SEEMINGLY ALLERGIC TO DRINK:
Craving, Plus Inability to Heed Warning of Own Weakness, Leads Inebriate to Succumb
(Second of Six Articles)
What is an “alcoholic”? How does he differ from other drinkers? An incident to illustrate:
Convinced that I had nothing to sell, puzzled that I did not come as a patient either, the nurse finally ushered me into the office of one of Houston’s most eminent physicians. He is prominent also in other activities that often have put him in the spotlight. He is a “big name.”
I had come, as an ex-alcoholic, to tell him about Alcoholics Anonymous and to have him introduce me to an alcoholic victim among his patients whom I might help; for I am a stranger in Houston.
One Needing Help
The good doctor, eyebrows bristling, welcomed me with gruff suspicion. No, he had never heard of Alcoholics Anonymous. But he listened. I felt he was showing more Texas courtesy than interest.
Halfway through my recital, he broke in: “Humph,” he humphed, “I have no patience with these fellows you call ‘victims.’” His voice showed it. “Why, I can handle anything. So could they control their drinking if they wanted to?”
But he gave me the name of an able man whose excessive indulgence in firewater was endangering the business he had built up, wrecking his health, rendering his family desperate.
“He’s just out of a cure,” said the doctor. “But he gave them the runaround some way. Hitting it up again. See what you can do with him. Tell him I sent you. His family is crazy. I can do nothing more.”
There you have in one situation the two kinds of drinkers–the man who can “handle anything,” and the drinker who steps right out of one of the usual “cures” and hoists a few before he even gets home.
But our experience tells us that everybody cannot “handle anything.” The alcoholic cannot control his drinking. Sometimes the dividing line over which he has slid is hard to place.
Some people are alcoholics with their first drink. Most of them become such by degrees.
“Not an Alcoholic”
How can a drinker define his position on the scale? How can the condition know medically as alcoholism be recognized before the desperate stage?
To get drunk once in a while does not necessarily prove one is an alcoholic in the sense in which the word is used here. A man may drink steadily all his life with an occasional roaring bender, and not be thus classified.
Just before writing this article, I lunched by chance with a newspaperman of short acquaintance. This subject came up and I showed him a draft of yesterday’s story in this series.
“Humm!” he said. “That hits me. I’ve been on the wagon for nine months now. I’ve never heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but I know it isn’t the tenth drink that will get me down, but the first one. But I’m not an alcoholic.”
That’s what they all say.
Nobody likes to admit that he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows, especially if he imagines (though wrongly) that doing so pegs him as somehow inferior in good taste, self-control, gentlemanliness, or what have you.
“O.K., then,” I said. “You’re not an alcoholic. However, here’s a test I’ll bet you’re afraid to make.
“You can diagnose yourself, I’ll get a bottle. Come to my room this evening and we’ll sit around and gas, while you try some controlled drinking. Take several shots and see what happens.
The First Drink
“See if you can stop abruptly and forget about it. Try it several times. It will not take long to decide if you are honest with yourself, and it may be worth a bad case of jitters to learn the truth.”
“Nothing doing,” the gentleman of the press replied. He came back with it so quickly that you couldn’t doubt he meant it. “Done that too many times already. It’s the first drink that sends me ‘off to the races.’”
He’s an alcoholic. Perhaps not for a long time will he touch another drop. Then some fine day when he isn’t looking, one of the insanely absurd and inadequate reasons with which the alcoholic deludes himself when he wants a drink, will pop into his head, just when the drinks are handy.
The first glass down, it’s the old story again; but this time he’s older. The reasons for his former sobriety may be gone. The picture is different. He has shamed himself, damaged his pride and self-confidence. And perhaps he can’t snap out of it by himself or with the ordinary kind of help.
With true alcoholics, it is never a question of control or moderation. Their only out is absolute abstinence.
Alcoholics Anonymous might well make the last two words of the preceding paragraph the second meaning of “A.A.”
Why is this total aversion necessary for the drinkers and not for others?
Omar Khayyam, you remember, said of the juice of his well beloved grape: “’Tis a blessing; we should use it, should we not? And if a curse, why then, who put it there?”
The alcoholic can indulge in no such philosophical fancies, any more than a diabetic can gorge himself on sweets
His body and his mind become sick, with alcohol.
It is as though he is allergic to drink. The allergy theory is admitted by physicians who advance it to be only a theory. Nevertheless, it explains many things that otherwise do not make sense.
Three things especially characterize the alcoholic as a different breed of cattle.
The first is the phenomenon of craving. Not merely the thought that a drink would be agreeable, but a definite, undeniable craving.
The second is the appearance of the curious mental phenomenon that, parallel to the victim’s sound reasoning which warns him of the folly and danger, there inevitably runs some insanely trivial excuse for taking the first drink. Insanely trivial because, measured against the hell which from experience he knows he’s in for, no one in the state of mind called normal and sane would act on it for a minute.
Sound reasoning fails to hold him in check. The insane idea wins out.
Unable to Stop
The third distinguishing characteristic is the fact that the alcoholic, actual or potential, is absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge.
This point has been smashed home on many members of Alcoholics Anonymous out of bitter experience.
How many are the dodges they have tried in vain! Here is a partial list: Drinking whiskey only with milk, drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, drinking only at home, never having it in the home, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parities, switching from Scotch to brandy or rum, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums–the list could go on ad infinitum.
I can add a favorite of my own. Believing that the evil of drink lies not in its use but in its abuse. I tried asking whatever you may choose to call the higher Power to teach me control.
Well, it seems God didn’t build me that way. I’m glad I found out in time.
Alcoholism is an illness in a class by itself.
People feel sorry for the victim of cancer. No one gets angry about it. But look at the alcoholic’s trail of misunderstanding, fierce resentments, financial insecurity, disgusted friends and employers, warped lives of blameless and trusting children, sad wives and parents–and more.
That is why Alcoholics Anonymous wants this message spread broadcast. If you see no need for it now, who knows how soon you may have occasion to remember it? It may not be a bad idea to clip this series and save it against that day.