My Name is Ross – An Alcoholic’s Journey
Speech in response to Gerard Henderson’s launch of Ross Fitzgerald, My Name is Ross – An Alcoholic’s Journey (New South Books) 6pm Tuesday February 2, 2010, Clayton Utz Seminar Room, Level 30, 1 O’Connell Street Sydney.
Thank you Gerard for a friendship that has lasted many, many years.
I remember once telling Gerard that I thought I was becoming more neurotic. To which Gerard replied. “That’s scarcely possible!”
I’d especially like to thank Nigel Marsh who suggested that I write a memoir with my alcoholism at its core; my Brisbane-based agent Margaret Kennedy; and Phillippa McGuiness and Matt Howard and the crew at New South Books who have been so helpful.
I’d also like to acknowledge the encouragement of my dear friends Chris Mitchell, Chris Griffith, Quentin Dempster, Ken Gooding and Angelo Loukakis, and of George Jacobs and Emily (Emerald) Fitzgerald to whom the book is dedicated.
But most of all to my wife, Lyndal Moor, who has hung in there for three and a half decades when, as even my close admirers are forced to concede, a little bit of me still goes a long way!
I’ll now read a bit from My Name is Ross – An Alcoholic’s Journey.
Here I am, stretched out straight and still, enclosed in a tunnel, having an MRI brain scan at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney to
find out why I’m bleeding from the brain in four places. The only way I can survive the 25-minute claustrophobic ordeal is to wear a sleeping mask and recite, like a mantra, the Serenity Prayer: ‘God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference’.
My current situation brings back deeply buried memories of being in a mental hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late 1960s, strapped down on a trolley, under a flickering neon light, about to be wheeled in to have yet more ‘shock’ therapy. Even now, flickering neon produces high anxiety and considerable distress. Although most of the specific memories of ECT treatment have gone, I am left with a deep sense of utter helplessness, and of being treated like an object.
My wife Lyndal says to treat the MRI scan ‘like an adventure’. She jokes that I’m lucky to still have a brain from which to bleed. In truth, this makes sense, given the physical, mental and emotional pounding I gave myself while addictively drinking alcohol and using other drugs.
How is it that, in 2009, an atheist like me is repeatedly saying a Christian prayer? And how did I manage to stay alive long enough to get here?
My brain scare persuaded me that, before I was either incapacitated by a stroke or heart attack, or died, I should write down the story of my alcoholic journey, in the hope that it may help and encourage others.
The portrait I paint of myself is often not pleasant or appealing. But I have attempted to tell the unvarnished truth about the most important fact of my life. That is, despite still being an alcoholic, I haven’t needed to drink alcohol or to use other drugs for decades. Yet, for years previously my addiction to alcohol and other drugs had meant that I was increasingly destructive to myself and to others. I was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’.
Being sober is the aspect of my life from which all other good things flow. The truth is that if I hadn’t started drinking regularly at the age of fifteen, I almost certainly would have committed suicide by the time I was seventeen. But if I hadn’t stopped drinking and using other drugs at twenty-five, I wouldn’t have made twenty-six.
I turned sixty-five on Christmas Day. And last month – on January 26, Australia Day – I was forty years sober. This means that I have had forty more years on the planet than I would have had if I hadn’t stopped drinking alcohol and using other drugs.
The fundamental fact is that, if, each day, I don’t pick up the first drink of alcohol, I can’t get drunk. For decades now, I have never doubted that, for me, to drink is to die. Genetically and psychologically, I was (and am) strongly predisposed to alcoholism and addiction. Even though my father, Bill Fitzgerald, a rough, tough footballer for Collingwood seconds, never drank a teaspoon of alcohol in his entire life, his father (my grandpa, who I never met) died of alcoholism and squandered all the family’s money. That’s the reason my father, who was also a fine cricketer, had a life-long fear and hatred of the booze.
When I was a child, death hovered around our house like a miasma. This was because, in January 1942, my elder brother Rodney had died in my father’s arms on a Melbourne tram on the way to hospital, when he was only six months old. My mother, Edna, was so distraught that she didn’t even go the funeral; it was only thirty years later, at my father’s funeral, that I discovered that my brother was buried in an unmarked grave.
After Roddy died, my mother had two miscarriages, and then I was born on Christmas Day, 1944. ‘Do you see the brightest star in all the skies?’ Edna would say, pointing up. ‘That’s your brother, Rodney.’
Because of Rodney’s death and my mother’s previous miscarriages, Edna, and to a lesser extent my Dad, wrapped me in cotton wool, until I fled from home just before I turned eighteen. I was told repeatedly that I should always wear a singlet so I would never catch a cold, and that I couldn’t play with Elizabeth Dowling, the handsome tomboy across the road, and especially not with John and Ron Flowers, the local toughs in our street who once locked me in their garage, started lighting newspapers, and threatened to burn me. This may have been an empty threat, but it scared me, utterly.
To compound the fear, a few weeks before this, Edna had said to me, ‘If you don’t behave yourself, you’ll be sent to the incinerator to be burnt’. In those days, there was a huge municipal incinerator in the adjoining suburb of South Caulfield.
Looking back, often I felt terrified. But when I started using alcohol, it kidded me that I was no longer afraid. It’s no wonder, then, that ‘courage’ is the name sometimes given to particular brands of beer and of lager.
Illness was a powerful currency in our house in East Brighton, a petit-bourgeois suburb where respectability and ‘niceness’ were valued highly. Unlike most men of my age, who were taught never to admit to weakness and not to ‘give in’ to illness, I quickly learnt the opposite. When Mum got migraines, she achieved what I came to long for most – to be left alone; and in my case, often to receive the greatest treat of all – to stay all day in bed. So instead of going to primary school, I would often stay home ‘sick’ and listen on the radio to ‘When a Girl Marries’ and then to ‘Portia Faces Life’, which, if I remember correctly, was the story of ‘a woman who has loved … and can remember’.
Yet I pointed the bone at myself so successfully that at eleven, after passing a lot of blood in my urine, I almost died of nephritis and was in the Melbourne Children’s Hospital for three months. I had extremely high blood pressure and couldn’t bear the light. Given Roddy’s early death, it’s hard to comprehend just what Mum and Dad, who seldom spoke to each other about ‘important matters’, went through during that time.
But having had such a serious illness meant that, when I came home, I was given almost whatever I wanted. This included large doses of a pink-coloured liquid asthma medicine, which I later found out contained a heady mix of alcohol and ephedrine. Small wonder then, that at night, I would sneak into the kitchen for an extra swig of this magical elixir, after which I would return to bed and go on a trip with my toy dog Snowy, and Jumbo the elephant. That trip in bed, night after night, was the real world for me.
One of the problems of living with Edna was that she would lie, when telling the truth would have done. This was almost certainly because she blamed herself for Roddy’s death. In later life, she claimed she had tried to have the baby aborted. When I was growing up, there was no bedrock to reality, because with Mum it was impossible to know what was true and what wasn’t. If Edna gave someone a trinket, she would claim it was gold.
In The Communist Manifesto there is a line by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels about the destruction of capitalism: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. My life with Edna was very much like that. From infancy onward, my life had no foundation, no bedrock of truth.
Is it any wonder that perhaps the most important attributes that attracted me to Lyndal are that she always tells the truth, no matter what, and that she seems solid in a shifting world?
For some reason, when I think of all that is solid melting into the air, I am reminded of WB Yeats’s lines: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… Surely some revelation is at hand.’ Although I did not know it when I was drinking, the latter phrase was to apply when I turned twenty-five.
When I was twelve or thirteen, within the space of a few months, both my parents tried to kill themselves by overdosing on tablets. I can’t remember whether it was after my mother’s or my father’s attempt, but it was probably my father’s; my memory is that Edna said, ‘Your father’s tried to kill himself ’. Because I didn’t know what to do, or perhaps because I didn’t believe her, I went straight to bed. For years, I punished myself for being so unfeeling and uncaring. But now I understand how overwhelming this would have been for someone so young.
To be fair, I never knew my parents when they were joyful or at ease with one another. I’m told, for example, that when courting they loved ballroom dancing. It must have been so difficult coping with Rodney’s death, but even when I was a child it was clear to me that Edna thought she came from a better type of family than my father, who said ‘arthuritis’, ‘fillum’, and ‘umburella’, and used phrases like ‘Get off of…’ and ‘on tenderhooks’, and never read books but only comics and, once a week, Melbourne’s pink-coloured Sporting Globe.
Dad also mispronounced, and couldn’t spell, ‘Wednesday’, which hardly seems a capital offence. When I was young, I always liked the way he would say, ‘I am looking forwards to’ something. According to Mum, Dad held his knife and fork ‘the wrong way’ (Lyndal accuses me of the same ‘sin’), and when we went out to eat, which was rare, he would always order a big helping of dessert first, before he considered the entrée and the main. In this, I follow him as well.
Throughout my childhood, while I never saw my father with a book, Edna was a voracious reader. As a little boy, I often did not ‘get’ the moral parables she gave me to read; in particular, ‘Sparky and the Magic Piano’ and ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’. How unfair, I thought, for the piano to stop playing itself at Carnegie Hall and expose Sparky as a fraud who couldn’t play at all. And how deeply unfair that, when the ants brought the grasshopper inside for the winter, they should make him work, instead of letting him fiddle all day and sing ‘The World Owes Me a Living’.
My most treasured storybook was ‘The Good-Luck Horse’, a Japanese tale. Virtually everyone thought that he was a bad luck horse until, eventually, he proved himself otherwise and saved the life of the mayor and all the children of the town. To this day, subtlety has never been my strong point.
When I was in third form at Melbourne High, I tried so hard to emulate my father that I was selected as a wicket-keeper for the Victorian Schoolboys team in an all-Australian carnival against all the other states. It was when playing on the Adelaide Cricket Ground that I met Sir Donald Bradman, who struck me as a grumpy old man.
Despite my father’s encouragement of my cricketing abilities, as a child I didn’t seem part of life, and had few friends. I felt like the bird on the biscuit tin – always outside looking in. It’s no wonder that one of my favourite books is Hal Porter’s autobiography, ‘The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony’, which involves a young Australian boy, detached from life, observing the world around and beneath him.
Just as I played ‘sick’ in order to be left alone, for the same reason, for a while, I also played ‘stupid’. That was until, at the end of fourth form at Melbourne Boys High, the form captain Gary Evans (later ALP foreign minister, Senator Gareth Evans) wrote good things about everyone in 4C, except about me and another boy. Evans wrote: ‘Ross Fitzgerald and Garnett Farrell are going to write a book next year, Howe to Cum Toppe. Incandescent with shame and rage, I defiantly decided to show the bastard(s), and knuckle down to work, which then I did, obsessively.
Soon after this, I had my first drink of alcohol – at Her Majesty’s Hotel in Toorak Rd, South Yarra. It was commonly known as ‘Maisey’s’ and was run by a well-known Melbourne drag queen. On my way back from seeing a specialist, at about 11 am, I fronted the public bar in my school uniform and ordered a brandy, lime and soda – because it sounded exotic. The barman said, ‘I suggest you take off your school hat, son’.
That first drink of alcohol was like an injection of rocket fuel. Very soon, I was drinking as often as I could, usually on my own. Yet even then, alcohol never made me feel as good as, let alone better than, other people. Deep down, I still felt terrible. But what it did was to hold down the pain of being myself just enough so that, for a while, I could somehow ‘negotiate’ the world.
Once, when I was fifteen, I stumbled home at 2 am. My father, fit and tall, was waiting up for me. ‘What are you celebrating, son?’ he asked. I had no answer. I didn’t know then that I drank because, in a sense, I had to. Then Dad said, ‘When I was your age son, I lost two bicycles looking for my father’. I never forgot those words, but they didn’t stop me drinking. Soon after, he told me, ‘Never forget where you’ve come from’. Although Dad probably meant our class origins, these days I think it so important not to forget where alcoholism took me, and to realise how lucky I am, up to now, to have ‘escaped’, when so many others have not. The truth for me is that every day above ground, free of booze and other drugs, is a bonus.
When I was fifteen or sixteen my idea of a good Saturday night was to take a flagon of wine to the nearby Brighton Cemetery and drink on my own in front of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s obelisk, which reads, ‘Life is only froth and bubble / Two things stand like stone / Kindness in another’s trouble / Courage in your own.’
I now think it significant that, of all the graves in Brighton Cemetery, I was drawn to that of a poet who killed himself at Brighton Beach, where I used to drink so often myself. Perhaps the most brilliant schoolmaster of all at Melbourne High was our eccentric, ultra right-wing, biology teacher, Norton Hobson. After he retired, Norton confided to me that he was an ex-Communist and that, while at school, he worked as a part-time operative for the Victorian Special Branch, supplying information about students and staff alike.
I have never forgotten Mr Hobson’s response to a fifth form student who said that something or other was not ‘fair’. ‘Fair!’ he thundered, ‘The universe isn’t fair. What an absurd notion.’ Nor have I forgotten Mr Hobson’s guide to global affairs: ‘Russians are shits. They always have been, and they always will be. If you remember that boys, you can understand foreign policy.’
It’s no accident that, later on, in my three Grafton Everest political/sexual ‘fictions’ (which bombed in Australia, but did well in England and South Africa), the head of the privatised Australian Security Organisation, and hence the nation’s top spy, is Grafton’s old school teacher, Lee Horton. The character Mr Horton is largely based on Norton Hobson.
During my last class at Melbourne High, our tough-as-guts British history teacher, Ben Munday, offered the following sage advice: ‘Be aware, boys. Bullshit baffles brains. Almost always.’
When I left school, I wasn’t to know just how scary life was to be for me at university. Yet, as I came to realize after I stopped drinking, in the words of an old Russian proverb I later made up, “All that trembles does not fall.”
Thank you for having me.
My Name is Ross – An Alcoholic’s Journey, New South Books, $39.45