Big Book Chapter: Bill’s Story Pages 6,7
My brother-in-law is a physician, and through his kindness and that of my mother I was placed in a nationally-known hospital for the mental and physical rehabilitation of alcoholics. Under the so-called belladonna treatment my brain cleared. Hydrotherapy and mild exercise helped much. Best of all, I met a kind doctor who explained that though certainly selfish and foolish, I had been seriously ill, bodily and mentally.
It relieved me somewhat to learn that in alcoholics the will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating liquor, though it often remains strong in other respects. My incredible behavior in the face of a desperate desire to stop was explained. Understanding myself now, I fared forth in high hope. For three for four months the goose hung high. I went to town regularly and even made a little money. Surely this was the answer – self-knowledge.
But it was not, for the frightful day came when I drank once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily health fell off like a ski-jump. After a time I returned to the hospital. This was the finish, the curtain, it seemed to me. My weary and despairing wife was informed that it would all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year. She would soon have to give me over to the undertaker or the asylum.
They did not need to tell me. I knew, and almost welcomed the idea. It was a devastating blow to my pride. I, who had thought so well of myself and my abilities, of my capacity to surmount obstacles, was cornered at last. Now I was to plunge into the dark, joining that endless procession of sots who had gone on before. I thought of my poor wife. There had been much happiness after all. What would I not give to make amends. But that was over now.
No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched around me in all directions. I had met my match. I had been overwhelmed. Alcohol was my master.
Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man. Fear sobered me for a bit. Then came the insidious insanity of that first drink, and on Armistice Day 1934, I was off again. Everyone became resigned to the certainty that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or would stumble along to a miserable end. How dark it is before the dawn! In reality that was the beginning of my last debauch. I was soon to be catapulted into what I like to call the fourth dimension of existence. I was to know happiness, peace, and usefulness, in a way of life that is incredibly more wonderful as time passes.
AA Comes of Age – Pages 53 -59
Emotionally I had begun the fashioning of another sort of boomerang , one that almost killed me later on . In that early period I had to be an athlete because I was not an athlete . I had to be a musician because I could not carry a tune . I had to be the president of my class in boarding school . I had to be first in everything because in my perverse heart I felt myself the least of God’s creatures . I could not accept this deep sense of inferiority , and so I did become captain of the baseball team , and I did learn to play the fiddle well enough to lead the high – school orchestra , even though it was a terribly bad band . I was the leader and lead I must — or else . So it went . All or nothing . I must be Number One .
Then the scene changed . In boarding school I was very successful . I felt secure with grandfather’s liberal allowance and with the love and respect of my schoolmates . I was somebody , substantial and real , and life lacked only one ingredient : romance . Then came the minister’s daughter , and in spite of my awkward adolescence things were complete . I had romance , security , and applause . I was ecstatically happy .
Then one morning the school principal appeared with a sad face and announced that my girl had died suddenly the night before . I dropped into a depression that lasted for three solid years . I did not graduate from school . I was unable to finish because I could not accept the loss of any part of what I thought belonged to me . The healthy kid would have felt badly , but he would never have sunk so deep or stayed submerged for so long .
Then along came Lois , and I was suddenly alive again , a going concern once more . We married during the World War when I was a young officer at New Bedford . There we were projected among the society folk of the town . For the first time in my life I saw a butler . Again came that terrible feeling of inadequacy , that shy inability to speak more than two or three words in a row . It was overwhelming .
But one night someone handed me a Bronx cocktail . Liquor had killed off a lot of my relatives and I had been repeatedly warned against it . Still I took this first drink , and then another , and another . Ah , what magic ! I had found the elixir of life ! Down went that strange barrier that had always stood between me and people around me . My new companions drew near to me and I drew near to them . I was part of life at last . I could talk easily , I could communicate . Here was the missing link !
When the war was over , I returned from France and Lois and I lived in the city . I , the former officer , had to go to work as a clerk . But that only spurred the same old power drive . Although I was only a clerk for the New York Central Railroad , I set my sights to become president of a steel corporation . When the railroad fired me because I was such a bad clerk , I vowed I would show that railroad and everybody else , too .
Finally I got into Wall Street , that famous short cut to wealth and power — or poverty . In a few years ’ time I made far too much money for one so young . I was not disturbed about my drinking , although Lois had become increasingly concerned . In this period I was drinking to dream great dreams of greater power . I wanted to be a director of many large enterprises ; indeed I was on the point of realizing my ambitions at the time of the 1929 crash when everything melted away . Although I had gone many thousands of dollars into debt , my arrogance was supreme . I looked with disgust upon the bankrupt people who were then jumping from the high buildings . I said and believed , “ I can build all this up once more . I’ve done it once , I can do it again . ”
But I did not do it again . My alcoholic obsession had already condemned me ; I no longer had the capacity to hold even the first rung on any comeback ladder . So I began sinking . I could not get a toe hold any more and became a hanger – on in Wall Street . Without money or sobriety I was discredited everywhere . People knew all too well what I was becoming .
Finally I slid down into a state where I was not drinking to dream dreams of power ; I was drinking to numb the pain , to forget . All at once , at the very bottom of the depression , there came a business opportunity that might have meant millions for Lois and me . But I had to sign a contract which bound me legally not to drink . During the life of the agreement , which might be long , I committed myself not to drink at all . This opportunity was colossal from any Wall Street point of view . I said to myself , “ I’ll soon have Lois out of that department store where she’s supporting me and I’ll make more money than I ever did . This time we are really going to arrive ! ”
We Vermonters set great store by our contracts . I really meant to keep my agreement , and for two or three months I did stay absolutely sober . The new business operation began , and I went on a trip to look over an industry . One night a few engineers and I were sitting in a hotel room . They produced a jug . With great relief , I found that I could easily say “ No . ” I could think of my contract . I could think of Lois . But as the evening wore on I began to be bored . The jug kept going around and finally someone said , “ Bill , this is applejack , Jersey Lightning . Better have one . ” I suddenly realized that in all my drinking career I had never had any Jersey Lightning . I said , “ Boys , one little shot won’t hurt me . ”
Inexplicably , both Lois and my business promise faded . I could think only of the applejack. In that moment my insane obsession seized me once again . There followed three days of complete oblivion ; then my new business partners called me on the phone and told me that the deal was off .
And now I really began to lose hope . My mental disintegration proceeded rapidly and implacably . Soon I was in a hospital , the first of many such “ cures ” during the next two years . But it wasn’t until that fateful night in September , 1934 , that Lois and I learned from the doctor what my score really was . After leaving the hospital in that month , I kept sober for a while on stark fear and constant vigilance . November came and I still had not had a drink . This was unheard of . The fear of getting drunk was getting hazier now . I did not have to exert myself so much to resist . I actually began to talk to people about alcoholism . When I was offered drinks , I would volunteer the information I had acquired about the nature of my disease . I found this a defense against taking anything and also a justification for my former condition . Confidence was beginning to grow fast and my fear left me .
Somehow I managed to pick up a few dollars . Perhaps I was not such a serious case after all . I was proving I could stop . I had learned how . Armistice Day , 1934 , rolled around . Lois had to go to the Brooklyn department store where she worked . Wall Street was closed down and I began to wonder what I would do . I thought of golf . I had not played in a long time . The family purse was slender , so I suggested to Lois that I might go over to Staten Island where there was a public course . She could not quite conceal her apprehension , but she managed to say cheerfully , “ Oh , please do . That would be wonderful . ” I crossed on the ferry and took a bus . I found myself seated beside a man with a target rifle . That brought back memories of the Remington single – shot piece grandfather had given me when I was eleven years old . We got to talking about shooting . Suddenly our bus collided with the bus ahead of us . There was little shock or damage . My friend and I alighted on the pavement to wait for the next bus to come along . Still talking about shooting irons , we noticed something that looked like a speakeasy . He said to me , “ What about a little nip ? ” I said , “ Fine , let’s go . ” We walked into the place . He ordered a Scotch and I ordered a ginger ale . “ Don’t you drink ? ” he said . “ No , ” I said , “ I’m one of those people who can’t manage it . ” And then I dwelt on the allergy and the obsession and the whole business of alcoholism . I told him about the terrible time I had had with liquor and how I was through with it forever . I carefully explained the whole illness to him . We got onto another bus and presently found ourselves in front of a country inn well down on the Island . I was to go to the golf course nearby , and my new friend was to take another bus to his rifle range . But it was noontime and he said , “ Let’s go in and have a sandwich . Besides , I’d like to have another drink . ” We sat at the bar this time . As I have said , it was Armistice Day . The place was filling up and so were the customers . There was the familiar buzz which arises from drinking crowds . My friend and I continued to talk , still on the subject of shooting . Sandwiches and another drink for him , sandwiches and ginger ale for me .
My mind turned again to Armistice Day in France , to all the joy of those hours , to the great celebration . I no longer heard what my friend was saying . Suddenly the big Irish bartender came up to us , beaming . In each hand he held a drink . “ Have one on the house , boys ! ” he cried . “ It’s Armistice Day ! ” Without an instant’s hesitation , I picked up the liquor and drank it . My friend looked at me aghast . “ My God ! ” he cried . “ Is it possible that you can take a drink after what you just told me ? You must be crazy ! ” And my reply was , “ I am . ”
The next morning about five o’clock Lois found me unconscious in the areaway of our house . I had fallen against the iron grating and was bleeding from a bad scalp wound . My hand still clutched the strap of my golf bag . When I regained consciousness nothing much was said . Indeed , there was nothing much to say . We both hit an all – time low . I went back to drinking — one , two , three bottles of bathtub gin a day . I could not stop , and I knew it .
Then one afternoon the telephone rang . It was my old boarding – school friend and drinking companion , Ebby . Even over the phone I somehow knew that he was sober . I could not remember a time when he had been sober in New York City . Long ago I had marked him for a hopeless case . I had heard in fact that they were going to put him away because of alcoholic insanity .
Eagerly I said , “ Come right on over . We’ll talk about the good old days . ” Now why did I say that ? It was because my present was unbearable and I knew there was to be no future . Soon Ebby stood beaming in the doorway . Then he was sitting across the kitchen from me .
There was a big crock of gin and pineapple juice between us . Immediately I felt that there was something different about Ebby . It was not only that he was sober . I could not put a finger on what it was . I offered him a drink and he refused . Then I asked him , “ What’s this all about ? You say you aren’t drinking . But you also say you aren’t on the water wagon , either . What’s up ? ” “ Well , ” said Ebby , “ I’ve got religion . ”
What a crusher that was — Ebby and religion ! Maybe his alcoholic insanity had become religious insanity . It was an awful letdown . I had been educated at a wonderful engineering college where somehow I had gathered the impression that man was God . But I had to be polite , so I said , “ What brand of religion have you got , Ebby ? ” “ Oh , ” he said , “ I don’t think it has got any special brand name . I just fell in with a group of people , the Oxford Groups . I don’t go along with all their teachings by any means . But those folks have given me some wonderful ideas .
I learned that I had to admit I was licked ; I learned that I ought to take stock of myself and confess my defects to another person in confidence ; I learned that I needed to make restitution for the harm I had done others . I was told that I ought to practice the kind of giving that has no price tag on it , the giving of yourself to somebody .
Now , ” he added , “ I know you are going to gag on this , but they taught me that I should try to pray to whatever God I thought there was for the power to carry out these simple precepts . And if I did not believe there was any God , then I had better try the experiment of praying to whatever God there might be . And you know , Bill , it’s a queer thing , but even before I had done all this , just as soon as I decided that I would try with an open mind , it seemed to me that my drinking problem was lifted right out of me . It wasn’t like the water wagon business at all . This time I felt completely released of the desire , and I have not had a drink for months . ”
Ebby didn’t try to pressure or evangelize me , and pretty soon he left . For several days I went on drinking . But in no waking hour was the thought of my friend absent from my mind . I could not forget what he had said . In the kinship of common suffering , one alcoholic had been talking to another .