Up from Despair
My Last Drink, 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics
Edited by Ross Fitzgerald and Neal Price
Connor Court, 2022, 189 pages, $29.95
Reviewed by Matthew White
One does tire of celebrity reprobates. A fast way to attract attention and build a ‘profile’ in our lazy society is to write about one’s appalling behaviour towards others. Its acceptability enables a form of confession and avoidance, and, if properly promoted and garnished with a veneer of bohemianism, it is more like confession and appointment to the firmament of New Ideaidolatry. Attention, advertisement, writers’ festivals, prizes, perhaps even honours, await. The best way of avoiding the consequences of victimising others is to become a victim yourself. The people on the receiving end are much less likely to have been forgiving than the publishers.
This is not such an infertile book, it is a book of hope and even, at times, joy.
Ross Fitzgerald (“Redfern Ross” in Alcoholics Anonymous) and Neal Price, themselves recovering alcoholics (for one never ceases to be an alcoholic this book teaches, you just become a sober alcoholic) have wrangled 32 members of AA to explore the circumstances of their last drink, and the years of drinking that led to it. Sometimes that last drink was the immediate cause of events that brought the drinker to a nadir that provoked sufficient desperation for reform, such as with Kym:
I was so sick that I think I had alcohol poisoning. I couldn’t drink because I was violently ill and so I spent the next two days in bed. I was vomiting and shaking and crying uncontrollably for hours. I felt like I had this spiritual break. I actually reached this point of despair that I’d never had before.
For Dick Love it was attempting to strangle his wife. Sometimes the last drink was followed by some epiphany of stark reality, as for Jake W, whose vanity could not take seeing his desiccated and ageing visage in the mirror one morning. Norma Christian had her last drink to calm her shaking hand when signing a job application for a nursing position, and when she got the job, it turned out to be in a detox unit. Sometimes it is because for some unknown reason the alcohol just ceases to have any enjoyable or alleviating effect whatsoever. Occasionally the change results from a percipient doctor laying aside the prescription pad and referring the victim to rehab or detox clinics. Ian Westaway was forced to go sober by being imprisoned in Long Bay Gaol for six weeks after drunkenly turning the emergency fire hose on disembarking ferry passengers at Manly Wharf. In one case, it was when a desperate spirit came upon Ross Fitzgerald and his book My Name is Rossin a google search.
A conundrum that is not resolved by these stories is the cause of dedicated alcoholism. It has been understood for some time as a ‘disease’ – as Rosemary L says ‘I learnt I wasn’t a bad person trying to be good, I was a sick person trying to get well’ – and not considered a genetic affliction, yet many of these survivors point to alcoholic parents or relatives who preceded them. Val C states ‘I’ve got so many family members that are alcoholics we could have our own closed AA meeting’. Brendan C declares ‘I believe I was born an alcoholic.’ Mental illness and the experience of child abuse, sexual or physical, are other frequent factors, but not with everyone. The evidence indicates that alcoholism, once habituated, is also a terrifically persevering state of mind. Many of these witnesses relapsed after being in AA for periods of time. After 27 years in AA, Neal Price had a liver transplant, and, upon coming to after the operation, found himself conjecturing that his problem had really been the old liver, and the new one would allow drinking to resume (he came to his senses).
Though the journeys related in the book emerge from individual circumstances, some common themes are apparent. Many drinkers began as anxious and socially inadept teenagers who discovered in alcohol a method of converting themselves into confident and outgoing personalities and defeating their fear of life. ‘I went from being a wallflower to the life of the party’, writes Deb S. Neal Price discovered himself after drinking Stone’s Green Ginger Wine at 14: ‘I went from shy bookish kid to punk with that one drink.’ The benefits to them of this conversion were so effective that they could not live without the stimulus. And the predicament young people like this face is channelled by the sandbox they are given to play in – a society that prizes partying and being a punk, and makes alcohol available at almost every occasion, over reading books and developing a mature awareness of other people and the effect of your behaviour on them. Barry R had to lose his friends who said to him ‘We don’t trust someone who won’t drink with us’.
Another common experience is that alcoholism is progressive and takes control of lives gradually over time as the alcoholic drank more, lost more friends, and increasingly disturbed their employers until at a point of acceleration they crossed a line from being functioning alcoholics to destructive addicts. A terrible unifying phenomenon is the blackout, during which the sozzled drinker keeps functioning socially, talking, driving around (in Robbie Dunn’s case, from Brisbane to Sydney), revelling, arguing, fighting, falling over, all without being conscious of his or her actions for hours or even days, until they ‘wake’ in a place they do not know with people they do not recognise, or with bruises and damaged body parts, or surrounded by broken appliances and other bender debris, or in hospital.
A frequent confession is that alcoholics continue in this manner of life for many years longer than they need to because of their innate egotism and arrogance. Gail recalls ‘I wasn’t used to being told what to do, I hadn’t exactly been a team player in the past’. The essential impact of AA meetings undermines the ego. Ukrainian George’s description is as good as any:
…I found a group of people to be vulnerable with at those meetings that I had never experienced before. Today when I look at that I think it’s because I was never available for anybody. I was always trying to work out what people wanted from me. It took me a long time to understand that putting a drink into me made a bad idea seem good and unacceptable behaviour acceptable. I was just an alcoholic.
As Tim Olsen writes, in his elegant contribution:
A very big part of sobering up is realising that you are not special, that you are no better than anyone else. When you develop some kind of humility and go to meetings, with every kind of person, you realise that you are all reduced to being simply ‘garden variety’ alcoholics, as they say.
This, of course, used to be the intent and effect of church-going, a now much despised and misunderstood social construct, designed to engender in all comers the lost virtues of humility and charity in the face of their common sin-prone humanity. It is no accident that AAuses religious concepts such as God, the Serenity Prayer, the Twelve Steps fellowship and the Higher Power to instil similar insights into the impoverished soul of the average alcoholic, and the techniques of the Quaker meeting house to inspire despairing drinkers to commit to a programme of recovery through bearing witness, not to God’s work, but to their soused mortifications. There is that familiar atmosphere of hearing the Good News recalled from childhood Sunday School. As Long John Silver told Barry R: ‘The good news is you can leave this meeting and need never drink again one day at a time’.
I would add that another reason for the longevity of the disease is the high threshold most alcoholics seem to have for boredom, as their tedious misery goes on for years without them being able to imagine another way.
The book is an advertisement for AA, though it doesn’t work for everyone. Off-stage in these tales are glimpsed the forgotten suicides and other untimely deaths for those who do not have what Jake W describes as:
…this little part of me that wanted to survive. This tiny part of me that wanted another life and I knew that I couldn’t have that life if alcohol was in it.
Though not a theme of the book, the efficacy of the AA model prompts the thought that our society should engage in a wider application of its methodology to other traumas wracking the public square. In a sense, current standing Royal Commissions into child abuse, disability and the convocations and reports on The Stolen Generations, The Voice and Deaths in Custody are larger versions of AA, in which the voices wracked by trauma have been recovered and permitted to speak to people trained to listen and make appropriate comment to government.
But these are very expensive forms of AA and usually less effective. Governments are poor vehicles for resolving or ameliorating these issues by assuming the historical guilt for transgressions and paying blood money to assuage that guilt, and those being the aims of these processes make them ultimately exercises that aggravate the original wounds and bring no real reconciliation or programme for the future of the victims.
One significant difference between AA sessions and government inquiries is that at AA the customers, by and large, understand that from an individual life management point of view, they are the solution to their own trauma and for doing something about it by moving beyond it. AA does not seek to cast blame on their families or external factors, but to provide a supporting framework for self-realisation in the society we have.
Perhaps a better way is shown by AA which is not so far away in its intent from the proper function of civilized government – not to vilify, divide and depress its citizens, but to create conditions that ease as best as possible, by providing a forum for the expiation of historical traumas and a structured path for the future, the passage of its citizens towards making a productive life for themselves. That’s the sort of good news our country is in dire need of hearing.
Matthew White SC is a Sydney barrister.
Quadrant, December 2022, pp 85-87