AA knows the sobering truth about alcoholism
THIS month in 1935 the world’s most successful self-help group, Alcoholics Anonymous, was founded in Akron, Ohio. As it happens, it was in Akron and in Cleveland, Ohio, that I did a lot of drinking myself in the 1960s.
I turn 69 on Christmas Day. And if I survive until Australia Day I will have had no alcohol or other drugs for 44 years. This means that, with the support of AA, I’ve had 44 more years on the planet than I would have had.
Like a lot of teenagers who are prone to addiction, I got into trouble with alcohol at an early age. But I don’t regret starting drinking. A quick precis of my life is that if I hadn’t found alcohol at 14 most likely I would have committed suicide at 17. But if I hadn’t stopped drinking at 24 I wouldn’t have made 25. It is important to stress alcoholism is a health problem, not a moral one. Alcoholics are not bad people who need to be good but people suffering from an illness who can recover if they learn to totally abstain, one day at a time.
Yet while abstinence has saved the lives of countless people, not drinking alcohol at all is still seen by many as rather weird, especially if one is young. Yet these days many 17 and 18-year-old drinkers have done so much damage to themselves and others that they are seeking help, including joining groups such as AA – whose meetings they attend regularly to remain abstinent.
In a society such as ours, with such an entrenched drink culture and a politically powerful liquor industry, advertising and peer group pressure is often applied to those of us who need to remain abstinent. This even applies in our prisons, where a core of about 40 per cent of inmates need to remain totally abstinent.
Yet even within our prison population there is strong pressure, from psychologists and other professionals, against the notion of total abstinence.
At social functions, after my third or fourth mineral water or fruit juice, I am often asked, “What’s the matter, don’t you drink?” To which I reply, “What do think I’m doing, eating a sandwich?”
Of course I drink. I drink a lot. It’s just that I don’t drink alcohol. This is because, as with about 7 per cent to 8 per cent of the Australian population, one glass containing alcohol is one too many – and 100 are not enough. The trick for people like me therefore is not to imbibe the first one.
Quite often a propensity to alcoholism and other drug addition is genetically based.
My father was a tough footballer who played for Collingwood. But he never drank a teaspoonful of alcohol in his life. This was because his father was an alcoholic whose drinking blighted his marriage and destroyed the family business.
My first drink of alcohol, at 14, was like an injection of rocket fuel and very soon I was drinking as much as I could. My idea of a good Saturday night was to go to Melbourne’s Brighton Cemetery with a flagon and sit drinking in front of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s obelisk. It read: “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, instead of being attracted to the grave of gangster Squizzy Taylor or bent Victorian politician Thomas Bent, I found myself in front of Gordon, the alcoholic poet, who killed himself on the beach near Park Street, Brighton, where I often used to drink myself.
When I was 15 I stumbled home drunk from Middle Brighton Beach at 2am. My father, tall and erect, was waiting up for me. “What are you celebrating, son?” he said. I had no answer. I didn’t know that I was drinking because I had to. Then Dad told me something I’ve never forgotten. “When I was your age, son, I lost two bicycles looking for my father.”
It seems to me that my dad knew that, like his father, he was potentially an alcoholic and that’s why he never drank at all. He believed, from experiencing the effects of his father’s alcoholism, that if he started drinking he’d be putting himself at great risk. He also understood that booze would also get me – his only living child – into terrible trouble. And it did. From the age of 14 to 24 alcohol caused me, and those close to me, enormous damage.
But despite being almost 44 years sober I still need to be vigilant and to realise that what matters most in my life is that I don’t pick up the first drink of alcohol.
The first of AA’s 12 steps says: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
No matter how long they have been sober, alcoholics in AA always speak of their alcoholism in the present tense. For example: “My name is Ross and I am an alcoholic.” This is because alcoholics and other addicts are never really cured of their alcoholism and addiction – in that if they start drinking and using again they are almost certainly bound to relapse into uncontrolled drinking and other drug use.
As Harvard University’s George E. Vaillant succinctly put it in his path-breaking study The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited: “Training alcohol-dependent individuals to achieve stable return to controlled drinking is a mirage. Hopeful initial reports have not led to replication.”
Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the proponents of controlled usage remain in favour with government bureaucrats and health professionals, while those who advocate a strategy of abstinence are often marginalised or ignored.
The fact is that while four to five years of abstinence is adequate to predict a stable future, return to controlled drinking is a much less stable state. This is not to dispute that alcoholics and addicts are resistant to adopting a goal of abstinence and often strongly deny the assertion that they cannot safely use alcohol or other drugs.
Indeed, such resistance and denial are integral parts of their disorder. Theoreticians who advocate controlled usage do so because it is difficult for alcohol-dependent and other drug-dependant people to consider abstinence. But there is no empirical evidence that controlled drinking or drug usage strategies work for such people for any extended period. The truth is that an alcoholic’s or an addict’s best chance of recovery lies in practising total abstinence. And Alcoholics Anonymous is by far the most successful agency in achieving this vital goal. So, as I often say to newcomers, and their families, why not avail yourself of the best?
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, is now available as an ebook.