A Toast to My Last Drink
A tragic yet sometimes darkly comic story of a lifelong alcoholic and addict, and the people who loved him enough to help save his life.
By ROSS FITZGERALD
My last drink of alcohol was at the same place as where, when I was barely fourteen, I had my first one. This was at Her Majesty’s Hotel in South Yarra. Commonly called Maisies, it was very close to Melbourne Boys High School at which, in 1958, I’d just began Third Form.
My first alcoholic drink was about eleven in the morning, after I’d had a medical appointment (in those days I went to the doctors a lot). Because it seemed romantic and exotic, I asked for a Brandy, Lime, and Soda. In response, the bar person, who was a drag queen, said, “Yes my dear. But could you take your school cap off first?”
I first came across Alcoholics Anonymous in 1969 when I was in Cleveland, Ohio. This was after I had been hospitalised six times there, in the one mental institution – always for alcoholism and drug addiction. In my case, because I was and am needle-phobic, I never shot up. Unlike most of my friends who died of HIV and various forms of hepatitis, this almost certainly saved my life. But as well as drinking huge quantities of alcohol at any time of the day and night, I was then also consuming up to twenty barbiturates a day. Mixing so many tablets with so much alcohol resulted in speeding me up, not calming me down. Each time I was admitted to the mental hospital, I was administered a lot of electroconvulsive therapy, which I note is making a comeback.
Yet, despite getting myself and those close to me into terrible trouble, it had never occurred to me, until the very day that I was introduced to AA, to do anything about my drinking. This was until, after all the women in my life had given up on me, I finished up living in ‘Little Italy’ in Cleveland with an old railway worker named Bill, who was a bender drinker. What little food we ate, he cooked. One day after we’d cleaned our teeth, and vomited simultaneously, I said without a touch of irony: “We’ve got to stop cleaning our teeth mate, because every time we do, we get crook.”
I’d had auditory hallucinations and heard voices since I was sixteen or seventeen, but this was the first time that I saw the animals. Bill was away on a drinking jag and, that night, the ceiling of my room came down, the walls moved in on me, and a pack of salivating Alsatian dogs were trying to devour me.
I’m a living example that you can be drunk and terrified.
And for the first time in my young life -I was still only 24 – a thought entered my brain: “Roscoe, it mightn’t be a bad idea to do something about your drinking, for a while.” So instead of hitting myself with some rotgut wine and a handful of pills, I swallowed some barbiturates and stumbled down to the bar that I was allowed to drink in each morning before it officially opened. Feeling very sorry for myself, I used to sit on my own and weep drunkenly, while on the jukebox I’d listen to songs like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘I’m a Nowhere Man.’ It was a noon to midnight bar, located in the main road, Euclid Avenue, where the famous football team, the Cleveland Browns drank. The barman, Jimmy Jukinalis, who regularly came to see me in the mental hospital, had literally saved my life in New York a few months before.
So, I staggered down to the bar and said, “Jimmy, I’ve decided to do something about my drinking!” Jimmy meant it when he said, “Fantastic news, Ross.” A half an hour later I was back saying, “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.” That’s how long I lasted, when I tried to stop drinking on my own – 30 minutes.
But instead of pouring me a drink, Jimmy handed me a phone number and said, “Get your arse out of here and ring this number.” It turned out to be the number of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland.
In fact, I’ve only been properly sober since I’ve been free of alcohol and all other drugs as well. Shortly after I went to an AA meeting in Cleveland, I got sent home to Australia. If you’re a non-resident in the state of Ohio and you make more than two notifiable suicide attempts, the authorities get very sick of paying the hospital bills. And they work out that it’s much cheaper to pay your fare back to wherever you come from, Finland or in my case Melbourne.
The day before I left Cleveland in September 1969, I had rung The Australian newspaper, collect, to tell them this famous poet was coming home. The reality was I’d hardly written a note to the milkman, but as it eventuated on a Monday morning there was a big article, plus a photo, written about me, this sensitive poet with his hands trembling.
That afternoon, wearing an orange suit, a purple jerkin, and an Isadora Duncan scarf and armed with copies of The Australian, I went back to Her Majesty’s Hotel to see some of my old teachers – to show them what a success I’d made of my life!
In those days, there was a secluded section of Maisies where a number of Melbourne High teachers regularly drank after work. But before they arrived, I got back on the booze. After I king-hit one of the masters I cared about and respected, I ran out of the bar and headed to the Elwood home of a close friend of mine, Ken Gooding.
I had been to an AA meeting in Melbourne the night before and someone had given me a phone number. So Ken, who is my oldest friend, intervened and rang that number. It turned out that he’d called a sober member called Mick from Sandringham, who’d had a resentment against my father for years. This was because, in his first game playing for Carlton, my Dad was at the end of his career captaining Collingwood Seconds and in the first couple of minutes my Dad whacked him in the head and said, “You’re with the big boys now.”
Mick took me to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that night, in St Kilda. And there I met my Melbourne sponsor, Lee Parry who did something extraordinary; in all of our time together, he never criticised me once.
When we first met, Lee didn’t know me from a bag of wheat. But he knew that my only chance of getting sober and staying on the planet was being taken to a whole lot of AA meetings. He took me and a German bloke every night for three months. The German bloke killed himself; he blew his head off with a double barrel shotgun.
After I tried to kill myself again by overdosing on tablets, I was admitted to an alcoholic and drug addiction hospital called Delmont. My friend Barry and I drank together and got sober together. Delmont was the last mental hospital either of us has been in as a patient. The night before we were due to be discharged, we got taken into a large AA meeting at the Malvern Town Hall. After the meeting I came up to a long-time member ‘Antique Harry’ in tears and said, “Do you ever think I’ll get this thing, Harry?”
Instead of saying “No hope unless you get off the tablets,” which is true but not very useful, Harry looked at me and said, with great gentleness; “Son, if you stay close to this movement, you will be alright.” The fact is that I’ve got a large Adam’s apple. Those words connected with my heart. But even then, I knew that Antique Harry couldn’t have had faith in me. How could he? I was so damaged. Not just by all the alcohol and all the drugs I had consumed, but because I’d had loads and loads of shock therapy (ECT), in my case without anaesthesia.
I eventually came to realise that what Antique Harry had faith in was my regular attendance at AA meetings that start on time and finish on time, and, within that structure, sober alcoholics talk about what they used to be like, what happened and what they are like now. This has done for me what all the money in a big city couldn’t buy. AA has enabled me to not pick up the first drink of alcohol, one day at a time, and to lead a productive life.
I didn’t get properly sober until I moved up to Sydney. It was Australia Day (January 26) 1970 that I threw away all the tablets I was taking. And since then, I’ve had nothing in my blood but blood. But if I hadn’t stopped using as well as drinking at the age of twenty-five, I wouldn’t have made twenty-six.
The truth is that I attended AA meetings in Sydney every night for the first four years. Given my damaged mental state and parlous physical condition I didn’t go to one too many. As the book Alcoholics Anonymous states, “A body that has been badly battered and a mind that has been badly burnt does not heal overnight.” In my case, that was an understatement. Indeed, it took me three to five years in AA to get anywhere near emotionally and mentally together.
When I was a few decades sober in Brisbane, a colleague at Griffith University, where I was Professor of History and Politics, put his nose in the air and said; “AA’s just brainwashing.” To which I replied, “It certainly is, and I’ve got the sort of brain that needs to be washed regularly.”
The woman who’d lasted the longest with me in Cleveland was Rosemary. Towards the end of our relationship she fled to Akron, Ohio, where in 1935 Alcoholics Anonymous had begun. I wrote Rosie a pathetic suicide-note saying, “If anything should happen to me, please don’t feel it’s all your fault.” Again, as someone who writes comedy, I now regard this as a very funny line, but the sad thing is that I meant it.
I’d met Rosemary in the week that I arrived in Cleveland. Our first date was a dinner, for which she paid. At the end of the swanky restaurant was a fortune-teller. And for the same reason that I’d (unsuccessfully) tried to join the Communist Party of Australia when I was sixteen and later went to India to study Zen and Hinduism, to try to find some meaning in my life, after our meal I consulted the fortune teller. Although I wasn’t fall-down drunk, I’d been drinking quite a lot.
She first asked, “When were you born?” After I answered, “Christmas Day 1944”, the fortune-teller said, “You must be a Capricorn” and I couldn’t work out how she knew that. But then she told me things about myself that I thought no-one ever knew, including the fact that I felt like a garbage tip as a child, and that I had a mother who would lie when telling the truth would do. I listened to her intently, as these days I do to speakers at AA meetings. Then she said, “Ross, you are an alcoholic, and you will have to go to Alcoholics Anonymous.” (This was almost two years before I first went to AA).
I was flabbergasted. When I asked, “How do you know I’m an alcoholic?” she said, “I can smell them a mile away.” But when I asked, “How do you know I’ll have to go to AA?” she looked at me straight between my eyes and said, “Because you will have nowhere else to go!”
I don’t believe in fortune-telling, but it seems to me that this woman was almost certainly a member of AA or of Al-Anon (a fellowship which helps the relatives and friends of alcoholics) earning her living as a fortune-teller. Whatever the case, what she said to me is true. If I take my bat and ball and go home (which is what I once did as a narcissistic child), it’s all over, red rover. In fact, AA is the only mob in which I’ve stayed where I haven’t got my own way.
Even though I was fifty-two years sober on Australia Day (January 26), I still attend AA meetings two or three times a week. This is because if I stopped attending AA and doing what I need to do about the Twelve suggested Steps of recovery, the chances are highly likely that, sooner or later, I would drink again.
It is primarily at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and especially at my Saturday 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm home group at South Sydney, where I am known as ‘Redfern Ross’, that I feel some sense of peace and serenity, and of usefulness. As I often say, “You don’t have to like me, but I’m a remarkable example of how AA can transform a person, who was so damaged by booze and other drugs, into a functioning human being and a well-regarded historian, novelist and political commentator.”
My beloved wife of 43 years, Lyndal Moor Fitzgerald, to whom my memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey is dedicated, was 45 years sober when she died in January 2020.
Lyndal stopped drinking the first night we met at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital AA meeting on Guy Fawkes Day (5 November) 1974. My first words to her were “If you only knew what could happen to you, if you stay close to AA.” At the time, Lyndal would have fallen over backwards at the thought that we would become lovers a year later on Guy Fawkes Day (5 November) 1975, and that we would be married another year later, on Guy Fawkes Day (5 November) 1976.
While I’m also called ‘Eight O’Clock Ross’ (because I’m strong on meetings starting and finishing on time), Lyndal’s AA nickname was ‘Adequate from Arncliffe’. This was because, at her home group at Arncliffe which we attended together, she regularly talked about striving, in her work, for adequacy, not for perfection.
As a perfectionist, my rule pre-AA was “If at first you don’t succeed, stop.” But it was as a result of listening to Lyndal’s wise words, coupled with paying attention to James Thurber’s motto, “Don’t get it right, get it written” that I started writing.
It was only after I met ‘Adequate from Arncliffe’ that I published my first book, a slim volume of poems, The Eyes of Angels, which was prefaced by this quotation: “Poets are damned, but we are not blind, for we see with the eyes of angels.” I’ve now authored or co- authored 43 books. This is in large part due to Lyndal’s sage advice, and to her encouragement.
Shortly before she died on 22 January 2020, Lyndal said, “Do you know, Rossi, that in our 45 years together, you have never criticised me once.”
I regard this as a great tribute to the AA movement.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. With Neal Price he has edited
My Last Drink: 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics (Connor Court: Brisbane, $29.95).
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The Australian, Life & Times, Monday October 3, 2022, p 12 .