I sat jittering in Bill’s office. My psychiatrist had sent me to see Bill.
I had said to her: “Good. I’d like to meet him. Wouldn’t it be fun to get him to take a drink?”
She laughed a nice easy laugh. She said, “You couldn’t get him to take a drink.”
I heard that. It stayed with me. You couldn’t get him to take a drink.
So I, the girl who was going to get Bill to take a drink, now sat here, talking to Bill.
He told me a few things, the fundamentals. I heard all of those things, too. Then he made a phone call. He wrote a name and an address on a slip of paper.
“Here is an alcoholic girl,” he said. “Why don’t you go and see her? Now?”
I fell for that. I said, “Is she still drinking?”
“No,” he said, “but she will always be an alcoholic just the same. Just as I am; just as you say you are.”
I didn’t know where I was going, or what to expect. I didn’t expect an attractive apartment. I didn’t expect the girl who answered the door –Helen, a friend of Marty’s –to be like that. I was a sight and a mess. She didn’t notice it. She talked to me as though I were an acquaintance who had dropped in. Time passed. Marty came in.
“I spent six months in Bellevue and a year in Blythewood,” she announced. “I used to go to cheap bars on Third Avenue, when my money ran out. If I had no money, I could always ‘borrow’ drinks from men.”
Marty had sized me up. To another newcomer, she might have talked gently, asking questions. She knew that for me this would be wrong. She talked and talked. She didn’t stop. I, who had feared to speak, couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I tried a couple of times. No soap. She was a girl with my sort of background. She and Helen both had my tastes and interests (that is, what I still fondly considered my tastes and interests. I really had none but liquor and self abasement).
I sat there and listened. Two women like myself. They were like me. They drank the way I did. Especially Marty. Marty, who like me, had gone to cheap bars. At last, someone else who was as “horrible” as I was. And she was horrible no longer.
I heard every word Marty and Helen said. In that short hour something was lifted from my heart, never to return. Three psychiatrists had failed to do it over a long period of years.
“You are sick,” Marty and Helen said. “You are sick, not wicked. See, it is a pattern. You have followed this pattern. We, too, behaved in just this way. It is a pattern and you are not alone. You are not the only woman who has been like this. Thousands and thousands of men and women have been like this. And now they are sober. See, it is an illness, a disease with symptoms that we all have. Not a private sin that you alone have invented.”
And so this is the end of my story and the beginning of it.
For years I thought I was the only one. The only “nice” woman who behaved this way. The worse I felt, the worse I got. One doctor said to me: “Remorse has contained within it the intention to do it again.” This was a brilliant and wise saying. But I could not quit being remorseful. I could not stop doing it again, getting drunk again and again. It’s a progressive disease. But I didn’t know that. I just thought I was becoming a worse and worse person. I avoided my “respectable” friends more and more. My “unrespectable” friends, with whom I had cast my lot (in order to drink all I wanted to in company) –even these friends criticized me more and more. They, who had thought at first that I was such fun, now avoided me. They told me not to come around when I was drinking. And I was always drinking.
I, who, like most neurotics, had a high white ideal, an unattainable ideal of the person I should be, now found myself unwanted everywhere. I, who had meant to be the wittiest, the prettiest, the most desirable of women. The woman whom everybody would be just crazy to have around. (You note here that I wanted to be liked and loved, but didn’t want to like or love anybody in return.)
I was now reduced to going to a cheap bar for my social life. I happen to have a small income. I never cadged drinks from strangers because I didn’t have to. I never was robbed, assaulted, beaten up. But I might have been. The difference between the “protected” woman alcoholic (even the woman who drinks secretly in her room and never goes out) and the panhandler on the Bowery is economic. Are you shocked? But this is so. A drunk, man or woman, will do anything to get a drink. Anything –eventually. Perhaps the men, more than the women, know that this is true.
I didn’t hit the gutter economically, but in spirit I was there. I spent every night in that cheap bar. I was able to drink there “safely,” but I was despised by everyone.
Lots of people think that anything goes in a ginmill, that you can get as drunk as you like and behave any way you like. Not so. Women, especially, are expected to behave. A lady lush creates disturbances. Men are bound to want to pick her up. If she doesn’t want to be annoyed, as the saying goes, the bartender has to protect her. If, on the other hand, she encourages advances from men, there may be trouble with the police.
The little bar I frequented was what is known as a family bar. There was a little group that dropped in regularly. They were as gossipy and moralistic as a country club set. They were not alcoholics.
So I, who planned to be the most beautiful, witty, charming and sought-after woman in all New York, was spending my evenings annoying the customers in a ginmill. The customers moved their barstools when they saw me coming.
But this place was my last refuge. Here was the last spot on earth to search for “It.” The joy of living. Fulfillment. I called it pleasure. I went there every night looking for pleasure, the pink balloon. Something sick and hungry in me set up an inquiry for this elusive thing. “I will drink, and it will come,” I said. “This thing I have never had, and never found anywhere in all my life. A few drinks, and I’ll get it.” But during the disappointment of those first drinks, I knew I didn’t have it. This was a boring ginmill. Sordid. What could I find here? And I would drink more to overcome this terrible emptiness. I did not know that the lack was in myself. That joy, fulfillment, pleasure and love were chronically absent from me; that all the pleasure I had from my drinking was anticipatory.
I was so sick mentally, now, that I was afraid to drink alone. I was going toward my death, and somehow I knew this. I stayed in that bar till it closed.
“Remorse has contained within it the intention to do it again.”
Yes. Every morning (or afternoon) I’d swear never to do it again. I must stop, I’d say. I must taper off. I must swear off. It was not only the hangovers that bothered me. I did not have the ordinary remorse of someone who has merely gotten drunk. It was as though I had some inner skin disease, something awful and sore, eating away at the fabric of myself. And then, at night, this fabric would reverse itself into the bright, joyful excitement, the anticipation. I would think, I’m going to the bar tonight. I’m going to get drunk. Not too drunk. Just enough.
This is a common experience. In A.A. you hear this story told over and over. But I know how all the women in the world feel who have had, and are having this grief and misery; and shame and guilt. More and more women are coming into A.A. But there are still countless women who are afraid to come. They are afraid to admit they need help. Sometimes they won’t admit it to themselves. They have applied the double standard to themselves. They think that they are worse than men.
And they do not know that they are just sick people who need help. A woman who has TB doesn’t think she is worse than a man who has TB. It’s the same thing.
Many people all over this country, indeed all over the world, still think the same way. They think all drunks are a disgrace. They think women are doubly disgraceful. But now, at last, through the press, through the more widespread knowledge of A.A. and of alcoholism generally, these old witcheries and taboos are breaking down.
More and more people are understanding that alcoholism is a disease; that the alcoholic, whether man or woman, can be helped and is worth helping.
And as for me, who felt so terrible, I now feel wonderful. I am getting well as a person. I, who did not believe in anything except myself, and who cared for no one but myself–I think that a Higher Power must have sent my psychiatrist to hear Bill talk just at that time. It was around the time that my last chance was at hand. I was very near death. And I, who was going to get Bill to take a drink, I have learned what the word humility means. I have learned what the words love and understanding mean. I have a long way to go, but A.A. is like that. You keep going. You never stop. A.A. is a constant restatement of a few simple things that we must all have if we are to keep sober, to be happy or to live at all.
(Grapevine December 1945)