We Agnostics Podcast

It is with great excitement that I share with you a brand new Australian podcast focussing on the recovery of non-religious members in AA.

We Agnostics is ‘a weekly dose of recovery for the non-religious’ with the excellent humanist motto: We may not believe in the supernatural but we believe in you.

The podcast is being developed by a dear friend who shares a similar ethos and athiest/humanist approach to 12-step recovery and sobriety as I do.

Check out We Agnostics (https://weagnosticspodcast.podbean.com/)

(In)dividuality

Walk into an AA meeting on any given day or night, in a library or church hall, pretty much anywhere in the world, and someone will probably attribute their failed attempts at 12 step recovery on their prideful individuality. It is likely they will say something along the lines of ‘I wasn’t ready to get sober because I was terminally unique’. This means that a member was not ready to accept that the methods others had used to get and stay sober could also work for them. I have heard all kinds of reasons for this e.g. I am an atheist, I have done too many awful things, I’m too broken, or I’m not broken enough. However, I suspect any excuse is as good as the next if it shortens the distance to another drink.

This post reflects on what I’ve learned in AA about individuality and what it means to be an alcoholic, to own the past and not repeat the same mistakes in the future. Individuality, here, means much more than just being ‘terminally unique’ as we like to say in AA. It is about how we conceive of ourselves as being distinct from others, and even distinct from earlier versions of ourselves, even if we think these ‘versions’ are nothing more than a chin-stroking possibility. Am I the same person sane and sober, compared to when I was a clearly insane drunk (insanity measured by repeating the same mistake daily)?

The idea of individuality is even murkier when we consider the distinctions we make between mind and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, memory and forgetting, the spiritual realm of the sacred and the mundane world (Durkheim’s ‘profane’), ideas of a separation at death between physical self and soul, or between parts of our personalities (e.g. ego) and our total, composite selves.

AA’s concept of the individual is located in the present rather than the past or the future. In AA meetings, we share our experiences of what it was like when we were drinking, what happened, and what life is like now. The emphasis is on the present, with the past providing context and a resource for learning what not to do. According to AA, the future is a place best left well alone. This temporality, the value AA places on focussing on the present, is best explained by the old AA trope: ‘I had one foot in the past, one foot in the future, and I was pissing on the present.’ It is believed that meditation/prayer, attending meetings and working with other members can assist an AA member to anchor themselves in the present.

Anthropology has always focussed on communities of people, anthro- (people) -ology (study), rather than individuals per se. However, it has lots of really interesting things to say about the nature of individualism, given a person’s ethnicity, culture or religion. For example, Mark Mosco, an anthropologist who has spent considerable time in Melanesia, writes that anthropologists have conventionally thought of Christianity, including the versions spread by various missionaries throughout the Pacific, as being unrelentingly individualistic. Mosco (2015:371) instead writes that many Christians conceive of themselves as composite beings consisting of a physical body and a soul that is a ‘detachable sacred part of the total Christian person’.* Through this, Mosco suggests that ‘dividual personhood’ and agency might actually be more common to the human experience than the so-called possessive individual of modern capitalist society.

On reflection, the ideal ‘possessive individual’ probably doesn’t exist, or if it does, he or she is most likely to be found inside an investment banker’s cocaine den on Wall Street. Too often we remove the grey scale to make black and white distinctions. Regardless, my point is that it’s ok to feel weird, fragmented, or torn between conflicting desires for stability and risk or autonomy and relatedness, because that’s all part of the human condition.

It’s ok to be weird

One of the great things about working in the public service in Australia is the generous working conditions that are a legacy of past, strong unionism in the public sector. These conditions include flexible work hours, ergonomic furniture and the ability to take plenty of leave, including medical leave to get sober.** The public service also throws buckets of money at staff development and training, and this week was my turn to learn about resiliance. I also learned that I am apparantly ill-suited to my workplace!

A consultant walked our class of mid-level public servants through a few quick personality tests that outed me as THE ONLY YELLOW, amid a wiggle*** of blues, reds and greens. We even had to stand on a Twister-style mat on the floor in our respectively coloured sectors. I proudly occupied a whole quadrant in solitude. Apparently I was the only ‘risk taking, artistic, always-asking-why, big-picture type’ amidst a sea of perfectly-suited procedural mandarins. I find this both appropriate and fucking hilarious.

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Nice Digs! Setting up a wombat mange control dosing station under old farm machinery.

There was some good discussion of things like mental toughness, post-traumatic growth, dealing with difficult people, wellbeing, thinking skills, positive psychology strategies, and action planning. All of these things are a familiar part of my AA toolkit, so it was good to see that ‘normies’ can access similar tools as we alkies, albeit transmogrified into the language and neoliberal logic of business psychology.

These days, my boss knows my AA meeting schedule as well as I do during the week. He understands that, like him, I need to go to the gym at lunch to boost my endorphins and keep my stress levels in check. But I also have to get to a few meetings as an additional ‘non-negotiable’. This is part of the natural give-and-take of a high functioning work team and is as it should be. Unfortunately, not too many alkies I know get this degree of flexibility and support at their place of work.

Pride and individuality

Gregory Bateson, social science’s MacGyver, was curious why we alkies are so proud that we are literally willing to drink ourselves to death before we ask for help.**** Bateson (1971:446) suggested this principle of alcoholic behaviour has roots in the strange epistemology characteristic of Western capitalist civilization. For Bateson, the wordview of the ‘West’ or the ‘Occident’  is means-to-an-end driven and hyper-competitive and, if he were alive today, he would probably point to Instagram’s platform of hyper-individualised personal branding and marketing as a shining example of a world gone awry.

While the active alcoholic seeks only to satisfy her or his own immediate needs and wants, primarily alcohol above all else (including the needs of loved ones), Bateson suggests that the alcoholic who wants to get sober tilts even further towards the extreme end of individualism. Bateson (1971:447) writes that sobriety, at this point, is no longer the appropriate context for the individual’s pride. Rather, ‘It is the risk of the drink that now is challenging and calls out the fatal “I can. . . .’

For me, this explains well my stepping off point from so-called functional alcoholism, to disastrous drunk. The whispered challenge that, on this occasion, things will be different and that one drink would be safe, set me on course for week-long benders of self destruction.

Bateson also noted that ‘A.A. does its best to insist that this change in contextual structure shall never occur.’ He explains that:

…they [AA] restructure the whole context by asserting over and over again that “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” They try to have the alcoholic place alcoholism within the self, much as a Jungian analyst tries to have the patient discover his “psychological type” and to learn to live with the strengths and weaknesses of that type. In contrast, the contextual structure of alcoholic “pride” places the alcoholism outside the self: “I can resist drinking.”

Tragically, we alkies and addicts are like the kid who touches the hot stove again and again to check that it is hot. Rather than acknowledging the folly of our own behaviour, Bateson saw that we alkies instead get resentful at the stove, or the universe:

It is all very well to test once whether the universe is on your side, but to do so again and again, with increasing stringency of proof, is to set out on a project which can only prove that the universe hates you.

These days, I don’t have a voice whispering things like ‘just grab a beer, you’ll be right after three years’, because I own my alcoholism daily. I go to meetings to remind myself of this simple fact, and I try to volunteer and engage in random acts of unsolicited kindness as often as possible. AA teaches that the best way to get over yourself, and your own selfish needs and wants is to do something nice for someone else. When in doubt? Pay it forward! Sometimes all this has to be is a phone call, out of the blue, to another AA member to say “how’s it going”? If they are having a rough day, they’ll appreciate it.

AA allows isolated individuals the opportunity to re-engage with society and relearn how to have healthy social relationships again. It teaches that no person is an island, and that even the worst of us can change and make amends. We learn, through reviewing our behaviour and motivations, that we are happiest when we are part of society, not apart from it.

*Mark Mosco, ‘Unbecoming individuals: The partible character of the Christian person’, HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5(1), 2015, pp. 361-93. Note: italics are his emphasis.

**It is no revelation that these favourable conditions are currently being eroded by prolonged slow wage growth, an ideological war by conservative governments to quell the influence of unions in the economy, and low union membership by historical standards.

***A ‘wiggle’ seemed to be as good a collective noun as any. Also, a group of wombats is a wisdom. See here for more info about ACT Wildlife Volunteers’ program for treating mangey wombats.

****Gregory Bateson, 1971, ‘The Cybernetics of Self: A Theory of Alcoholism’, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press,  pp.440-56.

A reply to Antze

If you google ‘anthropology’ and ‘alcoholics anonymous’ you will likely come up with a hit for a chapter in a book edited by Mary Douglas.* In ‘Symbolic Action in Alcoholics Anonymous’, Paul Antze (1987) offers a Geertzian-style symbolic anthropology of how AA works. I’m sure Antze’s chapter reads perfectly well to other anthropologists, but as an alkie, and an AA member, it grates. Let me explain why.

Cocks!

Now that I got your attention: symbolic anthropology was very much in vogue in the early ’80s, a decade after Clifford Geertz’ Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1972) had inspired a new direction in writing about and understanding cultural situations. Geertz’ analysis of the Balinese Chook Thunderdome**, includes some of the obvious penis puns that one would expect, as outlined in this lovely bit of writing:

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Similarly, if you hang around AA members long enough you will realise that we really only share one thing in common, and we are as much defined by our relationship with this dangerous-yet-alluring substance as we are by its absence: Alcohol is our defining symbol par excellence.

Unsuprisingly, Antze makes a good fist of likening AA to totemic societies who practice avoiding something because they belong ‘to a category of persons uniquely endangered by it’:

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As an anthropologist, I understand Antze’s analogy well, having researched the patrifilial totems (an identity passed down from father to son) of a number of Koori groups in south-eastern Australia. Indeed, a close friend of mine has a particularly badass bird of prey as his personal totem. He is responsible for holding and looking after the country that sustains that magnificent bird. Alcohol, by comparison, is a shitty totem and, I might add, the comparison is rather low hanging fruit.

What Antze is also doing here is distilling alcohol – separating the substance from its deeply embodied affects on we alcoholics (for example, memory loss, brain damage, anxiety, sweating, heart palpitations etc etc etc). He is doing this, presumably, because he has never experienced these sorts of things as a result of his drinking. Although, we never know, because, science.

It reminds me of something Bree Blakeman, an Australian anthropologist, intersectional feminist, anarchist, blogger and all round excellent human, wrote (albeit in a different context):

I remember one of my most admirable anthropology teachers once commented (upon reading my work) that my use of theory visa vi the subject of analysis was ‘like trying to dissect a microchip with a carving knife’. It’s kind of how I feel about anthropological analysis of emotion and morality without an understanding and account of how individuals learn and process both thoughts and emotions. This stuff happens in the brain (and yes, in the body – the brain is in the body).***

By distilling alcohol from its affect on the addicted bodies and minds of alcoholics, Antze’s symbolic analysis similarly feels like carving ivory with a chainsaw.

Reflexivity

My main beef with Antze’s take on AA is that he steadfastly holds a perspective of the rigorous, dispassionate, objective observer throughout. From an AA member’s perspective it reads like he’s spread the collective, addicted body of AA open on a glass slide, made a few well-placed slices with a scalpel to splay out the good bits, and recorded and analysed the ordeal with a jeweller’s loupe.

But, does he drink like a fish, and should we care?

More importantly: is he one of us?

Or is it none of our business?

Antze provides a rare glimpse into his research methodology in the footnotes, stating that he mainly relied on printed AA materials along with ‘observation at meetings’ that provided ‘an essential check on the relative importance that various teachings assume in the thinking of members’. He attended at least two dozen AA meetings in Chicago and Toronto. By my calculations, Antze’s period of fieldwork totalled less than two whole days in the field, given an average AA meeting runs for 90 minutes.

Anthropologists have long talked about the need for reflexivity in their work. Reflexivity is when an anthropologist looks and accounts for their own subjectivity (things like personal failings, biases and relationships with their informants) in recording or documenting a cultural situation. It is also about something similar to the observer effect in physics – or how an anthropologist’s consciousness is altered when they engage in a cultural situation that they are observing.

Remember Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment, where he presented a scenario about a poor cat that may or may not be both alive and dead? I like to imagine Erwin was hanging out at a particularly hip pre-war party:

Erwin: I call this quantum superposition. The cat is linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. It’s like the wave collapses upon observation.

[Passes joint to Klaus]

Klaus: Duuuuuude.

Now, I don’t mean that an anthropologist’s informant suddenly disappears *whoosh* when they hang out together. Rather,  I think reflexivity stresses the need for researchers to be critically self-refective, to recognise that our personal objectivity has limits, and that anything we do necessarily places us in the thick of the action – thereby making us accountable.

This is like doing AA 12 step work.

A good example of reflexivity in practice is found in our old friend Geertz’s notes on the illegal cockfight, where he sets the scene by describing how he and his wife were caught up in a police raid, and bolted in fear along with everyone else. Once they had caught their breath, Geertz noticed that the Balinese were pretty impressed by the white folk’s footspeed:

But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.

Dr Blakeman describes these times where we lose our shit as ‘Geertzian moments’:

These are pivotal moments when something in one’s disposition and social relations shifts dramatically. Often it’s a moment of losing oneself and behaving in a way that one wouldn’t have expected or couldn’t anticipate, and it’s not until afterwards when you pause and reflect that you realise what has just occurred. It is in that moment of reflection that the ethnographer realises they’ve reached some tipping point of enculturation. This tipping point, in turn, changes the way that the ethnographer is perceived and treated. You become less of an outsider and start to be considered and treated more like ‘one of us.’ In this sense, there’s an element of intimacy and trust involved and I suspect this is because so-called ‘Geertzian moments’ are often triggered by some stressor and the ethnographer’s response often leaves them vulnerable or exposed in some way.****

Unfortunately, we never get this from Antze’s chapter. He doesn’t lose his shit, or at least if he does, it doesn’t get acknowledged. And yes, I have a resentment about this.

Resentments, or throwing out the baby with the bathwater

And you thought you’d get through a whole AA blog without having to read about resentments! It’s true, AA understands that one of the fastest routes between recovery and another drink is to nuture a resentment.

Every single AA meeting has a story about a resentment, and how that resentment is causing an individual to feel restless, irritable and discontent. In most cases, it is a niggling, piddly thing: 99 percent of something might be perfectly ok, but we choose to focus on the one percent. Then we fertilise and water it until it grows unruly.

My resentment against Antze’s chapter can be summarised as:

  1. I identify as a member of AA – a member of the ‘in-group’ of Antze’s study
  2. I feel that group identity is threatened. This is an irrational fear, and
  3. I look for and focus soley on the weak points in Antze’s argument, rather than weighing the contribution of the chapter as a whole.

What Antze does particularly well is show how medical concepts – such as the idea of alcoholics being sick people – become ‘common sense’. He argues, quite rightly, that the popularity of this idea in medicine actually comes from AA, and AA’s therapeutic successes.

But, like a surfing buddy probing a fleshwound for coral, Antze presses straight on the raw nerve: he questions our unthinking acceptance of our alcoholic status.

Then, he applies 30 percent hydrogen peroxide with a nail brush and scrubs out the wound to remove any polyps: he suggests that we exist in a feedback loop, dependent upon our willingness to define our experiences in the terms ascribed by the institution of AA.

You know the hydrogen peroxide is working when it fizzes.

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Good anthropology should make a reader question their reality by making contrasts – pulling apart bits of meaning for interpretation and analysis. Antze does this in spades.

However, should an anthropologist ask the subject of their inquiry to question their reality – for example, an individual’s belief that recovery from a progressive, ultimately fatal illness is contingent upon their willingness, acceptance and observance of AA’s philosophy? That is a different moral question entirely.

Fortunately, I didn’t read Antze’s chapter in early sobriety. If I did, I probably would have used it as a reason to drink again. Picking apart holes in AA logic was a favourite sport of mine, along with many of my fellow heathen alkies. These days, I’m happy just to accept that it appears to be working,

 

* Paul Antze, ‘Symbolic Action in Alcoholics Anonymous’, in Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, Routledge, London, 2003 (first published 1987), pp.149-80.

** Clifford Geertz, ‘Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York, 1973, pp. 412-54.

*** Bree Blakeman, Zigon on Morality and Ethics in ‘Ethos’, Fieldnotes and Footnotes, 4 December 2009.

**** Bree Blakeman, ‘Geertzian moments (or, “when ethnographers lose their shit”)’, Fieldnotes and Footnotes, 19 March 2016.

Three years

It’s my third AA birthday today so I feel it is my duty to share with you a picture of Johnny Cash, sitting in a bush eating cake. You are most welcome.

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Uncredited – circa 1971

FYI – an AA birthday is the number of years you have of continuous sobriety from grog, as distinct from your belly button birthday. Also, I’ve heard bearded, heavily tattood 150kg leather-clad bikers refer to their ‘belly button birthday’, which is rather hilarious until you point it out to them. Also, it’s a good thing said bikers have a cumilative age of 55 years of sobriety up, and a saintly degree of patience with newly sober smart asses (I know this to be true after going to a punk gig with them last year. Their patience in the mosh pit – with beer soaked shoes being pushed into their faces by crowd surfers – was a thing of beauty.)

On my AA birthday, I just want to reflect on how far I’ve come in three years. For starters, remember how I said I wanted to punch a sanctimonius catholic? Well, he’s my sponsor. We drink coffee once a week at Maccas and he gives me good advice on home repairs.

Also, I don’t recoil when I see the word GOD on the AA banners or in the big book any more. I realised that I have a niggling resentment against organised religion, although despite some work on my part it still persists.

You’re such an inspiration for the ways
That I’ll never ever choose to be
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How the savior has abandoned you
Fuck your God
Your Lord and your Christ
He did this
Took all you had and
Left you this way
Still you pray, you never stray
Never taste of the fruit
You never thought to question why

A Perfect Circle, ‘Judith’, Mer De Noms, 2000.

AA only says that you need a higher power. It doesn’t specify what that has to be, excepting yourself. I suspect this is why AA also believes an alcoholic’s ego is all powerful when they drink. As soon as I have a drink, the only thing that matters is my own selfish needs and wants.

So, if we have to be able to hand our power (or personal agency) over to something of a higher order, it just has to be something external. It could be your dog, for example (god spelled backwards – see what I did there!), The Force, or Odin the Norse god.* You can break up G.O.D. into an acronym if you’re feeling particularly clever and wordsmithy. I quite like Group of Drunks. I don’t particularly like Good Orderly Direction, but that might have something to do with my problem with authority.

For a while I was just happy to let the fellowship of AA be my higher power, and my trust in my fellow human beings was well placed. These days it’s more of a holistic, literal not-me, best accessed by being in nature or with other people.

The AA third step dawned on me one day when I was surfing, scratching around on a freshly-minted Firewire frantically like a chicken chasing worms after rain.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The surf was excellent, but entirely random and shifty. I was getting frustrated because everywhere I looked there were gold nuggets, except for where I was sitting at the time. But what if I just sat there and let the opportunities present themselves, rather than attempting to control an uncontrollable situation?

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Tasman Sea peaks under a stiff sou-wester: 1hr, 30 mins from Australia’s inland capital.

 

I’m not sure if Huey acknowledged my newfound hippy spiritualism, but he sent the wave of the day.

I mentioned previously that my epistemological change (change in perspective) has been more of a slow burn than the thunderbolts and lightning of a profound spiritual experience. A good example of this is found in my notes following my first ever AoD consultation – the one where they ask you a series of questions to figure out how sick you are.

For context: I was trying to obtain a doctor’s letter to cover my ass with work. I was not trying to give up alcohol – just hoping to:

a. ameliorate my immediate problems of unexplained absences and pesky bosses

b. give my partner some confidence I was actively doing something about my problem drinking, and

c. find a magic pill to let me drink like normal people.

I was ushered into a consultation room with an exhausted-looking but very kind, patient and capable AoD specialist.

These days, to be diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), we need to meet criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version 5 (2013). Under DSM–5, anyone who scores two or better out of the following 11 criteria during the same year receives an elephant stamp and a pat on the head (just kidding, a diagnosis of AUD.)

The severity of your AUD—mild, moderate, or severe—is based on the number of criteria met. I like to imagine I walked into my local AoD in 2013 and walked out with POOR IMPULSE CONTROL freshly branded and steaming across my forehead. Alas, it was not meant to be.

AoD workers will ask something like …’in the last 12 months, have you:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended? Yep
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t? Aha, every day.
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects? Errryday.
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink? Your head turned into a beer ten minutes ago.
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems? *tears*
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends? Even the dog avoids me like the plague when I’m drunk.
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink? I’ve forgotten what interests me and gives me pleasure, apart from alcohol. Everything else can get fucked.
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)? All of the above.
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout? I can’t remember a thing after I have my first beer.
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before? I used to drink other people under the table. Now my only drinking buddy is the table.
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there? I give up.

The funny thing is, after mentally checking off each of the DSM-5 criteria, I answered ‘nope’ to all bar the first two. I also wrote that the ‘guy had no idea’. I was chatting to my friendly AoD specialist after I had a year’s sobriety up. He laughed and said ‘of course I knew you were bullshitting’!

I mentioned previously that this is an AA related blog with an athiest/humanist bent and a bit of a punk attitude. I will be sharing some resources I find helpful on here soon: including a selection of AA related literature and other online content that is written and created by, and for, we heathens. In addition, there are a range of athiest, agnostic, humanist and/or freethinker meetings in Australia, and internationally, as well as online support groups.

An example of this genre of writing is ‘Get Up’ (2008) by US spoken word artist, author and recovering alcoholic Bucky Sinister. Sinister draws on his time spent drinking and later recovering within the US West Coast punk scene. This book opened a crack in my mind that let recovery in. It is a brilliant book, at turns funny, thought provoking and genuinely inspirational.

I’m going to celebrate three years by throwing a 10kg ball up a wall a bunch of times listening to Puya – a Puerto Rican progressive metal band a dear friend got me hooked on. Good times!

* Bucky Sinister, Get Up: A 12-step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, and Weirdos,  Conari Press, San Francisco, 2008, p. 57.

 

 

AoD

Any alkie or addict will be familiar with AoD – the Alcohol and other Drugs outpatient units that have to deal with us sooner or later. In major cities, these units have detoxification beds and meds that assist people to get off their poisons safely. Outside of the major cities? Not so much.

The staff at AoD units listen with weary resignation as we shuffle in through the doors, saying things like ‘I’ve had enough of drinking this time’ or ‘If I don’t get clean, DOCS (community services) will take the kids away’. At my local, they hand out Bupe and Methodone, so there’s a regular queue of tweaking and sometimes very agitated heroin and prescription opiate addicts lining up for service, along with the quieter weirdos waiting to see a GP or shrink, like me. AoD staff are quite rightly shielded from we, the addicted. I do say ‘we’, but mostly from the amphetamine freaks. The word in the waiting room is that the plexiglass went up not long after meth hit the streets. Although, the smackies and alkies would say that!

I was never attracted to ‘uppers’ like speed and meth because, rather than granting a momentary release from FEAR (Fuck Everything And Run), they appeared to speed fear up in others, or at least delayed its onset before a terrifying comedown. I’ve had friends walk out into the bush with rope during upper comedowns. They never came back. Multiple friends, white and black, in two different states. Friends who had their whole lives in front of them. Of course, I self-medicated to oblivion to process those deaths. That is, after all, an alkie’s modus operandi.

It was confronting for me to show up to the doors of my first AoD detoxification unit in 2013, with my PhD, public service job and a clean t-shirt. I promptly checked out the next day, citing the tedium of having to do a cooking class with shaking addicts as being the final straw. That, and the fact that my ward neighbour OD’d on ice (methamphetamine) the previous day and was coming down in a screaming, banging heap. People like me, who learned to hustle in hospitality, don’t need cooking classes. We need a magic pill!

I, like many other alkies and addicts, was on a mission to find the cure to my condition – not to give up drinking entirely, but something to let me join the ranks of my esteemed social drinkers. My advantage was reaching the peak of my alcoholic powers at the same time as I had the best multidisciplinary addiction journals at my fingertips, and a good few months to compile a literature review of what constitutes ‘best practice’ in treating alcoholism. This was a unique coincidence of life meeting work. Despite this, I still failed Detox101, and drank soon after completing a three week rehabilitation program at a regional AoD (the waitlist was three months).

In 20:20 hindsight, I was seeking something external to enable me to handle uncomfortable situations and strong emotions, and a way out of my alcohol-related problems. For context, remember that I had been self-medicating for more than two decades prior to failing a three week rehab. These types of ingrained behaviours don’t just disappear overnight. It’s like muscle memory – when I type my fingers short circuit the need for my eyes to look at the keyboard – now imagine reaching for a bottle every time you feel happy, sad, confident or afraid. I thought AoD would replace the bottle, but it didn’t. I did, however, get to form a lasting relationship with a counsellor whose advice to persist with AA was sound.

I identify with Nic Cage’s character Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), a film based on the semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien. Sanderson, reflecting the experiences of O’brien (who suicided two weeks after the film commenced shooting), cuts all personal and professional ties to drink himself to death in Las Vegas.

There’s this magnificent scene where Sanderson’s alcoholic nihilism (the belief that life has no meaning or value) is allowed to run unfettered with a shopping trolley in a liquor store. I used to dream inchoherent dreams of being able to do what Sanderson did, shades on, whistling a sweet ditty as I swing bottles of 40 percent spirits from the top shelf. By mid 2014, however, it was mostly casks of goon paid for in coins. There aint no shame when you’re shameless.

Leaving Las Vegas, Liquor Store scene, Mike Figgis, 1995

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I’m coming up to my third AA birthday next week, but I’m not counting my chooks yet. AoD rehab statistics suggest I have less than even odds of staying sober for three years, and this is even worse for younger adults.* Whichever way you look at it, it is pretty grim. Especially when you drink like I did between 2010 and 2014 – I know now it only takes one drink to kick off my madness, and unconsciousness or physical restraint the only means to end it. There are no swaying palm trees, tubing waves and golden sands in my alcoholic future. The best I could hope for is another trip ’round the white walls and ethanol handwash of the rehab circuit.

AA’s philosophy focuses on sobriety from all drugs unless they are prescribed by a doctor. Doctors and AoD units prescribe a range of drugs to help keep alkies on track,** including:

  • a fine selection of antidepressants (pick a colour and set of side effects, including increased risk of suicidal ideation)
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse), which makes you get heart palpitations, turn red like a beetroot and become very sick if you drink
  • Naltrexone (ReVia, Vivitrol), which is supposed to reduce the pleasure you get from booze
  • Acamprosate (Campral), which can reduce cravings, although most people I’ve spoken to reckon shelving a sugar pill would be more effective, and
  • Diazepam (Valium), distributed mainly in early sobriety or during detoxification to control tremors, seizures, or panic attacks. Addictive.

I’ve tried Naltrexone (nope, didn’t work) and relied on Disulfiram to keep me sober right up until I stopped taking it in Alice Springs during a particularly ill-timed misadventure. This time around I detoxed without medication and was a shaking mess,  terrified of substituting a diazepam addiction for alcoholism.

New directions in complimentary pharmacotherapy

In Berkeley, California, where medical cannabis is legal, researchers surveyed 350 alkies attending a medical cannabis dispensary. Cannabis, which is not considered physically addictive, is being used to treat a range of conditions, including alcoholism, and related comorbid conditions such as chronic anxiety, depression and PTSD.

The idea is that even street-bought cannabis is relatively harmless  – a person can’t fatally overdose on THC like they can with alcohol, although they may have an extremely unpleasant experience, meaning its use can be self-limiting.*** Furthermore, the side effects of low-THC, high-CBD medicinal cannabis have been reported as being significantly less than standard pharmacological (chemical) interventions. In the Berkeley study, 85 percent of those surveyed reported that cannabis has much less adverse side effects than their prescription medications and 57.4 percent better symptom management from cannabis over prescription medications.

Anthropologically-speaking, what I find interesting about this study is not the survey results per se, but its implications for AA, and AA’s begrudging acceptance of pharmacological interventions as being complimentary to its support-based, loosely spiritual philosophy of recovery.

Researcher Amanda Reiman quite rightly remarks that cannabis-as-therapy brings up two important points: ‘First, self determination, the right of an individual to decide which treatment or substance is most effective and least harmful for them. If an individual finds less harm in cannabis than in the drug prescribed by their doctor, do they have a right to choose? Secondly, the recognition that substitution might be a viable alternative to abstinence for those who are not able, or do not wish to stop using psychoactive substances completely.’

Reiman also reports that some dispensaries (read: shops that sell medical grade pot) organise their own 12 step groups, citing ‘potential conflicts between the use of medical cannabis and philosophies of recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous’.****

Time, and further studies, will tell if cannabis becomes a common maintenance therapy for alcoholics in jurisdictions where it is legal, and is similarly accepted in AA in the same way as pharmacological interventions are viewed as part of a complimentary, ‘whatever it takes’ pragmatism of 12 step recovery. I suspect this may be a way off, certainly in Australia


Final word

It is with great delight that I share the following traveller’s tale:

I met a Canadian in Palestine 3 years ago. She told me she met in England a middle aged man who introduced himself as  “I’m a recovering academic.”

Thanks Mick Taussig 🙂


 

* Deborah Dawson, Risë Goldstein and Bridget Grant, ‘Rates and Correlates of Relapse Among Individuals in Remission From DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence: A 3-Year Follow-Up’, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 31, 2007, pp. 2036–45.

** See, for example: National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK), Alcohol-Use Disorders: Diagnosis, Assessment and Management of Harmful Drinking and Alcohol Dependence, NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 115, Leicester (UK), British Psychological Society, 2011. Chapter Seven reviews and makes very limited recommendations for the use of pharmacological interventions in the treatment of alcohol use disorders.

*** Dirk W. Lachenmeier and Jürgen Rehm, ‘Comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs using the margin of exposure approach’, Nature, Scientific Reports 5, Article number 8126, 2015.

**** Amanda Reiman, ‘Cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs’, Harm Reduction Journal, 6:35, 2009. An example of a rehab facility utilising this method and philosophy is also located in California: https://highsobrietytreatment.com/about-us/