In a Drinking World
By 1969 the fun years of my drinking had long since passed, I vaguely sensed something was wrong. After ten years of overseas assignments and five foreign countries, I asked for and got a Washington, D.C. assignment.
But within six months of living in the United States, I wanted out again. The one alternative I had to serving a full two-year tour in Washington, however, was to volunteer for Saigon. I volunteered.
Years later when I was to review my medical record, I discovered that during my pre-departure physical exam for Vietnam the psychiatrist noted I was "probably an alcoholic." My direct transfer was approved anyway.
Though the Vietnam war was in full swing it didn't seem to bother me. It was just another excuse to escalate my drinking. At my request the doctor in Saigon gave me stronger tranquilizers, but they only made things worse. Indeed, my fears were not about, the war at all, but rather about "something else"--but just what, I didn't know.
One Friday night at about 8:30 a call came through the hotel switchboard with the message that a bomb had exploded in the ladies' room of the building where I worked. I was the duty secretary and was to report to work at once to type a cable notifying Washington. I happened to be with another secretary who had often covered for me at the office--typing for me when my hands shook too much, picking up or delivering sensitive papers for me. Now "Nancy" offered to cover for me again. As I sloppily thanked her, jokingly I remarked, "Sometimes I think I must be an alcoholic." Exasperated, she shouted, "Of course you're an alcoholic, you damn fool! Didn't you know that?" I giggled nervously and staggered up to my room. But the seed was planted. Nancy had hurt my precious feelings.
It took another two to three weeks before Nancy's message penetrated enough for me to do anything about it. But one horribly hungover Monday morning when there was no way I could type a priority message, I gave up. I abruptly left work and went to see the doctor. I confessed my worst suspicion. He replied that if I even thought I might be an alcoholic I undoubtedly was one, but he couldn't help me or even record it on my medical record. To the government, at that time, drinking problems required administrative action (like firing) not treatment; but he could refer me to a military psychiatrist.
The next morning I located the psychiatrist at an outlying field hospital. He agreed I needed help, but he was too busy with battlefield casualties to devote time to civilians. However, he added, there was an AA group in Saigon. His assistant gave me the address.
Unfortunately, however, it was the wrong address and I found myself lurching in and out of Saigon traffic, not knowing which way to turn. Finally I returned to my own doctor's office. By now it was lunch time and I hadn't had a drink yet. I was desperate.
"To hell with it," I told the nurse, "I'm going home and have a martini."
Pointing to a small anteroom she shouted, "You go in there, sit down, and shut up! I'll get back to you." Stunned, I did as I was told. I don't know who she called, but within half an hour I was on my way to the rectory of a Catholic church. But the priest she had referred me to was out. My nerves were really shot by now. Just as I was about to leave, he returned. No, he wasn't in AA but the group met there. He gave me the name and telephone number of a man I could call.
It took me two more days to get up my courage to call Gerry. I had no choice but to call from my office and I was terrified that someone would overhear me. Though they were all well aware of my "drinking problem," I was horrified that my colleagues might find out I was trying to do something about it. Typical.
When I finally reached Gerry, he said he would pick me up that night for a meeting. As he and Joe entered my room, I immediately told them I was ready to throw out all my booze. I really wanted to stop drinking.
"No way," Gerry replied. "There's drinking everywhere around you--in virtually every room in this hotel--and the elevator takes you right to the bar downstairs. No. You've got to learn to live with the stuff all around you. You're the one who has to change."
Of all the advice I've received in AA perhaps this was the wisest. For I did have to go on living in an alcohol-imbibing world. Neither my family, my friends, nor the people in three more foreign countries were about to alter their drinking habits to accommodate me.
I don't remember too much about that first meeting except that it consisted of only men, and that there was something different about them from any men I had ever known. Though embarrassed and humiliated (while trying to act cocky), I felt strangely at home. There were only two to three meetings a week in Saigon. Membership varied from four to twelve. I couldn't identify with the stories, and I didn't know what the "Steps" were they kept referring to. But most uncomfortable was the constant talk about God and a "higher power."
Really! These grown men sounded like Sunday school kids!
Nevertheless, I tried to do what they told me and I didn't want to hurt Gerry's feelings by not attending meetings. I stopped drinking--pretty much. After a couple of months I casually mentioned that I probably wasn't an alcoholic after all, for I had had two drinks and stopped. I couldn't understand why Gerry got tears in his eyes and asked the others to help. You see, I was just explaining that the first drink didn't get me drunk! How clever of me. . . .
The man I was dating in Saigon and the rest of our crowd drank a lot, but no one tried to persuade me to have a drink. Indeed, they admired a change in me, they said. I could see no change. My boss included a glowing paragraph in my evaluation report about the transformation he had seen in me over the last few months. But I made him delete it. I was too insecure. I guess I felt the whole reputation of AA rested on my shoulders. What if I blew it?
No Big Books were available in Saigon, but I read and reread the AA pamphlets that were. One about alcoholic women really struck home. I read it alone in my room and cried and cried, for somehow the women in those stories knew how I felt. No one else ever had.
I did a little more research to see if I really was an alcoholic, and lo and behold, I was. I got drunk four or live times during the remaining months in Saigon. But something had transpired. I finally not only admitted, but accepted, that I was an alcoholic.
After completing my eighteen months in Vietnam I returned to the States for two months routine home leave. 1 then expected another overseas assignment, but fate (God?) had other plans. I was again assigned to Washington. This time I did well at work. I went to a lot of AA meetings and I met some AA women. I began to identify with them. I never had a sponsor--I felt then, and still do, that every recovering alcoholic was my sponsor. But above all, I finally found my own higher power. For after nine months of confusion, slips, and one-day-at-a-time efforts, plus innumerable silent recitations of the Serenity Prayer, I had my last drink on March 2, 1971. While I had been self-rightcously irritated that I hadn't immediately gone overseas again, I now realized that getting to meetings on my own, and participating ever so slightly in the AA Fellowship, was needed for my continuing recovery. Fate had been kind.
After nine months of continuous sobriety I was offered a one-year assignment in Moscow. It was tempting. I was exhilarated at the opportunity, but was I ready? After much soul-searching and discussion with AA members I accepted the challenge.
In a one-on-one initial briefing I revealed my AA membership to the one man in an authoritative position I felt I needed to. He congratulated me, but said I must return all AA literature to the States, and not talk about my problem or my association with AA to anyone, Soviet or American. He didn't know how, but he feared that such knowledge could be used detrimentally. Well, all I can say is that God was on my side! In retrospect I have no idea how I endured keeping "my secret" or attending mandatory functions where drinking was the mainstay of the evening.
Then a funny thing happened. I broke a tooth. It couldn't be repaired in Moscow, so I had to go to Helsinki, Finland, for dental work. The root canal required would take a week. During that period I was due for my much-delayed first AA birthday. And I was scared.
My first night in Helsinki I deciphered Alcoholics Anonymous in the hotel phone directory. When I dialed the number no one spoke English, but I waited anyway. Finally, a woman named Helgi came to the phone. She spoke English haltingly, but it was enough. She told me the address to give a taxi driver the following evening. She would meet me at the door before the meeting.
Though the meeting was conducted in Finnish it didn't seem to matter. I was starved for the spirit of AA; it poured into me. As tearful members expressed their gratitude, I silently wept, too. I knew I would finally celebrate my own first AA birthday. It fell on the following day. Helgi stopped by my hotel to deliver one red rose. I've had fifteen birthdays since, but I can never forget the awe of that first one.
Luckily I was able to extricate myself from that Moscow assignment in six months, and it was back to Washington to finish my original stint there. The government had finally recognized alcoholism as a disease and Washington's attitude had changed. AA meetings were being held in the stately halls of the bureaucracy, yet. I relished the ready availability of meetings and fellow alcoholics as never before. My AA foundation seemed to root itself in granite. After a year or so I was off again. This time to Ethiopia for two years. There was no AA there, but I was no longer restricted in my reading or talking about it. Because of the latter I was able to help a struggling AA Loner. Together we found a measure of serenity in spite of that country's terrible famine and revolution.
By now my eyes could see all kinds of "new" and wondrous beauty. I began to understand the meaning of the promises. From Ethiopia I went on to Yugoslavia and finally ended my government overseas career in Leningrad, U.S.S.R. None of the above countries had AA groups, but I could talk about the program as much as seemed appropriate. In fact, somewhere in the U.S.S.R. is a wallet-sized "Twelve and Twelve" card. Maybe the inspired message of Bill and Bob will penetrate the iron curtain; after all, in spite of adversity, you and I got sober, didn't we?