A.A. Grapevine, June 1995 -- "From wagon trains to jets"
A Lifetime of Sobriety
My first real contact with Alcoholics Anonymous was made in Yonkers, New York, where I grew up. I had an asthmatic sister in the hospital; she told me that she was dying and she wanted me to raise her eight children.
We had two other sisters, but for some reason she wanted me to raise these kids. "There's only one thing, Nancy," she said. "You're going to have to stop drinking." "Katharine," I said, "you'll just have to stay alive because I will never stop drinking. Furthermore, if I had never taken a drink in my life and was confronted with raising eight kids -- I'd start!" She began to laugh, and she laughed so hard she coughed up all the congestion, and her lungs cleared up, and she left the hospital. All the nuns (it was a Catholic hospital) were saying, "It's a miracle." "No," I said, "it was me."
I knew I had a drinking problem; I knew drinking in bed wasn't social drinking. But I had an image to maintain. I was a decorator; I had to look good. I put a lot of money into clothes, beauty shops, and massages. I had to look rich and that was some job. I haven't worked so hard since. My husband belonged to three golf courses, I belonged to three bars, and I never let his golf interfere with my drinking. I had terrible hangovers but I'd take care of them with the hair of the dog that bit me. I kept a stash of booze in a roasting pan in the kitchen. I made sure I always had a backup. I couldn't stop drinking and I knew it; I also knew that I'd drink for the rest of my life. I loved to drink. I only felt normal when I drank; when I wasn't drinking, I felt very, very weird. When I came into AA, they asked me if I took a morning drink. "No," I said, "I don't get up in the morning. But I take a drink as soon as I get up."
My sister Katharine tried everything to get me sober. One day she came to my house with a chocolate cake; a doctor had told her that what alcoholics really wanted was sugar not booze. So there I was in bed, about halfway through a bottle, and I couldn't wait to get rid of Katharine and she knew it. "If you'll eat a piece of this cake," she said, "I'll leave you to your drinking." "I can't eat the cake," I said, "but give me the Manhattan telephone directory -- there's an outfit in New York called Alcoholics Anonymous that has a bead on this drinking thing. I'll call them and see what they do." Then Katharine told me that her husband's best friend was an A.A. member, and she asked me if I'd like to see him. I said yes just to get her out of the room.
I don't know how it happened, but I didn't finish that bottle, and somehow I got up, got dressed, and waited for Mr. A.A. He didn't show then and he didn't show the next day. On the third day, I called my sister and said, "Where is this genius who's going to stop my drinking?" She said, "He and his fellow members are discussing whether or not you qualify for AA." I had a short fuse, and I was incensed that anyone would think I wasn't eligible for A.A. Later, the man's ten-year-old son came over with the Big Book in a brown paper bag; he shoved it at me and ran. I liked children, and I was disturbed that he was so scared of me.
I read the book from cover to cover; I couldn't put it down. I saw myself on every page. And the stories: I could see that the way they drank was the way I drank. I could see that it had gone bad on them and I knew it had gone bad on me too. I put the book in the fireplace behind the logs -- it was summertime -- because I didn't want anyone in the house to read it and decide I ought to join. I didn't want to join. I had looked at the Twelve Steps and I didn't think a spiritual way of life was for me.
I continued to drink until the fall of that year. Then one morning I was having a very hard time of it, and I called my brother-in-law's friend, the A.A. member. "You know," I told him, "I read that entire book. I know all there is to know about alcoholism; I'm very well informed. So how come I'm still drinking?" He didn't answer my question, but he asked me if I'd like to go to a meeting that night. I said, "I don't know. What's it like?" He said, "Everyone there will be just like you -- an alcoholic. You'll feel very comfortable." I said , "What do they look like?" and he said, "They look just like you." "Well," I said, "they must be gorgeous!"
I went with him to the meeting. There weren't any women. This was 1944 and there were maybe a total of three or four women in New York, and that was it. There were six men at this meeting -- three lawyers, a butcher, a cop, and a guy who worked in a malt factory who said he couldn't stay sober because the malt went into his pores. That was solved easily enough -- we got him another job. I loved it; they were wonderful men. I decided that they were far too wonderful to have to stay sober. "Give me three months," I told them, "and I'll get us all out of this." I thought that if we had all crossed over this invisible line, I could find that line and we could all cross back again! They knew I was an alcoholic and they just let me go about my business.
Taking it on the road
I decided to do some research, to interview AA members. There weren't many meetings in those days; you had to travel. I covered a radius of about 100 miles, which included Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester County, Albany, and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. I'd go to meetings, listen to the stories, pick the best one, and interview that person. This was hard work and I was plenty thirsty -- it was nuts. In about three months, I came to the conclusion that:
1. It was the first drink that activated the obsession -- if I took that first drink, I was gone.
2. Alcoholism is progressive -- once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.
I talked it over with the membership. I told them yes, I knew I would have to quit, but I was only thirty-one and I wanted to wait until I was in my forties. They didn't tell me no. They told me to put my car up on blocks -- don't drive. A fellow who happened to be a guard at a woman's hospital told me that if I landed in jail, he knew someone who could get me out. Meanwhile, this thing kept hammering in my brain: "What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for?"
Suddenly I decided it would be a good idea if I became a member of A.A.. I wrote an acceptance note, like you would do for a wedding invitation: "Nancy O. accepts with pleasure the kind invitation of Alcoholics Anonymous to become a member." Along with the acceptance, I put a clean piece of paper that would be a letter of resignation if I slipped (everyone in those days talked about slips because a lot of us were slipping).
Nobody ever gave me a hard time, nobody tried to reform me. How smart can you get? They knew how it was with me because they knew how it was with themselves. It was love. And all of sudden -- sober now -- there was this tug at my heart, the love of one alcoholic for another. ...
"I'll remember you for the rest of my life"
At three months I had to speak -- everybody did. I had to go over to Jersey. I was sick and nervous, throwing up all day, and I called Lois K., my sponsor, and asked, "Why is this good for alcoholics?" She said, "You're thinking about impressing them tonight -- that's not the purpose. The purpose is to help one other person in the room, if you can." When I spoke that night, I told the group what my sponsor had said and how nervous I felt. After the meeting, a blind woman came up and asked me, "May I feel your face?" She touched my face and she said, "I knew you looked like that. I'll remember you for the rest of my life." I went home and cried for an hour and a half, to think that I could help someone who was blind and in an alcoholic mess. For the first time in my life, I realized I had done something worthwhile. That was my first taste of humility.
Working with others
When I was new, I was the only woman around, so team leaders would call me up to be on their team to speak with them. My family was having fits because I was doing this, and finally they said to me, "Nobody has ever disgraced us like this." I said, "No, we all died, and I want to live." One person said to me, "It's like wearing a sign on your back, Nancy." Well, I took exception to that, so I went out and bought a fire-engine-red dress. Whenever I spoke, I'd say, "The reason I'm wearing this red dress is because there might be a woman around, and I don't want her to miss me in the crowd. I just want her to know I'm here, I'm for her, and I'm with her."
Lois K. had been sober for four years when she became my sponsor. She lived in White Plains, and I lived in Yonkers; I asked her if I could call her and that started the relationship. We were in touch every day, and we did a lot of Twelfth Step work together, helping women in Westchester County, and it was hard. The first women's meeting was at my house. It was Lois who came up with idea for the Grapevine. Lois was also very involved with her sponsor, Marty M., and the National Council on Alcoholism. I could have been, but I never cared for the idea. I liked working with alcoholics in AA better.
My group was very active working with alcoholics in jails and hospitals and mental hospitals. One day I went to see a woman in the hospital, and on my way out, her psychiatrist asked to speak to me. He told me that his parents had spent thousands of dollars on his education, and the woman I'd just seen wouldn't say two words to him. He wanted to know why he was failing and I was succeeding. I told him that I had a story and he didn't. He had the education, but I was an alcoholic with a story that she identified with and understood. I talked to the woman, told her to cooperate with the doctor, and maybe she could be helped by him. I did Twelfth Step work with this doctor for five years; we did a lot of good work with alcoholics. I said to him, "Don't ask them why they drink. They don't know. They expect you to know, and you don't know either -- nobody does. So don't ask them."
Keeping it green
I'd give people the Big Book and tell them to read what I'd underlined because I knew they wouldn't read the whole book at first. I'd underline parts like the jaywalker, the Steps, "no human power," and anything I thought they could identify with. This would prompt them to go on and read the rest of the book, and then they'd call me. It helped me a great deal, and it still helps me. It keeps my sobriety green, it keeps it alive. I'm not one who says, Let the newcomers do it. There's plenty of work for old-timers. I haven't been into jails for a while, but I'm still doing hospital work.
The second woman I ever sponsored was a prostitute. She was always landing in jail, and they would remand her to my custody. I didn't care that she was a prostitute but I did care that she was an alcoholic. One time I called the jail to tell her I'd come and pick her up. "Wait 'til this afternoon," she said, "I'm playing cards with the warden and I have him on the hook for a few dollars." After she got sober and embarked on a spiritual way of life, her life began to change. She got a job, and later she moved to a new place, where nobody knew her, and started a group. Another gal I went to see in jail greeted me with, "St. Paul was in jail, you know." "Yeah," I said, "but not for burning tents." She was in because she had burned her apartment and been labeled a pyromaniac. I explained to her jailers that she was an alcoholic -- possibly a pyromaniac too but definitely an alcoholic. I'd been to her apartment and taken out a bushel basket full of bottles from underneath her mattress. She was a schoolteacher, a very, very quiet woman. I took her to meetings with me, and then she went back home to start a group of her own. That's how AA grew in those days. That's how we helped each other.
Once a man came over from Bronxville to ask our group to help him start a group there. During the discussion that followed, someone said, "There are too many snobs in Bronxville. Nobody will come to a group there." I said, "I don't see why snobbery should carry the death penalty. I think we should give this man our support." Later on the man thanked me, and when I asked why he was thanking me, he said, "Because I'm a Bronxville snob."
Growing through trial and error
At this time, we called AA a loosely-knit organization. I said, "It's so loosely knit we're all going to fall through!" It wasn't an organization because nobody could organize us. We wouldn't accept any outside contributions because we didn't want anyone telling us what to do. There were no leaders, so we had to figure it out for ourselves, and that was mighty difficult.
There were many differences of opinion, and that's the way the Fellowship grew. Let someone get a resentment and we'd have a new group! For instance, there was a woman who baked a cake every week; we called it a nut cake -- good name for it! -- but some people didn't think it was a good idea, so we had a controversy over this foolish cake. Those who wanted the cake stayed, and those who didn't, left and started another group.
I remember I called my first sponsor one time and exclaimed, "I don't know what I'm doing!" "None of us do," she replied. We used to take alcoholics off stools in bars and bring them to meetings drunk. Finally somebody said, "I don't think we're doing the right thing." And then the publicity problems -- alcoholics bragging about how they saved this one and that one. We made a lot of mistakes. On the basis of our mistakes, Bill W. put together the Twelve Traditions. He did it with a whole lot of help from all of us. The early members brought us one Tradition at a time, in the long form -- for our group conscience and vote. We discussed each one, took out anything that we didn't want, made amendments, and then voted. I consider the Twelve Traditions to be the foundation of AA. There were a great many other things that contributed to this foundation, but this was the first really progressive step for our Fellowship.
A twenty-four-hour program
When I was about seven years sober, I started doing Twelfth Step work with alcoholics who were in relapse, and I did this exclusively for the next seven years. The first question I would ask someone was, "Were you on the twenty-four-hour program?" I never got a yes. You work differently with relapsers; they've been around AA, they know people, they know open meetings, they know closed meetings, they know names. Sometimes they're well-known because they used to do a lot of Twelfth Step work themselves. When I was living in Westchester, I'd pick people up and take them into Manhattan to one of the big meetings. This was 1951 or later. I'd say, "We're going to sit in the back; never mind the speaker, just look around the room and tell yourself that all these people are getting sober. They don't know me, they've never seen me before in their lives, they're just getting sober the way I am. And if I practice the AA program, I'll get sober too." I would never talk about anything except getting re-established as a member of A.A. that and the twenty-four-hour program -- and so I was forced to practice it.
There's probably nothing more important than a home group. I've been going to the same home group since I moved to California, thirteen years ago. I couldn't have gotten sober without a home group. What I like about a home group is this: you never have to make a decision, it's automatic. You know that's where you're going. This is where the Twelfth Step gets fulfilled, in all meetings really, but particularly in the home group. That's where we reach out to newcomers, we greet people. Everything comes out of the home group: invitations to speak, people to sponsor, being active in AA -- it all comes out of the home group.
From wagon trains to jets
I sometimes get asked if AA has changed since I first encountered it, and I think how, when I came in, people were fascinated by the wagon train feeling of AA -- that we were small, and all knew one another, and were close despite our differences. Now it's like the Concorde jet. It's fast. People come in, they get sober or they go out, they get busy with life, they move away, they go to other groups. When I came in, the membership was estimated at 5,000. Today you and I are members of an international Fellowship of more than two million alcoholics. Think about that! When we go to sleep tonight, there will be alcoholics working with each other somewhere in the world. It never stops. That's a long way from 1944, when I came in. One thing will never change, though: I need you just as much as you need me. We need each other -- and our Higher Power. That's where the strength is.
Nancy O., Lafayette, Calif.