That First Drink.

The recent relapse of Josh Hamilton reminds me of two episodes in the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous, both informative regarding the Hamilton episode. Devotees to AA history I’m sure are familiar with both, but for the uninitiated here is a brief recap. The first story gets at the heart of the recent Jeff Passan article and twitter debate he and Old Hoss Radbourn engaged in with each other.

Prior to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson tried various means to get sober; hospitalization, retreating to the country, religious help and countless others. Over the course of time, he gained a great deal of knowledge about alcoholism and realized drinking, for him anyway, was out of the question, with one drink the wheels would be set in motion for another spree. Wilson took this to heart and, in his words, believed, “Surely this was the answer – self-knowledge.” As it turned out, it was not the answer and he returned to drinking in a fashion that reminds me of Hamilton.

Wilson was feeling pretty good, being sober for a few weeks and made a friend as he was on his way to play golf one afternoon. Wilson was genuinely excited by his sobriety and when his new friend offered him a drink, he refused. He then went on to tell the friend about his struggles with booze, what it did to him when he drank and what would eventually happen to him if he didn’t quit for good. Wilson and his friend kept talking at the tavern until finally someone at the bar bought a round for the house. I can’t recall the occasion, maybe it was Armistice Day, maybe just a celebration, but when a drink was passed Wilson’s way, he took it. His friend could not believe it and said, “With everything you just told me, how can you take a drink? You must be crazy!” To which Wilson replied, “I suppose I am,” and off to the races he went for another year or so.

I think that story gets to the heart of the point Jeff Passan was trying to get at and the one which Hoss was commenting on as well. It basically came down to the idea of caring about taking that drink and the consequences of his actions. I think both men (of course wouldn’t it be a hoot if Hoss was a woman?) are right. As Passan notes, in that moment, Hamilton didn’t care, “I suppose I am.” The knowledge of what would happen, the consequences, the pain inflicted and on and on just didn’t matter at that moment in time. It’s not to say it wasn’t on Hamilton’s mind. I’ve known a number of alcoholics who have had similar experiences and have remarked that even as they were taking that first sip, they thought, “Well, this is a stupid idea” and yet they still took that drink. It begs the question, why?

It’s here that it gets tricky and all of this business about caring and not caring and the implications therein get hard to pin down. I think two quotes from Wilson offers the best explanation, though the first has never satisfied a lot of folks. It reads:

Once in a while he may tell the truth. And the truth, strange to say, is usually that he has no more idea why he took that first drink than you have. Some drinkers have excuses with which they are satisfied part of the time. But in their hearts they really do not know why they do it. Once this malady has a real hold, they are a baffled lot (Alcoholics Anonymous page 23.)

So to answer the question “Why did the addict drink?” We get a resounding, “hmm, don’t know.” Yet writing as an alcoholic and being friends with many alcoholics this somehow works. So many of us have wondered, “Why did I get drunk again?” Reading the above is oddly comforting, it eliminates the mental anguish of trying to figure out why and allows the addict to put the questions aside and just move on toward sobriety.

The other quote is after an anecdote about a person who had been sober for a period of time, but decided that if he drank a shot of whiskey with milk he wouldn’t be affected. Of course the man was affected and started drinking again like he was before his contact with AA. Wilson then concludes:

We have sometimes reflected more than our friend Jim did upon the consequences. But there was always the curious mental phenomenon that parallel with our sound reasoning there inevitably ran some insanely trivial excuse for taking the first drink. Our sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea won out. Next day we would ask ourselves, in all earnestness and sincerity, how it could have happened (Alcoholics Anonymous page 37.)

Substitute Jim for Josh and we are pretty much back where we started. Ultimately, when we get right down to it, we don’t know why Hamilton did it, except to say the insane idea won out, “I suppose I am.”

The other story of early AA history that I keep thinking of is from 1940 and like Hamilton’s it is a baseball story. Bob Feller had just thrown his first no-hitter and just like today, the catcher was seen as a part of the story. The veteran catcher, Rolly Hemsley, was a pretty well-known player mostly for his off-field behavior, namely his drinking.

Rollicking Rolly

The reporters were eager to talk to him and get his side of the no-hitter. In no uncertain terms, Hemsley credited his ability to help Feller and to be able to keep a job in Cleveland to a new group called Alcoholics Anonymous. As fast as the media could carry the news Hemsley became the public face of AA. The reporters were by and large supportive of Hemsley, much like the press and their treatment of Hamilton, though I haven’t seen anything like one crank from Boston who wrote regarding Helmsley, “I don’t want to hear from the WCTU, so mind your own business.” Within AA the break of anonymity by such a public figure created a huge stir. Wilson was incredibly resentful and for a time broke his anonymity on many occasions. After a short time, the rest of the membership chastised Wilson and the tradition of anonymity became more of a spiritual principle, a type of humility. The group decided that at the level of radio and newspapers (later television) they should stay anonymous. It was not only protection for the group but for the individual alcoholic as well. The group is protected from the bad publicity of a prominent member slipping up but more importantly the public figure is spared the questions, accusations and sensationalism of a public relapse. Of course this has always been a bit of challenge but in recent years some celebrities have made their struggles with addiction very well known. I’m not accusing Hamilton of being in that same class, but because he has been so open about his recovery, I’m sorry to say I understand why this is a story, as The Common Man discusses.

I don’t want to be seen as a scold when it comes to Hamilton and how he conducts his business however one of the things that, trivial or not to borrow from Wilson again, can be a trigger from for addicts is pressure. I can’t imagine a greater pressure than being very public about one’s recovery. I know when I got sober, I was deathly afraid to tell anyone about it. I was ashamed, angry, and very sensitive to what people would think of me. I imagined myself as a student leader and a bit of a well-known person on campus and I certainly didn’t want people to think I was an alcoholic, worse having some kind of disease. Like many folks that have chimed in about Hamilton and his recent travail I think I’m more worried about his life after baseball, when the structure and safety net he currently has is no longer there. My hope is that in some way he learns from this and when the opportunity to get out of the public eye presents itself that he seizes it and he is able to be just another recovering addict named Josh.


One thought on “That First Drink.”

  1. I Gave Up Alcohol In 2007.
    In 2008, I Had ONE Drink.
    Got Sick Sick & Landed In The Hospital.
    In 2009, I Had ONE Drink.
    Got Sick Sick SICK & Landed In The Hospital EVEN LONGER.
    I Haven’t Been Dumb Enough To “Go For It” Since Then.
    And, As It Turned-Out, The Social Aspect Is The Only Part I Really Miss.
    So I TOTALLY Understand The POWER Of “That FIRST Drink” Fo SHO.
    Excellent Posting, Sir.
    Thanks For This One.

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