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October 2, 2006

This is a recollection of my four sober years, previously published in three parts.

Part One: 12 Steps Not Taken

Addiction perplexes and intrigues me. There are obvious personal reasons for this — I was addicted to alcohol for around ten years until October 2, 2006 — and I find the whole subject an enticing and elusive intellectual puzzle. The origins and causes of addiction are essentially a mystery and its treatments are notoriously random and sporadically effective at best. The medical profession, who are enamored with certainty, have all but outsourced its management to a non-existent god in the form of 12-step programs that, according to screeds of research, are either marginally effective or not effective at all.

My own experience with Alcoholics Anonymous persuaded me it is the world’s most elaborate placebo trial: if you believe hard enough, it may just work. Certainly, the “success stories” of AA are typically people with a certain cultish vibe, right down to the chanting of prayers and platitudes…”one day at a time”, “the elevator to sobriety is broken, take the steps!”, “Seven missed meetings makes one weak!”. The over-reliance on exclamation marks, and the non-ironic reveling in word-play, were early signs that I would not be an AA “lifer”.

At the heart of AA-world is the anthropomorphication of alcohol. AA members characterize booze as a nemesis with human, and inhumane, qualities. Grog itself — the actual liquid in the glass — is evil, pernicious, endlessly capable of plotting. It is out to get you! In most AA meeting soliloquies, the word alcohol could be replaced with the name of an abusive parent or partner without losing anything in coherence.

This is not to say I am anti-AA. For the first 3-6 months after I downed my last drink, it helped me. More than anything, it gave me something to do with the relentless hours and days of early sobriety. Also, I put together a confessional spiel — “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m an alcoholic”, “Hi, Phil!!!” — that proved quite popular among the AA faithful and gave me a timely ego boost ever time I delivered it (which was at every meeting; I was fresh meat and the throng couldn’t wait to hear what depths of depravity I had reached).

AA soon lost its appeal for me, but it undeniably works well for some people. It provides a supportive network of relatively non-judgmental and like-minded souls, and regular meetings certainly act as a buffer between the tenuously sober and relapse. But I could never shake the nagging feeling that the whole exercise was kind of missing the point.

From my experience, I felt that alcohol was a means to intoxication, and intoxication was a ticket out of reality, and reality was shit. The shiteousness of reality, therefore, struck me as main game.

For a booze-hound, as long as the calculation remains that being drunk — with all its dreary and dreadful personal costs — is preferable to being sober, then all the AA meetings in the world won’t keep you on the wagon. This assessment misses one obvious element — namely, that drinking (or drugging) to “self-medicate” actually makes the original condition worse, creating a misery spiral. I hate my life — I drink – my life gets even worse — I drink more — and so on.

The alcoholic keeps drinking — the exaggerated and easily treatable physiological dependence aside — because the hypothetical notion of a contented sober life is fantastical. If they were happy sober, they wouldn’t have ended up drunk.

At best, then, AA is a form of cognitive behaviour therapy — symptom treatment — and that’s not nothing. It is certainly better for a miserable drunk to be simply miserable, just as it is a good idea to train anorexics how to eat properly, or the obsessively hygienic to cease their irritating compulsions. But it leaves the black box — the reason we drank to begin with — untouched and, as long as that is case, the prospect of either relapse or the emergence of new symptoms seems inevitable to me. Never met an edgy, intense, chain-smoking, instant-coffee swilling, sex-obsessed recovering boozer? Find a church hall and wait a few hours.

If I am right — and this is one area where I am chronically unsure of myself — then this represents a direct challenge to the AA philosophy which is that sobriety is an end in itself; and that active non-drinking is the one and only answer. In response to my half-formed ideas, AA types will undoubtedly pull out the disease card: alcoholism, so it goes, is a disease, often inherited, for which there is no cure.

My cursory reading on the disease concept is that it began life as an instructive metaphor — alcoholism is very much like a disease — but it has taken on a literal meaning. I heard several AA members describe their condition as being akin to diabetes or heart disease, to which there is only one possible response: “Um, no it isn’t”.

As far as it goes, the disease metaphor is a useful way of focussing the attention of the addict on the chronic nature of their problem — but it is easy to stretch this to breaking point. Granted, there is a well-established genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse — my Irish ancestors, for example, were rarely sober — but this, I suspect, is far less significant that what it seems. In my case, it probably made it far more likely that I would resort to grog as my escape of choice than, say, self-mutilation or bulimia — but what else does it prove? Untroubled, the black box gathers dust.

AA adherents will have one of two responses to this: either, I am an alcoholic in denial on a one-way fast-track to relapse, or I was never really an alcoholic to begin with. To the true believers, it is simply inconceivable that sobriety can ever be achieved without the 12 steps, despite mountains of empirical evidence that it happens all the time. For them, the key to a sober life is to focus on not drinking with the same single-minded ferocity that they applied to getting hammered. But such an approach seems to me like a permanent, self-imposed and entirely avoidable hangover.

Part Two: The Windana Breather

I never went to rehab as such but I did detox twice.

The first time, I literally cannot remember what year it was. If I focused my mind for a minute or two, I could probably work out approximately when. Better still, there are a few people I could ask — parents, most obviously — who are more likely to retain specific memories of the episode. But it seems fitting that it remains lost in that dense fog of booze-addled half remembrances. Nothing says quite as eloquently that an attempt at sobriety has failed than failing to remember in what year it took place.

Chronology aside, I remember other details quite well. The place was called Windana, and it was a charity-run (but non-religious) dry-out facility, mainly for drug addicts, in grungy but gentrifying East St Kilda in Melbourne. It was near a park and a pool, because brisk walking and bad swimming were daily rituals of my time there. There was yoga and reiki, I remember that too, and the latter blew me away so much that the counsellor concluded my extreme state of relaxation may possibly have had more to do with my regular intake of diazepam than the therapy itself.

There were between eight and 12 of us, depending on the day. There was only one other drunk at Windana at the time, a delightful, hilarious and suicidal housewife on her fifth or sixth try, and the rest were there for drug addicitons. They were all drinkers too, but booze came in second or third on their list of vices (there was one guy who claimed to drink 30 cans of bourbon and cola a day but he was inside for his pot-smoking). Heroin and meth amphetamines were well-represented, and most used a lot of dope and buckets of prescription meds to round out their day. One fellow patient was so out of it on heroin and Xanax when he arrived at Windana, he couldn’t find the strength or will to swallow, and unchecked saliva ran down his chin like a frothy brook. I was riveted for 24 hours, watching him regain control of his facial muscles, and eventually transition from incoherent mumbling to ranting to complete sentences. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, which may explain why he confronted me some days later about having homosexual designs on him. (How do you say “I don’t do toothless junkies” in a nice way?).

I can’t remember his name, or anyone else’s from my 12 or so days at Windana for that matter. The staff there were mostly recovering addicts but not of the holly-roller/AA variety. One seemed too clean-cut, I recall, and far too young to have endured much of a rock bottom. That was my first encounter with that peculiar one-upmanship that leads addicts to doubt whether the life of the person sitting next to them was hellish enough to justify being there. “I stole from my parents!” “Oh yeah? I stole from my mother while she lay dying of poverty-related illnesses!” “That’s nothing! I exhumed my grandfather’s corpse and traded it to a necrophiliac for a pack of Winnie Blues!”

I never intended to stay off grog for good after Windana. In my addled mind, I was taking a “breather” and planned to return to enthusiastic but somewhat controlled drinking in good time. It turned out to be a brief hiatus indeed, and my first beer after six weeks soon turned into 12, which turned into 12 million soon enough. I drank knowingly as a drunk after Windana. I embraced the pub alcoholic’s lot as if it were a tragi-heroic way to proceed through life, Dylan Thomas-style. I sat in pubs every moment I could without losing my job. On weekends I arrived as soon as they opened through to the point sometime in the afternoon when my need for sleep overtook my need to drink — until, after a clarifying nap, I would start all over again. I made friends with miserable, boring and stupid old men because happy, interesting and intelligent people are not at pubs at 10AM — but I told myself it was some bullshit claim to authenticity. I told myself that I enjoyed horse (and greyhound!) racing, not to mention Australian rules football. I told myself that the pub was a meaningful community of good souls, grounded and real. I told myself these things, but I never believed them for a minute. It was bullshit, I knew it even then, of the most irredeemable kind.

Part Three: The Sober Leap

My second stint at detox was made possible by a fleeting moment of clarity a year earlier. It was then I signed up for private health insurance and, exactly twelve months later — on October 2 2006 — I became eligible for a range of insurer-funded treatments, including alcohol detox. Wasting no time to cash in my chips, this was the day I walked into the Melbourne Clinic, determined to make a blind leap into sobriety.

It’s difficult for me to recall, let alone convey, exactly how daunting a sober life seemed back then. The prospect of all that clear-headedness — all that fucking time on my hands — petrified me. Still does a bit.

I think I drank as way to evade insight. By this I mean that drinking allowed me to avoid the discomfiting experience of interacting with my own mind. I have read academics postulate that this same powerful impulse to extract oneself from conscious presence can explain all kinds of errant behavior, from drug-taking to problem gambling to sadio-masochistic sexual fetishes. This may sound a little self-important and pretentious (moi?) but it seems useful to me to understand why we do these things if we are serious about wanting to stop. No thirst in the world is enough to explain thirty pots a day.

I actually scaled back my drinking in the two months prior to commencing detox, which is rare apparently. Most drunks ramp up their drinking in panicked anticipation that the party may soon be over. But I wanted to ease myself into sobriety, so I cut down (!) to twelve cans on weekdays (although unlimited consumption on weekends).

I was, however, in possession of an stonking great hangover on the morning of my admission and remember shaking so badly with DTs that I could barely lift the pen to sign the forms. When they breathalysed me, the nurse was surprised to see no evidence of alcohol. “Irish catholic?” he asked , laughing far too loudly when I confirmed his suspicions.

Being a private psych hospital, the Melbourne Clinic was a far more salubrious setting than Windana but no less tragic under the surface. The detox unit was located in the midst of the geriatric ward which seemed a little counterproductive: “Look around you! If you stop drinking, you might live long enough to end up like these miserable, crazy people!”

My fellow patients were mainly middle-class boozehounds, although there was an element of pill-popping into the mix. We underwent far less adventurous therapies than at Windana where the approach seemed to be to try anything as long as the instructor didn’t expect to get paid. Our days consisted of group gabfests, the obligatory diazepam to prevent convulsions, and lots and lots of smoking outside in hospital slippers. The shared misery and humiliation associated with such places creates profound, instantaneous friendships. Much gallows humor, so very much in common: at least at that indelible moment in our lives.

I remember them all, my momentary soul-mates.

One fell in love with another, though it came to nothing. Another cried so hard when I left that the recollection alone makes me wince. I kept in touch with many of them on the outside, quite intensively at first. And then, one by one, they made peace with the decision to drink again — something I wasn’t, still am not, brave enough to do.

And so I checked out and made the leap into a new, sober life. I tell people it was easy and in a strange way it was. I haven’t felt like drinking again, not yet at least. Not enough energy for it, no fight left. But, four years on today, I am not convinced that being sober is all that great either. It is just better, on balance, than the alternative.

I wrote three years ago, a year into the sober schtick, that I felt a twinge of envy when I see a unreconstructed drunk who defiantly chooses to power on, whatever the carnage or consequences. I still do, but it goes as fast as it comes.

This is my path, for better or worse. This is how I live now.

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