Maz Compton, Last Drinks: How to Drink Less and Be Your Best, John Wiley & Sons, 2023, pp 240, ISBN 9781394184231, $32.95
Many Australians now realise that our booze-obsessed culture is extremely destructive. The murder, mayhem, individual, societal and family destruction that alcohol abuse leaves in its wake is, if you’ll pardon the pun, sobering.
When he died in April this year, my friend of 61 years, Barry Humphries, was 53 years sober. As with men and women from all walks of life, whether they be atheists, agnostics, or believers, this was due to the agency of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like some other AA members, after stopping drinking in late 1970 Barry turned his life around and achieved great success.
It’s no accident that the character Barry most enjoyed playing was not Dame Edna Everage, but the dribbling Minister for the Yartz with the huge appendage, Sir Les Patterson. Barry told me that this was because he could channel his sober self into a dipsomaniacal person who was totally out of control.
Although they came from different walks of life, Barry’s father Eric – a conservative builder from Camberwell – and my father Bill – who captained Collingwood Seconds and never read books, but only each Saturday evening the pink-coloured Sporting Globe – became close friends. My Dad told me that when Barry and I were still on the booze, Eric Humphries said to him … “I was so worried about Barry, Bill, I couldn’t play golf on Tuesday.” These poignant words, spoken with a sibilant, very much remind me of Humphries’ world-weary character, Sandy Stone, who happens to be by far his most endearing creation.
After he became sober Barry was familiar with one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in Australia, the psychiatrist Dr Sylvester Minogue and close to a psychologist who specialised in treating alcoholism, Jim Maclaine. Based in Sydney, both suggested to alcoholics that to deal effectively with such a debilitating illness, they should consider joining Alcoholics Anonymous.
In stark contrast, many Australian rehabs and most of the current medical fraternity, especially psychologists, firmly believe that a harm-reduction model, supported by government, will prevent ongoing addiction to alcohol and other drugs. A friend whose teenage son was buying drugs from an app and getting them delivered in an Uber, and then mixing these drugs with booze, was recently told by a drug and alcohol councillor that “We will educate him to use alcohol and other drugs safely.” Howridiculous is this!
Popular NSW-based radio and podcast host Maz Compton, who lived and worked in Melbourne for some years, has this year published Last Drinks: How to Drink Less and Be Your Best – an excellent book aimed at “inspiring Australians to redefine their relationship with alcohol.” In fact, Last Drinks was also the name of the 2000 Ned Kelly Award-winning novel by the late Andrew McGahan. It’s a darkish tale set in the demi-monde of Brisbane in what some regard as the bad old days of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
In stark counterpoint to the alcohol-ridden culture reflected in McGahan’s novel, Ms Compton reveals what led her to make the life-changing decision to quit the booze. Her last drink of alcohol was on New Year’s Eve, 2014. Unlike many alcoholics her drinking wasn’t utterly catastrophic. As she writes “From the outside looking in, I was functioning …my unravelling was slow and steady.”
This relatively gradual progression led her to falsely believe that her story was unique. But Compton, a daily drinker. was definitely in trouble. Throughout 2014, as she reveals in the Preface: “Each day was a murkier version of the previous one. I was caught in a battle between two voices in my head: the voice that begged me to stop drinking, and the voice that shouted louder, frustrated at the thought of needing to stop, because if I needed to stop and couldn’t then maybe I did have a drinking problem after all.”
Compton explains that from New Year’s Day 2015 she more or less unintentionally, did not imbibe any alcohol for a month. After this period of total abstinence, she made a conscious and so far successful decision to stay stopped.
In Last Drinks Compton summarises many moving and uplifting stories about Australian men and women who have achieved sobriety and replaced drinking with a substantially healthier and more positive lifestyle. Some of Compton’s interviewees are quite prominent. These include two of my favourite media personalities – mental health and physical fitness advocate Alexa Towersey (aka Action Alexa) and the irrepressible TV star Osher Gunsberg, who was formerly known as Andrew G.
Osher dates the beginning of his problems with alcohol to the early 1990s in Brisbane. “I had a group of people (there) that was essentially, ‘we’re drinking … get your gumboots, because this doesn’t stop’. You know, it’s a good night if someone’s vomiting through their nose. We called it the double dragon … that’s what drinking meant. I didn’t know that drinking could be anything else and so that’s how it started.”
Alexa’s story is that, after being teased at school for being too skinny, she went to the gym to develop mental strength and physical toughness. She turned to the bottle to cope with a major family crisis – her mother’s suicide attempt. After that her dad drank heavily until he died of liver cirrhosis. As Alexa claims … “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection. I found my first sense of connection at the gym and my second sense of connection when I found my dad’s whisky bottle. During the week I would work out and feel great, but on the weekends, I was drinking myself into oblivion. And the saddest thing is, I didn’t drink because I liked the taste of alcohol. I drank because I didn’t like myself.”
Osher and Alexa have now been productively sober for many years.
In Last Drinks Compton asks readers to reflect on some simple questions, including Why do you drink alcohol? She then describes in useful detail how alcohol affects the human mind, body, psyche and spirit. She also outlines common signs that indicate if habitual drinking is costing people more than money. In particular, she stresses how Australian culture still enormously affects our attitude to alcohol and leads to much more problem drinking than in some other countries. As many of us know, this deleterious effect also applies to Celtic cultures such as Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and sometimes to parts of England, including Cornwall.
As Compton states, citing her own experiences that “it is a misconception to presume you must be falling-down drunk and hit absolute rock bottom to address your relationship with alcohol.” She also claims something I found to be true: “You will find other people who are reassessing their relationship with alcohol will gravitate to you and start to pop up in your world.”
Later in the book Compton quotes Action Alexa who says: “If you are making a choice that is better and you have people around who aren’t on board with your journey, you need to reassess their position in your life. I found myself with the opportunity to meet new people who were supporting my choices …Your vibe attracts your tribe. You will attract the right people to support your sobriety.”
The final section of Last Drinks outlines some helpful daily steps that drinkers in difficulty can use in starting a life of sobriety. In particular it contains a simple 30-day plan, which was created in concert with highly regarded, and I might add, eminently sensible, health professionals. Then encouragingly in Chapter 8, Compton lists 30 daily benefits that can happen in the first month of abstinence.
As Compton explains in this accessible guide, alcohol often plays tricks on us. She cogently argues that although heavy drinking may seem to dissolve discomfort and block out difficult circumstances, alcohol cannot solve our problems. Indeed, for many people alcohol is the problem. For alcoholics and those with dual addictions, consuming booze and other drugs will only make our personal and professional lives so much worse.
Compton writes, rather drolly, that her book Last Drinks is for “anyone who has ever woken up with a hangover and thought to themselves I’m never drinking again, only to saddle up to a bar the same afternoon.”
In many ways Compton and I had similar experiences. Before I finally became free of alcohol and other drugs 53 years ago, I made only one attempt to stop drinking on my own. This was in Cleveland, Ohio in early 1969. I lasted half an hour! Soon after I was sent home to my long-suffering parents in Australia.
To determine if we were alcoholics Dr John Moon, the lead psychiatrist at Melbourne’s Delmont Hospital, where Barry Humphries and I were patients, suggested that we ask ourselves two questions – If after starting drinking do you behave in ways that cause you shame and embarrassment? After drinking alcohol do you ever have no memory, for hours or days, of what you have done? When we answered yes to both questions, he explained that we had a huge problem with the booze and that we should strongly consider quitting by attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Fortunately, we took Dr Moon’s advice.
Members of The Sydney Institute may be aware that, last year, Tasmanian artist and writer Neal Price and I co-edited My Last Drink: 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics, a collection of first-person essays focusing on the role of AA in assisting alcoholics to achieve and maintain sobriety.
Maz Compton’s book could usefully be read in conjunction with My Last Drink. Certainly, Compton is a keen advocate of the benefits (and in many cases the necessity) of problem drinkers and alcoholics remaining abstinent. As she claims, for such people, stopping drinking alcohol often leads to a more fulfilling life, often characterised by better sleep, greater focus, much more energy.
Although Compton mentions AA, and draws on some of its insights, we are both aware that, although often effective in enabling people to become sober, and stay that way, Alcoholics Anonymous is but one agency in assisting alcoholics and problem drinkers. Yet for tens of thousands of others throughout the world addicted to alcohol and other drugs, AA’s Twelve Step program and its stress on total abstinence, one day at a time, has proved a life-saver.
It seems to me likely that, after reading the revealing stories in Last Drinks and being guided by Compton’s personal example and thinking about the extremely helpful information and strategies she provides, a number of alcoholics and problem drinkers in Australia may either consider quitting drinking entirely, or to significantly reducing their consumption of alcohol.
Last Drinks is an important publication. At the very least, it may well encourage people in trouble with the booze to ask for timely medical intervention or to seek some form of effective collective support.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author, co-author and co-editor of 45 books. His most recent books, all published by Hybrid in Melbourne, include a memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Grafton Everest political satires, The Dizzying Heights, The Lowest Depths, and currently Pandemonium, in which the hapless Grafton becomes the first Australian Secretary-General of the shambolic United Nations.
The Sydney Institute Review of Books, 16 October 2023
The launch of the ninth Grafton Everest adventure Pandemonium by Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen (Hybrid Publishing, Melbourne $32.99) will be at 6pm on Tuesday November 14 at the Olsen Gallery, 53 Jersey Rd Woollahra, Sydney. All are welcome to attend.