“I have alcoholism?”… “Why didn’t somebody tell me?” by Mrs. Marty Mann, Executive Director, National Council on Alcoholism, New York via Silkworth
Let me tell you one thing that I think was a great contribution. A good many
years ago at one of the refresher courses at Yale, I was spending a lot of
time with Father Ray Kennedy. He was also there at the refresher course, and
he was very much excited. “You know,” he said, “I have discovered something
that I think may be my major contribution to the field of alcoholism. And I
want to tell you about it.”
It seems that in Syracuse there was a very wealthy Catholic family where the
wife and mother was an alcoholic, a pretty bad one. There was plenty of money
there, and there was a great deal of recognition of the stigma, because this
was a socially prominent family. So she was constantly being shipped away to
high priced sanitariums, or high priced doctors somewhere else; she would come
back and be all right for a while, and then she would go back to drinking.
She would never admit that drinking was her problem. She was always very
nervous, having a nervous breakdown, or something else. In other words, she
was doing this so-called lying that is so much talked about in alcoholics.
Eventually, the husband and father went to Father Kennedy and he said, “You
know, she has tremendous respect for you.” He was a professor in LeMoyne
College there and a man of considerable stature. “Would you come and talk to
So Father Kennedy went over to talk to this woman. And she launched into her
usual series of denials that she had a problem with drinking, saying that that
wasn’t it, it was a lot of other things, and he got a little exasperated since
he was getting nowhere fast. Then he said, “Why do you have so much difficulty
in admitting that you have alcoholism?”
She said, “What did you say?”
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He said, “Why do you have so much difficulty admitting that you have
“I have alcoholism?” she said. “Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
Father Kennedy is a Jesuit, as you all know, and they are pretty astute in the
convolutions of the human mind, and he recognized something immediately. If
you say to somebody you are an alcoholic, you are pointing the finger of
blame, saying, “You did it.” If you say to somebody, “You have alcoholism,”
this could have come up from behind and grabbed them when they weren’t
looking. They didn’t necessarily do it to themselves.
And he felt that where you could remove that kind of guilt, you open the door
to constructive help.
That is precisely what happened with this woman. She got well. She joined AA
and recovered. And he said, “I believe this may be my contribution. I would
like to suggest that the National Council, in speaking and writing, adopt this
way of talking. Instead of saying there are so many alcoholics, say there are
so many people with alcoholism, or so many Americans with alcoholism. Instead
of saying someone is becoming an alcoholic, say someone is developing
alcoholism. You say it is a disease, why don’t you begin using the same
terminology you use about other diseases?”
You don’t automatically say one is a cardiac. You say one has heart disease.
And this is true of all illnesses.