80 years of Alcoholics Anonymous: one family perspective

One of the local A.A. in my part of south Florida meetings reads from the Grapevine, Alcoholics Anonymous’ international journal on Saturday evenings. A few weeks ago, I was struck by a story in the May 2015 issue where the author described how every generation of his family had been “decimated by alcoholism”. The word decimate means, to kill one in every ten. As participants kept reading and the discussion began, that word kept running through my head, along with the thought that his folks got off lucky

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded 80 years ago on June 10, 1935, two years after prohibition ended, when Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron, Ohio doctor, took his last drink of alcohol, a beer to calm his nerves before beginning surgery. After a long struggle with the bottle, he was finally able togive up booze after meeting a New York stock broker named Bill Wilson, who described how he was finally able to stop drinking. blog_image1
Bill Wilson (L) and Dr. Robert Smith (R), A. A. founders.

What the world was like before A. A.

Nylon was invented in 1935, the year A.A. was founded; President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act and the country of Persia was renamed Iran.

I don’t know how many alcoholics died each year before A.A. came into being; because the organization does not keep a formal census, it is as difficult to determine how many lives have been saved because of Alcoholics Anonymous in the last eighty years.

I do know that before A.A., treatment options for my grandfathers and great-grandfathers, their brothers, cousins, fathers, and uncles,were extremely limited – control your drinking or face the consequences – on your own. Family history tells me that their wives, mothers, and frightened children faced those consequences repeatedly.

When I got sober the first time, in 1989, when A.A. was only 54, I remember talking to my grandmother in what may have been my families’ first honest discussion about drink. At that time, she described a pattern of drunkenness that went back at least five generations.

One of Alcoholics Anonymous’ tenets is that no one can say for sure if someone else is an alcoholic versus a heavy drinker. In keeping with that premise, on the “good” side of my family, I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter, of an oldest daughter, of an oldest daughter – of a hopeless drunk.And whether by nature, nurture, or a combination of both, the bug bit me too.

What happened

Today A. A. has over five million members worldwide and its literature is published in more than 120 languages Eighty years of A.A. may not have changed the entire world.

But it changed mine, though I never heard of it until I went to college, eight years after I started to drink for effect.

Twenty-five years to the day before I was born, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 devastated the Florida Keys, killing hundreds.

While I can’t say that the 24 odd years of my drinking and drug use was dramatic enough to derail a passenger trainer kill hundreds like the 1935 hurricane, plenty of damage was left in its wake – including my self-respect, employ ability, credit rating, two marriages, my children’s early years,and the wounded hearts of everyone who gave a damn about me.

blog_image2

Then, I stopped. First, just the drink and drugs. And gradually, the actions that accompanied the “complex malady of active alcoholism”, behaviors that Bill Wilson described as:

“.. a symptom of personal maladjustment to life. …alcoholics are apt to be sensitive, emotionally immature, grandiose in our demands on ourselves and others, “ began to go away, too.

What it’s like now

As the result of following a few spiritual principles suggested by the Alcoholics Anonymous program, seeing countless examples of sober lives and choices made by its members, and most of all, not starting that high ride one day at a time, most days I have the ability – if not always the inclination – to be reasonably useful, happy, and fit into the world. That might not sound like much of an accomplishment to someone who is not an alcoholic – what we tend to call a civilian.

But wait, there’s more. I’m different. And so is my family. The notion that sobriety is possible, let alone enjoyable, has rocked our family structure with a fundamental change in the patterns of our lives and the way we treat each other.

Today, I am the only person in my maternal line that is clean, sober, and active in recovery (the current status of my father’s family is as lost to me as its history). There’s still plenty of drinking and drug use, and the high drama that accompanies it in my family – generations of dysfunctional habit don’t stop on a dime or a decade. However, a message of hope and options has been heard, by my generation and my children’s. One of my cousins has decided that drinking is not for him, after a few unpleasant consequences. Others, have “gone on a sober” as my father used to say, for varying periods, and lived to tell the story.

My grandsons, nieces and nephews, have never seen me or my husband drink, or throw random objects in anger, or pass out at a holiday dinner, or forget to appear. Thanks to Bill Wilson, Dr. Robert Smith, and Alcoholics Anonymous,

We have a choice today that my grandfathers and great uncles didn’t. And a responsibility to share the message.

Leave a Reply