MY LAST DRINK : 32 stories of recovering alcoholics
MY LAST DRINK: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics
Speech by Ross Fitzgerald
The Sydney Institute, October 31, 2022.
Thank you, Gerard. It’s very good to be here. Indeed, as my Uncle George used to say, at my age it’s very good to be anywhere.
On his deathbed I said to Uncle George, “You know you were my favourite relative.” To which he responded, “There wasn’t much competition!”
And thanks Gerard for your sage advice concerning this book, My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics.
It was you Gerard who convinced my Tasmanian-based co-editor, Neal Price, and me to title our anthology My Last Drink, instead of Last Drinks as we were planning.
It is obvious to us now that My Last Drink has a much more personalised and intimate tone and timbre.
But friends, much to my chagrin, I recently discovered that there is another remarkable book also titled My Last Drink. Written by Joseph H. Francis, and first published in 1915, it is modestly subtitled The greatest human story ever written.
This My Last Drink is the autobiography of a Chicago alderperson who plummeted from power and wealth to poverty and prison. He then became a leading light of the American temperance movement. Believe it or not, Alderman Francis’s memoir is still in print.
And that presents a problem. How do we humble Australian authors and editors compete with the greatest human story ever written? Well, Neal Price and I have certainly tried our best!
Many in this audience may recall, when, decades ago, hotels in Australia closed at 6pm, and the public bar was only open to men, creating the notorious six o’clock swill, the pub manager or owner would always call: “Time Gentlemen please. Last Drinks. Hurry along now.”
The notion of Last Drinks has entered deeply into the Australian lexicon, but there is another kind of Last Drink, the last one that an alcoholic takes before she or he gets sober.
My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics released this month by Connor Court and also available from Amazon & Booktopia, is a collection of inspiring and hitherto unpublished stories, original for this book, that canvass and explain how thirty-two recovering alcoholics managed to stop drinking, and to stay stopped.
It was Neal Price who conceived the idea for an anthology of sober alcoholics recounting how they achieved and maintain sobriety.
Contributors to My Last Drink are alcoholics of all ages, of different sexualities and genders, and of Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds. This collection of revealing stories includes long and short-term sober alcoholics from many professions across Australia. All contributors – fourteen women and eighteen men – tell a deeply personal tale of the last 24 hours of their alcoholic drinking.
In our book, the word ‘sober’ means free of alcohol and other drugs. In my case, these days, as a long-time sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have nothing in my blood but blood.
Since its inception in America in 1935 (the first AA meetings occurred in Australia in 1945), members used only first names to identify themselves.
As Neal Price points out, this was a protective strategy. Given the social stigma of being an alcoholic or addict at the time, anonymity was seen as a necessary way to protect a person’s privacy. The use of nicknames developed to identify long-term members based on character traits and has helped to form a unique fellowship. In Australia, the names Antique Harry, Circus Lil, Adequate from Arncliffe, Bow-tie Frank, Breathless Beryl, Broken Hill Jack and his brother Raucous Dick, who had no sense of volume, were and are well-known members of the AA fellowship.
In My Last Drink some contributors are identified by their full names, including Norma Christian, Dick Love, Di Young and Tim Olsen. A number of authors are identified by their first name, plus the initial of their surname e.g.,our friend Kaz K, and Shane F and Val C from the North Sydney AA group who are with us here tonight. Others simply adopt their first name or nickname e.g., Kym, Davo and Ukrainian George.
Contributors to this unique collection include builders, novelists, journalists, artists, lawyers, musicians, therapists, nurses, bus drivers, accountants, police officers, web designers, and army personnel.
As Neal and I write in the Introduction to My Last Drink, which I have used in this talk, “it is important to understand that there are no rules in Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, the only requirement for membership is ‘a desire to stop drinking’, no matter how slim is that desire. Even AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are in no way mandatory; they are only suggestions. This includes the tradition of anonymity. In Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism is treated as a health problem, not a moral problem. Hence alcoholics are not regarded as bad people who need to get good, but sick people who can recover, if we don’t pick up that first drink of alcohol, one day at a time.”
“Alcoholism”,we argue, “is a disease of denial and resistance.” A psychiatrist once asked me to visit an alcoholic patient at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane. When drunk, he’d tried to kill himself with a shotgun. He had blown one arm off and part of his abdomen. In the hope that he might identify, I told him part of my drinking story. Within minutes the patient put up his remaining hand and said, “If ever I get as bad as you Ross, I’ll give it up.”
When I was in north Queensland, filming a TV documentary for the ABC about ex- Queensland Labor premier and federal treasurer, “Red Ted” Theodore, the film crew and I arrived at a local pub in a small country town. The licensee’s wife told me that she had locked the publican in the toilet to prevent him from drinking. In his delirium he had attempted to eat the astro-turf in the toilet. But when I suggested that he go to an AA meeting, his wife said “Oh, he’s not that bad!”
In Alcoholics Anonymous there is room for everyone, no matter how far down the scale of life they have gone. Members include firm and tepid believers in a higher power, as well as agnostics and atheists, of whom in the fellowship there are many, including myself and Neal Price.
As we explain in the Introduction, “The AA program is in the broadest sense a spiritual program, but not a religious one. In our experience, over the long-term most alcoholics cannot stop drinking and stay stopped through an exercise of the individual will. That is why a number of sober alcoholics regard the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous which we attend as being something greater than their isolated self.
As the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung wrote to the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, the most helpful motto for an alcoholic is ‘spiritus contra spiritum’ i.e. spirit against spirit, power against power. Jung thought that, to get and stay sober, an alcoholic needs to find something more powerful than alcohol. For many of us, that power is to be found in AA itself.”
There are no dues or fees for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. Moreover, no-one can be expelled from AA, which has no bosses. Indeed, in our opinion, Alcoholics Anonymous is a prime example of (peaceful) anarchism in action.
The contributing editors of My Last Drink are both sober alcoholics. I have been sober for 52 years; Neal Price for 39. We both still regularly attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. The truth is that AA helps tens of thousands of alcoholics recover from a seemingly hopeless condition. This is demonstrated by Professor George E. Vaillant’s path-breaking book, The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited, published by Harvard University Press.
A leading American psychiatrist, Professor Vaillant’s large-scale, longitudinal study demonstrates that, even though it is difficult for alcoholics to stop drinking and stay stopped, AA is by far the most effective agency in helping alcoholics to recover. So as Neal Price and I often say to newcomers, and to their families, “Why not avail yourself of the best?”
As thousands of Australians are either sober alcoholics themselves or are relatives and friends of alcoholics who are sober or trying to get sober, Neal and I hope that avid readers, and especially those interested in alcoholism and addiction, will find My Last Drink to be intellectually helpful and practically useful.
At the very least, we hope that this illuminating anthology might encourage people, whose drinking is getting out of control, to attend some meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, most of which are open to everyone, and available throughout Australia.
Our advice to a prospective newcomer is two-fold. Ask yourself a simple question: “Is alcohol costing you more than money?” and if the answer is yes, go to one or two AA meetings and try to listen for the similarities, not the differences. There is unambiguous proof that AA works. For anyone with a problem with the booze, joining this remarkable fellowship could be a life-changing decision.
As Neal Price and I have been sober buddies for almost 40 years, it has been an enjoyable and exhilarating experience working together on this fascinating project.
As it happens, my last drink of alcohol was at the same place as where, when I was barely fourteen, I had my first one.
In fact, I’ve only been properly sober since I’ve been free of alcohol and all other drugs as well. That occurred here in Sydney on Australia Day, 26 January 1970.
But that’s another story… which, along with 31 other revealing tales, is in the book, My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics.
Finally, friends, here’s a trick. As AA can teach us, if you don’t pick up the first drink, you can’t get drunk.
How about that? If you don’t pick up the first drink, you can’t get drunk!
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are a memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co- authored Grafton Everest political satires, The Dizzying Heights and The Lowest Depths published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
Neal Price is an artist and writer who now lives in Hobart, Tasmania. He has long been engaged in the Community Cultural Development sector, with a focus on disability, mental health, ageing and oral histories.
Ross Fitzgerald and Neal Price (eds)
My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics, Connor Court : Brisbane, $29.95.
My Last Drink is also available at Amazon and Booktopia.