The secret’s out
HIS name is Ross and he’s an alcoholic. Don’t blame me. He outed himself in his own book. He can thank the Almighty God that no one reads any more or everyone will be pointing at him. On the other hand he has no one to blame but himself. He doesn’t even believe in God so he adds “Please” before the Serenity Prayer so it goes “Please God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Professor Ross Fitzgerald is a name I hear all the time but I can never put my finger on him. He leaves parties as I arrive. He exits dinner tables at will if I am late, as usual.
Two clients for whom I recently appeared in court in difficult circumstances both sent me copies of Fitzgerald’s book, My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, while I was deciding what, if anything, I should charge. They are gifts that keep on giving , and are probably all I will get. In reality, I received infinitely more than my few hours of court appearances.
Fitzgerald has written 32 books, fiction and nonfiction, but none is as important as the two I have. At 25 he took his last drink and pill. He is now 65. As an alcoholic, writing an autobiography is the stalking of yourself. Old schools of thought suggest Alcoholics Anonymous should live up to its name and remain the best kept secret in town.
At AA meetings, you were more likely to come across a satanic orgy than a meeting of yearning people trying to get or stay sober. Practising alcoholics tend to be loners during practice sessions and unless there are neon signs, electronic walkways or valet pick-up services, they might never hear of AA.
It is no use waiting for alcoholics to hit the gutter, the shelter or the morgue before they are allowed in on the secret. Fitzgerald speaks at high schools about his journey, disabusing the romantic dream world that teenagers naturally are attracted to in the world of excess. A drunk I met at Rogues Nightclub one night told me he was never going to go back to those Alcoholic Unanimous meetings. There was no room for anyone debating the virtues of the drink. And so it is …
My Name is Ross is a very timely book for me. The trouble with alcoholism and attending meetings of AA is that there is no graduation class, no diploma that allows you access to the world without returning to the halls of meetings. You have to go to the school of AA for the rest of your life, one day at a time. There is a tendency to drop out of this school. “How much more can I learn?” says one of the debating society living in your head, next thing you are a dry drunk, white-knuckling on a raft without a paddle.
AA is not a self-help group but depends on others helping each other. There is something in the human spirit that responds to storytelling and the DNA of AA is storytelling. One at a time, a speaker addresses the meeting with an outline of where he was, how he stopped drinking, drugging or whatever and where he is now. Many times it is like a stand-up comedy night. Sometimes it is a wake. There’s never a meeting that you don’t carry out a germ of an idea or a skerrick of helpful information. Meetings begin and end on time. Alcoholics need strict routine. You can always tape Underbelly, if there is a clash.
Fitzgerald writes that alcoholics are like pod people and can somehow pick each other out in a crowd. I don’t know about that but at meetings we are like fingerprint experts, pointing out similarities and dissimilarities in our groves and whorls. At times in reading Fitzgerald’s book, I suspected he accessed my computer files. His home truths were my home truths. The half-truths he told in drink were my half-truths.
He is however a far more matured human being than I would ever be, even if I lived as long as Methuselah. Fitzgerald had so much electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) before they used general anaesthetic that it wiped out many potential chapters in his book. He could ask surviving friends or relatives to write in and publish the lost years that way. Drinking and depression go hand and gland. He soared at school, university and in academia while sipping from rum bottles planted in cisterns during exams. He lived counter-intuitively and occasionally on liquid counter lunches.
Like many alcoholics, he is a hypochondriac who will outlive everyone. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to America where he spent much of the time in saloons, mental homes and in the arms of women who took mercy on him.
A psychiatrist told me I had an almost supernaturally excessive need for nurture. I spent much of my life hoping to be rescued from myself by women. Women are no longer attracted to shipwrecks who love the relentless rocks. I once snuck a glance at a referral from my GP to a new psychiatrist, “Charles, is a difficult customer with a lot of baggage.” It is little wonder our sessions didn’t work out with such a sordid letter of introduction.
So it is not on the couch that we alcoholics try to get well but on the hand chairs in church halls or school auditoriums. We respond to the sound of many hands cupping. I envy the meetings in Los Angeles in the 1970s when sobriety reignited the sex organs of men and women, who had meetings in spa pools naked, at least according to James Ellroy. AIDS wiped out nearly everything.
Fitzgerald’s book is far deeper and wider and funnier than the picture I paint. He has a prodigious memory, not corrupted by ECT or alcohol or drugs in the past 40 years. He gives us the highlights, the lowlights and the spotlights in a razzle-dazzle of words and characters. Alcoholics who are out he names. Others are called Broken Hill Jack, Cast-iron Kate, Under-the-Stars Len and so on. I remember some of them.
Anonymity guaranteed, Fitzgerald’s past did not condemn him to it. AA helped him not to live in the wreckage of the future. Long before the Power of Now, AA practised it a day at a time.
There are some quaint hangovers, so to speak, from the strictly anonymous early days of AA. Members of the fellowship would swap or pass on tape recordings of especially gifted speakers whose identification talks were sometimes electrifying. I got a plastic covered tape with Sir Anthony H on the white sticker on the side. His voice was unmistakably Hannibal Lecter’s slimy tongue-licking brogue. Yet we nod to each other as we pass back the tape as if the secret is safe with me.
Anyway, shout Ross Fitzgerald’s name form the steps of the Town Hall. He has come to free us, to free us all.
The Sun-Herald February 21, 2010