By Laurie A.
My wife thought I would get up and walk out from my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The meeting started with a recitation of the 12 Steps suggested as a programme of recovery and six of them mention God or “Him” or “Power.”
I was a surly, cynical agnostic and my wife, sitting beside me, thought, “This won’t work.” But I was a week away from having attempted suicide. I’d survived by the skin of my teeth and was in no state to engage in theological wrangling. I listened with laser-like attention to anything that would keep me alive, and staying alive meant not drinking.
My last binge had not been that spectacular; in fact I thought I deserved a pat on the back for arriving home before the pubs closed. But my wife took one look at me as I reeled through the front door and fled out of the back door with our daughter. As they drove off into the night I cursed them for being so unkind. I then turned the place upside down, wreaking my frustration and resentment on the furniture.
The next morning as I surveyed the wreckage I knew this could not go on. I’d never smashed the place up before and was appalled and horrified.
It finally dawned on me that while I kept on drinking my life just got more chaotic. Despite all my well-meaning and strenuous efforts I could not stop drinking. I couldn’t face another ten, 20 or 30 years of that living hell so I decided to end it all. As an alcoholic, loneliness was a way of life. I felt despised and rejected, shunned like a leper; I despised and rejected myself. But that morning I felt as though the cosmos itself had rejected me. I no longer belonged here. The pain of being alive was impossible to bear. Words diminish it.
As I left the house, my wife and daughter arrived home. I muttered, “They shoot mad dogs, don’t they?” and pushed past them.
I went to a chemist’s (pharmacy) and tried to decide how many aspirins would do the job, 25, 50 or 100. I bought 100 just to be sure, along with a bottle of orange juice. I walked into nearby woods, left the path so I wouldn’t be found, sat under a tree and gulped down the aspirins in handfuls. I then lay down and waited to die.
I was saved by luck and ignorance. I thought I would swiftly lapse into unconsciousness and the oblivion I craved; I didn’t know how long the tablets would take to work. I was aware of an insect scratching away next to my ear. I felt woozy but that passed, as did the ringing in my ears. I watched the sun passing through the branches. At one point I began to panic and struggled to get up. But I forced myself to stay there and told myself I had to go through with it.
Baffled that nothing seemed to be happening, I thought, “You haven’t killed yourself but you haven’t done yourself any good so you’d better get help.” A cynic might say, “Well, why didn’t you put your head on a railway line?” I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that I was confused and bewildered – I wasn’t thinking straight; maybe the instinct for self-preservation had kicked in.
I walked back into the town and gave myself up to the police. Two young Police Constables rushed me to an Accident & Emergency room with the car siren blaring and lights flashing. One of them said, “Don’t you be sick in our car.” He added, “You’re not going to like what they’re going to do to you.” I found out what he meant when I was pumped out. I really did think then that I was going to die.
My wife refused to visit me; here was yet another disaster caused by my drunkenness. The kids persuaded her to come but she just sat at the end of the bed, quivering with rage, refusing to speak to me.
Before I was discharged a psychiatrist told me, “If you’d left it any longer before getting help, all they could have done was watch you die.” I didn’t plan to cut it that fine; I just wanted off the planet. He told me I would need to arrange psychiatric aftercare with my doctor – and suggested I attend AA.
I’d turned my nose up at AA years before but now I was terrified that if I drank again I would die; and I just knew I would drink again because that’s what I always did. In AA I often hear members say they lacked the courage to commit suicide. It seems a perverse sort of courage that enables someone to die but not to live. I didn’t want to die but didn’t know how to live; I lacked the courage to live. I’ve seen suicide described as a supremely selfish act. In my case morality didn’t come into it; I just couldn’t take any more. Depending which statistic you believe, a third of male suicides are drink-related.
When I got home I phoned AA and my doctor. He encouraged me to go to AA and arranged an appointment with the consultant psychiatrist at a National Health Service addiction treatment centre. That evening two AA members visited me and told me their stories. They invited me to an AA meeting, which I went to with my wife. She had put me on probation. She thought going to AA was just another one of my “tricks”; I was always making solemn promises not to drink again.
At that first meeting I got hope that my alcoholism was no longer my unique problem; that there was help if I was prepared to use it. A few days later I met David Marjot, the psychiatrist at St Bernard’s hospital, West London. He listened to my story and said, “Well, I confirm the diagnosis. You’re a chronic alcoholic and from now on things can only get worse.” I thought, “I’ve just tried to kill myself – how much worse can it get?”
He went on, “I’ve seen hundreds of men like you. You’re in your mid-40s, still employed and married – it will all be gone if you carry on drinking, and with your pattern of binge drinking you’re in danger of having an oesophageal haemorrhage and bleeding to death.” He offered me an inpatient bed but said there was a seven-week waiting list. He added, “I’ll keep a place for you but in the meantime keep going to AA.”
That was in September 1984. I still have his letter of appointment; I hope I never have to use it.
In AA there’s a saying which I found immensely consoling: “I’m not a bad person trying to get good – I’m a sick person trying to get well.” I always blamed myself for not being able to control my drinking. I didn’t realise I was very sick. The illness theory is controversial but I find it a useful metaphor. If not scientifically exact it works for me as experiential verification. And it doesn’t let me off the hook. I had to try to put right the damage and hurt that I’d caused others in my alcoholic descent.
As soon as I felt well enough I went to the police station and thanked the two PCs who had rushed me to hospital. I wrote to the hospital and thanked them too. Those people saved my life. I’ve tried to be the husband to my wife that I’d denied her while in my alcoholic wilderness. I’ve made amends to our lovely kids.
The AA group that I began attending met at a Quaker meeting house. There was a poster on the notice board that said: “A silent Quaker meeting for worship can be a quiet process of healing and a journey of discovery.” I plucked up courage one Sunday and went to my first Quaker meeting. I was not judged for my belief or lack of belief and welcomed.
I was attracted by the similarities between Quakerism and AA. Here in Britain both are practical, non-hierarchical, egalitarian and non-creedal.
Unlike some Quaker meetings in North America, British Quakerism has no priests or pastors, nor liturgy, sermons or hymns. Meeting houses are unconsecrated and bare of ornament. Meetings for worship are held in silence from which arise occasional, spontaneous, spoken contributions which anyone present can offer if so moved. When AA began in Britain in the late 1940s British members discarded the Lord’s prayer. Most meetings end with the Serenity prayer, but it’s optional and as an agnostic I stay silent.
Both Quakerism and AA say the spiritual life is not a theory – we have to live it. I am more open-minded and tolerant than I have ever been and I’m still an agnostic.
I thought the worst thing that could have happened to me was to become an alcoholic; it turned out to be the best thing. If I hadn’t found AA and the Quakers I would never have found myself. I drank for limitless expansion, but that thirst was never satisfied.
Today it is one day at a time.
Laurie A. is a retired national newspaper and BBC journalist in the UK. His sobriety date is 8/10/84. He served on the Great Britain AA literature committee and edited Share, the British fellowship’s national magazine, and Share and Share Alike, a book celebrating 60 years of AA in Britain in 2007.