The Strange Obsession
by Bill W.
It was a hot night in the midsummer of 1934. I found myself at a noted address in Central Park West, New York City. It was in Charlie Towns Hospital for drying out alcoholics.
Sobering and sweltering out a fearful hangover I laid abed in an upstairs room. Downstairs the doctor looked across his desk at my wife Lois.
She was saying, “Doctor, why can’t Bill stop drinking? He always had great willpower. Yet here he is, facing ruin again, and still he can’t stop. The more he struggles, the worse he gets. I am scared, heartbroken and confused. I know he is, too. He’d do anything – anything at all to stop. Tell me, Doctor, why can’t he?”
Lois was asking the same terrible question that uncounted women had asked before. Her’s was a riddle quite as old as man’s first discovery that alcohol could be made from grapes and grains.
Again she said, “Please tell me the truth doctor. Why can’t Bill stop?”
In his long experience with serious drinkers the good doctor had faced that terrible heartbreaker a thousand times. By nature compassionate, he never failed to wince whenever a distraught wife, husband or friend of a sufferer had profounded anew the burdened riddle of alcoholism. Bill’s dilemma had interested and moved him deeply. How could he now bring himself to tell Lois the truth?
The benign little doctor’s face turned grave as he began to speak. “When Bill first came to this hospital three years ago, I felt that he might be one of those rare cases who might recover. I hoped that when he better understood himself and the nature of his illness, he might win out. In spite of his several severe relapses since then, I have gone on hoping. For, as you say, he desperately wants to quit and his will to do so is very great. But now I’m discouraged. I’m afraid he’s going to be like nearly all the other alcoholics who come my way.”
“Well Doctor,” cried Lois, “just what do you mean by that. Won’t he ever get better?”
Gently, the Doctor went on, “Mrs. W.,” said he, “As you already understand, your husband is a sick man. But I’ve never told you just how sick an alcoholic can be, nor have I ever explained this illness to you as I understand it from my long observation. I think the time is here to tell you more about his illness and how really serious his condition now is. There are a lot of theories about the underlying causes of compulsive drinking like Bill’s. Of these we can take our pick. But there are some solid facts, too, which no one who has watched many alcoholics could well dispute.
“Fact one is that innumerable alcoholic men and women really want to control their destructive drinking and then find, to their dismay, that they cannot. They cannot moderate their drinking as other people do. Nor, even when faced with the most terrible consequences, can they stop altogether, no matter how desperate their plight. Never do the excuses they make for their sprees justify their pattern of continuous self-destruction. Their behavior becomes completely illogical and irrational – it really verges on insanity. And even when they well understand all this, they go on as before. Where alcohol is concerned, their minds no longer rule their emotions.
“A new spree can be started upon the slightest of excuses or rationalizations. Sometimes the provocations seem great, but it’s always very small when the certain destructive results are considered. When for example life gives the average man a heavy bump, he doesn’t seize a hammer and beat himself into insensibility. Yet, in effect, that’s what the sick alcoholic does, over and over. All reason, all incentive, even the greatest desire to stop, seems to be swamped when the craving for alcohol takes hold.
“Therefore the biggest fact about alcoholism is its obsessional nature. It is one of the most subtle yet most powerful compulsions known. Once it’s grip is firm, the chance for recovery is diminished. How to help the alcoholic to expel his obsession is the problem. But we doctors have had little success: I’ve seldom helped even one case in a hundred.
“Nor is the drinkers obsession the whole story: alcoholism is a physical malady too. In nearly all cases the bodies of problem drinkers become painfully sensitive to alcohol. In the early stages of their malady some alcoholics can drink quantities of liquor without serious physical reaction. But continued excesses finally cause them to lose that ability; they seem to get allergic to the stuff; so much so that hangovers produce great physical agony and sometimes delirium tremens or convulsions too often followed by brain damage and mental deterioration than can be permanent.”
Again she asked, “Doctor, what can we do?”
So he had to tell her that I would have to be locked up or go mad and die. That it would all end with heart failure during delirium tremons, or that I would develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year. That soon I would have to be given over to an asylum or an undertaker.