First step to victory is conceding defeat
ATTENDANCE at Alcoholics Anonymous is the best method of helping alcoholics remain sober. There are no dues or fees for membership in this unique organisation, which is entirely self-supporting. The only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire, no matter how inchoate or half-hearted, to stop drinking.
In terms of long-term abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, AA has the numbers. Even so, not all alcoholics remain receptive to AA’s simple message that, for an alcoholic, it is the first drink that does the damage. No matter how long they are sober, alcoholics are only given a reprieve from active alcoholism if they know that they need help.
It is not easy for alcoholics to stop drinking and to stay stopped. It is also often extremely difficult for alcoholics to negotiate the internal and external world with nothing in their blood but blood (that is, free of alcohol and all other drugs) and without damaging themselves in other ways. This is in part because many alcoholics, no matter how they might seem on the outside, are often extremely vulnerable in the first few years of not drinking. Often other addictions go hand in hand with active alcoholism.
Achieving stable abstinence is, for an alcoholic, a difficult and tricky business. One of the founders of AA in Australia, Sydney-based psychiatrist Dr Sylvester Minogue, used to say he had never seen an alcoholic get anywhere near emotionally and mentally together under three to five years.
My experience is that this applies to many, if not most, recovering alcoholics.
One of the many fallacies about AA is the claim that to be a member one has to be a Christian. This is just not true. Many members are atheists or agnostics.Although fundamentalist religions of all sorts do so much damage, one of my favourite Bible quotes is: “The Lord’s house has many mansions.”
This means that in AA there is room for us all – atheists, agnostics, god-botherers, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. As one wag puts it, AA is comprised of those who believe in God, those who don’t believe in God, and those who think they are God!
In AA I have always been an atheist. Yet on Australia Day, I was 42 years free of alcohol and other drugs – which is wonderful, but what really matters is what I am going to do from now on. And the great reality for me, as for all other members of the AA movement, is that from this specific place and time, I need never drink alcohol or take other drugs again.
When I say that I am an atheist I mean that I am not a theist. But in AA’s language I do believe in a “power greater than myself” – if only the AA group to which I belong, the other groups I attend, and indeed the AA movement as a whole.
I don’t believe that I am sober because of an isolated exercise of the will. In contrast, I believe that I am only sober because I realise, in the words of AA’s first suggested step of recovery, that, on my own, I am “powerless over alcohol” and that I need to surrender to that crucial fact, each and every day.
If I am to remain sober, I believe that I need to regularly attend AA meetings and to consciously do what I can about AA’s program of recovery.
That is to say, I am only free of alcohol and other drugs, not because I am smart or wilful or clever, but because I have accepted a key of AA lore.
In the words of one AA stalwart, the late Australian boxing champion Bobbie Delaney: “I’m not a retired alcoholic. I’m a defeated one.”
I like that way of putting it. I’m not fighting alcohol and other drugs. I’ve thrown in the towel, and accepted defeat. But in my opinion I need to surrender every day. Otherwise I would forget where I came from and start to drink again. Then, very soon, I would be back where I was when I finished drinking – which was at the gates of insanity and death.
Hence I strongly believe that, for me, to drink is to die.
This doesn’t mean that other things don’t matter at all but that everything else is contingent on my sobriety and my good relations in AA. This fundamental fact places everything else in its true perspective.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including his memoir My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, published by NewSouth Books, Sydney
The Daily Telegraph, January 27, 2012