Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Sometimes it takes a greater hero to refuse a destructive drink than to stand with a bayonet, eye to the enemy.”

I hesitate to agree with these words of St. John Paul the Great, since as I write I am celebrating with a cup of tea, having attained my twenty-eighth year as a non-drinking alcoholic. The sole reason I feel able to reproduce the quote approvingly without offending against modesty is that, looking back, I do not quite regard as myself the person who, with conscious forethought, had his last alcoholic drink on the afternoon of July 29, 1990.

This is contradictory: In some respects, I can look back all the way to my childhood and recognize myself at various stages; but, as my backward gaze scans the late months of 1990 and no short time beyond, I cannot now claim to know this person who experienced difficulty in not picking up an alcoholic drink, one day at a time, but one day awoke with the thought that all the drink in New York City would not be worth a single dollar.

There are things about the general experience that I remember: the disruption, ignominy, and terror that accompanied my last months of drinking; the ducking and diving; the running out of hope that I could ever again reclaim the buzz; the nausea of the mornings after; the embarrassment of half-recalled episodes of, shall we say, unselfconsciousness. But in other respects, the tracks of my recall run out of road. I cannot, for example, access the personality of someone to whom alcohol meant so much that he needed supernatural powers to assist him in avoiding it.

I understand the problem in the abstract but have no residual visceral insights into it. I don’t appear to have been there while I learned whatever it was I learned in order to find a way of stopping. Yet I know that it was me—that for a number of days that amounted to months, possibly a couple of years, I found it difficult that alcohol was forbidden to me, seeing no real possibility of life for myself in such conditions; and then . . . something happened . . .

Alcoholism is described in many ways—but I do not think it helpful to dwell on concepts like pursuit of pleasure, chemical compulsion, or even enslavement to this colored liquid in a glass. The word “addiction” has no meaning unless it is contextualized. For me, alcohol was wrapped up with meaning: I had allowed my desiring to short-circuit into one of those “false infinities” Cardinal Ratzinger talked about. I had staked everything on the same pocket. Alcoholism results from the human spirit’s being slowly usurped by the kind of spirits you find in bottles. This is the precise nature of the condition, and the meaning of addiction. Desire, which ought to transcend the horizon of the humanly knowable, becomes mired in a single substance and its pursuit, by which happiness is briefly accessible in what seems like an enhanced condition. Soon, however, happiness turns to horror, as desire becomes perverted by a singular obsession with what is in fact a poison, and no other kind of meaning seems plausible. Ultimately, this process has two destinations: madness or premature death. For the lucky, merely death.

For the functioning alcoholic, the bottle in the hand is indeed a kind of bayonet: It fends off the fears and enemies he feels himself assailed by. Towards the end of my own drinking, I experienced the sense, in public houses as the night moved in outside, of being swamped in indecipherable noise as the faces of my fellow drinkers turned into the faces of gargoyles. One evening I ran out into the street, catching a bus home, and then, on disembarking and being unable to remember why I had terminated the night’s enjoyment in such a rude and precipitate manner, got on the next bus and returned to the session. Madness had arrived.

I had ceased drinking for quite some time when I began to understand that my condition had been rooted in fear. The pleasure alcohol offers the alcoholic is that of an unfaithful lover. The chief propellant is fear, in all its cunning forms. One definition of alcoholism is that alcohol becomes the sole means of fear management.

By my second meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, someone had given me a copy of the “Big Book,” the “bible” of sobriety used by the fellowship to explain its methods. The first thing I noticed was the chapter titled “We Agnostics.” I still find this strange. The language of the Big Book is pastoral rather than philosophical, so there is scant explanation other than the observation that “something like half” of the original members were either atheists or agnostics. Years later, I came across Ernest Kurtz’s Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, which explains alcoholism as a byproduct of modernity. The rejection of God’s authority prompted man to kick the deity off the throne and occupy it himself. But, left with the responsibility for controlling his own life without Godly powers, man had to call in the cavalry-in-a-bottle. As the terror grew, the bottle too began to lose its power. Hence Kurtz’s title: Man is Not God.

One of the first things I noticed when I stopped drinking was that all sense of meaning and motivation had evaporated. This is the heart of the horror of alcoholism without alcohol: You doubt that you can ever again connect your desiring to anything else. The essential job of recovery is the restoration of a hopeful gaze upon the future.

The project of recovery is essentially to redirect the alcoholic’s desiring over the horizon. This is where the AA concept of the Higher Power—“God as I understand Him”—comes in. The program retrieves within the individual whatever religious or spiritual understandings may remain and puts them back as they once were. I had to subject myself to a process of recreating a complex system of aspiration and incentives, so that I could see a point in doing the things that for a long time—as I soon realized—I had been doing mainly because there was a drink at the end.

The reason that I have no memory of a struggle with alcohol in which I was ultimately successful is that no such struggle occurred. In a sense, I did nothing—or at least, the things I did, with the help of AA, were peripheral things, almost misdirected activities, distractions.

The alcoholic is required to “clean house,” to conduct a personal inventory, to admit faults, to make amends. These tasks are important for their own sake, but above all they keep the alcoholic occupied while the real work goes on, unbeknownst to him. Their true purpose is to disintegrate his arrogance, to render him again a servant of the Source of his own existence, and clear the way for Grace to enter.

Most of the twelve steps are concerned with moral reconstruction, but the most important step is the second: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The point of the rest of the steps is to keep the alcoholic busy so he won’t trip God up. The language of the steps is subtly chosen for this purpose: The alcoholic should “admit,” “come to believe,” “make a decision,” “turn over” his will and his life, “humbly ask.” In taking the steps, the alcoholic resigns as chief executive of his existence and invites the deposed Chairman to reclaim control.

At every meeting of AA, one of the members reads out the opening section of one chapter of the Big Book—“How it Works”—in which the essential mechanism of the program is set out. The second paragraph discusses the purpose of alcoholics’ sharing their experiences with other alcoholics: “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened and what we are like now.” At one of my earliest meetings, I was required to read this out and afterwards, in my own sharing, expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with what I saw as my lack of progress.

After the meeting, one of the dreaded “old timers” came up to me and remarked, “You don’t seem to listen to yourself when you’re talking, sonny.” Without much grace, I told him I didn’t know what he meant. “Well,” he said, “tonight you read out the part where it says, ‘Our stories disclose in a general way’—am I right?” I conceded his correctness. “And what comes next?” I shrugged, waiting for some punchline. “You act as though the next words are ‘what John did next,’ or ‘how John got himself sober.’ But what it says is, ‘What happened…’ Something happened. That’s what you read out, isn’t it?” I conceded that it was. “Well, try listening to yourself a bit more carefully. Sometimes you say quite interesting things!”

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.

Photo by Justin Brendel.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles