Up from Despair

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 Idea idolatry. 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.

My Last Drink: 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics is not such an infertile book—it is a book of hope and even, at times, joy.

This review appeared a recent Quadrant.
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Ross Fitzgerald (“Redfern Ross” in Alcoholics Anonymous) and Neal Price, themselves recovering alcoholics (for as this book teaches, one never ceases to be an alcoholic, one just becomes a sober alcoholic) have wrangled thirty-two 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 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 Ross in 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 some time. After twenty-seven 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 inept 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 fourteen: “I went from shy bookish kid to punk with that one drink.” The benefits of their conversions 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 ditch 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 drinks more, loses more friends, and increasingly disturbs their employers until at a point of acceleration they cross 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 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 virtues of humility and charity in the face of their common sin-prone humanity. It is no accident that AA uses 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 alcoholic, and the techniques of the Quaker meeting house to inspire despairing drinkers to commit to a program 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 racking the public square. In a sense, current standing royal commissions into child abuse, disability and the convocations and reports on Deaths in Custody, the Stolen Generations and the Voice are larger versions of AA, in which the voices racked 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. Those aims of these processes make them ultimately exercises that aggravate the original wounds and bring no real reconciliation or program 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 civilised 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.

My Last Drink: 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics
edited by Ross Fitzgerald and Neal Price

Connor Court, 2022, 189 pages, $29.95

Matthew White SC is a Sydney barrister


5 thoughts on “Up from Despair

  • pgang says:

    The similarities between recovering from alcoholism and Christian soteriology are quite interesting. The humility to admit that you’re not in control, and that kernel of longing to retrieve one’s life. I get what AA is about now.

  • lbloveday says:

    Had a fund raiser at the pub last night and I wore my bespoke t-shirt:
    Helping me stay drunk
    Since 1968

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Well, that made me go and look up soteriology. Yes, it is what I thought.
    It is what well-meaning people expect the Voice and tons of money to deliver for aboriginal people.
    It won’t deliver salvation of course. Only individual self-help will do that, however sought or assisted.
    It is the exact opposite of being a victim, it is about being mature, humble, ordinary and open to change.


    An interesting but challenging take on the subject and mechanism of alcoholism is found in Eric Berne’s book “The Games People Play”. Here alcoholism is classed as a Life Game and it is discussed in terms of life scripts and transactions (Transactional Analysis) between all those involved. From a script point of view, Alcoholics Anonymous, (AA) works at keeping the alcoholic sober when the alcoholic successfully exchanges the script called Alcoholic for the script provided by AA. Typically this script swap is maintained at regular AA meetings. The realistic side of this swap, though, is that the alcoholic may ‘fall off the wagon’ as a result of ‘one lousy drink’. According to Berne, it is not the drinking that is the motivation, it is the suffering via the hangovers, the throwing up, the stigmatisation, and the destruction of health that is the motivator in the hard core game of Alcoholic. An interesting insight into this and who the typical script protagonists are is provided in the YouTube link below: Interestingly, Berne also says that a true cure for players of Alcoholic is when they can stop playing the game altogether and be able to drink socially without putting themselves in jeopardy. Berne admits that whilst this is possible it can be hard and may involve much time in Transactional Analysis therapy groups. I found (many years ago) “The Games People Play” a good and entertaining read and an insight into why most of us ‘play’ psycholigical games. It certainly gives a look at the subject of alcoholism from a different perspective than many of the people involved have considered.

  • Brenden T Walters says:

    I heard somebody say that AA didn’t open the gates of heaven and let me in, but it opened the gates of hell and let me out.

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