Alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous
by Professor Ross Fitzgerald AM
Speech to The Sydney Institute, 47 Phillip Street, Sydney, Monday March 23, 2020.
I am very pleased that one of my closest friends in Sydney, Gerard Henderson, is launching my memoir today.
When writing this speech, by mistake I had originally typed … one of my closet friends, Gerard Henderson.
Well I thought that was funny!
After all I do write satirical novels. But often what I think is funny, other people don’t.
Anyway, despite of everything in these trying times, Gerard Henderson is indeed launching my memoir here at The Sydney Institute, and I’m very grateful.
To put it mildly, Gerard and I go back a very long way – through decades of thick and thin, and everything in between.
For the launch of my 42nd book FIFTY YEARS SOBER: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY to be held just a week after St Patrick’s Day is also entirely and utterly appropriate.
Like many of us I have Anglo-Irish heritage, and alcoholism may well have been in my genes. Like many who share that Celtic background I abused alcohol. In my case that began when I was 14 and lasted until I was 25. Since then I have managed to stay sober for half a century, with the aid of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is also the case that, even though fewer than usual celebrated this year, a number of my non-AA Celtic compatriots, as per usual, were as drunk as skunks on St Patrick’s Day itself!
Since I stopped drinking and drugging on Australian Day 1970, Alcoholics Anonymous has continued to teach me that for an alcoholic one drink is too many and a hundred is not enough. Indeed the trick for an alcoholic like me is not to pick up the first drink, and to keep attending AA meetings.
As AA stalwarts Broken Hill Jack and Raucous Dick used to say: “It’s not the third drink or the fifth drink or the tenth drink that does the damage. It’s the first drink, it’s the first drink, it’s the first drink!”
Raucous Dick got his nickname because he had no sense of volume. At a Brisbane AA meeting at Kangaroo Point one Tuesday night, a lady from the next door church hall said, “Excuse me, but someone’s making our cups rattle.”
AA has some great characters and Broken Hill Jack, who hailed from Broken Hill, was one of them. At AA meetings, Jack often used to say, “Think of the long-distance runner, friends. He gave up, yet just around the corner was the winning post. The message is simple, friends. Persist and persevere.”
As it happens, Broken Hill Jack and Raucous Dick were brothers and both were very influential in the AA movement in Australia.
Years ago, a recently sober young AA member, Steve, who loathed Raucous Dick, went into a bar and ordered a beer. But just before he started drinking that beer, Dick’s words came booming through his ears: “It’s the first drink, it’s the first drink, it’s the first drink!” Steve put down the glass and has never drank again. In truth, Raucous Dick saved his life.
When I joined Alcoholics Anonymous I wasn’t at the end of the road; I was at the end of the end of the road! The stark reality is that if I hadn’t stopped drinking and drugging at 25 years of age, I wouldn’t have made 26.
Yet had I not started drinking at 14, I may well have suicided by the age of 18. This is because, as a child, I felt like a garbage-tip, and alcohol enabled me to hold down those dreadful feelings, but only for a while. Then the progressive nature of the illness of alcoholism began to thoroughly take hold. This was until, through the agency of Alcoholics Anonymous and particularly through attending AA meetings I was released from the need to drink and use other drugs 50 years ago. Hence this books’ title FIFTY YEARS SOBER: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY.
The role of Alcoholics Anonymous in combatting alcoholism and other forms of drug addiction deserves to be celebrated.
However of the millions of lives saved and transformed by this extraordinary movement, just as many have failed to grasp its simple message and the result has been personal hell, family breakdown, and often, an untimely death. Such is the destructive power of alcohol, society’s most pernicious and damaging drug.
Alcoholics Anonymous had its fragile beginning in the American city of Akron, Ohio, On May 12, 1935 when a recently sober New York stockbroker, Bill Wilson, fearful that, being alone on a business trip, he might return to drinking, hit on the idea of communicating with another alcoholic. After making inquiries, Bill Wilson was directed to a seemingly hopeless alcoholic physician, Bob Smith. As a result of listening to Bill tell the story of his alcoholism, Dr Bob had his last drink on June 10, 1935, which is the date on which AA is regarded as having been founded.
Ten years later, in March 1945, AA began in Australia, where it was much-needed.
From its beginnings, the AA program emphasised that alcoholism was not a moral problem but a health problem, one that could be arrested, a day at a time, by complete abstinence from alcohol. To achieve sobriety in the long-term often requires some kind of psychic change whereby an alcoholic person not only stops drinking but also sees the world in a much less narcissistic light.
Many members regard their involvement in AA as a way of life. A key aspect of AA’s therapeutic process involves what can be termed the mechanism of surrender. Instead of telling alcoholics to use their willpower, control their drinking or pull up their socks, AA suggests that a much more efficacious strategy is to admit that, at least in relation to alcohol, they are beaten.
This acceptance of defeat often produces, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, a shift in attitude that unlocks new and positive feelings, especially hope and a sense of usefulness.
Surrender in AA involves the letting go of control. Thus at AA meetings one often hears a speaker say: “I’m not a retired alcoholic, I am a defeated one. I’ve thrown in the towel.” To let go in surrender is totally different from fighting alcohol (or life). It is a giving up of the battle in order to move on. Despair and hopelessness, not personal strength, is at its source.
In an important article, “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism”, which appeared in his intriguing book of essays Steps to an Ecology of Mind, British anthropologist Gregory Bateson points out that the experience of defeat “not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary: it is the first step in that change”. To be defeated by the bottle, and to know it, is the means by which the “myth of self-power is broken by the demonstration of a greater power (that is, the power of alcohol)”.
In contrast, for an alcoholic to attempt to use their individual willpower and say, “I will beat the bottle” is nonsense because the ‘I’ making this statement is an alcoholic ‘I’. As Bateson usefully explains, alcoholics who attempt to use self-control to fight alcohol addiction “will not, or cannot, accept the premise that drunk or sober, the total personality of an alcoholic is an alcoholic personality which cannot conceivably fight alcoholism”.
Let me put this another way. For an alcoholic to say, “I can beat the booze” is nonsense, because the person saying this is an alcoholic person.
Few people realise that the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was intimately involved in the beginnings of AA. As Jung explained in a letter to Bill Wilson, “alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison”. Jung maintained that, for an alcoholic person, the most helpful formula was ‘spiritus contra spiritum’: spirit against spirit, power against power.
It was Jung’s deeply held belief that, for an alcoholic, the primary sources of long-term recovery were to be found in something like a “conversion experience”. This should not be confused with a religious conversion. In AA it is a conversion to accepting at depth that, in dealing with alcoholism, it is not sufficient to rely on the isolated self.
This fundamental psychic change needs constantly to be reinforced or the alcoholic will most likely revert to old ways of thinking, feeling and responding, and hence will eventually drink again.
There is a tendency for some alcoholics who have stopped drinking for a time, to come to believe that they can be totally self-reliant and that they can somehow control their drinking. Alcoholic pride can suggest that the individual is not really beaten. Instead of encouraging notions of supposed self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-control, AA restructures the whole context and asserts over and over again that, with regard to alcoholism, the person is defeated.
The AA proposition “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic” reinforces a fundamental fact. Thus, in AA, members never use the past tense about their alcoholism. No matter how long an alcoholic has been sober, we begin sharing at a meeting by saying: “My name is — and I am an alcoholic.” Thus when I speak at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I always begin by saying “My name is Ross and I am an alcoholic.”
AA’s only theological conception is that of a power greater than the self. This is sometimes conceived as God, as one understands that concept, or one doesn’t. Just as the traditional stereotype of what comprises an alcoholic often blinds sufferers to the reality of their condition, so too can the traditional stereotype associated with God lead to confusion and resistance.
But once the theistic, Christian (or any other) stereotype is done away with, it becomes clear that the notion of a power greater than oneself makes room for all alcoholic people, including agnostics, and for atheists like myself. This is the case as long as we are willing to accept and rely on something outside or other than the isolated self, even if it is only the AA group, or groups, which we attend.
At some time during almost every AA meeting in the world, the newcomer will hear the following phrase:
“ You may leave this meeting today and need never drink again.” Often this is something that alcoholics have never considered before.
While a relatively small percentage of alcoholics stop drinking and drugging from their first exposure to the AA movement, a significant number of attendees at AA eventually learn to stop drinking and using, and to stay stopped.
All the elements that comprise Alcoholics Anonymous (attendance at meetings, the notion of alcoholism as an irreversible condition, working with other alcoholics, and the Twelve Suggested Steps of recovery) are part of a continuing process of surrender that offers the alcoholic not only freedom from the obsession to drink but also a sense of meaning and a useful way of life. Maintenance of the state of self-surrender underpins personal recovery and is a continuing source of hope.
As most AA meetings in Australia are open to the general public, anyone interested in alcoholism and addiction would be most welcome to attend.
One thing about AA meetings is that we always hear entertaining and edifying stories.
Here is one of my favourites.
There was a long-time member called Edgy Bill, who gained his nickname because he belonged to the Edgecliffe AA group and he was also very nervous. Bill was a trade union official whose first major speech in sobriety involved introducing Bob Hawke when he was head of the ACTU. It was at a huge meeting at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Edgy Bill stood up and said, by force of habit – “My name’s Bill and I’m an alcoholic.” A wag in the crowd called out, “Then why don’t you sit down, you old pisspot!”
Actually, what happened to Edgy Bill almost happened to me. In 1977 I had been appointed Channel 7’s political commentator in Queensland. My first task was to speak on the 6 o’clock Brisbane news, direct to air, about Malcolm Fraser appointing Sir Zelman Cowen as Governor-General to replace the controversial Sir John Kerr.
After saying, “My name is Ross”, I caught myself just in time and continued, “and I think that the appointment of Sir Zelman Cowen as Governor-General is an excellent and much-needed healing decision.”
In 1978 at a party in the Brisbane suburb of Kenmore, where my wife Lyndal and I lived at the time and at which the G-G was present, I spoke about how much I loved Aussie Rules and in particular my father’s club, Collingwood. A pompous harridan put her nose in the air and said, “I think football’s so boring, don’t you Sir Zelman?” Our second Jewish Governor-General after Sir Isaac Isaacs replied: “In fact, I’ve just been appointed the Number One ticket-holder of the St Kilda Football Club!”
In the 1980s Sir Zelman confided to me that one of his most precious possessions was a Sherrin football signed by then St Kilda full-forward, Tony “Plugger” Lockett.
Now here’s a piece of relatively arcane information: Lockett is the VFL/AFL’s highest goal scorer, kicking 1,360 goals in 281 matches with St Kilda and the Sydney Swans. You can file that way for later use.
If you will indulge me I have another story concerning Raucous Dick and my darling wife Lyndal, who was over 45 years sober when she died in January this year and to whom FIFTY YEARS SOBER is dedicated.
Indeed, Lyndal hadn’t had a drink since the very day our mutual friend, Barry Humphries, introduced us. Appropriately enough, given the sometimes explosive nature of our relationship, this was on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5 1974. As it happens, Lyndal and I became lovers exactly a year later – on November 5 1975, and were married on Guy Fawkes Day, 1976.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Broken Hill Jack rang me and said, “Could you do me favour, Ross? My brother Dicky’s finding life difficult in Brisbane. Next time you see him, could you please be nice to him.”
In those days I wasn’t all that fond of Raucous Dick myself. The next time I saw him was at the Friday night AA meeting at the Uniting Church Hall in Kenmore, a meeting which Lyndal had founded. Originally, Lyndal had tried the local Catholic Church, but the priest had said: “There are no alcoholics in Kenmore, Mrs Fitzgerald” (which was a moniker she disliked mightily). As it happens, the priest turned out to be an alcoholic himself!
Anyway, that Friday night Raucous Dick was wearing a white suit and looked rather like a Raymond Chandler detective. Thinking of something positive to say, I remarked, “That’s a very attractive suit you’re wearing Dick.” To which he responded, “I never mind a bit of bullshit, son. As long as there’s an element of truth associated with it”.
I liked him ever since.
When I was two years sober and still living in Sydney, I got offered a job at Makere University in Uganda. This was before Idi Amin got moving.
As was my wont, I rang Broken Hill Jack. After listening for a moment, he said, “Are there many meetings in Uganda, laddie?”
““I tell you what”, he continued, “they live their lives a day at a time in Uganda. Do not be so silly, laddie. Stay where you are for the next two years.”
Remarkably, I did what the man told me.
In conclusion, let me share with you that Lyndal’s original Sydney AA nickname was Adequate from Arncliffe. This was because at the weekly Tuesday night Arncliffe AA meeting that we both attended, Lyndal regularly talked about her striving, in her work, for adequacy, not for perfection.
It was only after listening to Adequate from Arncliffe and taking heed of James Thurber’s motto, ‘Don’t Get It Right. Get It Written’, that I actually started writing.
When I was drinking I thought that I was a writer, but in those days I didn’t write a note to the milkman. Also, in my pre-AA days, as a perfectionist my rule was ‘If at first you don’t succeed, stop!’
It was only after I was three years sober that I published my first book, a slim volume of poems called THE EYES OF ANGELS, which got its name from the saying of the American poet, William Carlos Williams, ‘Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels.’
With the release of this memoir, I’ve now published 42 books. They may not be WAR AND PEACE, but they exist and are available in print, on-line, and in all good libraries.
And this is all because of me paying attention to the wise words of James Thurber, and especially of Adequate from Arncliffe, who would be so proud of me today.
I’m immensely pleased to be here for the launch of FIFTY YEARS SOBER: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY, which is published by Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne, as are my last three Grafton Everest political/sexual satires, most recently THE DIZZYING HEIGHTS – co-authored with Ian McFadyen of ‘Comedy Company’ fame.
In these trying times of social distancing, if you want something interesting and informative to read, FIFTY YEARS SOBER is now available for purchase online from Hybrid Publishers and from the book’s distributor, New Holland. It is also available as an e-book.
I’m very grateful to you Gerard, & to Anne, & to everyone at The Sydney Institute.
As Dame Edna Everage once said: “Thanks for having me … and I mean that in the metaphorical sense!”
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith and author of 42 books, including two memoirs and seven Grafton Everest adventures.