Idly browsing through a magazine not so long ago I came across a questionnaire on people’s drinking habits. The questionnaire, which was headed “Are You An Alcoholic?” suggested that anyone answering with a total of five “yes’s” out of twelve questions had a proclivity towards alcoholism. I was stunned to discover that my score was eight. Alcoholics Anonymous here I come, I thought.
Several days later I took stock and reflected that in all seriousness I could hardly believe myself to be a true alcoholic. I could, by a sheer effort of will, abstain from drinking for weeks at a time, though I was honest enough with myself to own up to the fact that as soon as I resumed the habit I seemed to be making an unconscious effort to make up for lost time. The questionnaire advised that this was not good news. It pointed to bingeing, it said. I made enquiries about the next meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and took myself along.
On the night if I thought I would be entering a room occupied by red-nosed, broken-veined down-and-outs, carefully concealing their hip flasks and uttering in slurred voices, then I was certainly in error. I am not sure that I did think that, but still my expectations were such that I imagined alcoholics not to be “normal” people going about their daily lives just like everybody else. A couple of people introduced themselves to me and I was offered a cup of tea. I heard friendly banter being exchanged between those who were regulars and knew each other. About twenty people had gathered, their ages ranging between twenty-five and sixty. (Later I was to learn that a few of the older people hadn’t “touched a drop” for ten to fifteen years.) We stood round a large table, linked hands and in unison (except for me; I didn’t know the words) recited a kind of litany, which talked about life and what our attitude should be to it—presumably to contribute to keeping us sober. What I remember most about the litany was a phrase which said we should learn to “accept that which we cannot change”. My hackles were up. I found that idea too fatalistic, believing that most things can be changed, apart from the fact of death, that is. Then we sat down and the meeting began.
People who felt moved to speak gave their case histories—all in matter-of-fact tones, rather as though they were relating an assortment of experiences common to us all, events likely to overtake most people during a lifetime. Marriages and partnerships had come to an end because all money coming into the house had been, either surreptitiously or openly, squandered on booze. Some people had lost their houses, businesses and jobs, their careers, the love of their spouses and children. A few of those present had spent nights on park benches often landing up in hospital to be dried out. Some were not regular drinkers but were now and then compelled to go out on nights of carousing, seeking asylum in pubs and in the company of other drinkers, consoling themselves and each other in their addiction.
Sitting amidst all this tragedy, endless cups of tea and overflowing ashtrays, I stayed silent but tearful. One thought, however, persisted in my mind and I knew I should be ashamed of it; it was that if we could all have a cosy drink together then we would, at least temporarily, be able to forget all our misery. It was fortunate indeed that what little wisdom I had prevented me from voicing this absurd, and somewhat revealing, notion.
Some alcoholics had sought refuge in religion, others in a simmering hatred of the social system under which we live. “I couldn’t get a job” was one refrain. “I felt the world was a cruel place and there was very little compassion in it” was another. Politicians failed people and so did religion and much of what happened in our social order appeared not to make sense.
As a socialist I recognised what had sustained me over the years (as well as frustrating me and causing me enough rage to find me reaching for the bottle on occasion). I understood something about social alienation and if I had not been so overcome with emotion at the sad stories I heard that night, then maybe I would have told my own story, of years of reading and learning to analysis, at least to some extent, the capitalist system and the effect it can have on people’s lives. If the propensity for alcohol is innate (and that is debatable) then the profit system, the National Lottery with its appeal to selfishness and greed, this grab-all environment against which we are expected to function, will always be a hindrance to the cure of sensitive people who bend under the strain of so much social tension.
I never returned to Alcoholics Anonymous, though I did kick alcohol for seven months. The truth is that I lacked the courage to re-visit the place where I had listened to so many harrowing stories . . . and so many heroic struggles with the demon drink.