As an alcoholic himself, PBS host Dennis Wholey set out to collect the powerful stories of well-known people who have struggled with this disease. Included in this volume are personal accounts by Jason Robards, Grace Slick, Sid Caesar, Pete Townshend, Don Newcombe, Bob Welch, Graham Chapman, Elmore Leonard, and many more. Whether they come from the worlds of entertainment, as actors, authors, comedians, or musicians, from politics or sports or other public lives, they share the private nightmare of drinking and the hard work of recovery.
The Courage to Change also explores how alcoholism is truly a family disease. Rod Steiger talks about his alcoholic mother; the Reverend Jerry Falwell tells about growing up with an alcoholic father; Lois Robards, Sybil Carter, and Florence Caesar relate their own stories as wives of alcoholics.
How do you know if you are an alcoholic? What are the symptoms? What should you do if someone in your family is an alcoholic? Where is the help? Is there hope? With inspiration and practical advice from members of Alcoholics Anonymous, this is a book that can save lives.
“A brave and powerful work for anyone who cares about people, who desires to be more knowledgeable about human behavior.” —Leo Buscaglia, author of Living, Loving, and Learning
“Should be required reading in every school system in America . . . If there’s an alcoholic in your life, one of the best investments you can make is this book.” —Detroit Free Press
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About the Author
Thomas Tryon (1926–1991), actor turned author, made his bestselling debut with The Other (1971), which spent nearly six months on the New York Times bestseller list and allowed him to quit acting for good; a film adaptation, with a screenplay by Tryon and directed by Robert Mulligan, appeared in 1972. Tryon wrote two more novels set in the fictional Pequot Landing of The Other—Harvest Home (1973) and Lady (1974). Crowned Heads (1976) detailed the lives of four fictional film stars and All That Glitters (1986) explored the dark side of the golden age of Hollywood. Night Magic (published posthumously in 1995) was a modern-day retelling of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Read an Excerpt
I'm Dennis, and I'm an Alcoholic
The Courage to Change is a celebration of life. It is about what is good in people. There is nothing negative, depressing, shameful, embarrassing, or sensational about it. It is a collective effort of many individuals to help people who suffer from alcoholism — the alcoholics themselves and their close family members. This book is also for anyone who is interested in understanding alcoholism.
The contributors to this book want to help others. Together they all say, "Recognize alcoholism and do something about it. We did and we are happier now than we ever were before."
The stigma of alcoholism and being labeled an alcoholic is the disgrace. Regardless of what America says, the truth is that the general public still knows and understands little about alcoholism and addiction. Because alcoholism is so misunderstood, it is swept under the rug and hidden in the closet. Alcoholism — a disease that directly affects more than one third of the entire population — is America's national secret. Alcoholics are still seen as modern-day lepers, and those who live in an alcoholic home are looked on as poor suffering martyrs.
The Courage to Change presents a microcosm of the alcoholic experience and medical information about alcoholism. As you read this book, all of us ask you to set aside everything you think you may know about alcoholism and read with an open mind.
Alcoholics have a disease: they are allergic to alcohol. They can't drink, but they don't know that. One drink triggers a biochemical craving that demands more drinks. No one is more confused about his drinking than the alcoholic who stops by the bar each Thursday and has three drinks, and then one night stops at the same bar and has fifteen drinks, with disastrous consequences.
Alcoholics are not bad people; they are sick people. Alcoholic behavior is bad. Mentally and emotionally alcoholics are rougher on themselves than any outsider could ever be. They miss the fact, or deny, that alcohol is at the heart of their troubled and painful lives. Alcoholics are not weak people, and not drinking for the alcoholic has nothing to do with will power. Alcoholics can quit — we all quit many, many times — but alcoholics go back and drink again, and again. The difficult thing is staying stopped. Quite often — after he has stopped for a day, a week, or a month — a small thing or false confidence will trigger the alcoholic to take "one drink" — and because of the biochemical process the merry-go-round begins again. The one drink triggers the compulsion.
Those around the alcoholic are forever asking him to "cut down." This is like asking your daughter to get only a little pregnant. The alcoholic tries, he really does. Sooner or later, he gets drunk again. Most alcoholics cannot quit drinking for good on their own.
By the time an alcoholic is an alcoholic — addicted to the drug alcohol — he has lost all perspective on life and cannot see what alcohol is doing to him. Everything else is the problem and alcohol is the blind spot because, even though it brings mental, emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual pain, it works. It does the job it is supposed to do. Alcohol blocks out the reality of life.
Alcoholics have to want to quit drinking before the miracle of happiness can occur. No one can make the alcoholic quit, but others around him, especially family and employer, can play a key role in forcing the alcoholic to face the truth. Sooner or later the alcoholic must quit drinking totally.
The Courage to Change became a book for a very simple reason. With the exception of a few books that seem to be heavy reading or specific autobiographies, the literature about alcoholism for the general public is still very weak. By collecting the expertise and personal experiences of many people who know about alcoholism, we hoped all of us together might make an impact, a real contribution.
I would not have placed my own story at the beginning of this book. However, the editors have suggested that I do so to tell you about the book and introduce myself.
My father was a lawyer and a judge who helped many people; he was also an alcoholic. We lived in the country in Rhode Island, so it was hard to escape the tensions, the unpredictability, the problems of a home life with an alcoholic.
My father would often arrive home from work after having clearly been drinking on the way. From inside the house we would watch him struggle, and debate helping him, which seemed like the charitable thing to do, or letting him stay out there to teach him a lesson. My father was not a bad person, but his alcoholic behavior was painful to all of us. My mother, my two brothers, and two sisters and I lived a continuous nightmare for years. My mother deserves credit for holding things together.
I have many painful memories of my growing-up years. I remember, one afternoon, asking my father, when he was sober, if I could use the car that night. He said yes, and I made my plans with my friends. After supper, when I wanted to leave, he wouldn't let me go. He was drunk. In my anger and frustration, and in tears, I picked up his gold pocket watch and smashed it. As another example, my father would regularly quit drinking for Lent. All of us would hope and pray that he would see the light. But he would always start drinking before an early afternoon dinner on Easter Sunday.
It is not terribly important why I drank. Everybody does. Of course, having experienced what I did growing up, I was never going to be like my father, but I became an alcoholic, too. I always felt I was the outsider, I was the loner. I was the rebel without a cause. Growing up in an alcoholic home, I was emotionally damaged as a kid, and alcohol solved all that. It made me feel good. I was happier and funnier. My shyness disappeared, and alcohol helped me to fit in.
Unhappy children grow up to be unhappy adults — and for more than twenty years, I looked for the answer to my unhappiness and depression in psychology and psychiatry. I went to the very best therapists. I was a good patient, a very hard-working patient. For one stretch of several years, I logged four hours a week. Dreams were analyzed, behavior was studied, feelings were held up for examination, and Valium was prescribed. Scotch and Valium do not mix very well. In the end, I became addicted to both.
It is almost impossible to convey the relief I now have since I found out that I am an alcoholic. It's like the old joke about the man who suffered from migraine headaches and was scheduled for brain surgery. As the surgeon was about to wield the knife, the man's hospital dressing gown fell open and the doctor discovered that the patient's jockey shorts were too tight.
The problem in my life was alcohol, but I had never looked there for the answer. I looked everywhere else. At one point, one of my therapists told me that I was not an alcoholic. Well, I am an alcoholic. It's really no big deal. I'm allergic to alcohol. It's that simple. I don't drink anymore.
My earliest memory of drinking involves driving a car while drunk, with the wheels anchored on either side of the white line so I wouldn't drive off the road. I was sixteen.
When I went off to college I was scared. I was only seventeen and drinking helped me to fit in.
Early in my freshman year, my brother Skef, who was president of the student council, asked me to emcee the Homecoming festivities. I wore white tie and tails, and my performance was a great success. I got smashed afterward. It was not the last time.
Sometime during my sophomore year, a priest friend asked if I would be willing to see a psychiatrist if he paid the bill. He had observed, he told me, that I lived life in a series of extreme highs and lows. The psychiatrist's recommendation, after two sessions in the office and some take-home testing, was that I should begin therapy immediately. The diagnosis was that I might commit suicide if I didn't. I may be exaggerating, but that's how I remember it. I did a lot of drinking in college.
I taught high school for two years after college in order to continue therapy. I remember once asking the students to rate me as a teacher anonymously. I must have been twenty-one or twenty-two at the time. They gave me good marks except for Mondays, when I was usually hung over.
Anywhere and everywhere I went, I managed to hook up with other drinkers. I loved to drink. In my twenties, I was able to bounce back quickly. Actually, alcoholics can almost always function the next day; that's a clear sign of the disease. Normal drinkers, when they drink too much, stay in bed for two days and stay away from alcohol for three months. Alcoholics get drunk at night and want to get up the next morning and play softball. For the alcoholic, the party never ends.
In New York City I got a job at NBC as a guide conducting tours. Later I became a guide trainer, a radio director for NBC, and an assistant to the producer of a film documentary series. As I progressed up the ladder, I also progressed in my drinking career.
I began interviewing on FM radio and got my television break hosting, ironically enough, a series on narcotics addiction for the PBS television station in New York City; I stayed on staff there for two years as a producer and host. There were quite a few drunken incidents. I'm told that one night in a bar I told Edward Albee how to write plays. To sit down in those days and have four or five "double Black and Whites" on the rocks was usual for me. Alcoholics seem to drink doubles.
WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, where I was host of a daily morning talk show, was my entry into commercial television. My star was rising. ABC tapped me to host a game show, "The Generation Gap," and some brass at Westinghouse were in my camp to replace Merv Griffin — a job that eventually went to David Frost.
Taft Broadcasting put together a talk show for syndication, which I hosted. One of my producers at the time spotted my drinking problem. He made it clear that the best way to throw away a career was to get arrested for drunk driving or make a fool out of yourself in public.
I became a closet drinker. In public, I controlled my drinking most of the time. Drinking never interfered with my work, or so I told myself, but I know now it held me back from moving ahead more quickly. I could turn it off on Sunday night and not pick up a drink until Friday afternoon. The truth of the matter is that one drink was never enough for me, so I would do without. This disciplined drinking was very self-deceiving because I kidded myself that I could stop. And I stopped often.
When the Taft show folded, I went back to New York, where I drank for two years. I justified it by saying I couldn't find a job, but of course I didn't look very hard. I was terrified of auditions and avoided them. During the time I was out of work, well-meaning friends kept me financially afloat after I used up the money from Taft. I'd managed to run myself into fifty thousand dollars' worth of debt.
In May of 1973, I came to do a week's worth of shows in Detroit and when, at the end of the second day, they asked me to do a second week, I knew I had the job. That Friday I took the entire staff to lunch at the London Chop House to put the job on ice.
Celebrating a sure thing, I got royally drunk on the plane, drank through a Friday night poker game, and was arrested at three o'clock in the morning for disturbing the peace — no small task in New York. A junior partner in the law firm that handled my contracts bailed me out at 7:00 A.M. He wondered why I had done this to myself, since I had to be back on the air in Detroit at 7:00 A.M. on Monday morning. I wondered, too. Alcoholics drink at the most inopportune times. The incident so frightened me — after being so long without work — that I didn't drink for six months.
Throughout my entire life I had been totally career oriented. But when I went to Detroit, I became involved in two relationships, both with women who had children. Those "family" relationships put a lid on my drinking, except when I drank alone or occasionally when I was out with drinking friends.
After more than four years in Detroit, I moved to Washington, D.C. The first year on the air was terrible. The second year — the contract was not renewed — I lived off the money from some stock investments. I drank an awful lot that second year and seriously thought about quitting television for good.
I returned to Detroit to host a local telephone-and-audience talk show on the PBS station. When I returned, I did a phone interview with a newspaper columnist who said, "Dennis, in the early seventies you were one of the bright young interviewers on television — Tom Snyder, Phil Donahue, and you. What happened? Why aren't you at the top like they are?" I knew the answer.
I was just barely hanging on to life. Throughout those last few years I often isolated myself and drank. I could not sleep without Valium, and the thought of running out of it scared me. For the last five years before quitting, I drank only beer and took Valium. My tolerance was shot — and a few beers would put me away. Alcoholics kid themselves when they switch from the hard stuff to beer or wine.
Blackouts were common to me for many years. I once threw a party for five hundred people in New York City. To this day, I can remember only one person who was there.
Drunk one night in the early 1970s, I called a very close friend and told him I wanted to check into a hospital. He told me to have another drink and he'd be down to escort me there. We went to Saint Vincent's Hospital in New York City. He walked and I lurched.
You haven't lived until you've been in a New York City hospital emergency room on a Saturday night. I was about fiftieth in line, with assorted bodies strewn around, arms falling off, blood dripping from faces, and people lying on cots, moaning. It was mayhem and nothing was happening.
Of course, an essential part of my personality as a drinking alcoholic was a strong "me" orientation. If I were number fifty, checking in was going to take a long time. I approached the first woman, who had blood streaming down the side of her face. "What's wrong?" I said. "My boyfriend cut me," she answered. I turned and hollered, "Get someone over here to take care of this woman." And someone came. I went to the next person and asked, "How long have you been here?" "Three hours," he replied. "Nurse," I hollered again, "Let's help this man, now!"
It must have appeared to my friend Jeane that he was watching a speeded-up movie. Suddenly nurses came and went, stretchers appeared, and people disappeared. X-rays were taken and bandages applied. Badly damaged people were checked in, and not so badly damaged ones were patched up and released. I recall hours later standing there with Jeane and his asking, "What are you going to do now?" I said, "Check in, that's what I came for." He said, "Are you crazy? These people think you're running the hospital. They think you're the head resident. You're the reason everybody's been taken care of."
I can still see that first woman. The rest of those hours were spent in a blackout. I did go back the next day and checked in after the shift change. I spent about a week there "drying out," with a technician standing by my side when I wanted to shave. No matches, no razors, nothing dangerous.
I do remember being arrested at a peace march in Washington, D.C. After a good deal of scotch, I invited fifty college students for free hamburgers at a White Castle not far from the Peace Corps building. The owner of the White Castle panicked and called the cops. The police asked me to move along three times, and a normal person would have. Not me. The charge was attempting to incite a riot. Sounds a little heavy to me. We never did make it to the site of the rally the next day. We found some new drinking friends along the way.
In December 1980 I went to California and went through a series of business meetings and personal get-togethers with old friends. I never touched a drink. On my way to the airport, I dropped off my rental car and bought a bottle of vodka. I got smashed on the plane to Detroit. Someone gave me a ride home. To this day, I don't know who it was.
In the end I felt hopeless because I had worked so hard at the therapy, but was still so unhappy.
I vividly recall the following scene. I was in the office of Jack Caldwell, who was the boss of WTVS in Detroit. "Jack, I'm thinking of quitting." It was a surprise to both of us. "Personally and professionally, nothing in my life is working," I continued. "I'm sorry to hear that," he replied. "We're about ready to launch a new show for you. Whatever you decide is best for you, let me know." I was surprised by his humane attitude. From a selfish point of view he could easily have pushed me to continue. We talked for a while. "Is the problem alcohol?" Jack asked. "No," I said. I meant it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Courage to Change"
Copyright © 1984 Dennis Wholey.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
1. I'm Dennis, and I'm an Alcoholic,
2. The Beginning,
3. The Progression,
5. A New Life,
6. The Woman Alcoholic,
7. Alcoholism and Homosexuality,
8. Wives and Alcoholic Husbands,
9. Are You an Alcoholic?,
10. The Families of Alcoholics,
11. Help for the Families,
12. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous,
13. Say Yes to Life,
14. Final Thoughts,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In November 1984 I ran across this book in my cocaine dealers house while he went to pick up some cocaine. I asked for it as a Christmas present and read it. On February 9, 1985 I entered treatment and haven't had a drink or used drugs since. I was fortunate enough to meet Dennis and some of the anonymous folks in the book over the next year. Some great stories and am very grateful for them and the people that sharted them.