By James O'G. Fleming, S.J.
Three years ago I attended my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a memorable occasion in many ways. It was my first contact with the problem of alcoholism. Not only am I not alcoholic, but it is possible that there are few persons who knew so little about alcohol in its properties or its effects at that time. I make this statement to reassure those in the same position as I was, who may feel diffident about investigating, this very important movement. This evening was also one of the most pleasant that I have ever spent. This will sound incredible to any one who has had any experience of the curse of alcoholism in themselves or in others. Yet, having attended an average of a meeting a week during the past three years, I am happy to say that every one was enjoyable.
This was an occasion that I will remember for other reasons. A number of men related their alcoholic history during this meeting. One of them was an admitted agnostic. I have had the great happiness to hear this same man, some months later, admit before a large group that the evidence of God's power and love in his life since entering A.A. compelled him to a belief in God's existence and to an acknowledgement of it. There was another present who had just recovered from a severe drinking-bout and was still very shaky. He had been helped by many men and especially one who had tried for twelve years, but without success, to free him from the terrible slavery of alcoholism. Unfortunately, he never did shake off this bondage. He ended his life later by suicide. Others of the group that evening had fully grasped the blessing of the A.A. program and are now living happy fruitful lives. A few drifted away again. Some came back. Others haven't. This is in miniature the history of many groups in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Throughout the history of man, almost from the first, alcohol has been a problem. It has reached the proportions of a most appalling problem in our times. It has well been said that everyone knows at least one alcoholic. I mean by an alcoholic one who is unable to control his drinking. There are those called heavy drinkers, but who, though drinking constantly, can leave it alone without a struggle. Then we have some who occasionally go on what is termed a spree. But the true alcoholic simply cannot control his drinking, once he has started. Occasionally he may go for a short time drinking in moderation. Eventually he begins again the dreadful cycle of wild excess, dismal remorse, recovery and excess once more. In A.A. it is said that for such a man one drink is too many and a thousand not enough. Once he has started, he is utterly incapable of control. Why is this? No conclusive answer has been reached on this important question. It does appear that this is an illness just as truly as any other; an obsession of the mind coupled with an "allergy" of the body.
NOT A CURE
It really does not matter a great deal, for the purpose of this article, just what does make an alcoholic. What is of the utmost importance is that at long last we have a definite relief for this affliction. I did not say a cure. Once an alcoholic, it appears, always an alcoholic. But Alcoholics Anonymous claims that it can arrest the disease and restore the patient to a great measure of physical and mental health. With reason, A.A. asserts that it has had almost seventy-five per cent success. Fifty per cent of those who try this program are successful immediately. Another twenty-five per cent, after a few "slips," join this happy band. Any program that has statistics to prove such a claim is worthy of a hearing. Any program that has brought restored bodily and mental health in varying degrees to over 60,000 men and women cannot be ignored. It is my happy privilege, as a priest, to report to all who will listen what I have learned about this unique blessing to countless people.
The very essence of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is found in the famous "Twelve Steps." Here they are in full, since no explanation of A.A. can be intelligible without them: We
1. Admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The most superficial study of the Twelve Steps indicates that they embrace a spiritual program. It is also evident that they are familiar to any Catholic acquainted with the fundamentals of his own religion. This first attracted me to A.A. It was completely orthodox. It was free from "queer quirks." It taught the great virtues of honesty, humility, self-denial and resignation to God’s Will. It insists on the importance of prayer, examination of conscience, admission of guilt, and the necessity of repentance and restitution. There was nothing in the program that any man of good-will could not accept and carry out. This expression "good-will" is used advisedly. A.A. does not pretend to have anything for the man who does not wish to quit drinking or wishes to do so only on his own terms.
It is absolutely essential that the alcoholic accept the fact that he can not control his drinking (Step l), and that for him there is no possibility of ever being a social drinker. We mean by social drinker one who can take it or leave it alone. The alcoholic must be prepared to refrain from drink for the rest of his life. There have been some very tragic examples of men who thought that they could safely resume their drinking after a period of sobriety. It just can't be done. There is the authentic story of one man who stopped drinking until his family was grown up and established. He started to drink after thirty or more years of abstinence, and was dead from alcoholism within three years. However, all that is asked of an alcoholic on first being introduce to A.A. is that he sincerely wish to be freed from his drinking problem. It is presumed that, if he is truly serious about it, he will be ready to take whatever steps are necessary, even if this means total abstinence.
The new member is urged to keep several important points in mind:
1. Let him attend the meetings and read the literature and listen to A.A. members with an open mind. He is not expected to grasp the program, or even a part of it, immediately.
2. He should attempt to live the suggested new way of life one day at a time. Try it for twenty-four hours, he is advised, or limit this period if that seems too long to look ahead. If a man feels really desperate, he is assured that he need only strive to spend the next hour sober. Having completed that much, he will probably have the hope and the courage to continue another while. Thus, bit by bit, he is brought to realize that the impossible, as he has thought, can be accomplished.
3. Finally, he is told that "easy does it." Don't try to change the habits of a lifetime or of many years in a few days. It takes a man a considerable time to become an alcoholic. He cannot remedy this in an instant.
Such cautions are very necessary for the alcoholic. He needs an open mind, because his more or less serious efforts to conquer his weakness have always ended in failure. This has developed in him a sort of fatalism or even despair about ever getting relief. He must plan no more than a twenty-four hour program, since the alcoholic is notorious for quitting when the task involves too long a period or too great an effort. As a corollary of this he has to remember that "easy does it," knowing that his tendency is to attack an arduous problem with too much vehemence, as though he could in this way dissolve its more disagreeable aspects. Having, this many a day, fled from reality, he has formed a habit of seeking what are often most absurd solutions for apparently insurmountable difficulties.
This striving to escape from reality is at the heart of the alcoholic's problem. He suffers from a form of mental obsession. There is a distinct similarity in the personality pattern of most alcoholics. He is usually a man with what is called an "inferiority complex." He has a profound awareness of his limitations and at the same time a compelling urge to appear the exact opposite to others. This causes him often to attempt schemes which are considerably beyond his powers. He will go to most extraordinary lengths to impress those about him. This state of mind necessarily creates a state of urgency, almost of panic, lest he fail. Such a struggle between the exaggerated desire to be appreciated and the quaking sense of inadequacy can result only in great mental torment. Even success brings little relief, because he is conscious of how trivial, even unworthy, are his motives, and how very much he is wearing a "false front." Introduce such a temperament to alcohol, with its initial stimulus and eventual narcotic effect, and you have sowed the seeds of disaster. He will seek drink for a while, because this stimulus gives him a sense of power and general adequacy which he usually lacks. Ultimately, having received little relief for his anguish of spirit from the false stimulation, he turns to the narcotic influence for refuge. He discovers in this drug a blessed oblivion wherein the "arrows of "outrageous fortune" no longer trouble him. Unhappily, the physical sickness, the mental stupor and the acute remorse which result from alcoholic excess are too great a price to pay for this temporary escape.
The drunkard is a most miserable and unfortunate person. Whether he reached this state through the causes I have very summarily mentioned or not, he finally comes to a condition common to all alcoholics. He becomes a man profoundly distressed in body and soul, because he simply cannot control his drinking. His fault is not gluttony, as most non-alcoholics suppose. He is not interested in the taste of alcohol to any great extent. He uses alcohol to ease his mental discomfort or, as we would surmise, frequently to smother his conscience. Far from bringing the desired results, this pitiful attempt to escape from unpleasant reality, to shirk responsibilities, to run away from care, culminates in return to a starker reality, added responsibilities and a multitude of new ones. The alcoholic lives in a veritable squirrel-cage of constantly renewed physical torture, accumulating mental bewilderment and ever increasing spiritual demoralization.
His tragic condition is greatly aggravated by his relations with other people, especially those nearest and dearest. He often suffers intensely because of the pain and the misfortune which he brings upon innocent persons, and which he feels himself hopeless and helpless to prevent. He develops a definite persecution complex from their failure to understand and so to sympathize with his predicament. Is it any wonder that he frequently tries to solve the apparently insoluble by deliberately hardening himself to all appeals of morality or affection, and sometimes ends it all in tragic suicide?
The alcoholic is not without fault and indeed many and serious faults. Nonetheless, upbraiding him with angry accusations, appeals to his better nature, while expressing doubt that he has such an attribute, physically obstructing his drinking, hospitalization or incarceration will not remove such faults. He is not altogether at fault, as we now know. He needs what the blind man in the gospel found, when he cried out: "Lord, that I may see!" He needs a sympathetic and understanding heart.
How then does A.A. help the alcoholic? It provides him, we might say very briefly, with a sympathetic and understanding heart. If he is fully conscious of his desperate state and honestly anxious to find relief, he will discover in the fellowship of other alcoholics who have won release the sympathy and the understanding which only a fellow sufferer can give. When he talks to the members of A.A. or hears them relate their own sad history, he comes at last upon people who speak his language. They do not reprove or criticize him, since they have been as bad or even worse. They show by words and attitudes that they know exactly how he feels. They encourage him from advice which is wise from bitter experience. Also - and this is important - they easily see through his elaborate self-justification, alibis and outright lying; they inform him, perhaps quite bluntly, that he is deceiving only himself. Most of all, insofar as their influence is exerted upon him, they bring him a faint glimmer of hope, which he so sadly craves. But no genuine member of A.A. will maintain that these gifts of their fellowship are of so much importance as the program of the Twelve Steps. Just as the poor blind man who cried for assistance received more than sympathy and understanding when he met Our Lord, so does the alcoholic when in truth he meets God in the Twelve Steps.
A.A. is strictly non-sectarian. It believes, like St. Paul, that you must go through each man's particular door, if you –are to bring him out your own. It does not even ask that a man be a Christian or, for that matter, believe in a personal God. All that is demanded from the beginner is that he acknowledge a Power greater than himself, call it what he may. The experience in almost every successful case is that a man comes to a very definite belief in God and endeavors to walk humbly in His Presence. The Christian has the further advantage that he can approach this God in the loving presence of Christ and be comforted and inspired by Him Who ever had compassion on the multitude. The Twelve Steps are an epitome of Christian living. They establish an alcoholic in humility, nourish him with faith and hope to make a good fight, soften and enliven his heart with a sincere interest in his fellow men, especially alcoholics, and a grateful love for God Who has been so good to him.
The A.A. program brings the alcoholic into a new world, free from drink and its attendant curses. It gives him a new way of life. If he faithfully perseveres, it will bring him peace and happiness that perhaps he has never known before. It cannot be emphasized too much that A.A. makes a man not only sober, but contentedly sober. Sobriety without this contentment would – to the alcoholic - not be worth the struggle. He has had such sobriety before and found it as miserable as drinking. Members of A.A. sooner or later discover that they do not even think of alcohol; which is understandable, since it was not their problem, but only a symptom of their problem. Once they have achieved a measure of right living, the need of alcohol no longer exists. Having recognized and admitted the truth of the first step, that the disorder in his life had made him an uncontrolled drunkard, the alcoholic is prepared to face the next two steps.
The second and third steps call for a recognition that a Power greater than himself can restore him to sanity and a submission of his will and life to that Power. If the alcoholic has a full appreciation of his desperate state, the result in great part of his trying to run his own life, he will not find it too hard to resign himself to a higher Power. He has nothing to lose and soon discovers that he has gained more than he even hoped for.
The forth and fifth steps ask that he make a searching and fearless examination of his conscience and confess his sins. These steps bring self-knowledge, a sharper awareness of his problem, and deepen the humility of spirit so necessary for a thorough change.
The sixth and seventh steps are said to separate the men from the boys in A.A. If an alcoholic is sincerely intent upon following this program, his acceptance and fulfillment of these steps will prove it. Convinced that it is mostly because of his moral failing that he has come to such a sad plight, he is entirely ready to relinquish even his pet vices.
The eight and ninth steps provide a means of making restitution for the injuries that he has done to his family, relatives and acquaintances. They tend to free him from his sense of guilt, as he pays his debts to society.
The tenth step, if conscientiously observed, ensures that he will not be caught off guard by a recurrence of old weaknesses, which, if not corrected, inevitably lead to a fall. Prompt correction safeguards against the dangerous complacency which follows procrastination or laxity.
The eleventh is a step toward the highest spiritual living. It leads to the habit of walking constantly in the Presence of God through persevering prayer. It also inculcates that most noble and efficacious virtue, conformity to the Will of God.
NEW WAY OF LIFE
The twelfth and final step brings the alcoholic, through a sense of gratitude for what he has received, to take upon himself an apostolate among other alcoholics, so that they may have the chance to share in his good fortune. It concludes with the very important advice that they carry out these principles in all their affairs. This points up the conviction of the members of A.A. that this is in truth A NEW WAY OF LIFE. These principles must permeate and influence every thought, word and deed henceforth.
Though it is necessarily limited, I trust that this explanation of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous will be of some use to those who require it for themselves or their friends, and may persuade them to investigate it more thoroughly.
We advise those who are interested in the program for any reason, be it personal or not, to get in touch with the most convenient A.A. Group. There they will meet those who can best explain it and provide the help which only experience can make truly valuable. I am closing this article with a simple statement on A.A. taken from a recent issue of their monthly publication, The Grapevine:
"Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other, that they may solve their common problems and help others to recover from alcoholism...
The only requirement is an honest desire to stop drinking. A.A. has no dues or fees. It is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; it does not wish to engage in any controversy, and neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety."
Catholic Mind©, Vol. 46: 746-753, December 1948.