A British officer, this Irishman—that is, until brandy
“retired” him. But this proved only a temporary set-
back. He survived to become a mainstay of A.A. in
I AM AN Irishman and I was forty-nine when I joined A.A. I belonged to one of the Irish families who, more or less traditionally, sent their boys to the British armies.
I had a very happy upbringing at home. When I look back, I can’t see anything that would have predisposed me towards being either a neurotic or a drunk. I went to a very good public school run by Jesuits. I got along well there. I was going to be sent to the Indian Civil Service, which, in those days, meant that people thought you had a certain amount of brains. I was very fond of music. I was one of the star singers in the choir and one of the leading violins in the orchestra. I liked games. There was nothing in my school life that I can look back on which was responsible for anything that happened afterwards.
Then I had a year in Germany at school—that was, incidentally, when I got drunk for the first time. But that was just a mistake. I went out and drank some German wine and it went to my head. When I came back, I told the priest, the Chaplain of the place, exactly what I thought of him and he didn’t like it. He
reported to the Headmaster and the Headmaster was going to expel me. But I pointed out to him that as I was the first British boy who had been to the school, it wouldn’t be a very good advertisement for him, so I got over that all right. The term was nearly over and we parted on fairly friendly terms.
I had two years at Dublin University, and then in 1916, I got a nomination for Sandhurst, the British Military College. The war was on and it was a fairly short course, about eight months. Up to that time, drinking didn’t really mean anything to me at all. In fact, I couldn’t have told you the difference between sherry and brandy. But as soon as I got out on my own in France, I started drinking. At first, like everybody else, I could keep control when I drank, but if I did start to drink, even in those days, I was always one of the last to leave the party.
When the war was over, we had about a year in Germany, occupying the place. When I came home to ordinary garrison life in England, I found that I was drinking rather more than most people of my age. It didn’t worry me very much, because at that time I could shut off for a couple of months without taking a drink or even wanting one, and without feeling that I was giving anything up. I should say there was less drinking in the Army than I thought at that time. Lots of the older people had taken to drinking quite a good deal more during the war, but the younger generation was, I think, about the same. In my own generation I stuck out, I can see that now, as being a very much heavier drinker than the average man. But as long as you did your work and didn’t disgrace yourself, you
were socially acceptable and nobody really intruded on your private life very much.
I was still very fit and good at games.
Then I went over again to Germany for four years on an occupation job. I got a job by myself which suited me down to the ground, because there was nobody really to interfere with what I did, one way or the other, and I usually had my nerves in good trim when anybody was coming around to inspect. The gradual result was that I was drifting into making drinking one of the more important parts of my life. I was alone by myself in that job and for a long time.
Then I was sent out to India and from then on drinking just increased and increased, and I started having two or three day spells instead of just the ordinary concentrated one day. This was about 1926.
India lent itself to drinking then, if you were disposed to drink, because you lived in bungalows; you didn’t live all together as you do at home in an Officer’s Mess. We had a minor campaign or two and that helped distract attention from my drinking. By and large, I got through. I was still very good at games. I was up to international standards in one particular game, and that again covered quite a lot of my sins. Then a change in management took place in the regiment and the new O.C. didn’t like me very much and I didn’t like him, and he started to lie in wait for me. He didn’t have to lie in wait very long, but fortunately by that time, I had acquired friends upstairs and they covered me for quite a time.
The Abyssinian war broke out just as things were going very badly for me, and I went off to Egypt on a job there. Strangely enough, right through to the
end of my twenty-six years in the Army, I was still being offered very good and important jobs in spite of the fact that my superiors must have known that I wasn’t thoroughly reliable. However, I kept that job in Egypt and Palestine for about two years, and then I changed over to the other battalion in my regiment. They weren’t quite so up-to-date on my history and I got away with about four years with them. Then I had about six months on a small island in command of the troops there. I left because I had a contretemps with the Governor. I went to a dinner he gave one night, rather drunk. I buttonholed him after dinner and gave him a few tips on how to run his colony better and the result of that was about a fortnight or so later I was shipped back to my regiment. But on the other hand, I was terribly fortunate because that should have been a court martial offense and I should have been out on my ear. I was lucky again. I had three or four very uncomfortable months with my regiment then on the Suez Canal. The Commanding Officer only spoke to me when he wanted to tell me exactly who I was and what I was and how little I counted in the scheme of things and how glad he would be if I went away. Even at that, he spoke quite often.
Then Hitler’s war broke out, and again, I was given a really important job on the Suez Canal, dealing with military shipping. I lasted at that for four months, chiefly on alcohol, because I never seemed to find any time to eat. At the end of that time, they shipped me back to my regiment again. I think the Commanding Officer was rather tired of this particular chicken coming back to roost so often because he very soon wrote in to the medical authorities to tell them that they had
to get me into hospital, to be thoroughly examined for drinking. They brought me in and of course, they hadn’t very much trouble in finding that I was an alcoholic. But that didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know what an alcoholic was. I was down in the Sudan by this time. They kept me in hospital for two months, and then they sent me up to Egypt, a three days journey. They sent me up with an attendant, and the attendant and I both arrived at the Egyptian Hospital rather the worse for wear. I was there for another couple of months and then, after a few more adventures in the East, I was shipped home.
About three months after that, my record reached home and I got a letter telling me I was retired from the Army, they put it very kindly, on medical grounds. But I knew that they knew what the medical grounds were, and that they had put a big black mark against my name. I was never to be allowed back. I had two or three feelings about that. In part, it was a feeling of intense shame at having to leave the Army during the war, but mostly it was resentment that this kind of thing should happen to me for, strange as it may seem, up to then I still thought I could control drinking. I thought, well, now that I’ve been put out for drinking, I’ll just show them that they were completely wrong, so I went off on the biggest bout I had been on up to then, involving about a fortnight’s blackout.
I was a civilian now. I was in a world that I knew nothing at all about, and I felt intensely afraid. I put myself into a home. I stayed there just long enough to work up a real good resentment against the doctor in charge, who I didn’t think was doing anything at all except collecting fees, and I left there fully deter-
mined that I’d never put myself in the power of medical people again.
I stopped off just to have one drink to see if it tasted the same on the way back to London, and that night I was carried back to bed again. So I decided I’d go back and live in Ireland to try the geography cure.
When I arrived back in Dublin, I had no friends left. Everybody I had known in the old days had gone. This was in 1941. I had no work to do and I was at an age where it seemed too late to start anything new. In any case, I made myself believe that, so I just drifted about, existing on my retired pay, drinking, and living at home.
That went on for about six years. Things were getting worse and worse. I went to hospitals, I went to retreats and doctors, and finally my mother asked me to go and see a specialist of her own choosing. I talked to him for quite a long time and at the end, he said, “Well, you’re not quite mad enough to be shut up for good yet, but you soon will be if you live long enough.” That put a scare in me for about a fortnight. I was terribly afraid that I was actually going mad, if I hadn’t gone mad already.
I couldn’t understand myself. I was intensely unhappy the whole time, but I didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it, and the worst part to me was the realization that all this was going to happen again and again until I died. I couldn’t see that there was any way out of it, and I got absolutely despairing. My only hope was to try and get through what was left of life as best I could, but I could never visualize doing that without drinking. The thought of stopping drinking just never occurred to me.
As I say, this specialist put a scare in me for about a fortnight or three weeks, then I started my last bout, which went on and off for about three months. Finally, my mother came and said she had kept me at home for six years because she thought she could help me, but that now she had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t even worth trying to help. I was to pack and go and get out of their lives for good. That was on the 28th of April, 1947. That morning was the first time I really realized where I’d got to in my life. I couldn’t think of anything at all to do. It was no use talking of putting myself into a home, a hospital, or of going to see a doctor again, or of going to see a priest or anyone else. I had played all that out long ago. She really meant business this time. This was the only time in my life that I’d ever known my mother to be almost pitiless, but she couldn’t be blamed for that.
Just as I was wondering what on earth I could do—I was too drunk even to pack a handkerchief—the memory of an A.A. write-up that I had seen in the Evening Mail flashed across my mind—and I thought to myself, this is something I haven’t tried yet. So I did manage to get myself down to an A.A. meeting that night. Providentially, this was a Monday night when the Dublin Group met in those days, and my family agreed that if A.A. could do anything for me at all, that I’d be allowed to stay on at home on probation. But if I came back in the usual state, then I’d have to go off for good the next day.
Having made that bargain, I immediately began to feel I’d been trapped into it and I went out and had some drinks—four glasses of gin, I remember. I was
taking Benzedrine and paraldehyde quite impartially during the day then, and by the time I arrived at my first A.A. meeting, I was pretty drunk and certainly doped up to the eyes and completely jittery. I had been using paraldehyde more or less like ordinary drink for the last six years though, occasionally, I’d bounce back to Phenobarbital and things like that.
When I arrived at The Country Shop, which was a restaurant where they met in Dublin, I found about thirty-five or forty people in the room. It was their open night meeting, but of course I thought they were all alcoholics; I couldn’t imagine why anybody else would want to go there, and my first reaction was, well, I’ve come to something that’s not for me. People seemed to be carefully dressed, too happy, too normal. My mind was too screwy to be able to understand much of what was being said. But I did understand this eventually, that these people had been through a lot of drinking experiences just as I had, and had managed to make a job of it. What struck me most was that they all seemed to be quite pleased with having made a job of it and having stopped drinking. That gave me my first bit of hope. I thought that if these kind of ordinary people can do it, a man of my brains ought to find it much more easy, and I joined. I suppose I had reached my spiritual gutter that night, but I have never had what you could call a real urge to drink again.
Since I joined on that April night, A.A. has done more for me than just stop me from drinking; it has brought me back to life again. It has made me understand that I must be one of my world, that I cannot exist in any happiness as a rebel by myself. It has
taught me that I can best keep my sobriety by sharing it out with others; that I must bringthat sobriety to others who need it, in my own interest. It continues to try to teach me the real charity, the charity that gives time and good will and service, and not just money. It has shown me, through the tragic stories of so many other alcoholics, the utter futility of self pity. It has taught me that success and failure are never final, and that neither count for very much in the final assessment of any man who has done his best. It has brought me back to a realization of my Maker and my duties to Him. It has made me very happy.
My mother lived on for five years after I joined A.A., the last two in complete blindness. Not least of my debts to A.A. is the knowledge that in that time when she wanted me most, I was there—and that I wasn’t drunk.