by Kate Legge
I was interstate when my elderly neighbour Sid rang. Fire, burglary or dead cat immediately crossed my mind. “There’s a guy looking for you,” Sid informed me with a paternal air. “He reckons he did some work on your house 13 years ago. Says he overcharged you. He’s left his number.” We both wondered at an ulterior motive. Who owns up to financial deceit more than a decade after the fact, unless they’ve been dragged before a royal commission?
The algorithms in my brain began wheezing like an early-model laptop, sorting through memory files until the moment of my hot-cheeked disbelief, standing on the front porch, chequebook in hand, shook loose from the archives. I’d called a handyman to fix a leak bedevilling our recently renovated house. He thudded around on top for barely an hour then knocked on the door to tell me he’d finished. I didn’t clamber up to check; there was a dog to be walked, kids to be fed, stories to be filed. His fee? “$4000.” Incredulous, I challenged his exorbitant back-of-the-envelope reckoning. Sullen, brusque, he wouldn’t budge. As a time-poor, comfortably-off working mum I admit to being a soft target.
Weeks later, I swore blue as I placed saucepans to collect the drips from the ceiling that was now leaking like a colander during a heavy downpour. I tried ringing the handyman, in vain. So I summoned a roofer, who scoffed in disgust at the slapdash patch-up with a can of sealant sprayed untidily around the metal flashing.
I’d not given this act of bastardry another thought until the handyman appeared on my neighbour’s doorstep all these years later — but I was curious as to what on Earth had drawn him into the light. The first time we spoke by phone he owned straight up to overcharging me, both of us sketching in the details of our encounter. “I was in a bad way at the time,” he conceded, hesitantly. “I had a problem with drinking.” Since someone close to me was wrestling with this same curse, I wanted to know whether he’d chained the beast. “Thanks for asking,” he replied, relief and gratitude in his halting voice. He’d been braced for the possibility of anger or worse. “I’m doing well. I’ve got support and I’m trying to right some wrongs.”
Cold-calling out of the blue to confess to ripping someone off, without a stiff drink in your hand, takes nerve. He revealed a little of his personal history, how he’d inflated accounts to pay off a mortgage, his drinking already nudging excess, numbing him to the consequences of a descent that soon ratcheted him into the realm of dysfunction. Now he wanted to make good, repaying a debt I’d written off in the ledger of past wrongs long forgotten.
Glad to forgive, I assured him that I didn’t need him to return the money, especially if the financial hit might distract him from the gruelling daily challenge of abstinence. But his story stayed with me, and a girlfriend cried when I recounted his striving for recovery. Redemptions are powerful in their purpose and beautiful in their promise of hope.
A month later he rang again, keen to clean his side of the street. It became clear this transaction mattered to him so I plucked the figure of $1000 randomly, for how is mercy measured? Should atonement be discounted by the degree of contrition or the circumstances corrupting honesty? He drove straight to my house with a bundle of crisp notes. I recognised him though we’re both years older, creased with age, salt-and-pepper haired.
We sat for a while at my kitchen table where I learnt that cleaning your side of the street is a phrase associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ll call him Mark — a pseudonym. Anonymity is why we rarely hear of the oldest self-help group in the world for there is no fundraising, no coloured ribbon days promoting a cause that draws men and women to attend one or more of an estimated 2000 meetings held in church and community halls around Australia every week.
AA rescued Mark. He likens alcoholism to cancer and now that he’s free of it he’s bewildered by the reluctance of sufferers to seek help. Imagine, he says, being given a terminal diagnosis then learning you could possibly beat the disease by attempting a 12-step program. “Imagine if you’re told that not only will you get well but you will help others get well. They’d go, ‘Brilliant, bring it on’. A lot of addicts, they’ll keep drinking or doing whatever,” he shrugged. “Bizarre.”
If you ever hear someone decline a drink by saying, “I’m a friend of Bill’s” it’s code for “I’m an alcoholic”, a salute to New York stockbroker Bill Wilson, who co-founded AA in 1935 with fellow alcoholic and physician Bob Smith. Australia’s first chapter opened 10 years later. Before meeting Mark my knowledge of AA was limited to the introductory line at meetings, which I’d heard as a speech-opening gag in a different context. “Hi, My name is X. I’m an alcoholic. Oops. Sorry, wrong audience.”
Embracing zero tolerance is the core of a 12-step program that encourages personal conversion through honesty, generosity and the idea of making amends. Beyond its remarkable longevity and the testimony of recovering addicts there is scant empirical data tracking rates of recovery and relapse. Some commentators squirm at the semi-religious fervour surrounding the “Big Book” which governs the steps towards sobriety and the surrender to a “higher power”.
Historian Ross Fitzgerald, whose memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ breached the cone of silence, insists that accepting a loftier life force merely embraces the existence of something bigger than the self, “whereby an alcoholic not only stops drinking but sees the world in a much less narcissistic light”. He says AA is a broad church that makes room for atheists and agnostics as long as they accept and rely on something outside of self, “even if it is only the AA group”.
Mark sought AA’s help in 2014 upon release from his sixth hospital admission during a year when he was drinking three bottles of sauvignon blanc a day, blinds closed, jobless, stupefied in a comfortable three-bedroom home that he owned while living on income from a rental unit. “I didn’t know whether it was dawn or dusk.” He’d been barred from his local bottle shop after turning up drunk before 9am. He’d tried AA once before, unsuccessfully. Now jaundiced, jockey-gaunt, physically ill and prone to psychosis, a switch flicked “as if a skerrick of grace was put in my brain” and he began a residential rehab at a sober group house that practised AA’s 12-step program. “I identified straight away. The same behaviours, the same thought patterns. I felt at home. Like I was among my peers,” he says.
“The first step is to admit powerlessness over alcohol,” he explains. “It’s a paradox because you accept defeat in order to win. On every previous occasion I’d have another drink, try and control it, but that’s the subterfuge of addiction. In the end it’ll kill you.” His thinking had to change. “It’s about clearing away the mayhem from the past so you’re not driven by something you’ve done to chase another drink to shut your head up. My conscience wasn’t clear.”
Step four of the AA program asks members to write a personal inventory of past misdeeds, shortcomings and wrongdoings. This list is shown only to your sponsor — an AA volunteer who offers counsel and support or a steadying voice on the end of the phone when the menace of temptation strikes. The chronicling of harms and hurts is the start of a healing clarity that is followed further along by steps eight and nine, the threshold rungs of making amends through formal apology.
London-based portrait photographer Angus Thomas outed himself to write about his amends — describing them as the cornerstone that turned his world around. First, he made amends to his ex-wife, their children, his parents, his brother. Then he set up meetings to return stolen property and address other debts. “My amends to my parents was the hardest,” he wrote. “In order to make the physical journey of walking a few paces to hug my father at the end it felt like I had to break through some invisible emotional brick wall armed only with an ineffectual toothpick — it was excruciatingly painful.” But amongst the rubble sprouted regrowth, most gloriously the relationship with his parents. “Having derided them in a cruel and slow torture that only kids can inflict… I am now extremely close to them.”
Forgiveness is not guaranteed. One of those interviewed for a Rhode Island University study probing the role of amends in AA, Tom, revealed his mother refused to see him when he called to acknowledge the harm he’d done. Another participant, on the other hand, rejoiced at sharing his yearly sobriety coin with his mother. “She cries every year for 15 minutes, still. It’s amazing.”
Mark tells me his father’s name was at the top of the list he drew up early in his stock-take. That night he scribbled three pages from his father’s perspective, putting himself in the old man’s shoes. “I had huge amends to make to my Dad,” he says. “I’d mucked up, I’d dropped out of teacher’s college, I’d stolen money, I’d written off Dad’s car, I’d stayed in an apartment my parents owned, never once paying rent. I’d caused them incredible grief.”
Towards the end of Mark’s drinking his mother would visit him, sitting beside the bed where he’d passed out. She would stroke his head and whisper: “What is wrong with my son?” His sister has detailed this tableau for him; he can’t remember. “My parents are living amends,” he says of a relationship now flourishing. They were stoic when he first approached them. “Dad puts emotion aside. He was very matter-of-fact. He’s just glad that I’m not drinking, that I’m OK.”
Family, ground down and inured to perpetual lament, often nurse wounds of disappointment, frustration, anger, grief, disgust. A woman from regional NSW who wants to be identified as Stella tells me her adult son refused to hear her amends for three or four years after she’d become sober. Eventually they met. “It’s not just about saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’. It’s very important to be very specific,” she explains of her emotional absence during years of parenting under the influence. “Things like, ‘When I opened the door to your friends and passed out drunk. When I was not there for your Year 12 formal’.”
Stella’s husband eventually threw her out of their home to spare the children so she wound up sleeping rough in a park. He was her top amends. “I told him he’d had to make a terrible choice,” she says, describing the mutual forgiveness as uplifting for them both. “My children never wanted to see me again, it was too painful. Now we are so close.” The years lost to them are accounted for in the arithmetic of hard yards, and though there are memories — painful, unbearable ones — that will never be erased, clarity and optimism bring a warmth that despair denied them. Stella’s children, who are in their 20s, now seek out her advice. “They say I’ve ruined their drinking for them,” she chuckles wryly.
Former partners who get clear of an alcoholic often want to keep their distance, though. Fitzgerald, who clocks up 48 years of sobriety on Australia Day (the date of that last drink engraved forever as the date of rebirth), talks of the fear that alcoholics confront when addressing the wreckage caused by their addiction. “I’d done enough damage to some people, mainly women in my past, from relationships that had broken down over alcohol. They didn’t care whether I’d been sober for 75 years. They’d had enough dealings with Ross Fitzgerald to last a lifetime.”
A Scottish-born Australian known as Richard, a physician who tumbled spectacularly from surgery to a kerbside gutter, spoke of his recovery through AA in a book called Inspirational Sobriety. He recalled revisiting those he had hurt. “I sat down and made this list [with] a short entry against one or another… ‘I lied to this one’, ‘I shagged this one’s wife’, and so on. It slowly dawned on me that I’d done a hell of a lot of harm. I had about 200 names on the list.” He was terrified of approaching them, and many lived overseas, so he wrote letters. The overwhelming response by return mail cheered him onward. “Nearly everyone said, forget the money or whatever it is… the most important thing is your sobriety and our friendship. They mostly said, ‘Thank God’.” His ex-wife didn’t want to know, though. “I’d done horrible things to her, things that I regret to this day… the wounds were far too raw for her and she told me to eff off… but I kept at it.” It took 10 years of correspondence before she’d countenance his humility, allowing him a small space in her life.
The wealthy Melbourne friend who’d lent Richard an apartment that he’d trashed, requiring $3000 in repairs, insisted on reimbursement even if paid in instalments. “I thought, ‘You mean bastard’,” Richard joked, since he was skint, but after the score had evened his friend invited him to stay and their friendship resumed.
Not everyone can repay money stolen or borrowed but this has been important to Mark because he’d made property investments with his ill-gotten gains. He sought advice from AA mentors. “One of them said, ‘You’re insane’. Another said, ‘See a priest’. Another said to me, ‘You’re doing the right thing’.” This last man — who’d once sold property to pay off debts incurred as a result of his own drinking — became his sponsor.
Mark craved peace of mind. He feared public encounters with those whose trust he’d abused. “It was very difficult to come to you, for example,” he says when we meet again at my home for a formal interview. He’d remembered my street and drove past here three or four times before knocking on my door and then my neighbour’s, determined to find me. He’d toured the Melbourne suburbs where he’d worked years ago, shaking loose vague memories, trying to locate homes where he’d stung customers. “I had no record — I’d closed the company — but I had pretty good recall. I couldn’t go back to everybody because we did thousands of jobs and there would have been people I treated fairly and people I overcharged. I need to make certain that I got closure with it.” He narrowed his list to 30 households. Most accepted the cash. Several nominated a charity rather than pocket the money themselves. “I got a letter back from one of the hospitals I donated money to, saying ‘Thanks’. It wasn’t about looking for accolades or pats on the back, it was about feeling content and moving on.”
Some were “gobsmacked” but nobody slammed the door in his face, proof that most people are good at heart. Mark sold his house and his flat. “It’s all gone. But I’m OK.” After making amends there is still a pool of money left from the sale of his assets and this remains a source of disquiet as he approaches the future. He’s given money to his sister and her family, big-hearted pillars of his world who’ve taken him into their home while he sorts himself out, looking for work, managing the transition, attending daily meetings of AA, helping others stay sober. “It’s an emotional time, an arduous process; quite often the waterworks come on. It’s a period of maturation and development. When my head hits the pillow at night it needs to be quiet, otherwise I’m going to drink.”
Stella describes AA as a way of life. “That’s really what it comes down to. You can either be of service in the world, doing good, showing gratitude, or you can take the road of self-centredness and self-destruction. I don’t know how it all works but I was someone who could not stop drinking. I was homeless. I had nothing left. Nobody thought I was going to make it. I remember lying on the floor, calling on my higher power for help and thinking I would do whatever it takes [to recover]. Eleven years later, I’m still sober.”
I’m moved by these empowering tales of mind-altering shifts and personal growth. When I ask Mark whether there is a message here for us all he thinks carefully before answering. “Unselfishness is the one word I would choose. We live in a world that is pathologically selfish. I don’t judge that. I accept it, but what AA does is promote honesty, helping other people, gratitude.”
He rises from the kitchen table standing a little taller, more comfortable in his skin. On my porch we chat about the neighbourhood — his parents’ flat, where he lived for a while, is close by. I give him a hug to wish him well. Life is precarious and he’s earnt my blessing.
Afterwards I mulled over what to do with the money secreted in a drawer, inspired by the idea of passing on this unexpected windfall to ease another’s lot. Though there are charities I regularly support, and too many homeless people bent grimly behind cardboard signs throughout the city where I work, I thought of a Melbourne father, Terry Tuckwell, who became a sole parent to two young children before their mother’s drug addiction led to her brutal murder last year. They live in a tiny Housing Commission flat where Terry nurtures them as best he can. Their mother didn’t find Narcotics Anonymous. She couldn’t muster the strength of surrender to a higher power, hostage always to the daily grind of scoring whatever she could hustle to dull her pain, unable to make her amends. Mark is someone who might have died from his cravings had he not embarked on the path of a second chance. This is his gift to them.
“It’s like winning Lotto,” Terry cheers when I ring to tell him. “I’m on my bare bones coming into Christmas. I was in a real panic. That’s beautiful. It’s made my year.” I almost hear Mark’s beaming smile when he receives this news, each of us touched by the grace of goodwill in a season meant for it.
The Weekend Australian MagazineDecember 8-9, 2018, pp 22-25.
Making Good (Kate Legge, The Weekend Australian Magazine, December 8-9, 2018, pp 22-25) very helpfully provides further insight into Alcoholics Anonymous which has come a long way since the 1930’s when AA’s co-founders met through the evangelical-Christian Oxford Group.
Like Ross Fitzgerald, (‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’. University of New South Wales Press, 2010) she has breached the cone of silence to show the reality of AA in Australia today: a fellowship that welcomes atheists and agnostics to share the group support for stopping drinking and staying stopped.
As Ross Fitzgerald notes, learning to see “the world in a much less narcissistic light”, rather than finding a Judeo-Christian God, underpins the long-term sobriety that AA has helped atheists and agnostics to achieve.
Dr Peter Smith
Lake Illawarra, NSW