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First step to victory is conceding defeat

27 January 2012 2,576 views 3 Comments

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


  • J.A. Kirkpatrick said:

    Thanks to Ross Fitzgerald for his heart-felt promotion of AA. Some doctors pooh-pooh AA’s formula of total abstinence to overcome alcohol addiction. Why? Is it professional jealousy that lay, self-help groups succeed where the professionals’ remedies, like “controlled drinking” or “harm minimisation” fail? AA has had a proven track record for over 70 years. Enough said.

    J.A. Kirkpatrick
    Darling Point

  • Carol Manser said:

    This is a really useful introduction explaining how AA is set up, and how it functions to help and support anyone with a drinking problem.

    Also, information from someone who has experienced AA in real life and from an alcoholic’s point of view is the best information there is.

    Like so many things, the first step is the hardest, but asking for help for an addiction is one of the hardest things of all.

    Some people say, ‘AA isn’t for everyone’ but you disprove that, at least where religion is concerned. As you so rightly say, “The only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire, no matter how inchoate or half-hearted, to stop drinking”.

    That’s easier said than done, but it’s articles like this that might help to persuade people that Recovery is possible, no matter how unlikely they might believe it to be at the time.

    Thanks Ross for all your articles and interviews about Alcoholism, they are really insightful, courageous and helpful.


  • Dr Carol Manser (author) said:

    An Inspiring Interview with an Alcoholic
    Posted on February 8, 2012

    Today I am able to bring you a very special audio download. It’s about one person’s long struggle with Alcoholism, and how they have managed to remain sober for 42 years through the help and support of AA, and a supportive family. The alcoholic in this interview is Prof. Ross Fitzgerald. He was interviewed for the ABC by Rachael Kohn, on the ABC’s program, The Spirit of Things.

    I regard this very moving confession by Ross Fitzgerald as one of the bravest things I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to. He holds nothing back as he recalls all the tragedies and deepest emotions of his life.

    It’s inspiring as well as informative. He explains about AA, and what it means to him in his life, and the lives of others. He is incredibly honest about the very painful and personal struggles he goes through almost daily as an ‘alcoholic who doesn’t drink’. I think this interview will inspire hope in many of the people who hear it, as well as respect for Ross Fitzgerald’s honesty and courage.

    Sometimes, people say, “AA (or NA), isn’t for me”. Well, if you’ve tried it, and it isn’t for you, fair enough. But if you think you need help, and you haven’t tried it, you may at least want to check it out, after hearing this program.

    You can download the audio from this website – there is also a written transcript of the interview.

    My Spiritual Diary: Ross Fitzgerald

    Here are some excerpts from throughout the interview:

    Ross Fitzgerald: I’m permanently at risk, because what most alcoholic men or women do is to drink, and I need to be aware that the most important thing in my life is that I don’t drink alcohol or take other drugs and that I attend AA and do the best I can about that program of recovery.

    Ross Fitzgerald: In the past, I used to drink to and for oblivion, to try and block out all those dreadful feelings of self-hatred and lack of worth.

    Ross Fitzgerald: If we didn’t forget the dreadful pain that we suffered, we wouldn’t get out of bed. But it’s not true for alcoholism. Alcoholic men and women need to remember organically where we’ve come from, otherwise we would soon forget, and soon forget the dreadful effect that alcohol and other drugs had upon us.

    Rachael Kohn: But that remembering of failure, as it were, is really hard on the ego, and I wonder whether AA is teaching us something about the fact that vulnerability can actually be ironically the source of our strength. That is, weakness can be a stepping stone to strength.

    Ross Fitzgerald: That’s absolutely true, and it’s really only by surrendering to the fact that we’re powerless over alcohol…and most alcoholics can’t get and stay sober through an isolated exercise of the will. Most alcoholic men and women need help. AA is by far the most successful agency, so I often tell people, well, why not avail yourself of the best.

    Ross Fitzgerald: How fortunate we are as members of the AA fellowship to have other sober alcoholics who can understand us and to whom we can confide, and to have such a network of support to cradle us during the difficult times that we all face. What a contrast to the atomised existence that I led when in the grip of alcoholism and other drug addiction.

    Ross Fitzgerald: At least once a day I recite the AA Serenity Prayer, ‘Please, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

    Rachael Kohn: That’s a profound invitation to surrender. Who do you surrender to, or what do you surrender to?

    Ross Fitzgerald: I suppose I surrender to the reality that I can’t stay sober on my own, that I need help. It’s very unclear to me what I surrender to, but it’s certainly true that the meetings that I go to, the AA movement as a whole is a power greater than myself.
    And letting go is…you see, the isolated exercise of the will almost never works over the long term with alcoholism and addiction. Over the long term most alcoholics need to remember where we’ve come from and to realise that almost all of us need help.

    Ross Fitzgerald: 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 suggested program of recovery. That is to say, I’m only free of alcohol and other drugs not because I am smart or wilful or clever, but because I have accepted the need for me to surrender on a daily basis. In the words of Broken Hill Jack’s sponsor, the late Bobbie Delaney, who was Australia’s light heavyweight boxing champion, ‘I’m not a retired alcoholic, I’m a defeated one.’

    And there’s much, much more – I encourage anyone with any sort of addiction, or potential addiction problem, to listen to this inspiring interview.

    And thank you Rachael for allowing me to link to your excellent program from my website.

    My biggest thanks go to Ross Fitzgerald for having the courage to give this gut-wrenching interview to the ABC. I’m sure it will help many people who are looking to find hope in their lives.

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