me why. They gave me a thousand reasons but not the real reason, which was that I couldn’t hold my liquor. Other men could, but I couldn’t.
I was then elected president of an agency specializing in radio and I felt pretty good. But strangely enough, I was eased out of that company also. Then I went with another big advertising agency. It was about six months before I was eased out of there.
When I lost that job I had been married, the second time, about seven years. My job was gone but I was confident that on the following Monday I would start on a much better one; all I had to do was say the word. So I proceeded to go home and to announce to my wife that on this week end I was really going on a binge. I guess I did. I don’t remember.
On Monday I woke up in a hospital. This was the Norwich State Hospital for the Insane, at Norwich, Connecticut. I explained to a nurse that I had been drinking a little too much and that my wife had sent me here for a couple of weeks to sober up.
“Two weeks!” said the nurse. “Do you know you’ve been in here for two years?”
I was, too. My wife apparently had been more fed up than I realized. She had signed the papers committing me. The first time she came she was sorry, but it was not until five months later that we were able to convince the State of Connecticut that I should be let out. One reason for the aplomb that got me out was that in this hospital, try as I might, I couldn’t sneak a drink.
When at last I got out I found that my wife had gone to live with her parents and she had taken the children with her. She had disposed of practically everything we owned in our beautiful 14-room house. What did I do? You guessed it. You’re going to guess it so often that I’ll now try to give you a listing of the hospitals I was in – for excessive drinking – after that.
Plattsburg, with which I started this story. Broken hip.
Metropolitan Hospital, Welfare Island, New York. Delirium tremens.
Bellevue Hospital, New York, more than a dozen times. This was in the psychopathic or “drunk” ward, naturally.
And, oh yes, before any of this started there was a stretch at New York’s Medical Center, where I paid $25 a day for room and keep for a so-called “nervous breakdown.” I did not realize that it was alcohol that caused my “nervousness.” I never had the guts to put the blame where it belonged.
But let’s go back to the time I left Norwich. I crawled out of there with my tail between my legs and I found my wife had left and I went on a series of benders. No wife could tell me where to get off!
I left Connecticut. New York was better; there were more people to borrow from. I still had “friends” at NBC and other places. I used to hang around NBC at five in the afternoon, waiting for people to come out. I put the bee on all of them: five dollars today, two dollars tomorrow, three the next day.
I always tried to borrow at least two dollars. One dollar for my room in a cheap hotel, the other dollar for the half-pint that would put me to sleep. On at least one occasion I found myself sleeping on the grass with a 25-cent bottle of sherry in my hand. I say I found myself. Actually a policeman found me and told me to get going. Although it was late September I was well-dressed (so I thought) in a filthy white Palm Beach suit and a pair of white shoes that were mostly black.
“I’m no drunken bum,” said I to the cop resentfully.
To myself I was still the important personage who for years had been a prominent executive. I knew that if people would stop picking on me I would be back on my feet tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
Then my friends ganged up and sent me to Plattsburg. When I got out of the Plattsburg Hospital, on crutches, I fondly expected my wife to feel sorry for me and let me come home. She didn’t. She was done with me.
I thought my sister was done with me too. But my sister, bless her heart, wasn’t done with me. She knew a man, the brother of a friend of hers. She sent him to see me.
He told me the story of his life, which was much like mine. He asked me to go to the home of a man in Brooklyn who had gathered around him a dozen other men and women who also had stories like mine. They came for me in a car; they practically carried me up the steps to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I walked in on a group of 30 or 40 who looked happy and sober. I thought they were a bunch of holier-than-thou’s who would try to make me over into their own pattern. But these people offered me friendship without criticism. They came and got me each week, and I finally came to understand that they had a set of principles which, if I followed them, would enable me to lead a better life. But I still kept my tongue in my cheek. They could call themselves alcoholics. I never would, because I wasn’t one.
This was just six years before I finally admitted in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, humbly and sincerely, that I too was an alcoholic.
The contact with these people did something to me. I got back into the National Broadcasting Company. I stayed cold sober for about two years. Then for a few years I drank, but very carefully. I managed to keep my job; as a matter of fact, I again went up the scale very rapidly. An advertising agency took me away from NBC and I thought that was a feather in my cap.
I married again, for the third time. I now felt so sure of myself that I went on a toot. My wife and I had some arguments about the fact that I was drinking again. I told her not to be silly, that I had the thing under complete control. She was a trained nurse. She knew all the symptoms. She simply moved faster than the others and saved herself a lot of grief. At the end of five weeks she left me. For good. That was my third strike.
I was very sorry for myself and-you’ve guessed it again. Presently I became unconscious with the D.T.’s for ten days. The advertising agency was swell to me, but eventually its patience wore out and I was fired again. Because I didn’t have any money left I was sent to the public hospital on Welfare Island.
God knows how I came out of it, but I did. God knows how I got a job, but I did. I got a job with one of the biggest of all advertising agencies, and I thumbed my nose at all my critics. This time I would show them! I showed them by going on a bender. Needless to say I lost this job too.
I was then being sent to the psychopathic ward at Bellevue Hospital. The authorities finally got tired of seeing me there, where they would sober you up for five days and then turn you loose, only to have you reappear again. If you were a repeater long enough there was still another fate in store for you-the Rockland State Hospital, where if you were once elected to membership it might be good for life. The grapevine at Bellevue told me I was going to be sent to Rockland. That scared me stiff.
I needed a cigarets; I didn’t have one; I didn’t even have the money for one. There was a visitor sitting by the bed next to mine. He was smoking, so I put on my best smile and bummed a cigarete from him. Then I entered into small talk by way of talking to him. Was this his first visit to Bellevue?
He said, casually, “I’m just a member of A.A. This is my day to visit patients.”
“You mean you’re a member of Alcoholics Anonymous?”
“Sure.” He grinned at me.
I was scared. Moreover, the truth had been beginning to dawn on me-the truth that I was an alcoholic. It had been coming very painfully-but it was coming.
I stammered, “I once-well, I wasn’t exactly a member, but I went to a lot of meetings. I mean of A.A. Do you think-?”
The man smiled. “Take it easy, son-you can’t do it all by yourself.” Then he dumped a pack of cigarets on my bed and walked out.
That same day five different members of Alcoholics Anonymous came to call on me. They talked. I listened. Eventually they got me out of Bellevue. I have never been back there-and I have never taken a drink since.
I started attending A.A. meetings again, but now, instead of being in a private house in Brooklyn, they were held in a big building in Manhattan, with bowling alleys and pool tables, a cafeteria and rooms for bridge and poker. Instead of three or four dozen people hanging around there now were hundreds.
But it wasn’t this material progress of the A.A. movement that got me. It was literally a spiritual awakening. Maybe I can’t explain it but I’ll try.
I took an honest fearless inventory of myself-the first of my life. I became willing to have my faults removed, instead of trying, always futilely, to remove them myself. I became humble enough to ask help from a higher power. Yes, God, though you don’t have to believe in God: just a higher power, the power that makes the world go around, or any other conception of a power greater than yourself.
Since then I have tried through meditation and prayer to increase my conscious contact with that higher power. I have tried to make amends for the wrongs I have done, and I have tried to pass my experiences along to those who are having similar troubles. I have tried to practice the principles of A.A. in my daily contact with my fellow men. This article is an example of what I mean. It isn’t any fun to bare my past as a souse. But I do it gladly in the hope that the telling may help some other souse not to be one.
I speak of the principles of A.A. They are all written. Anyone can read them all in 20 seconds. But the basis of the program is not in learning something by rote. The success of the program is simply in living for others instead of for yourself.
And the program works. I find that I am finding genuine happiness in helping other people. I believe that I have gained the respect of my former employers. I know I have regained the love of members of my family with whom I still have contact.
Certain things are gone. My three attempts at marriage-they are gone, of course. My children have been taken from me-but if I ever meet them, I will at least be the kind of person they won’t be ashamed of.
We can’t retrace our steps. All we can do is to live every day as it is dealt out to us. We do what we can today to make up for our yesterdays; that is all we can do. While we may have dreams for tomorrow, we don’t live tomorrow today-but living today, really living today, we find our tomorrows are never like yesterday.
(Source: Pageant, April 1947)