Can We Conquer ALCOHOLISM

Source: Health, July 1947

Marty Mann, Executive Director, National Committee

For Education on Alcoholism

We are not dealing here with a minor problem. We are dealing with what a
former Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Public Health
Service has rightly called "our greatest unsolved public-health
problem." It is not unsolved because it is a new problem. It remains
unsolved because it is a problem we never have faced. The majority of
people in their ignorance and fear scarcely admit of its existence.
Alcoholism has for too long been a taboo subject, as tuberculosis used
to be forty years ago. Any child can tell you that no problem can be
solved by refusing to recognize its existence. Equally true is the fact
that no problem can be solved while people are unaware of its nature.

Many groups have been concerned for years with the problem of beverage
alcohol. Millions of words spoken and written on behalf of hundreds of
organizations have dealt with this. In the last analysis this concern
has resolved itself into a violent tug of war between the "wets" and the
"drys." In that tug of war it has been said that the alcoholic has been
the rope-and that rope has become badly frayed. No organization until
recently has concerned itself with public recognition of the alcoholic
or the nature of his dilemma. This is where the National Committee for
Education on Alcoholism comes in.

The National Committee is not concerned with beverage alcohol itself. We
take no sides in that ancient tug of war. We state flatly, in fact, that
this organization, the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism,
and all its affiliated committees-twenty-two of them at this date-are
neither "wet" nor "dry." We go further. We state that this organization
shall not concern itself in any activities designed to promote or
prevent the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Our concern is with a disease called alcoholism and its victims, those
hapless, suffering human beings who are known as alcoholics.

We recognized, as did others concerned with the problem of alcoholism,
that practically nothing was known by the general public of this
disease. We realized that because of this lack of knowledge, the public
attitude ranged from utter ignorance, through apathy and indifference,
up to prejudice and active antagonism. The public attitude reflects not
only a total lack of factual knowledge, but also the presence of a mass
of misinformation and falsehoods. Out of this attitude has grown the
type of treatment which the citizens of these United States have given
and still give to that segment of the population who suffer from this
illness. I think you know what that treatment is as well as I do. It is
hostile, contemptuous, and punitive. It is completely without
understanding and often without pity.

In most cities in this country there is no place to put the alcoholic
who is in the throes of this deadly malady, except the local jail. We,
as a nation, are not wont to treat our sick in that fashion. We are not
cruel and barbarous. We are not medieval. We pride ourselves on being
enlightened; and we are, on the whole, a kind people. Yet to a great
body of sick human beings we offer only punishment for their illness. We
behave as if we were still in the Middle Ages.

This attitude is shared by those who suffer from this illness. I can
tell you from my own experience. I had never heard the word "alcoholic;"
I had never heard the word "alcoholism." Of course, I had heard of
drunkards; everyone has, I also knew, or thought I knew, what a drunkard
was. He was that unfortunate person whom one saw in the less pretty part
of town, shuffling about in rags, bearded, unwashed, sleeping in
doorways, in gutters, sticking out filthy hands for a dime for a cup of
coffee. You hoped he wouldn't touch you.

If I had given any thought to the subject, I would have described him as
a person who had never had the opportunity to know a normal way of life.
Or if by chance he had been born to better things, he had something
missing, something that made him unable to take advantage of his
opportunities. I would have said that there was nothing that could be
done about it; and if there were, he wouldn't be worth salvaging as
there wasn't anything there in the first place.

How can a man who still has a job or has recently lost his job through
drinking come out openly and say: "I am a drunkard; I have no will
power; I have no character; I am a bum"? He isn't and knows he isn't. He
is faced with the same dilemma in which I found myself: Why is it that
my will power is so strong on everything else and has no effect on
drinking?

The wall of ignorance and prejudice nearly killed me, and it is killing
other alcoholics every day. If we can break that wall down we can reach
these people and help them. In every city where we have information
centers they are coming and asking for information, and their families
and friends and employers are coming. They are all asking: "What is this
thing, alcoholism?" "What can we do about it?" "Where can we go in this
city for help?" The centers that have been established have the answers.
They know what hospital will take alcoholics and whether there are any
such places in the community; whether others can be persuaded to admit
alcoholics and what can be, at long last, provided for these desperately
sick people. Can we provide medical treatment that will prevent their
deaths? Yes, we can, and we must.

I know, by virtue of my own position as an alcoholic, thousands of men
and women who have recovered from this illness. I can assure you from my
personal experience that these people make better than average citizens.
It is as if they felt they had to make up for lost time. They put
themselves into things with twice the amount of energy of anyone else.
They work harder at it and give more of themselves. These people are
well worth saving, and yet today we are allowing them to die right and
left.

This situation must be changed. It is our belief that it will be changed
when the public is placed in possession of the facts. That is the
challenging task which we have accepted. We wished to make these facts
as simple as possible that they might be understood by every man, woman,
and child in this country. In order to do this, we adopted three simple
concepts which are printed on each piece of our literature, and which
our speakers reiterate over and over again throughout the cities of this
land. These concepts are simple, but they are revolutionary in content,
for they embody an attitude which is exactly the opposite to that shown
by our actions in the past. We believe that when these concepts are
accepted into the thinking of the people of America, a change in their
actions must result. The three concepts are as follows: 1) Alcoholism is
a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person.

2) The alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping.

3) Alcoholism is a public-health problem and therefore a public
responsibility.

The fact that alcoholism is a disease has been known to science for more
than a century and a half. Many great Americans of the last century
recognized this fact, although it was an English doctor who, in 1778,
wrote the first modern treatise on the diagnosis and treatment of the
disease of alcoholism. The Connecticut Medical Society recognized
alcoholism as a disease requiring special treatment and hospitals for
that treatment in a resolution it presented to the Connecticut State
Legislature in 1830.

I myself was ashamed when I learned these things. Yet I was not to blame
for my ignorance, for I had never been taught any such facts. Just the
same, it is curious, is it not, that scientific facts well know to
science for such a long period should never have become common
knowledge? The normal gap, they tell me, between a scientific discovery
and its acceptance by the public is twenty years. Why in the case of
alcoholism should this gap be so extended? We are late in starting, but
we are trying desperately to bridge that gap as speedily and as
effectively as possible now. This, in short, is our primary objective.

Our second concept, that the alcoholic can be helped and is worth
helping, is a statement that could not have been made even ten years ago
from a public platform, because it could not have been proved. Although
there have always been alcoholics who got well by one means or another
and walked among us as normal human beings, they dared not mention what
the nature of their illness had been. The stigma attached to alcoholism
was so great that, if people knew the truth, these recovered alcoholics
might have jeopardized their whole future-their jobs, their family
relationships, their place in society. Not until the creation of
Alcoholics Anonymous twelve years ago was there any change in this
situation.

Then for the first time alcoholics began to get well in numbers. Banded
together in groups, they had the strength to face the hostile world and
to talk of this illness from which they had recovered. They talked so
that other alcoholics might learn the truth about their condition, and
seek help. Their voices were heard. Today Alcoholics Anonymous numbers
more than 35,000 active members. These are well and happy people,
prosperous citizens who have returned to their places in their
communities. They are assets-no longer liabilities. They make good
citizens, these people who a few years ago were a stone around the neck
of everyone who knew them; a care and a burden and a terrible cost to
themselves, their families, their employers, and their communities.
Liabilities in every sense, they represented not only appalling economic
waste, but also the most terrible human waste, heartbreak, broken homes,
and tragedies of every sort. Yet today they are assets. These people can
be seen and they are known for their accomplishments. They are the
living proof of our second concept.

Our last concept, that this is a public-health problem and therefore a
public responsibility, follows inevitably upon acceptance of the other
two. This is our job, yours and mine, as citizens and human beings. We,
the people, create public attitudes and we can change them. The majority
of the estimated three million alcoholics in this country fall into the
category of what I call the hidden alcoholic. These are usually persons
who have some family left, and that family will go to any length to hide
the fact that alcoholism has struck in their midst. In their opinion the
shame and degradation of publicity far outweighs the welfare of the
alcoholic. The alcoholic is "protected," hidden from view, but actually
he is being prevented from getting help. Not until the stigma is removed
and alcoholism is discussed as freely and as openly as any other
illness, will these people dare to seek help. We must remove this stigma
if we are to save thousands from unnecessary deaths.

So our efforts cannot stop with a mere change in public opinion. We must
see to it that there are other places than jails in which to put these
sick people when they are in the delirium of their sickness-acute
intoxication. We must set up information centers where individuals,
families, friends, agencies, doctors, and ministers can go to get the
facts on the disease itself, and on the facilities available in that
area for its treatment. These centers must ceaselessly carry on an
intensive campaign of education in their communities, aimed at
uncovering hidden alcoholics and providing an environment of enlightened
unstandering in which recovery will be possible.

Most communities will find that there are not many facilities other than
the local group of Alcoholics Anonymous about which they can give
information. Yet other facilities will be needed. Therefore, these
organized groups must next undertake the difficult task of persuading
general hospitals to open beds for the treatment of acute alcoholism.
This is a matter of crisis, of extreme emergency, in which the lack of
immediate medical treatment all too frequently causes death. Next they
will need a clinic for diagnosis and treatment, and later they will need
rest centers for those who require long-term care.

We can now say that we know this program of community action is a
beginning toward the solution of the problem which is so appalling in
its devastation and waste. We can say we know because we already have
twenty-two such affiliated committees operating in eighteen cities
throughout the country, and the progress they report is more than
encouraging. It has convinced us that we can solve the problem of
alcoholism in America, if we will.

Source: Health, July 1947

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