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My Return from the Half-World of Alcoholism
A letter to Alcoholics Anonymous saved the author’s
from The Grapevine
year ago I was a hopeless alcoholic. I tried to stop drinking,
but the harder I tried the more I drank. I drank to get
drunk. I drank to stay sober.
Anonymous jerked me back to reality.
had only a vague knowledge of Alcoholics Anonymous but I
did manage to part the haze in my head long enough to remember
that the headquarters were in New York City. I wrote them,
pleading on the envelope: “New York Postmaster: Please
find these people for me. I am a veteran of World Wars I
and II. I need help!” Later I was told that when the
postman delivered the letter to the AA office, he said:
“We found you for the soldier. Now you fix him up.”
started AA’s letters. I was remotely located beyond
personal contact with the organization or any of its branches.
The letters came in an unbroken flow, often daily, most
of them by air mail. They were written in terms I could
understand, and pulled no punches.
do not believe in excuses and make none, but there were
certain reasons for my drinking. I had been honorably discharged
from the Marine Corps and was working at night. My daughter
worked during the day. My son, who was with the Army Air
Force in China, dropped out of contact for months. My wife
was gravely ill and we had no one to help. Caught in a grind
that kept me exhausted, I drank for energy. Liquor became
a crutch upon which I leaned more and more heavily.
my wife died I set about drinking continually for escape.
One rainy night a car ran over me and I was left lying on
After weeks in the hospital I could finally walk by using
a cane. I set out to hunt a drink. Drinking with head injuries
made walking difficult--at hundred-yard intervals the world
dissolved. There was no sensation of falling; the deck simply
rushed up and hit me. There must have been a dozen such
falls before a minister found me spattered with blood and
head laid open.
wasn’t much I missed in the misadventures of advanced
alcoholics. I tried to re-enlist but could not make the
grade -because of alcoholism. Frustrated, I became involved
in street fights and frequently woke up in a jail cell,
writhing in the excruciating paid of alcoholic neuritis.
Under the usual treatment accorded drunks--such as 30 hours’
solitary confinement--alcoholism thrives. All I thought
about was getting a drink to blot out the humiliation of
night I went to the kitchen to seek a hidden bottle. Mistaking
the cellar door for the cupboard, I fell down the stairway.
Hours later I returned to consciousness and saw our three
cats silhouetted against the open door of the furnace, watching
me. I felt ashamed. Their silent, questioning gaze was more
effective than the rebuke of any person.
impended now. The doctor did not have to say, “It’s
killing you.” I knew it. I cut down on liquor one
day, only to drink harder the next. I existed in a gray
half-world. Somewhere in the depths of my mind there stirred
a remote recollection of Alcoholics Anonymous. Grasping
at this straw, I wrote that first letter.
the reply came from AA, it was brief but reassuring: “AA
will work if you want it to work.” That threw a lot
of responsibility right back in my lap. The letter continued:
“The requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous
is simply the sincere desire to stop drinking, and you certainly
seem to have that. We will do all possible to help you,
and of course there is absolutely no charge.” Wishing
me luck, they asked me to write again. I did.
One point from the booklets the organization sent me proved
to be the key to the whole plan: “Get up in the morning
determined that you will not have a drink throughout the
day. Don’t say you will never drink. Just concern
yourself with this day.” It made sense.
went by and I was standing fast. But there was more here
than a state of mind, and that is where my doctor came in.
He used sedatives and thiamin hydrochloride (B1) to steady
my nerves and help my appetite.
a tiger stalked me--bitter memories of the past, that only
liquor would remove. AA, with its usual discernment, asked
me to think this over: “God grant me the serenity
to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things
I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” That impressed
there on, a message would arrive each day, with something
like this: “When ‘the feeling’ torments
you, eat sweets. It’s good medicine. Alcoholics are
used to great quantities of sugar in their systems, and
when you stop drinking you cut off that supply.”
battle was not won immediately. I had two slips. But AA
and the doctor agreed that a slip is not uncommon at the
start, and that gave me heart. They pointed out -that it
may be precipitated by any emotional crisis; so I learned
to avoid both controversy and excitement. Overconfidence
too, I discovered, is dangerous, and AA wrote that I might
never be nearer my first drink than when I felt absolutely
certain that I had won the fight.
I stumbled upon one of the bottles I had hidden around the
house. I put it away hastily. Fascination drew me back to
it. I swished the liquor around, held it up to the light,
smelled it. I wondered if it would be possible to take one
drink, and imagined myself pouring a tumbler half full of
the liquor, filling it up with water and sipping it slowly
to savor the fragrance and satisfying sharpness. I grew
taut as a violin string.
then the mailman came with a long AA letter. At the end
was this amazing paragraph: “Some AAs, after the pressure
has been lifted, think: ‘Well, maybe now I could take
just a drink or two and stop there.’ If you ever come
to this stage, before you take that first drink just sit
down and remember! That’s all! Remember! One drink
is too much, a thousand not
shuddered to think how close I had been to disaster, and
was mystified by the chance guidance which had brought that
particular message at the crucial moment.
always were expertly timed, always bright and frequently
sprightly. Not long ago, after several bad days, I was frightened,
and I wrote AA. The answer was, “In the first place,
will you please calm down! By the time I finish reading
one of the letters you write when you’re excited,
I’m fit material myself for a padded cell.”
time I was wavering on the edge, and AA sensed it. A special
delivery air mail arrived: “Don’t talk so negatively
about this thing taking more than you’ve got. I thought
the Marines never stopped fighting.” That one snapped
me back, for I’m proud to have been a Marine.
letters brought results where all else had failed, because
AA talked my language: they too were alkies. Kindly argument
by my son and daughter formerly had made me ashamed and
angry with myself; but then, unable to find a way out, I
would drink harder in a desperate attempt to forget it all.
Acquaintances and friends had urged me to swear off, to
“be a man.” They seemed unable to grasp the
fact that alcoholism is a disease, that there is no more
reason to censure an alcoholic than there is to berate a
person for breaking a leg or having cardiac trouble.
technique of AA, I discovered, was not to push, or even
to lead, but to walk with you and offer you something you
need--if you want to accept it. There was no argument, no
controversy. There was no concern, either, about temperance
interests; they are not reformers. Neither are they concerned
with race or creed. They do, however, feel it highly important
that you have some belief in a power greater that yourself,
because this fact of belief, or something to lean on, makes
the fight easier.
the hell’s the use of all this?” I asked in
one of my letters.
eventually get the answer to that,” AA replied. “You’ve
got a lot of years left. Why not make them worth while?
There are other people like yourself you can help, and there’s
nothing like helping others in order to forget yourself.”
day I began thinking about a trip to New York. My AA correspondent
encourage me. People in the AA office were as curious to
see me as I was to see them.
our conversations the office people told me that I will
always be an alcoholic. Most persons eventually lose the
desire to drink and are not tempted in the presence of liquor.
But I am one of those unfortunate few who are constantly
in danger. I cannot look at liquor, smell it, even think
about it. It sets that inner, involuntary compulsion astir.
If I were to slip now, I -feel certain I could not fight
this battle over again. Drink to me means death.
national headquarters have records to prove that 50 percent
of those who come to AA with a sincere desire to stop drinking
do so immediately; another 25 percent stop after one or
two slips; and of the remaining 25 percent some fail entirely,
some fail to keep in touch with the organization, and others
eventually resume contact and stay dry. Two types cannot
be helped by AA: halfhearted persons who merely toy with
the idea of becoming dehydrated and those with brain lesions
The New York companionship strength-ened my shield and I
was given a keener insight into the importance of the spiritual
approach. I am not a religious man, but in the course of
my return from the half-world of alcoholism I had begun
to perceive the intervention of some outside force working
in my behalf. This came to me slowly, during long solitary
walks in the country. I began to feel that life must have
some design; s o I tried to pray to whatever may be back
of all this.
change which AA helps a man accomplish is close to the religious
experience of conversion. Indeed, it is the same if it is
genuine and lasts. I see now that most failures result from
lack of acceptance of some power greater than oneself. I
have found added encouragement not only from everyone in
AA but my friends. Once one recovers a constructive approach
toward life, self-confidence and a belief in the future,
the devil of alcoholism can be conquered. I believe--and
my friends assure me--that I have done it.
Reader’s Digest, January 1946)