Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on Mental Health
Articles- Part XII
Sobering Tales: Narratives of Alcoholism & Recovery
Appendix: Two Stories (pp. 173-188)
The majority of AA speakers, possibly contrary to outsiders' expectations,
are fluent, controlled, and effective. The two speakers here are competent
if not consummate, apparently comfortable in the speaking situation,
serious though not without humor. These are "ordinary" AA
speakers: taken together they seem a not unfair representation of
the AA spectrum. Except for their self-determined inability to drink
safely, they probably have little in common; and in their observable
behavior they display no special distinctions. The stories are delivered
in a relaxed, conversational manner, with little deliberate rhetorical
embellishment or showmanship. The real melodramas of AA, in any event,
are not normally enacted from the podium at open meetings.
July 2, 1986
I'm Ross, I'm an alcoholic. My story is largely a bottle story, so if you're
offended by those, I suggest you just sit back and take some inventory, indulge your
fantasies, or whatever. I ... I need to hear about the, uh, the blood, the vomit, and the
broken glass. And I presume that others do too.
For lack of something else, I'll start at the beginning. I'm the only
son of a, uh, Irish Catholic immigrant and a Quaker WASP. I was an only child, and a late
child. In the rooms especially lately, I hear a lot of adult children of alcoholics,
alcoholics who're from broken homes, that received a lot of abuse--emotional, physical,
sexual; who had a lot of rough times that contributed to their, uh, to their alcoholism.
Uh, I can't hang it on that. I snatched defeat from victory time after time. I had,
essentially, a Norman Rockwell childhood. I was raised over in Jersey, on a lake--which
was, at the time, the ... Pine Barrens; I had a very idyllic childhood. The only thing
that was missing was other children. Uh, that caused a couple of misapprehensions; I
thought, I always thought that I was a grown-up. I still suffer from that illusion.
Since I was an only child my parents were conscious of not spoiling me;
I, uh, didn't get everything I wanted; I did get everything that was good for me, like,
uh, private schools and orthopedic shoes. I, uh ... but in spite of all that I still knew
that I was the center of the universe. And, to this day that's the trouble, an idea I have
I don't remember my first drink. Uh ... there was always alcohol in the
house, and I could have it; if I wanted to have a sip out of my father's beer, or wanted a
whole can, I could have it. And ... it was always there. I do remember my first drunk. I
was in a wedding, and I was thirteen. And ... I don't remember what I drank but it really,
it did the job. I was, uh, loud and mouthy, and ... I put my best moves on my
twenty-six-year-old cousin. I had to be taken out to a diner and fed coffee. I guess
everybody at the wedding forgot about it--you know, they thought it was either cute or
disgusting, depending on your frame of reference. Uh ... but I didn't forget about it.
That marked the beginning of a very special relationship with alcohol. One that endures to
this day. A lot of my life has been spent drinking it; and the balance has been spent not
drinking it. There and after throughout my teens I drank whenever I could. I don't know if
I always drank to get drunk, but I drank for effect. I drank for the rush. You know when
it, uh, when it hit bottom, that's what I was looking for.
I had a relatively uneventful adolescence. I, uh, like everybody else
my age, when I was eighteen I started college. And it lasted, uh, six weeks. They bounced
my ass out even before the grades came out. I had been to an all-male boarding school, and
went to a college that, where females outnumbered males five to one. And, uh, without
getting into the war stories, the conclusion is almost inevitable.
After that, I joined the Army. They were ready for me. Higher education
wasn't, but the U.S. Army was. I think, in retrospect, that somewhere in my, my military
service is where I, I became an alcoholic. Clinically, you know, uh.. . . I am sure that
it's where I, uh, began daily drinking, and where I sharpened my, uh, lying and stealing
skills that alcoholics need to survive. Again, you know, I hear the, the horror stories
about people's military service, getting all shot-up in Vietnam or Korea or whatever war
you were old enough for--I spent all my entire enlistment in provincial France. And I had
a great job; it was one of the best times of my life. It probably would have been a great
deal better if I hadn't been drunk all the time.
I got out of the service and, uh, decided to give higher education
another try. This, this time they were a little more ready for me: I lasted for about a
year and a half. And then, at the end of that part, in my early twenties, the booze began
to turn on me and I knew it. There and after, for it seems like the rest of my life, my,
uh, my whole life story revolved on critical drunks.
The first was, uh, when I was twenty-three years old, was my first
experience with, uh, withdrawal, that I knew of; uh, incarceration; and Alcoholics
Anonymous. I was at--school was over but I was, I was still, still there because I'd
smacked up my car behind a whole bunch of Margaritas one night and I was waiting for the
parts to come in, and somehow, I got hold of a whole bunch of money. I forget whether it
was my VA check came in or money from home or one of my little scams worked or something,
but I got a whole bunch of money. Of course I went to the neighborhood bar to drink it up.
And, I awoke the next day, in the county jail in Lawrenceberg, New Mexico. I don't know
how I got there, but I didn't walk a hundred and fifty miles through the Sonora desert.
The sheriff took one look at me and he, he knew what my story was gonna be. He took all my
clothes away and put me in this teeny little cell and let me shake it out for a few days.
And I really, I had been drunk for a while and it was rough; it was really rough. A few
days later, he came to me with a deal: he said he'd give me my clothes back if I'd go to
an AA meeting. I said, "Well that, that sounds all right to me, that's, that's a
deal." I said, "yeah."
I got my clothes back, I went to an AA meeting, and, uh, it didn't
take. This was twenty-some years ago, a very small meeting, in the Southwest. It was a
very spiritual meeting--not spiritual, it was a very religious meeting. A lot of
"Amens." Uh, and I said, "Oh, this, this is probably very good for these
people, but it's certainly not for me." The fact that I was sitting there in
handcuffs eluded me at the time. But that, that incident, did give me cause to stop and
think and assess my drinking. I knew, uh, that I had to do something about my drinking.
Stopping--it never entered my mind. But I knew that I had to do something with my drinking
or with my life.
So I came back to this area. I, uh, got a real job. I'd been into these
job-a-week phases, you know, where you get your paycheck, drink it up, and, uh, and forget
about it. Get another one when the money runs out. A lot of, uh, this was, you know, when
you're in your early twenties--I was into a lot of, you know, fast cars and loaded
firearms. Really, I wasn't shit. I decided it was time to make a stab at being a grown-up.
So I came back, got a real job, finished college at night, got married, had two kids. And,
uh, I deluded myself into thinking that I had a handle on my drinking. But what I had done
is change my drinking pattern. I, when I had been very, very good, I would reward myself
with binges. And of course, it's predictable enough that, uh, the binges came closer
together, and they increased in intensity and duration, until I was, uh, past daily
drinking and into round, round-the-clock drinking.
About this time, my marriage broke up. I couldn't say that it was due
to my alcoholism, although my alcoholism certainly affected it. My ex-wife had had two
alcoholic parents and thought that next to them I was a day at the beach. At any rate, my
marriage broke up, I moved into the city, and I thought I had it made. I was free to drink
unencumbered, uh, all the time. I was dating the barmaid at the Lardner Hotel; I thought
that I was in heaven there. And somebody did me a very great favor. This was eight or nine
months before I had [left]. Uh, I was at work, and I was all dressed up, and clean and
shaven in my three-piece suit looking like death warmed over, and one of the chief
residents came up to me--he knew my story, I ... he was a drinker, too. I know he could ...
whether he was an alcoholic I don't know, but he could hit the long balls, and he said,
"Here, take one of these, it'll fix you right up." So he gave me a handful of
ten-milligram Valium. As I say, he did me a great favor: in addition to getting me through
the day, uh, it sped my bottom immeasurably. I took the Valium, and it cleared me right
up; it ... I, almost instantly, I discovered how good they really worked if you washed 'em
down with a couple of twelve-ounce beers.
Then starts the period of, uh-oh, I gave up work entirely, at the time.
I had a little piece of money and, uh, decided that work was, was futile. I hadn't any
idea what I was going to do when the money ran out; I presumed, almost correctly, that I'd
be dead by that time. Uh-round-the-clock drinking: the most horrible and vicious cycle
I've ever been in. Every two-and-a-half hours, almost to the minute, I would have to
drink. I could not go more than two and a half hours without drinking. Uh, hallucinations.
When, whenever I walked into my apartment, I'd look in the corner and a lot of times I
would see the pope in a Coca-Cola tee shirt, sitting right in the corner. Uh, paranoia. I
was afraid of newspapers. I was afraid of the doorman in my apartment building. I would
wait, I'd sit there across the street and wait till he got called to the phone or went to
the bathroom or something and run in then. I don't know why he was after me but I
certainly wished he would stop it.
Finally I knew, I knew the end was near when--and I knew that it was
probably going to be death. Uh, my family knew the end was near too. There was no
alcoholism in my immediate family, but it was all through the extended family. So they had
already made arrangements for ... for a bed at a rehab. And finally one day I made the
phone call to one of my family members. And she came and got me. She picked me up, I
think, on the corner of, uh, Hamilton and Proby, somewhere in that area. I was wearing a
bathing suit and flip-flops. She wrestled me into the car, 'cause I changed my mind
constantly. She's four foot eleven and was sixty-seven years old at the time. She brought
along a six-pack so that we, uh, she could get me--the rehab was sixty miles away--so she
could get me there. And that's how I came here: drunk, broke, sick, and damn near
nude. And that was almost ten years ago. And things have been steadily uphill. Not, ladies
and gentlemen, that I didn't do my research.
Several years, uh, in sobriety, I guess I was suffering from an excess
of, uh, success--uh, it's a classic story. I stopped going to meetings and, uh, declared
myself cured. And, uh, that worked for a few months, and then I got in a situation and
took a drink, took another one, and ... the worst possible thing the next day: nothing.
There was no hangover, no remorse, none of that terrible cold feeling that you get. So,
shit, I knew I was cured then. And six weeks later I was in detox.
I don't recommend slips as part of any treatment modality because they
can kill you. But for me, it tuned my ragged ass right up. There'd been things that, uh, I
neglected to do, like, uh, get a sponsor. I had a sponsor appoint himself. I've tried to
fire him, over the years. I once literally fired him--he used to work for me. But he got
transferred back. I paid some attention to spirituality. Mine is not a heavily spiritual
program. I know there's a God; I know he has a very strange sense of humor. Beyond that,
my spirituality is rather ephemeral.
What I try to do in working the program is put in a word for
simplicity. I once in a while, if I'm beat for something else to do, I'll hit the books.
But mainly, I come to the meetings. It took me a long time, and the erosion of a lot of
stubbornness to discover that, for me, all I have to do is come here. Every day--or,
almost every day, or more than once a day. And somehow--and I don't care how--it works, as
they say. I also try to talk to another alcoholic every day, to remind me of who I am. And
I try and make a genuine all-out effort to help people. Because it's alien to my nature. I
am not a giver. I'm a taker. Those things help me to stay sober. And things, again, have
gotten increasingly good for me. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're beyond my wildest
dreams, because my dreams are very wild. But very, very good. I catch glimpses of
serenity--what I think is serenity. I've never had serenity adequately defined for me. I
have the respect of my, uh, my family and children and professional community. I don't owe
anybody any money. I've even begun to accumulate things, which I did not set out to do.
But I've found that I like them. And it's just made life very easy for me. If I can keep
on internalizing the fact that I don't drink--for, the way, the same reason I drank: I
want to feel good. It's as simple as that. And hopefully I will have learned the fact that
drinking does not make me feel good. It makes me feel bad, to the point of suicide, or
implicit suicide. But this makes me feel good. It's so simple it's hard to understand.
And I would like to put in, uh, a pitch for simplicity. My sponsor once
told me, he said, "Kid, you just have to remember two things: a) don't sweat the
small shit; and b) it's all small shit." With that, I'd like to thank you.
November 11, 1986
Hi, I'm Cindy, I'm an alcoholic. I grew up in upstate New York and, um, my sister
was eleven years older than I was so I guess I was sort of an only child. And, uh, we
moved ten times by the time I was ten so it was, you know, at least once a year. And, uh,
that affected my socialization a lot; every time I would start to make friends, the rug
would get pulled out from under me and it became much easier to stop trying to make
friends, because it hurt a lot when I had to go. So I stayed pretty isolated the whole
time I was growing up. We moved to one town and, I guess I was eleven, about to turn
twelve, something like that, and, uh, I remember--I just remembered this a couple of weeks
ago; it's funny, I'd completely forgotten it--but I remember when I was about ten, my
parents, who are not drinkers--they may or may not have the "-ism," but, uh-they
had this bottle of Scotch that they'd always keep from Christmas, and I remember taking a
slug of that before I had to walk to the bus stop in the mornings, to stay warm, and it
tasted good and I liked the feeling. But I don't think I was getting drunk, but it was
just interesting that I had forgotten all about that.
When I was about to turn twelve we moved to this one town and I started
babysitting. And I babysat for this one man down the block and he, he used to have a lot
of teenagers around the house--everybody could drink over there and smoke pot, et
cetera--and I really wasn't into that yet, but he made advances to me, and I thought that
was great because, uh, that was a new source of affection, and I was pretty hungry for
affection at that time. My father sort of--he was around, but he didn't interact with me
hardly at all: he went on a lot of business trips, he was into a lot of avoidance
behaviors; my mother was having a lot of nervous breakdowns, in and out of the hospital,
and when she was around she wasn't really coherent, she sat around and stared a lot, and
she was very paranoid. So I was very lonely and I didn't have the awareness then but I was
also very, very angry. I didn't understand why I couldn't have anybody in my life too to
count on, and, um, so it felt really good when this guy gave me so much attention. So I
kind of ate that up, but it turned on me, because he ended up raping me. And, I never told
anybody about that because I felt, uh, too guilty, because I had led him on.
And a couple of days after it happened, we moved. So I went into
another school and, uh, felt pretty bad, but I, I couldn't really tell anybody, so I began
acting out in a lot of other ways. I got involved with all the worst kids and started
doing drugs immediately. The first substance I put in my body was LSD--uh, I loved it,
except it made me paranoid and it altered the way I felt, but I was still angry, and could
still be isolated, and it made me pretty paranoid, but I didn't care. And it gave me
people to hang out with, and that was important; I had a peer group for the first time.
So I continued doing drugs for the next, I guess, three years, and
acting out a lot in school--um, I had been suspended three times. I finally told the
vice-principal in no uncertain terms where he could go and they tried to kick me out of
school. So, uh, they insisted that I go see a psychologist -- they decided that I wasn't
just some little monster like I thought I was but that I was an emotionally disturbed
child. So, uh, they sent me into counseling. And, um, I was careful not to tell the
counselor any of my secrets, 'cause she insisted on seeing my mother part of the time too,
and, uh, that ... helped me a lot, because I think I probably would have been
institutionalized by the time I was seventeen if I hadn't seen her; she helped me get in
touch a little bit with some of my feelings and at least I was, uh, able to let my big
secret out of the bag and, uh, it was going pretty well, then we moved, again, so I
started in another school, and I was told at that time--my mother had been getting better
too, and, uh, she was taken off Thorazine and she wasn't in hospitals anymore, and I was
told at that time that I couldn't act out when we moved, and I couldn't be upset about
this because my mother couldn't handle it, and if I got in all kinds of trouble like I had
before, I was going to make her very sick. So I was very careful not to do that, and I
acted like everything was okay and just decided that I was going to accept this and, uh,
pretty much stuck to that. Um, I started drinking right around then, too, and, uh, I loved
to drink. That was what I had been looking for all along. Alcohol relaxed me and it made
me feel friendlier, prettier, smarter, uh, everything that I wanted to be. That, it--the
paranoia wasn't there, it was legal, I could go into bars, this was grown up, it was, you
know, a lot more acceptable to me. I still did plenty of drugs, but I really liked
alcohol; I just couldn't wait for Friday and I would party all the time on weekends. And I
never did socialize with anybody by that time I was in high school--and I never hung out
with anybody in high school except the kids that went around the back and smoked joints. I
would stay in class for as long as I had to and then I would get out and go get high and
drive off with somebody in a car and go and get drunk.
And when I graduated I started working in hotels, and was drinking
every day. And that was a lot of fun--it was all young people and everybody liked to party
and they had sort of a little family because we'd all work these crazy hours and get
everybody else drunk and then we got out we'd have our own party. And there was real
camaraderie in that. Um--I worked in a hotel, I had a, a good job on the front desk and, uh,
I was making pretty decent money, for at least a high school grad at that time, in that
town there really wasn't a lot of opportunity--and, uh, I felt good about the job and I
was pretty good at it; I had a reputation for remembering people's names and, and stuff
like that, and, needless to say, that didn't really last very long. By the last year in
that job, um, I had started doing speed on a regular basis along with the alcohol, so then
I could get up in the morning, which was hard to do because I was always hungover. But
then I would have to drink twice as much to bring myself down from the speed buzz, and,
um, so . . . that went on for a long time and my performance just went downhill really
And ... I, uh ... the boss that I was working for kept wanting to go
out with me. I didn't think that was such a good idea and I, finally, I did start going
out with him. That also afforded me a little leeway as far as coming in late, things like
that, and the general manager was just disgusted by this and told me to straighten up my
act. Not only was I doing this, but I was coming in in rumpled-up clothes and I was
snapping at customers and I didn't remember anybody's name anymore and just generally
didn't care. Everybody was bothering me. So, he promptly fired me, and, uh, this guy that
I was seeing that was my boss told them that if he--that I'd been a good employee for
three years and he should give me a chance to quit, and if he didn't then he was going to
lose his assistant manager too. So the general manager promptly fired him, too. I ... I
felt pretty guilty about that because this had been a nine-year job for this man and I
assumed full guilt and responsibility for losing him his job. So, uh, I married him,
He, uh ... after about eight months of gruesome unemployment and
spending every single penny on alcohol and drugs, I finally decided that somebody had to
make some money, so I finally got back into hotel work on the graveyard shift doing the
night audit that was not really a lot of fun. But I lasted in that for a while and I
finally got a couple of bartending jobs and that was terrific. I'm sure I drank as much as
I served and, um.... But that went along pretty well, I, I tended bar at two different
jobs, a day job and a night job, and just stayed loaded the entire time, except when I was
And I did that for another year--but that wasn't really going anywhere,
I wasn't making enough money, I wasn't saving any money, and I thought I should be making
a lot more money and I heard that out in Houston, Texas, that, uh, there was a lot of job
opportunities and people were making real good money, rents were low, et cetera. And my
husband had some family out there, so we went out there. And we did get good jobs, in an
oil field, and, uh, started making better money. Never saw any of it, for some strange
reason. Um, I didn't do any more speed. I also knew that I had to get away from speed
addiction because my body just couldn't take it anymore. And I was real willing to give
that up, then I'd be okay. I also gave up vodka and hard liquor, and switched to wine. So
I knew my life was going to be wonderful--and it wasn't. Um, I continued to drink, every
day; I smoked pot at least three times a day--you know, get up in the morning, to start
with. And, uh, I had a thing about drinking in the morning--I wasn't going to drink in the
morning, people might smell it on my breath, so I'd smoke a joint instead. But I couldn't
wait to get out of work to go home and drink.
We stayed in Texas. I guess about the third year we were there--um, my
husband was about eight years older than I was, and he drank; his progression had gone a
little farther. He was more into the isolation. I was still in my early twenties and I
still wanted to party and go out and have a good time when I drank. And he wanted to come
home from work and down his half a bottle of vodka and be asleep by seven thirty, eight
o'clock. So I felt, uh, very angry; he was boring me to death, and I was abandoned, and he
obviously had a drinking problem, and he was ruining my life. And I was very unhappy, and
I thought I should be good and stay married and all that kind of stuff, but, uh, I finally
decided that, that this drunk just didn't want to get better, and so I left him.
He went into treatment, immediately. He had a nervous breakdown, losing
his spouse in a strange town, and confronting his alcoholism. And, uh, he went into a
rehab and started going to AA meetings. And he would write me letters and he called me,
and I was avoiding him like the plague, and he finally ran into me one day--I had to see
him because of a lawyer's letter--and he said to me, uh, you know, "Look how scared
you are, you don't want to talk to me because you don't want to look at yourself. You look
at the world through your haze of wine and you're terrified right now to talk to me
because you know you have a problem too." And I didn't think too much about what he
said, but I remember noticing that I was shaking. He was absolutely right about that, but
I thought it was just emotional trauma from having to speak to this man, so ... I never
talked to him again.
Then I proceeded to go after what I thought I wanted all along. Now I
could be single, and I could date, and I could go to all these singles bars and go out and
party and have a good time. And, uh, I did that for a little less than a year. And I
forgot to mention at the end of this marriage also that I had, uh, developed anorexia, and
I was down to a size three trying to get down to a size one; and, uh, didn't see anything
wrong with that. People told me I looked great. I had lost all this weight, I thought I
looked great and, uh, I just didn't want to eat anymore; drinking was enough for me, and
I'd, you know, eat a few bites here and there and that would keep me alive and, and that
After I left my husband, I had hopes for all these people being in my
life, and there was nobody. The people I worked with were pretty nice but most of them
were married and had families and I really didn't have anything in common with them, they
didn't drink like I did. And, when I went out to bars, um, I couldn't seem to control what
I was doing. I would go out and have a few drinks with people at cocktail hour and
everybody would leave and I'd still be there at two o'clock and, uh, I was getting sloppy
too. Always before I had been a fun drunk and I had enjoyed it and it wasn't that way
anymore; by the end of the night I felt sorry for myself, and I was either maudlin or, you
know, just bitchy, um, most of the time I don't remember how I was. And it got to the
point where I'd be, you know, go out for cocktail hour, well, I'll go out for a blackout,
and.... And I, uh, just did not like being embarrassed and having to face people again,
and these people would come up to me in, you know, these corporations and stuff and talk
to me like I'd talked to them all night or something, and I would have no idea who they
were. And, uh, this just became unacceptable, so I quit drinking with anybody at all, and
then it was just me and my bottle.
I also became bulimic, and I, uh, couldn't keep up with starving myself
anymore--I had such a hole in me, and there were no people in my life, and the alcohol
wasn't working anymore and I had a lot of pain and I was not in touch with that at all,
but, uh, I started eating, and then of course I had too much guilt to keep it, so that
developed into a good case of bulimia. And, uh, I kept getting more and more and more
miserable. I would get high as soon as I got up. I was starting to put, uh, vanilla in my
coffee, that was just kind of a quirk, I didn't get drunk, and, um, I couldn't wait for
lunch to go out and get high again, and then I would go home and I would drink my magnum
of wine. And, uh, somebody came over for some reason one day and noticed that I drank a
whole magnum of wine and thought that was kind of unusual--I just kind of looked at him, I
didn't really think too much of that, either. I had a little denial.
So I, uh, really was getting pretty suicidal; I thought about killing
myself a lot. I knew I didn't want to continue living the way I was. I didn't think there
was any option so I figured I didn't want to continue living anymore at all. And I
remembered back to the time, uh, after I had been raped and I had gone to see this shrink.
So I got out the phone book and I went to see a shrink; and figured, you know, I was crazy
and maybe they could fix me now, like they did before, and, uh, I walked into this woman's
office and--I forgot to mention that with the bulimia I had no idea what it was--and I
walked into this woman's office and there was this big sign about bulimics and I started
reading it and I was identifying; it was kind of like a, a first AA meeting, I just
And it turned out she was a food-addictions shrink. So I got into that
therapy, and in some ways it was helpful, she helped me get in touch with my feelings, I
really had no idea how I felt about anything and she taught me to, to just go
happy-mad-sad-glad over and over till I could try to identify which one I was underneath,
uh, whatever I had, uh, on the surface--which was usually just numbness. I tried to talk
to her about alcohol, because by then I was starting to be willing to think that maybe
that was a problem, but she told me that my problem was food and, um, so, I seemed to be
feeling a little bit better, so I decided to stay with her.
Then, because I was drinking all the money I had, I, uh, was running
out of money, I took a second job in a restaurant, and I met this waiter. And, uh, he
liked me right away and I liked him right away, he was real cute, and, uh, he--as soon as
I started dating him, I think it was about a week into dating him, I was a little bit late
for a date, and he was furious. Just furious. He was not accepting any reasons and where
was I and all this kind of stuff; and I thought, wow, if he was that jealous he must
really like me. And, uh, so I latched onto him, and, presto-change-o, my bulimia
disappeared. I had just substituted one addiction for another. And he was quite enough to
obsess on. He wanted to know where I was every single minute of the day. He, uh, never
believed where I said I was when I wasn't with him; all kinds of wacky stuff, and I was
just as wacky, and that was great.
This progressed, uh, to the point where he didn't believe where I was,
and I would start to get really angry because I was telling the truth; and so I would
start to fight with him, and, uh, he became violent. And the first time that he hit me, I
swore I would never see him; I said, you know, "Get out of my life, I don't ever want
to see you again," and when he went out the door, I realized there was nothing else
in my life. You know, he was the only person in my life at that time. Because he helped me
to isolate--I was not allowed to have any kind of friends, or anything that would ... not
that I did before I started seeing him anyway, but, um, he was a good excuse for that.
And, uh, he also--I think by the end, I stayed with him through a lot more of this than I
would ever have thought I would, um, I took him back many times and I would swear that I
would never see him again and he would get thrown in jail on a D.W.I. or something and I
would be right back there. And, uh, I, I knew at that point that I was really totally out
of my mind and that there was no hope, because, I had always thought of--you know, women
that stuck around for that kind of stuff, battered women and ... that's, that's really
sick, how could you do that and they must want it, and I just thought that was, you know,
just disgusting, that these women would allow themselves to be treated in this manner, and
I would never do that. And here I was, doing exactly that, and I was completely powerless;
and whenever he left, whenever I'd kick him out, I had this same feeling that I was dying,
and ... I was dying.
Finally I called, uh, my sister in New York, who has been in the
program for about nine years and, all this time that I was in Texas I had a, a great
facade with my family, I was really okay with them because I had this job, I still, I'd
managed to keep this job for four years and, uh ... I was making good money and I had my
own apartment and my car ran and I always took good care of the externals, and, therefore,
they thought that I was, you know, the, the good sister, because I kept my life together.
My sister, who was much saner, kept a messy house, and she was overweight, and, you know,
she was ... not held in the same regard by my mother. And my sister, when I made this
call, heard that I was at my alcoholic bottom, and, um, it was kind of an expensive
Twelfth Step, she flew all the way to Houston and stayed with me for a week. And I had not
called her about alcohol, I'd called her about this man, and I explained to her that I
just couldn't stay away from him and I didn't understand what was wrong with me. And I
thought I was insane, and I wanted to die.
So she talked to me a little bit about the program, and the program
life, and how hard it was to get away from an addiction, always, you know, implying that
she meant him. And I remember she made some comment like well, when I came back--she
wanted me to go home with her for a leave of absence for a month--and she said when I came
back, straight and sober, I probably wouldn't have this problem with him. And I go,
"Huh? Sober?" But, uh, slowly it sank in. And by that point, you know, I, I
really, I wanted to be dead; enough that, even though I thought the only thing keeping me
alive was alcohol, I was willing to put it down. Because she said that if I put it down
and I started into this program I would meet other people like me and that, uh, I would
find some hope here; and, it wasn't really that I was crazy, that I could probably get
back on my feet, I'd been away from my family and I was kind of strung out from drugs and
alcohol and if I just got a rest, then I would be okay. And she made me get all the liquor
out of my house before we left, even the vanilla--I looked at her really strange,
"Who would drink vanilla?" And so I flew back with her and came into a meeting
and--I remember my first meeting, I was sitting here thinking, if these people make me say
"I'm an alcoholic" I'm just going to scream you-know-what at them and run out
the door, but nobody ever did that, thank God. And, uh, by the second meeting I knew I was
home. And I knew that that was the problem. And I haven't had a drink since.
And, you know, it, it still amazes me that putting that substance in my
body made that kind of a difference in my mind--that I really was, you know, clinically
insane, I was not capable of predicting what I was going to do, and that just, even in the
very beginning, just putting down the substance and not drinking or drugging anymore, I
was accountable for my actions. And that was, you know, my first miracle.
Um, I ... have gotten so much out of this program; I mean, so much
more. Not just being able to live without drugs and alcohol, which is no small thing, but
I can be a responsible person today, I can show up for life. I'm learning how to deal with
all these emotions that, uh, I stuffed, denied, ignored, and it really, I really feel like
a newborn just, uh, growing up; and I, I am. I, uh, had always medicated pain, fear, all
this kind of stuff and stuffed it down as much as I could. I did have, when I first got
sober, I had a little more trouble with the food and I had to go to another Twelve Step
program, and there was hope and help there, too, for that. The answer is in these Twelve
Steps--I had to get my other Step One, but, uh, the faith in a higher power and, uh,
working the Steps in this program has really just turned my entire life around. I made a
lot of mistakes when I first came into this program--I don't know if they were mistakes or
just how it worked out.
I went back to Texas and I stayed there for a couple months after being
up here for a month and getting sober, and I just felt so alone. And I mean there was
nobody left there, um, nobody I could see and, uh, all I had was a job and my family was
up here and people I had gotten sober with and, I guess that's what it's like to get out
of a rehab. And I just--I tried to stick it out, and I knew if I had AA it should work,
and I had a sponsor and everybody told me not to move back to New York, that it was
another geographical [cure]. And I did it anyway and, uh, I don't know how I knew that
that was okay to do but I'm really glad that I did. And now I'm in closer proximity to my
family, I'm able to, to be there as a member of the family. Most of my sins with them were
just not being there for anything. Today I take my nephew to karate, and take him to
school when he misses the bus. I felt so grown up the first time I wrote his tardy slip
and signed my name. And you know, just being a member of a family and showing up for work
and not having my job gauge who I am, or, you know, my weight gauge who I am. Today it's
what kind of person I am and if I'm taking the right action; and if I'm really trying as
best I can to practice the principles of the program in my life. And if I'm really doing
that and am connected to my higher power, and I'm doing a prayer and meditation, and I
talk to my sponsor, I really feel okay about myself and that's a miracle. The isolation
that I went through for so many years--I don't ever remember not being isolated before I
came into this program. And, to learn to share ... and I ... was in the rooms six months
before I could ever open my mouth at a meeting, and, um, it feels so good, and, you know,
it felt so good just to hear other people share with me, that was all I could do for a
long time was sit and listen. And now it's to be able to talk to people and really share
how I'm really feeling and, you know, I don't know what I thought; I thought they were
going to, you know, just really reject me from the face of the earth and tell me that I
had to go find another planet or something if I ever told anybody how I really felt, and I
came here and found out that that's just not the case.
This program has really given me a lot; and I have a, a sense of self
back. Um, still have a lot of trouble with self-esteem but it's gotten so much better.
And, uh, I have a lot of trouble with a lot of defects but I'm, I'm on a road now, and I
have a direction now, and things are steadily getting better, and it's all from this
program. Thanks a lot.
Sixteen Pointers To Help A Spouse Live With Mental Illness
1. The mental illness your spouse suffers is something that is happening to your
entire family. All are affected; it is nobody's fault. It is not your spouse's fault; it
is not your fault, it is not your children's fault. IT IS NOBODY'S FAULT. It is a
misfortunate illness. It is NOT automatic grounds for divorce, any more than other
2. YOU CANNOT FIX YOUR SPOUSE. There is NOTHING you can do to make him well, so don't
feel compelled to try. You don't have the answers. All you can do is be supportive and
loving (in a profound sense), and handle the every-day details and practical issues of
life for him that he cannot cope with.
3. All members of the family have a responsibility to cope with the illness. Escape is
not a helpful way of dealing with the crisis. You all need each other.
4. The ill spouse must recognize and accept the illness, be willing to receive
treatment, and if possible, learn to manage the illness. He must cooperate with his
medical team. He must take his medications. He must learn to recognize relapse symptoms.
If the ill spouse is not willing to do these things, it may become impossible for the
family to continue to support him. The family is not required to throw away their own
lives for someone who refuses to cooperate. There are limits, and they must be enforced
without feelings of guilt.
5. Educate yourself concerning every aspect of the illness. Education brings
compassion. Ignorance encourages anger and fear.
6. Grieve your loss. It is a great loss. The grief process for this illness is
identical to the grief process for the death of a spouse. You need to allow yourself to
experience the entire process of grieving.
7. Get help for yourself to cope with this incredible challenge, either from your own
counseling sessions, or an NAMI support group. You can't do it alone. With help, you can
live life with gusto. Don't refuse to recognize your own need for help, just because the
ill spouse is getting most of the attention. This illness is happening to your whole
family. You should not try to do it alone.
8. Help your children UNDERSTAND the illness as much as their ages allow. NO FAMILY
SECRETS! Don't deny them the opportunity of learning about the illness, the unfair stigma
attached to it, and developing their skills in coping. It can be an incredible learning
opportunity for them. If they need professional help to understand it and their own
feelings, get it for them.
9. Try to create a safe environment for the spouse to express himself without feeling
threatened, constrained or condemned. He desperately needs a nurturing, safe place to
express the incredible frustration he is feeling about this illness.
10. You and your children need to share your FEELINGS honestly and openly. They are
suffering a loss also. It's OK to feel angry and cheated. At times, you may feel
embarrassed by the ill spouse's behavior. Avoid trying to protect your spouse by not
discussing the problem with family members or friends. Don't require your children to
conspire with you in a code of "Family Secrecy." Family secrets will isolate you
from others. Humor and openness will help the entire family, including your spouse, accept
the illness for exactly what it is and reduce guilt for all family members. Remember that
small children, by their very nature, assume that they are responsible for anything in
their environment that goes wrong.
11. Never put yourself or your children in physical danger. If you sense your spouse is
becoming dangerous, you should leave and call professional help. You should never tolerate
abuse of you or your children! Say NO WAY, and mean it. Trust your instincts &
intuition on this one.
12. Become your spouse's advocate with the medical professionals, assertively involved
in his treatment and medication. Don't be afraid to go with him to appointments, to call
his psychiatrist if you suspect something isn't right, or to inform the psychiatrist of
the effects of the medication being prescribed. If the psychiatrist won't cooperate with
you, demand a different one! Stand your ground assertively, but try not to be a pain in
the neck. Treatment should involve the entire family, so find professionals who will work
with the whole family. You know more about your spouse's illness than anyone else. Trust
13. Coldly assess what your spouse can and cannot handle, and then compensate
assertively. Most people with severe mental illness cannot handle money, some household
chores, time commitments, relatives, too much stress. It is not uncommon for them to want
to move all the time, searching for peace. YOU MUST NOT DO THINGS FOR YOUR SPOUSE THAT HE
CAN DO FOR HIMSELF. Don't rob him of his dignity. But recognize the imperative need to
create some stability for your family, financially and otherwise. You will probably need
to get a job and develop a career, if you are not now working.
14. Maintain your own identity, resist becoming consumed with this illness. Life goes
on and you have an obligation to yourself and your children to take care of yourself and
to meet your own needs. We all must continue to develop our interests and talents. You are
a valuable human being, so don't play the martyr role and sacrifice yourself. That's just
self pity. "GET A LIFE".
15. Always hope for healing. The medicines do work, and new ones are constantly being
developed. You may get your spouse back whole some day. If nothing else, the experience
will broaden and deepen you in ways you never imagined. You CAN be a better person for it.
Or you can choose to let it destroy you and your family. It IS your choice.
16. Keep in mind that bad things happen to almost everyone, and you're
no exception. You have not been singled out for special persecution.
Trying to make good choices in life won't protect you from misfortune.
You haven't been dumb to "get yourself in this situation".
IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Life is not easy. We have to take what we get
and make the best of it. "Bloom where you are planted".
The Grief Industry
How much does crisis counselling helpor hurt?
Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker- 1/26/2004
Soon after the collapse of the World
Trade Center, experts predicted that one out of five New Yorkers-some
one and a half million people-would be traumatized by the tragedy
and require psychological care. Within weeks, several thousand grief
and crisis counselors arrived in the city. Some were dispatched by
charitable and religious organizations; many others worked for private
companies that provide services to businesses following catastrophes.
In the United States, grief and crisis
counselors generally use a method called critical-incident stress
debriefing, which was created, in 1974, by Jeffrey T. Mitchell, a
Maryland paramedic who was studying for a master's degree in psychology.
Mitchell had seen a gruesome accident while on the job: a young bride,
still in her wedding dress, had been impaled when the car that her
drunk husband was driving rear-ended a pickup truck loaded with pipes.
He was unable to shake the memory. Six months later, he confided his
troubles to a friend-a firefighter who had witnessed similar horrors.
The friend asked him to describe exactly what he had seen. Mitchell
felt greatly relieved by this conversation, and became convinced that
he had stumbled across an invaluable therapeutic approach. Indeed,
he came to think that if a "debriefing" conversation was
held soon after an upsetting event it could help prevent the onset
of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 1983, Mitchell received a Ph.D. in
human development, and he began crafting a structured seven-step debriefing
regimen that could be applied to groups of paramedics, firefighters,
and other professionals who regularly witnessed traumatic events.
Six years later, he started a nonprofit organization, the International
Critical Incident Stress Foundation, to teach debriefing and related
methods. The foundation has grown steadily, and more than thirty thousand
counselors are trained by it each year.
In a typical debriefing session, crisis
counselors introduce themselves and provide basic information about
common stress reactions-sleeplessness, headache, irritability-as well
as more debilitating symptoms, like flashbacks and delusions. Each
participant is then asked to identify himself, pinpoint where he was
during the tragic event (or "critical incident"), and describe
what he witnessed. This is known as the "fact phase." The
discussion next turns in a more emotional direction, as each participant
is asked to divulge what he was thinking during the event. The purpose
of sharing such memories is, in part, to draw out group members who
"bottle up" their emotions. At the end of this process,
the conversation enters the "feeling phase," focusing on
each participant's current reaction to the catastrophe. (The counselors
ask questions like "What was the worst part of the incident for
you personally?") Finally, the counselors discuss strategies
for coping with stress and suggest services that can provide additional
help; by the end of the session, participants are considered ready
for "reentry" into the world. The group does not meet for
a follow-up session.
I recently spoke with a man who worked
at a travel agency on Liberty Street, across from where the Twin Towers
once stood. He had been in the subway when the towers collapsed, but
after considerable difficulty he made it home safely. "I was
called by the company the next day and told to report to headquarters
on Thursday," he told me. His parent corporation, which was situated
in midtown, and had numerous offices throughout the city, had hired
an organization called National Employee Assistance Providers to give
debriefing sessions. Many of its counselors used texts created by
Mitchell's foundation during their training.
Most debriefings occur between twelve
and seventy-two hours after a catastrophe, according to "Blindsided:
A Manager's Guide to Catastrophic Incidents in the Workplace,"
by Bruce T. Blythe, the C.E.O. of Crisis Management International,
a company that offers psychological services. Blythe writes, "Earlier
than that, people are likely too numbed to put their personal reactions
into words; after seventy-two hours, people typically begin to 'seal
over' emotionally." This "sealing over" is seen as
dangerously "laying the ground" for P.T.S.D. In most circumstances,
employees are required to attend a debriefing session. Blythe writes,
"Experience has shown that if attendance is voluntary, those
most in need of support will not come, out of fear or discomfort."
The travel agent sat in a conference
room with co-workers from the Liberty Street branch who had witnessed
the collapse of the World Trade Center and had been evacuated from
the building. Also attending the session were employees from uptown
offices who had not witnessed the collapse or been at risk. In all,
there were between twenty and thirty participants at this debriefing
session. "There were two counselors, a man and a woman, and they
encouraged us to tell our stories and vent our feelings," the
travel agent told me.
When it was the agent's turn, he revealed
to the group that, at the time of the attacks, he had been sitting
in a subway car, just short of the Fulton Street station. The train
came to an abrupt halt, the air-conditioning went off, and the conductor
announced that the train's doors were stuck. Passengers managed to
pry open the doors; as they stepped onto the platform, a tremendous
blast of black smoke filled the air. It blew a woman walking in front
of the agent off her feet. He ran away from the billowing smoke, and
soon found himself pressed up against a turnstile exit that wouldn't
budge. The crowd pushed behind him, and he began to struggle for air.
("I said to myself, 'I'm not dying here,'" he told the group.)
He broke free of the mob and found a stairwell; when he arrived at
street level, the air was so dark with soot that he still felt as
if he were trapped underground. He walked north and eventually got
"I told what happened to me, and
people started crying," he recalled. A colleague said she had
made her way to the pier where she usually catches a ferry to her
home in New Jersey. "She told everyone how she came across a
dazed co-worker walking aimlessly in the darkness, and how they both
saw people jumping into the water even though there was no boat there,"
he said. Another employee from the Liberty Street branch spoke vividly
about watching bodies fall from the towers.
I asked the agent whether he had chosen to attend the debriefing.
"Well, they felt everyone should participate," he said.
When he was asked if it had been helpful, he shrugged and said that,
like most of his Liberty Street colleagues, he was relatively numb
during the debriefing. "Some people burst into tears," he
said. "But the people who were really crying hadn't even been
At the end of the session, the two counselors
gave telephone numbers to the workers and encouraged them to call
if they felt distressed. The travel agent had nightmares for weeks
after the debriefing, and often felt as if he were choking. Images
similar to the ones he had described during the session would flash
through his mind. He didn't pursue further therapy, though. "I
had to take care of my family; they rely on me," he explained.
After several months, he said, the flashbacks and the sense of choking
subsided. "You just block it out," he said. "You have
to get on with life."
The director of human resources at the travel agent's company told
me that she had arranged the debriefing session because "it made
me feel that I was doing something for the employees." She went
on, "I saw behavior that worried me, people very upset after
the attacks. I didn't want the company to seem unfeeling." Another
concern that leads companies to hire debriefing services is the fear
of litigation. Employees who have experienced a traumatic incident
on the job, and who have subsequently been sidelined by P.T.S.D.,
have sued their companies. The Web site for National Employee Assistance
Providers claims that its debriefing program insures "that the
productivity of the work unit is not impaired."
Hundreds of similar debriefing sessions
took place in Manhattan in the days following the September 11th attacks.
Did they help? One debriefing company told me that 99.7 per cent of
the participants found the sessions beneficial. But such evaluations
are subjective, and hardly scientific. In fact, only in the past few
years has debriefing undergone serious scrutiny. Brett Litz, a research
psychologist at Boston Veterans Affairs Medical Center who specializes
in post-traumatic stress disorder, recently completed a randomized
clinical trial of group debriefing of soldiers who were stationed
in Kosovo. (Peacekeeping forces there were exposed to sniper fire
and mine explosions, and discovered mass graves.) He summarized the
academic verdict on debriefing as follows: "The techniques practiced
by most American grief counselors to prevent P.T.S.D. are inert."
Clinical trials of individual psychological
debriefings versus no intervention after a major trauma, such as a
fire or a motor-vehicle accident, have had discouraging results. Some
researchers have claimed that debriefing can actually impede recovery.
One study of burn victims, for example, found that patients who received
debriefing were much more likely to report P.T.S.D. symptoms than
patients in a control group. It may be that debriefing, by encouraging
patients to open their wounds at a vulnerable moment, augments distress
rather than lessens it.
Mitchell, the movement's founder, told
me that debriefing has been "distorted and misapplied" by
some private companies, and noted that some negative findings stem
from studies of these unorthodox variants. His technique, he added,
is meant only for "homogeneous groups who have had the same exposure
to the same traumatic event," and sometimes crisis counselors
brought together people who had experienced unrelated traumas. With
firefighters who had, say, all watched one of their colleagues die,
Mitchell said that his method had a "proven" beneficial
effect. He could cite no rigorous clinical trials, however, in support
of this claim.
Scientific studies suggest that, after
a catastrophic event, most people are resilient and will recover spontaneously
over time. A small percentage of individuals do not rebound, however,
and require extended psychological care. The single intervention of
a debriefing session does nothing to alter this consistent dynamic.
Despite the influx of counselors into
Manhattan, most New Yorkers received no therapy following the attacks.
Furthermore, data from surveys taken after September 11th contradicted
the early predictions that there would be widespread psychological
damage. A telephone survey of nine hundred and eighty-eight adults
living below 110th Street, conducted in October and November of 2001,
found that only 7.5 per cent had been diagnosed as having P.T.S.D.
(According to the American Psychiatric Association, a patient is said
to have P.T.S.D. if, for a month or more after a tragic event, he
experiences several of the classic symptoms: flashbacks, intrusive
thoughts, and nightmares; avoidance of activities and places that
are reminiscent of the trauma; emotional numbness; chronic insomnia.)
A follow-up of this survey, in March of 2002, found that only 1.7
per cent of New Yorkers suffered from prolonged P.T.S.D. This finding
indicates that the debriefing industry is predicated on a false notion:
that we are all at high risk for P.T.S.D. after exposure to a traumatic
The above text covers the first two pages of this five page article. For the remainder, visit the archives of the New Yorker Magazine at www.newyorker.com/archive.