A titled lady, her chief loss was self-respect. When
the overcast lifted, the stars were there as before.
MY ALCOHOLIC PROBLEM began long before I drank. My personality, from the time I can remember anything, was the perfect set-up for an alcoholic career. I was always at odds with the entire world, not to say the universe. I was out of step with life, with my family, with people in general. I tried to compensate with impossible dreams and ambitions, which were simply early forms of escape. Even when I was old enough to know better, I dreamed about being as beautiful as Venus, as pure as the Madonna and as brilliant as the President of the United States is supposed to be. I had writing ambitions, and nothing would do but that I’d write like Shakespeare. I also wanted to be the queen of society, with a glittering salon, the bride of a dream-prince and the mother of a happy brood. Inside, I went right on being a mass of unlovely self-pity, queasy anxiety and sickening self-debasement. Naturally, I succeeded in nothing. Until I reached A.A. my life was a shambles; I was a mess, and I made everybody near and dear to me miserable. I had to go through extreme alcoholism to find my answer.
There was no material or external reason for this. I was born in a castle, in pre-war Austrian territory.
My father had a title; there was plenty of means in the family. When I was a baby, my mother brought me to America, and I never again saw my father. But again, the living was easy. My family, on my mother’s side, was brilliant, gifted and charming. They were ambitious, successful, strong and famous. They inherited wealth and acquired more.
They did the best they knew how as far as I was concerned. It took me three psychoanalysts and several years in A.A. to really get this through my head.
Up to my early thirties, when my drinking had become a major problem, I lived in large houses, with servants and all the luxuries that I could possibly ask for. But I did not feel a part of my family or a part of the set-up. I got a good non-academic education; my intellectual curiosity was encouraged. I learned how to hold a terrapin fork. Otherwise I got nothing out of it.
Before I started to drink seriously, I tried a couple of other escapes. At eighteen I ran away from home. Showing all the courage and ingenuity that I had not used in a positive way, I covered my tracks and his from my family so successfully that they did not find me for months. I went out to the West Coast, waited on table, washed dishes and sold newspaper subscriptions. Like most sick people before me, I was implacably selfish, and chronically self-centered. My mother’s heartbreak, or the unpleasant publicity I had caused did not bother my pretty head. After eight months, the family found me. Their telegram was kind and nice. But I was afraid. I was still untrained for any work but washing dishes and waiting on table.
So I married a nice, well-meaning young newspaperman, so as not to have to go home. It did not occur to me that marriage might be a job, too. We came back East and met both families. His were good, simple Quaker folk who accepted me with love. But I did not fit into this pattern either. The birth of a daughter filled me with new fears. Responsibility again. Her father became both mother and father to her. At the tender age of twenty-three, I got a divorce. My husband was made miserable by this, but I had already made him and myself miserable. He got half custody of our child, but later kept her during most of the school terms. It was the only real home she knew. I resented this, but I did nothing constructive about it.
Now I had done some living but I hadn’t learned a thing. This was where I started my first drinking lessons. Up to this time it just hadn’t occurred to me to drink. My Quaker mother-in-law, bless her heart, used to set the Christmas pudding ablaze with lumps of sugar dipped in rubbing alcohol. But now I was a young divorcee, leading a Washington social life. Prohibition meant nothing. My family always bought the best, and the embassies were flowing.
I think I had the physical allergy right away. A drink never gave me a normal, pleasant glow. Instead it was like a tap on the head with a small mallet. I was a little bit knocked out. Just what I wanted. I lost my shyness. Five or six drinks and I was terrific. Men danced with me at parties. I was full of careless chatter. I was so amusing! I had friends.
I got a novel written. It was all about Scott Fitzgerald’s little lost debutante, abused, misunderstood
and running wild. The book was published, but the reading public said—So what? I did not see that the book dripped with self-pity. I only saw that I had not become Mrs. Shakespeare.
I met a wonderful man. He was the dream prince, the answer. I, who did not know how to give love, was head over heels “in love.” I wanted him to love me and make up to me for everything. He was brilliant and ambitious. He was well behaved, and idealistic where women were concerned. But he noticed that I was not a good mother to my child, that I relegated her to nurses when she was with me. He saw that I was unsettled, living away from my family and renting houses here and there. A house in Virginia, during the fox hunting season; a little chalet in Switzerland, during the summer or a place on Long Island—each house complete with cooks, butlers and maids. Above all, he noticed that I drank a good deal, often got tight in his company and told him naughty stories. He did not like naughty stories, so I made them naughtier. He finally decided that he did not love me enough, and soon he told me so and said he was engaged to another girl.
He has since become famous and distinguished, an asset to his country. I saw him recently and he told me that he had always felt guilty, because, after our separation, I had become a serious alcoholic. With ten years of A.A. behind me, I was able to tell him that I’d have been an alcoholic, no matter what; that I had been a sick person, unfit for marriage.
Even then I knew in my heart that I was unfit for the very things I wanted most, a happy marriage, security, a home and love. But when this happened
to me, I declared to friends that I would get drunk, dead drunk that very night, and stay drunk for a month. A normal person, hit with adversity, can go on a drinking spree and then snap out of it. But I got drunk that night and stayed drunk, getting increasingly worse until I found A.A. ten years later.
That first night I blacked out at a large dinner party. In the morning, because I was young and healthy, my remorse was worse than my hangover. What had I said? What had I done? I experienced my first real guilt and shame. This was in Virginia, where I had rented a house with stables and a swimming pool, and the fall fox hunting had begun. The people I knew rode hard, and some of them drank hard. Many of them carried a flask and sandwich case, strapped to their saddles so they could stay out all day. But whereas my horse was always equipped with a flask, I merely endured the fox hunting so I could start drinking at lunch time. I would pull out early, and go to the hunt breakfast and the flowing bowl of milk-punch. By two-thirty in the afternoon I was always tight.
During these years, I did acquire some good friends. A few stood by me, at least in their hearts, throughout the whole of my drinking career. Others have come back, others I have lost. But at this time, I began gravitating toward the really hard drinkers, hanging around with them more and more. My old friends showed distress. Couldn’t I drink less? Couldn’t I stop, after a few? It was nothing to my own inner distress, my self-reproach, and my self-loathing, for was I not bearing out all the horrible things I had always suspected of myself?
I accepted a big tax-free income from the family, but I didn’t like it when they told me how to live. I went to Europe to escape them, so I thought. I was really trying, once more, to escape from myself. Imagine my surprise when I came to, in Europe, and discovered I had brought myself along! I rented a beautiful apartment on the banks of the Seine in the winter, and a chalet in Switzerland in the summer. I read sad poetry, cried, drank red wine, wrote sad poetry, and drank some more. I also wrote another novel, all about Scott Fitzgerald’s poor, misbegotten, unloved, tipsy little debutante. Even the critics kidded me about this one. I had worked the previous summer on a New York fashion magazine, a job I really enjoyed. I was now with the Paris office. I stayed with them until I got drunk and had a row with the Paris editor.
During this period I married again. This was an Englishman who, at least at this time, drank as much as I did. What we had in common was alcohol. On our honeymoon in Egypt, he cuffed me around quite a bit, and subsequently he hit me some more. I can’t blame him. My tongue had become increasingly skilled at venomous home truths. He had not developed this art and had no recourse but his fists.
We went through the two years of deadlock required by the English divorce laws. During this time, you are supposed to behave yourself, but I took a little wine-tasting tour through France, all by my lone, with car and chauffeur. Tasting the best of burgundy at a famous restaurant one night landed me passed out on a park bench in the public square. I came to and found a man leaning over me. When he reached for
me, I rose and smote him. He, in turn, kicked me so I fell to the ground. Bruised, and deadly ashamed, I told no one. I began, here and now, to fear the answer to the question—what is the matter with me? I had already been to one analyst at home. We had not gotten anywhere. Was my mental state more serious than he said? Was I insane? Was that it? I did not dare to think. I drank and I kept on drinking.
Drunk or sober, I was hectic, unpredictable, irresponsible. At a large party in Geneva, with people from many countries represented, the kind of party that is “protocol” in the extreme, I swayed, laughed hysterically, made naughty remarks in an unhushed voice, and was finally led from the scene. My friends understandably hurt and angry. Why had I done it? Why? I could not tell them. I was afraid to think why. Now I hid when I wanted to drink. I drank alone or with someone, anyone who would stay and drink with me. I passed out frequently in my home, alone.
An American doctor in Paris said I had an enlarged liver. He also said, “You are an alcoholic and there’s nothing I can do for you.” This went in one ear and out the other. I did not know what he meant. An alcoholic cannot accept the news that he’s an alcoholic unless there is a meaningful explanation given, and an offer of help, such as you get in A.A.
I returned from Europe shortly before the war broke out and I never went back. Things were no better with the family, so I moved to New York. Here, also, I had good friends, but I became more and more separated from them. Why did I have to have at least three cocktails to sit through dinner? Other girls
whom I had known all my life asked for one weak scotch after dinner. Sometimes they’d put it on the mantel, and forget it. My eye would be glued to that glass. How could anybodyforget a drink? I would have three quick strong ones in order to endure the evening.
My first analyst said, “You are becoming more and more of an alcoholic,” and sent me to another analyst. This good and gentle man, a brilliant research doctor, got nowhere with me fast. I was accepting help with one hand and pushing it away with the other. The liquor counteracted the help I was getting.
Meanwhile I had found another escape. This one was a dandy. It combined running away from my world, and drinking all I wanted to. I had met a bunch of gay young Bohemians who lived in the Village, and were sowing their wild oats. They were all kids, most of them younger than I was. All of them have since settled down to jobs and good marriages. None of them were alcoholics, but at this time they were drinking as much as I was. They introduced me to beer in the morning to kill hangovers. This was the life! I was the center of attention, just what my sick ego craved. They said I was so funny, and told me, with shrieks of laughter, what I’d done the night before. Ribaldry was the substance of the conversation, and I set out to be the funniest and most ribald of them all.
They woke up with hangovers, but with no remorse. I woke up filled with secret guilt and shame. Underneath, I knew this was all wrong. Now it was semi-blackouts every night, outrageous behavior, passing out in some friend’s Village studio or not knowing how
I got home. The horrors of increasing hangover sickness to occupy the entire day; nausea, dry heaves, the rocking bed, the nightmare-filled mind.
At this stage, I began a daily mental routine. I must drink less, I would tell myself. Or: If I’m really a genius, I must produce a great work, to show why I act like a genius. Or—this is a little too much! I’d better taper off. I must use self-will, self-control. I must go on the wagon for a while. Drink only beer or wine. I used all those well-known phrases. I also thought that I must have power over myself. I was an agnostic, so I thought. My new friends made fun of God and all the orthodox beliefs. I thought I was the captain of my soul. I told myself that I had power over this thing. One day soon, the analyses would reveal why I drank and how to stop.
I did not know that I had no power over alcohol, that I, alone and unaided, could not stop; that I was on a downgrade, tearing along at full speed with all my brakes gone, and that the end would be a total smash-up, death or insanity. I had already feared insanity for a long time. Certainly, when I was in my cups, I was not just drunk, I was crazy. Now my whole thinking was crazy. For, after those daily self-punishing sessions with myself, after the vows to stop, I would change entirely as evening came on. I would get wildly excited and look forward to another night of drinking. The remorse would turn inside out, and become anticipatory pleasure. I was going to get drunk again—Drunk!
My child was being exposed to all of this. She was also the victim of my scolding and incessant nagging. I was really scolding my mortal enemy, the inner me.
My poor child could not know this. Her father, quite rightly, wanted to put her in a school. When I protested, his lawyer, my lawyer, and my third and last analyst had a conference. She was duly sent to school, away from me.
This new analyst was a woman doctor, one of the best in the country. She did all she could to help this situation and to protect my child. She was endlessly patient as we looked together for an answer. She, more than the others, showed me what ailed me basically, why I was immature and insecure. But I was not able to make use of this knowledge until after I became sober. A.A. had to stop my drinking first. Then I was able to do something about me.
There were a couple of good things. And again these were things that I really profited by after I sobered up. I saw that my Village friends, all of whom had small jobs, were living happily on about a tenth of my sinecure. It had never occurred to me before that I could live simply and be independent of my family. So I did the right thing in the wrong way. I had a drunken quarrel with my family, denounced them, and left them forever. They were awfully good about not cutting me off. It was I who had to tell the bank, after a certain time, to refuse all further deposits. I had saved my allowance. I now had quite a nest egg. I had a tiny trust fund, and I moved into a small apartment where I learned to cook, keep house, and do the things that normal people do. I learned a whole new sense of values. I wrote and sold some short stories. These things were carried out in moments of less severe hangover or short stretches on the wagon. But the money I had saved up went for cases
of liquor. I was, when drunk, just as undisciplined and erratic as ever. My new friends had a social conscience. They were bright and well read, they held various political views. In the course of drunken arguments, I found my own views and a sense of responsibility as a citizen. Now it was wartime. But as an air raid warden my attempts to serve my country ended in a drunken and abusive row with a fellow warden.
By this time I had ceased to be the life of the party. I became a menace, the fish-wife, the common scold. I took everybody else’s inventory. Finally my new friends told me, one by one, that I could not come around any more.
Now came the black and endless dismal night. I went to bars alone to drink. There was one Village bar in particular for which I formed an obsession. I had to go there every night. I rarely remembered getting home. The bartenders took care of me, not out of brotherly love, but through enlightened self-interest. An obstreperous woman in a bar is a nuisance, and they wanted no trouble with the police. On the other hand, I was a marvelous customer. For three generations my family had had a charge account in one of the big New York hotels. I stopped at the cashier’s any hour of the night on the way to the bar and cashed a check. In the morning I would wake up with a dollar or two. I suspect that those bartenders would wait until I had shot my wad, then call a cab and send me home. This too is how the nest-egg went.
So here, in this dive, this hangout for dead-end alcoholics and neurotics, here was I. In a sick people’s place, myself among the sickest. I despised the other barflies and, naturally, they loathed me. In my cups
I used to tell them off, giving them lengthy advice on how to lead the right life. They got so they moved their barstools when they saw me coming. The bartenders too, treated me with contempt. Yes I, the queen of them all! The glittering society belle, the modern Shakespeare, the happy wife, the loving and beloved. I, who had dreamed these sick dreams, now reaped the nightmare. What I had secretly believed myself to be all along, this I had become. I was not beautiful or good, as I had yearned to be. I was fat, bloated, dirty and unkempt. Most of the time I was covered with bruises from “running into doors.” I wore a man’s raincoat, turned inside out, a present from a friend, for now my funds were low. I could not live on that tiny trust fund and still drink all I wanted to. My tweed suit, once a very good one, was shapeless and baggy with bare places worn in the elbows from leaning on the bar.
Once, in a strange gin mill, I stole a bottle from behind the bar. The bartender, a tough Irishman, came around and “gave me the elbow,” which means that he raised his elbow and smacked me in the face. I literally hit the sawdust. Luckily a friend was with me, who dragged me out, screaming and cursing, while the bartender threatened to call the police. But I never got into jail. I didn’t get into a sanitarium either. I wanted to die and often I would think of ways. I would walk up and down under the 59th Street bridge, trying to get up the nerve to go up there and jump. Once, when I called my analyst, and told her I was contemplating death, she came over and tried to get me into a sanitarium. Frightened and shamed, I refused, and sobered up temporarily.
I was not mugged, or manhandled. I did not resort to semi-prostitution for the price of a drink. But all these things could have happened. The sanitarium should have happened. I was not fit to be on the loose, and there was no one to commit me.
I think now that a God, in whom I did not believe, was looking after me. Perhaps it was He who sent my analyst to a psychiatrist’s meeting at which Bill spoke. In those days, psychiatry and A.A. had not gotten together as they have since. My analyst was one of the first to learn of A.A. and to make subsequent use of it in her work. Having heard Bill speak, she was instantly sold. She read this book that you are reading now. She asked me to read it.
“These people all had your problem,” she told me.
Anybody who had my problem was beneath contempt!
I read the book and God leapt at me from every page. So this was a group of reformers! What intellectual interests could we have in common? Could they discuss literature or art? I could just hear their sweet, pious talk. Nobody was going to reform me! I was going to reform myself!
I returned the book to my analyst and shook my head. But now a strange thing happened. In my cups I began to say, “I can’t stop.” I said it over and over, boring my fellow barflies. Something in the book had reached me after all. In a sense, I had taken the first step. My analyst pricked up her ears.
“Why don’t you just go down and see Mr. W.?” she asked. “See what you think.”
I now said a lucky and wonderful thing. I said, “O.K.”
In those days the A.A. Foundation was down in the Wall Street district of New York. As I went in I was dying of mortification. They would all stare at me and whisper! Oh, poor self-centered, sick little me. I did not reflect that half the office was composed of A.A. members, and that I was as unexciting as any client in any office.
Bill was tall, grey haired, with the kind of asymmetrical good looks and pleasant easy manner that inspires confidence in the shaken and afraid. He was well dressed; he was easy going. I could see he wasn’t a quack or a fanatic.
He did not take out a folder and say, “What is the nature of your problem?” He said to me, gently and simply, “Do you think that you are one of us?”
Never in my entire life had anyone asked me “Are you one of us?” Never had I felt a sense of belonging. I found myself nodding my head.
He now said that we had a physical allergy combined with a mental obsession, and he explained this so that I saw for the first time how this could be. He asked me if I had any spiritual belief, and when I said No, he suggested that I keep an open mind. Then he called Marty and made an appointment for me. I thought, “Aha, he’s passing the buck. Now comes the questionnaire.” I did not know who this Marty was. I did not want to go and see her, but I went. A friend of Marty’s, another A.A. let me in. Marty was late. I felt like a gangster’s moll about to be interviewed by the Salvation Army. The strange A.A. put me at ease. The apartment was charming; the shelves were full of books, many of which I owned myself. Marty came in, looking clean, neat, well-dressed and, like Bill, she
was neither a bloated wreck nor a reformer. She was attractive; she was like the friends I had once had. Indeed, she had known my cousin in Chicago. Years of drinking and general high jinks had cut her off from old friends. She too had gone to cheap bars to drink. With more physical courage than I had possessed, she had twice tried to take her life. She had been in sanitariums. Her luck had been worse than mine, but not her drinking. I, who had feared questions, now began trying to interrupt and tell my story. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise! Marty was smart. A load weighing a thousand pounds came off my back. I wasn’t insane. Nor was I the “worst woman who ever lived.” I was an alcoholic, with a recognizable behavior pattern.
I went to my first meeting with Marty and some other girls. I was sold, intellectually. But my life, even sober, was all askew and so were my emotions. In those days there was only one big meeting a week in New York. On non-meeting nights I was lonesome, or so I told myself. I went to several Village bars, and drank cokes or tea. I had been on the wagon when I came to A.A. and this sobriety-tension eventually popped. Not understanding the twenty-four hour plan, or not wanting to, I began drinking and was off-again on-again, during that first month.
A fellow A.A., called Anne, who had helped me, went on a terrible bender. Priscilla, an A.A., who, like Marty, has become one of my greatest friends, decided that I was a stubborn case. Since they could do nothing with Anne either, Priscilla suggested that I go and look after Anne. Now, I am big and weak, but Anne was bigger than I and strong. Her idea of fun
on a bender was to hit sailors and insult cops. We were to go up to our A.A. farm in Kent, and I spent the evening before riding herd on Anne. I was so busy keeping her out of trouble, and so scared she’d swing on me, that I had my last two drinks that night. The farm, in those days, was primitive. There was no central heating, and this was the dead of winter. Anne and I went up in ski clothes and fur coats, and it was so cold we slept in them. I tried to wash a little, but Anne refused to wash at all. She said she felt too horrible inside to be pretty on the outside. This I understood. This was how I had looked and acted a few short weeks ago. I completely forgot about myself in trying vainly to help Anne, whose misery I understood.
On the train going back, Anne’s one idea was to get to the nearest bar. I was really scared. I thought it was my duty to keep her from drinking, not knowing that if the other fellow is really determined to drink there is nothing you can do about it. However, I had phoned New York from the farm, appealing for help, and there in the station to meet us were two A.A.’s, John and Bud. They were a couple of normal, sober, attractive men. They took Anne and me to dinner. We, who were dirty, bedraggled and in ski clothes. They did not seem ashamed to be with us, these strangers. They were taking the trouble to try and help. Why? I was astonished and deeply moved.
All these things together brought me into A.A. I got off the so-called wagon, and on the twenty-four hour plan. I had never had the physical courage to shake it out before.
John and Bud became my friends. John said, “Keep
going to meetings.” And I did. He himself took me to many of them, including the ones out of town.
Except for one short slip, during the first eight months, which was an angry “the world can’t do this to me” reaction to a personal tragedy in my life, I have been sober for twelve years. I, who could never stay on the wagon for more than a week. The personality rehabilitation did not come overnight. In the first year there were episodes such as kicking Priscilla in the shins, getting the lock changed on the desk in the A.A. Club, because I, as secretary, didn’t want the Intergroup secretary “interfering,” and taking an older woman member out to lunch for the express purpose of informing her that she was “a phony.” All the people involved in these flare-ups took it with remarkable grace, have teased me about it since, and have become good friends of mine.
A.A. taught me how not to drink. And also, on the twenty-four hour plan, it taught me how to live. I know I do not have to be “queen of them all” to salve a frightened ego. Through going to meetings and listening, and occasionally speaking, through doing Twelve Step work, whereby in helping others you are both the teacher and the student, by making many wonderful A.A. friends, I have been taught all the things in life that are worth having. I am no longer interested in living in a palace, because palace living was not the answer for me. Nor were those impossible dreams I used to have the things I really wanted.
I have my A.A. friends, and I have become reacquainted with my old friends on a new basis. My friendships are meaningful, loving and interesting because I am sober. I have achieved the inner confi-
dence to write quite unlike Shakespeare, and I have sold a good deal of what I have written. I want to write better and sell more. My spiritual awakening in A.A. finally resulted in my joining a church some years ago. This has been a wonderful thing in my life. I consider that I was taking the Eleventh Step when I joined this church. (This was for me. Many good A.A.’s never join a church, and do not need to. Some even remain agnostics.)
Every day, I feel a little bit more useful, more happy and more free. Life, including some ups and downs, is a lot of fun. I am a part of A.A. which is a way of life. If I had not become an active alcoholic and joined A.A., I might never have found my own identity or become a part of anything. In ending my story I like to think about this.