When did I become an alcoholic?


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.

Bill-Lois Motorcycle

Bill Wilson and Lois Burnham Wilson on their Harley Davidson motorcycle, on a year-long cross-country business tour in 1925.

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?”

Rogers Burnham

Les is the author of Rogers Burnham: The Original Man Behind Bill W.
For a copy of the book click on the image.

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…

5 Responses

  1. Les says:

    Hi Tom; A bit of trivia regarding the motorcycle.
    I guess you know that I actually lived in the Burnham house in Manchester 1932-4 and my older brother (11) and I used to go up to the Carriage House on the rear of that property and PLAY on that Harley…of course not starting it. One would sit on the bike and one in the sidecar…just like the picture. I never knew its history, or what became of it.

  2. Denis K says:

    Thank you for this Les, I greatly enjoyed your snapshot of a bit of AA history as well your story of recovery; I will be ordering a copy of your book today.
    I love AA history and I love hearing success stories from seniors who have come to our fellowship and found a spark for living an exciting and fulfilling life. Kudos to you Les for sharing your story.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, thanks so much, Les – I’ll have to order your book about Rogers Burnham also.

    I’ve seen the picture of Lois and Bill on the motorcycle a number of times previously, but I was struck seeing it again – thanks Roger – for how dashing a young couple they were! It’s fascinating, Les, that you remember seeing the motorcycle as a child.

    Your story of recovery, Les, reminds me of an elderly lady who I heard qualify in 1974 at a New York Mustard Seed noon AA meeting in my second year of recovery. She had been a Hollywood starlet in the 1930s and introduced to AA in LA in 1945-6, but she didn’t get sober until sometime in the mid-1960s. When I heard her, she was 8-9 years sober. In recovery, she had achieved what previously she had been unable to achieve – she was a popular and full-time working character actress in movies and on TV shows as well as commercials. She was the first person to demonstrate to me what your story also does, that it is never too late to get sober and to live a productive and satisfying life a day at a time.

  4. Joe C. says:

    I love stories that bring history to life to, just to ditto what Bob had to say. This is, for me, a captivating tale. I have a question for Les or anyone. It’s about Rosa, the wife of Jim Burwell. His story, “The Vicious Cycle.” tells of his one and only 12 Step call on a woman, which led to them getting married a year later. Ha – is that where this made up “one year rule” came from? But that’s not my question; my question is if her story is anywhere. Is there an audio or written account of her AA story. I am naturally curious if she shared Jim’s worldview or if she was a believer. I believe they moved to San Diego together. Did she survive Jim?

    If anyone knows more about her, it’s a curious piece of AA history I don’t know anything about.

  5. bob k says:

    Les is prominent among a group of folk I admire a great deal, on AA History Lovers. I have an amateur’s interest in AA history, but these guys (and gals) are the REAL deal.

    I remember when Les was nearing publication of the Rogers Burnham book, but I had forgotten about it. I’m ordering it today, and will possibly get back to you with a book report.

    The element of personal contact that Les experienced, brings a special element to these stories from so long ago. I loved the charm of his account of his own journey. We are a varied lot.

Translate »

Discover more from AA Agnostica

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading