People

BIG BOOK SEQUEL Chapter 1

We open with my recollection of the day I returned to an AA meeting after a three year absence. This singular event begins the story of my reclamation—through a continuous reconsideration of my relationship with AA—of personal potential squandered by a lifetime of indifference. But this tale of personal redemption only serves to open a bigger story of AA’s reclamation—through a reconsideration of itself—of a spiritual inheritance squandered by 80 years of willful ignorance. If I accomplish my task, the reader—whether or not they are alcoholic, whether or not they are associated with AA—will be challenged to reclaim the best parts of what makes them human. The reader who asks the question “What is this Book?” will be faced with the reply “Who is it that is reading this Book?”

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BILL’S STORY

War fever ran high in the New England town to which we knew, young officers from Plattsburg were assigned, and we were flattered when the first citizens took us to their homes, making us feel heroic. Here was love, applause, war; moments sublime with intervals hilarious. I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered liquor. I forgot the strong warnings and the prejudices of my people concerning drink. In time we sailed for “Over There.” I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol.

We landed in England. I visited Winchester Cathedral. Much moved, I wandered outside. My attention was caught by a doggerel on an old tombstone:

“Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death
Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne’er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot.”

Ominous warning—which I failed to heed.

Twenty-two, and a veteran of foreign wars, I went home at last. I fancied myself a leader, for had not the men of my battery given me a special token of appreciation? My talent for leadership, I imagined, could place me at the head of vast enterprises which I would manage with the utmost assurance.

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“No one ever steps into the same river twice,
Because you are never the same person,
And it is never the same river.”
Heraclitus

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1.1 Barbara and I followed the smell of cigarettes into a dimly lit basement. As my eyes adjusted to the haze, I took a wistful, panoramic look around the makeshift conclave. Off to the left, an offertory table of Conference-Approved literature. Straight ahead, a raised platform pulled the eye upward towards a row of five reassuring slogans, each framed in faux wood and lettered in German Gothic. On each side of the platform, dueling easels enshrined two large tablets that were inscribed with the Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions. And off to the right, convenient to the entrance, the grand totem of Recovery, dispensing a healing potion of serenity, sugar, and caffeine—the battered coffeepot. This was the Alcoholics Anonymous that I remembered.

1.2 Sober over ten years and transplanted from South Carolina, I had yet to attend AA in New Jersey which Barbara, a loyal meeting-maker, found disturbing. My three-year sabbatical from all-things-AA was never planned. At the ripening age of thirty-two I received my graduate degree from the College of Knowledge, married the prettiest girl in town, and then moved North to the land of industry, jug-handles, and diners. This was the time to silence my harshest critic: childhood potential. Fierce drinking had put the American Dream on hold long enough.

1.3 My life from adolescence to the age of twenty-five read like a New York Times best-seller. My specialty was blackout drinking—epic, crossing-state-line adventures fueled by lawyers, guns, and money. Such risky business was not without its ironies:

© 2017 Michael V. Cossette

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I took a night law course, and obtained employment as investigator for a surety company. The drive for success was on. I’d prove to the world I was important. My work took me about Wall Street and little by little I became interested in the market. Many people lost money but some became very rich. Why not I? I studied economics and business as well as law. Potential alcoholic that I was, I nearly failed my law course. At one of the finals I was too drunk to think or write. Though my drinking was not yet continuous, it disturbed my wife. We had long talks when I would still her forebodings by telling her that men of genius conceived their best projects when drunk; that the most majestic constructions philosophic thought were so derived.

By the time I had completed the course, I knew the law was not for me. The inviting maelstrom of Wall Street had me in its grip. Business and financial leaders were my heroes. Out of this ally of drink and speculation, I commenced to forge the weapon that one day would turn in its flight like a boomerang and all but cut me to ribbons. Living modestly, my wife and I saved $1,000. It went into certain securities, then cheap and rather unpopular. I rightly imagined that they would someday have a great rise. I failed to persuade my broker friends to send me out looking over factories and managements, but my wife and I decided to go anyway. I had developed a theory that most people lost money in stocks through ignorance of markets. I discovered many more reasons later on.

We gave up our positions and off we roared on a motorcycle, the sidecar stuffed with tent, blankets, a change of clothes, and three huge volumes of a financial

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one incarceration for a high-speed car chase with police occurred only a few hours after giving my high school’s graduation address to a standing ovation. But I had slept walked through the drama with characteristic indifference: there were no tragedies in my world—everyone has a story; nobody likes a whiner.

1.4 That was done, behind me. I was living a new life, in a new place, with new people. One of those new people was my first intern, Barbara. Open, spontaneous, and ebullient to the point of giddiness, she spoke in a gluttonous manner that sounded eerily familiar. She also took a long lunch off property every Monday. Perhaps Friends of Bill W. have radar. Perhaps her grim devotion to that long lunch seemed out of step with her typically carefree personality. My curiosity piqued, I lobbed a few soft ones over the politically correct net, and she returned my suspicions that she spent that time at an AA meeting.

1.5 Although AA heralded my triumphant return to normalcy, I had never really missed anything about it. After casually breaking my anonymity to Barbara, I endured about a month of her wide-eyed seductions to return to the fold. Exhausted by her cheerfulness, I finally made what would become a drastic, dangerous decision: to return to AA after a three-year absence.

1.6 Barbara and I arrived just in time to find seats at the main table. After trudging through about ten minutes of opening rituals, the meeting leader proffered an open topic. As the discussion moved around the room, each person in turn spoke from behind a well-cultivated persona that I recognized instantly: the elder statesman, the accommodating newcomer, the pensive rehab parolee, and an entire troupe of supporting characters straight out of central casting. And there I was, comfortable in my usual role as the passive observer.

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success at speculation, so we had a little money, but we once worked on a farm for a month to avoid drawing on our small capital. That was the last honest manual labor on my part for many a day. We covered the whole eastern United States in a year. At the end of it, my reports to Wall Street procured me a position there and the use of a large expense account. The exercise of an option brought in more money, leaving us with a profit of several thousand dollars for that year.

For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way. I had arrived. My judgment and ideas were followed by many to the tune of paper millions. The great boom of the late twenties was seething and swelling. Drink was taking an important and exhilarating part in my life. There was loud talk in the jazz places uptown. Everyone spent in thousands and chattered in millions. Scoffers could scoff and be damned. I made a host of fair-weather friends.

My drinking assumed more serious proportions, continuing all day and almost every night. The remonstrances of my friends terminated in a row and I became a lone wolf. There were many unhappy scenes in our sumptuous apartment. There had been no real infidelity, for loyalty to my wife, helped at times by extreme drunkenness, kept me out of those scrapes.

In 1929 I contracted golf fever. We went at once to the country, my wife to applaud while I started out to overtake Walter Hagen. Liquor caught up with me much faster than I came up behind Walter. I began to be jittery in the morning. Golf permitted drinking

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1.7 As I listened more carefully, recognition dissolved into caricature. The elder statesman coughed out inane platitudes. The accommodating newcomer parroted the group-speak with mind-numbing fatuity. The pensive rehab parolee hunkered down against a hostile world of imagined relapse triggers. My mind struggled to metabolize what I was hearing—a tepid brew of John Bradshaw’s “inner child,” New Age mumbo-jumbo, and disease propaganda direct from the latest rehab fad. This was not the Alcoholics Anonymous that I remembered.

1.8 We have all heard that you can’t go home again. Main Street never looks the same and a trip to our favorite childhood haunt leaves us empty of even nostalgia. At our high school reunion that long-lost best friend seems like a stranger, and what we had hoped to be joyful reminiscence instead becomes an uneasy contest of awkward stares. We all move on in our lives.

1.9. The AA I remembered had a harder edge. The Program I practiced did not lead to the whimpering remission of a lifelong disease; but instead to a full, triumphant victory over alcohol. The Fellowship that welcomed me sprang from a handful of rag-tag drunks who gave the middle-finger to the world and banded together to help themselves when clergy, doctors, and friends & family could not, and would not. AA was kick-ass rock-and-roll—fiercely individualistic, thoroughly American.

1.10 My brooding reverie was interrupted when the discussion meandered around to the question of how many AA meetings a person should attend after they accumulate some sober time. This was something I could speak to! My return after a three-year absence seemed the perfect platform from which to pass on the good news that AA is not an end—AA is only a prelude to something greater. After careful consideration, I raised my hand,

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every day and every night. It was fun to carom around the exclusive course which had inspired such awe in me as a lad. I acquired the impeccable coat of tan one sees upon the well-to- do. The local banker watched me whirl fat checks in and out of his till with amused skepticism.

Abruptly in October 1929 hell broke loose on the New York stock exchange. After one of those days of inferno, I wobbled from a hotel bar to a brokerage office. It was eight o’clock five hours after the market closed. The ticker still clattered. I was staring at an inch of the tape which bore the inscription XYZ-32. It had been 52 that morning. I was finished and so were many friends. The papers reported men jumping to death from the towers of High Finance. That disgusted me. I would not jump. I went back to the bar. My friends had dropped several million since ten o’clock so what? Tomorrow was another day. As I drank, the old fierce determination to win came back.

Next morning I telephoned a friend in Montreál. He had plenty of money left and thought I had better go to Canada. By the following spring we were living in our accustomed style. I felt like Napoleon returning from Elba. No St. Helena for me! But drinking caught up with me again and my generous friend had to let me go. This time we stayed broke.

We went to live with my wife’s parents. I found a job; then lost it as the result of a brawl with a taxi driver. Mercifully, no one could guess that I was to have no real employment for five years, or hardly draw a sober breath. My wife began to work in a department store, coming home exhausted to find me drunk.

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introduced myself briefly, and broke character as a passive observer with a precisely phrased encouragement that I had heard old-timers say countless times before:

“I didn’t get sober so I would have to keep going to meetings.”

1.11 Nothing particularly confrontational, I thought. My sponsor Frank—sponsored by AA co-founder Dr. Bob and part of the first group of alcoholics to get sober using the Big Book—had always warned that what works for you early on in AA will eventually stop working and, should you cling to it for too long, will eventually start working against you. Anyone with over five years of continuous sobriety who had to go to more than one meeting a week to stay sober “just didn’t get it.” Being weaned from dependence on meetings was considered a healthy part of having “solved the drink problem.”

1.12 Perhaps my freshly rekindled pride in my AA heritage was expecting the same sort of respect that I had seen dispensed to old-timers. Maybe I was just naive. So, I was totally unprepared to be shouted down with:

“You can’t say things like that at a meeting!”

The bobble-heads nodded their agreement. Their disgust at my remarks was palpable. Most peculiar was the look of horror that spread like contagion across their faces. My proclamation seemed to come as a novelty, as if I was smuggling in some contraband AA that I had cooked up in the Confederate backwoods. And you could smell their fear, as if someone at the meeting was going to get struck down drunk by my words.

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I became an unwelcome hanger-on at brokerage places.

Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity. “Bathtub” gin, two bottles a day, and often three, got to be routine. Sometimes a small deal would net a few hundred dollars, and I would pay my bills at the bars and delicatessens. This went on endlessly, and I began to waken very early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler full of gin followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required if I were to eat any breakfast. Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation, and there were periods of sobriety which renewed my wife’s hope.

Gradually things got worse. The house was taken over by the mortgage holder, my mother-in-law died, my wife and father-in-law became ill.

Then I got a promising business opportunity. Stocks were at the low point of 1932, and I had somehow formed a group to buy. I was to share generously in the profits. Then I went on a prodigious bender, and that chance vanished.

I woke up. This had to be stopped. I saw I could not take so much as one drink. I was through forever. Before then, I had written lots of sweet promises, but my wife happily observed that this time I meant business. And so I did.

Shortly afterward I came home drunk. There had been no fight. Where had been my high resolve? I simply didn’t know. It hadn’t even come to mind. Someone had pushed a drink my way, and I had taken it. Was I crazy? I began to wonder, for such an appalling lack of perspective seemed near being just that.

Renewing my resolve, I tried again. Some time

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1.13 I recalled my first experience of AA. Horrendously drunk, I had stumbled into a meeting drowning in a deluge of my own expletives. A crusty old-timer named Gene forcefully suggested that I “take the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth,” a colloquialism popular at the time. After I suggested with equal force another place to put his metaphorical cotton, his reaction demonstrated AA at its best: “You came to the right place tonight, Michael.” How ironic: ten years earlier I was encouraged to stay at a meeting when too drunk; now I was being asked to leave a meeting for being “too sober.”

1.14 Yes, asked to leave. During my drinking career, I had been kicked out of countless bars, a wedding, two funerals, an amusement park, several hotels, a Catholic Church, a Buddhist temple—even out of a moving car; but getting kicked out of an AA meeting was new for me. This crowning insult came just before the meeting ended, when the self-appointed group conscience demonstrated that “Redneck” is defined by a state of mind and not geography:

“we-dont-want-u-cummin-back-and-spreddin-that-kinda-tawk.”

Again, the bobble-heads nodded their agreement.

1.15 Just keep your mouth shut and walk away, I said to myself. What did I care anyway? I was just visiting for lunch. I didn’t need these strangers to stay sober, and I didn’t want them in my life. Still, it bothered me. What I was feeling was more than snobbish irritation but, instead, a direct assault on memories that had become as much a part of me as a hand or a foot. AA was the first group of people with whom I felt a deep

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passed, and confidence began to be replaced by cocksureness. I could laugh at the gin mills. Now I had what it takes! One day I walked into a cafe to telephone. In no time I was beating on the bar asking myself how it happened. As the whisky rose to my head I told myself I would manage better next time, but I might as well get good and drunk then. And I did.

The remorse, horror and hopelessness of the next morning are unforgettable. The courage to do battle was not there. My brain raced uncontrollably and there was a terrible sense of impending calamity. I hardly dared cross the street, lest I collapse and be run down by an early morning truck, for it was scarcely daylight. An all night place supplied me with a dozen glasses of ale. My writhing nerves were stilled at last. A morning paper told me the market had gone to hell again. Well, so had I. The market would recover, but I wouldn’t. That was a hard thought. Should I kill myself? No not now. Then a mental fog settled down. Gin would fix that. So two bottles, and oblivion.

The mind and body are marvelous mechanisms, for mine endured this agony two more years. Sometimes I stole from my wife’s slender purse when the morning terror and madness were on me. Again I swayed dizzily before an open window, or the medicine cabinet where there was poison, cursing myself for a weakling. There were flights from city to country and back, as my wife and I sought escape. Then came the night when the physical and mental torture was so hellish I feared I would burst through my window, sash and all. Somehow I managed to drag my mattress to a lower floor, lest I suddenly leap. A doctor came with

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sense of protection and safety. No matter where I was in the world, no matter how long I stayed away, I thought I could go into a meeting and be accepted, no matter what I said. It was almost unbearable for me to think that this was just another family that had let me down.

1.16 I shook off my attack of gooey sentimentality like a bad hangover. A shell-shocked Barbara followed me outside. Our getaway was halted by a balding little curmudgeon who had been eyeing me during the meeting. He buttonholed me in the parking lot, introduced himself as David, and presented an alternative view of what had just happened:

“I have been waiting a long time for someone to say that.”

The look in his eyes was a crippling déjà vu. I had that look before—years ago when I first entered AA: that unmistakable hunger for the truth and the frustration that it was just within reach, but deliberately concealed from me. David told me a story that I would soon hear repeatedly, a story about AA members who were thoroughly following the Twelve Step path and suffering more loneliness and despair in their sobriety than they ever had in their drinking. And they did not know why.

1.18 Perhaps encouraged by David’s advances, a handful of eavesdroppers broke away from the pack of drones that was milling around the parking lot. After nonchalantly angling their way over to us, one of them broached the awkwardness with a simple, tentative statement: “I need a sponsor.” The meeting-after-the-meeting continued long after the parking lot had emptied, and long after Barbara and I were due back from lunch.

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a heavy sedative. Next day found me drinking both gin and sedative. This combination soon landed me on the rocks. People feared for my sanity. So did I. I could eat little or nothing when drinking, and I was forty pounds under weight.

My brother-in-law is a physician, and through his kindness and that of my mother I was placed in a nationally-known hospital for the mental and physical rehabilitation of alcoholics. Under the so-called belladonna treatment my brain cleared. Hydrotherapy and mild exercise helped much. Best of all, I met a kind doctor who explained that though certainly selfish and foolish, I had been seriously ill, bodily and mentally.

It relieved me somewhat to learn that in alcoholics the will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating liquor, though if often remains strong in other respects. My incredible behavior in the face of a desperate desire to stop was explained. Understanding myself now, I fared forth in high hope. For three or four months the goose hung high. I went to town regularly and even made a little money. Surely this was the answer self- knowledge.
But it was not, for the frightful day came when I drank once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily health fell off like a ski-jump. After a time I returned to the hospital. This was the finish, the curtain, it seemed to me. My weary and despairing wife was informed that it would all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year. We would soon have to give me over to the undertaker of the asylum.

They did not need to tell me. I knew, and almost welcomed the idea. It was a devastating blow to my

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1.19 If you scratch any person’s façade in just the right place, at just the right time, their hidden pain will come gushing forth. For more a few people attending that meeting I had unwittingly uncovered a boiling pot of dissatisfaction that had been percolating beneath a thin lid of feigned gratitude. They wanted more out of their sobriety than to be constantly recovering, to be held hostage by a lifetime mandate of repetitive meetings, self-serving moral inventories, and co-dependent sponsors. And the most frightening thought of all: they now “wanted what I had.”

1.20 Being liked, disliked, or even ignored by people had never been a problem for me, but being needed was not part of my emotional repertoire. I had always enjoyed helping people if I didn’t have to get close to them or their messy little lives. Call me the long-distance mentor, the armchair social worker who likens people to psychic vampires that suck out your soul while thanking you for your help. I wanted no part of it.

1.21 So, I do not know what finally possessed me to let these strangers in my life. Maybe it was time to revoke the unwritten contract that I forged with my fellow human beings as a child: don’t demand anything from me and I won’t demand anything from you. Maybe I was just bored with the mediocrity of personal success that I had been enduring since I quit drinking. Whatever the reason, the forces unleashed that afternoon would propel me into a world of discovery that, a few hours earlier, I did not even know existed.

And all I did was go to lunch.

***

© 2017 Michael V. Cossette

 

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