Monthly Archives: April 2014

Things go better with milk.

Our first example is a friend we shall call Jim. This man has a charming wife and family. He inherited a lucrative automobile agency. He had a commendable World War record. He is a good salesman. Everybody likes him. He is an intelligent man, normal so far as we can see, except for a nervous disposition. He did no drinking until he was thirty-five. In a few years he became so violent when intoxicated that he had to be committed. On leaving the asylum he came into contact with us.

We told him what we knew of alcoholism and the answer we had found. He made a beginning. His family was re-assembled, and he began to work as a salesman for the business he had lost through drinking. All went well for a time, but he failed to enlarge his spiritual life. To his consternation, he found himself drunk half a dozen times in rapid succession. On each of these occasions we worked with him, reviewing carefully what had happened. He agreed he was a real alcoholic and in a serious condition. He knew he faced another trip to the asylum if he kept on. Moreover, he would lose his family for whom he had a deep affection. – Alcoholics Anonymous p.35

We’re introduced to “Jim,” an intelligent and apparently normal man who became a raging drunk almost overnight. There’s a parallel here between Jim and the “man of thirty.” I would be tempted to say that Jim may have sensed something unusual about his reaction to alcohol and made a decision to avoid it.That might account for his “nervous disposition.” Maybe he’s white-knuckling his sobriety.  But, like the man of thirty, he reached a point where “he had it made.” He inherited a successful business and has a wife and family, he is well liked and respected. If I were in that situation, I might think that a little drink now and then couldn’t hurt. You would have to be crazy to jeopardize all that, so if drinking even began to be a problem you could go back to your sober ways. That was my thinking early on. I told myself that I would stop if it ever became a “problem.” But as I said before, the definition of “problem” kept changing such that it was always a little worse than where I happened to be at the time.

So Jim comes in contact with AA, right? No, because “AA” didn’t exist. He came into contact with a bunch of recovering drunks who were trying to use the Oxford Group principles as a means of staying sober. He’s introduced to the principles of that program, and he’s been shown the hopelessness of his condition. He made a beginning and things got quickly back to where they were before, maybe too quickly. After all, here was a guy who had good fortune dropped in his lap and was probably not too accustomed to failure.

Now it gets interesting. “All went well for a time, but he failed to enlarge his spiritual life.” This is an extremely important statement. It wasn’t his failure to “maintain” his spiritual life, it was his failure to “enlarge” it that got him into trouble. This is a key characteristic of the spiritual life. It must constantly grow if it is to survive. We’ll see this most clearly in Step Eleven.

So now Jim is finding it difficult to return to his previously happy sober state, much like the man of thirty. This is a pitfall that traps many of us. We assume that we can step out of the quicksand as easily as we stepped into it. He is frustrated and continues to seek the help of his new friends who seem to have found a way out. Why is it not working for him? He has so much to lose; he has great motivation. You could even say that he had “plenty of character.”

We’ll see why as he recounts his story.

“I came to work on Tuesday morning.”

I wonder if he came to work on Monday.

“I remember I felt irritated that I had to be a salesman for a concern I once owned.”

He felt resentful that he had to work for a business he once owned. 

“I had a few words with the boss, but nothing serious.”

He has an argument with his boss, maybe one of his former employees who used to report to him. His resentment is coming out as anger against the people around him. Then he minimizes it.

“Then I decided to drive into the country and see one of my prospects for a car.”

There goes Jim, throwing a tantrum and storming off. No attempt to see where he had been at fault. No desire to make things right by making amends. They say he “made a beginning” but you have to wonder just how willing he was to apply the principles in his own life.

On the way I felt hungry so I stopped at a roadside place where they have a bar. I had no intention of drinking. I just thought I would get a sandwich. I also had the notion that I might find a customer for a car at this place, which was familiar for I had been going to it for years.”

Whoa, let’s back up for a minute. The roadside place just happened to have a bar. He had no intention of drinking. He was just going to have a sandwich. It was familiar because HE HAD BEEN GOING THERE WHEN HE WAS DRINKING! He had a notion that he might find a customer. Now I’m willing to bet that there were places around there without a bar where he could still get a sandwich. And I’ll also bet that he might find a customer there as well. But that wasn’t the notion he got. If you’re a dry alcoholic and not enlarging your spiritual life, you shouldn’t be getting “notions.”

I had eaten there many times during the months I was sober. I sat down at a table and ordered a sandwich and a glass of milk. Still no thought of drinking. I ordered another sandwich and decided to have another glass of milk.”

If he had been going there for years and also during the months he had been sober, then it means he had also been going there when he wasn’t sober. He sat at a table, not at the bar. He ordered a sandwich and a glass of milk. Then another sandwich and another glass of milk. Jim is really behaving himself even if he is pigging out a bit.

“Suddenly the thought crossed my mind…”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. The problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind rather than in his body. Jim’s mind is not a normal mind, but he insists on using it anyway. It feels normal to him. I say this a lot, but it is so very, very true: Every stupid thing I have ever done in my life started with the words “I thought.”  

“…that if I were to put an ounce of whiskey in my milk it couldn’t hurt me on a full stomach. “

What harm could a little ounce of whiskey do? And there’s no better defense against alcoholic thinking than milk.

I ordered a whiskey and poured it into the milk. I vaguely sensed I was not being any too smart, but felt reassured as I was taking the whiskey on a full stomach.”

He had a “vague sense” that he was behaving insanely, but that magic milk was going to protect him from his alcoholic thinking. And he reassured himself. Didn’t ask for a second opinion. Took a vote in his head and the majority said that the full stomach was going to protect him.

The experiment went so well that I ordered another whiskey and poured it into more milk. That didn’t seem to bother me so I tried another.”

Control and enjoy. Control and enjoy. One ounce of whiskey didn’t hurt, so maybe two would feel better. Two? No problem. So maybe three. In other words, let’s keep drinking until the experiment stops going so well. But by this point, there’s no more experiment for we are back on old familiar ground now. 

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The crux of the problem.

How then shall we help our readers determine, to their own satisfaction, whether they are one of us? The experiment of quitting for a period of time will be helpful, but we think we can render an even greater service to alcoholic sufferers and perhaps to the medical fraternity. So we shall describe some of the mental states that precede a relapse into drinking, for obviously this is the crux of the problem.

What sort of thinking dominates an alcoholic who repeats time after time the desperate experiment of the first drink? Friends who have reasoned with him after a spree which has brought him to the point of divorce or bankruptcy are mystified when he walks directly into a saloon. Why does he? Of what is he thinking? – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 34-35

Before we launch into Jim’s story, it would be advantageous to study these introductory paragraphs.

Up to this point we have been describing the hopeless nature of the alcoholic malady. Bill has taken great pains to hammer this point home. But now the book begins to paint a clearer picture of alcoholic insanity utilizing a couple of actual cases along with a humorous analogy.

 By the time we reach the end of “More About Alcoholism” pretty much everything related to Step One has been said. If the reader finds himself or herself in agreement at this point, then Step One has been taken.

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Plenty of Character

For those who are unable to drink moderately the question is how to stop altogether. We are assuming, of course, that the reader desires to stop. Whether such a person can quit upon a nonspiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not. Many of us felt that we had plenty of character. There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it – this utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 34

There is much in this paragraph that has already been stated several tines in a variety of different ways, so I would find it difficult to say anything original.

However, it is here that I first notice the word “character.” Because this word will become a very important part of our discussions of the Steps, I think it would be a good idea to clarify what Bill means by it. Here’s a dictionary definition:



  1. the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
  2. one such feature or trait; characteristic.
  3. moral or ethical quality: a man of fine, honorable character.
  4. qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity: It takes character to face up to a bully.
  5. reputation: a stain on one’s character.

I believe Bill was using the word in sense four. Therefore, what he is saying is that we were men and women who possessed honesty and courage. We had reached a point where we had an honest desire to stop drinking and we had the courage to take action, but we failed time and time again.We began to doubt ourselves and, if you were like me, came to a point where we were baffled by this seeming inconsistency. We tried again and again to do what we knew to be right yet we found it impossible. For many of us the struggle became so untenable that we simply gave up. “I’m an alcoholic. I drink. That’s what alcoholics do.”

Bill questions whether good character and will power are sufficient to recover from alcoholism, at least on a “non-spiritual” basis. In examining the Steps we will return again and again to this direct linkage between a spiritual recovery and the restoration of character. It’s quite meaningless to speak of “defects of character” when you can’t even define character. It’s hard to take a “moral inventory” when you have a fuzzy idea of what the word “moral” means in that context.

As a footnote, this is where the Oxford groups’ “Moral Re-armament” influence begins to move to the forefront of the AA program. It’s impossible to divorce AA from it’s Oxford Group roots, but it is equally absurd to claim that AA somehow inherited the indefensible excesses of that movement. There is at least one web site that tries to discredit the program by just these means. As I see it, the drunks that were attending Oxford Group meetings had little interest in the political and social ends of the groups and, when they split off (or were kicked out, depending on your point of view), borrowed what was valuable and effective in recovery and left the rest. 

Here’s a portion of Bill’s Guest House talk that shows just what parts of it they did, in fact, borrow:

So Roland aligned himself with the Oxford groups of that time, a rather evangelical movement, rather aggressive (very easy it is to criticize). It was nondenominational, however, and it used simple common denominators of religions, simple moral principles. It called upon its members to admit that they could not solve the life problem on their own. It called upon them for self-examination. It called upon them for restitution. It called upon them for a kind of giving in the Franciscan manner, the kind of giving that demands no return in money, power, prestige and the like, the losing of one’s self in the lives of others. Such was the nature of the crowd with which he became associated. Unaccountably, to him, the obsession to drink left. And for some years he had no more trouble. At the time in the groups there were a few alcoholics sober. There is one now at Ann Arbor that goes back to that time, an old friend who never became an AA. Sobered up in the Oxford Groups.

Notice that there is no mention of the political goals of Moral Re-armament. That’s a very telling omission.

In my next post, we will begin to read “Jim’s” story. I’m looking forward to that.

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A man of thirty

Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the difficulty is that few alcoholics have enough desire to stop while there is yet time. We have heard of a few instances where people, who showed definite signs of alcoholism, were able to stop for a long period because of an overpowering desire to do so. Here is one. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p.32

I was once a man of thirty. I can’t conceive of any scenario that would have resulted in “an overpowering desire” to stop drinking. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume there was. The story that follows is the “man of thirty.” He is called “an exceptional man” because he was able to stay bone dry for twenty-five years. That’s pretty exceptional.

Then he fell victim to a belief which practically every alcoholic has – that his long period of sobriety and self-discipline had qualified him to drink as other men.

I think the choice of the word “qualified” is curious. I know many normal drinkers, and as far as I know they never had to “qualify.”  Notice the word is not “enabled” but “qualified.” It’s that same thinking we discussed earlier, that staying dry “entitles” us to something, and that something is usually a drink.

And so it was when the man of thirty became a retired man of fifty-five. “Out came his carpet slippers and a bottle.” Where had they been all that time? Did he have them stored somewhere? I get the mental image of a very dusty old pair of slippers sitting next to a really well aged bottle of scotch. No, I don’t think they were physically stored anywhere. They were stored in his mind, his alcoholic mind, which is a fitting place to store bottles (and maybe slippers).

He made it two months before he was hospitalized. He then tried to regain his abstinence and found he could not. Why? There were simply no more compelling reasons to abstain. His successful and happy business career had been achieved. The only overpowering desire he had left was to drink..

This story contains a powerful lesson which was the whole point of telling it. “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Or as my dear friend Lucy S. says (and I quote for the second time), “once you are a pickle you can never be a cucumber again.”

Which again raises the tedious question, is alcoholism innate, or is it the result of heavy drinking, or some combination of each? The story seems to imply that the man of thirty sensed that there was something quite abnormal about his early drinking, much as I sensed it from the very beginning. And even after a long period of sobriety he lapsed immediately into alcoholic drinking. Immediately. So the implication is that even before the onset of heavy drinking we alcoholics already have an abnormal reaction to alcohol.

There is an experience from my life that tends to support this idea. E.M. Jellinek was  the originator of the term “disease concept of alcoholism.” You may already have read how irritated I get when I hear people going on about “their disease,” but the concept is an important one (notwithstanding it’s misuse). At the time I went into treatment in 1981, it was widely used (not so much now). During my intake, I filled out a questionnaire in which I was to give the approximate date that I first noticed certain symptoms such as high tolerance, increased sensitivity, loss of memory, morning shakes, etc. They were presented randomly so I would not be influenced by their order. When I was finished they took out a version of the Jellinek chart then in use and wrote the dates of onset next to the symptoms. I tracked very close to the order on the chart. I came away from that experience with a very clear sense that I was a “proto-alcoholic” (my term) long before I started regular drinking.

Yet there are other people who will report just as sincerely that their drinking was quite normal most of their lives until they crossed an unseen line and plummeted off the cliff into alcoholic drinking.

I guess the answer to the question is “it’s some combination of each, or one or the other.” In other words, it doesn’t answer the question, but it really doesn’t matter. Alcoholics Anonymous works for people who are convinced that they have a permanent condition of mind and body that will never be “cured” in the conventional sense. Whether this is scientifically demonstrable matters not. If I had to postpone my recovery until  this debate became settled once and for all, I would have died quite some time ago. Maybe you would have too.

All of this is followed by a warning to “young people.” And I would emphasize this to them: there are certain symptoms of alcoholism (such as initially high tolerance) that are present early on and are good predictors of later problems. So heed the story of the “man of thirty” and listen to our stories as well, especially the parts about our early drinking. If you are an alcoholic like me, we can save you ten or twenty years of misery. You can start wearing your slippers now.

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Comin’ Home

I confess to having been a bit lax in posting of late, but my new tablet went belly-up and was in the shop for several days. Also, my sister was visiting from New York so that also took tim away from this little soapbox.

I’m happy to say that I will be at Rochester meetings on May 2-4 and the evening of the 5th. I have a consultation at the WSU medical school that Monday and will get a little face time with old friends in the bargain. Let me know if you want to get together.

Why do I look forward to coming back to Rochester so much? I suppose it’s the almost universal feeling we have that wherever we got sober “they do it right.” I know many people who swear they couldn’t have gotten sober where meetings break up into several noisy tables and don’t close separately and make even more noise when they do finish, which can take an hour and a half some times. Come to think of it, how did I get sober under those circumstances?

The fact is, we get sober when we need to, not where we need to. When it finally does click, we get imprinted with that flavor of the fellowship, and think it’s the only way. Sort of like baby ducks.

More importantly, for many of us its the first taste of a loving and caring God experienced through the love and care of our fellow AAs. It’s the end of a homesickness we didn’t even know we had, and there’s no place like home.

I’ll pick up the blog in another day or so, but for now I look forward to seeing all of you soon.

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