Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing condition that, if left untreated, can be fatal. The main treatment I and millions of others around the world find effective is to work with fellow alkies and follow a few very simple principles based on honesty and respect for others. But, for me, it’s primarily about a unique human connection – one that is based on empathy. Or, as the old timers say, ‘the magic happens when one alcoholic works with another alcoholic’.
A great example of this is found in the AA Big Book in chapter 11 (pp.156-8). The story refers to Bill and Bob’s first visit to a guy who would become AA’s third member; a visit that resulted in AA’s first group at Akron, Ohio in 1935.
Bill W and Dr Bob had only just figured out that they needed to ‘keep spiritually active’ by working with other alcoholics, so they called up a local hospital and spoke to the head nurse:
They explained their need and inquired if she had a first class alcoholic prospect.
She replied “Yes, we’ve got a corker. He’s just beaten up a couple of nurses. Goes off his head completely when he’s drinking. But he’s a grand chap when he’s sober, though he’s been in here eight times in the last six months. Understand he was once a well-known lawyer in town, but just now we’ve got him strapped down tight.”
…Two days later, a future fellow of Alcoholics Anonymous stared glassily at the strangers beside his bed. “Who are you fellows, and why this private room? I was always in a ward before.”
Said one of the visitors, “We’re giving you a treatment for alcoholism.”
Hopelessness was written large on the man’s face as he replied, “Oh, but that’s no use. Nothing would fix me. I’m a goner. The last three times, I got drunk on the way home from here. I’m afraid to go out the door. I can’t understand it.”
For an hour, the two friends told him about their drinking experiences. Over and over, he would say: “That’s me. That’s me. I drink like that.”
The man in the bed was told of the acute poisoning from which he suffered, how it deteriorates the body of an alcoholic and warps his mind. There was much talk about the mental state preceding the first drink.
“Yes, that’s me,” said the sick man, “the very image. You fellows know your stuff all right, but I don’t see what good it’ll do. You fellows are somebody. I was once, but I’m a nobody now. From what you tell me, I know more than ever I can’t stop” At this both the visitors burst into a laugh. Said the future Anonymous: ‘Damn little to laugh about that I can see.”
The two friends spoke of their spiritual experience and told him about the course of action they carried out.
He interrupted: “I used to be strong for the church, but that won’t fix it. I’ve prayed to God on hangover mornings and sworn that I’d never touch another drop but by nine o’clock I’d be boiled as an owl.”
Next day found the prospect more receptive. He had been thinking it over. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “God ought to be able to do anything.” Then he added, “He sure didn’t do much for me when I was trying to fight this booze racket alone.”
Bill and Bob continued to work with the man, and after three days he had become ‘willing to do anything necessary’, including to give his life to the ‘care and direction of his Creator’.
That afternoon he put on his clothes and walked from the hospital a free man…He never drank again. He too, has become a respected and useful member of his community.
Eight decades have passed since two alkies working together became three, then four, and now millions worldwide. And yet, the story remains relevant.
Aside from my wish to resurrect the phrase ‘as drunk as a boiled owl’, this is one of my favourite sections of the Big Book because it provides hope to those of us who are still suffering and can see no way out.
Most of the people I know in AA who have been to a rehab or detox have also drunk either on the way home from their treatment, or soon after. Just like our formerly-respected-lawyer-Anonymous #3. I did too, on two separate occasions. When we discuss these events we speak of unnatural, sanitised environments that do not prepare us for life after our time in confinement is up, certainly not if we return to our communities with no lifelines (I have many AA members’ numbers in my phone who I can call on at any time). This phenomenon – the relapsing nature of the condition – continues to challenge the medical profession and policy-makers alike.
But, for eight decades, AA has been keeping people sober on little more than a pay-it-forward faith in something more powerful than the individual.
The Big Book likes to call this something God. Today, AA teaches that it just has to be something other than ourselves. Even the AA group – a thoroughly humanistic Higher Power if ever there was one – can be this special something.
But, most of us have found that we can’t just rely on gods and goddesses to get us well. We have to put in some work too.