Its cunning, its power, its baffling nature manifests itself in subtle ways
WHEN I was in graduate school almost thirty years ago, I had a professor whose wife was allergic (or, as the allergists would say, “intolerant” or “sensitive”) to aspirin. To me, aspirin is a harmless pain reliever. To her, it was a deadly poison. On two or three occasions she nearly died from medicines prescribed by well-meaning doctors which contained small quantities of this usually innocuous drug.
In later years I met other men and women who had these massive intolerances or allergies–to eggs, in one case; to penicillin in another; to bee venom in a third.
Since coming into AA, I have often thought of these people, because I learned that after many years of exposure to it, I too had become intolerant, sensitive or allergic to a substance; in my case alcohol.
What interested me was the fact that none of these other people had any difficulty in abstaining from the dangerous substance once they knew they were sensitive to it. (My friend who was sensitive to bee venom discovered his sensitivity too late, it is true. He died of a bee sting.) But they had no real craving. A person to whom strawberries gave giant hives might like strawberries. The wife of my professor might wish she could tolerate aspirin when she had a headache. But with knowledge of what would happen if they took the substance, they had no trouble leaving it alone.
With alcohol and me, however, it was an entirely different matter. Long after I knew full well what alcohol would do to me, I was still compelled to drink. And in my first year or so of sobriety, I used to wonder about the difference between these other people who were sensitive to various substances, and me.
Finally I thought of an answer, in terms of the aspirin-sensitive woman. The reason she could abstain after she knew what it would do to her was simply that it had never done very much for her.
But suppose, I speculated, the circumstances had been different. Suppose she had been a life-long victim of unbearable headaches. She might have been born with them. She might have acquired them later in life. Perhaps they afflicted her continually; perhaps only periodically. Possibly, if she had never been free of headaches, she supposed that everybody endured headaches like hers, and that severe headaches were a part of life itself.
And then, at some age–ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty–suppose she made the wonderful discovery that aspirin, available in any drugstore or market, would relieve her headaches!
It is easy to imagine the part aspirin would play in her life from then on. It would be her lifesaver. She would carry it with her, keep it everywhere around the house, take every precaution to be sure she could never possibly be without an ample supply. When she even suspected she might be going to have a headache, she would take some. She would build her entire life around aspirin, for this precious substance would be her only means of escaping from what would otherwise be intolerable agony.
And now, I conjectured, suppose that after some years, for some unknown reason she became sensitive to her little, lifesaving pills. From then on, aspirin would be a deadly poison to her. Every time she took even a little, the most harrowing emergencies would occur, involving rescue squads, oxygen, adrenalin and hospitals.
What would she do? Without aspirin, she would be tortured by headaches capable of making life literally unendurable; but if she took even one she would experience equal torture–perhaps death.
What a dilemma! Yet I think this is almost precisely the one I found myself in as an alcoholic.
While I didn’t suffer from intolerable headaches (except in hangovers), I did suffer from another kind of ache. I think of it as an ache of the spirit, or of the soul, because if it were merely physical or psychological I would expect medicine or psychiatry to be able to relieve it. The latter did much for me in many areas of my life, but my drinking continued to grow worse until doctors and psychiatrists declared I was hopeless and beyond the aid of their disciplines.
I also think of this ache as of the soul because of its baffling nature, its cunning, its power. It manifested itself in all kinds of subtle ways–uneasiness, guilt, fear, loneliness, flaming resentment, smoldering hatred, vague hostility, generalized anxiety, depression and inertia; even occasionally in a sort of wild gaiety too great to endure. While these states took a bewildering assortment of forms, they were all equally and intensely uncomfortable.
I had to escape these feelings if I could. And I could, in alcohol. Long before the makers of one of the fizzy forms of aspirin invented the slogan “Relief Is Just a Swallow Away,” I had discovered its truth for myself. But not with aspirin.
Then the time came when relief was no more just a swallow away. One swallow merely promised tantalizingly that relief might be still another swallow away. And so on, through an infinity of swallows. With more and more swallows, the alcohol itself created an anguish at least as painful as the anguish it had once relieved.
Hence my dilemma. I could not endure the agony of the spirit, sober; but what had once brought relief now brought its own agony.
What was the way out?
Well, in the case of the professor’s wife, I can think of one. The same advertisements that tell us relief is just a swallow away also tell us that headaches are often caused by emotional or psychological factors: “psychosomatic,” as the doctors say.
If so, it might have been possible for the professor’s wife to discover, through psychotherapy or otherwise, a new mode of thinking, feeling and living. As a consequence, she might go through some kind of inner change so that would eliminate the headaches. With no headaches, no need for aspirin.
Something like this, I believe, happened to me. Alcohol was the only way I knew to relieve the anguish of my spirit; but in time, it brought additional agonies of its own.
Then I encountered AA, and through whatever strange alchemy its Fellowship and Twelve Steps perform, I underwent some kind of inner transformation that erased the anguish.
I no longer need alcohol, for AA now does for me what alcohol did once. By practicing its simple principles, I found relief for my “headache of the soul.”