Bad apples

They don’t use them to pack shelves, they use them to pack cells

Up in the system before they even crack 12

You can paint a pretty picture with all them pastels

But it’s black and white, and the latter still sells

What kind of life is that? They’re getting born and tagged

Teacher can’t reach them, I’m getting fucking bored of that

They couldn’t spell their name off the bat

I bet they can tell you where to score a quarter at.

Briggs, ‘Bad Apples’, Sheplife, 2014.

 

I am a huge fan of Adam Briggs – Shepparton’s finest Yorta Yorta rapper, satirist, actor, storyteller, record label owner and music producer, one half of the influential Australian hip hop outfit A.B. Original (with Trials from the Funkoars), and all-round badass. Briggs ain’t got time for your bullshit, and calls out racism wherever he sees it. I respect that. His lyrics have a gritty realism that brings the stories and experiences of Aboriginal people living in south-eastern Australia to a wider audience than any anthropologist could hope to achieve. Briggs’ work draws its power from tackling subjects that have long been taboo in Australian popular music – dysfunction in poor, marginalised communities – kids who can’t yet spell but ‘know where to score a quarter [ounce of weed] at’.

But here’s the thing I’m uncomfortable with: I knew 12 year old white kids growing up who were the ones selling seven gram bags of pot. They didn’t get busted, nor did they get targeted by the police. Both are very successful in their chosen fields today, pay their taxes, love their families and contribute immensely to their communities. Neither went on to be addicts or alkies.

From my experience, there are many people like me with no particular reason to be an alcoholic or an addict (well documented risk factors include family history of addiction, socioeconomic status, education level and employment status), who take a wrong left turn somewhere in life and end up at Rock Bottom. While my undesirable behaviours remain hidden behind the closed doors of a house I can afford, it’s a different story when you’re living on the street, or at least by the seat of your pants. Moreover, it’s an entriely different story if you’re a member of a racial group that is routinely the subject of overpolicing – a phenomenon linked to the stereotyping of non-white people as being drunks, addicts and the perpetrators of real and imagined violence.

Our old friend Phillipe Bourgois notes that historically, anthropologists ‘avoided tackling taboo subjects such as personal violence, sexual abuse, addiction, alienation, and self-destruction’.* This is a pity, because in making friends and working with informants during long-term fieldwork, anthropologists learn the taste of the local liquor, numb their lips with kava, or hallucinate with shamans in the Columbian jungle. While anthropologists are well placed to document less-desirable local habits, they may have perfectly good reasons for not doing so, including the need to protect their own health and reputations, and those of their informants.

Dwight B. Heath, an anthropologist who studied drinking behaviour among the Camba, a mestizo population in eastern Boliva in the 1950s, threw the accepted idea that heavy drinking is inherently bad in all cultural situations on its head. According to Heath, the Camba routinely got waaaasteed, but because their drinking didn’t appear to have any negative consequences, it was ok. Among the benefits of the Camba practice of partying to oblivion, Heath reports, is that it helps build ‘rapport between individuals who are normally isolated and introverted.’** It’s worth noting that being isolated and introverted is a trait we alkies share too, although when we’re not too drunk we can be very social creatures.

Health’s ‘cultural model of drinking’ approach was the subject of a scorching critique by sociologist and addiction specialist Robin Room. Room argues that the ethnographic/anthropological literature thoroughly underestimates the social and health consequences of alcohol use. Room suggests that this is because many anthropologists are unfamiliar with the multi-disciplinary alcohol and addiction literature, possess a  concept of addiction in intercultural contexts that is at best vague, or are the products of a ‘wet generation’ who view a cheeky bottle of wine or four at lunch as perfectly normal.***

I hold a more optimistic view of the current state of anthropological research on alcohol and substance use among economically and social disadvantaged or marginalised communities, who experience the lions’ share of alcohol-related health problems. I particularly like Angela Garcia’s work among heroin addicted Hispanos in northern New Mexico. Garcia explores the relationship between intergenerational heroin use, poverty and colonial history. Through this, she is shows how smack use is an expression of a long history of economic and cultural dispossession, the fragmentation of social and intimate relations, and an existential desire for release from these present circumstances. ****

In Australia, an anthropologist who I greatly admire is Maggie Brady, who has worked for several decades on alcohol and substance use issues. Brady has published widely in academic journals and books, plus several volumes of practical and public policy-focused work. Through her work with Aboriginal drinkers, Brady understands that there are cultural and social barriers to giving up alcohol, in addition to practical considerations (for example, the lack of detoxification services in the bush). Furthermore, Brady also communicates well the implications, difficulties and harm associated with stereotyping Aboriginal people as being drinkers.*****

Having worked, surfed, fished, drank (I was one of those alcohol-related ER presentations at the Alice Springs Hospital mentioned in an earlier post), attended detox and rehab, and recovered among so-called urban and regional Aboriginal populations in Australia over the past few decades, I can see clear parallels in Garcia’s work with the realities of many of my friends and informants who smoked, drank, snorted, injected and/or inhaled various substances (often at the same time) over the years.

However, I remain comfortable with my choice not to publish this data in my thesis for three reasons. First, it was not directly relevant to my core research questions, did not get mentioned in my ethics application, and to do so would have been an unconscionable breach of trust and respect on my part, I believe. That is the primary reason this blog is autobiographical rather than a work of anthropology or ethnography.

Second, I remain conscious of the negative perceptions and stereotypes this data could reinforce: we alkies recognise that an alcohol-affected, drug-addled, trashy neighbour is still a pain in the ass, regardless of the colour of their skin. Yet, the fact remains that while alcohol is colourblind, alcohol consumption causes more harm amongst poor, indigenous and marginalised populations, including in Australia. Another fact, often ignored, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to abstain (not drink altogether) than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Those who do drink to excess, however, fare poorly.******

Third, my notes on this are so clearly warped by my thinking about drinking at the time they were written. This is despite me being what some might call a ‘functioning alcoholic’ living in denial at that stage. I normalised other people’s heavy drinking because of my own. I saw no problem in a chef, for example, having his allocated six double scotches after knock off, then a shot with his espresso the next morning, followed by beers in the cool room during prep.

So, when Briggs raps about a Koori kid’s life choices being snuffed out before they even had a chance – ‘what if all you had was bad apples for lunch?’ – I listen from a privileged perspective. I had a perfectly stable middle class, rural upbringing. I have white skin, straight teeth and a penis, have benefited from excellent schooling and health care, and have no alcoholics that I know of in my immediate family. I never got locked up, but could afford a lawyer if I needed one. To follow Brigg’s metaphor, my core was all rotten, despite having only ever eaten new season Fujis. Maybe this means my core was rotten from the start? Regardless, my experience around the rooms of AA suggests that redemption is always possible, even when all our problems are of our own making.

 

* Phillipe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 14.

**Dwight B. Heath, ‘Drinking patterns of the Bolivian Camba’, Quarterly journal of studies on alcohol, 1958, 19, pp. 491-508.

***Robin Room, ‘Alcohol and ethnography: a case of problem deflation?’, Current Anthropology, 1984, 25, pp. 169–78.

****Angela Garcia, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along The Rio Grande, University of California Press, 2010.

*****Maggie Brady’s Giving away the grog : Aboriginal accounts of drinking and not drinking, (Department of Human Services and Health, Canberra, 1995) includes an astonishing collection of stories of men who were able to quit drinking without any real assistance. I’ll do a deep dive into these stories in the next few weeks, because they provide hope for alkies everywhere, I believe.

See also: Maggie Brady, ‘Giving away the grog: A positive strategy for addressing substance abuse, Australia’, in Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) (ed.), Indigenous Peoples and International Development: Case Study Profiles, Conference Organising Committee, Ottawa, Canada, 2001, pp. 87-97; Indigenous Australia and Alcohol Policy: Meeting difference with indifference, UNSW Press, 2004; ‘On- and off-premise drinking choices among Indigenous Australians: The influence of socio-spatial factors’, Drug and Alcohol Review, 2010, 29:4, pp. 446-451.

******See, for example: World Health Organisation, Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, 2014, p.9; Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance framework: 2012 report, Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, Department of Health and Ageing, 2012, p.105; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey: First Results, Health risk factors: Alcohol consumption — lifetime and single occasion risk, 2012-13, 4727.0.55.001.

My name is Mud

I’ve got my pride, I drink my wine I’d drink only the finest ‘cept I haven’t earned a dime in several months Or were it years The breath on that fat bastard could bring any man to tears We had our words, a common spat So I kissed him upside the cranium with that aluminum baseball bat My name is Mud.

Primus, ‘My Name is Mud’, Pork Soda, 1993

I’ve been reading Gregory Bateson’s ‘The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism’ tonight (apparently that’s what sober people do after work while listening to Primus and drinking tea with a 25kg lapdog).*

Bateson was a serial overachiever – a true multidisciplinarian – like the McGuyver of the social sciences. The guy could argue philosophy with the best of them, take photos and write poetry, and publish some thoroughly thought-provoking anthropology based mainly on fieldwork in Bali and PNG. He also worked with and married the very famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.

All good right? Seems like a nice guy? No reason to be suspicious.

Yet I can’t escape the sensation that Bateson is reaching through the years to remind me that, if I drink again, my name is Mud – just like the murderous drunk in Primus’ song.

Then the penny finally drops that the object of Bateson’s powerful intellect for an entire chapter is …*gasp*… me, or rather we alkies.

And not only that, it’s good. Like, creepily, insightfully, peeling-open-your-cranium-for-a-wee-peek good. And it came out before I was born.

Is this a time-travelling, mind-reading, brain-peeling type horror story set to a funk metal soundtrack? Not quite.

Bateson’s primary research was two years (1949-52) hanging out with alkies in a Veteran’s hospital in California, many of whom suffered from schizophrenia and other comorbidities. In other words, these guys were seriously hard cases. His secondary data was the AA big book, also a product of the time (1939) in which it was written.

While the AA big book remains massively and embarrassingly sexist and misogynist, and wears its Christianity proudly (Bill and Bob did make some concessions for people from different religious backgrounds, and agnostics), the AA I know today values gender and ethnic equality as much as it does its open approach to spirituality.  The Goddy religiosity of Bateson’s AA is not my own, where there is a strong and growing acceptance that, while we humanists and atheists are probably going to hell, at least we can get sober and hold atheist, agnostic or freethinker AA meetings while we are still living.

Also, Cybernetics of Self was one chapter in a massive volume that applied ideas from cybernetics – the study of how organic things (humans and other animals) and machines interact with each other – to a range of human experiences and issues central to psychiatry, philosophy, ecological anthropology and systems theory. In other words, it is heavy going and probably won’t help you get sober.

Bateson argues that sobriety for the alcoholic is characterised by an ‘unusually disastrous variant of the Cartesian dualism’ – in our case, ‘between conscious will, or “self”, and the remainder of our personalities. Bateson (1971:442) remarks:

Bill W’s stroke of genius was to break up with the first “step” the structuring of this dualism. Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change, is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.

Epistemology is geek speak for the way we think about things, so Bateson is saying that, by taking the first step, we alkies must force a fairly profound change in our perspectives (I found it at Rock Bottom, as Bateson predicted). He also recognises that, in our cups, we alkies are a selfish, self-centred and self-seeking bunch of assholes, and that any change in perspective needs to be a radical departure from these default settings.

Without doing a deep dive at this stage into Bateson’s broader ideas about our maladaptive alcoholic behaviours and notions of pride, the nature of the individual, and society as a whole, I think he is spot on about AA’s first step and why it seems to work. Not only do we alkies have to own our addictions in the first step, we also require a radical change in perspective, and many people still refer to this as a spiritual experience in much the same language as Bateson would have heard.

My change in perspective has been more of a slow burn, built on the mutual support of my peers and a guided process of critical self reflection. No thunderbolts and lightning for this little black duck, nosiree. But it did, and it does, get better.

*Gregory Bateson, 1971, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press,  pp.440-56.

Owning it

 

When I’m home, I like to kick my weekends off by attending the Saturday AA meeting for newcomers. This is a healthier choice for me (and those around me) than waking up with cotton mouth, a cracking headache, a bad disposition and a thirst that can only be quenched by gagging down my first drink of the day.

Another thing that separates we alkies from people who merely binge drink is our capacity – or rather our screaming physical and emotional need – to drink on a hangover, for example after passing out on the couch in front of the footy on Friday night. Oh, and did I mention we like to isolate, because it lowers the probability of someone interrupting us during a spree (usually a loved one, unless we’ve burnt all our bridges)?

The newbie’s meeting is a highlight for me, because every week, at least 20 people who look exactly like you and me stand up and own their addictions to a crowd of strangers. For many of them this is a new experience and you can smell the nerves when the convenor asks people to stand if they have less than 90 days sobriety. Some have 24 or 48 hours and are still tweaking. Others, a hopeful week or two. There are also familiar faces – others who have gone out and done more research with a head full of sobriety, the poor bastards. Then there are ‘older, sober members’: people who go along to support, drink shitty coffee, crack terrible jokes, and sometimes get up the front and speak. Like me.

The first and only step you have to get 100 percent, they say in AA, is the first one: acknowledging you have a problem – owning it – and sincerely wanting to get well. That’s it.

It sounds like an excruciatingly shameful ritual, and it can be, for some. For me it was liberating and the first crucial step in getting well.

Alcoholism is a serious business. I know without a question of doubt that if I kept drinking at the pace I was at the very end – barely able to draw a sober breath and drinking to blackout every other day, obese, heavily medicated and suffering from the ‘isms’ (insert pharmaceutical dependence as prefix), hypertensive, unfit, pre-diabetic, with bonus fatty liver disease, chronic anxiety and depression – my life expectancy was short. That, and the fact that the only reason I didn’t hang myself at Rock Bottom was that I was too drunk to find the climbing rope, let alone have the dexterity to tie a noose.

To stay well, we have to own our addictions. Not once, like at the newbies’ meeting, but every single day.

Congratulations you have reached step one! Level Up!

Accountability and memory

The later AA steps focus on reviewing our strengths and weaknesses, identifying unhealthy character traits or problems that we have interacting with other human beings, cleaning up the messes we made when we were drinking and setting things right, and helping other alkies to get well by sharing our experiences of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Sponsorship (read: mentorship) helps too.

For me, AA’s steps are all about taking ownership, and being responsible and accountable for our actions. But, the problem I and many other alkies encounter during this process, is memory (or lack of it).

You see, one of the consequences of drinking to ‘get to sleep’ (read: pass out) for at least two decades is that my brain doesn’t hold memories as well as it should of events that transpired while I was under the influence. At the end of my drinking, the blackout period came much sooner than sleep: I only remember the first light beer of my last bender.

This, for me, is where ethnographic methods are suprisingly helpful. Anthropologists use ethnographic methods to find out why people do the strange things we do. Anthropologists mostly rely on long term participant observation, which involves immersing themselves in a cultural situation (usually somebody elses’) and taking careful notes on things .

Ethnographic methods also include the same tools that other social scientists use, which (to be honest) are pretty much the same as what historians, journalists and legal investigators use: any ethical or legal way to obtain relevant and available data with fully informed consent (which makes us distinct from spies, I guess).

These days, anthropologists can only dream unethical dreams of having access to the range of data on their informants as they have about themselves. But, despite the so-called reflexive turn in anthropology, I doubt if many non-alcoholic anthropologists mine this data too closely. It can be deeply uncomfortable.

You’d be surprised at how many biscuit crumbs we leave behind as we go about our lives that tell our story. Maybe when VHS was newfangled and disco biscuits were literally Tim Tams at the Blue Light Disco, it was harder to trace our movements or find our car keys. But in the era of FB, cloud back-ups, online bank statements – instantly  downloaded and downloadable memory on multiple devices – we leave a digital footprint that we hope only ourselves and a select few others have access to.*

Photographs too, are useful. Diary and calendar entries. Spreadsheets on dietary consumption and weight loss, hours worked for various employers, letters, emails, postcards, sick notes, scraps of paper, receipts and empty bottles hidden in really fucking weird places.

We have an enormous amount of information at our fingertips if we want to reconstruct our past and review our behaviour and motivations. Even more so if we take detailed (if sometimes illegible) notes on things that interest us by force of habit and training.

To sum: doing AA step work is a bit like doing ethnography on yourself, except with more information at your fingertips. Some of it is gold, and other bits are misleading, factually incorrect, biased, or simply incomplete. The moral and ethical imperatives in both AA and ethnography are to hasten slowly, be critically self-reflexive in analysing various data and forming conclusions, write and speak carefully and not throw anyone else under the bus in doing so.

P.S. A preliminary review of some relevant/inspiring social science literature relating to alcoholism and addiction is coming – just trying to get my hands on a particularly elusive book 🙂

*Civil liberties are among those taken-for-granted things that you don’t notice until they are absent. The erosion of these liberties, for example, of the right to privacy, is something that we should all be deeply concerned about. Our data has become valuable. The ubiquitous FB only exists to shop the data of its users – some of it we would consider to be very personal – to companies to enable those companies to try and sell you stuff you may or may not want or need. Rumours that Mark Zuckerberg may run for politics could well imply that the man who now holds much of the world’s personal data, could have a decent chance of adding Mr President to his resume. Stranger things have happened.

Advice? Best not.

I don’t know about you, but if someone tells me to not do something, it immediately becomes more alluring. Perhaps it has something to do with my Poor Impulse Control. In any case, I’m probably on the lower end of the mischief itch scale: most of my closest confidants are ex-crims, but you won’t hear any of them doling out advice.

AA’s public relations strategy is based on attraction rather than promotion. This means that AA members will happily share their own stories – usually some kind of embarrasing (generally hilarious) tale of woe, how they got sober and what life is like now – but will never tell someone how to get sober. This is because AA worked out many years ago that we alkies don’t like to be told not to drink. I swear Bill W must have been punched in the face a bunch of times before he worked that out.

The useful thing about AA is that it is a bit like distributed artificial intelligence (hi Siri!) – we come to a meeting with a problem or call our sponsors (‘I saw Senator so-and-so in the coffee line and wanted to give him a power-wedgie for being such an asshat’) before we do anything we might regret later. While the individual in AA is sick, not every individual is sick on the same day, meaning that the group is strong. When a problem gets shared, it also gets attacked from every angle (just like distributed AI), and more often than not, an appropriate solution or course of action is decided upon (i.e. power wedgie averted.) To bring it back to anthropology, this means that we socialise our problems.

AA is a well-organised, entirely egalitarian fellowship with a flat management structure – nobody ‘speaks for’ AA. Each member has as much say in issues that affect her or his own group and area as any other. This means that decision-making in AA can resemble the Ent-moot from LOTR, where an awful lot gets said and every thought ventilated, for seemingly very little result.


Treebeard: We have just agreed…
[Merry and Pippin lean in]

Merry: Yes?

Treebeard: I have told your names to the Entmoot, and we have agreed you are not Orcs.

Pippin: Well, that’s good news.

Treebeard: You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.


But, instead of forty foot tall human-tree hybrids, think of a bunch of street toughs on their very  best behaviour sharing a biscuit with your grandmother.

Oh, and did I tell you that getting sober in AA can lead to the best belly laughs that you have ever had? We are not a dull bunch. This is because humour works better than telling someone not to drink.

A couple of Australian anthropologists Dr John Carty and Dr Yasmine Musharbash put together a special issue on humour for Anthropological Forum. In their introduction, they write:

Learning the laughing lines, getting the jokes, coming to share a ‘sense of humour’ is

perhaps the central yet strangely nebulous heart of understanding, and belonging,

within social relationships. Knowing how to make other people laugh with you—

instead of at you—is for many anthropologists the high-water mark of fieldwork.**

I would add that this applies equally to getting sober in AA – the black humour at the heart of the very best AA shares is criticial for creating a shared understanding of addiction, and of ourselves as addicted bodies.

It wasn’t a street tough that dragged my sozzled carcass over the line of self-identification with the ‘in-group’, so to speak. It was the grandmother’s story of cupboard drinking and the hoots of shared laughter at her stories of tipping back 750ml bottles of vodka with reckless abandon, and then hiding the bottles. Just like me.

 

* J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter IV: ‘Treebeard’, 1954.

** John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash, You’ve Got to be Joking: Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology, Anthropological Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, November 2008, 209–217.

 

My Grog Cabinet

The anthropologist Michael Taussig wrote a wonderfully eclectic book called My Cocaine Museum (2004). It remains a personal favourite because Taussig is the master at making you feel like you’re part of a story – in this case the ‘imagined realities’ of the cocaine industry in Colombia.

You know that bit when you’re watching a film as a kid, the Goonies or whatever, and the living room retreats from view? The screen fills your entire awareness. I get that from Taussig’s ethnography and associated writings. That same level of immersion. That interests me and I want to convey that sense to a non-alcoholic reader somehow on this blog. **

I’m not about to build My Grog Cabinet in homage anytime soon though. For starters, it would be empty. I never met a bottle of grog I could keep for more than a week.*

Speaking of which, did I tell you I once worked as a sommelier – a trained and knowledgeable wine professional – one summer? Fabulous job for an alcoholic in training!

By the time my PhD rolled around, I couldn’t tell the difference between cheap beer and craft; cask wine and artisanal, small batch vintages.

By the time I checked into (and out of) my first detox, I’d decided that casks were far more practical because they were easier to hide.

I know people who have drank the hand sanitiser at detoxes because they were jonesing so bad, although I never did. I never (knowingly) drank metho either because I had no wish to go blind.

No, My Grog Cabinet would have to contain:

  • A mobile phone – a phone call is all it takes to prevent a lightbulb moment (or a thirsty thought) from turning into a drink
  • A wine glass full of coins (for meetings)
  • A cigarette lighter (any self-respecting anthropologist should carry one, regardless of whether they smoke)
  • A chewed, blunt pencil
  • A dog eared copy of the pocket version of the AA Big Book (shiny, blue cover), and
  • Some instant coffee granules and Arnott’s Assorted biscuit crumbs.

*3 years of sobriety makes having alcohol in the house a lot easier, but it’s easier if it’s not there at all.

**See also Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (1987) and What Color is the Sacred (2009). Taussig writes at length about the feeling of being drawn into an image, a colour, a story or historical account.

Definition of terms, of sorts

I’m a bit wary of introducing too many social science terms on this blog, because not every alcoholic or addict I know has a working knowledge of Foucault’s theories on power relations. Still, it might help the reader to know what I mean by a few things.

Also, FYI, the reason most of my blog posts are structured like AA ‘shares’ is because that is the nature of AA narratives: these stories pour out of  alkies like liquid from glass, or sweat from trembling pores, as catharsis.


Alcohol and alcoholism

When I started my PhD, settling on a research question was like opening a choose your own adventure novel. Picking an addiction was similar, but with a terrible payoff. Fortunately, I didn’t take a path in life that led me to heroin, but alcohol is a pretty close second on the scale of Shit You Don’t Want To Get Physically Addicted To.

Alcohol is no normal commodity.* Sure, it can be bought and sold. It has both a use value and an exchange value, it attracts various import duties and sales taxes, and is manufactured, distributed, marketed and sold. It is unusual because of its capacity to cause great pleasure and real harm, both to those who use it, and their loved ones, in addition to its highly addictive properties. Alcohol can be consecrated and transformed into the symbolic blood of a deity’s son. In the first British colony in Sydney it served as currency for a time, and continues to circulate as barter in the Australian beer economy (from memory, the going rate for moving a friend’s fridge is a six pack – if you move the entire contents of the house you could probably expect a slab). Drinking is a national pastime in Australia, playing into nationalistic notions of larrikinism and mateship. It is ubiquitous at social occasions. Australians drink to celebrate and they drink to mourn.

Alcoholic beverages are big business and readily available. Last year, Australians spent a grand total of $14.5 billion on alcohol they purchased from a liquor store (as opposed to a licensed venue). Almost three-quarters of this went to supermarket-affiliated retailers such as Dan Murphy’s and BWS (meaning Coles and Woolworths…down, down, trousers are down).**

Coincidentally, most alcoholics like me drink at home behind closed doors because a. It is cheaper, b. There’s literally less shit that can go wrong, and c. Have you tried pulling on trousers after drinking a 4 litre cask of Fruity Lexia ($10.99, Dan Murphy’s, further discounts available with Woolworths shopper dockets)?

Alcohol manufacturers are represented by powerful industry lobby groups, whose job it is to see the industry flourish under neoliberal, free trade conditions. Alcohol giant Lion itself gave $90,000 to the ALP and $55,000 to the Liberal Party in 2015/16.***

Oh, and did I mention alcohol-related harm?****

Begbie Barfight Scene, Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, 1996

maxresdefault

Despite decades of chronic, alcohol-related harm accompanying structural inequality in many Northern Territory communities, and despite community-led campaigns for alcohol bans, the alcohol industry pours millions of dollars into the coffers of the two major political parties. The ABC reported recently that a single Darwin pub-owner had donated $100,000 in the last 12 months, split evenly between the ALP and the Country Liberals.*****

Remember that this is the same NT political class that introduced mandatory alcohol treatment as a sentencing option for recidivist drunks. Alcohol Mandatory Treatment was broadly criticised for offering little therapeutic benefits and for unfairly targeting Aboriginal citizens (for whom public drinking in the shade is perfectly acceptable, while their service in public bars can never be guaranteed.) Also, something NT policy makers failed to grasp was AA’s step one – you have to want to get sober in the first place to have any hope in hell of staying that way.

So, when I talk of alcohol, I am talking of a constellation of things including, for example: a poisonous substance that can cause both pleasure and pain; an atypical, yet valuable commodity (which means it is inherently political); something that can carry symbolic meaning as a sacrament; and, a substance that binds a motley collection of people from all walks of life into the transnational fellowship we know of as AA.

Alcohol doesn’t care about the colour of your skin, and neither do people in recovery. If you’re a five foot three sistagirl you have as much right to be in an AA meeting as I do with my male, middle-aged, middle-income, white privilege.

Unfortunately, for most alcoholics our shared future lies either in a coffin or some other kind of uncomfortable box (nuthouse, inn-house, outhouse or divvy van). Despite huge leaps forward in the sciences that treat addiction, few alcoholics get sober today and fewer still remain that way until they die. AA offers the easiest, gentlest way in my humble opinion.

I’ll blog about the science of alcohol and how the physical addiction/withdrawal process works (and feels like) later. For now, I’ll just say that while I may have another drink in me, I don’t know if I have another recovery. It’s hard. The docs think I’d have to dry out under medical supervision because the shakes and tremors – Delirium Tremens – were so pronounced in 2014 and can be life threatening. But that’s, as we say, a problem for another day. My sole job today is to get my head on the pillow sober.


Approach to the anthropology of addiction

I think alcoholism and addiction is misunderstood, by and large, in the social sciences (including anthropology) and the medical profession. This is because, when asked about our addictions, we usually downplay them, withhold critical information or flat out lie. I know because I’m pretty sure I did this to every GP and psychologist I saw when I was drinking. He-ll-ooo Valium!)  The point I want to make is that when it comes to our addictions, we are pathological liars.

How do you know an active alcoholic is lying? His lips are moving.

But, when we get sobriety (not just put down the bottle), most of us become pathological truth-tellers.

After all, they were still locking us up in asylums or attaching wires to our heads when Bill W and Dr Bob were getting sober and writing the AA Big Book. In parts of the world, they just leave you lying in your own piss in the street. In Duterte’s Phillipines, they use you for target practice. I am grateful that, where I live, alcoholics and addicts can get treatment and support if they want it.

In thinking about the way in which alcoholic drinking and addiction reach inexorably into peoples’ lives, Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s brilliant ethnography of homeless heroin addicts living in San Francisco, Righteous Dopefiend (2009), is a particularly good starting point. Bourgeois and Schonberg draw on the ideas of several very famous, but very dead, social theorists (Marx, Bourdieu and Foucault) to develop a theory of abuse, broadly referencing the misuse of power in social relations including those of gender, race and socioeconomic class.

Bourgois and Schonberg, by virtue of slumming it with San Franciscan smackies for more than a decade, get addiction. How could you not after such a long period of research? My problem with Righteous Dopefiend lies not in its heartbreakingly thick description and thoughtful analysis, but in the fact that it’s a very different thing to get addiction than it is to truly experience it.

This goes beyond the classic anthropological debates around emic and etic field research conducted either within a given social group or from the outside. I’m concerned about the difference between individual, deeply personal, subjective experience, and the rigorous observations of an ethnographer (or, in the case of Righteous Dopefiend, a team of dedicated ethnographers).

I’ve just finished a book about cancer to get a sense of how other anthropologists have written about the subjective experience of illness – S. Lochlann Jain’s excellent ethnography Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (2013).

It closes with the unforgettable scene of the author clearing out her cupboard full of cancer meds and wigs, while reflecting on what the future holds, including the chance of a relapse. Jain is both the object and the subject – a conflation of the two roles of observer and observed when she was diagnosed with cancer and joins what Susan Sontag has referred to as ‘the kingdom of the ill’.

So these are some of the theoretical, moral and philisophical questions I am grappling with.

Not much of a definition of terms, but it will do for a start. BYEEE

*See: Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, Research and Public Policy, Second Edition, 2010, Thomas F. Babor, Raul Caetano, Sally Casswell, Griffith Edwards, Norman Giesbrecht, Kathryn Graham, and others, Oxford Uni Press

**http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/7181-liquor-retail-australia-201703201051

***http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-09/political-donations-industry-dataset/82291

****The McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth recently reported that, nationally, police spend one quarter of their budgets responding to alcohol related incidents. In WA alone, there were 5,092 alcohol related domestic violence incidents reported in 2011-12, representing almost half (47 percent) of all all domestic assaults that year – a 5 percent increase on the previous year.  It’s also worth noting that these probably reflect only the more serious incidents.

The MCCAY report noted that alcohol causes 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations each day across Australia. The report notes that the direct cost of alcohol-related problems to society in 2010 was conservatively estimated at $14.35 billion (not including the cost of harms to others). See: The McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, Alcohol: Drinking patterns and harms in Australia and WA, August 2017, https://mcaay.org.au/assets/publications/factsheets/alcohol—drinking-patterns-and-harms-in-australia-and-wa.pdf

*****http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-30/fresh-call-for-ban-on-political-donations-in-nt/8222568

 

 

FEAR

If you had asked me in 2009 if was I afraid of anything, I probably would have said ‘failure’ (not surprising for a anthropology PhD student in the early stages of fieldwork). But there was probably very little else I would have nominated, apart from coming across a hungry great white in her natural habitat – but what the fuck can you do if that happens?

In truth, I was scared shitless of living and terrified of dying.

What I feared most was fear itself, cliched as that sounds. I was terrified of sitting in an anthropology seminar, of sweating uncontrollably and trembling while my heart did its best to explode in my chest for no reason at all. I was terrified of not having my quota to drink each night because I couldn’t face the terror of being alone with my own thoughts. So, for as long as I can remember, I drank with the end goal of oblivion (or sleep, whichever came first).

For most of my PhD, quota was a longneck of full strength beer and a bottle of wine if I had surfed or exercised. By the time I had submitted it was double the amount of grog plus four diazepam per day. But hey, I was living in Canberra again by then – what more can you expect from a marine creature disconnected from its natural habitat and its source of salty psychic strength?

Around the time that I had six chapters in the can and two more to write, my anxiety decided to Level Up! like a big fuck off animated gorilla. For no apparent reason at the time other than that it was Tuesday.

It came on like a Sydney train – one moment you’re standing there hungover on the platform and the next, there’s white spots in your vision and a roaring gale in your ears as the thrumming bass rumbles through your chest. Eyes are gritty, mouth dry. Swallowing becomes difficult. You feel an irrepressible urge to be somewhere else but you’re getting on the train and there’s no choice in the matter and then…

The pressure. The air is closing in. There is no way out.

You’re on the train and you can’t get off.

Isn’t this how heart attacks start? A fat, unfit middle aged bloke calls in sick to work then is found cold by his worried missus with the dog looking miserable in the corner that night?

Seconds stretch to minutes become hours became years. A decade of fearful thoughts passed between heartbeats. No grog in the house to escape it with (or was there some in the garage?)

I rang my partner – my connection to sanity – surely she would know what to do. The ambos arrived ten minutes later. This was one of the positives of renting a duplex across the road from the hospital helipad.

I used to say there was a special place in hell reserved for fools who waste the time and resources of emergency services personnel, but apparently a severe panic attack looks very much like a heart attack and I did exactly the right thing on my wife’s advice. Still, with a gutful of benzos it was hard to be too sheepish at discharge.

But instead of smashing some bananas and getting fit Kong style, I saw my General Practitioner and walked out with a benzodiazepine addiction to party with my alcoholism.

Benzos are not great for writing, but when your daily writing is down to 500 good words (referenced, formatted etc) its ok to take the foot off the gas. Or so I told myself through heavily lidded eyes. In hindsight this was a very bad idea, but at the time, gripped with fear, medication seemed like a good idea.

Much later I realised that the fear came from the grog, rather than the grog treating the fear as I had become accustomed to since the age of 18.

Alcohol is very good at treating fear until it stops working. I came to learn in the rooms of AA that this stepping off point – when the grog stops working – tips many alkies into their final death spiral. I now know that I was not alone in experiencing this fear induced paralysis, but it sure as hell felt that way at the time.

AA has lots of folksy witticisms and groan inducing wordplays that I absolutely love because they stick in your mind when you most need them. One of these is a rhetorical question about fear: you know what fear stands for? Fuck Everything and Run? Or, Face Everything and Recover?

Poor impulse control

22140791_10155891656065087_640589122136516668_nThere’s a character in one of my favourite books, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, called Raven. He’s like the ultimate baddass dude who cruises around with a miniaturised atomic bomb in his motorcycle sidecar. Raven has POOR IMPULSE CONTROL tattooed across his forehead.

While I don’t profess to be anywhere near as interesting or badass as Raven, I have extremely poor impulse control and this was one of the first things that helped me to identify as an alcoholic in my early AA meetings.

I was pretty raw when I first came into the rooms. I saw the word god on the wall and immediately saw it as an excuse to leave. I wanted to punch a sanctimonious catholic who offered me an instant coffee and a biscuit.

I went out and did some more research just to see if I really was an alcoholic – an ‘insider’ to this sociocultural milieu – so to speak. My alcoholism got worse, as my catholic friend had gently suggested it probably would.

I came back into the rooms of AA in 2014 broken and battered, licking my wounds and determined to find a secular (non-religious) version of the 12-step program that would work for me.

These days I don’t give in to the impulse to take a drink, but I do act in impulsive ways, particularly if I’m not going to enough AA meetings.

On a recent surf trip to a remote and uncrowded string of coral reefs, I decided that the main break was getting too busy during the height of the swell. Four people paddled out an hour after dawn – an hour after I had entered the water. I had a lightbulb moment! I grabbed a some water and a banana, and headed a few kilometres down the reef to a sketchier and hollower wave, which is inaccesible from land because of the cliffs. I proceeded to get tubed solo until the cramps set in and the tropical sun became a mermaid dancing in my peripheral vision.

One of the kiwi dudes got scalped out at relatively tame main break that mornign. With four people to help stabilise him, someone up at the resort saw him headbutt the reef and called the ambos. The guy survived, but will have some seriously fierce scars.

AA has these naff sayings, but the one I need to remember the most is ‘think, think, think’.

1.

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I got the dog in the first few months of my fieldwork. I was lonely and hadn’t made any real contacts yet, and my new partner was studying in the city (a six hour bus ride away). Somehow I found myself with a 12-week old puppy and a deep sense that everything was right in the world. This, like any other subjective personal experience, was bound to change.

It was around this time that I started keeping daily journals – initially as formal ‘ethnographic field notes’ alongside a daily personal journal to keep tabs on my life, and in particular, to record a growing unease about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. The dog features heavily in these volumes documenting my life for the past decade, because he is now a decade old and has been my constant companion. Over time, the ethnographic notes blurred into personal ones, and vice versa.

These journals have become living documents through my anthropological training. Let me explain it this way: in order to find meaning, trends, insights and interpret exchanges of information, data and metaphor in one’s field notes, an anthropologist has to figure out a way to ‘code’ her or his notes. For me, this is nothing sophisticated. It involves a couple of different coloured pens. Text is always dated. Keywords and other reflections added subsequently are always in a different colour with the new date. Simple as that. Even a fucking drunk can do it.Methods to live by!

In practice, my journals look like Mr Squiggle dropped acid with Raoul Duke and recorded the experience. Each page is, in the most literal term possible, a palimpsest – a ‘manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing’.

These journals document my alcoholism and addiction, and my subsequent, ongoing process of recovery (reflected sometimes in red or blue pen) with the help of an international 12-Step fellowship. The clues are overt (red wine rings browned with age; a snippet of insanity; a wild, nihilistic meditation on alcohol, depression and anxiety) and less conspicuous (a note to call a doctor, a half-drafted and mostly illegible drunk apology letter to my now-partner). They are both autobiographical and ethnographic.

Social Drinking is written in the vernacular of the alcoholics and addicts I know living in Australia: high school, trade and university-educated surfers, punks, layabouts, students, skaters, EDM freaks, metalheads, barflies and stoners.

I hope it will be read by alcoholics – anyone who either has questioned whether their drinking or drugging behaviour is doing them harm, or has a loved one or friend undergoing the personal and family trauma of addiction. The reason the blog is written in this way is because these are my type of people. This is because we have a shared history, one that is peculiar to the complicated and stressful world of those who deal with the consequences of alcoholic drinking or drugging. I make no apologies for this.

To you, my drunk friends, there is a way out.

As an anthropologist the title of this blog shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sure there are chemical, biophysical and genetic, psychological and (some would say) religious, spiritual or psychic aspects to alcohol addiction and recovery, but I’m interested in the social. This is why.


All I ever wanted to be was a social drinker when I grew up.

But, as a kid in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, where male role models included such luminaries as cricketer David Boon (who famously downed 52 cans of beer on a Sydney to London flight), this modest goal was probably doomed from the beginning.

Social drinkers went to barbecues with mates and met girls, or held engaging, confident conversations with other adults at weddings. They didn’t take things too far with alcohol, or when they did, they didn’t fuck up too badly or too often.

Social drinkers kept nice bottles of wine at home to share with guests. Perhaps a few different beers as well, and some spirits and mixers for aperitif.

Social drinkers were goddamned respectable.

This rule, of course, didn’t apply to anyone under the age of, say 25, who were expected to go through a period of drunken hedonism in order to graduate as fully-formed, well-balanced Australian adults.

In my mind, people evolved from binge drinking hospitality workers, or apprentices who spent every cent of their meagre pay at the pub, or never-ending party-going university students, into social drinkers. It was a natural progression for normal Australians.

Social drinkers had friends, families and fabulous careers. They certainly didn’t get whispered about by people with sad, downcast eyes.

I remember the first time I overheard the phrase ‘he’s an alcoholic’ in an adult conversation. It was used in reference to a school mate’s father, who appeared to spend all of his free time in the garage. It had never occurred to me that what he was doing was self-destructive. I just thought he was introverted like I was at times.

I learned that an alcoholic was the opposite of a social drinker. They preferred alcohol over other people’s company, or only liked other people’s company when alcohol was involved.

Unlike many of my friends who went into trades at the age of 16, I stuck it out at school, got some pretty good results and was given the opportunity to go to university.

Undergraduate university barely exists in my memory as a consequence of my alcohol and drug use. However, in brief moments of clarity, I did learn a few things about a bunch of dead French social theorists.

Pierre Bourdieu talked about people in society having social capital: I like to think of it as immaterial stuff that other people value like being a good friend or a reliable colleague, a loving family member, or possessing that indefinable coolness that allows some people just to cruise through their lives without any apparent effort.

If social drinkers had social capital, then perhaps they could lose it by persistently fucking up? Or maybe this is just some bullshit theory.

Certainly, someone with an ample supply of social capital feels pretty good about it. They strut.

I know, I’ve had those moments too. But then, at other times, not so much.

Like when I passed out on the floor at work, was found by security and wheeled out to an awaiting ambulance. That was the start of my last drinking spree, in early November 2014.

I’ve been sober since, with the guidance and assistance of the women and men of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the help of a supportive partner, family, friends, employer, and of course, the dog.