This is the story of the transforming experience of my entire life–the experience for which I’m profoundly grateful. My association with the Fellowship has given me the opportunity to begin the process of becoming a different kind of person.
During the years that I drank, I was the kind of person I never wanted to be–destructive, irrational, unpredictable. When I arrived at my first AA meeting, I’d come to the end of my own resources, which had been considerable. During the eight or nine years that preceded my arrival in AA, I expended myself in every way possible, looking for answers to the problem of how I could live my life amid the complexities and confusions that were pressing in so heavily that I found it more and more necessary to fortify myself against them with booze.
For many years, drinking was a very occasional thing in my life. I was twenty-six years old, married, and the mother of two little girls before I began to drink with regularity, and like a lot of us, I had a few good years before the ax fell. But almost from the beginning, I think, I was dimly aware that my drinking was different from that of my friends. And the difference lay not so much in my performance during drinking as in my attitude toward it. Almost from the start, I associated all experiences of fun and relaxation and release from anxiety with the times that I drank. I’d always assumed I was different from other people, but this didn’t seem so peculiar to me. I didn’t let it prey on my mind as long as I was able to handle alcohol well in fairly large amounts.
Then one night I was at a party drinking in the usual way and in the usual amounts, only this time I got terribly drunk and had a blackout. I was completely unprepared for both things. I had always taken the attitude, a very arch one I now realize, that unless one could drink well, one simply shouldn’t drink at all. I had a great deal to learn! At this time I’d never even heard of a blackout. I fell down a flight of stone steps onto a flagstone terrace and landed on my head, and the next morning I thought that I was suffering from a concussion and that was why I couldn’t remember anything that had happened.
I was already under the care of a psychotherapist, and so I discussed with him this strange phenomenon that had befallen me: I’d gotten drunk and I didn’t remember anything that happened the night before. And in his innocence, this man tried very hard and very diligently to help me over a number of years–nine years as a matter of fact. He said all of the things that I wanted to hear. He thought this was the kind of thing that could happen to anyone occasionally, it was indicative of a particularly difficult phase that we were going through in treatment, and he suggested that until such time as we were able to resolve these problems that were causing so much trouble, that I should be very careful about any drinking that I did. Careful. How that word careful came back to haunt me.
I tried so hard to be careful. I tried every way that I could think of. I tried every way that anybody could suggest to me to be careful. The trouble was, of course, even though neither the therapist nor I were aware of it, I’d already lost the ability to be careful. Neither one of us knew that drinking had already become the imperative factor in my life. By that I don’t mean to imply that I was drunk every day or even that I got drunk every time that I drank, because this never was true. What I mean is that from this time on, I lost the ability to call the shots. I could no longer be sure that I’d be able to be sober at a given time and a given place, no matter how important it might be.
I had already lost control, but I simply couldn’t believe that I’d been licked by a thing like booze. I did believe that if I could only find the key that would unlock the magic door and emancipate what all my friends referred to as the real me, I’d be able to put some order into my life. And then drinking would fall into its proper place. In this attitude, I had the support of my family, my therapist, and a great many people who knew me well.
My life soon became something right out of Alice in Wonderland. I’m always reminded of the Red Queen’s remark when she said to Alice, “Down here we have to run as fast as we can to stay where we are.” I was running faster and faster all the time. On the surface, I believe, I seemed pretty much to be staying where I was, but I knew better. I was running scared. Oh boy, I was terrified.
I endowed this fantastic search I was making for the real me with every ounce of energy and imagination and resourcefulness that I had, and this was quite a lot. I continued to look for this person in psychotherapy. I looked for her in an attempted but naturally aborted career. I looked in worthy causes, I looked in books, I looked in study. I was always running off to take a course, thinking if I could learn more about things, I’d be able to solve my problems. I looked in the domesticity in home life. I even looked in Ebbet’s Field, in the days the Dodgers were in Brooklyn!
The chaos and confusion that I created in my life–and in the lives of all those people who cared about me–finally brought me to the point of despair where nothing seemed worth the effort anymore. The gap was just too wide–the gap between the person who made attempts, at least, at worthwhile living, and the creature who was so beset by obsessive and compulsive drinking that she poisoned and kicked over every good thing that she did. This gap seemed to me to be insuperable. So I concluded that I was sort of a no-good freak: someone who had had every opportunity that a person could be given and just couldn’t make it.
My husband was an Episcopal clergyman. He was also the chairman of the department of religion at a large New York university. About two years before I came into AA, he asked me if I would have a dinner party for the faculty and staff from his department. Of course, I consented to do this. I even looked forward to it. I worked very hard to make the party a success. At about three o’clock in the afternoon on the day of the party, I was all through with my chores and I was pleased. I was also tired. And I thought it would be a good idea if I took a little nap before the guests arrived at seven. Then I had one of those inspirations that occur with such depressing frequency to alcoholics: I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll have a little glass of sherry and this will help me to become drowsy.” Well, any fool would know enough to be discreet at a time like that, but I took the first drink and you know the rest.
It was not one of my good days. I didn’t have the luck to pass out. I didn’t have the sense to leave. I showed up at this party. And I showed up almost stumbling drunk, in near hysterics as I always was when I drank, muttering what I hope was incoherent gibberish. I hope it was incoherent because what I had to say was not very complimentary to my husband. And it was not expressed in the language one associates with a clergyman’s wife. Now, the people at this party were almost all total strangers to me, and they were not what anyone would call a drinking crowd. As a matter of fact, most of these people didn’t even smoke! These were people whom I called “squares.” Talk about arrogance–here was the boss’s wife, the clergyman’s wife, the hostess, drunk and disorderly.
It was inexcusable behavior in any circumstances, but in these circumstances it was unspeakable. And the day after the party my remorse was something spectacular. I wanted to die and knew that I wouldn’t. I was filled with all the self-loathing and the self-contempt and the hopelessness. But I was so involved in my own agony that I wasn’t even able to tell my husband, this poor man whom I had disgraced and humiliated, that I was sorry. I thought he ought to know I was sorry. I thought he ought to know that all in the world I wanted to do was find a big hole and crawl into it with the rest of the rats. I don’t know whether he knew this or not. However, after that party he certainly knew that I was no longer drinking because I had unresolved personality problems. I was drinking now because drinking had become my number-one problem.
Now you might imagine that a stunt like that constitutes what we would call a bottom. But I didn’t draw any such conclusion. I guess I just wasn’t ready to stop drinking. Or else I didn’t think I could stop drinking and therefore, I was reluctant to admit that there was any need to stop drinking. So I learned some new things about loneliness.
I’d thought I knew what it was to be lonely. The fact that I had no ostensible reason to be lonely, with a fine husband and two wonderful children and what should have been an interesting life, only convinced me that I was a freak and reinforced all my feelings of inadequacy. But after this party, the loneliness became a really morbid thing. I’d decided I wouldn’t do any drinking at all when other people were around, and before long I, who had been a gregarious person, no longer wanted to be with people very much. I no longer wanted to plan things with my children in the evenings or during the weekends. I no longer cared whether my husband sat and talked with me at night after the children had gone to bed. I just wanted them all to get the hell out and leave me alone to drink in peace. Of course, it wasn’t peace. Because there isn’t any peace in solitary confinement. This was what booze had done to me. It had made me a prisoner.
Finally, late one afternoon when I was drinking (late because I’d learned to postpone my drinking until a civilized hour to prove I wasn’t alcoholic), I became aware that this was going to be one of those days when there simply wasn’t enough liquor in the world to do for me whatever it was I needed so desperately to have done. All of a sudden I was overwhelmed by a sickening shock of recognition–recognition of the helplessness and the hopelessness and the near despair of my situation. I really hated what liquor did to me. I was sick and tired of it all. And then, really without a thought, I got up and went to the telephone and called my husband, and for the first time in my life I said something that was appropriate about my drinking. I told him, “When you get home tonight I know that I’ll be drunk, but please bear with me because I hope it may be the last time.” Out of the blue I found the word that ultimately changed my life. I said, “If you’ll call AA and find out where the meetings are, I’m willing to give it a try.” I said, “I’m not even sure that I’m an alcoholic. I know if I am it isn’t my fault, but it would surely be my fault if I don’t try to find out and do something about it. And, besides,” I said, “we know AA really has helped lots of people and it doesn’t cost anything, so what have I got to lose.” Oh, what I had to lose! Almost immediately I began to lose the things that had weighed so heavily upon my shoulders. I was almost sunk from the weight of them.
It was something of a miracle that AA ever occurred to me as a possibility in the first place because I was one of the people who was guilty of contempt prior to investigation. I thought I was much too smart, much too sophisticated, much too hip to be able to get help from what I considered to be a rather corny organization. But I felt I’d been broken in spirit. It turns out, of course, that I was only broken in will. And my will had broken because it had never learned how to bend. I still have a little trouble to this day distinguishing between high spirits and strong will. But I’m beginning to learn the difference.
I wasn’t convinced that I was an alcoholic, not because I hadn’t had a lot of trouble with booze, but because none of the terrible things had happened to me that I thought had to happen in order to qualify one as an alcoholic. I’d never been unable to sober up on my own. I’d never been hospitalized for alcoholism. I’d never had to have a doctor take care of me. I’d never taken medication. I hadn’t been a morning drinker or a binge drinker or an around-the-clock drinker. I’d even ceased to be a daily drinker sometime before coming into AA in my effort to control. I surely had never been in any trouble with the law or the police. And I had lost very little in a tangible way. I still had my health, my home, my family, and most of the friends I really cared about. I still had the price of the next bottle.
So I was confused about what my status was. I will never forget how I felt when I walked out of the house that night to go to that AA meeting. I felt like someone who had completely lost her way, who’s been plunged into the darkness. When I went to that meeting, I met two dear friends. One of them was leading the beginner’s meeting and his wife was with him. This was the first good thing that happened to me. They said to me that night that even though I’d always been able to get sober on my own, by my own admission, I hadn’t been able to stay sober for any length of time. They suggested to me that perhaps none of these terrible things had ever happened to me because I’d been an extremely lucky alcoholic and a very well-protected one. They suggested that these things almost inevitably would happen to me if I continued to drink, and they suggested that I take three months and that if at the end of that time I didn’t think the AA program was for me, nobody was going to tie me down. My misery would be right there waiting for me.
They explained to me that this program was based on the twenty-four-hour plan of living and that most AA members began each day by making the daily contract with God as they understood him to give them the grace to stay away from one drink for one day. Most went to as many meetings as they could to support them in this effort. I didn’t see how you could get sober in a meeting, but they explained to me that it was those meetings where I could learn how to use this program. It was at the meetings where I could learn how to apply the little slogans I still thought were pretty corny. It was at the meetings where I could learn how to use the Serenity Prayer and the various forms of what we used to call nickel therapy–Hershey bars, cups of coffee, and telephone calls to other AAs. It was at the meetings where I could learn how to begin to practice these twelve suggested Steps. It was at the meetings where I could learn how to participate by sharing my experience, strength, and hope with another alcoholic.
So before long, AA became for me a kind of school, and after a lifetime of exposure to the academic world it was here in AA among my own kind that I began the slow process of learning the things I’d always wanted to know–which were to be useful and productive and have a meaningful life.
When I was first going to meetings, someone told me that there were two key words in the success of this program: action and patience. This word action was a real boon to me because I am by nature a doer. The word action was something I could understand, and almost at once I was on my horse and I was off. I became an active and participating member of my home group and of groups throughout the metropolitan area. I was a once-a-week volunteer at the New York Intergroup office. I was a regular visitor at the AA floor at Town’s Hospital. My calendar was filled with speaking dates and I never said no to a Twelfth Step call. As a matter of fact, AA became almost my entire life. And I had never been so happy in my life. I was emancipated from the paralyzing anxiety and sense of uselessness and emptiness that had characterized my drinking years.
And then, after I’d been sober long enough to have recovered from the awestruck state which we sometimes refer to as the “pink cloud,” I was suddenly forced to recall that I was not just a member of AA; I was also a member of a family, a member of a church, a member of a community. It was on the occasion of one of my anniversaries, the second or third maybe, and I was taking inventory. I realized that sobriety was supposed to help me to become a functioning, participating member in these areas as well. It was incumbent upon me not merely to be sober but to learn to live a sober life, and to practice these principles in all my affairs–a task for which I felt ill equipped and for which I certainly had no proven ability.
Now this was tough and it still is tough for me sometimes. It required patience. That was the other big word that I’d heard–the one that I’d tried to bypass with action, not because I thought patience was unimportant but because it simply had no emotional meaning for me. I would be a very big fraud if I were to tell you that I’ve learned how to be patient with myself, with other people, with life in general. But I’m learning.
I’ve sometimes compared myself with a child taking piano lessons. I know the long hours that a child has to spend practicing scales and finger exercises if his hand is ever going to get strong enough and his finger flexible enough to be able to play melodies and more interesting compositions. I’ve heard that a famous pianist used to say that if he failed to practice the piano for one day, he knew it; that if he failed to practice for two days, the critics knew it; that if he failed to practice for three days, the whole world knew it. It would take me longer than three days and the world would little note, but my world–the people who care about me whom I care about–would know if I failed to practice the principles of this program for any length of time. Because, now that I am a sober member of AA, I know from the experience of those who have gone before me what it is that I must do if I want to avoid a calamity of what we would consider major proportions in my household!
Booze made me put my soul in chains, but now, thanks to AA, I’m no longer a prisoner. I have a choice. I can take one drink with all its possible consequences or I can do it the AA way. And stay away from one drink for one day. I no longer feel like a lost soul. I still have periods when I get low; I think everybody does, alcoholics and nonalcoholics alike. But even though I may frequently fail miserably in the performance of my duties and responsibilities, at long last my life has some shape, some direction.
My life and my character are made up of an almost inseparable mixture of good and bad, true and false, creative and destructive drives that are the common lot of all people who haven’t yet arrived, but are simply on the way. This is what’s called, I think, the human condition. I’ve had to learn to accept the fact that if I can but stay on the way, I will be an extremely lucky woman, but that it would be very dangerous and false thinking if I should ever believe that I had gotten there. I’ve had to learn that I don’t have to be a winner, I don’t have to be a hero. I’m still learning–because this goes hard with me–that I have the right to be wrong, that I have the right to make mistakes, to make poor choices and errors in judgment, even to fail seriously in the things that matter deeply to me. But what would be really fatal, I think, is that I would cease to care. If I should cease to be truly concerned and fully committed to the principles of this program and to the power greater than myself that I call God, who has seen me through so much along the way. I’ve never been a person who had much confidence in my own ability to accomplish any worthwhile goals, but I’ve found out that if I have faith in God, it doesn’t make much difference if I have faith in myself.
I’ve found a new happiness in family life and in the well-being of my husband and children. I’ve found that I’m able to hold a responsible job and at last I have one that I really love. I’ve found out what it is to be a friend and to be able to look into the eye of my friend and see him and not merely my own image reflected there. I’ve found new joy in the practice of my religion. I’ve found that love itself is like the AA program–the only way I can have it is to be willing to give it away.
All of this is gravy. Because the only thing that I was looking for or hoped to find was sobriety. If I want to know what it would be like to lose it, I only have to remember those last two years when I drank alone late at night. I was always going downstairs at three, four, or five in the morning to get that one last drink. I remember how I used to think that something was missing from my life and I was looking for it. I was right about that one thing. I was looking for something. And thanks be to God I found it. I was looking for AA. I was looking for all of you. I was looking for the power greater than myself that I call God. And now whenever I’m at a meeting and see a roomful of people and realize that all through that terrible time you were here and you had a vacancy, I see what a wasteland my willfulness, my pride, and my blindness had made of my life. And I thank God I found you when I did.