REHABILITATION OF THE ALCOHOLIC THROUGH ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

By Miss Mary Harkin, Executive Director, Tulsa Division of the Oklahoma Alcoholism Council

© The Blue Book, Vol. XV, 1963

It is a pleasure to be with you all here this afternoon. I hope that I may be able to say something that will help you in your work with alcoholics.

I am going to be using the masculine pronoun when I talk about the alcoholic. I notice everybody else did that this morning. However, I am doing so only for grammatical convenience, and I shall be including the one out of five alcoholics who is a woman.

Story of AA

First, I am going to give you a brief history of Alcoholics Anonymous, because I think that that will help more than anything else toward your understanding of its workings.

Back in December of 1934, a New York stock broker by the name of Bill was in a hospital in New York; he was in a terrible state due to alcoholism. His doctor had told him, and had told his wife, that the end was near so far as his being able to live in the outside world was concerned; that he was doomed to spend the rest of his life, whatever that might be, in an institutional lockup. Bill had a friend who a few months before had talked to him and planted in him the seed of the idea of asking God for help. Unfortunately, Bill didnít believe in God. But now, there in the hospital in his complete desperation, he did say, ďOh, God, if there is a God, please help me.Ē And at that moment he received a very striking and instantaneous relief from his obsession to drink. In fact, this was so startling that he feared he had lost his mind, but his doctor assured him he hadnít. And later, when he left the hospital, his compulsion to drink seemed to be gone completely.

Well, he started trying to talk to other alcoholics he knew around the city of New York, but he couldnít get any of them interested in his spiritual experience for the simple reason that he was trying to talk them into having the same thing happen to them. Dr. Silkworth kept telling him, ďBill, youíve got this thing backwards. You first have to show them the desperate condition they are in.Ē

Then, in May of 1935, Bill went out to Akron, Ohio, on a big business deal ó and while he was out there, the deal collapsed. Suddenly, for the first time since his experience in the hospital, Bill began to feel surges of the compulsion to drink. He didnít want to drink, but he was afraid he wasnít going to be able to keep from it. In fact, he even started to the bar in the hotel.

On his way across the lobby, however, he said a little but very meaningful prayer for help ó and then, spotting a church directory, he stopped in the phone booth and began calling the ministers listed in the directory. To make a long story short ó and there is a fascinating story here in itself ó he was put in contact with a sick alcoholic, a broken-down physician of Akron who was completely out of his practice and was just stumbling around his own home in a perpetual alcoholic daze. And, because now, for the first time since his experience in the hospital, he himself needed help, Bill was able to convince this Dr. Bob that he had something another alcoholic needed and could use.

Thus, out of a mutuality of need, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous was born. And Bill, looking back toward his first attempts to share his experiences with other alcoholics, realized how right Dr. Silkworth had been. He realized he had not been able to communicate effectively with all those others because he had been talking down to them from a spiritual mountain top. He hadnít been on their level at all. He hadnít first emphasized for them the true and deadly nature of alcoholism and their own personal powerlessness over alcohol.

For a short time, Bill and Dr. Bob just helped each other stay dry. Soon, though, in an Akron hospital, they found a third alcoholic with whom to work, and he began staying dry. And then another one came along, and another, and another.

After a while, Bill went back to New York and a little group began there. AA spread to Cleveland, and it spread to Philadelphia.

The Big Book

Then when there were, oh, somewhere around 40 staying dry, they decided they had better start thinking about how they were doing this, and Dr. Bob said, ďWe must have a written record of this.Ē So they decided this was wise, lest their message become garbled and distorted. They began pooling their experiences and defining what they were doing to stay dry. Bill then wrote the manuscript of the book which is entitled Alcoholics Anonymous but which is known among AA members as ďThe Big Book.Ē By that time there were about 100 staying dry.

Thus, it was in the writing of the book that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were actually formulated. And it was from the title of the book that the fellowship got its name ó which title, strangely enough, actually was second choice with the alcoholics who were getting ready to publish this book. Today, AA members feel there was something providential about this name, because of the tremendous value and help it is to them.

In 1941, after the publication of the book, an article about AA was published in the Saturday Evening Post and a lot of inquiries began coming in to the address listed. The fellowship mushroomed. And, as a consequence, today there are an estimated 300,000 persons staying dry through AA. In actuality, there are more than that, but since they donít keep records, we donít really know. But there probably are more than that who have recovered through the fellowship of AA.

What AA Is and Does

Now, the preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous explains pretty well what it is. It is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other, that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

There are no dues or fees in AA, yet it is fully self-supporting and accepts no outside contributions. It doesnít engage in any other endeavors, and takes no part in outside controversies. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Its primary purpose is to help the sick alcoholic who seeks help from it.

Now, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are based upon spiritual principles, it is true. But from what I have just told you of Billís experience, his own and then his experience with Dr. Bob, we do know that the starting point for the sick alcoholic is the understanding and the acceptance of the true nature of his condition, that there are physiological factors and psychological factors involved which must be taken into consideration if this person is to get well.

I speak of physiological and psychological factors, and I want to explain their importance to an alcoholic. When he comes into AA, he has to learn that he is a sick person. He may think for a great many years that his trouble is primarily a matter of willpower and morality and so, as a result, he goes on struggling futilely to reform himself. This is what the cultural pattern of thought in society teaches him to do. But when he begins to realize and to think of his trouble primarily as a sickness, then he tends to see and to utilize the help that is available to him; he begins to yield to the many pressures in society for sick people to seek the help they need in order to recover.

The Compulsions of Alcoholism

He learns that he has an emotional obsession for alcohol and that he has a physiological dysfunction of his system in relation to the action of alcohol, that AA can teach him how to overcome the emotional obsession, and that, if he permits it to do that, he will not have to be concerned about the physiological dysfunction, because it is only activated by alcohol. As long as he can stay away from the first drink, he doesnít have to worry about this compulsive thing that triggers off in his body and demands another and another drink once he has had the first one. This is what AA gives him: freedom from the insanity which precedes the taking of the first drink.

The moral stigma attached to alcoholism was touched on this morning. I want to add that it is unwarranted and very harmful, yet in a way a straight religious approach to a sick alcoholic is a reflection of it. I have worked with hundreds of alcoholics, and I know that alcoholics are basically good-willed people. They hunger to be respectable and to be respected. They donít want to be living the kind of life that alcohol forces them to live once they become slaves to it, so they just simply canít understand what has happened to them or how they got where they are. Consequently, believing they must be weak-willed, they seek help from a priest. And if it is a priest who doesnít understand what really is wrong with them, he gives them a program of religious practices to follow, not knowing they have so many spiritual dilemmas they simply canít practice such a program without building up emotional pressures which lead them right back again to drinking.

Now, I believe there is a third compulsion of alcoholism, this one in the spirit. It is a compulsive despair and its worst form is often brought about by efforts to follow a religious-practice program with no help for the emotional and physical sides of the problem. Believe me, alcoholics will do their very best to try to follow such a program, because they want help when they go to a priest. So they will just knock themselves out, not knowing that the very pressure of the effort brings on the emotional tensions and emotional obsession for that first drink. Then, because the minute they take a drink the physiological dysfunction takes over and demands another and another, they find themselves drunk again.

This brings on a compulsive despair, a kind of despair they get into and canít get out of ó because when they have gone through this particular kind of failure once or twice or three times or even more, as some of them have done, they finally reach the point of feeling: well, whatís the use of trying. They are convinced by this time that they are worthless; they are convinced by this time that they are moral lepers; and they are convinced that God is convinced of this. They simply havenít enough feeling of self-esteem and honest healthy worth to try to go on seeking help.

Know About the AA Program

Therefore, I want to emphasize Father Kellyís words of this morning whereby he suggested that you all get acquainted with AA. There are groups in your community, and you are welcome to attend their open meetings. Learn the language the alcoholic speaks. Remember, he has spiritual dilemmas, but he is a little bit afraid of religious jargon. You donít have to talk gutter talk. This is not what he wants, but he wants and needs words that have meaning to him. And AAs can teach you these words that have meaning to him. You can be a supportive friend to him, and help him along in many ways. But do, please, let AA be his primary program for sobriety and recovery, and the AA people his primary guides.

AA does have such a program, and AA does have such a fellowship: these are the two parts of AA. And those who have been where he is know how to pace him in his spiritual development and growth, pace him to his own disabled capacity. They know when to prod, and when to slow him down. Oh, they may make mistakes, of course, but they certainly have the great advantage of their own personal experiences with this problem. They are always three jumps ahead of him in what he is thinking and the way he is feeling, so they know where he is in this matter of growing.

I know there are relapses in AA, and there are unfortunate fatalities in AA. We all know that. But the same thing is true of any other recovery process, any other disease. Heart patients donít always follow their program to recovery. Diabetics donít always stay on their insulin. Tubercular patients donít always live the kind of life they are supposed to live in order to keep their disease arrested. So, it is not really so strange that some alcoholics relapse and others donít. This is a disease, and you have to think of it in that frame of mind. When you do, you will understand that in any treatment process there are some recoveries and, unfortunately and regrettably, there are some relapses and some fatalities. Thus, there are some tragedies in AA, but this fact is certainly no cause to lose faith in a program which at the same time has hundreds of thousands of successful recoveries.

If you will utilize AA in your community, I can assure you that any sick parishioner you get toward AA will in time be returned to you a sober and happy parishioner, and certainly a much better Catholic than he could ever have been otherwise.

Give AA a Chance

I would like to wrap up everything I have tried to say in some very simple words, but they are the heart of my message to you. The Church is not the door to sobriety and recovery for the sick alcoholic. The Church is the door to the full flowering of his spiritual life after he has achieved sobriety through AA. So when one of these sick, pain-ridden souls comes your way, while he is in this susceptible-to-help time, please give him a fair chance by giving AA a fair chance with him. His very life is in your hands, and his unspoken and silent plea to you is: please help me find a way not to have to die drunk.

Thank you.

© National Catholic Conference on Alcohol


Return to the Magazines, Newspapers, etc. Page

Return to the A. A. History Page

Return to the West Baltimore Group Main Page