“If he shows interest, lend him your copy of this book…”
“…though you be but one man with this book in your hand
…it contains all you will need to begin.”
(“Alcoholics Anonymous“, pages 94, 162-163)
By the time I was 31 and throughout that summer of 1981, I was a dying loner who had a desire to stop drinking and smoking dope forever…but I could not. I had never heard anything about “the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it − this utter inability to leave it alone…” (page 34), but I was experiencing it. No matter how hard or how often I had tried, cried, prayed or whatever else, I just could not “put the plug in the jug” and leave it there. If you have ever tried to stop drinking forever and have failed, and especially if you have repeatedly failed at one-day-at-a-time abstinence like I did, I hope this story of permanent recovery from chronic alcoholism might interest you. I needed something far greater than anything human to overcome my inability to stop drinking and stay stopped, and there is where the anonymous alcoholics who wrote “Alcoholics Anonymous” freely show the way onto an uncanny path and its plan for recovery that can completely-and-permanently eliminate ever again having to take a drink.
I have always been a loner, and I believe I was born that way. From as far back as I can remember, I have never truly felt (at least not for very long) like I actually “belong” anywhere − not even within my own family − and few things ever said or done by anyone have ever permanently convinced me otherwise beyond the level of intellect. In fact, some of the attentions afforded me and even some sincere efforts people have made to welcome me into their lives have resulted in an even-greater sense of insecurity when I did not know how to respond or to at least act in return. Clinically, that is called “a lack of social or emotional intelligence”. In A.A. parlance, we can help keep things simple by just speaking of our “grave emotional or mental disorders” (page 58) in the overall sense. But no matter what words any of us might choose, the Steps can still bring anyone having “the capacity to be honest” (page 58) into spiritual sanity within “the Fellowship of the Spirit” (page 164) so we no longer have to find ourselves drinking for escape or for relief of the symptoms or consequences of our being or feeling so different from so many people.
Along that kind of line, one “social goof” of my past that comes to mind these 50-some years later took place at a neighbor’s birthday party when I was a young boy. I was thrilled to have been invited, thinking something like, “Well, maybe today is the day the tide turns for me and I fit in well and everyone accepts me.” All seemed fine for a time at that party that day, and especially since I only had to act like “just one among the many” while everyone but the birthday boy stood watching and chattering a bit as he opened his gifts…but then it was like my fate was sealed as my eyes lit up along with his at the sight of his shiny new baseball bat. To my surprise, he quickly agreed when I asked whether I might be the one to carry his new bat out for him when we all went out to play. My actual thought was to be the first to arrive at the field so I could take a few swings on my own, and I wanted to do that because I was never any good at hitting a pitched ball and sometimes not even chosen to play at all. Well, that new bat was soon ruined by my using it to propel the several rocks I was picking up before someone noticed what I was doing and told my neighbor friend who immediately took his freshly-dented bat away and told me to go home.
A few years later in my early ‘teens and while out on the school playground, I was elated when a popular girl invited me to join in during some recess basketball. But then when I fell just a moment later and split the seat of my pants from stem to stern, I next had to “scoot-scurry away” from public view and look for some kind of makeshift cover for my exposed underwear. So overall, and no matter who had ever been however nice, and no matter how hard I had ever tried to get free of stomach butterflies and remain that way, being the misunderstood misfit, social oddball or four-eyed weirdo has always seemed my unique lot in life. Even some of the people I used to think were naturally or even justifiably unlikable − bullies were the worst, of course − often at least appeared to me as being more content and secure in life than I had ever felt.
The challenges of adulthood and their farther-reaching consequences were just as unmanageable for me as those of my childhood, and with my nose pressed to one side of the glass or the other is how life was for me on the inside as well as out in my natural state for many years until just a few seconds after my first drink of alcohol at age twenty-four. Like I have heard a few A.A. long-timers share, “Alcohol took me from the pit of nothingness and almost made me feel like a somebody while keeping me alive just long enough to get here with you.” Once discovered, alcohol quickly became my “bottled magic” for filling my internal holes and my “magic candle” for lighting my boiler’s fire…and I became obsessed with the pursuit of some “maintenance drinking” − to “control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker” (page 30) − to try to sustain its pleasurable effects. Some folks conditioned for “intolerance or hatred of drinking as an institution” (which is “not helpful to anyone” (page 103)) might want to skip over these next few words, but here is what ethyl alcohol used to do for me:
Whenever I took a couple of drinks…
1. I was amazed before I was half-way through.
2. I suddenly knew freedom and a new happiness.
3. I no longer regretted anything past nor tried to shut the door on it.
4. I could comprehend the word “serenity” and know a little peace.
5. I believed my experience could benefit others.
6. My feelings of uselessness and self-pity would disappear.
7. I would lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in my fellows.
8. Self-seeking would slip away.
9. My entire perspective, attitude and outlook upon life would change.
10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity would leave me.
11. I would intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle me.
12. I realized alcohol could do for me what I had never been able to do for myself.
So, and while completely unaware of “glass in hand, we have warped our minds into such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us” (12 & 12, Step One), I drank it.
Along with trying to maintain my new-found, alcohol-induced sense of ease and comfort, I also wished to only ever drink safely, of course. I had never known any troubled drinkers personally, but I did know about one of my dad’s uncles dying from “consumption” in his forties, and I also knew of the sufferings of the family of a man I had heard was a mean drunk. From certain scenes in old movies, however, my biggest concern was that I never find myself homeless at the end of a dark alley somewhere with nothing but a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack. So, and while trying to learn to drink at all − pouring warm malt liquor over ice in a glass was a bad idea, I discovered − my drinking began with my hoping and trying to be certain I would only ever drink with complete control. Years later I learned normal drinkers almost never even think about that. Being normal, they just drink as much or as little as they wish each time they drink at all, then stop and return to whatever else they do until the next time they have a few.
Having two drinks per day for the effect − two beers per evening with at least an hour in-between − without feeling any need, urge, craving or compulsion to reach for more was no problem for me for about the first two years of my drinking. I definitely thought about my upcoming drinks each day, and my anticipation of what they would do for me was usually sufficient for keeping my butterflies manageable and my life-hopes steady or even growing throughout the day. I secured a prestigious job I had been wanting for a long time, and that led to my being invited to join a softball team where I became the first off the bench in my favorite position as a catcher. A life-long acquaintance offered me a land contract for a nice house with plenty of room for my young family, and I was even able to obtain a loan for a new car. I had always been told I had great aptitude and potential in life, but I never would have suspected that by adding alcohol I had begun employing an invisible “alloy of drink and speculation…that one day would turn in its flight like a boomerang and all but cut me to ribbons” (page 2).
I had my first blackout − alcohol-induced amnesia, as I call that − during my third year of drinking. I had not completely forgotten my two-drinks-per-day limit, and I did still occasionally manage to keep it to try to convince myself I still had full control over my drinking. However, my overall experience with being able to drink more than two and still make it to work the next day seemed to suggest my “limit” could safely be changed to “as long as I can still function tomorrow”. I vaguely remember my smoking pot for the first time during the evening of that first blackout, but none of whatever else someone later said I had done at that neighborhood Euchre party could be found anywhere within my conscious memory. Little did I know my waking up and looking for evidence of things I could never recall would eventually become my norm.
As unexpectedly as a lightning bolt on a clear summer day, my entire life and the confidence and security I had added via my “alloy of drink and speculation” went sour at the beginning of my twenty-eighth year of breathing…and my drinking had nothing to do with that. My prestigious job in its fast-paced market had become so challenging that I actually wanted out of it, yet my fear of looking and feeling like a failure beyond anything alcohol could have covered had been keeping me strapped to it. There was no lightning in any of that, of course, but then my hearing of a personal offense I would never have expected from my boss or from anyone at all made my sky fall. To retaliate without risking personal harm, I drove out to work that evening while knowing no one would be there and I set fire to the building. A kind judge later viewed my arson as “a crime of passion” and was as lenient as he could lawfully be throughout his handlings of my case, a plea bargain, my sentencing, incarceration, probation and ultimate release. My own initial thought of a defense through all of that was to plead “temporary insanity”, and I had visited a nearby mental heath center in an attempt to investigate that as a possibility. Following a therapist’s (a Master of Social Work) assessment, I was told the folks at that facility could not help me in court. However, someone there did suggest I might return for some personal counseling…and thus was the stage set for my eventual hearing of an answer as to why I could not stop drinking.
Prison life without alcohol would have been impossible for me without the Thorazine prescribed by one of the psychiatrists at the mental health center I had been visiting, but it took a prison psychiatrist’s order to make it available while I was in that institution. There was one occasion when a fellow inmate displayed a small bottle of my favorite whiskey, but he was offering to share it with others also − that fellow must have been a normal drinker − and I knew better than to light a fire without having any additional fuel at hand for stoking it. After being transferred to a work release center not long after the beginning of my incarceration, I again had easy access to alcohol and pot…and then one of the guards at that place suggested I stop taking the Thorazine because of its adverse, long-term effects. Walking into that facility drunk at the end of a work day never brought any trouble for me, and I might always only wonder whether that guard understood. In my own experience, locking an alcoholic up only worsens his or her “sufferingly sober” misery while also interrupting the experience needed so he or she might eventually develop a desire to stop altogether.
Following my release from State custody, my young family was broken and I was alone. So, a friend who had helped me secure the work-release job offered me a place to sleep in his basement. Having a business of his own, my kind friend also hired me as his part-time helper for the completion of a project he had been commissioned to do for someone else…and then upon the completion of that work, its owner hired me as his Plant Manager. “Success”, at least in the material sense, and a bit of prestige again seemed present on my horizon. However, the ever-increasing pain of my loneliness cried out for ever-increasing amounts of alcohol to cover it, and it did not take long for me to decide a fresh start in a new place − a “geographical cure”, as I know that today − might be best. As written in the parking lot of a bar while awaiting a no-show companion I had hoped might accompany me…
“To Florida I am going, that’s south,
“With a bottle and a joint in my mouth.
“And I’ll ne’er be back o’er that south’n-bound track
“Until I finish this poem…
“And I have no intention of doing that.”
I knew it was wrong to altogether abandon my two young daughters, but my social ignorance kept me from being part of their lives that were now beyond the care and direction I had never been able to provide for them even while my young family was still together. Rather than ever being a nurturing father, I was far more of a child, myself. So as I drove out of that empty parking lot that day, and with tears streaming, I also prayed something like this:
“Father, I know what I am doing is wrong, but I do not know what else to do. If you can, and if you will, please keep me alive until whatever is ahead has ended and someone can teach me how to live.”
— note: This is my current edit point as I write, but you can continue reading my bits and pieces, if you wish…
Near the end of September in 1981, I found myself sitting at a bar nursing a beer during the early-morning hours after yet another highly-dreaded “last call” at the end of a wet week. The bar was closing, the bottle in my old truck was empty and I was broke…but the liquor stores would not be opening back up that day anyway. As I sat there pondering myself and my life, I knew I was at the edge of some kind of long, dark tunnel dropping down into nothingness…and I also knew there was nothing I could do about that. I had given life my best shot and had failed. I still had a few moral convictions, a job, a place to live and some old ideas about how life should be, of course, but I also knew I was headed toward an early grave.
“I…had a desire to stop drinking and smoking dope forever…”
“I…definitely had a desire to stop…but I could not.”
I had heard about a man who had asked someone to let me know he was “sober”.
Freeman had once been my therapist, and I decided to go see him even though I had never known him as a drinker. Wanting to be sure I would be sober when I saw him, and while knowing I could not stop drinking long enough to do that, I got up from that bar-stool and walked into a nearby police station while smoking a joint. “Lock me up and do not let me out until I get help”, I said, then handed them my bag of pot and added, “Here’s my ticket.” Those officers obliged me, of course, and they even let me finish that joint while fingerprinting me! When I later asked them about that, one of them said, “We had no idea what kind of person or situation we might have had on our hands, and we just wanted to get you into a cell quietly without any unnecessary problems or trouble.” Me too…and then I spent the next couple of days sobering up on their dry doughnuts and bad coffee.
After court had opened at the beginning of the new week, a kind judge released me so I could make an appointment and go see Freeman, the man I had heard was sober. I could not keep myself from drinking for the duration, but I did manage to not be completely drunk when I walked into his office a few days later. After a bit of chat to catch up after having not seen each other in quite a while, our fellow had just one question for me:
“Joe, do you have a desire to stop drinking?”
“I have to.”
“That is not what I asked. Do you have a desire to stop drinking?”
“I’ve got to! I can’t go on this way!”
“That is not what I am asking you, Joe. Do you have a desire to stop drinking?”
I surely did, but I was afraid to say so. I knew I could not, and I was horrified by the thought he might say something like “Don’t drink” if I answered him. But since he was obviously not going to change his question and I was looking for help, I said these three things together very quickly so he would not have time to interrupt me with anything even close to something as impossible for me as “Don’t drink”:
“Yes, I want to, but I can’t. Why not?”
“Because you are alcoholic”, he answered.
I was shocked and relieved at the same time. I had never held a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack, so I was shocked at hearing him call me “alcoholic”. But at the same time, I was grateful somebody finally seemed to have some kind of label for whatever was wrong inside me.
“What should I do about that?”, I asked.
“Go to A.A., read the A.A. ‘Big Book’ and get an A.A. sponsor to help you follow its A.A. directions.”
He might not have actually said “A.A.” four times there, but that is the essence of what I heard in his answer and that is what works…and just in case you might be wondering: No, nothing even close to “Don’t drink” can be found anywhere within that book. Rather, “We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.” (“A.A.”, the book, page 85)
(2) My mother heard my cry and loaned me her copy of the A.A. “Big Book”. She suggested I “read this book through” (as first hoped by Dr. Silkworth in “The Doctor’s Opinion”) so I could intelligently decide for myself about whether or not to accept its “combined experience and knowledge” (page 19) as my own “useful program for anyone concerned with a drinking problem.” That decision was difficult for me at that time while still fearing the possibility of yet another dead-end path, but “book in hand” right there in my misery is where my lifetime encounter with permanent recovery from chronic alcoholism began…
…and that is how I began learning the certainty of my long-suspected and very-real need for an “It never fails” (Dr. Bob) kind of solution such as could never have come from me, from you or from any other human being. Apart from whatever Power there might actually be that really is far greater than even all of us together, most chronic alcoholics seem doomed to die one-debacle-at-a-time with few people ever understanding how or why that happens. Truly, “So many want to stop but cannot” (page 25), and I used to be that kind of drinker.
I had been going to as many as fifteen meetings per week for several months during my first “sufferingly-sober” year in A.A. and while looking for someone who could help me understand and actually do the things shared in our Basic Text so I could recover from chronic alcoholism and never again end up drinking again…and then a friend who had been to a Charlie-and-Joe “Big Book Seminar” in an O.A. setting came to me with three tapes from that seminar and I spent the next three days in “tears of joy” — tears always come from something having been frustrated for a period of time, you know — while listening to those tapes over and over again as those two men explained things in ways I could never have figured out on my own.
… more to be added …