Second Lieut. Bill Wilson didn’t think twice when the first butler he had ever seen offered him a drink. The 22-year-old soldier didn’t think about how alcohol had destroyed his family. He didn’t think about the Yankee temperance movement of his childhood or his loving fiance Lois Burnham or his emerging talent for leadership. He didn’t think about anything at all. “I had found the elixir of life,” he wrote. Wilson’s last drink, 17 years later, when alcohol had destroyed his health and his career, precipitated an epiphany that would change his life and the lives of millions of other alcoholics. Incarcerated for the fourth time at Manhattan’s Towns Hospital in 1934, Wilson had a spiritual awakening — a flash of white light, a liberating awareness of God — that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and Wilson’s revolutionary 12-step program, the successful remedy for alcoholism. The 12 steps have also generated successful programs for eating disorders, gambling, narcotics, debting, sex addiction and people affected by others’ addictions. Aldous Huxley called him “the greatest social architect of our century.
It occurred to me, when I read the bio above, that back in July I somehow managed to reach 17 years of continuous sobriety. That I should read about Bill W. on Thanksgiving seems somehow appropriate, since my sobriety is one of the things I’m most thankful for. Without it, I most likely wouldn’t be here, and if I were I certainly wouldn’t have the life I have now or the family I have now. To some degree, I have Bill W. to thank for that — and just about every alcoholic who walked into an A.A. meeting and kept coming back often enough to keep it going long enough for someone like me to walk in the door.
Now that I think about it, maybe it didn’t start with alcohol – at least not an alcoholic drink. Maybe it started with medicine. One of the results of the pressures mentioned above, besides rapid and severe mood swings, was a pretty bad case of insomnia. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I stumbled into the bathroom and found some NyQuil, did a couple of shots of it, and went off to sleep. This became such a habit that my mom noticed it, remarked on it, and even stopped buying NyQuil for a while. Then there was our tradition at home of celebrating birthdays with cake, ice cream and champagne. Afterwards, I went around knocking off everyone else;s unfinished champagne.
In high school, I drank what I could get when I could get it. It wasn’t until I went away to college that my drinking really took off. I can remember at least once during my freshman year when I woke up drunk and went to class in that condition. I’m sure there were others that I don’t remember, because afterwards the blackouts set in. First I’d lose nights, then sometimes whole days. It would happen when I was driving back to my dorm or wherever I was living. I’d get home and not remember how I got there. A few times I woke up with bruises that I don’t know how I got, or with people I’d no idea how I met or what I’d done with them. I’ll spare you the catalog of how often I threw up from drinking. (Frey does a lot of that too.)
Then there were the friends who’d remarked on it. There were the friends who cut me off when I came to visit. After guzzling down a fair amount of Scott’s bourbon and sherry, I remember him telling me that he couldn’t afford to keep me in liquor any more. As it happens, Scott also played a role in my final epiphany.
I’d been watching a movie with him and Katharine one Saturday night, and we shared a bottle of wine. Actually, I’m not sure that “shared” is the right term, since I remember them having one drink each while I finished the bottle. It wasn’t my first drink of the day either. By that point, it was my practice to start drinking at home, before going out, in order to ensure I’d get enough to drink and get the effect I wanted once I went out. Plus, I could drink what I wanted, without appearing to drink so much. Usually I’d hit the bottle of Dewar’s I kept in my room, but whatever was available would do.
I don’t remember where Katharine went after the movie, but I remember Scott and I were going to a party, one where there was going to be a keg of beer. I was driving. I remember the party vaguely. I know I drank plenty. When it was time to go, Scott and I got into my car. I remembered staring the car and thinking to myself “I’m too drunk. I shouldn’t be driving.”
That’s all I remember. I don’t remember dropping Scott off at his apartment, or driving myself home. I don’t remember anything else before finding myself sitting my car, parked behind the house I was living in at the time, feeling very scared. I’d blacked out while driving before, but never with anyone else in the car. Putting my own life in danger was something I had no problem with. Putting my friend’s life in danger, so directly, shook me pretty much to my core. I got out of the car and walked around it to inspect it. It was OK. No sign of any accident. I went in the house, went directly to the bathroom, an became violently ill. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt sick again, this time not from the alcohol but from what I’d done and what could have happened.
Like I said, I had a somewhat softer landing than Frey’s own literal face-first landing. My “rock bottom” wasn’t nearly as low as his or the people he met in the treatment center. I hadn’t lost a job, a career a spouse, a family, or my health to alcoholism, yet. And it was the “yet” that scared me at the time.
It’s funny how things work out. Frey landed in probably the top rehab facility in the country. I, on the other hand, couldn’t have afforded rehab but somehow I landed right where I needed to be. At the time, I was living in a boarding house run by a small Episcopal church on campus. The house was right next to the chapel, and as a resident I knew where the to the chapel keys were in case I ever needed to let someone in. I also knew that a student-focused Alcoholics Anonymous group met in the chapel basement. For most of the time that I’d been living there I was often the one to unlock the chapel for them so they could set up for their meeting.
Sometimes, fate works in funny ways. By the time I realized I had a problem, I didn’t have to wonder where to go. I was living next door to an AA meeting location. I made plans to go check it out, but in order to avoid having to talk to anyone, I decided to slip in a half an hour after the meeting started, and maybe I could slip out early. As fate would have it, I got the meeting time wrong. Instead I showed up half an hour early. It was just me and the guy who came early to make the coffee.
Couldn’t sneak out unnoticed. Had to talk. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember much except that when people started rolling in, I knew half of them, including a gay guy who was also new to the meeting. Upon seeing me, one of them said “I was wondering when you were going to show up.” As the end of the meeting, the other gay guy picked up a “one day chip.” Then all eyes in the room turned to me. After a minute I just said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Where Frey fought the AA program offered in treatment, I tried to fake it, got called on my bullshit, and then finally got down to it. That’s probably the most difficult point in the book for me, where Frey adamantly rejects the AA program along with the notion of a “Higher Power” (which I also struggled with) and the idea that addiction is a disease and that genetics might play a role. ” Eventually he did so some of it in his own way, based in part on his reading of the Tao Te Ching which his brother gave to him. Along the way he falls in love, befriends other addicts (whose endings are summarized at the end of the book) falls in love with a former prostitute and fellow addict, and stares down his addiction in a way I’m not sure I could have with less than thirty days clean under my belt.
I did it pretty much by the book. (I had a sponsor who called me on my bullshit and wouldn’t let me get away with half-stepping it.) I went to regular meetings for four years, until I began to drift away from them, feeling I didn’t really need it in order to stay sober. By that point I knew in my bones that whatever was going on in my ilfe a drink wasn’t going to make it better, and would inevitably make it worse. The important thing is that 13 year after hitting bottom both Frey (as far as I know) and I are still clean and sober, and living very different lives.
Frey, whose addiction had progressed further than mine at the time he landed in rehab, showed me a different life in his writing and his searingly honest portrayal of his own course and the wreckage left behind, as well as the lives of his fellow rehab patients, some of whom are on third and fourth times through rehab. It’s different because, being a rather “high-bottom drunk” – one who hasn’t lost all before entering recovery – it’s a window into a a life that I probably could have had by now if my drinking career had continued for another 13 years … and I have lived that long. Chances are, without the resources to get into rehab when the addiction progressed, I wouldn’t have lived for 13 more years.
And that’s where Frey’s story resonates with me, the difference between the life I could have had, and the life I do have. It’s a bit like looking at your reflection in a mirror half covered by a curtain and then having the curtain pulled away momentarily, and then it falls back into place. You catch a glimpse of the other side. For my part, I’m grateful for that glimpse. That’s probably why after finishing Frey’s book I’m more than halfway through Augusten Burroughs’ Dry : A Memoir. It reminds me of that part of who I am, as well the value of what I have and how easily I could lose it with a single act; one choice.
Choice. Frey believes that addiction is a choice. I’m not sure I agree with him, but in one respect he may be half right. In the early days of my “one day at a time” recovery, there were times when I literally got through it by simply telling myself “I choose not to have a drink today.” Thirteen years later, I’m still making that choice, but it has gotten much, much easier. In fact, it’s second nature. The big difference between now and then is that I know I’m also making another choice. I’m choosing my life now – all of it. Remembering where I was and where I could be makes that choice even easier than it already is.
From what I’ve read about Bill W.’s life, we couldn’t have been more different. But we were alike in at least one big way. That he manage to build AA in such a way that almost anyone would find a place there — and a shot at sobriety — is quite an accomplishment and speaks to his desire to keep it as open and welcoming as possible.
It’s been criticized as a cult, and there are perhaps times when some local AA groups veer off in that direction. One group in Washington, DC, apparently morphed into a cult, or something like it, a few years ago.
When Kristen was 17 and drinking out of control, her psychologist referred her to an Alcoholics Anonymous group that specialized in helping the youngest drinkers. In the Midtown Group, members and outsiders agree, young people could find new friends, constant fellowship, daily meetings, summer-long beach parties, and a charismatic leader who would steer them through sobriety.
But according to more than a dozen young people who structured their lives around the group, the unusual adaptation of AA that Michael Quinones created from his home in Bethesda became a confusing blend of comfort and crisis. They described a rigidly insular world of group homes and socializing, in which older men had sex with teenage girls, ties to family and friends were severed or strained, and the most vulnerable of alcoholics, some suffering from emotional problems, were encouraged to stop taking prescribed medications.
…In Midtown, Quinones and several friends, who are also longtime AA members, have taken on leadership roles that go well beyond the typical part played by organizers of meetings, according to local therapists, ministers and AA members. AA tradition suggests that “our leaders are but trusted servants,” the New York staffer said. “They do not govern.”
Quinones and other senior members have not only run two dozen weekly meetings across the Washington region but also organized ski trips and summer beach parties, helped young members find jobs at stores such as Nordstrom and the old Hecht’s, and encouraged young members to live together in group houses in Gaithersburg, Rockville and Bethesda, members and ex-members said.
“It’s like a prepackaged community,” said David, 26, a former Midtown member who initially adored the group but now is highly critical of it. “You’re thinking, okay, maybe I can stay sober for the rest of my life, but how do I have fun? I went to a different group, and it was 50-year-old men who went bowling on Tuesdays. That wasn’t going to do it for me. At Midtown, everything is there for you. Here are your women, here are your dances every weekend, ski trip every March.”
But some former members describe the Midtown life as overwhelmingly controlling. McNair said she was pressured to pay $950 for a share in a three-bedroom summer house in which 20 Midtown members slept, most of them on air mattresses on the floor. Kristen described being pressed to pay $1,200 for a summer house share in which she slept on the floor.
Some therapists who used to refer young people to Midtown and some pastors whose churches have hosted Midtown meetings say they have heard of too many disturbing practices to maintain a relationship with the group.
Basically, it’s possible for people to take advantage of the loose structure of AA to turn one group or another into a cult, and I’d tell anyone who walked into a AA group to find anything like the above to turn on his or her heel and walk right back out.
My attitude towards recovery these days is that there isn’t any one group that’s got a lock on it. I do believe that what makes AA effective for so many people is the constant self-examination and pretty much brutal honesty at the core of its twelve steps. What it essentially does is give you coping skills that addiction keeps you from developing.
That’s about 25 years of heavy drinking or active alcoholism. From what I was told in AA, and everything i’ve read about addiction since, when substance abuse begins – whether alcohol, cocaine, etc. – it stunts emotional development emotional development. Or, as it was told to me,”At the point where you started drinking heavily, you stopped maturing. Now that you’ve stopped, you’re emotional development is still pretty much where it was when you started.” It made sense when I thought about it. If you think of maturing as basically a process of learning to cope with the regular ups and downs of life, and consider that for an addict using or drinking becomes not only a substitute for learning to cope, but also means of avoiding coping at the same time.
Find something that give you that, and doesn’t require handing control of every aspect of your life to someone else, and work it if it works for you. If it requires you to do something physically, psychologically, emotionally or financially unsafe, walk away and find something else. There is something else. If not AA, then another recovery group.
So, today I’m thankful for having found a method of coping that doesn’t come in a bottle or a can or a ket. I’m thankful for my family and the life that I have, and I’m thankful for the role Bill W. played in making it possible.