By Les C.
When did I become an alcoholic?
All during of my first 80 years I was a “social drinker.” I maintained an adequate supply of various cocktail mixes and “straight” beverages in my larder. Every gathering of friends included an inquiry as to whether anyone would like a “drink” (which meant either alcoholic or non-alcoholic). When I built a house there was always attention given to a bar in the recreation room. “Drinking” was a natural option, not a necessity… or was it? No thought was given to that idea until years and years later.
At age 70 I was introduced to the book, Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the AA Message Reached the World. In it I saw a photo of Bill Wilson on a motorcycle with Lois in the side car. It was the very bike which I had seen as a child in 1932, when it was stored in a carriage house on the Burnham estate in Manchester, Vermont. I was fascinated that the bulk of that book contained information and descriptions of events and places which I had known and been a part of as I grew up in southern Vermont. I became interested in the detailed history of Alcoholics Anonymous and I acquired a small library of books dealing with that history.
Rogers Burnham (Lois Burnham Wilson’s brother) lived with my family in Vermont for over three years in the early 1930s, before the founding of AA. At that time I was also friendly with Ebby Thacher who lived next door. I knew he came from a prominent political family in Albany, New York who had a summer home in Manchester, Vermont, but little else. He was a young friendly adult, and I felt he was a very nice person. I did not know that he had a serious problem with alcohol.
When did Ebby become an alcoholic? Or decide he was an alcoholic? Or did he ever?
As I gathered more information during my study, I learned that when I knew Ebby it was just before he was involved in an infamous court appearance in Bennington.
Ebby was about to be committed to a mental hospital in Brattleboro as a result of being a perpetual drunkard, a sentence not uncommon in those days. Three other prominent upper-class local men, Rowland Hazard, Cebra Graves and “Shep” Cornell were friends of Ebby and had become members of the local Oxford Group. They interceded with the Judge to release Ebby into their custody rather than commit him.
Within months, Ebby had the significant reunion with his life-long friend Bill Wilson in the kitchen at 182 Clinton Street, Brooklyn, NY which started Bill thinking about his own serious alcohol problems.
Is it around this time that Bill recognized that he was an alcoholic?
Ebby provided Bill with a new perspective. Bill began to consider ways to gain – and maintain – sobriety, and eventually articulated his concepts in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.
During my research and study during the late 1990s and early 2000s as I continued in my role as a “social drinker,” I came across an article which included a 10-point questionnaire entitled “Am I An Alcoholic?” When I completed it, I learned that for two of the ten questions: (1) “Do you tend to want a drink at a special time during the day?” and (2) “Do you tend to drink for relaxation?”, I had answered “YES”. Their scale for interpreting the meaning of my results was: “You MIGHT be an alcoholic.”
It was the very first time in my life that I thought the word “might” used in this context was perhaps, and sadly, redundant.
The words “alcoholic” and “drunkard” meant different things, and sometimes “social drinking” might have a different significance for different people. I had known for several years that some folks (my relatives) had expressed concern about my drinking. I would have more that one martini during meals or cocktail gatherings, as an example. Doing so always helped me to relax and it had become, well, a habit.
The specific words “I’m an alcoholic” indicate a self awareness and respect for what the “first drink” leads to, such as an uncontrolled decline into excuses and denials. It’s okay for the public to use the descriptive word “drunk” but the word “alcoholic” is especially meaningful to the individual who recognizes he or she has the disease called “alcoholism.”
I have attended fellowship meetings for many years and acquired a number of fine friends through those contacts. In my group, the theme involved group-reading and study of the Big Book.
As I have become a bit “aged,” I have done more reminiscing and started to write down some philosophical thoughts in poetic format, usually tongue-in-cheek. For example:
There are many hills in life.
One which I may wish to climb
May require a helping hand.
One might be yours, but
The other… must be mine.
But let’s get back to the original question: “When did I become an alcoholic?”
It might be argued that if I am an “alcoholic,” then I must have been allergic to alcohol from an early time and the craving was kept, more or less, under control as a ”social drinker.” That seems to be true, and it happens that often it takes quite a long time for drinking to become a compulsion. History suggests that Bill Wilson became a recognizable alcoholic around the age of 22, when he was socializing as a young army officer, and discovered he had lost control of his drinking. Until then, although he was born and raised in a tavern, he could only be considered a moderate social drinker.
The answer to the question “When did I become an alcoholic?” is best left to each person who drinks, and it is okay for some people to decide they are just “social drinkers” provided that their alcohol consumption is in fact not a medically or socially verifiable problem. There are some people who live to a ripe old age and drink regularly, and do not feel or appear to others as being sick. Conversely, there are some who drink often, and to the point of stupor, who say they are not a “drunk” or an “alcoholic” and die at an early age from ailments like cirrhosis, or DUI. Until a persistent drinker admits to themselves that he or she is unable to stop (Step 1 in the AA program), they are not a true “alcoholic” and probably remain as an admitted, or not, “drunk.” This statement may either be a fact or may be only a point of view, but if the shoe fits… let’s wear it.
There is not just one way to identify when a person becomes an “alcoholic.”
It varies with individuals. Upon reflection, it may well be the point at which an excessive drinking habit is identified and admitted. It could be the point at which a person realizes, inwardly and seriously, that his or her drinking is uncontrollable. It might be prompted by an event such as a DUI, which forces the mind to confront the reality of the problem. It might be a short quiz, as in my case at age 80 when I realized that my “social” drinking was actually much more serious than that, and I had my last drink. I now am 89.
The most important day is the one on which a person recognizes that his or her life has become unmanageable (Step 1) and commits to working towards “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” (Appendix II of the Big Book). This is often achieved by getting help from others, and/or using a version of the AA 12-Step Program, leading to a healthier life style, better physical condition, and emotional growth.
Like many others, the day I recognized that I was or had become an “alcoholic” is the same day I decided to do something about it.
I now have nine years of continuous sobriety, in part due to the influence of my childhood friends, Rogers Burnham and Ebby Thacher, on the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson.
Nine years and counting, one day at a time…