Around the places frequented by recovered alcoholics there is a lot of gentle fun poked at the psychologists and psychiatrists who fall victim to Demon Rum despite all that training in matters of the mind and willpower.
The most striking symptom of alcoholism, once you get past the smell and the lurching and the swollen livers and the blackouts, is denial: it is the only disease that comes round in the night and whispers reassuringly that it is not a disease at all, that the man or woman sweating through the bedclothes there at 4 a.m. in a winter morning isn't an alcoholic, that it is anything else, anything: heart trouble, lung trouble, brain tumor, muscle damage, foot cancer, malaria, spring fever, exotic ailments, anything but alcoholism, for to admit to that is to concede that there has to be an end to the drinking. And that is unacceptable to one who must, because of physical addiction and psychological compulsion, drink ethanol.
The reason members of the shrink set are given so many soft and loving twittings during their own recovery from alcoholism is that a whole segment of professional society is trained to think of alcoholism or drug abuse as ailments that can be treated by getting at the "deep-seated cause" of the drinking.
If the psychological problems are discovered and eliminated, this concept goes, then the patient will be able to stop drinking. It is not generally accepted on the couches across America that many psychological problems begin to clear up once a patient stops ingesting a toxic substance, i.e. bourbon whiskey, on a daily or weekend or even binge basis.
"It Must Be Five O'Clock Somewhere," a true account of one psychologist's descent into alcoholism and her recovery, carries a rich texture of irony, in that both Sylvia Cary and her second husband, a psychiatrist, came from a world that honored professional treatment for mental disorders of all sorts.
In speaking of her husband's sister, for instance, the author writes of a scene at her own wedding, and of her sister-in-law's behavior at it:
"She's a bitch on wheels when she's drunk."
"Is she doing anything about it?"
"Doing something about it" meant, of course, seeing a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. That was the answer for just about every other kind of human problem, so it was probably the answer for a drinking problem too.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about Cary's alcoholism, or her recovery, or even her life and times. She never became a bag lady, she never lost it all, as they say. She worked and was a wife and mother of two children during her drinking career, she had an occasional man, with or without the benefit of clergy (and is now married to her third husband), and just this year she celebrated 14 years of continuous sobriety with the help of a recovery group she does not identify, but which, because of internal evidence and the fact that she has chosen not to identify it, has to be Alcoholics Anonymous. She is now 51.
What makes Sylvia Cary's life and recovery so important is that as a mental health professional she got sucked into alcoholism without so much as a whimper, and the denial was shared by her mental health professional husband and her mental health professional-oriented family milieu.
Her disease was never diagnosed until, 14 years ago, after a rather gamesmanlike excursion into the world of attempted suicide, she sought help, from the Yellow Pages, under A, for Alcoholism. Her own profession had failed her, and it was only when she fell into the hands of the nonprofessionals, the AAs, that she was able to identify the drinking of alcohol as her primary problem.
At that time she took the AA 20-questions test for those who suspect they might have a drinking problem:
When I finished, I looked up at Ruth who worked at the National Council on Alcoholism, where Cary had gone for help .
"Count your Yes answers."
I did. "Only fourteen," I said, handing her my card.
She unfolded the bottom part and read it to me: "If you have answered YES to any one of the questions, there is a warning that you may be an alcoholic. If you have answered YES to any two, the chances are that you are an alcoholic. If you have answered YES to three or more, you are definitely an alcoholic."
*. . . I felt relief. "So that's what I am! So that's what's wrong with me -- alcoholism."
It wasn't some exotic disease, and it wasn't insanity. And Sylvia Cary had found out that if she could not take a drink today, if she could get to a meeting of her recovery group, if she could invent some kind of a prayer and say it every day, there was a chance that she could recover.
What she found as she went into those just-completed 14 years of recovery is that life is not easy, but that it isn't not easy just for one person, and that if not drinking didn't automatically make her beautiful, or witty, or wise, or smart, or moral or even particularly sober (perhaps just dry) or some great new hope for suffering souls, it at least made her available to learn about the principles of her recovery group, which, as it turns out, are also the principles of western civilization. And the main principle is that of abstinence from toxic substances.
Sylvia Cary has written a fine book, a witty and urbane tale of life with a constant hangover, and it should be a must for the "impaired professional," or anybody who has a highly educated loved one who is uncorking the jug a bit too often and liking it a bit too much.