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June 1988

Some Steps Are Harder to Take

When I was twenty-four I learned that I had multiple sclerosis. It progressed rapidly: at twenty-seven I was in a wheelchair, and by the time I was thirty-five I had lost the use of my hands, in fact of nearly all my voluntary muscles except in the face. Then the illness slowed nearly to a stop. At sixty-one my mind is undamaged; I can see and hear, talk and laugh, and with assistance I can eat and drink.

As the MS abated, my other disease, alcoholism, picked up speed. My drinking habits were already well established. I came from an alcoholic family. The cocktail hour was a sacred time in our house, the one ritual we observed. At seventeen, with much fanfare, I was introduced to sherry by my mother and uncle at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco. They were both tickled because the waitress did not ask me for an ID. I felt that I had entered the world of adulthood. I did not drink much at college because of the state law there, but after I graduated and went to work for a publisher in New York City, the cocktail hour became a daily feature of my life. In the last year before MS, I had started drinking at lunch, too.

The next years are a confused memory. I received a lot of medical attention and some good rehabilitative training. I learned to teach remedial reading, a profession I still practice. At this stage my drinking became a compulsive habit. I remember that early on I dreamed up the idea that no matter what happened to my body, I would certainly be allowed two drinks a day for the rest of my life. I hung onto this one positive thought to offset all the negative news. I remember a few people, a doctor included, warning me that I might be headed for alcoholism. "So what?" was my reaction. I was furious and determined to drink more. I firmly believed that drinking was the only sane approach to life.

As I became increasingly disabled, my drinking was more apt to be encouraged than disparaged. The MS weakened me, so a little alcohol went a long way. I was never roaring drunk, and so my compulsion was not generally noticed. I am fortunate in having an income that enables me to be taken care of at home and to choose my caretakers. This meant that I surrounded myself with enablers, girls and women who knew nothing of alcoholism and were happy to give me a drink whenever I asked. Once I unsuspectingly hired a teetotaler who lectured me; she lasted about two days. My friends all drank, and I went only to restaurants that served alcohol.

I was nervous and continually weak and exhausted, symptoms which I mistakenly attributed entirely to MS and which seemed to be temporarily relieved by drinking. Then in my late forties I began having hallucinations, seeing mice and spiders on my ceiling as I was going to sleep. They scared me, so I switched from liquor to wine for a short time, then soon took the classic next step to sherry and vermouth. Now I was drinking things I hated the taste of and still having hallucinations. My defenses were solid, however. Nothing anyone said to me would have had the slightest effect.

Instead, luckily, I met Martha, a friend of a friend, who was a power of example without knowing it. She came for lunch and was lively, sparkling-eyed, clearly enjoying her life. I was astounded when our mutual friend casually asked her if she was still in AA. Carefully casual, too, I asked her a lot of questions. Her answers and her attitude shattered my stereotypical image of AA. A few weeks later I called her and asked her to take me to a meeting.

The rest is a story of eight years of recovery. I stopped drinking right away, which was easier for me than for most people for purely physical reasons. Once my helpers and my friends knew that I had started in AA, no one would have given me a drink if I had begged for it. Emotional recovery, however, has been slower. For about five years I wallowed in guilt. I came only gradually to accept that my alcoholism is a disease, not a downfall that I brought on myself. Being in control of my life has always been important to me, and I am learning only gradually to let go a little and to trust a higher power. At the moment my higher power is the Fellowship of AA.

I have attended one meeting a week regularly. More meetings might have made recovery faster, but they are hard for me to find, the main reason being my wheelchair. I think every church meeting place in New England has at least two steps. One or two steps are difficult for me, more are nearly impossible. Meetings in hospitals are best, for they are accessible and usually in cheerful surroundings. For many years there have been AA groups in the two major hospitals in my city. However, both groups recently lost their meeting places, a disaster for me and for other elderly and disabled people.

My favorite meeting was a 7 PM beginners meeting at the hospital. Time of day is another factor; 8:30 meetings, ending at 10:00, make too long a day for me and my helpers. There must be many other older people who would prefer early meetings, also a lot of ex-drinkers of all ages who battle the urge at the cocktail hour. Could there not be more meetings at 5:30 or 6:00?

There is only one meeting in my area now at a time and place that I can manage, a very small one in a nursing home. I am glad it is available, but I wish I had a wider choice.

The magic of AA for me is in the fellowship at meetings; I need it and love it. AA has given me something I had long been looking for, a philosophy of life that is both simple and profound. It has gradually enabled me to accept both my diseases with a measure of serenity, a gift I never want to lose.

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