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AA knows the sobering truth about alcoholism

23 June 2013 2 Comments

THIS month in 1935 the world’s most successful self-help group, Alcoholics Anonymous, was founded in Akron, Ohio. As it happens, it was in Akron and in Cleveland, Ohio, that I did a lot of drinking myself in the 1960s.

I turn 69 on Christmas Day. And if I survive until Australia Day I will have had no alcohol or other drugs for 44 years. This means that, with the support of AA, I’ve had 44 more years on the planet than I would have had.

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Like a lot of teenagers who are prone to addiction, I got into trouble with alcohol at an early age. But I don’t regret starting drinking. A quick precis of my life is that if I hadn’t found alcohol at 14 most likely I would have committed suicide at 17. But if I hadn’t stopped drinking at 24 I wouldn’t have made 25. It is important to stress alcoholism is a health problem, not a moral one. Alcoholics are not bad people who need to be good but people suffering from an illness who can recover if they learn to totally abstain, one day at a time.

Yet while abstinence has saved the lives of countless people, not drinking alcohol at all is still seen by many as rather weird, especially if one is young. Yet these days many 17 and 18-year-old drinkers have done so much damage to themselves and others that they are seeking help, including joining groups such as AA – whose meetings they attend regularly to remain abstinent.

In a society such as ours, with such an entrenched drink culture and a politically powerful liquor industry, advertising and peer group pressure is often applied to those of us who need to remain abstinent. This even applies in our prisons, where a core of about 40 per cent of inmates need to remain totally abstinent.

Yet even within our prison population there is strong pressure, from psychologists and other professionals, against the notion of total abstinence.

At social functions, after my third or fourth mineral water or fruit juice, I am often asked, “What’s the matter, don’t you drink?” To which I reply, “What do think I’m doing, eating a sandwich?”

Of course I drink. I drink a lot. It’s just that I don’t drink alcohol. This is because, as with about 7 per cent to 8 per cent of the Australian population, one glass containing alcohol is one too many – and 100 are not enough. The trick for people like me therefore is not to imbibe the first one.

Quite often a propensity to alcoholism and other drug addition is genetically based.

My father was a tough footballer who played for Collingwood. But he never drank a teaspoonful of alcohol in his life. This was because his father was an alcoholic whose drinking blighted his marriage and destroyed the family business.

My first drink of alcohol, at 14, was like an injection of rocket fuel and very soon I was drinking as much as I could. My idea of a good Saturday night was to go to Melbourne’s Brighton Cemetery with a flagon and sit drinking in front of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s obelisk. It read: “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, instead of being attracted to the grave of gangster Squizzy Taylor or bent Victorian politician Thomas Bent, I found myself in front of Gordon, the alcoholic poet, who killed himself on the beach near Park Street, Brighton, where I often used to drink myself.

When I was 15 I stumbled home drunk from Middle Brighton Beach at 2am. My father, tall and erect, was waiting up for me. “What are you celebrating, son?” he said. I had no answer. I didn’t know that I was drinking because I had to. Then Dad told me something I’ve never forgotten. “When I was your age, son, I lost two bicycles looking for my father.”

It seems to me that my dad knew that, like his father, he was potentially an alcoholic and that’s why he never drank at all. He believed, from experiencing the effects of his father’s alcoholism, that if he started drinking he’d be putting himself at great risk. He also understood that booze would also get me – his only living child – into terrible trouble. And it did. From the age of 14 to 24 alcohol caused me, and those close to me, enormous damage.

But despite being almost 44 years sober I still need to be vigilant and to realise that what matters most in my life is that I don’t pick up the first drink of alcohol.

The first of AA’s 12 steps says: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

No matter how long they have been sober, alcoholics in AA always speak of their alcoholism in the present tense. For example: “My name is Ross and I am an alcoholic.” This is because alcoholics and other addicts are never really cured of their alcoholism and addiction – in that if they start drinking and using again they are almost certainly bound to relapse into uncontrolled drinking and other drug use.

As Harvard University’s George E. Vaillant succinctly put it in his path-breaking study The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited: “Training alcohol-dependent individuals to achieve stable return to controlled drinking is a mirage. Hopeful initial reports have not led to replication.”

Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the proponents of controlled usage remain in favour with government bureaucrats and health professionals, while those who advocate a strategy of abstinence are often marginalised or ignored.

The fact is that while four to five years of abstinence is adequate to predict a stable future, return to controlled drinking is a much less stable state. This is not to dispute that alcoholics and addicts are resistant to adopting a goal of abstinence and often strongly deny the assertion that they cannot safely use alcohol or other drugs.

Indeed, such resistance and denial are integral parts of their disorder. Theoreticians who advocate controlled usage do so because it is difficult for alcohol-dependent and other drug-dependant people to consider abstinence. But there is no empirical evidence that controlled drinking or drug usage strategies work for such people for any extended period. The truth is that an alcoholic’s or an addict’s best chance of recovery lies in practising total abstinence. And Alcoholics Anonymous is by far the most successful agency in achieving this vital goal. So, as I often say to newcomers, and their families, why not avail yourself of the best?

Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, is now available as an ebook.


  • Dr P. A. Smith said:

    Ross Fitzgerald (AA knows the sobering truth about alcoholism, ‘The Australian’, June 22, 2013) does well to remind us of the vital importance of self-help groups.

    It is very clear that AA provides very worthwhile support for alcoholics. Indeed it is a self-help model that has spread to a wide range of other medical problems. There is also no evidence based rational for encouraging addicts to return to their addiction following a period of abstinence.

    For example, we do not suggest to smokers that after a period of abstinence from smoking that the occasional cigarette or two is a sensible choice.

    However, it is also important to note that self-help group support for addicts can be of greatly increased value if it is part of a diagnosis and treatment regime. The other part is professional medical, psychological and social support. This dual approach is the treatment regime of choice. Over many decades it has provided addicts the very best hope of return to a healthy and fulfilling life with their families and friends.

    Dr P. A. Smith
    Mount Archer
    Qld 4701

  • Robyn Williams said:

    An alcoholic’s journey

    Emeritus Professor Ross Fitzgerald is a historian, author and columnist. He has published his memoirs called My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, in which he describes his struggle with alcoholism and other drug addiction from the age of 14. Professor Fitzgerald has not had any alcohol or other drugs for the last 44 years.

    Gimme Shelter – an article by Ross Fitzgerald published in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, 13 July
    Ross Fitzgerald’s website

    Ockham’s Razor Presenter Robyn Williams
    Carolyn :
    21 Jul 2013 8:25:02am

    Thank you Ross. I am going to use your line about the sandwich next time I get the ‘you don’t drink?’ comment about my soft drink. My partner for over 20 years was an alcoholic and the experience has resulted in me rarely choosing to drink. When I do have a drink, it is literally one. Alcohol may not cause as many directly attributable deaths as tobacco, but it does cause greater total social harm than all other drugs combined – incarceration, acute injuries, chronic health problems, relationship breakdown etc. I would like to see all advertising of alcohol banned and laws properly enforced about service of alcohol. In the meantime, I fight the good fight against the ‘you need a few drinks to have a good time’ stereotype every week – heading out to sing karaoke and dance at least a few times a week and taking every opportunity to talk about the delights of abstinence.

    22 Jul 2013 6:49:37pm

    Perhaps Carolyn is aware about the resistance from the tobacco giants against any medical evidence that smoking is harmful to peoples health.
    Imagine the war that the Breweries Wineries and Distilleries (Multinational Giants) would start if any scientific evidence that some small percentage of people are physically allergic to alcohol and as a result cannot not control the consumption of alcohol cannot.Then what if the real death rate as a result of Alcoholism was revealed?How much would this Companies stand to loose in revenue.Well it took over 3 decades to prove that smoking is addictive (even though everybody knew)and that it takes lives.I am afraid it might take longer with alcohol as the profit margin is a lot greater and the stigma attached is far more difficult to overcome.

    William King :
    21 Jul 2013 12:47:04pm

    “And Alcoholics Anonymous is by far the most successful agency in achieving this vital goal.”

    Given that this is meant to be a scientific program and AA doesn’t allow for external research to be conducted I’m disappointed that statements like this are made without any evidence.

    Chris Holder :
    21 Jul 2013 9:00:30pm

    I have to agree totally with W. King; AA is a hugely over-rated organisation and does not deserve the favourable results many attribute to it. How disappointing that a science-based program like this should be so uncritical of it and even naive about its religious aspects which, contrary to what was said, are not readily acceptable or appropriate to the non-religious and atheists.

    22 Jul 2013 6:26:14pm

    I am an atheist and have been for the last 26 years while attending AA meetings and abstaining from drink and drugs. AA has no opinion on outside issues and thus not approve or disapprove any scientific research.The evidence that AA is the most successful treatment for Alcoholism is in the milions of sober alcoholics that have tried any possible treatment prior to coming to AA and are now sober as a result of the AA program and thanks to the support of other AA members that shared their “experience strength and hope” to maintain their sobriety.Perhaps it is neither science or religion but simple human help that makes a difference.

    22 Jul 2013 6:33:41pm

    AA is credited with saving millions of lives irrespective of race, nationality,sex or religion of the alcoholics.Millions of sober members are a living evidence.In the past there were many scientific programs with questionable legacy….Nazi Germany used to pride itself on their scientific programs designed to improve the human race…imagine if they had their way ?Perhaps Chris should make some research re. AA first and then make some “scientific” comments

    ji Utso :
    23 Jul 2013 12:54:11pm

    I’m with W King and C Holder. AA is successful but grossly overrated. It is not the only option and not the best option for many people with alcohol addiction problems.

    I have seen Ross Fitzgerald in full flight, literally snatching the microphone from those who questioned the value of AA as opposed to other options. I switch off from bullying zealots and believe Ross Fitzgerald to be in this category.

    Fiona D :
    22 Jul 2013 5:35:25pm

    I was interested in Professor Fitzgerald’s personal account and the value of the abstinence model in AA. If the program was unscientific, I did not notice.

    James :
    22 Jul 2013 5:56:17pm

    AA did nothing for my mother other than feed her the lie that she was on the road to recovery because she achieved the first step. For years she continued drinking secure in the knowledge that because she had admitted to the problem, she was as good as cured. 30 years later it was a Mental Health Ward that set her straight. And they did it without the obligatory church services of the Salvos.

    Jim :
    15 Aug 2013 10:48:23am

    I’m sorry to hear about your mother. However, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that AA doesn’t condone continuing to drink whilst attending AA meetings. If you attend AA meetings and you feel like a drink, you’re meant to call up another AA member and ask them to stop you from succumbing to temptation. I don’t think that you can hold AA responsible for your mother’s self-deception.

    Derek :
    22 Jul 2013 8:06:44pm

    We need evidence-driven treatments in all areas of healthcare and one treatment for any problem won’t be suitable for everyone. More resources, more research are required.

    Oliver :
    23 Jul 2013 1:48:42am

    I tried to stop drinking and taking drugs for 12 years prior to being introduced to AA and other 12-step groups. I have now been clean and sober for over a decade, and remember Ross’ inspiring shares during my early days of getting sober in Sydney.

    I can understand why certain commentators perceive the content of this Ockham’s Razor to be biased towards AA, as well as not meeting the rigorous and measurable metrics that are often demanded in scientific enquiry.

    All I can say in response to this is that myself, my family, friends and wider community have all the necessary evidence of the efficacy of AA in my own life. For me personally, Ross’ example, during a difficult and protracted period in early sobriety when I did not believe in myself, or my prospects for long-term rehabilitation, served to demonstrate the benefit and potentiality of complete abstinence from all drugs and alcohol.

    If this episode of Ockham’s Razor assists one person towards attaining the peace of mind and stability I now have, thanks to the rooms of AA (and plenty of other support), it is worth inestimably more than the holy grail of purportedly unbiased scientifically evidence. Not everything can be measured and quantified exactly.

    Kris H :
    23 Jul 2013 1:21:02pm

    Thank you Ross, and well said Oliver. There are many highly esteemed scientists with strong religious beliefs leading me to believe that science and religion can quite happily coexist, it is essentially down to the individual. Personally, as an individual still in the relatively early days of sobriety and all that it entails, I was pleased (or perhaps more relieved) when Ross mentioned he was an Atheist. I do not like to place myself in any camp, Agnostic, Atheist, or believer, but my ability (something I have to continually work at) to have tolerance for those that do is what helps me not put an alcoholic drink to my lips. I attended AA for about a year and stayed sober for the duration. I then stopped attending meetings as I believed I was cured only to find myself drinking once more. I do not no why I did not drink while attending AA meetings, and today knowing why has become insignificant in light of the disaster that ALWAYS follows the introduction of alcohol to my blood stream. I am now 43 days and 12 hours sober and wish to remain this way, just for today. God or no God, Science or no Science.

    Philip Ponder :
    24 Jul 2013 10:40:24pm

    Thank you Ross for a most interesting talk. I loved the frequent use of “alcoholics and other addicts” since this draws attention to a serious problem our society has with alcohol; the refusal to accept that all alcoholic drinks contain a mood-altering, performance-impairing, potentially addictive recreational drug. Ethanol.

    Until this is generally accepted, drunkenness will not be seen for what it is; drug abuse.

    Newspapers with double page spreads selling flavoured ethanol products will not be seen for what they are; willing beneficiaries of money from drug dealers. Yes, the drug is legal (and rightly so), but that is probably an historical aberration from our Judaeo-Christian past. We tend to have a far less enlightened attitude towards other recreational drugs.

    Why are professional sportsmen allowed to even touch a performance-impairing drug? Clearly our cricket team is in England just to have fun. Why else would they have as one of their major sponsors a purveyor of flavoured ethanol?

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