The smell of Scotch makes me want to puke. That’s an astonishing thing for a Scot to say. Let’s call it a physical memory; traces of a bender with no recollections to go with the nauseating smell.
Our State of Origin friends gathered on Wednesday for food, wine, conviviality and (as it turned out), a fairly subdued evening as our team was soundly beaten. I’d forgotten to get some sparking mineral water or what we call “fake wine”. One of our guests brought a bottle of the latter and shared a glass. The alcohol-removed option is a rare treat because it is just as expensive as buying a bottle of wine.
It has been so long since alcohol touched my lips I rarely have to refuse alcohol when socialising.
“His is a ginger beer,” someone will say when we have choir wine nights. Most people just accept that I don’t drink. Years ago I went to lunch with a business contact who kept pressing me to drink, to the point where I said “Mate, you don’t need my approval. If you want another, have another.” We never went to lunch again.
Since I decided to stop drinking, circa 1984, I have never been tempted to start again. My (former) drinking mates would say “Oh well you obviously weren’t an alcoholic, then if you could just stop like that.” A couple of people I knew decided to quit around the same time. We never had the conversation because I rarely drank with those two. They had an enormous capacity while I was a two-pot screamer. If I started drinking wine or spirits after two or three beers, the night would be a write-off. As far as I’m aware, they did the 12 Steps and never fell off the wagon, which is universal parlance for starting to drink again.
I did go to an AA meeting once, in Auckland, circa something. The group comprised mostly rough-looking young men, a few teenage girls and a couple of middle-aged men and women you could pass in the supermarket and never think “Jeez, she looks like an alkie.”
One of the traits of a long-term alcoholic is to hide it from partners, children, extended family and friends. If friends and family enjoy a social drink, they will probably not notice you starting on the third bottle of wine.
AA impressed me because (a) it was anonymous (b) you could share your story and not feel as if you were being judged and (c) there was a cast-iron understanding that your story would not be told outside the room. I’d been an agnostic since my teenage years and decided that talking to God and following the 12 Steps was not going to work for me. I had a two-week break from drinking, decided to have a few at the weekly folk club and woke up next day not remembering anything from the night before. This was not a fuzzy, “Oh, now I remember” night. It was like someone had sliced a piece out of my brain and it never came back. Two weeks later (after another break) I got on another bender and the same thing happened. Next morning, the car was sitting in the driveway covered in mud.
It was so like the Paul Kelly song that emerged three or four years later:
“The sergeant asked me softly “Now do you recall?”
It all looked so familiar as though I’d dreamt it all;
I don’t remember a thing, I don’t remember a thing.”
(Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – Under the Sun)
So I quit. She Who Likes a Social Drink was a bit pissed (sorry, annoyed), that I threw out the remains of a wine cask.
If I could recap the life I lived since that day 34 years ago, you could chart it on an Excel spreadsheet; my professional life, physical and mental health and creative life all on an upward trajectory. It was not, as I feared, that being sober would rob me of rich ideas for my songwriting and short fiction. The opposite occurred. I rediscovered the serenity which comes from long vigorous walks, during which I was writing things in my head. My performance as a husband, father and friend, however, was like Telstra shares, a good income provider, punctuated with periods of poor performance.
You may wonder what brought this on – it’s not an anniversary of anything, I’m not inclined to fall off the wagon, even though Queensland lost the State Of Origin and the Baby Broncos got thumped by The Warriors. Two things gave me pause to revisit my drinking days, where I’d get drunk quickly and cheaply, slowly beginning to understand (sometimes) that I was the only drunk person in the room and that my real friends were just putting up with me. A silly bore, but never obnoxious. We all know the obnoxious drunk; the kind who get in your face and insist that you (the sober one), must be some kind of wimp because you won’t take a drink.
The other triggering factor was a story in The Monthly which is ostensibly about AA (the organisation) but more about the author’s personal struggle with alcohol and how AA helps and maybe doesn’t help. The remarkable thing about Jenny Valentish’s story* is that it stands alone as critical essay about an 82-year-old organisation which is rarely scrutinised.
AA mean Alcoholics Anonymous, which means you can repent under a cloak of anonymity. You could be a big rock star or the chief executive of Very Big Inc and no-one knows or should know you are a recovering alcoholic. One of the precepts of AA is that you never ‘get over it’. You’re an alcoholic and one drink will bring you undone.
Valentish observes that AA has made no significant updates to its doctrine, despite “a growing mountain of evidence-based research”. AA won’t change its literature without the approval of 75% of members worldwide. Three addiction experts reviewed the Big Book in 1985. Psychologist Albert Ellis was concerned by the lack of emphasis on self-management.
“By calling on God to remove your defects of character, you falsely tell yourself that you do not have the ability to do so yourself and you imply that you are basically an incompetent who is unable to work or and correct your own low frustration tolerance.”
Valentish starts her essay by confessing to a relapse after seven years sober. She says AA helped her a lot when she stopped drinking the first time. But by AA’s rules, if you have a relapse, you have ‘failed’ and have to start the 12 Steps all over again.
The organisation holds the 12 Steps (based on Christian principles), to be sacrosanct and it seems to work for problem drinkers (if they are determined to stop).
So go ahead and have a drink while you watch the Roosters give the Baby Broncos a pasting. If you can stop at 2, jolly good luck. I never could.
*One Step Beyond by Jenny Valentish, page 46 The Monthly, June, 2017