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July 1964

I Slipped Back to Prison

It has been about a month now since you went to your last AA meeting. . .you think you have it all figured out.

AS you step through the open door and hesitate in the dim light, the fetid odor of stale beer and wine burns your nostrils. It's always the same, a stench you imagine will linger long after the place is gone and the last dust particles have finally settled. In one quick glance your eyes photograph the small interior; the scene hasn't changed.

The squawking jukebox seems to rattle out the same forlorn tune as always; holed up in a booth next to it, oblivious to the blaring noise, is the same woman with thin, stringy, dirty-looking hair. As you walk toward the bar, you see the familiar, burned-out face of a man nursing a small glass of amber wine.

On your left as you sit down are a man and a woman conversing; little nervous spasms twitch the sides of their faces. On your right is that bewhiskered guy again in a pair of threadbare flannel slacks, wearing a grimy white shirt.

It's always the same scene, the same place. You remember being a part of this picture once yourself, but it's absurd to think of ever being reduced to such nothingness again.

It has been almost a month now since you went to your last AA meeting; since then you think you have it all figured out. Sure, you still admit to being an alcoholic. You even confess you'll always be one, except that now you have methodically and logically conceived the idea that you're a different kind of alcoholic. Even as you look back through the last twenty years of your life and see the wreckage, you believe this. And you still believe it even while remembering not only the misery and dissolution that booze brought you, but the debris of heartaches and sorrow it has caused other people. But you're older and wiser now. You have cleverly calculated that your own inward strength will be enough to insure you against any recurrence of the past. No, you do not need AA any longer; you feel that you can play the finale of the drama all by yourself.

The bartender shuffles up to you, and it's the same nondescript face that you have spoken to so many times before. "How 'bout a bottle of beer?" you ask.

As you drink, the thought flashes through your mind of how wonderfully you've done in the last nine months--it's phenomenal, you think. Only nine months out of prison, and you've successfully started a business that is expanding so fast it's a real hustle to keep up with it. You have a relatively new car (paid for), money in the bank, and a wonderful girl. Since being associated with Alcoholics Anonymous you have made so many friends; you think of how wonderful everything has become. Yes, the final act of the drama is to reap the laurels of happiness and serenity that you had always dreamed of.

The business you have come into town for is all cleared up, so you cannot think of any reason why you should not sit for a while longer and drink another one. You even think of the devil lurking in its golden depths, but the thought doesn't stop you from asking for another. And why should it--after all, you're an alcoholic aren't you? It's just as natural as breathing that you'll ask for that second one, and it's also just as certain that there will be many more to follow. You catch the attention of the nondescript face again, "How 'bout another beer, bartender?" It shouldn't take very many more before you'll be inhaling whiskey like it was going out of style. Yes, you're on your way now. It's like nuclear fission. Whatever follows now is just the inevitable chain reaction. . . .

I was one who had thought it impossible that anything like this would ever happen again to me. I was a guy who had sworn he would not allow himself to be reduced to a nothingness again.

My slip began as I've described, in one of the mangiest bars on skid row. As a result of having a little money saved, and wanting to be a big wheel too, I immediately progressed to the more élite and costlier places. I was trying to play a part, the big spender; so it only took me a couple months before I was broke and scrounging around the bottom of the heap again. Once down there, it wasn't long before my parole officer saw fit to revoke my parole and remove me from society.

Upon my return to prison I had absolutely nothing left, no more business that I had worked so hard to get started, no more money in the bank. I even sold my car to keep drinking. Finally, my girl had gotten disgusted. From rags to riches and back to rags, or from misery to serenity and back to misery again. It's the perennial tale of alcoholism; the end result of stupidity: a story that has been told since time immemorial by people like me, and one that will continue to be told by other alcoholics.

Night after night I've lain in my bunk until the early hours of morning and asked myself the same question over and over. "What happened--what brought me back here?" I continually came up with the same answers each time, too. But then, all the answers are in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, so it was no great tax on my own intelligence to figure things out. Chapter Five tells us that "there are those that cannot or will not give themselves to this simple program." It also tells us that "half-way measures availed us nothing." When the cap popped off the top of that first bottle I was already on my way back, and I took that first drink because I heeded too lightly the prudence of those few simple words.

Almost twenty years of my life have been wasted as a result of drinking, and I have intermittently chalked up ten years of that behind bars. Looking out from this cell block is like peering through a funnel, and seeing a completely different world evolving all around me at the other end. It's a magnificent cosmos of light, beauty and happiness. It's also one that does not want the likes of me in it because the ugly world that I've forged for myself out of a bottle is not harmonious with its own standards.

As my continual drinking sucked me deeper and deeper into it, the members of AA gave me their hands and said, "Here, grab hold and we'll help you out." They not only pulled me free from the darkness in which I had been floundering, but they showed me a way to the life that I had dreamed about becoming a part of for so long. I was given the same Big Book, the same tools to work with that are given to everyone else in Alcoholics Anonymous. The only thing that differed was our respective use of them. Even with my half-hearted efforts though, they still reaped me a way of life I had never known before, and one that became more productive with each passing day. The endless wonders never ceased to unfold until I sold out for a jug of booze--and another cell. "Halfway measures availed us nothing."

I now believe those words lie at the foundation of every alcoholic's continued sobriety, and that if the pillars of serenity are erected on the shifting sand of reservations such as mine, then everything I have built will inevitably come tumbling down. The hand of AA is outstretched to anyone who wants it; this time I'm hanging on.