I have read and watched Roger Ebert for over thirty years, and like so many others, I was shocked and saddened to hear of his passing.
In his memory, I would like to link to a great blog post that he wrote a few years ago, about his alcoholism and his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. From time to time, I have quoted this or sent copies of this blog to clients.
Here is part, and you can read the rest it in its entirety here:
In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, the hot sun streaming through the windows of my little carriage house on Dickens. I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed, and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn’t take it any more.
On Monday I went to visit wise old Dr. Jakob Schlichter. I had been seeing him for a year, telling him I thought I might be drinking too much. He agreed, and advised me to go to “A.A.A,” which is what he called it. Sounded like a place where they taught you to drink and drive. I said I didn’t need to go to any meetings. I would stop drinking on my own. He told me to go ahead and try, and check back with him every month.
The problem with using will power, for me, was that it lasted only until my will persuaded me I could take another drink. At about this time I was reading The Art of Eating, by M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote: “One martini is just right. Two martinis are too many. Three martinis are never enough.” The problem with making resolutions is that you’re sober when you make the first one, have had a drink when you make the second one, and so on. I’ve also heard, You take the first drink. The second drink takes itself.That was my problem. I found it difficult, once I started, to stop after one or two. If I could, I would continue until I decided I was finished, which was usually some hours later. The next day I paid the price in hangovers…
This woman [an alcohol treatment counselor], I will call her Susan, had an office on Lincoln Avenue in a medical building across the street from Somebody Else’s Troubles, which was well known to me. She said few people stayed sober for long without A.A.. I said the meetings didn’t fit with my schedule and I didn’t know where any were. She looked in a booklet. “Here’s one at 401 N. Wabash,” she said. “Do you know where that is?” I confessed it was the Chicago Sun-Times building. “They have a meeting on the fourth floor auditorium,” she said. It was ten steps from my desk. “There’s one today, starting in an hour. Can you be there?”
She had me. I was very nervous. I stopped in the men’s’ room across the hall to splash water on my face, and walked in. Maybe thirty people were seated around a table. I knew one of them. We used to drink together. I sat and listened. The guy next to me got applause when he said he’d been sober for a month. Another guy said five years. I believed the guy next to me.
They gave me the same booklet of meetings Susan had consulted. Two day later I flew to Toronto for the film festival. At least here no one knew me. I looked up A.A. in the phone book and they told me there was an A.A. meeting in a church hall across Bloor Street from my hotel. I went to so many Toronto meetings in the next week that when I returned to Chicago, I considered myself a member.
That was the beginning of a thirty years’ adventure. I came to love the program and the friends I was making through meetings, some of whom are close friends to this day. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. What I hadn’t expected was that A.A. was virtually theater. As we went around the room with our comments, I was able to see into lives I had never glimpsed before. The Mustard Seed, the lower floor of a two-flat near Rush Street, had meetings from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and all-nighters on Christmas and New Years’ eves. There I met people from every walk of life, and we all talked easily with one another because we were all there for the same reason, and that cut through the bullshit….
I’ve been to meetings in Cape Town, Venice, Paris, Cannes, Edinburgh, Honolulu and London, where an Oscar-winning actor told his story…
There are no dues. You throw in a buck or two if you can spare it, to pay for the rent and the coffee…
As to those who criticize A.A., Ebert said:
Sober. A.A. believes there is an enormous difference between bring dry and being sober. It is not enough to simply abstain. You need to heal and repair the damage to yourself and others. We talk about “white-knuckle sobriety,” which might mean, “I’m sober as long as I hold onto the arms of this chair.” People who are dry but not sober are on a “dry drunk.”
A “cult?” How can that be, when it’s free, nobody profits and nobody is in charge? A.A. is an oral tradition reaching back to that first meeting between Bill W. and Doctor Bob in the lobby of an Akron hotel. They’d tried psychiatry, the church, the Cure. Maybe, they thought, drunks can help each other, and pass it along. A.A. has spread to every continent and into countless languages, and remains essentially invisible. I was dumbfounded to discover there was a meeting all along right down the hall from my desk.
It prides itself on anonymity. There are “open meetings” to which you can bring friends or relatives, but most meetings are closed: “Who you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here.” By closed, I mean closed. I told Eppie Lederer, who wrote as Ann Landers, that I was now in the program. She said, “I haven’t been to one of those meetings in a long time. I want you to take me to one.” Her limousine picked me up at home, and we were driven to the Old Town meeting, a closed meeting. I went in first, to ask permission to bring in Ann Landers. I was voted down. I went back to the limo and broke the news to her. “Well I’ve heard everything!” Eppie said. “Ann Landers can’t get into an A.A. meeting!” I knew about an open meeting on LaSalle Street, and I took her there.