WHEN I FIRST JOINED the AA Fellowship, I was told that alcoholism is a disease. I could easily relate to that concept and be at home with it, for I have lived with a severe, chronic disease since infancy.
At the age of sixteen months I was diagnosed at Duke University School of Endocrinology as a cretin dwarf, or a child born without a functioning thyroid gland. The symptoms were total physical and mental retardation; I was brought to the doctors a bloated blob with a protruding tongue. A team of specialists orally administered a medicine called thyroxin, which replaces the function of the dormant gland. Within one week my appearance had been transformed to that of a normal infant. The doctors’ prognosis was that I would most likely be physically normal, but in all probability would be permanently mentally retarded.
However, these specialists did not reckon with my parents’ determination and faith; my father would always say that it takes a realist to believe in miracles. My parents became my therapists. They made me walk when I crawled, and read to me constantly until I could read by myself. At the age of five, my mental retardation was completely gone! Doctors tell me today that it was a scientific phenomenon. I consider it a miracle.
When I was eight years old I entered public school; previously I had been attending private school because my coordination was so severely impaired that I could not execute the stairs without help. At my new school I was totally isolated and rejected because I could not play with the other children. After physical education classes the little girls would follow me into the locker room, screaming “freak” and “cripple” behind me. Summer camp was even worse. They hated me because I was different. I grew to hate myself as well.
I was too young for my parents to be able to tell me about my condition, though it would have been beyond the comprehension of my peers even if I tried to excuse my abnormality.
Thus, I sought refuge in a world of fantasy consisting of books, television, and alcohol. When I was about ten, I discovered my parents’ liquor cabinet on an evening when they were out. After that, whenever my parents left for an evening, I would sneak the key to the cabinet, fill my glass with sweet liqueur, and replace the key. The alcohol dulled the gnawing loneliness and allowed the dreams to spin more easily. My alcoholic personality had already been inexorably formed.
From my teens to my mid-thirties I achieved well as a student, a linguist, a concert singer, and then as an assistant manager of a music publishing company. However, everything I did was motivated not by pleasure in the work, but by a burning desire to show the world that I was not inferior, not a “freak.” Whenever I suffered frustration or rejection, I got drunk in rage and self-pity. How could anything more happen after I had endured so much in my childhood? When an opera career proved impossible because of my inability to move well onstage, I cursed the condition that had blighted my life, never thinking how fortunate I was to have come so far.
By the spring of 1982, I had completed the course work for a doctorate in German literature while holding down my publishing job. Then I had to study for the oral exam. I began to feel weak and to have trouble concentrating. A sudden weight gain convinced me that I needed more thyroid medication, but my doctor refused to consider it, saying my tests were fine. I would sit in my apartment every night, trying to study. Then I would drink and drink until I could sleep. At two or three in the morning I would wake up sobbing with terror that I was becoming retarded again–and drink myself back to sleep until I had to get up for work.
When the orals were over and I had passed them with distinction, my mother begged me to control my drinking; she had often seen me drain glass after glass of wine when we got together.
At the end of September a good friend of mine broke her anonymity and urged me to go to AA. At my very first meeting I felt immediately that I belonged. As a handicapped child, I had been alone and uncomprehending in my sickness; as a member of the AA Fellowship, I was part of a large group with the means to combat our disease in solidarity. Moreover, I found I am not the only one to carry a wounded child within.
Many others do as well and have suffered as much as I have, even if for different reasons. Listening to the many speakers, I was led out of my prison of self-pity.
In the Fellowship my double handicap has become a blessing: Having dealt all my life with an illness, and its demands for constant medication and doctors’ supervision, I can better cope with the illness of alcoholism, with its own set of restrictions and requirements. At the same time, sharing in the rooms has taught me not to be ashamed of my physical condition–which I had tried to hide until I qualified at one year of sobriety. After I spoke, people told me that I had helped them by telling of my condition. This made me realize that as a handicapped person I have something to contribute and I have finally found my voice. Just as my story may help other members of AA, this Fellowship has helped me find acceptance of myself.