I WAS A DRUNK
A personal experience of reclamation by cooperation; the story of a practical fellowship— Alcoholics Anonymous
J. J. DINGMAN
TWO YEARS ago I awoke late one day in the psychopathic ward of Toronto General Hospital. I was 39 years old, completely broke, out of a job. I was despised by my former friends, shunned by my family. I was a “rubby dub” who the night before had socked a cop and been tossed into a cell. When the jail doctor found me still in a fog next morning I was hospitalized. I was, politely, a confirmed alcoholic; colloquially, a “drunken bum.”
I had drunk myself out of a $10,000-a-year business inherited from my father when I was 23. I had served three terms for drunk driving before hitting “Skid Row.” My wife and daughter had left me after standing by me for many miserable years. When he had fired me, my last employer conceded that I was a good worker when sober, but said my periods of sobriety were too short. I had no hope that anyone else would hire me.
Today I am a respected citizen in another community, earning a good salary. My family is with me again, and happy, and I have excellent prospects of living cheerfully to a useful old age. Not only have I been cured myself but I have helped many other alcoholics back to permanent sobriety.
Alcoholics Anonymous is responsible for the change. This 10-year-old organization of 18,000 men and women in 425 groups in several score United States and Canadian communities proves anew every day that the age of miracles is not past. By a combination of common sense, applied psychology, co-operative effort and practical Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous has transformed 18,000 hopeless drunkards into happy, useful citizens. Its members practice one of the greatest examples of mass therapy in the history of mankind. And their numbers multiply daily. Canada now has organized groups of Alcoholics Anonymous in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Wind.sor, Vancouver and Victoria. Canadian AA’s (that’s what we call ourselves) number in the hundreds, where five years ago there were none.
Medicine, the church and the state have struggled with the problem of alcoholism for thousands of years. Medicine can’t cure an alcoholic. The church can seldom reform a drunkard. The state can’t legislate him back to sanity. But Alcoholics Anonymous permanently cures 75% of all persons exposed to it. Two per cent was the best ever obtained by any other combination of agencies.
My own introduction to AA was entirely unexpected. On my release from hospital my last remaining friend staked me to the railway fare to another city, where in wartime I easily got a job. The armed services would have no part of me. I had “signed the pledge” again. I’d never take another drink so long as I lived. But the same gruesome pattern began repeating. I got drunk first for one night, then for two days, then for a week on end. This went on, with briefer periods of sobriety and longer intervals of drunkenness. I lost that job, got another, and met a fellow to whom I took an instinctive liking.
He saw me at lunch one day, when I had managed to work, although every muscle and nerve in my body twitched in the agony of a hang-over. He noticed my shaking hands.
“Would you like to stop drinking?” he asked casually. ,
“1 want to more than anything else in the world, I replied. “But I’ve tried everything, and nothing works.”
“I suffered from your illness for 10 years,” he answered. “I believe I can show you a way out.’
So I went to my first AA meeting.
1 was amazed to find cheerful, animated, wellgroomed men and women in a clublike atmosphere. Í listened to a visiting speaker tell simply his spectacular story of release from alcohol by following the “TWELVE STEPS” laid down in the AA program. I was introduced to many people, and some of them told me briefly how they had successfully come back. There was something immeasurably consoling in realizing that I was a sick man, not a bad man; that I had a disease, not a vice; that I suffered from an allergy, just as another has an allergy to strawberries. 1 was comforted most of all because here was proof that there was a cure. If others could do it I could.
The first requisite of an AA member I had—I honestly wanted to stop drinking. This time there was no pledge to sign, no swearing off for life. A man who had once begged dimes for beer and is today a prosperous merchant said:
“You’ve signed the pledge a dozen times. We all have. This time just take it easy. Just say: T won’t take a drink today. I won’t drink for 24 hours.’ Then say the same thing again tomorrow. It’s easier not to drink for a day than to quit for life. Easy does it, one step at a time. Sobriety is new to you, drink’s an old habit. So just don’t drink tonight, and then don’t drink tomorrow.”
The second step for AA members, he told me, was “to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity, and to decide to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him. The words as we understand Him are vitally important. Most men recognize that there is a power greater thdn themselves, though definitions differ. I was a nominal Christian, having been baptized a Presbyterian. 'My counsellor, himself a Roman Catholic, suggested that I pray quietly, by myself, for strength to keep sober for the next 24 hours. Observing my hesitation, he said:
“It doesn’t matter to whom you pray. I pray to God; you suit yourself. But when you get up in the morning, say within yourself, to whatever greater power you recognize: ‘Please keep me from drinking today.’ And when you go to bed at night, say ‘Thank you.’ But be sincere. Mean it.”
AA Not Prohibitionist
I WAS relieved that I didn’t have to be “saved” or hit a revival-meeting sawdust trail in order to get into AA. I never liked that sort of thing. But I could take the prescription offered, as plenty had done before me. I found AA nonsectarian, its members including Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews and agnostics.
1 was also glad to find that AA is not even faintly a prohibition or temperance group. It is not a “gold cure,” and there are no pills, no doctors, no clergymen. This knowledge made embarking on the Twelve Step program less formidable an undertaking. I decided to try it.
Operating on the 24-hour plan, I totally abstained for three weeks, though it wasn’t easy. Then came a bad break in the office, and in my bitterness I fell back on the timeworn technique—get blind drunk and achieve oblivion. I had to drink again the next day, and the third day I couldn’t get out of my room. I was in the drunkard’s uniform—dressing gown, pyjamas, and no slippers—and could hardly lift my head from the pillow when my friend called for me to goto an AA meeting. But he didn’t seem either shocked or disappointed, merely remarking, “You’re not the first to have a relapse, and it isn’t necessarily serious.” He went out to a drugstore for some high potency Vitamin Bl, brought me food, and chatted cheerfully. I felt better before he left, and next day was able to go to work.
This wasn’t the last time I was tempted, but it was the last time I fell. Over and over, when the old craving came back, I felt like giving my right arm for a drink. Often my AA friend would appear unbidden, almost intuitively, at my elbow, suggesting a movie, a ball game, or some bridge. Wïth him beside me I could fight back the urge to drink. For a long while I didn't dare go to movies alone because seeing anyone on the screen sip a cocktail set up an almost unendurable craving.
This man literally saved my life, but the whole AA group helped. The treatment was a form of mass therapy, and this is, to me, the foundation of AA’s success. Let me tell you what I mean by the term.
At meetings I heard a man who had been reduced to drinking the alcohol he drained from car radiators tell how he bounced back to a prosperous place in his city’s business life. I heard a physician tell how he drank himself out of a $20,000-a-year practice and had been quite literally yanked out of the gutter by AA, to fight his way back to sobriety and success. I listened to a workman tell how he had been in and out of jails for 10 years and now held a priority job in a war
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All these men had admitted publicly that they were alcoholics, that they could never hope to control their drinking and therefore must totally abstain. The very admission, and subsequent group discussion, helped us all tremendously. We faced facts we had evaded all our lives. Having been helped by the Twelve Step program these AA’s helped others. For it is the basis of our program that only an alcoholic can understand another alcoholic and help him. The doctor prescribes a hypo in the arm, but he doesn’t understand the disease. The clergyman says, “Be a man,” and, “Have faith in God,” but the clergyman probably never drank anything
stronger than Aunt Maud’s elderberry wine. The -wife says, “Think of your family,” failing to understand that the alcoholic does think of his family, with the bitterest remorse. The state says, passing periodic prohibition laws, “Thou shalt not drink,” but alcoholics and nonalcoholics alike reply, “Nuts!”
But the recovered alcoholic says to the shaking, despondent wreck just emerging from the fog after a frightful bender:
“I know how you feel, because I’ve been there myself. Not just once or a few times. I’ve had those shakes, those chills and fevers, those sweats, that terrible, awful remorse; that horrible feeling of -aloneness, that vicious craving for another drink; that desperation that made me a liar and a thief and a beggar to get another shot. I’ve had these, not once, but hundreds of timas
in the last 10 or 15 years. I know what it’s all about.
“You’re not just another drunken bum. You’re not a moral outcast. You’re just a sick man, with a disease as malignant, but more easily diagnosed and cured, than cancer. I think I have the cure for you if you honestly want to stop drinking.”
The sanitarium treatment for alcoholism, which does not always succeed, is not available for any but the well to do. Many a discharged patient will get drunk on his way home from three weeks’ hospitalization. I did myself. Others will have liquor smuggled into their rooms. AA believes in hospitalization only for the attainment of temporary sobriety. After that the first step is to take the patient to an A A meeting. There he gets the full impact of the mass therapeutic treatment.
Men who understand his disease explain that it’s an allergy, not a vice. This theory is comparatively new, and it explains why some people can drink safely and some can’t, just as some are unmoved by ragweed and others are reduced to agonies with hay fever when exposed to the plant. It also explains why when a man is once an alcoholic he is always an alcoholic. Like the diabetic sufferer who takes insulin, the alcoholic can only hope to arrest his disease. He can stop drinking but he will still be an alcoholic when he dies. All this is explained by sympathetic fellow sufferers, who tell what they and others have accomplished.
The patient must say, privately and to at least one other person: “I just
Traits in Common
In addition to sharing an allergy, the symptom of which is unnatural craving, alcoholics usually have certain personality traits in common. We are often emotionally immature and burdened by an inferiority complex. The AA program helps in this field, too, and the third step requires a frank discussion of problems, and restitution to those who have been wronged. But the past is held to be water over the dam—just take a moral inventory, do the best you can to fix things up, and then go on being sober the rest of your life. I, for instance, had always been a “worrier,” and often worry literally drove me to drink. But since being in AA I have been honest with myself and have stopped worrying.
The majority of AA groups meet two or three times a week. There is one public meeting, to which all comers are invited, always addressed by a recovered alcoholic who tells his case history. In the Detroit-Windsor area, for instance, where there are 12 A A groups, a joint public meeting is held monthly, attended by some 400 alcoholics. That is an inspiring spectacle. Annually, in both cities, AA stages public banquets where the cocktail is tomato juice, and the liqueur demitasse coffee. Windsor, the strongest of the Canadian units, has benefited enormously by association with the able, active AA’s in the great Detroit organization.
AA has two other types of meeting— the clinical session, for AA’s only, and the social evening. In the clinic the boys take their hair down, tell of their drinking careers, try to analyze what made them drink, and by exchanging experiences help each other permanently to ride the water wagon. There is the Saturday night bridge or poker session, when a dozen or more alcoholics rotate around each other’s homes. For many of them it’s the first time they’ve ever played poker sober. These activities offer an antidote to
loneliness, which has driven many a man to the nearest bar.
The patient exposed to this experiment in mass treatment is cured in 75 out of 100 starts. Just seeing together in one room a large group of prosperous, cheerful men and women who once were “hopeless drunkards” has a tremendous psychological effect on newcomer and old-timer alike.
I went through the AA program of admission, of acknowledging a power greater than myself, of taking inventory of my weaknesses and making restitution to those I had injured. But it was in the twelfth step—in helping others like myself—that I found the greatest satisfaction and a guarantee of permanent sobriety. A couple of months after I had been in AA I got another fellow to join. I thereby wrote myself an insurance policy. I paid the premium by helping myself and others. I drew the dividend of permanent sobriety. For once a man has induced others to join AA, he’ll never be likely to fall again himself. Pride, if nothing else, will be his mainstay, for never can he let these men see him drunk. Of course AA has backsliders, but those who do slip off the wagon climb back
on again with a celerity and agility they would have thought unbelievable before. It just isn’t done to let down the fellow who helped you when everyone else, and all else, had failed.
We had a fellow who had been the “town drunk” for 15 years. Sceptics said: “If you can cure him you can
cure anybody.” This chap slept in used car lots, bummed dimes on the streets, was in and out of jails, and drank everything from leftover beer to shaving lotion. Every time he got out of jail he was plastered again as soon as he could find the money. Yet he really wanted to quit. When he first approached me I was frankly apprehensive. But when we had exposed him to our program, fed and decently clothed him, and got him a job he was a new man. He hasn’t had a drink for 14 months. He’s our most spectacular cure and one of our most helpful members.
Another was a lawyer, a man prominent in public life who had been hospitalized in the “best places” a dozen times. But always he found himself back in the same spot—holed up in a hotel room, the living likeness of “The Unhappy Drinker” who wants to stop but can’t. He did his drinking on a different level of society from the “town drunk,” but he was making an even better job of wrecking himself mentally and physically. He was also tossing a promising public career into the ash can. He didn’t know AA existed in his city, but he had read of the international organization and wrote to the New York office of the Alcoholic Foundation, Inc., and his letter was sent on to me. He hasn’t had a drink for 15 months.
I was at an AA meeting one night when a man 60-odd years old; and very, very high indeed, stumbled in. He was belligerent and abusive. He’d located the local AA group, and he wanted help, but he had to drink himself a little courage to come to see us. We found he had once been a power in the Labor movement, a highly paid union organizer, now reduced to washing dishes in a “Greasy Spoon.” He has totally abstained for 12 months, and now has a good job compatible with his intelligence and education.
But I want to make it clear that AA never pesters a man to join. Ninetynine per cent of the people who join our own group have asked for help. We must first be assured that a man wants to stop drinking before we’ll move. If he doesn’t want to stop more than anything else in the world then he’s not ready for AA. And unless he’s ripe we’d be wasting our time, and might even prejudice him against us. If an alcoholic comes into AA, attends a few meetings and then drops out we never go after him. We wait until he’s taken another real nose dive, and then we’ll comb the bars and joints to drag him back to sanity. That may sound a bit brutal, but we have found that it is best to get a man when he is full of remorse after crawling out of the stupor of a bat, than to try to work on him when he’s cold sober and falsely believes he has liquor licked.
Let me also make it very clear that Alcoholics Anonymous is for alcoholics only. We want no part of the social drinker, or the man or woman who occasionally ties one on at a party. We define the alcoholic as one who is “powerless over alcohol.” Any “morning after” drinker is either an alcoholic or a potential alcoholic. This is the type who’ll take a drink when he doesn’t want to, when he knows that taking that drink may wreck his future economically. The recovered alcoholic
wants to cure others like himself, but he does not want to interfere with the drinking habits of those who enjoy their liquor and forget about it. We don’t want to close any bars or cut liquor ! rations. We recognize that for most people drinking is an enjoyable, harmI less social pastime, one that adds a good deal to the gaiety of nations. But we also recognize that it is not for us. AA will almost guarantee a cure based on total abstinence, but has yet to turn out a safe social drinker. Many of us firmly established in AA serve liquor to others in our homes and clubs, tippling ourselves on fruit juice and cokes. But that is not sound tactics for the new recruit, on the principle that it’s foolish to stick one’s head in the lion’s mouth. He is wise to avoid temptation.
After I had been in AA a while, the man who 10 years ago founded the movement spoke one night in a nearby city and I went to hear him. A charming, intelligent man, an able executive and fluent speaker, he could earn $30,000 a year today, yet he devotes his life to AA, running the international organization from New York for barely enough to keep him going. Let’s call him, arbitrarily and to preserve the principle of anonymity, Davis.
Davis, a New York stockbroker who had a rich and varied drinking career, found himself one day in Akron, Ohio. He was alone, knew not a soul in the city, was almost stonybroke, and he badly wanted a drink. But he knew that if he took one he would walk the same old path again, to torture and eventual hospitalization.
Davis had become intensely interested in the problem of alcoholism while paying a visit to a New York detoxicating hospital where he had been a patient. In his Akron hotel lobby Davis looked at a church directory opposite the bar. Impulsively he called a local clergyman, although he did not know him, and through the minister he met an Akron physician who was a really advanced alcoholic. The doctor and the broker became friends, and tried to hold each other up on the water wagon. But the doctor fell off. It was on June 10, 1935, that this physician took his last drink. It was a drink given him by Davis, to pull him out of a hang-over. These two became the first AA group. In a year and a half they had effected only 10 cures. By the early part of 1939 the number had grown to 100. It was at that time that Alcoholics Anonymous— the AA bible—was published. This is a remarkable work, with a preface by the founder, and case histories of a dozen spectacular cures. AA’s call it the “Big Book.” It is such a powerful piece of simple writing that cures have been effected by one reading of it, and nothing else. It is procurable from any AA group or by writing to the head office, Box 459, Grand Central Annex Post Office, New York City.
Since then groups have been almost self-starting in Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Toronto, Washington, Montreal, Chicago, and some 50 other cities and towns in the United States and Canada. Everywhere they are endorsed by clergymen, doctors and social workers.
About five years ago the movement gained a foothold in Canada. Toronto is the oldest and Windsor is the second oldest group.
No Respecter of Rank
What has Alcoholics Anonymous to offer Canada and Canadians?
AA offers to thousands of Canadian drunks and to borderline cases and potential alcoholics restoration to a happy and gainful place in society,
painlessly and without cost. All they have to do is to want to be cured. AA is really a co-operative, and alcoholics can band themselves together in a cooperative just as can the grain growers of western Canada or the farmers of Ontario. AA welcomes everybody who wants to slay the dragon that has made his life hell—extrovert and introvert, beggarman and thief, lawyer and office worker, banker and day laborer, rich, poor and the suffering white-collar man, society lady and truck driver.
For one thing AA has taught its members—alcohol is no respecter of rank or birth or worldly position. I know the head of a great war plant who’s making mone}' so fast he can’t count it. I know a chap who works for this man for 40 cents an hour—when he works. They’re both alcoholics. One is a well-educated, intelligent man, with a charming wife and family. The other is a poor chap who never had a chance to acquire an education, or the capacity to absorb it. They both suffer from the disease of alcoholism, just as they might in other circumstances have tuberculosis. AA can, and does, help both these extreme types and all the run-ofthe-mill humanity in between.
AA groups offer very practical assistance, too. Our reputation has grown to be respected by employers and by agencies of the state. We feed and clothe some down-and-outers we think deserving, and get them jobs. Six months ago a large firm wrote me asking me if we had in our group a personnel man, for they believed an ex-alcoholic could, by his greater understanding of man and his frailties, handle men better than other types. The other day I met the head of that firm on the street.
“You know that ex-drunk you sent me?” he enquired.
“Yes,” I recalled. “What’s the matter? He get drunk again?”
“Drunk, no!” he snorted. “Send me half a dozen more like him.”
That was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.
Recently a big bruiser of a chap, one of those “fighting drunks,” was up in court on the old, old charge—fighting the cops again. But instead of sending him to jail this time, the magistrate paroled him to me when I was able to tell the court that the man had been in AA for six months and had had but this one brief relapse. I staked my own and the reputation of AA on that fellow, and I know I’ll win.
And AA is for potential alcoholics, too, for the smart operator who’s intelligent enough to see where he’s heading before he actually musses his trousers in the gutter. We have had more than a dozen of that type join us in the last month.
To answer the inevitable “wise guy,” who sees a racket in all human endeavor, let me point out that the modest organization maintained by AA is financed through the voluntary contributions of recovered alcoholics.
There are no dues or fees. At our meetings we contribute to the “kitty” the price of one drink or one bottle, depending on how flush we are at the moment. No newcomer pays a nickel. Each of the groups is completely autonomous. The Alcoholic Foundation, Inc., New York, is the central clearinghouse for information and advice, and helps each individual unit. But no group owes money or allegiance to New York. Each can help pay the New York rent or not, as it sees fit. Many don’t, but most do.
The other night, at our local meeting, a King’s Counsel, just in two months, said:
“I don’t know why I drank. I don’t really care. I know I’m not drinking now. I’m not yet sure how this program works, or why, but I know it does. That’s enough for me right now.”
This brilliant lawyer is but one of hundreds of Canadians who have been restored to sanity and usefulness. That is what Alcoholics Anonymous offers to Canada and Canadians—sane and sober men and women, who once were drunkards, contributing of their best to their nation in wartime and peace.