EDITOR'S NOTE:  Ken M. wrote an article c. 1954 under the pseudonym Junius Senior, called "Drunks Are a Mess," which was reprinted in 1965 (two years after his death) in a magazine called Bar-less (written for recovering alcoholics in prison, as part of a program for alcoholic convicts which he had himself helped start). In this article he lays out, in layman's terms, his own theory of the ways in which early childhood trauma, and becoming blocked in one's normal psychological growth at a certain point, could result in alcoholic behavior in adulthood. He also explains his own conviction that the three things which gave the A.A. program such a miraculous healing power were (1) unconditional love, (2) a higher power who grants self-forgiveness, peace, and freedom from fear, and (3) the end of personal isolation from other human beings, which finally allows us to begin "growing up" emotionally.

Drunks Are a Mess

Kenneth G. Merrill

  When talk turns to alcoholism invariably someone in the crowd will top the subject with "Ah, drunks are a mess." The guy's right. They are.

What makes a drunk tick? How did he get that way? Considerably oversimplified, the story is something like this.

Enough has appeared in the press during the past few years so that the average man on the street knows that alcoholism is a disease. But how many realize that it is one of few diseases which can be classed, like leukemia and rabies, as 100% fatal unless arrested? It's a serious matter. The comic folklore which has grown up around it must be brushed aside, and alcoholism seen for what it is, a ruthless killer, but one which, instead of calling forth melting tenderness and tearful compassion from others, surrounds the condemned man with an aura of contempt and abuse as he staggers down the road of disintegration towards certain death.

Actually alcoholism is a disease of dual nature -- both mental and physical. When I say mental I do not mean that alcoholics are crazy, because they are not. But the mind is the seat of the emotions, and emotionally they are pretty sick.

Perhaps the best way to get a picture of the nature of alcoholism, is to follow the progress of the average case. The writer has dealt with thousands of alcoholics, in his eleven-year membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, and has seen very few exceptions to the following.

A typical alcoholic's childhood

The average alcoholic is a man who during the years of absolute innocence, from, say, three to eleven, found himself in a home environment where for some reason he felt "affectionally" rejected. Not wholly loved, protected, and wanted. Denied the birthright of every child to be clasped to the bosom of his family, with bonds of unwavering love.

This feeling of being an outsider, as it were, in one's own family, can be caused by many situations within the home. Divorced parents, battling parents, drunken parents, a sordid and humiliating poverty of such depth that a child never knows upon leaving for school in the morning whether there will be a roof over his head when he returns at night, the desolate sense of exclusion which follows the showing of marked favoritism for a brother or sister. The discovery of a parent in a scandalous or criminal episode -- which is much more common than we care to admit. Being the last child in a very large family where sooner or later a desperately weary mother lets the cat out of the bag -- "Son, you weren't wanted in the first place."

A parent welching on a deal with a kid -- "do so and so for a year and I'll give you a bicycle," and the night before the award is due: "You got mud on your shoes, now you can't have that bicycle." Spiteful, mean gestures behind which even a child perceives parental hostility.

Tavern-hopping parents who, when compelled actually to stay home for one evening by a childish illness, show only too plainly they consider him a damned nuisance. A physical handicap, such as undiagnosed poor eyesight, making a boy clumsy about the house, inept at games, slow in school; from his standpoint an object of scorn in everything he does.

But of all other causes put together, none equals the sinister potency, in creating future alcoholics, of a harsh, cruel, disciplinarian type of father, coupled with an over-soft, over-affectionate, over-possessive mother. A mom who conspires with sonny to evade papa's wrath, who carries her protectiveness into fields beyond the home, and attempts ceaselessly, and usually successfully, to insulate the child from the normal, wholesome buffets of ordinary childhood experience. It becomes a hideous circle. The more impossible rules the father lays down for the child to follow, the more failures accumulate, the more bitter the father's persecution, the more maudlin and sentimental the mother's attempts to protect and compensate. Between them, believe me they do a job.

Frozen emotional growth

Whatever the cause of this sense of rejection, it has a dire effect upon the child. For it apparently serves to fix, arrest, freeze his emotional growth, in certain parts of his personality, at the age level during which the experience occurs. Which simply means that when the future alcoholic matures later intellectually and physically, he still remains a child of four or seven or nine in certain parts of his personality. Here are a few examples of childish traits which can be found in practically all alcoholics:

A tantrum type of temper which, natural and usual in a child of four to seven, leads to tragic consequences in a man of forty. Let me illustrate. Five years ago when my youngest daughter was seven she came to me one afternoon at 5:30 and said, "Daddy, I want an ice cream cone."

"No darling," I replied, "You see, it's just half an hour before dinner and it might spoil your appetite."

"I want an ice cream cone," she persisted.

"Not this time, dear."

Whereupon she made a very typical seven-year-old remark. "I don't think you love me anymore. I guess I'll run away."

Kid stuff of course. But let's look at that remark through cold adult eyes, and note the shocking disproportion between the provocation, and the penalty the child invokes. As for provocation she has been told very kindly that she can't have a five-cent ice cream cone at a totally unreasonable hour. But the penalty she invokes is to threaten to terminate housing, warmth, clothing, food, care and love -- in other words, in childish language, she is threatening to destroy herself.

Now let's move up to an alcoholic of forty. He has a job -- also a wife and three children. In addition it is Monday morning, and he has a hangover. But he is still young enough to snap out of it to a certain extent, so he now manages to get down to the job. He puts on his mechanic's apron, starts up his machine. A few moments later the foreman comes along, reaches over and picks up a part.

"Look here, Joe," he says, "I've told you many times this thread should go 3/8 of an inch further around the shank."

The alky, black with fury, snatches off his apron, rolls it in a ball, throws it in the foreman's face and snarls "Nuts to you! I quit!"

Again note the terrible discrepancy between the provocation and the penalty. The provocation is that he has had a mistake of his own doing called to his attention, and not too unkindly. The penalty he invokes is to cut off the means to provide housing, food, warmth, and clothing for himself, a wife and three children. This is not the righteous indignation of an adult. It is a child of seven destroying itself because he can't have an ice cream cone.

Other childish traits

There are many other childish traits found in most alcoholics. Brutal cruelty while under the influence -- a condition where a guy, when alcohol has removed conscious control, reverts to that few months period in every little boy's life during which, unless watched, he will pull the wings off flies, tie cats' tails together, or mutilate small pets. In childhood it is a passing phase actually rooted in the fact that as yet the thought that pain can be suffered by others has not yet dawned in the consciousness of the child. The vast majority of people, as they develop, put it behind them. But if the person is fixed, by some psychological caprice, at that age level, he goes back to it every time he gets drunk. But now he's definitely dangerous.

Unreasonable jealousy is very common to the alcoholic. All the welfare workers in the world explaining the falseness of his bitter accusations will do no good. For this thing is not rooted in reason. It is a subconscious inner hell, created by a mother or father who, in making a child feel rejected, has set up such a sense of personal unworthiness within him that deep down inside he doubts his ability to holding the affections of anyone. So when he drinks he imagines that the last barrier to adult rejection has been passed -- that his wife is carrying on with another.

A selfishness which completely excludes consideration of anyone else is present in almost all alcoholics. It is so complete that it mystifies most of those who know him. "The guy must be crazy," they say. Well he isn't. He simply was condemned to live out his years at a six-year-old emotional age level -- a time in a kid's life when it is normal, natural and a part of development to be totally preoccupied with self. Thackeray showed rare prescience when he wrote, one hundred years ago, words to this effect. "If you think your child of six loves you, just remember that he could be totally reconciled to your death by a tu'penny lollipop." No, there is no evil, no malice in an alcoholic's selfishness, merely ghastly pathos that he should have to meet adult relationships without the ability to see beyond oneself at all.

Most alcoholics, when drinking, go through a stage they refer to as sitting on a pink cloud. You see them alone down at the end of the bar lost in ecstatic contemplation of an all-conquering future. Is this psychotic -- the indulgence of one who has lost touch with reality? I think not. He's just a boy of ten sitting on the limb of an apple tree dreaming of being a white knight on a charger.

The teen years: taking the first drink

Well, let's get along. Our future alcoholic arrives at what one might call the social age and begins to go out to parties, dances, and meetings at the church hall, the lodge hall, the union hall. He's easy to recognize. He's the guy you see sitting in the corner, perspiring, in a frenzy of uneasiness. His whole state of mind could be summed up in seven words: "Nobody cares whether I'm here or not." He doesn't feel wanted. He feels that he's not "one of the gang." He's afraid to ask that pretty girl across the room to dance. Nobody laughs at his jokes. He never says the clever things. Nobody likes him, and so on.

And why? Don't you see that he has transferred his sense of rejection by his family as a child, to a rejection, now, by the whole human race? He is desolate. We have a saying in A.A. that the difference between an alcoholic and a normal drinker is that the alcoholic doesn't drink to feel good but to quit feeling miserable.

Well, sooner or later, some kind-hearted fellow seeing that he is not having a good time, slips about three fingers of red eye into a glass, walks over, hands it to our boy and says, "Look, Joe, you're not enjoying yourself. What you need is a drink." Whereupon the kid downs it.

About eight or ten minutes later, to his infinite wonder, he finds that he was mistaken about being unwelcome. He is convinced that everybody loves him. He hops up, walks over to that same pretty girl: "Come on Susie, let's dance." On his way around the hall he passes some big tough guy, of whom he is ordinarily terrified, gives him a resounding slap on the shoulder: "Hiya Jake, haven't seen you around for a long time!" He has a wonderful evening and his only reaction is, "Gosh, where have they been keeping this stuff!"

Why did alcohol do this to him? Because alcohol is not a stimulant, as is commonly believed, but an anesthetic. It progressively puts to sleep the various layers of consciousness and one of the first layers to go "bye-bye" is this desperate sense of uneasiness which all alcoholics suffer in the presence of mixed company.

The greatest reality of life does not consist of a variety of physical objects. The greatest reality in life is people. And here is a young man who has made his adjustment to the greatest reality in his life, people, through alcohol. There are two things wrong with this. First the size of the dose has constantly to be increased as the fellow develops tolerance for alcohol. Secondly having solved his greatest problem, people, through alcohol he now uses the same adjustment on the other realities of life, namely responsibilities.

The first adult responsibilities

Having reached early manhood he now has a man's duties to perform. He has to buy a car, rent a house, buy a refrigerator, ask a girl to marry him, have a baby in the family, see a dentist, take a life insurance examination, and as these common things present themselves, his instantaneous inner rejoinder is "just give me a drink or two and I'll be all right!" And he is. He has taken the edge off his unremitting doubt as to his adequacy in an adult's role. He is not drunk. He just anesthetized uneasiness. And he goes through with what he has to do.

We now have a picture of a young man who is using alcohol as a cushion between him and the rough give and take of life. He has found his adjustment to his own problems and employs that adjustment. He probably will go along eight or ten years using this crutch to hold himself up. His drinking has not as yet increased immoderately. He's usually on the job in the morning. He hasn't got into any too serious trouble -- perhaps a caustic remark to some old friend, a squabble with his wife, a little slowness in paying bills, sometimes a scratched fender while driving, but nothing serious.

Eventually the horror begins

It is at about this time that sheer horror enters his life. The physical side of alcoholism appears. Some very remarkable clinical work that has recently been done in this field. Consistent abnormalities in the adrenal cortex have been found to exist in drunkards. Perhaps it is too early to know whether this phenomenon has been there all the time, or is a psychosomatic result of the manís life tensions. However, whether a congenital or an acquired defect, the effect is the same. The poor chap, along about his time in his drinking career, develops what we loosely call the alcoholic allergy. It is an allergy in the sense that he finds out, rather suddenly, that now when alcohol is introduced into his system, he is no more able to stop drinking than would a hay fever sufferer, by an act of will, be able to stop his sneezing when the ragweed pollen begins flying about in the autumn.

Up until this time each high, wide and fancy evening has been an episode, terminated when he finally got to bed that night, and definitely over with until he started drinking again. But now all is changed. It is impossible for him to stop. He takes his first "morning after" drink -- to be followed with another gargantuan shot a half hour later, and by 9 A.M. he is drunk again. It becomes a continuous performance. Thus what had formerly been just an occasional wild night, now become a two-day, a three-day, a four-day drunk; a two-week, a three-week, and four-week drunk.

The rather casual little difficulties which he has experienced in the past as a result of his drinking are nothing compared to the serious jams he gets into now. He begins to lose jobs. One by one his friends wash their hands of him with cold finality. His domestic difficulties become impossible. He gets into debt, he starts to have brushes with the law and spends an occasional night in jail. He begins to lie and chisel to obtain more whiskey and ends up slyly stealing it. Each prolonged drinking bout cuts deeper into his physical resources. He begins to know the horror of delirium tremens. He is definitely upon the final road to deterioration, physical and mental, which is going to lead to his death.

Self-loathing, self-hatred, inner panic

In brief periods of half-sobriety, he recognizes with mounting fear that he is in grave condition. Lacking any understanding of the problem, he can only apply to himself the cruelest of all human fallacies -- applying a moral judgment to a neurotic problem. The natural result of this is a degree of self-loathing a normal person cannot even faintly glimpse. This is followed by a sort of panic: "If other people find out what I know about myself, the game is up." He begins talking big to try to cover it up. There is nothing phonier in this world than the brassy, arrogant, domineering manner of an alcoholic. The world says, "Did you ever see such conceit!" If they only knew! Actually he is suffering from a complete prostration of self-confidence.

This is the final phase. The alcoholic has entered the spiral that leads to bedlam. Unless he can afford skilled psychiatric treatment (few can) his only appeal from a death sentence, or the booby hatch, lies in Alcoholic Anonymous.

Unconditional love

Why is Alcoholics Anonymous so remarkably effective in dealing with the alcoholic? As nearly as we can figure it out, because A.A. supplies three things that have been lacking all his life.

First, as he grew up with something of a vacuum in the affection department., he is singularly receptive to the veritable tidal wave of friendship which engulfs him from the moment he joins. He finds in an A.A. meeting something he has never before experienced -- he is completely at ease with his associates. No one can feel particularly inferior in the presence of another drunk like himself, and every man in the room is a drunk! The helpfulness, the infinite goodness and understanding he meets, are almost breathtaking. At last he is in an environment where he is made to feel wanted, needed and liked. The lonely child within him has found deep and kindly human affection. The great void is at last being filled. He is definitely one of the gang. He is a member of the family in good standing!

A higher power who grants self-forgiveness,
peace, and freedom from fear

Secondly, no man who subconsciously feels persecuted by fate in having been handed so many insoluble problems, can develop much of a philosophy. With no spiritual convictions whatever to sustain him, he has been forced for many years to resort to trap doors. There are many black pits of terror in his life, that must be covered and the door kept closed.

Remorse and shame make the recollection of his many transgressions a ceaseless agony. Surely, he thinks, if this kindly God whom people talk about, really existed, he would never let this much anguish come to one man. He suspects that he is doomed but dares not examine the premonition. He pushes the fact down and slams the trapdoor.

The thought of death is so intolerable that frequently he cannot endure even the sound of the word. At the faintest suggestion of this unspeakable terror, he slams that particular trapdoor and stands on it. "Hey, Gus, another boilermaker -- quick, for God's sake!" He wipes the sweat from his face and hands and realizes that he is trembling violently.

  Editor's note:  In 1934, Kenís father died, and the next year his mother died. In that same year, 1935, his little daughter Janet, only seven years old, came down with scarlet fever and died under rigid quarantine in the hospital, without even her parents there to console her. Kenís wife Helen withdrew from him, and when another little girl (Martha) was born in 1938, she became fearfully obsessed with keeping any kind of harm away from her new baby. Ken stayed away from home as much as he could, and drank. Increasingly, he and Helen began to lead totally separate lives. It was early in 1943 when Ken finally hit bottom.  

  It may seem impossible that this tortured, broken soul can be brought to a primary faith in a Higher Power. But with its simple, logical and gentle approach, A.A. does the job every day. In a matter of days or weeks after joining, the neophyte usually experiences a tangible token of Divine Power released through human warmth and compassion. His companions mostly show only boundless compassion for his past misdeeds. Astonished, he soon learns that as he has been suffering from a disease contracted at the age of absolute innocence, the nature of which was to put to sleep a sense of right or wrong, there is no moral stain upon him whatsoever. It wasn't his fault.

But he also learns that the companion of understanding is responsibility, so he is responsible for his actions from here on in -- and also has the ethical duty of repairing the past damage he has done other people, where he can. This "cleaning up his life" brings untold spiritual rewards.

Slowly, he senses a miracle taking place within himself, knows in his heart of hearts that only a power as great as God could have performed it. Self-respect returns. A peace, long thought impossible, steals over him. He no longer fears the dark night watches. But with the beautiful words "let not your heart be troubled" as a foundation stone of his new personality, he sleeps the night through.

The end of isolation and slowly
"growing up" emotionally

Thirdly, as all of his troubles have been caused by emotional immaturities within himself, it is easy to see that our man must grow up inside, if his reprieve from this deadly illness is to be permanent. The psychiatric profession will tell you that there are mighty few therapeutic or curative techniques that can be used to mature a personality.

Personally, I've heard of only one that can be applied by amateurs -- people, people and more people. Your alcoholic is usually a neurotic, and your neurotic is usually a person under the continuous curse of solitude.

In Alcoholics Anonymous he is instantly thrust into an intensely gregarious pattern. There are people with him all the time: hearty people, friendly people, understanding people. As he gains confidence in himself, he finds the endless discussions of A.A. meetings perfectly wonderful. Gradually his lifelong preoccupation with himself changes. He discovers himself looking outward for the first time, with genuine concern for the welfare of others which can be the primary step out of childishness into adulthood. He spends an ever increasing amount of time helping fellow alkies.

Maturing rapidly under our fellowship environment, he outgrows his temper tantrums, his jealousies, his inability to accept authority, his suspicion of other people's motives, his exhibitionism, his cruelties, his preoccupation with fantasy. He faces reality undismayed. With wonder, and dawning confidence, he contemplates the future. Sober, valiant, alive to his true place on earth, he walks humbly with his fellows, at peace with God and Man. It's a miracle!


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