alcoholism. Through his experiences, he has helped bring hope to others.
Out of the shadows
By Father Ralph S. Pfau and Al Hirshberg
I woke up in a room completely devoid of furniture except for a chair, a table and the cot I was lying on.
“Do you want some breakfast, Father?”
I blinked my eyes. Standing in front of me, with a breakfast tray in his hand, was a brother.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re at the Alexian Brothers Sanitarium, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”
“How did I get here?”
“What day is this?”
I had left Indianapolis on Tuesday.
The brother set the tray down and left, closing the door behind him. He didn’t lock it.
What happened? Where have I been? I was headed west. How did I end up here?
I remember a letter from the bishop, removing me as pastor of St. Ann’s parish and ordering me to the sanitarium at Oshkosh. I remember a drinking session with a friend in the parish house. I remember loading my car and leaving Indianapolis and drinking along the way.
Only, I was going to drive to the West Coast.
I never found out the whole story to my strange odyssey. A nephew of mine, who was stationed at an Army base in Milwaukee, later gave me a fragment of information.
It seems that I phoned him from Chicago and told him I’d be in Milwaukee the next day. And the next evening, we had dinner and a few drinks together. He said he knew I’d been drinking, but had no idea that I’d blacked out. I had seemed perfectly rational in everything I said. I had told him nothing about myself except that I was on a trip.
The rest of the trip is an absolute blank to this day.
As I lay on my cot in the sanitarium, I tried to recall what had made me change my mind about going to the West Coast.
I didn’t want to come here. And I don’t intend to stay. This solitude is oppressive. I’ve got to get out of here.
I dressed and went into the administration office, and told the brother that I wasn’t going to stay.
“Of course, legally, we can’t hold you,” he said. “You’re free to go. Naturally, that would result in your suspension.”
If I stay, I may never get out. If I leave, I’ll be suspended.
“Do I say Mass?” I asked.
“Oh, no. You don’t say Mass. The rule of the sanitarium is you do not say Mass until our bishop gives you permission.”
“Will I be allowed to go out?” I asked pettishly.
“With permission,” he said. “You may go into town once a month if one of the brothers is with you.”
“What about my car?”
“You are not to use it. Your bishop has given orders that you are never again to drive a car without his permission. We can sell it for you,” he said, “or if you prefer, you may designate a friend to sell it.”
The rest of the day is a blank, but I remember the night. Somewhere along the latter part of the evening, my mind cleared considerably. I was deeply resentful, and almost all of my resentment was directed at the bishop of Indianapolis.
He’s the cause of everything. He sent me here. He’ll keep me here. He won’t let me say Mass. He won’t let me drive my car. He won’t let me live a normal life. He won’t even let me be free. I’ve lost my parish, my friends, my car, my liberty, my self-respect-everything. And it’s all the bishop’s fault.
I paced and sat and lay down and looked out a darkened window and smoked and stewed and worried. And, gradually, as the night progressed, my resentment turned to self-pity.
It’s my own fault. I knew I wasn’t worthy of being a priest when I was a seminarian. And I’ve proved it a thousand times ever since.
I blamed everything in the world for my troubles-everything but alcohol-with the resentment aimed, in the last analysis, at myself.
By dawn, I was hopelessly convinced that there was nothing anyone, anywhere, could do to straighten me out.
Later that morning, a doctor came to visit me. Once again, I recited the long unhappy story of my career. All I had to do was say aloud everything that I had been repeating to myself only a few hours earlier. The longer I talked, the more I seemed to break with reality.
This is not me. This is somebody else-some other Ralph Pfau. It is he-not I –who needs help. I feel very sorry for him. He has lost everything. I wish I could do something for him.
I kept on saying one thing and thinking another. The words were automatic, coming from the mouth of a stranger; the thoughts were the real me.
When I came to the end, the doctor said, “Father, there were 12 full bottles of liquor in your bag. Do you drink much?”
Twelve full bottles? That other Ralph Pfau left Indianapolis with 12 bottles. How much more liquor did he have to buy to fill the bag with fresh bottles?
“Not much,” I said.
“I’m telling the truth. It’s the other Ralph Pfau who does all the drinking.
“Did you ever drink to excess, Father-ever in your life?”
No, Doctor. Not ever.
It was somebody else who sat all morning, waiting for 12 o’clock to come so he could have his first drink, somebody else who headed for the West Coast with a case of whisky in his bag, somebody else who blacked out from drinking on the way.
I was detached from everything. I had nothing to do with this man who was asking me questions.
“Father,” the doctor said, “I think you’re a schizophrenic.”
“Is that so?”
I had never heard the term and I didn’t want to know what it meant. I was afraid that it meant something very bad.
“Yes,” the doctor said, “but I think we can help you. We’re going to try shock treatments.”
And I said, “Fine, Doctor.”
The following day, I was taken to another hospital-the Winnebago State Hospital for the mentally ill.
After I had been admitted, a big male nurse handed me a shapeless white garment and said, “Take off your clothes, Father, and put this on. I’ll be back for you in a few minutes.
He returned shortly and took me to another room. This one was small –about 10 feet by 12-and, because of the equipment and all the people in it, it looked smaller.
There was a table in the center, similar to an operating-room table, but wider and heavier. Within easy reach, with wires sticking out of them, were two attachments that looked a bit like earphones. They swayed gently back and forth. A doctor stood at the head of the table, with a woman nurse beside him. Halfway down the table were two of the biggest, most powerful-looking men I ever saw. I was petrified.
This story was written for publication with the permission of Father Pfau’s ecclesiastical superiors.
“Father, lie down on the table, please,” the doctor said.
I stretched out, putting my head on an uncovered pillow. Somebody rubbed grease on my temples, and somebody else reached for the attachments that hung from a box on the table. They were fitted over my head, one on each side.
They’re going to electrocute me. Oh, God, get me out of here.
I tried to get up on one elbow, but I couldn’t move. One arm was pinioned by each of the burly attendants. I tried to move my feet, but they wouldn’t budge either. The male nurse was leaning on them.
Terrified, I looked up into the eyes of the woman nurse. I tried to say something, but the words stuck in my throat. She was coming at me with something big and wide and white. It moved closer and closer to my face; I tried to pull away from it, but there was nowhere to go.
“Open your mouth!” The nurse spoke sharply, as she poked the white apparition at me. “Now bite!” I clamped by teeth together. I felt engulfed in a blinding white flash that seemed to consume me, inside and out, from head to foot. That was the last thing I knew.
I was sitting on a cot in a darkened room when I came to my senses. I shook my head for a few minutes, then looked around. The woman nurse was standing beside me.
“How do you feel, Father?” the nurse asked.
“I guess I’m all right. Only, I don’t remember anything.”
“It will all come back,” she assured me.
Gradually, in the next few days, practically everything came back into focus except the shock treatment itself and the events immediately leading up to it. I didn’t recall those details for months.
After about three weeks, when the shock treatments were over, I was given permission to say Mass again. But it was many more weeks until my nerves quieted down to a point where I could look on life objectively. I realize now that I had had a narrow escape from what amounted to complete oblivion. This was my fourth nervous breakdown.
For the rest of the summer and early fall of 1943, I lived a quiet, relaxed life at the sanitarium. And in October, I was released, with an order from the bishop to report to Indianapolis directly to the chancery office to see him.
“How are you, Ralph?” the bishop asked, quietly.
He sighed. “I wonder how long you’ll stay that way. Well, I’m going to give you one more chance. You can go to St. Joan of Arc parish and live there a while.” “Frankly,” he added. “I think you’re hopeless.”
It was not until years later that I realized that the bishop was trying to shock me into positive action. But at the time….
Hopeless. I can’t win. What’s the use of trying. So I didn’t try. One week later, I blacked out again-from drinking.
For the first time in my conscious thinking, it slowly began to dawn on me that maybe alcohol was my primary problem. I knew that I had other problems too, and I felt they were more important. However, I now began to think that perhaps I should try to get the alcohol problem straightened out first.
I forced myself to carry out my parish duties. I longed for a drink, yet did not dare to take one.
If I take a drink now, I might blackout again. But I’ve got to have a drink. How long can I keep this up?
I couldn’t sleep at all one night. Finally, I got up, went over to the window and stared out at the sleeping city. I was standing there when the rectory phone rang. It was two o’clock.
“My husband is dying, Father. Can you come right over? My son will pick you up in a few minutes.”
I went back to my room, dressed, got the Holy Oils and went out the front door. As I closed it behind me, a car pulled up. A young man pushed the door open. I got in, and we drove off.
“What happened?” I asked.
“My dad-I’m afraid he dropped dead. The doctor’s on the way.”
As we got out of the car in front of his house, another automobile pulled up behind us. The boy led me to the front door.
“Please go in, Father. I’ll hold the door open for the doctor.”
When I walked into the bedroom, a woman was weeping. Her husband, fully dressed, was stretched out flat on the floor. I thought he was dead.
“Excuse me, Father.”
Behind me, the doctor already had his bag open and was filling a needle from a bottle. I moved aside to give him room. He felt the man’s pulse, rolled up his sleeve, splashed on some alcohol and shoved the needle into an arm.
For a minute nothing happened. Then, to my amazement, the man sat up and looked around.
“Just as I thought. Father,” the doctor said. He’s had too much liquor and barbitals. He’ll be all right.
“I-thought he was dead.”
“He will be if he doesn’t change his habits.”
Without a word, the man got up, went to the bed and began to undress. His wife, badly shaken, thanked us both, and the doctor left.
My head was spinning. I wasn’t listening to the woman. In spite of what I had just witnessed, I wanted a drink.
“—called you at this hour, Father. We appreciate your kindness in coming.”
I followed the woman. As I walked through the living room, a book on the mantel caught my eye. I picked it up and riffled the pages.
“May I borrow this?” I asked.
The name of the book was Alcoholics Anonymous.
I had never heard of Alcoholics Anonymous. I didn’t know there was such an organization. The book, which expanded its principles, its aims and the significance of its 12 steps to sobriety, intrigued me. I finished reading it before dawn.
The following day, I read the book again, and, almost unconsciously, I memorized the 12 steps:
“1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.
“2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
“3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
“4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
“5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
“6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
“7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
“8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
“9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
“10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
“11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
“12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of those steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
It’s the kind of thing that can be applied to anyone, no matter what his religion. I’ll bet it helps a lot of people-particularly those who may have lost their awareness of God. It’s a good program, for alcoholism.
But I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a priest. I haven’t lost my awareness of God. This program is not for me.
But I couldn’t keep my hands off that book. Day after day, I picked it up and read it. After three or four weeks, I knew it from cover to cover. And during that entire period, I didn’t take a drink.
One evening, several weeks after I began reading the book. I noticed some pamphlets on a side table in the vestibule of the rectory. On the top pamphlet were printed the words “Alcoholics Anonymous.” I asked the pastor who had left them.
“Doherty Sheerin,” he said. “He’s a fine man. I think he’s the president of A.A. here in Indianapolis.”
I read the pamphlets. They told stark, simple stories of despair and hopelessness and terror and defeat, and suddenly I came to a decision.
I looked up Doherty Sheerin’s phone number and called him. He was at the rectory 15 minutes later. I liked him on sight. There were strength of character and leadership in his rather square face, and I felt almost a compulsion to put myself in his hands and let him steer me any way he wanted to.
This man will help me.
“What’s on your mind, Father?”
“Well, I understand you’re president of Alcoholics Anonymous here in town.”
“I’m not president. We don’t have any such thing as president. Alcoholics Anonymous is just a group of individuals all faced with the same problem. We only recently began the Indianapolis group, and I happened to be the first member of it.”
“I see,” I said. “I wonder if you can help me. I have some personal problems. Of course, mine isn’t really an alcoholic problem. I never drank very much. I’m not an alcoholic.”
His smile never left his face.
“I know what you mean, Father,” he said gently. “All I can do is pass along a few ideas; then perhaps you can help yourself. We don’t teach anything in A.A. We don’t lecture anyone, or tell anybody whether he is or isn’t an alcoholic. All we do is suggest. ’Take another look at yourself and form your own conclusions.”
Why don’t you go to a meeting with me?
“Nobody will ever know,” he continued. “We don’t tell who attended meetings. We only tell about ourselves. We can get up and shout about ourselves from the rooftops for all the world to hear if we want to. But anonymity respects the other members’ names. So nobody will know that you are attending the meetings unless you tell them.”
I’ll just look in as a spectator. These people will think I’m there in my capacity as a priest to help them out. I’ll go to one meeting, and if I don’t like it, I won’t go anymore.
“Our next meeting is Thursday night, Father,” Dohr was saying. “I’ll pick you up at 7:15.”
By Thursday, I had changed my mind a dozen times about going to the A.A. meeting. But promptly at 7:15, Dohr arrived, and I drove off with him.
It was a small meeting-only seven people altogether. None of these men appeared to be in financial difficulties, nor did they look like drunks, or even ex-drunks. From all appearances, this could have been a meeting of the board of directors of a library.
For the next hour, a discussion of various problems of the alcoholic moved back and forth between Dohr and the members. I noticed that, before anyone spoke during the next meeting, he always said, “I’m an alcoholic,” and I wondered if I would ever be able to do that-if, that is, I really were an alcoholic. I was still far from ready to admit that.
But I felt better than I had felt in several weeks as we rode back to the rectory. Dohr asked me how I liked the meeting.
“Fine,” I said, with real enthusiasm
“That’s good,” Dohr said. “Now, keep coming back. Some day, everything will fall into focus.”
But, later, as I lay in bed, the seeds of discouragement began to grow.
This A.A. is great for laymen. It gives them a new awareness of God, and that helps to keep them away from drinking. But I have always had a strong awareness of and faith in God, and that didn’t keep me from drinking. They talked about honesty tonight-honesty with themselves and honesty with other people. I know all about honesty. Honesty is one of the virtues that any priest adheres to as a matter of course. So there are two things-awareness of God and honesty-which are keystones of success in A.A., and I have both, but neither stopped me from drinking. So what can A.A. do for me?
Day after day, I went through the motions of carrying out my duties at the parish. I didn’t drink, but I was never free of the vague urge to do so.
Doer called me every day. About all he ever said was, “How do you feel, Father?” and about all I ever replied was, “All right-I guess.” But after a few days, I began to look forward to his calls, and our conversations lengthened. My jitters always died down a little after I had talked with him, but it was never long before they returned.
As the weeks and months passed, I continued to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, largely because of Doer. He never asked me if I wanted to go. He simply took it as a matter of course that I was going, and he always called for me.
In general, the other priests in the rectory approved of my interest in A.A.. But they knew me and knew my problem. Whenever I mentioned A.A. to priests outside the parish, I almost invariably ran into opposition.
“No priests should join that sort of an organization,” a priest said to me one day. “You should be able to get what you need from your Church.”
He expressed the thoughts of the majority. I wondered if he was right. I could derive the strength to stop drinking from my Church. I asked Doer about it later.
“You can, But you won’t,” he said. “It would be wonderful if you could find the strength to stop drinking from the Church. But the average alcoholic personality just won’t. I didn’t-and I’ve always been devoted to my Church. You’ve not only been devoted to your Church; you’ve given your life to it. But you still didn’t get from it alone a solution for your drinking problem.”
“But I must have the Church.”
“Of course, you must have the Church. Any good Catholic must have the Church. A.A. without the Church would be less effective for us than the Church without A.A. But, in order to stop drinking, people like you and I must have both. We need something to help us remove the natural obstacles to grace, something to keep us convinced we can’t drink-that we’re still alcoholics.”
Gradually, I became convinced. It took almost a year for the program to take shape. I began to see how a key principle of A.A. applied to me, reluctant as I was to admit it.
To the alcoholic, the first thing in his life is that he cannot drink. This is basic. It may not be his most important problem. Certainly, my neurotic tendencies, which first manifested themselves at St. Meinrad’s Seminary, before I had ever taken a drink, were more important. If an alcoholic has a deadly disease, the disease is more important.
But, regardless of his other problems, the first thing an alcoholic must do is stop drinking. Once he has done that, he can tackle the other problems. But if he doesn’t do it, the other problems not only will remain unsolved, but will become intensified.
In August of 1945, I got a letter from the bishop, telling me that my friend, Father Ambrose Sullivan, who had been appointed pastor of Holy Cross parish in Indianapolis, had asked for me as his assistant.
This was first direct contact with the bishop since I had returned from the sanitarium at Oshkosh a year and a half earlier. I had studiously avoided the chancery, for I didn’t know how the bishop would feel about my being in A.A. The letter encouraged me. Obviously, the bishop must have heard about it and didn’t object, or he would have said something. I was delighted to join Father Sullivan.
At just about that time, I had begun to make Twelfth Step calls. These are visits to people who, faced with the alcoholic problem, called Alcoholics Anonymous for help. As far as I knew, the only purpose in making Twelfth Step calls was to help somebody else try to stay sober. I made half a dozen calls in about three months, but I might as well have stayed homes. I couldn’t get anyone to stay sober.
When I pointed out my lack of success to Dohr, he said, “You’ve stayed sober yourself, haven’t you? Insurance against a slip-that’s really the primary reason for Twelfth Step calls. When I make one, I say, ‘Now, look, fella, I don’t care if you die drunk. I’m not interested in that. But I do care if I die drunk, and that’s the reason I’m here. Now if you want what I’ve got, I’ll take all the time in the world to give it to you. Just give me a call when you’re ready.”
Dohr Sheerin must have sponsored several hundred alcoholics during the years I knew him in Indianapolis, and most of them made the grade.
“But, Dohr,” I said, “as a priest, I’ve got something to offer that the others haven’t. Only, when I go out on calls, people won’t accept me as anything but a priest, no matter what I tell them. As far as they’re concerned, I’m moralizing.”
“That’s right, Father,” he said. “You can do a lot more good in other ways than any of us. The only question is how to go about it.”
The answer was so obvious that I felt foolish because I hadn’t thought of it sooner. In the seminary and as priests, we annually made a retreat. A retreat is a period of discussion and meditation that normally lasts from a day to a week end. In a Catholic retreat, there is a retreat master who gives talks on the dogma and practices of Catholicism. There is also a regular period for questions and open discussion. People in all walks of life attend retreats and gain great peace and solace from them.
“How about having a retreat for alcoholics?” I suggested. “After all, the whole idea of a retreat is just to pause and think things over in company with other people having the same idea in mind. We could make it exclusively on A.A. We wouldn’t go into the question of religion at all. And we wouldn’t confine it to Catholics.”
Dohr was enthusiastic about the idea, and so was the bishop when I wrote for his permission. Since I had once served as chaplain for the Little Sisters of the Poor, I asked them for use of their facilities. They told me they’d be delighted. The retreat was a success in all aspects. We had 67 men there, only about 20 of whom were Catholics. The talks were all strictly about A.A. and were well received by Protestants and Catholics.
The one-day retreat was so helpful that the members urged me to arrange a longer one. Our first full week-end retreat was held at St. Joseph’’ College near Rensselaer, Ind. There were about 90 people there, about 89 per cent of whom were non Catholics.
To this day, we have a men’s retreat at St. Joseph’s every year. We have retreats for women as well as for men; they are held separately in various places throughout the country. Our average attendance, which varies in different parts of the country, still runs about 65 to 70 per cent non-Catholics.
By late 1945, I had not had a drink in two years. When I arose every morning, I asked divine help in remaining sober for the next 24 hours (as I do today), and every day I remain sober. My nerves were behaving, and my jitters were gone. I was in good physical condition and enjoying more peace of mind and satisfaction in my work than I had ever known.
I had full confidence in the A.A. program, but there was one fact I still couldn’t accept completely. That was the theory that alcoholism is a disease. I suspected it was a moral weakness that had caused me to drink.
I had learned that there are sharply defined differences between an alcoholic and a drunk. I knew that alcoholism had the element of compulsion and drunkenness did not. The quantity of liquor consumed and resulting intoxication might be exactly the same, but the motive id different. The alcoholic drinks because he has to. The drunkard drinks because he wants to. Once the alcoholic starts drinking, he can’t stop. The drunkard can stop whenever he feels like it. When the alcoholic drinks, all he can think about is where he will get his next drink. When the drunkard drinks, he wants only to get high and enjoy himself. The alcoholic can’t get liquor out of his mind. The drunkard can forget about it at will, if, indeed, he ever gives it much thought to begin with.
When the alcoholic wakes up in the morning, he’s got the jitters and an uncontrollable craving for a drink to relieve them. When the drunkard wakes up in the morning, he feels terrible, but the only craving he has is for something to get his mind off his hang-over. The last thing he wants is a drink. If the alcoholic doesn’t have his drink, he can’t work or do anything else. The drunkard might take something to settle his stomach, but he can always manage to drag himself off to work. He won’t have a happy day, but he won’t have a craving for liquor, either.
Of course, a drunkard can develop into an alcoholic. Most alcoholics started out as social drinkers. But who knows where the responsibility for his becoming an alcoholic lies? I had been taught that it’s his own responsibility. It is the normal reaction of any clergyman to accept this theory.
This was why I, as a priest, found it so hard to accept any other theory. As far as I could see, I became an alcoholic because I drank too much; it was not that I drank too much because I was an alcoholic. It was as simple as that. And, no matter how often Dohr tried to tell me otherwise, I refused to believe him.
I told alcoholics every day that they were sick, but I didn’t, I couldn’t, believe that this was true.
Not until the day I nearly slipped myself.
When saying Mass, a priest uses wine in the chalice. This, in our belief becomes the Blood of Christ at the moment of Consecration. Although the substance of the wine is changed, the action of alcohol can have the same effect on the human system after the Consecration as before.
I learned early after I joined A.A. that, as a priest-alcoholic, I must take a minimum of wine at Mass. The minimum for validity is about two teaspoonfuls. Medically, an alcoholic would be disturbed if he took enough alcohol to penetrate his blood stream or brain cells. Two teaspoonfuls of ordinary Mass wine would not bother the worst alcoholic. While, contrary to public opinion, it is a fermented drink, it usually has a very low alcohol content, because the Church does not permit Mass wine to be fortified.
Commercial wine, on the other hand, is well fortified with grape alcohol. It is usually heavier than Mass wine, and can cause a definite reaction if taken by an alcoholic. A few of the heavier-type Mass wines approach this commercial content.
I had always been careful about the amount of wine at Mass, and I never had a reaction from it after I joined A.A. But one morning, at Holy Cross, I knew the moment I consumed the Holy Species that this was not average Mass wine. I felt a sudden urge to keep on drinking, a compulsive craving that blocked out all reason.
When Mass was over, I hurried to the kitchen.
“Was there anything different about the Mass wine we used this morning?” I asked the housekeeper.
“Yes, Father,” she said. “A salesman left this sample bottle, and I used it in the cruet.”
I looked at the label. The wine, although Mass wine, had an alcoholic content of 22 per cent.
I wanted a drink. I shuddered as I left the kitchen. I wanted a drink.
I was scared-as scared as I had ever been in my life. This was not just a casual desire. This was a terrible, compulsive craving that overwhelmed me.
If I don’t have a drink, I’ll go crazy. I forced myself to the telephone. With shaking hands, I picked it up and called Dohr Sheerin.
“Dohr, I want a drink.”
“Well, Father,” he drawled, “I’m glad you called. What happened?”
I told him. I guess I wasn’t very coherent, but he didn’t interrupt me. Then, I said, “Dohr, I’m frightened. I’ve got to have a drink. I can’t understand how this happened. It’s never happened before. I’ve been dry two years, and now I feel as though I’d never been dry. A little wine at the Mass-that’s all it took.”
“A little wine has set off a lot of benders, Father,” Dohr said. He was still drawling, talking in a slow casual manner. “You know,” he went on, “You were very wise in calling me. I know just how you feel. You’ve had a reaction because the wine was too heavy. But you know you’re really all right, and you know you’ll get over this craving. You’ve been in A.A. a couple of years now. You know the questions, and you know the answers. And you know you can’t take another drink, because if you do, there’ll be no stopping. You’ll get the jitters and you’ll fall apart, and you’ll have to get dried out all over again. And you know what that means.”
“Dohr, I’ve got to hang up now. I’m going to get a drink.”
“Wait a minute, Father.” Dohr’s voice was softly, gently persuasive. “Before you hang up, I want to tell you something. I’ve got a couple of tickets to the Notre Dame game at South Bend Saturday. I want you to come and see it with me. They’ve got a great team this year, Father-“
“I want a drink.”
“Do you remember the shock treatments, Father? Do you remember all the sanitariums? Do you remember Snake Run? Do you remember what you were like two years ago, before you came into A.A.? Do you realize how far you’ve come in those two years? Do you realize how far you’re going? You don’t really want a drink, Father-“
“Yes, I do-I do, Dohr. I must have a drink-now.”
“NO, you don’t, not really, Father. You’re too experienced in A.A. to want a drink. You’ve seen too many people sweating out a living death while they wait for the alcohol to leave their systems. You’ve been through that yourself a dozen times. You know what it’s like. You don’t ever intend to go through it again. Your too intelligent for that, Father. Do you remember how you used to insist to me that, even though you told others that alcoholism was a disease, you really thought it was a moral fault that could be controlled? Now what do you think, Father?”
“Keep taking,” I said. My throat was dry and my voice cracked and little rivulets of sweat were gushing out of every pore in my body.
Dohr kept talking. HE jumped from one subject to another, stalling me off from leaving the phone. And I listened. Then he said, “Father, it’s been 10 minutes since you’ve said you wanted a drink.”
“Keep talking, Dohr.”
So he talked for 10 minutes more.
“Now it’s 20 minutes, Father. Do you want to talk?”
“Twenty minutes-yes-yes, Dohr, I want to talk.” I could feel the saliva in my mouth and throat, and I wasn’t perspiring so much.
“What about the next retreat, Father? Is everything all arranged?”
Now I talked for 10 or 15 minutes. Dohr asked me all sorts of questions, and I answered them.
Then, I said, “I’m all right now, Dohr.”
“You don’t want a drink anymore?”
“No, Dohr, I don’t want a drink.”
“All right, Father. Call me if you need me.”
We both hung up. I looked at my watch. We had been talking nearly two solid hours. And now I knew that alcoholism was not exclusively a moral problem. Now I knew it was a disease. If I could stick to this conviction without ever rationalizing the “need” for the first drink. I knew my alcoholic troubles would be over.
In 1946, I was asked to give the talk at an A.A. meeting in Cincinnati, by a man who had attended one of our retreats. There were more than a hundred people present, filling the little meeting hall to the doors. I gave a talk on the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymous. There was nothing personal in my talk. When it was over, the chairman opened the floor for questions.
A little fellow in the back of the room got up and said, “Father, that was a fine talk. But, Father, what do you know about this problem? Are you an alcoholic?”
I swallowed. This was the moment I dreaded. Then, in a voice I hoped was steady, I said, “Yes, I’m an alcoholic.”
“Well,” the man said, “tell us about it.”
So, for the first time, I told the story of my alcoholic life in an open meeting. I told of my first nervous breakdown, my first drink, my subsequent breakdowns, the fluctuations of my alcoholic appetite, my experiences in various hospitals and sanitariums, my frequent troubles with the bishop-everything, in fact, that I could think of. I talked for about half an hour.
After I sat down, I felt a deep relief, a relief from all the doubts that had assailed me ever since I first joined A.A., as though, with the first full admission before other alcoholics, I had removed the last of the blocks that seemed to separate me from them. There was nothing more for me to hide, either from them or from myself. Now, at last, I was one of them.
The next time I was asked to speak at a meeting, I stood squarely on my feet, looked around at the expectant faces in front of me and said firmly, “My name is Father Pfau. I am a member of the Indianapolis group of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I am an alcoholic.
I have been telling my story to alcoholics all over America ever since. I will venture to say I have delivered it 500 times.
In 1947, the new archbishop of Indianapolis sent for me. “I have heard about you work,” he said. “How would you like to be relieved of your pastoral duties so that you can devote full time to Alcoholics Anonymous? Of course,” he continued, “the big factor here is the financing of your own living.”
“That might be a problem, because A.A. is not really an organization,” I said. “It specifies that it has no dues or fees. It is not allied with any sect, faith or denomination. It has no interest in politics, and it neither opposes nor endorses any causes. The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. If I were to give full time to A.A., I would have to do so as an alcoholic, as just another member of A.A.”
“But, as a priest, you would have the respect of others,” the archbishop said. “And I feel that your retreat work is important enough to people of all faiths throughout the country to warrant your giving full time to it. When you have thought it over, let me know.”
Dohr was delighted when I told him about it. “Don’t worry, Father,” he said. “We’ll find a way to finance you.”
The next day, Dohr and I went to see A. Keifer Mayer, a close friend of Dohr’s. He was then vice-president (he is now president) of the Kiefer-Stewart Drug Company, a large wholesale house in Indianapolis. Mr. Mayer is neither a Catholic nor an alcoholic. But he was a friend of both the archbishop and his predecessor and had always had great admiration for what Alcoholics Anonymous had done for Doherty Sheerin. Dohr explained the situation.
“You came to the right person,” Mr. Mayer said. “This is the finest idea I’ve heard for a long time. I’m all for it.” He reached for his checkbook and wrote a check to cover my expenses for the first year.
The archbishop released me from my parish duties on Christmas Day, 1947, and I started mapping out plans for retreats beginning in June. Dohr urged me to take a vacation before they started. The more I thought about the idea, the better I liked it.
In April, I decided to go to Los Angeles. The night before I left, Dohr gave me a copy of the A.A. directory, a book that lists groups in various parts of the country. I packed it in my bag.
It was a beautiful spring day when I left Indianapolis, but by the time I got to Texarkana, on the second day, the weather was hot and sticky. It was even hotter driving on to Fort Worth. Texas was in the throes of a dust storm. Driving was uncomfortable, and to make it worse, I discovered that, miles back, I had taken the wrong road.
I drove on to a place called Wichita Falls, Texas, and checked into a hotel. The room was flecked with dust, and the bellboy advised me to keep the window closed.
What a day! What a miserable day! Here I am more than a thousand miles from home. I’m tired, dusty, uncomfortable, hungry-and thirsty. I “need” a drink. I’ll have a cocktail before dinner. I haven’t had a drink in nearly four years. I know I’m O.K. now I’ll have just one, and I won’t tell a soul about it, not even Dohr.
I took a cold shower, and all the while, I thought of the drink I would soon have.
One drink-one drink-one drink.
I opened my bag for clean linen, and the first thing I saw was the A.A. directory. There was a Wichita Falls group listed. I called the number and a man answered.
“I’m a stranger in town,” I explained. “Do you have A.A. meetings here?”
“Yes, indeed,” the voice said. “We’re having one tonight, and you are welcome.”
I’ll go over and meet a new group of people. I’ll see how A.A. works here, and if they want too know, I’ll tell them how A.A. works in Indianapolis.
I forgot all about the drink. It was my last near slip. From that day to this, I never again had a desire for a drink.
A speaking tour in 1948-49 took me to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. I dovetailed the talks so that no one group would have to bear a heavy burden of expense. The are no fees in A.A., and I have never accepted any. Each group has always been free to give whatever it could afford toward my over-all expenses. No minimum is ever set. I accepted support from Mr. Mayer for two years. After that, I usually managed to balance out, although I have returned to Indianapolis in the red several times.
My travels have brought me many friends. They have also brought me many adventures: some of them amusing, some sad and many deeply satisfying.
One night in Los Angeles, I called the A.A. number that was listed in the directory. The man who answered invited me over to the clubhouse. I did not identify myself as a priest. When I arrived, he was ice cold.
“I’m an Orangeman,” he said. The Orangemen, who come from the North of Ireland, oppose Catholics.
“That’s all right,” I said. “You are a member of A.A., too, aren’t you? Well, so am I.”
“You mean you’re an alcoholic?”
“I’m an alcoholic.”
That night, at the meeting, he stood up and said, “If my folks in Ireland knew what I am about to do, they’d blacklist me forever. But that doesn’t bother me. I think maybe this is one of the wonderful things about A.A. Denominations mean nothing as far as the program is concerned. We aren’t Catholics or Protestants or Jews – we’re all just alcoholics. So, it is with real pleasure that this Orangeman introduces a Catholic priest, to give us a talk.”
While my work consumed most of my energy, it did not resolve an old problem. For years, I had had deep-seated doubts about the validity of my ordination into the priesthood. I had never consulted anyone. I was afraid to seek an expert opinion, for fear that my priesthood might really be invalid. One day, I mentioned the matter to Dohr.
“I’ve always doubted it,” I told him. “I’m not sure I wanted to become a priest in the first place. And I was under tremendous pressure when I received the diaconate. I don’t think anyone can validly receive major orders when he is under pressure.”
A canonist is a priest well-versed in cannon law-a sort of ecclesiastical lawyer. When Dohr and I went to see Father Donovan, I told him the whole story of my doubts and fears at the time of my diaconate.
“I’m really concerned about two things,” I told Father Donovan, “whether these pressures caused invalidity of my diaconate, and-if this is so-whether my priesthood is invalid too.”
“Did you have pressure and anxiety before your ordination to the priesthood, or only before the diaconate?” Father Donovan asked.
“Only before the diaconate.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Father,” he said, smiling. “Even if the diaconate was not valid, the ordination to the priesthood was. This is the law of the Church. You are perfectly all right.”
I may never be sure whether I wanted to be a priest, but now I can be sure God wanted me to be a priest.
I took up residence at the Good Shepherd Convent in Indianapolis in 1950. Little did the good sisters there dream what the next few years would bring. Today, the convent is a beehive of activity. Typing, printing, filing and answering telephones are now part of the daily routine for three of the Magdalen nuns. They do their work in a large office and a printing room.
My one room living quarters serve as my private office by day and my bedroom by night. Two private telephone lines lead into this room, and both can also be switched to the Sister Magdalen’s office. Calls come from all parts of the world-and at any hour of the day or night-from alcoholics, people interested in alcoholics, and friends. Some of the callers are sober, some are sobering up and some are not sober. A few years back. A lady not quite sober called me from Paris. She just wanted to talk-at $12 for three minutes. It took her three-quarters of an hour to tell me what was on her mind.
When I am away from Indianapolis, a nun. My secretary, answers the phone. She is acquiring a postgraduate education and is adding many words to her vocabulary, some good, some not so good. At night, she turns the phone on automatic answering.
Each day brings an average of 50 pieces of mail. Each year, the demands on my time at the office have grown to such an extent that I have been forced to gradually cut down on the number of speaking engagements. There are hundreds of invitations from groups I do not have the time to visit. I plan to continue my retreats as long as I am physically able to do so. However, I also want to give more and more time to my writing and to my own people in and around Indianapolis.
In 1953, Doherty Sheerin died. I think about him often, and have said Mass for him many times. I seldom give a talk that I do not mention my debt to him.
I have traveled nearly 750,000 miles in 10 years of working with alcoholics. I have spoken before nearly 200,000 members of Alcoholics Anonymous at retreats, meetings and conventions, and personally discussed their problems with more than 10,000 alcoholics. Many ask me if A.A. is the only avenue of recovery open to alcoholics.
This is what my experience has taught me: The approach of the Twelve Steps, used in an appropriate group, constitutes the best means available today to give sobriety to the alcoholic. However, I feel that the present structural setup of Alcoholics anonymous is very imperfect. It tends far too much to organization, and this, in dealing with spiritual entities, could prove disastrous. To me, the greatest security for A.A. is in the preservation of its autonomy down to each member. Authority in A.A. would be fatal.
Many people have asked me how they can tell if they will develop into alcoholics. That’s not an easy question to answer because so many factors are involved. The person who drinks for pleasure today may be drinking tomorrow because he must. The person who wakes up with a hang-over and wants no part of alcohol this year may wake up with a craving for liquor a year or two from now. But, by the same token, the person who drinks for pleasure now may be drinking for pleasure for the rest of his life. He may wake up with a hang-over every morning, but never become an alcoholic, because he can stop drinking whenever he feels like it and can also moderate his drinking when he chooses to.
My experience, dealing with alcoholics both in passing and under intimate circumstances, is that the only static factor is the element of increase. If a person who has been drinking at least three years (a shorter period cannot give a conclusive result) finds finds that he is drinking increasingly more alcohol increasingly more often, he is probably on the road to alcoholism. On the other hand, if a person got drunk three times a week ten, five or three years ago, and he still gets drunk three times a week, the chances are he’s not, and never will be, an alcoholic.
If you are an alcoholic, you cannot discipline yourself into moderate drinking. This is why we in A.A. avoid the first drink. When we succeed in doing that, we stay dry.
Why did I ever drink? I don’t really know. I don’t believe any alcoholic knows.
Will I ever take another drink? Again, I don’t really know. Only God knows the future. I don’’ think I will ever drink again, and, at present, I have no desire for a drink.
There is a saying among some Alcoholics Anonymous groups that “A.A. brings about an expulsion of a compulsion by a Higher Power-by Almighty God.”
I am sure of only one thing-all that I am, and all that I have achieved, is from God. I had nothing to do with it. God did it all. So, too, my future is entirely in His Hands; mine is only the footwork.