Powerful lesson on living from a lifelong alcoholic
TWELVE months ago yesterday, my closest friend in Alcoholics Anonymous in Sydney – Stephen Clarke – died, aged 85.
His life was a testimony to the efficacy of AA in saving tens of thousands of men and women whose lives previously had been blighted by alcoholism. Hence the funeral for “Steve from Gordon”, as he was widely known, was attended by almost 200 people, most of them AA members he had inspired and helped through the decades.
Sober for 48 years, Steve touched the lives of so many people, not just in Sydney and NSW but also throughout Australia and, in some cases, overseas. He was a committed member of the AA movement who was still attending two or three AA meetings a week until shortly before he died in Hornsby Hospital.
Reared in a Catholic family in Sydney, he had to look after his mother and his sister, Faye, because of his father’s absence. Faye was a member of AA before him and she, too, remained a sober member until her death.
One of the many things Steve taught me was that, if I stayed close to AA and to its program of recovery, and remained totally abstinent from alcohol, I could experience not a stale and mediocre existence but a new life of abundance and enthusiasm.
He didn’t have a lot of education but was one of the most intelligent people I have met. A great lover of poetry and of literature, at heart he remained a committed militant and a supporter of the downtrodden and oppressed. There are so many illuminating stories he repeated often when speaking at meetings and that enabled scores of people to understand the baffling nature of alcoholism.
Here are two of my favourites:
In the last year of his drinking he was hospitalised for alcoholism three times. After being admitted to Sydney’s Langton Clinic in a dreadful state, on the second day a woman asked if she could make an appointment to see him. “I’m a hypnotherapist,” she said, “and you are very uptight.”
Instead of arguing, as normally would have been his wont, Steve agreed.
The therapist hypnotised him. “You are going deeper and deeper; your right arm is rigid and stiff.”
Indeed, Steve could feel the stiffness and sensed that he was going under. “You are sitting at home in your easy chair,” she said. “And you are at peace.”
It’s lucky she said “easy chair”, thought Steve. He had pawned almost all of the other furniture to get money for the booze.
“When I bring you out of your trance,” said the therapist, “you will go to one AA meeting a week because you will want to.”
When she clicked her fingers, she said, “Do you remember anything I’ve said?” “Yes,” said Steve, “and I won’t go.”
So powerful is the illness of alcoholism that Steve was defiant even under hypnosis. Such deep resistance is an integral part of the story of a great many alcoholics.
Two years before he stopped drinking, he broke his little finger in a fight with three blokes in Woolloomooloo. That evening at home, he said: “I’m going to have to go on compo.”
“Yes, Steve,” responded his wife, Dawn. “But first you’ll have to get a job.”
On the Monday he worked for an hour as a builder’s labourer, then showed the foreman his finger. “It looks broken; you’d better go to the doctor. Hey, what’s your name?” he shouted as Steve left the construction site. Steve was a very casual labourer indeed.
A kindly old RAAF doctor kept Steve on compo for 18 weeks, which must be close to a state record for a broken finger. This meant Steve’s drinking habit was being fed. Then the doc said, “I can’t keep you on compo any longer; the only thing I could do is amputate.” “How much would that involve?” inquired Steve. Reaching for a sheet of paper, the doctor looked down the list and said, “Ã‚Â£231”. Steve nearly said, “Take off two.”
As it transpired, the money for his little finger paid the deposit on a home in Turramurra.
Steve often used to say he didn’t think you could be an alcoholic if you could say “Turramurra”, let alone live there.
Steve’s AA nickname was “Steve from Gordon”, not because Turramurra is such a mouthful, but because Gordon was the AA group of which he was a member.
He had a wonderful sense of humour. Hence it’s no surprise that he was amused by a song sung by Barry Humphries’s grotesque character Sir Les Patterson, which went as follows:
Never trust a man who doesn’t drink
Though he may not throw up on your kitchen sink.
I’d rather be half-hearted than a blue-nosed wowser bastard.
So NEVER trust a man who doesn’t drink.
As a sober alcoholic, Steve was conscious of the fact so many Australians still don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink alcohol.
It’s probably true AA is more sanitised and boasts fewer unforgettable characters than was previously the case. As Steve used to say, this is in part because AA mirrors the society in which it operates, and possibly because the large number of rehabilitation facilities in Australia means that alcoholics and addicts increasingly are treated much earlier.
In the 21st century, it seems fewer alcoholics who come to AA are desperadoes like Steve and his friend and mentor, “Broken Hill Jack”. Moreover, unlike 30 years ago, these days only about 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the homeless in Australia are alcoholics; now most homeless people have mental illnesses, although some are also addicted to drugs. Steve from Gordon was one of a kind. It is a privilege to have been taught by him in so many helpful ways.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is now available as an e-book and a talking book read by Fitzgerald.
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, SEPTEMBER 21-22, 2013, INQUIRER, P.20