My thoughts were on a collision course with the oncoming train (yet all my troubles were within myself)
IN May or June of 1948, I stood on the side of a viaduct in western Oregon and played host to a legion of morbid thoughts. A fast freight train rushed towards the tracks directly below. Since I had become the victim of suicidal thoughts whenever standing near a high place or close to the passing of a railroad locomotive, I now rehearsed the easy manner in which I could end it all by flinging myself from the bridge into the path of the oncoming train. Of course I knew I would not really do it–but I was troubled by a compulsive preoccupation with suicide, especially when the means were close at hand. I worried about it and secretly feared that it might be a possible sign of insanity. But I told nobody.
On that occasion, as always, the train passed below and went its way, and I continued on my way, a penniless hitch-hiker completely stricken with self-pity, self-loathing, remorse, and despair. Only recently I had emerged from a jail in Idaho, and I was on my way to California where, I feared, more difficulties awaited (they did! ). Now the point of all this is that, at the time, I seemed to be afflicted with more troubles than almost any person in the world, and if at that same time you had had the inclination to listen, I would have told you all about them. Today, thirteen years later, I am trying to decide just what troubles I had. And I have to admit, as AA usually teaches, that all of my troubles were within myself!
I was twenty-two years old, in perfect physical health, had an adequate education, and still possessed all of my hair. The world was relatively at peace, and there were any number of inviting job opportunities around. It was a warm month of the year, and even sleeping on the ground for a night or two was no great hardship. Yet, there I was, so choked with despair that I saw hardly any hope in further living. I didn’t realize that all my enemies were within myself. In fact, my flight from Idaho was a “geographical cure,” and I was hoping that I would be able to change my habits in a new locale.
During the next few years, I found AA and learned to deal with such things as these suicidal compulsions and all the other mental maggots that bedevil alcoholics. I talked with other AA members who had been troubled in the same way, and after a short time I was hardly bothered at all by the more serious shortcomings. First came a pleasant hope for a better future, then came more confidence, and finally I found real contentment much of the time and a little joy part of the time.
Still, I frequently rebelled against the idea that my troubles were mostly of my own making. Bill W. had stated this idea in some of his writings, and during moments of anger I would argue that “Bill can’t be right all the time!” Yet, after simmering down, I would have to admit the truth in what Bill wrote. For even when people seem deliberately to hurt us, we are wrong to become angry or upset. Even when we seem to be the victims of gross injustice, our only hope of dealing with it effectively is to forgive our tormentors. In other words, we can’t control the outer world, but we can certainly control our reaction to it. We should wear the world as a loose garment, whether it is a gorgeous robe or a hair shirt. (The hair shirt won’t hurt as much if worn loosely!)
Now I look back at this dark moment in 1948 when I stood on the overpass and I marvel at the power of alcoholism and its concomitant defects. All the happiness I have now was possible then, but I just did not know that it was. I did not realize the good fortune of having health, youth, and the freedom of American citizenship. Every person I met seemed to be my enemy, and all my personal relationships ended in failure. I was the world’s unluckiest person, in my own mind. Yet nobody seemed to appreciate that fact, or to sympathize with me. Foolish souls–they thought that a person was indeed fortunate who had health, youth, and freedom.
I soft-pedal my tale of past miseries these days! Only AA members and a few others are even capable of understanding my agony and relating to it. The outside world doesn’t really understand very well why a promising young man of twenty-two would ever entertain even briefly the idea of doing away with himself. One way or another, though, most AA members have at least toyed with the self-destruction route. And almost all of us today admit that we had no real enemies except the ones within ourselves. But perhaps these are the worst kind!