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Personal pain of demons and drink

30 January 2010 No Comment

IT would be easy to fill every shelf in a bookshop with books published on, for, about and by alcoholics. A quick search online reveals thousands of books on alcoholism, from self-help to the confessional, and everything in between.

Australia is a nation whose identity, for better or worse, rests squarely on the consumption of alcohol. It is part of our social fabric and always has been. Captain James Cook took beer with him on the Endeavour and the first settlers brought beer with them in 1788. Our first prime minister earned a nickname reflective of his drinking prowess. He wasn’t the last. And until the 1970s, we did our very best to match the two great beer-drinking nations of Ireland and Germany in per capita beer consumption.

Best known for his enlightening books on B. A. Santamaria and E. G. Theodore, writer and historian Ross Fitzgerald has written an extraordinarily powerful book, My Name is Ross, about his battle with alcoholism.

Fitzgerald had his first drink as a 14-year-old high school student.Wearing his school uniform he walked into a pub and ordered a brandy, lime and soda. Leaving aside the strange choice of drink for a teenage boy, the publican’s response is particularly telling of the era. I suggest you take off your school hat, son. It’s a scenario many baby boomers will no doubt recognise.

Despite his youth and innocence, Fitzgerald quickly recognised the anaesthetic qualities of alcohol. He was miserable and, from his own perspective, the world around him was a miserable place. Like all alcoholics, the perceived solution , alcohol , quickly became the real and actual problem. He writes, That first drink of alcohol was like an injection of rocket fuel.

For most teenage boys the first drink of alcohol , more often than not a beer rather than a brandy, lime and soda , marks a rite of passage into adulthood. But it’s also an event quickly forgotten as life marches on. It was a different experience for Fitzgerald. Before long he was drinking often, and often alone.

My Name is Ross details the destructive force that alcohol can inflict. In the decade after that first drink Fitzgerald treats his parents, the few friends he managed to keep and even complete strangers in the most appalling ways. However, it pales when compared with the way he treats himself. I lost count of the number of times he attempted suicide or ended up in hospital as a result of alcohol abuse.

Despite a family budget that was often stretched to the limit, his parents kept up the hospital benefits payments, desperately aware that their son was going to need it.

Fitzgerald is a natural storyteller who is unafraid to shock his readers. That can’t be a negative, given the subject matter. Despite or because of this, he maintains his sense of humour, even when recounting the most disturbing of experiences, like electroconvulsive therapy. It’s hard to think of anyone being treated more like an object than someone in those days having electroconvulsive therapy, he writes.

Yet, while I was in hospital, the illness of alcoholism kidded me into thinking I was in control; that I was manipulating these mugs and idiots into giving me free board and lodging. Then, zap, I’d have another power station full of electricity through my head.

Fitzgerald has written a searing meditation on the alcoholism which would assuredly have taken his life decades ago had he not turned to the world’s most successful self-help organisation, Alcoholics Anonymous.

The premise underlying Alcoholics Anonymous is simple, yet highly powerful. Recovered alcoholics set the example by telling their own stories and providing friendship to new members who are encouraged to stop drinking one day at a time.

At 25, after inflicting the kind of pain and trauma on the people around him that is unimaginable to most of us, he stopped drinking and started going to AA meetings. He’s now been sober for 40 years.

The book’s subtitle, An Alcoholic’s Journey, expresses not only Fitzgerald’s years of hard drinking, but also his long and successful marriage. In so many ways, this book is a beautiful love story, a paean to his wife, Lyndal.

There is much in My Name is Ross that someone unaffected by the devastation of alcoholism might find difficult to comprehend or relate to. The carnage he left in the wake of a decade’s drinking was, he discovered once sober, often impossible to clean up. The pain Fitzgerald inflicted on some of his friends was so great, and the wounds so deep, that they remain incapable of forgiving him, decades later. The hurt and shame he expresses on the page is palpable and deeply moving.

For anyone who has never experienced the devastation of alcoholism, it may be difficult to empathise with the life-and- death struggle Fitzgerald waged daily when alcohol still held a tight grip on him. That battle and Fitzgerald’s ultimate victory is what makesMy Name is Ross eminently readable and utterly engrossing.

Fitzgerald was one of the lucky ones. He came out the other side of this malady , albeit battered, worn and psychologically scarred , with a life still ahead of him. He could just as easily have ended up like many of the cast of characters in this book: dead, at a tragically young age.

The Canberra Times.
Joshua Rosner is a freelance writer.

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