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Abstinence is the only destination that makes sense in an alcoholic’s journey to recovery

8 March 2014 124 views One Comment

IT may be an inconvenient truth but the fact is that, in terms of its harm, alcohol is by far Australia’s most dangerous drug.

I pointed this out way back in 2003, when I was a keynote speaker at the NSW Alcohol Summit organised by the hugely talented, but sometimes flawed, ALP state minister John Della Bosca.

Della Bosca was committed to alcohol reform, but since I gave my blunt assessment about the dire situation with regard to alcohol in Australia, little seems to have changed. Indeed alcohol abuse is rife and alcohol-related violence is clearly on the increase, especially among the young.

One disturbing trend seems to be an exponential increase, among Australians aged 15 to 25, in out-of-control drinking, and especially in binge drinking among teenagers of both sexes. The nightly news often features some personal and family tragedy that is the result of this national dysfunction.

Pushed From the Wings

Unfortunately, in our society there is still enormous social and peer-group pressure on those who wish to avoid alcohol. Not surprisingly, this pressure is extremely strong in relation to the young, for whom drinking – or, more accurately, drunkenness – is a rite of passage.

In a society like ours, with such an entrenched drinking culture and with such a politically powerful liquor industry, significant pressure is applied to those, young as well as old, who need to remain abstinent in order not to harm others and themselves, let alone to live productive lives.

Regretfully, these days, as a therapeutic aim or a way of life, abstinence is regarded with suspicion or misunderstanding. People who don’t drink alcohol are often dubbed wowsers, as if their abstinence was somehow un-Australian. This is despite the fact that, over the long term, so-called “controlled drinking is a mirage for alcoholics.

To most people it is obvious, given the life-threatening, life-endangering consequences of alcoholism and the proven inability of alcoholics to control their drinking and other drug use, that for such people the goal of treatment should be total abstinence. Yet for decades an anti-abstinence orthodoxy has become entrenched in health departments and corrective services, with extremely unfortunate results. What is particularly disturbing is that alcoholics and their families are given false hope that controlled drinking is a viable option. Is it ever suggested that heroin and methamphetamine addicts try to learn to moderate or socially use heroin or ice? I think not.

The reality is that not drinking alcohol at all is still seen by many as rather weird, especially if one is young. Yet in recent years a number of teenage drinkers have done so much damage to themselves and others that they are seeking help to abstain from alcohol, including joining groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Significantly, because AA is an unpaid lay movement of men and women who have managed to get and remain sober and who wish to help other alcoholics, it is often undervalued by medical practitioners, psychologists and other health professionals.

Sometimes the public is puzzled about who is an alcoholic and who is not. May I suggest that if someone inquires “Am I an alcoholic? they ask themselves four questions: Is alcohol costing you more than money? Does your personality change for the worse after drinking? Do your relatives, friends, lovers and so on point out that you have a problem with alcohol? And finally, after drinking, do you sometimes have hours, or even days, that you cannot remember? This is commonly referred to as a blackout or alcoholic amnesia.

If a person answers yes to at least three of these questions, he or she is almost certainly an alcoholic. These are precisely the people for whom total abstinence is the only safe option.

Put simply: if alcoholics don’t pick up the first drink, they can’t get drunk. It’s so simple, but in our complicated world simplicity isn’t always fashionable.

The truth is that for an alcoholic, young or old, the best chance of recovery lies in not drinking alcohol at all, one day at a time.

And AA is by far the most successful agency is getting alcoholic men and women to stop drinking and to stay that way. So as I often say to alcoholics and their family and friends, why not avail yourself of the best?

AA has saved many lives and brought people back from the brink of destruction time and again. It has never been needed more than it is these days.

While some commentators have tunnel vision, focusing only on the problems of tobacco and illegal drugs, our nation is reeling under the spell of a drug that has been a huge problem since the arrival of the First Fleet. It’s called alcohol and it is daily destroying communities, families and individual lives.

The first step in dealing with its dreadful damage is to wake up to the magnitude of the problem posed by alcohol in Australia.

Ross Fitzgerald is co-author of ‘Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia’. His memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book.

The Weekend Australian, March 8-9, 2014, Inquirer, p 22.

One Comment »

  • Alex Wodak, Michael O’Brien, P. A. Smith said:

    There are ways to reduce the problem of excessive drinking

    ROSS Fitzgerald is right to say alcohol was, is, and looks like continuing to be our biggest drug problem (”Abstinence is the only destination that makes sense in an alcoholic’s journey to recovery”, 8-9/3). He is also right that abstinence and Alcoholics Anonymous are part of the response needed.

    But some don’t want to abstain and others can’t. Controlled drinking is another option for these groups while SMART Recovery (self-management and recovery training) is an alternative for those who find AA unattractive but want to help themselves and work in a group.

    The most important inconvenient truth about alcohol is that we have known for a long time how to substantially reduce the extent of this problem – and these methods have little to do with abstinence or AA.

    Even small increases in price and modest reductions in the availability of alcohol work wonders. But just as the tobacco industry was able for so long to thwart every effective response to cigarettes, the alcohol industry still manages this trick working closely but behind the scenes with whatever party forms government. Recent events in NSW show that governments that adopt policies advocated by the drinks industry and ignore the evidence are starting to pay a heavy price in terms of losing votes.

    Alex Wodak, St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, NSW

    ROSS Fitzgerald is right when he says abstinence is the only destination that makes sense in an alcoholic’s journey of recovery. Many of the wild young binge-drinkers of today are likely to cross over into alcoholism at some stage in their lives. The heartbreak this will bring to their lives and into the lives of those around them cannot be measured. Crossing the line into alcoholism is imperceptible in many people. Others are alcoholic from the first drink.

    Fitzgerald’s comments about the success of AA is supported by millions of people who have benefited from that organisation. Controlled drinking programs are often prescribed for those who have problems with alcohol. Like any addiction, taking a little will almost inevitably lead to taking a lot.

    Expensive clinics and professional therapies are worthless to an alcoholic unless they are allied to the AA philosophy.

    We are at a tipping point so far as alcohol-related problems are concerned. Never before has alcohol (and other addictive drugs) played such a destructive role in our community.

    Michael O’Brien, Newtown, NSW

    Ross Fitzgerald is correct. (“Abstinence is the only destination in an alcoholics journey to recovery”, 8-9/3)
    For addicts, one drink is enough to start the addiction running again, just as one cigarette can put you back on the smokes. That does not mean that all problem drinkers are alcoholics but it does mean that clinicians need to be rigorous with their diagnosis and, given the high morbidity and mortality rates for alcoholics, to err on the side of caution.

    P. A. Smith, Mount Archer, Qld

    Letters to the editor, THE AUSTRALIAN March 10, 2014 , p 11