Got a few resentments in AA? Certain personalities in meetings annoying you? Big Book thumpers causing internal eye-rolling? Somewhere inside, are you thinking you may be able to manage your alcoholism yourself – that it’s really not such a big deal?
Maybe it’s time for a little ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT with the help of this visual aid I lifted from the Wikipedia page on alcoholism. It’s an engraving from the mid-1800s called “King Alcohol and his Prime Minister.” Check it.
In the background on the left, we’ve got the normies drinking with impunity. A little closer we’ve got the socialites making cocktails look 19th Century glamorous. But once we get to the Dram Shop, which is the old term for bar or tavern, things ain’t lookin’ so good. Sure, there’s a pretty barmaid serving, but one patron is looking pretty disheveled, two are brawling on the floor, and another is passed out. In the foreground the Virgin Mary is seen bumming about it all (at least, I think it’s she). The anchor could refer to maritime alcoholism?
On the right we see some consequences listed: Poverty, misery, crime, and death. There’s the jail, the poorhouse to which with someone is escorting a drunk, a cop with his nightstick dealing with another. We see a home gone to shit, a dad passed out while his wife and kids stand by, and closest to us, a rich guy all dressed up but still on his face. Closer still are the graves, one of them immediately outside the home. Jails, institutions, and death – as we often hear in the rooms. The only thing I don’t see is an asylum.
Lastly, check out King Alcohol and his sidekick Death, themselves. Death’s bottle is corked: he doesn’t touch the stuff, only offers it to recruits. The King himself looks confused and miserable in spite of his lavish banner. His face has marks all over it, his brow is furrowed, his hair and beard a mess. Around his neck what seems an amulet is actually a locked chain, and chains run down his robe in place of royal ermine. He holds aloft a large goblet, almost like a chalice, but encircled by a snake. Above it hovers a reference to Proverbs 23, line 32:
31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
32 In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
If you lived in the 1800s, that would be the full extent of your program: “Do not….” Don’t look at booze, don’t drink booze. Just don’t. Just stop. Look at the facts. Use your willpower.
“Do not…” If I’d been born during that time, I’d be a perma-drunk or dead. Because I tried “do not” for 14 years and ended up bombed every night, like my father before me, because the “wine” I would “gaze at” lived in my mind. As soon as enough of the poison had cleared from the night before, I’d think, “Yes! I’m talking about just one pretty, perfect cocktail/ beer/ glass of wine!” Next thing I knew, I was reaching for that snake-entwined goblet, oblivious to the bite and poison.
And I did that again.
It cracks me up that at the top of King Alcohol’s barrel list is “strong beer” – as if “weak beer” might be okay. In other words, even in his desire to capture the entirety of alcoholism, Barber lacked a basic understanding of addiction: the allergy in me – which makes me break out in endless “more!” – can be triggered by as little as a single dose of cough medicine.
What Barber did understand, though, was that we die. We’ve been dying for millennia, at least throughout the 10,000 years that humans have been brewing alcohol. Slowly, century by century, those of us with alcoholic genes have been winnowed from those European cultures where alcohol has long been a staple – a fact highlighted by rampant alcoholism among Native American populations where alcohol has been introduced only in modern history. Why do 10% of Native Americans die of alcoholism, compared to 0.2% of Italians? Because most Italian alcoholics are already dead! They died centuries ago leaving fewer descendents. Still, around the world, how many of us are killing ourselves slowly, blurring our thinking, drowning our love of life?
You might wonder, why did Barber choose to depict alcohol as a king, rather than a slave driver or a warlord? The answer is in addiction. Alcohol rules our lives, but at the same time, we venerate it as our savior. Left to our own human powers, there is no way out.
BUT HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS! I’m sober! You’re sober!
In June of 1935, the world of the alcoholic changed forever. Fifteen minutes is how long alcoholic Bob Smith agreed to talk with that sober guy, Bill Wilson. Three months is how long they ended up hanging out before Wilson even went home. They had discovered something amazing: the connection between one alcoholic and another when speaking the truth of our condition. They also put together the physical allergy piece Bill knew with the spiritual malady piece Bob knew and – SHAZAM!!! For the first time in human history, alcoholics had a way out!
Never again will we as a class of afflicted people have no solution. Shivering denizens no more, we’ve found a way to overthrow the tyrant with a far greater power – one of love, of life, of goodness. Whether you live near a slew of AA meetings or it’s just you with your Big Book and computer, you possess two insights that Barber and the dying drunks throughout history never had: 1) That your body reacts differently to alcohol than a normal body does, and 2) that alcoholism can be treated via a 12 Step program of spiritual growth, usually (but not always) in connection with fellow alcoholics.
What I know is this: Living sober has brought me and countless other hopelessly doomed alcoholics a joy of living beyond our wildest dreams. We are free.