It Might Be Time
When I think of recovery from alcoholism, I often call to mind the Dutch legend of a small boy passing a dyke on his way to school. Written by Mary Mapes Dodge the story is not true but many people identify with it.
The boy noticed a small hole in the dam and the sea behind it was trickling through very slowly. Thinking quickly, the boy realized what might happen if the hole got larger and the water from the sea broke through. His village would be flooded, property would be destroyed and lives might be lost. Without thinking, the boy rushed to the dam and stuck his finger in the hole. Plugging the hole, the town and its people were saved from destruction. Later that day, a man was walking by and noticed the boy. Seeing the problem, he went in to town and came back with men who were able to effect repairs on the damn and seal up the leak. Ms Dodge gives us no idea of how the boy felt or thought. Whether he considered himself a hero or simply had done what needed to be done with no expectations of any gain for himself.
If alcoholism takes over Ms Dodge’s story it reads completely different. Once the boy has stuck his finger in the hole he instantly realizes what he has done. Acting quickly he has saved the town. The boy feels proud and powerful. Several people walk by but the boy does not ask for help. He doesn’t need help. He is holding back the sea. He is enjoying feelings of satisfaction and power. Disrupting his dream, the dam springs the second leak just to the right of the first. The boy has a fleeting feeling of panic but it is replaced with the memory of how acting quickly had worked earlier. With little thought he places a second finger in the second hole and again, the flow of water stops. Again the town is saved and once again the boy has that sense of power and satisfaction. He begins to visualize the celebration the town will host in his honor for saving them all. A young girl walked by. He couldn’t ask for help. He didn’t think he needed help. Everything was secure. She looked interested at the boy but continued to walk without speaking to the boy who was ignoring her anyway.
And then the third hole popped. Another finger went in to the dam to plug it. And when the fourth hole sprung, there was no thinking, a finger went in the plug it and as it did, the boy realized he was a prisoner to the dam. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, the boy continued to keep the town safe but, when the tenth hole sprung and the boy was out of fingers to plug another hole if one occurred he wondered why he was here alone. Why weren’t others there to help? Why was it always him who had to take care of everything?
Ms Dodge’s story is one of self sacrifice but the story of alcoholism is always one on selfishness and self centered ends. In Ms Dodge’s story the first passerby sees the boy and there is undoubtedly a verbal exchange. The boy describes what happened, the passerby probably gave him a short pep talk and assured him help would arrive shortly. Both the boy and the passerby knew that neither of them, single handedly or as a two man team, had enough resources and tools to solve this situation. The passerby leaves for the express purpose of getting help. Help comes in the form of men who were able to effect repairs on the dyke and seal up the leak. In the alcoholic story the little boy doesn’t need help. He is so consumed with his feeling of power for his ability to hold back the sea and save an entire town that when the first group of people walked by he didn’t ask for help. He did not engage in conversation with them and consequently there was no awareness that help was necessary.
Alcoholism comes in three stages -
Fun with Problems
In the early stages, there’s a sense of ease and comfort that comes with taking a few drinks. The high school senior who is full of fear and too shy to walk across a room to ask a girl to dance now becomes two inches taller, his muscles are ripped, he’s got a little extra rhythm, he’s an excellent conversationalist. His fears fall from him and he cannot imagine anyone saying “no” to his invitation to dance. Contrary to asking for help, this young man would be enjoying the moment and, in the next day or two, anxiously waiting for another opportunity to have a coupe drinks. Three fingers in the damn is the beginning of the fun with problems stage. The boy is still feeling powerful but not as powerful as he did when he plugged the first and second holes. A young woman passes by at about this time. She sees the young man and looks at him somewhat bewildered. Quite possibly she is trying to figure out what someone of his intelligence, with his background would be standing like that at the damn. He doesn’t ask for help. She walks by. Four fingers in the dam and all the fear the boy had before he was able to walk across the room and ask that girl to dance has returned and with holes five and six the level of fear doubles and triples. And now there are just problems. All of the boy’s dreams must be thrown away. He’s a prisoner to the dam. He covers all his hurts with rationalization and justification. He hides his fear behind anger. Looking back, when that girl came by at hole three he couldn’t ask for help. He’s that boy at the high school dance who can’t walk across the room to ask a girl to dance. He can no longer trust himself. He has broken his own heart.
In the darkness that night, from a place of despair deep within, the alcoholic cries silently for help. The alcoholic might be the man living on the streets of Skid Row but do you know who else he is? The alcoholic is the president of your bank, the pilot flying the last trip you were on, the mother of those wonderful children down the street. The alcoholic is the ICU nurse who helped your mother so much, the young man behind the counter at the gas station, the highway patrolman who stopped you and gave you a ticket for speeding. The alcoholic is someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s mother. The alcoholic is someone who early in life may have read an article on alcoholism and thought, “thank you for the information. Now that I know better, I will do better”. An alcoholic is the person watching a documentary on alcoholism and thinking, “it will never happen to me”. An alcoholic is a little boy who sees a leak in a dyke and believes he has the power to plug it and save the entire town below.
Unbeknown to him, that girl had walked in to town and gathered people together who loved the alcoholic and they all returned to the damn. In Ms Dodge’s story – “Some time later a passerby saw him and went to get help. This came in the form of other men who were able to effect repairs on the dyke and seal up the leak.”
For the alcoholic this help comes in a different form. It often begins with a group of people most affected by the alcoholic gathering together. Directed by a highly trained and skilled interventionist, these people gather together with the alcoholic and tell stories of what life had been like and what it’s like now.
The boy is offered an opportunity to free himself, to take his fingers out of the dyke. I continue to be stunned by the number of alcoholics who choose remain prisoners to the wall.
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