Where the first chapter of the Big Book focused on the problem –- the alcoholic’s powerlessness over alcohol and the unmanageability his disease causes in his life –- the second chapter is devoted to the solution. Beginning on its first page, it introduces the notion of the “common problem” faced by all alcoholics, and likens the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous to a group of survivors of a shipwreck floating in a lifeboat. They experience a sense of camaraderie and shared suffering, together with the realization that they are each of them joined together by virtue of escaping a common peril.
The chapter emphasizes once again the notion that the recovering alcoholic is uniquely situated to be of maximum service to his fellow alcoholics.
But the ex-problem drinker who has found this solution, who is properly armed with facts about himself, can generally win the entire confidence of another alcoholic in a few hours. Until such an understanding is reached, little or nothing can be accomplished.
Of drinkers, the Big Book lists three main types: the moderate drinker, who can easily put alcohol down; the hard drinker, who drinks like an alcoholic, but who can stop if absolutely necessary; and the real alcoholic, who has, at some point in his life, lost all control over his consumption of alcohol, and who genuinely does not know when he will stop once he picks up the bottle.
The description of the alcoholic as a “real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” struck close to home for me personally. Like the drinker described in the book, I, too, had a rare talent for getting drunk at just the wrong time, and became “dangerously antisocial” while under the influence. But, like all alcoholics, I found that no amount of will power or personal resolve could keep me away from alcohol, no matter how bad my last experience, because
The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.
If so –- if there really is no defense against the first drink –- you might ask what hope there is for the alcoholic. Well, as the Big Book says, “there is a solution.” The alcoholic in the last days of his disease is “in a position where life has become impossible,” and, having passed beyond hope of human aid, has but two alternatives.
One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.
Yes, that’s right. There is a solution, it can be found in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it’s spiritual in nature. In fact, it’s what William James referred to as a “vital spiritual experience.”
And if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a real secret. One we try not to tell you when you first come into the rooms.
That vital spiritual experience is spelled G-O-D.
The following is the second chapter of the Big Book in its entirety, produced here by permission of The Anonymous Press.
IS A SOLUTION
We, of ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, know thousands of men
and women who were once just as hopeless as Bill. Nearly all have recovered.
They have solved the drink problem.
We are average Americans. All sections of this country
and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political,
economic, social, and religious backgrounds. We are people who normally would
not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an
understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are like the passengers of a
great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness
and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain's table. Unlike the
feelings of the ship's passengers, however, our joy in escape from disaster
does not subside as we go our individual ways. The feeling of having shared in
a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us. But that
in itself would never have held us together as we are now joined.
The tremendous fact for every one of us is that we have
discovered a common solution. We have a way out on which we can absolutely
agree, and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action. This is
the great news this book carries to those who suffer from alcoholism.
An illness of this sort - and we have come to believe it an illness - involves
those about us in a way no other human sickness can. If a person has cancer all
are sorry for him and no one is angry or hurt. But not so with the alcoholic
illness, for with it there goes annihilation of all the things worth while in
life. It engulfs all whose lives touch the sufferer's. It brings
misunderstanding, fierce resentment, financial insecurity, disgusted friends
and employers, warped lives of blameless children, sad wives and parents -
anyone can increase the list.
We hope this volume will inform and comfort those who
are, or who may be affected. There are many.
Highly competent psychiatrists who have dealt with us
have found it sometimes impossible to persuade an alcoholic to discuss his
situation without reserve. Strangely enough, wives, parents and intimate
friends usually find us even more unapproachable than do the psychiatrist and
But the ex-problem drinker who has found this
solution, who is properly armed with facts about himself, can generally win the
entire confidence of another alcoholic in a few hours. Until such an
understanding is reached, little or nothing can be accomplished.
That the man who is making the approach has had the
same difficulty, that he obviously knows what he is talking about, that his
whole deportment shouts at the new prospect that he is a man with a real
answer, that he has no attitude of Holier Than Thou, nothing whatever except
the sincere desire to be helpful; that there are no fees to pay, no axes to
grind, no people to please, no lectures to be endured - these are the conditions
we have found most effective. After such an approach many take up their beds
and walk again.
None of us makes a sole vocation of this work, nor do
we think its effectiveness would be increased if we did. We feel that
elimination of our drinking is but a beginning. A much more important
demonstration of our principles lies before us in our respective homes,
occupations and affairs. All of us spend much of our spare time in the sort of
effort which we are going to describe. A few are fortunate enough to be so
situated that they can give nearly all their time to the work.
If we keep on the way we are going there is little
doubt that much good will result, but the surface of the problem would hardly
be scratched. Those of us who live in large cities are overcome by the
reflection that close by hundreds are dropping into oblivion every day. Many
could recover if they had the opportunity we have enjoyed. How then shall we
present that which has been so freely given us?
We have concluded to publish an anonymous volume
setting forth the problem as we see it. We shall bring to the task our combined
experience and knowledge. This should suggest a useful program for anyone
concerned with a drinking problem.
Of necessity there will have to be discussion of
matters medical, psychiatric, social, and religious. We are aware that these
matters are, from their very nature, controversial. Nothing would please us so
much as to write a book which would contain no basis for contention or
argument. We shall do our utmost to achieve that ideal. Most of us sense that
real tolerance of other people's shortcomings and viewpoints and a respect for
their opinions are attitudes which make us more useful to others. Our very
lives, as ex-problem drinkers , depend upon our constant thought of others and
how we may help meet their needs.
You may already have asked yourself why it is that all
of us became so very ill from drinking. Doubtless you are curious to discover
how and why, in the face of expert opinion to the contrary, we have recovered
from a hopeless condition of mind and body. If you are an alcoholic who wants
to get over it, you may already be asking -"What do I have to do?"
It is the purpose of this book to answer such questions
specifically. We shall tell you what we have done. Before going into a detailed
discussion, it may be well to summarize some points as we see them.
How many times people have said to us: "I can take
it or leave it alone. Why can't he?" "Why don't you drink like a
gentleman or quit?" "That fellow can't handle his liquor."
"Why don't you try beer and wine?" "Lay off the hard
stuff." "His will power must be weak." "He could stop if he
wanted to." "She's such a sweet girl, I should think he'd stop for
her sake." "The doctor told him that if he ever drank again it would
kill him, but there he is all lit up again."
Now these are commonplace observations on drinkers
which we hear all the time. Back of them is a world of ignorance and
misunderstanding. We see that these expressions refer to people whose reactions
are very different from ours.
Moderate drinkers have little trouble in giving up
liquor entirely if they have good reason for it. They can take it or leave it
Then we have a certain type of hard drinker. He may
have the habit badly enough to gradually impair him physically and mentally. It
may cause him to die a few years before his time. If a sufficiently strong
reason - ill health, falling in love, change of environment, or the warning of
a doctor - becomes operative, this man can also stop or moderate, although he
may find it difficult and troublesome and may even need medical attention.
But what about the real alcoholic? He may start off as
a moderate drinker; he may or may not become a continuous hard drinker; but at
some stage of his drinking career he begins to lose all control of his liquor
consumption, once he starts to drink.
Here is the fellow who has been puzzling you,
especially in his lack of control. He does absurd, incredible, tragic things
while drinking. He is a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is seldom mildly
intoxicated. He is always more or less insanely drunk. His disposition while
drinking resembles his normal nature but little. He may be one of the finest
fellows in the world. Yet let him drink for a day, and he frequently becomes
disgustingly, and even dangerously anti-social. He has a positive genius for
getting tight at exactly the wrong moment, particularly when some important
decision must be made or engagement kept. He is often perfectly sensible and
well balanced concerning everything except liquor, but in that respect he is
incredibly dishonest and selfish. He often possesses special abilities, skills,
and aptitudes, and has a promising career ahead of him. He uses his gifts to
build up a bright outlook for his family and himself, and then pulls the
structure down on his head by a senseless series of sprees. He is the fellow
who goes to bed so intoxicated he ought to sleep the clock around. Yet early
next morning he searches madly for the bottle he misplaced the night before. If
he can afford it, he may have liquor concealed all over his house to be certain
no one gets his entire supply away from him to throw down the wastepipe. As
matters grow worse, he begins to use a combination of high-powered sedative and
liquor to quiet his nerves so he can go to work. Then comes the day when he
simply cannot make it and gets drunk all over again. Perhaps he goes to a
doctor who gives him morphine or some sedative with which to taper off. Then he
begins to appear at hospitals and sanitariums.
This is by no means a comprehensive picture of the true
alcoholic, as our behavior patterns vary. But this description should identify
Why does he behave like this? If hundreds of
experiences have shown him that one drink means another debacle with all its
attendant suffering and humiliation, why is it he takes that one drink? Why
can't he stay on the water wagon? What has become of the common sense and will
power that he still sometimes displays with respect to other matters?
Perhaps there never will be a full answer to these
questions. Opinions vary considerably as to why the alcoholic reacts
differently from normal people. We are not sure why, once a certain point is
reached, little can be done for him. We cannot answer the riddle.
We know that while the alcoholic keeps away from drink,
as he may do for months or years, he reacts much like other men. We are equally
positive that once he takes any alcohol whatever into his system, something
happens, both in the bodily and mental sense, which makes it virtually
impossible for him to stop. The experience of any alcoholic will abundantly
These observations would be academic and pointless if
our friend never took the first drink, thereby setting the terrible cycle in
motion. Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind,
rather than in his body. If you ask him why he started on that last bender, the
chances are he will offer you any one of a hundred alibis. Sometimes these
excuses have a certain plausibility, but none of them really makes sense in the
light of the havoc an alcoholic's drinking bout creates. They sound like the
philosophy of the man who, having a headache, beats himself on the head with a
hammer so that he can't feel the ache. If you draw this fallacious reasoning to
the attention of an alcoholic, he will laugh it off, or become irritated and
refuse to talk.
Once in a while he may tell the truth. And the truth,
strange to say, is usually that he has no more idea why he took that first
drink than you have. Some drinkers have excuses with which they are satisfied
part of the time. But in their hearts they really do not know why they do it.
Once this malady has a real hold, they are a baffled lot. There is the
obsession that somehow, someday, they will beat the game. But they often
suspect they are down for the count.
How true this is, few realize. In a vague way their
families and friends sense that these drinkers are abnormal, but everybody
hopefully awaits the day when the sufferer will rouse himself from his lethargy
and assert his power of will.
The tragic truth is that if the man be a real
alcoholic, the happy day may not arrive. He has lost control. At a certain
point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most
powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail. This tragic
situation has already arrived in practically every case long before it is suspected.
The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet
obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power
becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into
our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and
humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the
The almost certain consequences that follow taking
even a glass of beer do not crowd into the mind to deter us. If these thoughts occur,
they are hazy and readily supplanted with the old threadbare idea that this
time we shall handle ourselves like other people. There is a complete failure
of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove.
The alcoholic may say to himself in the most casual
way, "It won't burn me this time, so here's how!" Or perhaps he
doesn't think at all. How often have some of us begun to drink in this
nonchalant way, and after the third or fourth, pounded on the bar and said to
ourselves, "For God's sake, how did I ever get started again?" Only
to have that thought supplanted by "Well, I'll stop with the sixth
drink." Or "What's the use anyhow?"
When this sort of thinking is fully established in an
individual with alcoholic tendencies, he has probably placed himself beyond
human aid, and unless locked up, may die or go permanently insane. These stark
and ugly facts have been confirmed by legions of alcoholics throughout history.
But for the grace of God, there would have been thousands more convincing
demonstrations. So many want to stop but cannot.
There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the
self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which
the process requires for its successful consummation. But we saw that it really
worked in others, and we had come to believe in the hopelessness and futility
of life as we had been living it. When, therefore, we were approached by those
in whom the problem had been solved, there was nothing left for us but to pick
up the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at our feet. We have found much of
heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which
we had not even dreamed.
The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we
have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our
whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God's universe. The
central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has
entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has
commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by
If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we
believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where
life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which
there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to
go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable
situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help. This we
did because we honestly wanted to, and were willing to make the effort.
A certain American business man had ability, good
sense, and high character. For years he had floundered from one sanitarium to
another. He had consulted the best known American psychiatrists. Then he had
gone to Europe, placing himself in the care of
a celebrated physician (the psychiatrist, Dr. Jung) who prescribed for him.
Though experience had made him skeptical, he finished his treatment with
unusual confidence. His physical and mental condition were unusually good.
Above all, he believed he had acquired such a profound knowledge of the inner
workings of his mind and its hidden springs that relapse was unthinkable.
Nevertheless, he was drunk in a short time. More baffling still, he could give
himself no satisfactory explanation for his fall.
So he returned to this doctor, whom he admired, and
asked him point-blank why he could not recover. He wished above all things to
regain self-control. He seemed quite rational and well-balanced with respect to
other problems. Yet he had no control whatever over alcohol. Why was this?
He begged the doctor to tell him the whole truth, and
he got it. In the doctor's judgment he was utterly hopeless; he could never
regain his position in society and he would have to place himself under lock
and key or hire a bodyguard if he expected to live long. That was a great
But this man still lives, and is a free man. He does
not need a bodyguard nor is he confined. He can go anywhere on this earth where
other free men may go without disaster, provided he remains willing to maintain
a certain simple attitude.
Some of our alcoholic readers may think they can do
without spiritual help. Let us tell you the rest of the conversation our friend
had with his doctor.
The doctor said: "You have the mind of a chronic
alcoholic. I have never seen one single case recover, where that state of mind
existed to the extent that it does in you." Our friend felt as though the
gates of hell had closed on him with a clang.
He said to the doctor, "Is there no
"Yes," replied the doctor, "there is.
Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here
and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual
experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the
nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and
attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are
suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives
begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such
emotional rearrangement within you. With many individuals the methods which I
employed are successful, but I have never been successful with an alcoholic of
Upon hearing this, our friend was somewhat relieved, for
he reflected that, after all, he was a good church member. This hope, however,
was destroyed by the doctor's telling him that while his religious convictions
were very good, in his case they did not spell the necessary vital spiritual
Here was the terrible dilemma in which our friend found himself when he had the
extraordinary experience, which as we have already told you, made him a free
We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the
desperation of drowning men. What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved to
be the loving and powerful hand of God. A new life has been given us or, if you
prefer, "a design for living "that really works.
The distinguished American psychologist, William James,
in his book" Varieties of Religious Experience, "indicates a
multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to
convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired. If
what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all
of us, whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator
with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon
as we are willing and honest enough to try. Those having religious affiliations
will find here nothing disturbing to their beliefs or ceremonies. There is no
friction among us over such matters.
We think it no concern of ours what religious bodies our
members identify themselves with as individuals. This should be an entirely
personal affair which each one decides for himself in the light of past
associations, or his present choice. Not all of us join religious bodies, but
most of us favor such memberships.
In the following chapter, there appears an explanation
of alcoholism, as we understand it, then a chapter addressed to the agnostic.
Many who once were in this class are now among our members. Surprisingly enough,
we find such convictions no great obstacle to a spiritual experience.
Further on, clear-cut directions are given showing how
we recovered. These are followed by forty-three personal experiences.
Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in
his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his
relationship with God. These give a fair cross section of our membership and a
clear-cut idea of what has actually happened in their lives.
We hope no one will consider these self-revealing
accounts in bad taste. Our hope is that many alcoholic men and women,
desperately in need, will see these pages, and we believe that it is only by
fully disclosing ourselves and our problems that they will be persuaded to say,
"Yes, I am one of them too; I must have this thing."