The third chapter of the Big Book, More About Alcoholism, is one of the chapters I use most often when I’m talking to someone who isn’t quite convinced that they are an alcoholic. One thing you have to say for it –- it doesn’t mince words. The chapter’s second paragraph lays it out probably better than I could ever do:
We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.
“Fully concede to our innermost selves.” “Has to be smashed.” These are powerful words, words my sponsor used repeatedly in my early sobriety to help me confront my condition, which is to say the condition of any alcoholic. We can never drink again.
A weighty realization, especially for someone, like myself, who had come to rely on alcohol as one of my best friends. And I know the slogan tells us “One day at a time,” but the truth is that while the days may come one after another, the end goal has to be sobriety for every day to come.
That’s because, for whatever reason, an alcoholic is unable to control his drinking once he has begun. The euphemism for this in the rooms is the “phenomenon of craving,” but you non-alcoholics can think about it like a party you just don’t want to end. When an alcoholic gets to the end of his bottle -- hell, just halfway to the end of his bottle -- he’ll start looking around for ways to get more, and will do pretty much anything to get there. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Accepting the idea that he will never be able to control this behavior and drink again, that there is no magic “loophole,” is the real first step in recovery for any alcoholic. Clinging to the idea that somehow, someway, he will be able to control his drinking if only he figure out the trick is called a “reservation,” and this chapter includes several well-known stories about alcoholics who fell prey to just these sorts of reservations.
These stories, together with the vivid description of what it feels like to be an alcoholic, are some of the best tools I’ve yet seen to help a suffering alcoholic come to the realization that he has a disease, that it is progressive and fatal, and that he will die, harming every loved one in the process, if he doesn’t take certain simple steps.
The following is the third chapter of the Big Book in its entirety, produced here by permission of The Anonymous Press.
Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real
alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from
his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our drinking careers have
been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like
other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his
drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of
this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or
We learned that we had to fully concede to our
innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery.
The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.
We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the
ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever
recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but
such intervals - usually brief - were inevitably followed by still less
control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We
are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a
progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better.
We are like men who have lost their legs; they never
grow new ones. Neither does there appear to be any kind of treatment which will
make alcoholics of our kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable
remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a
still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is
no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one
day accomplish this, but it hasn't done so yet.
Despite all we can say, many who are real alcoholics
are not going to believe they are in that class. By every form of
self-deception and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves
exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic. If anyone who is showing
inability to control his drinking can do the right- about-face and drink like a
gentleman, our hats are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough and
long enough to drink like other people!
Here are some of the methods we have tried: Drinking
beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking
in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, never
drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from scotch
to brandy, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the
job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a
solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going
to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums - we
could increase the list ad infinitum.
We do not like to pronounce any individual as
alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest
barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it
more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with
yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full
knowledge of your condition.
Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that
early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the
difficulty is that few alcoholics have enough desire to stop while there is yet
time. We have heard of a few instances where people, who showed definite signs
of alcoholism, were able to stop for a long period because of an overpowering
desire to do so. Here is one.
A man of thirty was doing a great deal of spree
drinking. He was very nervous in the morning after these bouts and quieted
himself with more liquor. He was ambitious to succeed in business, but saw that
he would get nowhere if he drank at all. Once he started, he had no control
whatever. He made up his mind that until he had been successful in business and
had retired, he would not touch another drop. An exceptional man, he remained
bone dry for twenty-five years and retired at the age of fifty-five, after a
successful and happy business career. Then he fell victim to a belief which
practically every alcoholic has - that his long period of sobriety and
self-discipline had qualified him to drink as other men. Out came his carpet
slippers and a bottle. In two months he was in a hospital, puzzled and
humiliated. He tried to regulate his drinking for a while, making several trips
to the hospital meantime. Then, gathering all his forces, he attempted to stop
altogether and found he could not. Every means of solving his problem which money
could buy was at his disposal. Every attempt failed. Though a robust man at
retirement, he went to pieces quickly and was dead within four years.
This case contains a powerful lesson. Most of us have
believed that if we remained sober for a long stretch, we could thereafter
drink normally. But here is a man who at fifty-five years found he was just
where he had left off at thirty. We have seen the truth demonstrated again and
again: "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic." Commencing to drink
after a period of sobriety, we are in a short time as bad as ever. If we are
planning to stop drinking, there must be no reservation of any kind, nor any
lurking notion that someday we will be immune to alcohol.
Young people may be encouraged by this man's experience
to think that they can stop, as he did, on their own will power. We doubt if
many of them can do it, because none will really want to stop, and hardly one
of them, because of the peculiar mental twist already acquired, will find he
can win out. Several of our crowd, men of thirty or less, had been drinking
only a few years, but they found themselves as helpless as those who had been
drinking twenty years.
To be gravely affected, one does not necessarily have
to drink a long time nor take the quantities some of us have. This is
particularly true of women. Potential female alcoholics often turn into the
real thing and are gone beyond recall in a few years. Certain drinkers, who
would be greatly insulted if called alcoholics, are astonished at their
inability to stop. We, who are familiar with the symptoms, see large numbers of
potential alcoholics among young people everywhere. But try and get them to see
As we look back, we feel we had gone on drinking many
years beyond the point where we could quit on our will power. If anyone
questions whether he has entered this dangerous area, let him try leaving
liquor alone for one year. If he is a real alcoholic and very far advanced,
there is scant chance of success. In the early days of our drinking we
occasionally remained sober for a year or more, becoming serious drinkers again
later. Though you may be able to stop for a considerable period, you may yet be
a potential alcoholic. We think few, to whom this book will appeal, can stay
dry anything like a year. Some will be drunk the day after making their
resolutions; most of them within a few weeks.
For those who are unable to drink moderately the
question is how to stop altogether. We are assuming, of course, that the reader
desires to stop. Whether such a person can quit upon a nonspiritual basis
depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose
whether he will drink or not. Many of us felt that we had plenty of character.
There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This
is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it - this utter inability to
leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish.
How then shall we help our readers determine, to their
own satisfaction, whether they are one of us? The experiment of quitting for a
period of time will be helpful, but we think we can render an even greater
service to alcoholic sufferers and perhaps to the medical fraternity. So we
shall describe some of the mental states that precede a relapse into drinking,
for obviously this is the crux of the problem.
What sort of thinking dominates an alcoholic who
repeats time after time the desperate experiment of the first drink? Friends
who have reasoned with him after a spree which has brought him to the point of
divorce or bankruptcy are mystified when he walks directly into a saloon. Why
does he? Of what is he thinking?
Our first example is a friend we shall call Jim. This
man has a charming wife and family. He inherited a lucrative automobile agency.
He had a commendable World War record. He is a good salesman. Everybody likes
him. He is an intelligent man, normal so far as we can see, except for a
nervous disposition. He did no drinking until he was thirty-five. In a few
years he became so violent when intoxicated that he had to be committed. On
leaving the asylum he came into contact with us.
We told him what we knew of alcoholism and the answer
we had found. He made a beginning. His family was re-assembled, and he began to
work as a salesman for the business he had lost through drinking. All went well
for a time, but he failed to enlarge his spiritual life. To his consternation,
he found himself drunk half a dozen times in rapid succession. On each of these
occasions we worked with him, reviewing carefully what had happened. He agreed
he was a real alcoholic and in a serious condition. He knew he faced another
trip to the asylum if he kept on. Moreover, he would lose his family for whom
he had a deep affection. Yet he got drunk again. We asked him to tell us
exactly how it happened. This is his story: "I came to work on Tuesday
morning. I remember I felt irritated that I had to be a salesman for a concern
I once owned. I had a few words with the boss, but nothing serious. Then I
decided to drive into the country and see one of my prospects for a car. On the
way I felt hungry so I stopped at a roadside place where they have a bar. I had
no intention of drinking. I just thought I would get a sandwich. I also had the
notion that I might find a customer for a car at this place, which was familiar
for I had been going to it for years. I had eaten there many times during the
months I was sober. I sat down at a table and ordered a sandwich and a glass of
milk. Still no thought of drinking. I ordered another sandwich and decided to
have another glass of milk.
"Suddenly the thought crossed my mind that if I
were to put an ounce of whiskey in my milk it couldn't hurt me on a full
stomach. I ordered a whiskey and poured it into the milk. I vaguely sensed I
was not being any too smart, but felt reassured as I was taking the whiskey on
a full stomach. The experiment went so well that I ordered another whiskey
and poured it into more milk. That didn't seem to bother me so I tried
Thus started one more journey to the asylum for Jim.
Here was the threat of commitment, the loss of family and position, to say
nothing of that intense mental and physical suffering which drinking always
caused him. He had much knowledge about himself as an alcoholic. Yet all
reasons for not drinking were easily pushed aside in favor of the foolish
idea that he could take whiskey if only he mixed it with milk!
Whatever the precise definition of the word may be, we
call this plain insanity. How can such a lack of proportion, of the ability to
think straight, be called anything else?
You may think this an extreme case. To us it is not
far-fetched, for this kind of thinking has been characteristic of every single
one of us. We have sometimes reflected more than Jim did upon the consequences.
But there was always the curious mental phenomenon that parallel with our sound
reasoning there inevitably ran some insanely trivial excuse for taking the
first drink. Our sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea
won out. Next day we would ask ourselves, in all earnestness and sincerity, how
it could have happened.
In some circumstances we have gone out deliberately to
get drunk, feeling ourselves justified by nervousness, anger, worry,
depression, jealousy or the like. But even in this type of beginning we are
obliged to admit that our justification for a spree was insanely insufficient
in the light of what always happened. We now see that when we began to drink
deliberately, instead of casually, there was little serious or effective
thought during the period of premeditation of what the terrific consequences
Our behavior is as absurd and incomprehensible with
respect to the first drink as that of an individual with a passion, say, for
jay-walking. He gets a thrill out of skipping in front of fast-moving vehicles.
He enjoys himself for a few years in spite of friendly warnings. Up to this
point you would label him as a foolish chap having queer ideas of fun. Luck
then deserts him and he is slightly injured several times in succession. You
would expect him, if he were normal, to cut it out. Presently he is hit again
and this time has a fractured skull. Within a week after leaving the hospital a
fast-moving trolley car breaks his arm. He tells you he has decided to stop
jay-walking for good, but in a few weeks he breaks both legs.
On through the years this conduct continues,
accompanied by his continual promises to be careful or to keep off the streets
altogether. Finally, he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he is
held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to get the jay-walking idea out
of his head. He shuts himself up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the
day he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which breaks his back.
Such a man would be crazy, wouldn't he?
You may think our illustration is too ridiculous. But
is it? We, who have been through the wringer, have to admit if we substituted
alcoholism for jay-walking, the illustration would fit us exactly. However
intelligent we may have been in other respects, where alcohol has been
involved, we have been strangely insane. It's strong language - but isn't it
Some of you are thinking: "Yes, what you tell us
is true, but it doesn't fully apply. We admit we have some of these symptoms,
but we have not gone to the extremes you fellows did, nor are we likely to, for
we understand ourselves so well after what you have told us that such things
cannot happen again. We have not lost everything in life through drinking and we
certainly do not intend to. Thanks for the information."
That may be true of certain nonalcoholic people who,
though drinking foolishly and heavily at the present time, are able to stop or
moderate, because their brains and bodies have not been damaged as ours were.
But the actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely
unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. This is a point we
wish to emphasize and re-emphasize, to smash home upon our alcoholic readers as
it has been revealed to us out of bitter experience. Let us take another
Fred is partner in a well known accounting firm. His
income is good, he has a fine home, is happily married and the father of
promising children of college age. He has so attractive a personality that he
makes friends with everyone. If ever there was a successful business man, it is
Fred. To all appearance he is a stable, well balanced individual. Yet, he is alcoholic.
We first saw Fred about a year ago in a hospital where he had gone to recover
from a bad case of jitters. It was his first experience of this kind, and he
was much ashamed of it. Far from admitting he was an alcoholic, he told himself
he came to the hospital to rest his nerves. The doctor intimated strongly that
he might be worse than he realized. For a few days he was depressed about his
condition. He made up his mind to quit drinking altogether. It never occurred
to him that perhaps he could not do so, in spite of his character and standing.
Fred would not believe himself an alcoholic, much less accept a spiritual
remedy for his problem. We told him what we knew about alcoholism. He was
interested and conceded that he had some of the symptoms, but he was a long way
from admitting that he could do nothing about it himself. He was positive that
this humiliating experience, plus the knowledge he had acquired, would keep him
sober the rest of his life. Self-knowledge would fix it.
We heard no more of Fred for a while. One day we were
told that he was back in the hospital. This time he was quite shaky. He soon
indicated he was anxious to see us. The story he told is most instructive, for
here was a chap absolutely convinced he had to stop drinking, who had no excuse
for drinking, who exhibited splendid judgment and determination in all his
other concerns, yet was flat on his back nevertheless.
Let him tell you about it: "I was much impressed
with what you fellows said about alcoholism, and I frankly did not believe it
would be possible for me to drink again. I rather appreciated your ideas about
the subtle insanity which precedes the first drink, but I was confident it
could not happen to me after what I had learned. I reasoned I was not so far
advanced as most of you fellows, that I had been usually successful in licking
my other personal problems, and that I would therefore be successful where you men
failed. I felt I had every right to be self-confident, that it would be only a
matter of exercising my will power and keeping on guard.
"In this frame of mind, I went about my business
and for a time all was well. I had no trouble refusing drinks, and began to
wonder if I had not been making too hard work of a simple matter. One day I
went to Washington
to present some accounting evidence to a government bureau. I had been out of
town before during this particular dry spell, so there was nothing new about
that. Physically, I felt fine. Neither did I have any pressing problems or
worries. My business came off well, I was pleased and knew my partners would be
too. It was the end of a perfect day, not a cloud on the horizon.
"I went to my hotel and leisurely dressed for
dinner. As I crossed the threshold of the dining room, the thought came to
mind that it would be nice to have a couple of cocktails with dinner. That was
all. Nothing more. I ordered a cocktail and my meal. Then I ordered another
cocktail. After dinner I decided to take a walk. When I returned to the hotel
it struck me a highball would be fine before going to bed, so I stepped into
the bar and had one. I remember having several more that night and plenty next
morning. I have a shadowy recollection of being in an airplane bound for New York and of finding
a friendly taxicab driver at the landing field instead of my wife. The driver
escorted me about for several days. I know little of where I went or what I
said and did. Then came the hospital with unbearable mental and physical
"As soon as I regained my ability to think, I went
carefully over that evening in Washington.
Not only had I been off guard, I had made no fight whatever against the
first drink. This time I had not thought of the consequences at all. I had
commenced to drink as carelessly as though the cocktails were ginger ale. I now
remembered what my alcoholic friends had told me, how they prophesied that if I
had an alcoholic mind, the time and place would come - I would drink again.
They had said that though I did raise a defense, it would one day give way
before some trivial reason for having a drink. Well, just that did happen and
more, for what I had learned of alcoholism did not occur to me at all. I knew
from that moment that I had an alcoholic mind. I saw that will power and
self-knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots. I had never
been able to understand people who said that a problem had them hopelessly
defeated. I knew then. It was a crushing blow.
"Two of the members of Alcoholics Anonymous came
to see me. They grinned, which I didn't like so much, and then asked me if I
thought myself alcoholic and if I were really licked this time. I had to
concede both propositions. They piled on me heaps of evidence to the effect
that an alcoholic mentality, such as I had exhibited in Washington, was a hopeless condition. They
cited cases out of their own experience by the dozen. This process snuffed out
the last flicker of conviction that I could do the job myself.
"Then they outlined the spiritual answer and
program of action which a hundred of them had followed successfully. Though I
had been only a nominal churchman, their proposals were not, intellectually,
hard to swallow. But the program of action, though entirely sensible, was
pretty drastic. It meant I would have to throw several lifelong conceptions out
of the window. That was not easy. But the moment I made up my mind to go
through with the process, I had the curious feeling that my alcoholic condition
was relieved, as in fact it proved to be.
"Quite as important was the discovery that
spiritual principles would solve all my problems. I have since been brought
into a way of living infinitely more satisfying and, I hope, more useful than
the life I lived before. My old manner of life was by no means a bad one, but I
would not exchange its best moments for the worst I have now. I would not go
back to it even if I could."
Fred's story speaks for itself. We hope it strikes home
to thousands like him. He had felt only the first nip of the wringer. Most
alcoholics have to be pretty badly mangled before they really commence to solve
Many doctors and psychiatrists agree with our
conclusions. One of these men, staff member of a world-renowned hospital,
recently made this statement to some of us: "What you say about the
general hopelessness of the average alcoholic's plight is, in my opinion,
correct. As to two of you men, whose stories I have heard, there is no doubt in
my mind that you were 100% hopeless, apart from divine help. Had you offered
yourselves as patients at this hospital, I would not have taken you, if I had been
able to avoid it. People like you are too heartbreaking. Though not a religious
person, I have profound respect for the spiritual approach in such cases as
yours. For most cases, there is virtually no other solution."
Once more: The alcoholic at certain times has no
effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases,
neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense
must come from a Higher Power.