Reflections through a sober eye
HERE I am, stretched out straight and still, enclosed in a tunnel, having an MRI brain scan at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney to find out why I’m bleeding from the brain in four places.
The only way I can survive the 25-minute claustrophobic ordeal is to wear a sleeping mask and recite, like a mantra, the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
My situation brings back deeply buried memories of being in a mental hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late 1960s, strapped down on a trolley, under a flickering neon light, about to be wheeled in to have yet more electro-convulsive (“shock”) therapy.
Even now, flickering neon produces high anxiety and considerable distress. Although most of the specific memories of ECT treatment have gone, I am left with a deep sense of utter helplessness, and of being treated like an object.
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My wife Lyndal says to treat the MRI scan “like an adventure”. She jokes that I’m lucky to still have a brain from which to bleed.
In truth, this makes sense, given the physical, mental and emotional pounding I gave myself while addictively drinking alcohol and using other drugs.
How is it that, in 2009, an atheist like me is repeatedly saying a Christian prayer? And how did I manage to stay alive long enough to get here? To answer and explain these questions is one of the purposes of this book.
My brain scare persuaded me that, before I was either incapacitated by a stroke or heart attack, or died, I should write down the story of my alcoholic journey, in the hope that it may help and encourage others. I have not undertaken this project lightly, or without considerable thought and consultation, but I am comforted by the knowledge that those who have read the manuscript have found much of it to be illuminating.
The portrait I paint of myself is often not pleasant or appealing. But I have attempted to tell the unvarnished truth about the most important fact of my life. That is, despite still being an alcoholic, I haven’t needed to drink alcohol or to use other drugs for decades.
Yet, for years previously my addiction to alcohol and other drugs had meant that I was increasingly destructive to myself and to others. I was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.
Being sober is the aspect of my life from which all other good things flow. The truth is that if I hadn’t started drinking regularly at the age of 15 I almost certainly would have committed suicide by the time I was 17. But if I had not stopped drinking and using other drugs at 25, I wouldn’t have made 26.
My behaviour when drunk ranged from driving a car off a bridge when I was 20 and nearly dying, to numerous hospitalisations for alcoholism, a number of which involved “shock” therapy; plus using all sorts of drugs, including LSD, amphetamines and especially barbiturates all of which I swallowed, but never injected.
My drinking was so out of control that I was very much like the bloke who, asked by the doctor, “Do you drink anything?” answered “Yes.” For a while, I’d have a go at almost anything, although I haven’t drunk methylated spirits, or perfume, or essence of lemon, as a number of my alcoholic friends have done.
I turned 65 on Christmas Day 2009. This week, on January 26, I reached 40 years sober. This means that I have had 40 more years on the planet than I would have had if I hadn’t stopped drinking alcohol and using other drugs.
So I am not exaggerating when I say that when I found Alcoholics Anonymous (or AA found me), it wasn’t the end of the road; it was the end of the end of the road, and also the avenue to an infinitely better life.
The fundamental fact is that if, each day, I don’t pick up the first drink of alcohol, I cannot get drunk. For decades now, I have never doubted that, for me, to drink is to die.
GENETICALLY and psychologically, I was (and am) strongly predisposed to alcoholism and addiction. Even though my father, Bill Fitzgerald, a rough, tough footballer for Collingwood seconds, never drank a teaspoon of alcohol in his entire life, his father (my grandpa, who I never met) died of alcoholism and squandered all the family’s money. That’s the reason my father had a lifelong, pathological fear and hatred of alcohol.
It seems to me that my father was an alcoholic who never drank. Dad believed, from experiencing his father’s alcoholism, that if he drank alcohol at all, he’d be putting himself at great risk. My guess is that he also believed that booze was likely to get me, his only living child, into terrible trouble. And it did. Until the age of 25, alcohol caused me, and those close to me, enormous damage.
When I was a child, death hovered like a miasma around our house at 41 Charles Street, East Brighton, in Melbourne. This was because, in January 1942, my elder brother Rodney had died in my father’s arms on a Melbourne tram on the way to hospital, when he was only six months old. My mother, Edna, was so distraught that she didn’t even go the funeral; it was only 30 years later, at my father’s funeral, that I discovered that my brother was buried at Melbourne’s Cheltenham Cemetery in an unmarked grave. After Roddy died, my mother had two miscarriages, and then I was born on Christmas Day, 1944.
“Do you see the brightest star in all the skies?” Edna would say, pointing up. “That’s your brother, Rodney.”
Not surprisingly, as a little boy, I felt like garbage. How could anyone measure up against the brightest star? I now realise that, from a very young age, I held a burning resentment against my poor dead brother.
To add insult to injury, until I was 12 or 13, Mum would sometimes remark to strangers, “This is our only living child, Ross.” Small wonder that, these days, I still don’t attend funerals, unless I absolutely have to, and that over my desk I have a quote from the Hindu holy book, the Mahabharata: “Death strikes every day, yet we live our lives as though we are immortal.”
Although my birth date meant that I was the only star on the Christmas tree, my brother’s “presence” meant that even this special status was ambiguous.
Because of Rodney’s death and my mother’s previous miscarriages, Edna, and to a lesser extent my dear, long-suffering Dad, wrapped me in cotton wool, until I fled home just before I turned 18.
From as far back as I can remember, I was scared of life itself, but perhaps even more of “finding out” or uncovering the truth, from, and about, Mum and Dad, and especially the truth of Roddy’s death and of who, or what, I was or was supposed to be.
But when I started using alcohol, it kidded me that I was no longer afraid. It’s no wonder, then, that courage is the name sometimes given to particular brands of beer and of lager.
Illness was a powerful currency in our house in East Brighton, a petit-bourgeois suburb where respectability and “niceness” were valued highly. Unlike most men of my age, who were taught never to admit to weakness and not to “give in” to illness, I quickly learned the opposite. When Mum got migraines, she achieved what I came to long for most: to be left alone; and in my case, often to receive the greatest treat of all: to stay all day in bed. So instead of going to primary school, I would often stay home “sick” and listen on the radio to When a Girl Marries and then to Portia Faces Life, which, if I remember correctly, was the story of a woman who has loved . . . and can remember. The truth is that, early on, my relationship with Edna was highly sexualised. I remember as a child regularly brushing my mother’s hair. Yet even then, I sensed something furtive and not quite right.
I pointed the bone at myself so successfully that at 11, after passing a lot of blood in my urine, I almost died of nephritis and was in the Melbourne Children’s Hospital for three months. I had extremely high blood pressure and couldn’t bear the light. Given Roddy’s early death, it’s hard to comprehend just what Mum and Dad, who seldom spoke to each other about “important matters”, went through during that time.
But having had such a serious illness meant that, when I came home, I was given almost whatever I wanted. This included large doses of a pink-coloured liquid asthma medicine, which I later found out contained a heady mix of alcohol and ephedrine. Small wonder then, that at night I would sneak into the kitchen for an extra swig of this magical elixir, after which I would return to bed and go on a trip with my toy dog Snowy, and Jumbo the elephant.
One of the problems of living with Edna was that she would lie, when telling the truth would have done. This was almost certainly because she blamed herself for Roddy’s death. In later life, she claimed she had tried to have the baby aborted.
When I was growing up, there was no bedrock to reality, because with Mum it was impossible to know what was true and what wasn’t. If Edna gave someone a trinket, she would claim it was gold.
She consistently lied about how many tablets she took, and also about her age. She died in 1999 and took many of those fibs with her to the grave. Although I have tried (unsuccessfully) not to blame her, I know, without a doubt, that growing up in Edna’s presence contributed mightily to my life-long high anxiety and sense of unreality, uncertainty and crisis.
My mother, whose maiden name was Beecher, claimed that she was descended from the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Connecticut-born novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. True or false, who can tell? The situation at home was so dire that, even if Edna seemed to be telling the truth, I still couldn’t believe her.
In The Communist Manifesto there is a line by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels about the destruction of capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air.” My life with Edna was very much like that. From infancy onward, my life had no foundation, no bedrock of truth.
This is why it is crucial, if I am to stay sober, that I be rigorously honest. Is it any wonder that perhaps the most important attributes that attracted me to Lyndal, my wife of 35 years, are that she always tells the truth, no matter what, and that, in contrast to Edna, she seems solid in a shifting world? Lyndal loathed Edna’s constant talk of illness and virtually on first meeting, cottoned on to Edna’s lies.
For some reason, when I think of all that is solid melting into the air, I am reminded of W.B. Yeats’s lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . surely some revelation is at hand.” Although I did not know it when I was drinking, the latter phrase was to apply when I turned 25.
When I was 12 or 13, within the space of a few months, both my parents tried to kill themselves by overdosing on tablets.
I can’t remember whether it was after my mother’s or my father’s attempt, but it was probably my father’s; my memory is that Edna said, “Your father’s tried to kill himself .” Because I didn’t know what to do, or perhaps because I didn’t believe her, I went straight to bed. For years, I punished myself for being so unfeeling and uncaring. But now I understand how overwhelming this would have been for someone so young.
Years later, when I was going through Mum and Dad’s papers, I found a one-page letter from Dad: “To be opened on my death.” Dated January 12, 1956, the year the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne and the anniversary month of Roddy’s death it began: “Dear Ed.” Apart from brief details about his will and other money matters, Dad recounted how upset he was that he didn’t go to war.
This was because he worked in electricity, which was deemed an essential industry. Thinking about it now, it seems likely that staying home, while other blokes served, somehow made him feel less manly. Dad’s letter finished by saying how much he loved us both, but that he “just couldn’t go on”. Yet, he did, as did Edna; which must have taken quite a lot of courage, especially in not being overwhelmed by their different, and separate, demons.
To be fair, I never knew my parents when they were joyful or at ease with one another. I’m told, for example, that when courting and early in their marriage, they loved ballroom dancing. It must have been so difficult coping with Rodney’s death, but even when I was a child it was clear to me that Edna thought she came from a better type of family than my teetotal, working-class, football and cricket-playing father.
Some teachers found me difficult. At primary school I was puzzled by multiplication by nought. I remember bringing three oranges into class. Here are the three oranges; here are the no oranges; when you multiply the three oranges by the no oranges, where do the oranges go? All the other kids laughed, as did my teacher, Miss Fox. My maths career ended there and then, although I still think that, for a primitive mind, it’s a reasonable question. Years later, I was pleased to find that Miss Fox wasn’t a qualified teacher; she had bodgied her “qualifications” and eventually got the sack. But in part because “being smart” meant that I was a nuisance, I got “bumped up” a class, which in turn meant that I went to university at 17, which was far too young.
JUST as I played “sick” in order to be left alone, for the same reason, for a while, I also played “stupid”. That was until, at the end of fourth form at Melbourne Boys High, the form captain Gary Evans (later ALP foreign minister, senator Gareth Evans) wrote good things about everyone in 4C, except about me and another boy. Evans wrote: “Ross Fitzgerald and Garnett Farrell are going to write a book next year, Howe to Cum Toppe.” Incandescent with shame and rage, I defiantly decided to show the bastard(s), and knuckle down to work, which then I did, obsessively.
Soon after this, I had my first drink of alcohol. It is indelibly etched in my mind. Aged fourteen-and-a-half, my first drink was at the same place that I had my last drink: Her Majesty’s Hotel at 134 Toorak Rd, South Yarra, near Melbourne High. It was commonly known as “Maisey’s” and was run by a well-known Melbourne drag queen. Although the grand two-storey building, with a huge statue of Queen Victoria holding an orb, still stands, the pub has been empty for years.
On my way back from seeing a specialist, at about 11am, I fronted the public bar in my school uniform and ordered a brandy, lime and soda because it sounded exotic. The barman said, “I suggest that you take off your school hat, son.”
Why did I do it? My guess is that somewhere deep down I knew that I had to anaesthetise all those dreadful, unnamed, and for me then, unnameable, feelings.
That first drink of alcohol was like an injection of rocket fuel. Very soon, I was drinking as often as I could, usually on my own. Yet even then, alcohol never made me feel as good as, let alone better than, other people. Deep down, I still felt shithouse.
But what it did was to hold down the pain of being myself just enough so that, for a while, I could “negotiate” the world.
So I don’t regret finding alcohol. If I hadn’t started drinking, I would have suicided by the time I was 17 or 18. Looking back now, I think that I was severely depressed and ultra-anxious and that, unlike Edna who much preferred pills and drank abstemiously, I used alcohol, soon in increasing doses, as a medication.
Once, when I was 15, I stumbled home at 2am. My father, fit, tall and erect, was waiting up for me. “What are you celebrating, son?” he asked. I had no answer. I didn’t know then that I drank because, in a sense, I had to. Then Dad said, “When I was your age son, I lost two bicycles looking for my father.” I never forgot those words, but they didn’t stop me drinking.
Soon after, he told me, “Never forget where you’ve come from.” Although Dad probably meant our class origins, these days I think it so important not to forget where alcoholism took me, and to realise how lucky I am, up to now, to have “escaped”, when so many others have not. The truth for me is that every day above ground, free of booze and other drugs, is a bonus.
Until I started drinking alcohol regularly at 15, Dad was my hero and, especially with regard to sport, someone I tried to emulate. Even though I was a talented cricketer, throughout my career I only once made 100; by the end of an innings I was exhausted. I was nowhere near as talented an Aussie Rules footballer; three goals were the most I ever kicked in a match. Once though, when I played for Monash Uni, I won the most courageous player of the match award; little did my team mates know that throughout the game I was fuelled by rum and amphetamines.
When I was young, Dad was so proud of me, especially of my feats as a cricketer. But soon after I started drinking, in my mind my father changed from a hero to a zero. While I was on the booze and drugs, I treated him, and my mother, appallingly.
When I was 15 or 16 and still living in Charles Street, my idea of a good Saturday night was to take a flagon of wine to the nearby Brighton Cemetery and drink on my own in front of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s obelisk, which reads, “Life is only froth and bubble / Two things stand like stone / Kindness in another’s trouble / Courage in your own.”
I now think it significant that of all the graves in Brighton Cemetery, I was drawn to that of an alcoholic poet who killed himself at Brighton Beach, where I used to drink so often myself. Gordon shot himself at dawn on June 24, 1870, the day after his Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was published and an enthusiastic review was due to appear.
Towards the end of fifth form, after I had devoured The Communist Manifesto and tried to understand Das Capital, I tried, unsuccessfully, to join the Communist Party of Australia.
Along with a school friend, Alan Piper, with whom I had played cricket for the Victorian school boys team (and who became a multimillionaire car dealer in Brisbane), we met an organiser outside the Bryant & May match factory in Richmond, near Melbourne High. I’d only had a few beers, but the CPA organiser, who ignored Alan entirely, said to me after a few minutes, “I think you can do better elsewhere son.”
I realise now that I wasn’t turned down for ideological reasons; even in those days, the party didn’t need a young pisspot.
A year or so before, in late 1959, as a precocious 15-year-old, I wrote to “Fidel Castro, prime minister of Cuba”, offering myself as an economics adviser.
One afternoon, shortly after Dad had returned from work as a fitter and turner at the State Electricity Commission in Richmond, the Victorian Special Branch, which had intercepted my letter, had two of their officers knock on the door. My father, who I later found out was a DLP (Democratic Labor Party) supporter, was so mortified that he accused me of being a “red ragger”.
I arrived at Monash University in February 1962, aged just 17. Still somehow living at Charles Street, I put my tiptoes on to the campus and felt terrified. So, on that very first day, I found my way to the nearby Notting Hill Hotel in Clayton. And there, accompanied by a ragbag of students, staff and regulars, I stayed for much of my time at university.
Even though physically I was rarely on campus, for quite a while alcohol propelled and energised me, so much so that at Monash I topped every subject in my first two years, including, believe it or not, economics, and also economic statistics, as well as two history subjects. This was at a time when all that counted as far as grades were concerned were the final exams. Although I didn’t let anyone know, the truth is that I crammed for weeks beforehand.
Edited extract from My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, by Ross Fitzgerald, published by New South, $34.95. Some people’s names have been changed to protect their privacy. Published in The Weekend Australian 30-31 January 2010.