suffer from "Alcoholic Behavior" or are they simply
victims of human nature? By the late William D. Silkworth,
The mystery of slips is not
as deep as it may appear. While it does seem odd that an alcoholic
who has restored himself to a dignified place among his fellow
men, and continued dry for years, should suddenly throw all
his happiness overboard and find himself in mortal peril of
drowning in liquor - often the reason is very simple.
People are inclined to say,
"There is something peculiar about alcoholics. They may seem
to be well, yet at any moment they may turn back to their old
ways. You can never be sure. "This is largely twaddle. The alcoholic
is a sick person. Under the technique of Alcoholics Anonymous
he gets well, that is to say his disease is arrested. There
is nothing unpredictable about him any more than there is anything
weird about a person who has arrested diabetes.
Let's get it clear, once and
for all, that alcoholics are human beings just like other human
beings - then we can safeguard ourselves intelligently against
most of the slips. Both in professional and lay circles there
is a tendency to label everything that an alcoholic may do as
"alcoholic behavior." The truth is it is simply human nature.
It is very wrong to consider many of the personality traits
observed in liquor addicts as peculiar to the alcoholic. Emotional
and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely
because alcoholics have them, yet these same quirks can be found
among non-alcoholics also. Actually they are symptoms of mankind;
ORDINARY PEOPLE. Of course, the alcoholic himself tends to think
of himself as different, someone special, with unique tendencies
and reactions. Many psychiatrists, doctors, and therapists carry
the same idea to extremes in their analyses and treatment of
alcoholics. Sometimes they make a complicated mystery of a condition
which is found in all human beings, whether they drink whiskey
To be sure, alcoholism, like
every other disease, does manifest itself in some unique ways.
It does have a number of baffling peculiarities which differ
from all other diseases. At the same time, many of the symptoms
and much of the behavior of alcoholism are closely paralleled
and even duplicated in other diseases.
The alcoholic "slip", as it
is known in Alcoholics Anonymous, furnishes a perfect example
of how human nature can be mistaken for alcoholic behavior.
The "slip is a relapse! It
is a relapse that occurs after the alcoholic has stopped drinking
and started on the AA program of recovery. "Slips" usually occur
in the early stages of the alcoholic's AA indoctrination, before
he has had time to learn enough of the AA technique and AA philosophy
to give him solid footing. But "slips" may also occur after
the alcoholic has been a member of AA for many months, or even
after several years, and it is in this kind, above all, that
one finds a marked similarity between the alcoholic's behavior
and "normal" victims of other diseases.
No one is startled by the
fact that relapses are not uncommon among arrested tubercular
patients. But there is a startling fact - the cause is often
the same as the cause which leads to "slips" for the alcoholic.
It happens this way: When a tubercular patient recovers sufficiently
to be released from the sanitarium, the doctor gives him careful
directions for the way he is to live when he gets home. He must
be in bed every night by, say, eight o'clock. He must drink
plenty of milk. He must refrain from smoking. He must obey other
stringent rules. For the first several months, perhaps for several
years, the patient follows directions. But as his strength increases
and he feels fully recovered, he becomes slack. There may come
the night when he decides he can stay up until ten o'clock.
When he does this, nothing untoward happens. The next day he
still feels good. He does it again. Soon he is disregarding
the directions given him when he left the sanitarium. Eventually
he has a relapse.
The same tragedy can be found
in cardiac cases. After the heart attack, the patient is put
on a strict rest schedule. Frightened, he naturally follows
directions obediently for a long time. He, too, goes to bed
early, avoids exercise such as walking up stairs, quits smoking,
and leads a Spartan life. Eventually, though, there comes a
day after he had been feeling good for months, or several years,
and has recovered from his fright. If the elevator is out of
repair one day, he walks up three flights of stairs. Or he decides
to go to a party - or do just a little smoking, or take a cocktail
or two. If no serious after-affects follow the first departure
from the rigorous schedule prescribed, he may try it again until
he suffers a relapse.
In both cardiac and tubercular
cases, the acts which led to the relapse were preceded by wrong
thinking. The patient in each case rationalized himself out
of a sense of his own perilous reality. He deliberately turned
away from his own knowledge of the fact he had been the victim
of a serious disease. He grew over-confident. He decided he
didn't have to follow directions.
Now that is precisely what
happens with the alcoholic - the arrested alcoholic, or the
alcoholic in AA who has had a "slip". Obviously he decides again
to take a drink some time before he actually takes it. He starts
thinking wrong before he actually embarks on the course leading
to a "slip".
There is no more reason to
charge the "slip" to alcoholic behavior than there is to lay
a tubercular relapse to tubercular behavior or a second heart
attack to cardiac behavior.
The alcoholic "slip" is not
a symptom of a psychotic condition. There is nothing "screwy"
about it at all. The patient didn't follow directions. And that's
human nature! It's life! It's happening all the time, not merely
among alcoholics, but among all kinds of people. The preventive
is plain. The patient must have full knowledge of his condition,
keep in mind the facts of his case and the nature of his disease,
and follow orders.
For the alcoholic, AA offers
some directions. A vital factor, or ingredient, of the preventive,
especially for the alcoholic, is sustained emotion. The alcoholic
who learns some of the technique or the mechanics of AA but
misses the philosophy or the spirit, may get tired of following
directions - not because he is alcoholic but because he is human.
Rules and regulations irk almost anyone, because they are restraining,
prohibitive, negative. The philosophy of AA however, is positive
and provides ample sustained emotion - a sustained desire to
follow directions voluntarily.
In any event, the psychology
of the alcoholic is not as different as some people try to make
it. The alcoholic has problems peculiar to him perhaps, in that
he has been put on the defensive and consequently has developed
nervous frustrations. But in many instances there is no more
reason to be talking about the "alcoholic mind" than there is
to try to describe something called the "cardiac mind", or the
"TB mind". I think we will help the alcoholic more if we can
first recognize that he is primarily a human being - afflicted
with human nature.