THE FURROW, NOVEMBER, 1953
(Details amended to 1972)
A CATHOLIC MEMBERS APPRECIATION
"I HEAR the A.A. want to start a group here. Do you know anything about these fellows?" I was shown this part of a letter from one country priest to another not so long ago. I am an alcoholic myself and a member of A.A. for twenty-four years. My own success in the adventure of sobriety is bound up with the success of A.A. in Ireland. The object of this article is to tell something about "these fellows": what we are, what we try to do and what we have so far achieved. For we have found a knowledge and understanding of A.A. has made us friends and gained us helpers.
Up to comparatively recently, Society has placed all drunks in the same category - weak-willed, callous, helpless and unhelpable, intentional sinners, skeletons whose greatest offence is that they will not remain snugly in their family cupboards. Yet nearly everyone knows at least one person whose drinking has apparently almost without warning become incomprehensible. Men with good homes, money, good business or jobs, good reputations, healthy, in no way unhappy, suddenly go off the rails. Normal, seemingly, when not drinking, their characters undergo a complete change once they start on alcohol. Their former occasional "night-outs" develop swiftly into bouts, the bouts come closer and closer together. In many cases they are seldom completely sober. Their drinking is followed by periods of intense remorse, by sincere though short lived attempts to stay off liquor. Their relatives are in turn startled, puzzled, anxious to help, resentful, contemptuous, enraged. They themselves are at first sure they can find a way of retaining control "next time," then frightened when they fail repeatedly, then hopeless. Their complete ignorance of what has happened to them, what is still happened to them, what is still happening to them, makes it impossible for them to explain to, and gain the understanding sympathy of, those they love and respect. Little by little they cut themselves off from their world; they live in a state of desperate loneliness and finally become outcasts. These are the persons sometimes called the Problem Drinkers. They are, in fact, alcoholics or compulsive drinkers, suffering from a physical allergy to alcohol combined with a mental obsession to take more once they start to drink: drinkers whose compulsion to drink is a sign of disease. There are few alcoholics who have recovered who would deny that this disease is really spiritual.
A.A. is a loose knit society of men and women alcoholics who have banded together in groups all over the world to share their experience, strength and hope with each other, that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. There are at the time of writing over 14,000 such groups, with a total membership of about 500,000 spread all over the world. The only requirement for membership is a sincere desire to stop drinking. A.A. is not allied with any particular religion, creed or denomination. It has nothing to do with politics, other organizations or any institution. A.A. simply minds its own business…to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. Alcoholism is not a purely Catholic, Protestant or Jewish disease; it is not the exclusive illness of either the millionaire or the down-and-out. Alcoholism strikes at all creeds, class and income—grades impartially. A.A.’s success has largely derived from its refusal to recognize any difference between one alcoholic and another. They are all sick persons, requiring A.A. ‘s help. A.A. does not usurp the place of Church or Medicine. The alcoholic who joins in poor physical condition is strongly advised to consult his doctor. The alcoholic’s religion, or lack of it, is his own affair. In general, it has been our experience that a good A.A. member becomes a better member of his Church. But our primary object is to achieve sobriety. From that sobriety the other things will stem; without it, they are impossible. A.A. is not concerned with money. It has nothing to sell and none of its members are paid for A.A. work. There are no positions of authority to be obtained ;each member is on exactly the same footing. Its policy of anonymity does away with the danger of membership being used as a means of obtaining personal kudos. Thus the three most ordinary occasions of disunity and disruption are guarded against. Each group is autonomous. Its own members care for the necessary money to meet expenses of rent, printing and incidentals. Donations from outside sources are politely refused. Its officers are elected in rotation. Its policy of anonymity was first chosen as a worldly safeguard for its members; the spiritual value of anonymity has become more apparent since. But while personal anonymity is required, A.A. is only too glad of any publicity to its aims and being.
It came into existence thirty six years ago in America through a chance meeting between a New York stockbroker named Bill (in A.A. all members go by their first names), and an Akron doctor, Bob. Bill had already managed to keep sober for six months as the result of following out a few principles of living largely based on the Oxford Groups "Absolutes." He had, however, just had the bad end of a business deal and came to realize that to preserve his own sobriety he must make contact with another alcoholic and help him to achieve sobriety as well. Both of these men had long and dreadful histories of drink; but from that first meeting, they both remained sober. Bob died twenty-two years ago, but Bill lived till 1971, a total abstainer for over 36 years, after he had been given up as a hopeless and unhelpable drunk. The society they started that day grew slowly and shakily; it took over four years to muster the first hundred members. Since then it has grown in increasing tempo to its present size. In numbers it is still mainly American, United States and Canada. Twenty-nine years ago it was carried to Australia by a travelling American. Three years later, it came indirectly from Australia to Ireland, this time by a priest.
This priest was on holiday in Dublin in September 1946 and was interviewed by an evening paper on the subject of a Boy’s Town with which he was connected in Australia. In the course of his talk he commented at length on the success that A.A. was having in Sydney and expressed the hope that Dublin would do well to take it up. This interview was read by a member of the Philadelphia group, an Irishman who had gone to live in the States, who was over here on holiday. Spurred on by his wife, he determined to start a group in Dublin, with the help of a doctor and by advertising, he managed to scrape together a small number of men willing to make the experiment. Their first public meeting was held in The Country Shop on November25th.; and here on that night the first A.A. group in Europe was formed. As in America, the start was slow and uphill. Today it is firmly established in Dublin ( 35 Groups ); there are many large groups in Belfast; there are several groups in Limerick, Cork and Galway, and smaller ones elsewhere. Public meetings are held every Monday night, still in The Country Shop, where attendance’s range from 50 upwards to 100. The maximum attendance was at a meeting held in the Mansion House when over 400 came along to listen to the Co-Founder of the Society, Bill. At a conservative estimate, there are at least 2000 members in Ireland and an estimated 8,000 in England, Scotland and Wales. A good many others, though partially convinced, are not yet ready to make, and act on, the necessary admission that they are beaten by drink. A world estimate is that about 70% of those who join and give the A.A. program a fair trial recover, though a great many of these suffer one or more relapses before they finally settle down. A short time ago, I was asked at a clerical meeting to explain to them why an alcoholic went on drinking long after it was evident that he was incapable of exercising control. I find it almost impossible to do so. I can only say that for a very long period of my own thirty years drinking I honestly believed I could, someday and somehow, find a way of drinking all I wanted without losing control. Life without drink seemed to me to be an unnatural and quite impossible way of existence. Later I became drearily hopeless and fatalistic about it. Though I still continued to make attempts to pull up, I felt even at the time that they were quite useless. I felt it would start again sometime, so what was the use of trying too hard? The truth is that we don’t know why we drink; but when we tell the truth, we are not believed. Strength of will and sincerity of purpose do not enter into it. I have entered my name for a Retreat to find help in Quitting drink, yet gone to that retreat with a bottle of gin in my bag, which I drank between the first exercise and going to sleep. After a month’s voluntary treatment in a private home, I felt convinced I had mastered drink; and been drinking again within a few hours. Drink makes us mentally unbalanced and we cannot be honest even with ourselves for long at a time.
My own case history may be cited as typical of an A.A. member, though space will mercifully prelude any but the minimum necessary details. I am seventy-five years of age, single and come from a good class Catholic family. My home life was happy and I went to a Catholic College in England. Later I entered the profession I wanted to join; I was very happy in it, I got on well. I was good at games; I was considered good at work, above the average of my rank in the British Army. I had a promising future to look forward to, I had nothing from which to escape. There was no previous history of drink in my family. I can see no reason why I should have become an alcoholic, yet almost from the start I drank like an alcoholic. At first I had some sort of control over myself as to when I drank. If circumstances seemed to indicate the need for it, I cut out drinking without much effort and with no feeling of self sacrifice. But even in those first years if I drank at all I went on for the rest of the night. Soon I was losing even that control. I began to drink at the wrong times, in the wrong places and before the wrong people. Good luck and good friends covered up for me for many years, but finally life caught up on me and I was retired on retired pay, branded as not to be re-employed. This virtual dismissal made very little impression on me. I still had enough money for drink and I had a home to live in. Six more years were to pass before the climax came. I had been inflicting every kind of unhappiness not only on myself but on my parents, not the least for the latter being my complete indifference to my religious duties. In April 1947 they ordered me out of the house and the family and their lives. By now I had added drugs to alcohol. My routine had become one of the drugs in the morning to revive me, drink all day and another drug at night to give me sleep. My parents’ "revolt" opened my eyes for the first time to where I had descended. It proved to be my own gutter. Fear for my security and at the prospect of becoming one of the legion of the homeless lost ( with the next stop almost certainly a Night Shelter ), at last made me genuinely willing in my own interest to do anything I could to stop drinking ("Give me back my Legions".). The trouble was that I could think of nothing useful. Doctors, homes, hospitals, promises, all had proved in vain. Then my memory went back to that interview I had read nine months before, about A.A. The Grace of God must have put it into my heart to go to a meeting that night, and I managed to strike a one-sided bargain with my parents that if A.A. could do some good I might stay at my parents on probation. I arrived at that meeting, more than half-drunk, shaking from drugs and nerves; not too good a prospect, even for A.A. By the goodness of God and the help He has sent me through A.A. I have not had another drink since then.
There is no set blueprint of recovery in A.A. Each member succeeds in his own way and time and at his own pace. So what I write must be taken as my own experience only. For me, recovery came from Knowledge, Decision, Group or social therapy, a return to Realism and the program of the Twelve Steps. All of these together for me make up the A.A. way of life. And I attacked my recovery problem in just that order, which seems to me to be entirely logical. Without Knowledge, I could not come to any decision that would stand up for long. Without Decision to recover, group therapy would be a waste of time. Without Realism I should have been continuing my old pattern of running away into dreamland from the inescapable facts of life. And while all these things were essential to me to stop drinking, I had to bring another factor into play, the Twelve Steps, to learn not only how to remain abstinent but to be happy in remaining so.
That Knowledge was elementary, though new to me. Alcoholism is a sort of disease acquired by two or three percent of the world’s drinkers. The disease in simplifying language is the disease of not being able to drink in moderation. It is the first drink the alcoholic takes that sets his disease in active virulence, not the total quantity consumed. Alcoholism cannot be completely eliminated once it gains a footing. No matter how long I might remain abstinent at a time, I would never be able to control my drinking if I started again. But if I could find a way of not taking a first drink, I could stay sober and normal.
The decision I had to take was to give up drinking for good. I had to face the unpalatable fact that I must make abstinence my own first and most vital aim. As for the group therapy, I was prepared to accept that the older members had had to make themselves essential to their groups and the groups essential to themselves. If I was going to avail myself of the same means that they had found necessary and successful, it followed that I must attempt what they did. Group therapy to me does not merely mean coming together at stated times for formal meetings. These meetings are important for many reasons and as the visible sign of coherence. The equally valuable, though invisible, sign is keeping the closest possible touch with the members of the group even when they are not in actual physical contact. That can be done by constantly thinking about the group, working for it, praying for it; keeping it in mind as much as possible.
Reality consisted in recognizing that my alcoholic life must be cut down to a size I could hope to deal with. My disposition was such that if I continued to think of abstinence in terms of months or years, I would be pretty certain that nothing would be done. So I adopted the A.A. suggestion of living my life in periods of twenty-four hours at a time. Today, the only day in reality that I ever have at my disposal. From the beginning, I slowly advanced to being content to accomplish only what of the rest of my life I could fit into Today. That again required further realism to determine which things were of the most immediate importance to be done Today. But my primary reality will always remain concentrated on not taking one single drink Today.
Finally, the program of recovery, contained in the following Twelve 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 the result of these steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.
These steps seem strong meat for reforming alcoholics. It helped me greatly to remember that this program was not some optimistic chart for super-saints. It was based on the actual experience of human beings, alcoholics like myself. They were not impossibly idealistic steps; they had all been attempted by others successfully. It is sometimes said that all the steps are spiritual except the first. For me, the first step is also essentially spiritual. I could admit in words to myself that I was powerless over alcohol, but where would that take me unless that admission embraced not only the actual wording but also what was implicit in it? No, taking that step was a declaration to myself that because I sincerely wanted to recover, I was fully resolved to try to live out the way of life suggested in the following eleven steps.
The second step, too, called for determination. Here I could no longer avoid my spiritual life. I had to subdue my pride and acknowledge that a greater Power, God, was in complete control of my life. I had to strive to make God a daily living reality in my life, not a pious Sunday morning superstition. The third step was perhaps the hardest, relinquishing control and guidance of my life to God. But in the measure of the success I attained here would lie the measure of success I would meet with in continued sobriety, happiness and peace of mind. The fourth step was akin to our general confession. For me, that moral inventory was not a moral mudrake but a serious effort to find out about myself, to find what things stood in the way of my carrying out the third step. The fourth step taught me self-knowledge. We take an inventory of ourselves; we do not attempt to beat our neighbor’s breast.
The fifth was only a practical application of the truism that confession is good for the soul. This and the next few following steps contain no great difficulty for the alcoholic who is sincere in his acceptance of the third. The tenth was our nightly examination of conscience with the added obligation of owing up to human beings when we were frankly wrong. The eleventh was a guide to our carrying out the third. The sting of the steps is contained in the tail of the Twelfth, that part which suggests we carry out the foregoing principles in all our affairs. Many may be willing enough to practice them in their alcoholic affairs. The older members had found out that this would not be enough to ensure happiness and a good conscience. This part of the steps is that which binds ‘them all together. It cannot be ignored with safety.
I always remains important that we remember why we joined A.A. It was to recover our own sobriety for our own sakes; not to preach to the unconverted. That must remain our primary goal. We cannot afford to forget our previously helplessness when friends talk prettily of our apostolic mission. Charity begins at home.
Since A.A. has been operating there for longer and on a very much greater scale, the Church in America has had more opportunity to assess its work and direction. An extract from a letter received here from the Chancellor of a very large archdiocese will give some idea of the impression made. "The Bishops of our country up to now have not taken any official stand on A.A. The movement has not been condemned; the movement has not been officially approved. Personally I am convinced that the A.A. movement is the most sound and the most successful approach that has ever been made in our country to the problem of the alcoholic. In my archdiocese, I am under the impression that about one-half of its members at one time were Catholics. The Twelve Steps appeal to me as being entirely in harmony with the Catholic faith and morals, as being clearly stated religious and moral principles in language which is simple and easily understood. Honesty to oneself, humility, contrition, purpose of amendment, unburdening one’s soul and accusing one’s self of failing to another person, placing one’s hope and confidence in God, making restitution, relying upon prayer and meditation, spiritual reading, seem to me to be sound and solid principles necessary for rehabilitation. The apostolic step to carry the message to alcoholics and to help others to rehabilitate themselves ‘is also in conformity with Christian teaching and seems to be psychologically of utmost importance. Cases have come to my attention of priests who were victims of alcoholism being re-instated through A.A. A large number of lukewarm and indifferent Catholics have returned to an active practice of their faith; and strange as it may seem, several instances are known of non-Catholics who have been brought to the Catholic faith through the A.A. movement.. .The Chancery has been very solicitous to avoid giving the impression that the archdiocese was trying to take over the A.A. movement or trying to take over the A.A. movement, or trying to interfere in either the organization or activities of the Group."
It may sound ungracious to stress the importance of that last sentence, considering that A.A. is looking for all the help the Church can give. But one of the biggest attractions to the prospective member is that he is joining a society of alcoholics run and controlled in every way by alcoholics. Any suggestion that the group was in someway controlled or unduly influenced by an outside "partisan" body, however benevolently disposed, would be bad news for the unity of the members. We seem to be forced into the ungenerous position of having to say to our outside helpers:
"Please do all you can for us; but stay in your corner until we want you." In truth, we are only guided by our experience, which is that one alcoholic is the best ambassador to another. We speak the same language, a language that cannot be entirely understood by even the most sympathetic of our friends who is not himself an alcoholic.
What we ask from priests who have a will to help us is that they will be content with steering alcoholics towards us and that they will be willing to stand aside when they have done so; that they will, even though perhaps with every conscious effort, try to understand that the alcoholic is not, in his present condition at least, a deliberate sinner but a very sick person requiring experienced treatment; and that they will examine our successes rather than our failures, for our successes are being gained in a field considered hopeless until recently. And we ask them, too, not to look on us as rivals to any temperance movement already sponsored by them. We are not in competition with anyone or anything.
A.A. is not a charitable society in the sense that it engages to supply its members with loans of money, employment or even clothes for which it has no further personal use. It is a charitable society in the meaning of Christ’s teaching. We ask for nothing material for ourselves personally or as groups. We do ask for charity for the sick alcoholic; sympathy for his problem; understanding of his condition and a willingness to advise him to seek recovery where so many thousands have already found it. A.A. is in no way a substitute for the Sacraments"; it has proved to be in most cases of Catholic alcoholics a positive urge towards them. It is with confidence then that we ask for the good will of the readers of The Furrow and for their prayers - that those of us who have recovered may maintain our sobriety and that the Grace of God may bring our members and their families that happiness which is the end of man.
c/o The Country Shop, 23 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
The Vatican and Alcoholics Anonymous. A Dublin member of Alcoholics Anonymous, 23 St. Stephens Green, Dublin 2, writes:
Archbishop Enrici, Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, came to, and spoke at the recent European Convention of A.A. held at Bristol at the end of September last. Afterwards he made the suggestion that, as he believed little was known at the Vatican about A.A. and its suggested way of recovery, a visit from a couple of its members might be of great value to both parties.
Accordingly, in January of this year, an English Catholic member and I departed for Rome and remained for a fortnight. Our only contact, up to the time of our arrival there, was through the Bishop of Clifton, the very recently appointed rector of the English College. But through his generous guidance we obtained a list of those he thought we should try to contact. And through the kindness of the Irish mother superior of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God at Mater Dei Convent (they have a sister house in Raheny, Dublin), we were lent the services of an Italian-speaking nun to help us to effect the necessary approaches by telephone. We acknowledge with deep gratitude that all of them, very willingly and at very short notice, agreed to make the appointments which enabled us to carry out the program given briefly as follows:
Talks given to the students and staff of the English, Irish, Beda, Scottish and North American Colleges.
Reception by Mgr. Uylenbroek, Secretary of the Council of the Laity.
Reception by Cardinal John Joseph Wright, Prefect of the Sacred
Congregation for the Clergy.
Reception by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Very
Rev. Father Arrupe, S.J.
Reception by the Servants of the Paraclete.
On January 19, we had the supreme honour of being received by His Holiness Pope Paul in private audience. The Pope graciously greeted us not only for our own sakes, but for the work we were engaged on (i.e. Alcoholics Anonymous ), which he described as fine work, a real apostolate. He urged us to press on with our work, gave it his blessing and told us that he would keep it and us in his prayers.
The granting of this private audience went far beyond our dearest dreams and was a most wonderful experience for us both. It was, too, a historic event in the thirty-six—year history of our fellowship, being the first and so far the only occasion on which a reigning pontiff has received individuals in private audience as members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The editor of The Furrow, who has always been so generous in his encouragement and active aid to A.A., has placed me more deeply in his debt than ever by inviting this short account of our embassy to Rome. It is a pleasure to inform him that reprints of an article ‘A Catholic Member’s Appreciation of Alcoholics Anonymous,’ which appeared in The Furrow of November 1953, have found a good home and an enthusiastic reception in all the departments of the Secretariat and in all the colleges we had the good fortune to visit.