My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics
Ross Fitzgerald and Neal Price (eds)
Connor Court Publishing, Queensland, 2022
ISBN:9781922815224, RRP: $29.95
Reviewed by Alan Gregory
This is a grim, but often highly entertaining, read as 32 recovering alcoholics tell the story of how they survived alcoholism. All contributors to My Last Drink accept the dictum that once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. This is despite the fact that many of the authors have not touched alcohol for some years or indeed for decades. They all stress they are still “recovering” and that it is crucial that they not imbibe any alcohol, one day at a time.
It is to the organisation Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that they owe their present status. AA commenced in the USA in 1935 but came to Australia in 1945. The AA tradition is for anonymity; hence some authors are only identified by their first names. although others in the book identify themselves fully. The latter include both co-editors, Diane Young – a leading Sydney psychotherapist who got sober at 18 – and author and gallery owner Tim Olsen, who is the only son of legendary Australian artist, John Olsen.
The 32 contributors to this extremely useful anthology My Last Drink comprise 18 men and 14 women from all occupations, ages, and walks of life.
Both contributing editors are “sober alcoholics”- Ross Fitzgerald for 52 years and Neal Price for 39 years. Yet as is the case for many of the “recovering” they still regularly attend AA meetings. This is in order to stay sober themselves and also because telling one’s story in all its vivid detail is very helpful for those striving to recover.
Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University Ross Fitzgerald is a prolific writer of books, articles, and reviews, including three books about alcoholism. He is a legendary figure in academia and as a public commentator. Neal Price is a Tasmanian artist and writer, strongly involved in community cultural development.
The book is a very moving read there are so many dramatic stories being told. Many of the case studies had tried to give up alcohol for some time and it was really the first visit to AA that (eventually) proved successful.
Many had previously attempted to stop drinking on their own or with other forms of rehabilitation, but it seems attendance at AA meetings was and is the most successful of all the measures. However, it does often require the person to continue attending AA and definitely to accept the adage that once an alcoholic always one for life. This is because there is recognition that one could easily slip back into the drink again. A feature of all the stories is that most of them reach a very low point before reform. The stories told are horrific, but often mordantly humorous. So many contributors have gone into total blackout with no memory of what they have done. To quote from one story by Irish-born Robbie, who these days is a well-known Australian folksinger:
I came home from the RSL club and had an argument with my wife and then exploded and punched the walls out. All the suppressed abuse took off like a rocket. I started to hate everyone and thought “if I could only get them out of my life everything would be fine”. I terrified everyone including my children whom I loved dearly and swore I would always protect after what happened to me as a child. ….. The nightmare was in full swing. My brain was in turmoil against my will, I was saying and doing things which made no sense to me.
There are relapses. The AA groups have a strong sense of helping one another. Everyone is given a sponsor to help them.
A frequent pattern is that alcoholism is often accompanied by abuse of drugs other than alcohol, which in terms of its effect on families and communities is arguably our most damaging drug. To quote from another story:
I was turning up to work hung over every single day and struggling to do my job. I was having multiple panic attacks and mental breakdowns. I’ve actually gone to a work Christmas party had cocaine with me and was drinking. I had a blackout and was put in a taxi home. A few weeks later I was going to suicide, so some colleagues took me to a friend’s place for a getaway. That ended in a three-day bender and getting a police caution for drugs and being drunk and disorderly in the Rocks. I didn’t realise until I was in AA, but I was at my absolute rock bottom. I was on the sheer edge of death.
While some of the 32 stories in My Last Drink are grim, a number are extremely funny. Here are three examples.
Davo, an ex-Queensland policeman, tells the story of when he was unfit and still on the booze, chasing an offender across the Storey Bridge in Brisbane and calling out “STOP. STOP.” The bloke being chased turned around and called out, “Why don’t you stop, no-one’s chasing you!” As Davo recounts, he then gave up the chase. Years later, just before he finally stopped drinking, Davo recounts that when one of his superiors angrily rang him at home after one of Davo’s escapades, “My wife answered, and I called out ‘Tell him I’m sick’, and my boss said, ‘Tell him he will be sick if he’s not in here by 8 o’clock!’”
Mike, who is now a highly successful barrister and army reserve officer writes, “The only person who I knew who didn’t drink was my mother. She had a bottle of gin that lasted seven years.” Di Young recounts, when she was 18, a friend asking, “Will you be staying in Sydney for your holidays, darling?” Young Di (as it happened truthfully) replied, “Yeah, I’m thinking I will be at Silverwater prison.”
Two stories recounted by Ross Fitzgerald are apt. Here is how he tells them:
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, E. G. (“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. When I suggested that he go to an AA meeting, his wife said “Oh, he’s not that bad!”
Not everyone who goes to AA meetings succeeds – many lapse, some suicide, some drink themselves to death. However, when one succeeds it can often be joyful – successful careers are often started or resumed, households become happy again and those sober alcoholics who are single become significant contributors to society. Many of those who succeed continue to attend AA meetings both to reinforce their resolve to stay sober and to help others by telling their stories and by counselling and acting as sponsors. As is made clear in this important book, AA meetings throughout Australia are extremely welcoming to those men and women with a desire to stop drinking alcohol. Many are open to the general public.
My Last Drink provides telling testimony to the effectiveness of the AA movement. These 32 inspiring stories, written especially for this book, offer hope to those afflicted by alcoholism and yet wary of taking the first step of recognising they have a problem.
Dr Alan Gregory AM is a retired academic and author of several books.
The Sydney Institute Review of Books, Summer Reading, December 2022.
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