Year 5 sobriety report

I have been reflecting on how far I’ve come since I put down the bottle five years and two months ago. It’s 40 degrees Celsius outside and a good time for quiet thoughts in the shade near the oscillating fan.

What amazes me most is how quiet my thoughts have been in the last few years. Those of us who have fought alcoholism or addiction would know how loud and unhelpful our inner voices can be.

I still have strong emotions but I am better equipped to name those feelings, to wait until the uncomfortable wave subsides and to pause before speaking & acting.

I review each day and think about situations I could have handled better. And I frequently do and say dumb things, get it wrong, and issue far more apologies than I’d like. But the key point is I hold myself personally accountable and strive to be a better person.

When I have a problem that baffles me I ask for advice. While I no longer go to AA, I still call my sponsor regularly to check in as any good friend would. But I rely mostly on family and friends, who have been my North Star all along.

I guess this is what normies experience, but maybe not. Everyone carries baggage, and no one is without their faults. I guess it comes down to whether we are willing to be critically self-reflective and prepared to more closely align our words and actions with our deeply held values.

I had to change my thinking to save my life. Since then I’ve found peace and physical health in trail running and have lost 25 kilograms in the process. I marked my 5th anniversary of sobriety with a 50 kilometre ultra-marathon in hilly terrain. Five years ago I struggled to get off the couch.

I went to a wedding the other week and was reminded, while being splashed with sparkling wine by a party bus buddy who had had several too many and couldn’t keep their glass upright, of the type of drinking I used to do. It’s messy. It must have hurt like hell the next day. And I don’t miss it at all.

Boundaries

I have found that setting healthy boundaries in my relationships with others has been a key part of self care. Setting boundaries is empowering, but can be difficult for those of us (recovering from) low self-esteem. We need to have the courage to stick to our values, respect and look after ourselves, even when we may upset or disappoint others. In doing so, we must always respect the boundaries of other people.

Setting boundaries is how I define the kinds of behaviour I find acceptable or safe in other people, and how I respond when someone crosses the line.

A few helpful things to remember about boundary-setting are:

  • remember, it is OK to say no
  • be clear with yourself what type of treatment you will accept and what you will not. For example, if you value monogamy in an intimate relationship – make this clear from the beginning. Likewise if you prefer open relationships. The main thing is that each of you has to be clear on what to expect from the other partner(s).
  • accept that some people will not respect your boundaries. This goes back to the AA message that we are only responsible for our own words and actions, and cannot control other people, and
  • give yourself permission to limit or end contact with people who cross or disrespect your boundaries. Sometimes this is the healthiest thing you can do!

This resource describes different types of boundaries one might set and offers tips for setting those boundaries.

Compassionate/non-violent communication

Setting healthy boundaries is all about communication.  While I am not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundaries I am setting, I am responsible for
communicating my boundaries in a compassionate and respectful way.

A friend who I greatly respect and admire recently introduced me to the work of Marshall B. Rosenberg on non-violent communication (NVC). I have been listening to the Art of NVC podcasts on Spotify, but you can read Chapter One of his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life here.

NVC is a tool for getting your message across in difficult conversations, while at the same time empathising with the other person’s feelings. I’m just learning the basics at the moment and have realised that it will take practice in order for me to be able to use the technique confidently in the heat of the moment, for example when there is a disagreement with a loved one or work colleague.

The NVC process has four components:

First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what  are  we  observing  others  saying  or  doing that is either enriching or not enriching our  life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like.

[Second], we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated?

And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we  are.

For example, a mother  might  express  these  three  pieces to  her teenage son by saying, “Felix, when I see two balls of  soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I  am needing more order  in the rooms  that we share in common.”

She would follow immediately with the fourth component—a very specific request: “Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?” This fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for  us.

Thus, part of NVC is to express these four pieces of information very clearly, whether verbally or by other means. The other part of this communication consists of receiving the same four pieces of information from others. We connect with them by first sensing what they are observing, feeling, and needing; then we discover what would enrich their lives by receiving the fourth piece—their request.

As we keep our attention focused on the areas mentioned, and help others do likewise, we establish a flow of communication, back and forth, until compassion manifests naturally: what I am observing, feeling, and needing; what I am requesting to enrich my life; what you are observing, feeling, and needing; what you are requesting to enrich your life.

Recovery – striving to be better

When I had conversations with loved ones about how I could go about making amends for my behaviour when I was drinking, the main feedback I got was ‘keep doing what you are doing’ and ‘staying well is the best thing you can do for me’.

On this basis, I made a commitment to lifelong self-improvement based on what I value about myself and a clear view of the person I want to be. This is not to say I’m unhappy with who I am; rather, I’m proud about who I am becoming, but am wary of complacency.

As a writer and researcher, I communicate best in a written format. However, while I am generally pretty good at talking, I acknowledge that sometimes my verbal communication could be improved, particularly during times of stress.

Learning communication strategies like NVC is as important for me these days as working AA’s 12 steps. It’s all about building a toolkit to use when I really need it.

 

 

 

Staying well

It’s been a while since I checked in. This is not due to any desire for silence on my part, but more because of a lack of time. However, this was never going to be a blog-a-week enterprise. I’ve been working my ass off, running long kilometres through the Australian bush, surfing, making new friends and writing a bunch of songs.

As my health and mental focus has improved over the last few years, I have been given opportunities for career development and have taken on more responsibility at work. Late last year I was handed a monster project to manage that has consumed most of my time and energy.

The project was in the Australian media for mostly the wrong reasons, due to the actions of another that were completely outside of my control. I’ve also had the challenge of managing a workload with few resources and time available to get things done. The sensation of drowning has been ever present, but I’ve become a much better swimmer, better at avoiding rips. And now the work is done.

I had always hoped that my recovery would get to the point that the fact of its existence faded into the background, like remembering how I got a scar.  The big indentation in my upper leg that looks like a bullet hole has faded over the years but remains a reminder of why I don’t like surfing in crowds. My alcoholism is like that now. I can call up the memories of why I don’t drink, but to be honest I’ve got far better things to do with my time.

I am also pharmaceutical-free for the first time in at least a decade, having been prescribed an antidepressant Effexor XR* for panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Given that these symptoms have diminished but I experience a range of side-effects from the medication, I approached my doctor about reducing my dose in lieu of cessation. *Effexor XR is an extended-release capsule for once-a-day oral administration that contains venlafaxine hydrochloride, a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI).

SNRIs are difficult drugs to quit. This was something that I was not informed about when a doctor scribbled on a prescription pad all those years ago. If she had told me that SNRI discontinuation syndrome occurs at rates as high as 78 percent for people transitioning off Effexor XR, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to take them. But then again, I was a drunk who was afraid of my own shadow and was hungry for any quick fix.

The doctor reduced my dose from 150mg to 75mg then halved it again. This process took several months. Nevertheless, I suffered from SNRI discontinuation/withdrawal symptoms, which resulted in weeks of me behaving like a snowflake while experiencing brain zaps.

Snowflake: responds poorly to perceived criticism, cries at pictures of puppies

Brain zaps: SNRI discontinuation can mean weeks of electric shock sensations and perceived shaking in the head, loss of balance, nausea and other strange feelings and effects (see: //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3733524/).

Cannabis helped ease this transition.

I haven’t talked favourably about the use of cannabis on this blog for good reason, as many alkies and addicts I know smoked weed for much of their drinking and drugging careers and tend to lump it together within a pattern of general bad behaviour. Some say they were dependent on sucking down bongs for decades.

Most AA’s in Australia have a dim view of cannabis, while in jurisdictions (for example, California) where its use has become medicalised for mental health conditions, I have heard that opinions are shifting towards acceptance.

I don’t dispute that some people form a psychological dependence to cannabis, however there is good science indicating that cannabis is not physically addictive. A few nights of bad sleep and some residual grumpiness is about the worst someone can expect when giving the weed away.

For some people, like me, incorporating cannabis into their long term mental health plans has been a deliberate choice based on good medical advice, although it is not yet legally available in Australia as a medical intervention for mental health conditions like PTSD. It was also a choice I took after three years of continuous sobriety from alcohol. For me, vaporised or edible cannabis works to keep my mental health consistently in check without nasty side effects. For others, maybe not so much.

I’m off to enjoy the sunshine and the autumn leaves collecting in multicoloured drifts through the streets. Stay well friends!

 

 

 

 

 

Liam

One of the key aims of Social Drinking is to help normalise conversations around mental health and addiction. I learned the hard way that alcohol and other addictions, and depression and anxiety thrive when I don’t talk about these things and isolate from my social networks. I don’t offer advice on this blog. I just try and tell my unremarkable story honestly in the hope it will spark a conversation.

We’ve all heard that men are less likely than women to seek help if they’re experiencing mental health issues. Many men I know have been taught they need to be self-reliant and that it is inappropriate to express their emotions. But, this wasn’t the case in my family at all.

Rather, I think my unhealthy way of dealing with emotions was partly a product of a distinctly parochial, Australian, small-town masculinity. I looked up to the surfer’s who charged the hardest, in the water surfing or at parties. The tough guys who rolled with the punches, who could work all day, drink all night and never complain. The ones who were holding up the bar at the end of Liam’s wake. Let’s just say I had a misplaced appreciation of what matters. Many of those guys are alkies now and don’t surf. A couple took their own lives.

Mental health and addiction is a chicken and the egg relationship of unsure causality. I’m not sure if it actually matters all that much, since most of the alkies I’ve met on the street, in rehabs, sitting on the gutter outside bars in Mexico as the first fishing trawlers come into port at dawn, have some sort of ‘other’ mental health issue bubbling away.

This blog has focussed on my drinking because that was what I believe brought me undone. However, through my own research and by working with a specialist cousellor, I’ve recently discovered a post-traumatic stress disorder has been with me, pretty much all along.

It was so easy to brush aside a traumatic event as though it was no big deal. That’s what I thought was expected of me as a twenty-year-old male: just get over it and get on with the business of living.

Of course, when we speak to people who are knowledgeable about trauma they will tell us to seek help. Peers, co-workers and drinking buddies? They’ll help us drown our sorrows, because that was how they were taught to deal with grief and stress.

Liam was a big teenager, both in physicality and presence, much like his father and grandfather. I surfed against him a few times in junior boardriders’ contests when he really should have been in the under-14s division. I was a few years older and, when I got my licence, I started dragging the big grommet down the coast in the hunt for bigger, badder waves. He was a lump of a kid with a heavy back foot in the water. He, as I, loved a beer.

I was on holidays from undergraduate university and was slogging away waiting tables, clearing filthy ashtrays (remember when that was a thing?!), frothing milk, and dreaming of the girls I was going to meet at the pub later.

It was late afternoon and, as was my usual practice, I was killing time playing the old timber upright piano on a break in a split shift. In the backgound was the usual Saturday arvo sounds of lawnmowers, Currawongs and Kookaburras, and a slosh of a small, lazy, onshore swell washing up on the rocky shore at the bottom of the hill. The local footy game had just wrapped up down the road, whistles and cheers gone. The oily smell of eucalyptus was drifting through the fly-screen.

I remember other scents in the bush that day too: the spilt fuel and stirred up dust, the ferrous tang of blood and the unmistakeable, indefineable smell of fear. These smells have been imprinted, returning seemingly without cause with a vividness that makes me feel as though the experience were happening all over again.

I heard a car gunning its engine along the last stretch of bitumen before my street turned into the forest road leading to the lookout. As it sped past I glimpsed an old 4×4 pick-up with passengers waving beers, crouching behind the driver in the rear tray. I recognised those ratbags, my friends. They’d been drinking at the footy.

A shot of adrenaline and foreboding.

Foot counting 4:4 time.  Two bars of empty space, fingers on keys, breath held.

The sound of wheels locked, a horrible sliding, an echoing percussion of impact rolling through the Otway valleys.

The car had hit the loose, corrugated gravel at speed on a slight angle. The skid marks showed a long, four wheel drift to the left, an attempted correction, terminating at the base of a very large gum tree.

Others had called the paramedics, who arrived not long after me.

Liam lay still, remarkably uninjured except for where he hit his head.

I remember Liam making fun of my swollen and bruised face after I survived a car accident a few years before his death. He, like many of the other locals, heard on the radio a (misinformed) report I had died.

On that day, I took a 1978 Ford Falcon XY sedan, laden with the family’s Xmas presents and a virgin, unwaxed surfboard for two, end-over-end somersaults,  Dukes of Hazard style into the intertidal zone, off a four metre cliff at 60MPH. Jessie the wonderdog was in the car with me. She survived, but wouldn’t trust me to drive for many years. Smart dog.

So, within the short space of two years, I had narrowly escaped with my own life and had witnessed my friend’s dying breath. By my 21st birthday, I had realised that the only way to stop the dreams was to pass out drunk. I had to have my quota.

The reason I tell this story is because it is unremarkable in its remarkableness: these things happen with all-too-frequent regularity in Australian towns. Everyone knows someone who didn’t make it out of their teens or early-20s because of the poor decisions they made. The experience of shock, grief and trauma is part of the human condition and we rely on our social networks to get us through. But I didn’t. I turned to the bottle.

None of this will bring Liam back, but remembering this sequence of events and talking about them with someone I trust has been both revealing and healing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a break

I’m currently having a bit of a break from my three-meeting-per-week AA schedule because, to put it bluntly, I got the shits with it. I’m still talking regularly with my sponsor, members and friends, but the meetings were and are doing my head in.

Maybe I’ve been going to too many of the same meetings and hearing similar things from similar people too often?

It’s not that I don’t have anything to learn about my own sobriety and addictive nature, far from it. But, currently, it is the form and structure, the ritual and symbolism of AA, that I’m focussing on rather than the stories themselves. Maybe Antze was right all along?

The repetition of the same old tropes has me bleeding at the ears, when only a few months ago those same sayings (Keep it Simple! Easy does it!) were a salve for broodiness and fresh insecurities about the future. But, rather than chuck AA in the bin, I’ve just backed off my participation for the moment, and that’s ok

I’ve been particularly miffed at the religiousity of some members in AA. This is in addition to someone close to me purporting to have had a born again conversion while, at the same time, behaving like a bit of an arse.

Maybe its the recent, well-publicised shifts to the right in Australian political discourse, where a Prime Minister has been brought down in part by a government chasing the votes of disinfranchised, mostly white, Christian, poorly educated people living in rural and regional electorates in Queensland. This is a reflection of a broader shift internationally, where people who feel like they have not benefited from globalisation, who have lost their jobs to technology or competition, or who haven’t had a wage increase above inflation for years, are embracing populist candidates.

Leaders are appealing to humanity’s worst instincts, like nativism, and racism, whipping up unfounded fear and anger at African migrants in Melbourne, then cleansing their moral responsibilities at Church on Sundays. Our new PM, an evangelical, touted his role in establishing Australia’s inhumane refugee policy as a reason for his elevation. Like locking up decent human beings fleeing war and persecution, children and adults, with no release date on tropical gulags is a worthy credential for leading a nation.

I will say this: I avoided going out in Canberra last Wednesday and Thursday night in fear of encountering maruanding members of the Government’s Christian Right.

If you are reading this and suspect my God-botherer resentment is back, then you would be correct!

I’m not going to drink over it today. Someone else’s beliefs aren’t my business. But I live in a democracy and have a vote, and so do you (I hope) 🙂

Lost legs

I went back to visit my wife on the tiny island where she is working. I was anxious and had been wondering how things would go, with many things needing to be said. It was also a chance to have a much needed break from a job that I can’t decide if I love or hate.

The old guys at the market were still in their usual spots, drunk by 10am, same as always, lurching between bags of carrots and onions, swigging bottles of hopi, an island home brew. One poor sod lost his legs and then his bottle in a shattered mess of glass and man. Some people treat him kindly, like a sick brother. Most keep their distance. Some teenagers laugh.

It’s easy to feel that you’re losing your legs too after a day at sea, and certainly so after eyeballing a 15m animal underneath it, backed up by a posse of her mates.

They say people have two types of responses to seeing adult Humpback whales with nothing other than a bit of glass, some rubber and a plastic tube, flippering wildly. Some laugh. Others cry. I did both and simultaneously fogged up my mask and inhaled water: not recommended.

Then a 3m swell hit, I got some good waves and things felt good.

Inevitably, some conversations have to be had.

Try as I may to change, I am an Australian creature that thrives at home in routine.

I also realised I am distinctly not suited to the expat lifestyle and culture. We could say the alcohol doesn’t agree with me. But it’s more than that.

My wife and I grew apart and are now very different people to the ones who met a decade ago. We are no longer compatible and have separated.

AA taught me that I have no right to try to change other people, just as other people have no right to try and change me. AA does not say that recovering alcoholics have to roll over and appease people, because doing so creates resentments. I’ve realised that my tendency to want to please people, including those I love, erodes my autonomy.

Speaking of significant changes, my four-legged best friend became three-legged on Monday. He’s dealing with it well, doped to the eyeballs on Opiate Allsorts, having his every need attended to (including being hand fed poached chicken and rice by his very concerned human, omnomnomnom).

Poor bastard lost his leg chasing a tennis ball.

Things wear out as you get older. A snapped Anterior Cruciate Ligament in a knee became surgery and  a post-operative staphylococcus aureus infection that basically ate the knee joint from the inside out. These things happen in human surgeries every day around the world too.

Anyway, I’m grateful to report that, after a bit of a tumultuous run, I seem to be still putting one foot in front of the other, with my three-legged mate beside me and lots of two-legged ones for support and company.

 

 

 

 

Ignition

February 2009, somewhere in regional New South Wales, Australia

Two streets back from the rows of neatly trimmed, middle class garden edges, we sit under a tree next to a rusted, wheelless HQ in an overgrown front yard and drink tea while little Mae runs about with the dogs.

The windows of the house have been broken and boarded up so many times that the frames are peppered with empty nail holes in between the flakes of peeling paint. The weatherboard cladding is pock-marked by age and a broken down-pipe hangs loosely from the corroded guttering above.

A scorching nor-wester spins dusty Willy Willies across the melting bitumen: little vortices of malevolent spirit seeking the wayward and unwary.

The boys (Mae’s first cousins) have been staying here for the past few weeks, waiting for things to settle down back home, an hour’s drive north. They were both on parole from juvie and ‘needed to keep their noses clean’ after a recent brawl, according to their old man.

But, trying to keep teenage boys away from trouble without giving them something else to focus their boundless energy on is like carelessly storing hay. Both have the tendency to self-combust as the result of a complex chain of biological events and chemical reactions.

The process, with both hay and teenage boys, goes something like this: exothermic internal reactions preclude thermal runaway (rapid acceleration to high temperatures) and finally, ignition. With hay, spontaneous combustion is the leading cause of haystack fires. Boredom-induced ignition produces similar effects in teenage boys, too often resulting either in time spent in juvie, or in an adult prison. The little marks on a rap sheet build up, like compounding interest, until a magistrate is convinced that the community is better served by one’s absence for a stretch of time.

Being locked up introduces teenagers and young adults to a pecking order based on indefinitely increasing personal capacities for violence and rat cunning. The system establishes a social order of institutionalised relationships that are mediated by what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as social capital – a range of actual or potential resources given value by the network of relationships in which they are embedded.

As teenagers grow up within the criminal justice system, the system itself is reinforced. Michel Foucault saw this recycling of people through the legal systems of Europe and observed that, while prisons punish unlawful activity, ‘delinquency is for the most part produced in and by an incarceration which, ultimately, prison perpetuates in its turn’.

New South Wales imprisons the largest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country, and the state continues to lock up more every year. The social determinants of high imprisonment rates in Aboriginal communities have been well documented in countless government reviews and reports.

One of the key findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (1991) was that ‘the most significant contributing factor is the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally’.[1] This situation has gotten worse, not better in the two decades following the Royal Commission. Incorporating a justice target in the Closing the Gap framework would appear a no-brainer, yet the current Coalition government continues to drag its heals on policy reform in this area.

There has been a raft of recommendations to governments over the years to keep Aboriginal juveniles and young adults out of the criminal justice system, with improvements mooted for education, health, wellbeing, access to employment and job-readiness. As is the case in most Aboriginal communities I’ve hung out in, Kooris here attach a healthy measure of cynicism as to whether there have been any real-world improvements.

The gaze of the casually interested State, one which levers layers of bureaucracy towards short-term funded programs and projects for short-term political gain, sweeps over regional communities in New South Wales from time to time, but never stays there long.

Kids get involved in petty crime, grog and drugs at a young age. There’s not much else to do, and when the older teenagers (one’s immediate role models) are doing it, it’s as much of a rite of passage to throw a brick through a window, get your head punched in (or punch someone elses’) as it is to get drunk on Fruity Lexia, or pinch Mum’s durries or yarndi.

This is not a race thing. It is socioeconomic and part of history.

It is practical too: the more you get in trouble, the more trouble finds you.

Before he passed away, Old Tom used to say that Willy Willies came into being when the spirits were angry with particular people. ‘The heat builds up in bushfire season, with the wind out of the north. The devils rise up from the dust and spin in the air. They find the bad young fellas and go for them to teach them a lesson. Right up their noses!’

I hear sirens echoing down through the valley – heralding a new brush fire in the escarpments? Smoke haze has been lingering in the hills for days now. Perhaps it was a police car, or an ambulance? Sounds are hard to distinguish in the buffeting wind. Mia and I jump on the roof of the car to look for signs of fire, but can’t see much except for an orange-hued stain across the afternoon sky.

The phone rings and I hear footsteps running inside and voices shrill with alarm. I can make out a few words amid the chaos:

Hospital.

Jai and Aiden.

Blood everywhere.

Exothermic thermal reactions producing thermal runaway and ignition. Little Mae runs inside crying.

Laying low for two weeks in the middle of the February heat (whilst being conspicuous in their absence from the trouble up north), the nephews ran into trouble down the street. A carload of enemy gangbangers had cruised south, blitzed on snow cones of methamphetamine and hydro cannabis.

The boys had seen the car parked at Woolies, heard the subwoofers pounding through the pavement.

Anger. Pride. Testosterone levels peaking. Adrenaline-fuelled thermal runaway. You can smell it in the sweat.

Ignition.

Two teenagers have been admitted to hospital with stab wounds in…{DELETED}…following an altercation in a supermarket car park on Tuesday afternoon. A man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with wounding a person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, possessing or using a prohibited weapon without a permit, and affray. A second man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with affray.

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, 1991, Vol.1., p.1.7.1.

Don’t give Santa rum

December 2008. Somewhere in regional New South Wales.

I sit, roll a Champion Ruby, and wait for my coffee. To the left, a newsagent’s window display glistens with tinsel and Christmas baubles. To the right, a pharmacy promo poster has raindeer leaping through Winter snow. I’m sweating bullets and its only 10am. The table wobbles.

It’s early summer in south-eastern Australia. The heat and humidity is increasing and the flies return after winter to fuck and swarm. They seem to be attracted to my stink this morning, and I suspect my sweaty back is a seething brown-black blanket.

I remember some advice I heard about anthropological fieldwork that, when all else fails, a struggling researcher should just start counting stuff. So I count flies and, in doing so, begin to record other mundane details about the comings and goings on the street.

It’s Thursday, which is Pension Day. I call it Pokie Day. Plenty of people are out in the sunshine shopping and running errands, stocking up for Christmas and Boxing Day, when the shops will be closed. However, the Pokies carpark was already full when I drove into town.

There is a pre-Chrismas buzz in the air, but I don’t care much for smiling children and green and red faux lanterns this morning. I started drinking with an informant while fishing at the estuary jetty last night on dusk, which became a bottle of wine or two with dinner that became…what exactly?

All I know right now is that I need to be working rather than focussing all my energy on trying not to have a panic attack. Other people feel sick on a hangover. That doesn’t faze me too much as I’ve been hungover for mostly a decade now. It’s the spontaneous, crippling anxiety that worries me most.

Carols, playing on loop, interupt my thoughts and sour my mood each time the automatic door opens at the pharmacy. I close my eyes, breathe, and listen for other sounds in the street. Trucks, cars, seagulls, magpies.

The smell of cigarettes, exhaust fumes, grease (from the fish and chip shop).

A car horn blares, accompanied by two loud, echoing exclamations:

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Cunce!

An Aboriginal man, who I have seen around town a few times since I moved here but haven’t met, wears a Santa Claus outfit, has the attention of a few dozen people, takes one last hit from a bottle of spirits in a torn brown paper bag and seizes his moment in the middle of the main street.

For the next fifteen minutes, or for however long it takes for the cops to drive around the corner from the station, Santa starts yelling and doesn’t stop.

It is a rambling, slurred monologue about the injustices of European colonialism and genocide, punctuated with more loud, echoing exclamations. It could have been epic, had Santa not been so righteously hammered.

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Parents wheel their prams and usher children into shops.

Ten centimeters of ass crack is visible when Santa bends over to pick up his dropped cigarette.

Did Santa have official duties this morning? I suspect some community Christmas event might be missing out on their VIP, if that was the case.

Cunce!

The scene is stereotype, played out in 3D surround-sound stereo before my eyes and ears. I feel ill.

A woman walks past, mutters:

Bloody Abos.

I stare bleakly at my notebook. Yes, the date at the top reads 2008. No, not all whitefellas here are like that, I tell myself. Kevin Rudd just won office. Some Koori people said they feel more hopeful about reconciliation since John Howard failed to even hold his own seat.

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Why am I even writing about this, its not like I’m going to put it in my thesis about *insertresearchquestion*? This is an outlier situation right?

And, what right do I have to take notes on public drunkness as a ‘dispassionate observer’ when I’m seriously considering rehab for my own drinking?

Bad Santa probably won’t remember much of this. Much like I can’t remember anything after the 7:30 Report finished last night.

Get off the road ya fucking alco!

To their credit, when the Police do arrive, they do their best to calm St Nick before escorting him quietly away. Or maybe that last slug of grog finished him off?


Some years later I met Santa outside an AA meeting. He was in plain clothes, picking up a friend. It turns out Santa isn’t an alcoholic. But he did love to drink when he had a wallet flush with cash, and freely admitted he sometimes took it too far and landed himself in trouble. When the doctor told him his liver was shot, Santa simply gave it away. Didn’t need AA. Didn’t need rehab. Didn’t even get the shakes.

Santa’s take on that December morning in 2008?

I had a full head of steam, felt the injustice clear and wanted to shout it from the rooftops. And Captain Morgan’s was on special. Problem was I forgot we had Christmas golf day! Didn’t even make it to the first tee! See. Don’t give Santa rum!

.

The Beagle

I guess I should probably explain my pseudonym. In AA, we don’t have pseudonyms and usually follow a standard form {First Name}{Last Initial}. Tenured academics don’t use pseudonyms because if they didn’t put their names to things they’d be out of a job. Publish or perish and all that.

But me? To write honestly about addiction, I need to be able to let it all hang out. Since some of the stuff that hangs out might not look so good on a resume or CV, I need a pseudonym for now.

Could it be a reference to HMS Beagle, that unassuming Royal Navy vessel that carried the naturalist Charles Darwin on his famous voyage that led to the development of his theories of natural selection and evolution?

No, not quite.

Truth be told, the Beagle is just an old nickname that I got given during my early 20s.

A quick whiff of the breeze and friendly dog at the customs counter knows what’s what.

Stop wagging your tail and get away from me you bastard.

This is not to say that all sniffer dogs are druggies – let’s not make rash generalisations. Neither am I.

But, since a young age I have always kept my eyes and ears open, and have been fascinated with how and why people seek to alter the way they feel. In short, I have always known who to ask for various things, but have never been shackled to other drugs like I have been to alcohol.

Also, I have always felt oddly at ease interacting with people who others find scary. That’s mostly down to my gender and physical characteristics. I’m big enough to make people think twice about violence, and disarming and friendly enough that nobody would ever try. Respectful? Tick. Discreet? Shh.

Librarians love me too. I have niche demographics.

That said, I did have a loaded shotgun pulled on me once during fieldwork when I forgot to ring ahead before visiting someone for an interview. I got the interview.

These attributes of course were mostly a front. That self-confidence and fearlessness crumbled to dust when the alcohol stopped working in my late 30s.

Alcoholics, as we say in AA, are chameleons. We are attracted to other drinkers, and situations where heavy drinking is normalised because it allows us to blend in, which also helps us to convince ourselves that our own drinking is fine. My success as a chameleon meant that my alcoholism went untreated until the wheels completely fell off.

Absolutely fine. Nothing to see here. *Crash, clunk.*

But, it’s not about how we fall down. It’s how we get back up again. Which is why I started this blog.

So, there you have it. As pseudonyms go, it’s a bit shit, but necessary all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up (un)gracefully

I haven’t written a Social Drinking blog post for a while because I have been going through disturbances in my personal life. This means that I needed to sort out my own emotions and thoughts about a whole bunch of things. Now I can report back, like I do in AA meetings, with new insights about my alcoholism. It has been a rough but extremely beneficial few months.

In my last post I was reflecting on, and coming to terms with, the process of separation from my wife, which was heading towards divorce. I think the gravity of what we were about to do finally sunk in when we got to see each other face to face and we finally had some conversations that we probably should have had many years ago. We have decided to press ahead, and I’m feeling much more optimistic now about our relationship.

I have also had to take stock of my own behaviour during this period of disturbance. AA has this rule that I think should sit alongside ‘don’t be an asshole’ as a solid guide to good behaviour: ‘every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us’. Of course, in human relationships, there probably is something wrong other people who we interact with as well. But, that is not our responsibility.

I’ll give you a tip: if you want to win friends and influence people, don’t criticise them. Don’t take other people’s moral inventory and then feel it is your right to explain to them their personal failings when you feel they have done you wrong. You might get a punch in the face. Or you might hurt someone you love. This is one of those lessons I should have learnt years ago. Instead, I’ve come late to the party of understanding.

I have also been seeing a new shrink to help me deal with some mental health issues that have never really resolved, despite years now of sobriety and antidepressants. The diagnostic finger is pointing squarely at a couple of traumatic incidents that have been giving me visual/auditory/smell/taste flashbacks and making sleep difficult for nearly 20 years. It seems I may have developed a post traumatic stress disorder. The good news is, I probably don’t need to be on the antidepressant anymore, which means byeeeeeeee to side effects 🙂

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Dance like nobody’s watching. Vacuum the house in your underpants. Run up a hill past grass-chomping kangaroos listening to Biggy’s Hypnotise. You get the drift.

Pills, booze and the devil’s lettuce be

We humans are constantly doing things to change the way we feel: for example, through exercise, sex, food, meditation, prayer, alcohol and other legal and illegal drugs. Each of these things produce chemical changes in our brains. But, despite knowing that a good run can be the best way to ease stress and anxiety, we only refer to legal drugs as ‘medicine’ while singing songs about sexual healing. People drink wine with dinner to take the edge off. So did I, until there was no edge.

The more I write about my own relationship with alcohol, the more I realise that I have always used a range of substances to produce changes in myself. I am not the only person who does this. I still use a stimulant daily (strong, hot and black), and despite my best intentions to quit smoking via Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), I have simply transferred one disgusting habit to another – chewing nicotine gum. I also take an antidepressant, which I am hoping to cease in the next few months in favour of a more natural alternative.

On the surface, NRT (like methadone and buprenorphine for opiate addicts) is marketed and recommended by doctors as a pathway to quitting. However, nicotine chewing gum is extremely addictive and has a pleasant minty taste. Methadone and bupe, so I’m told by people who know, are far less tasty but no less addictive.

On another level, NRT is an example of harm reduction through substitution, in this case replacing the harmful method of drug delivery with a safer one. In buying a pack of NRT gum at the supermarket, I am no different to my peers who line up outside our local AoD outpatient service on sub-zero mornings for methadone and bupe to ward off crippling opioid withdrawal for another day.

Nicotine triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, meaning that it can provide short-term feelings of relief to people experiencing withdrawal from other substances, including heroin and alcohol. This is true even in the smoke-free* rehabs of the public health system, where nurses dole out NRT to calm nerves and prevent unnecessary nicotine withdrawal, along with benzos (also highly addictive) to prevent seizures.

Bio-power and harm reduction

I’ve mentioned previously that Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s book Righteous Dopefiend (2009) presents some powerful ideas about heroin addiction, drawn from the theories of some of social science’s heaviest hitters (Marx, Bourdieu and Foucault). Righteous Dopefiend develops a theory of abuse in which power is misused in people’s relationships with the state, and each other, by gender, race and socioeconomic class.

One key term Bourgeois and Schonberg introduce from Foucault is ‘biopower’. This is about ‘techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations’.** Biopower is partly about the state turning us all into good, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens who make rational decisions. Because, if we don’t comply, the government has instruments of control (for example, family services or the cops).

Bourgeois and Schonberg note that, while Foucault did not examine illegal drug use, it is ‘ideal terrain’ for many of his ideas including ‘a critical application of biopower, governmentality, and the deconstruction of knowledge/power discourses.’ ***

Bourgeois and Schonberg’s theory also implicates neoliberalism in class-based abuse, which helps explain why poor and socially marginalised people bear a greater health burden from addiction, which in turn generates self-destructive thinking and behaviours (subjectivities).

In relation to methadone, Bourgeois and Schonberg suggest that the ‘radical, user-friendly intentions of harm reduction activists’ has been captured to some extent by a ‘logic of governmentality.’**** They argue that harm reduction operates within a middle-class public health discourse that promotes disciplined citizens capable of regulating their own behaviour and making rational decisions.

Bourgeois further develops his ideas about how power relations shape drug treatment in the United States by showing how a methadone clinic is an unhappy compromise between competing discourses: a criminalizing morality versus a medicalizing model of addiction-as-a-brain-disease.*****

Bio-power is about real power too, and in the so-called real economy, power equals money and money equals power. A real-estate tycoon and former reality television star is now President of the United States. If Obama showed African-American kids that they truly could be anything, then what message is being sent by Trump? Money buys votes and votes make laws.

Legal, illegal

We live in a world where some substances are regulated by states: they are tested, trialled, approved, taxed, scheduled, prescribed, administered, served, sold, distributed and consumed. Other substances are banned and fall outside of the state apparatus, or at least to systems of citizen control (law and order).

While the plants Coffea Arabica and Robusta enjoyed a celebrated status in the 20th century, Cannabis Sativa and Indica have been synonymous with the illicit. ‘Marijauna’ (a word with dubious etymology) was used to campaign against the plant’s use in the United States and elsewhere, in a series of early 20th‐century moral panics that led to cannabis’ demonisation as the devil’s lettuce. More recently, cannabis is enjoying gradual liberalisation. But, not in Australia, where policy reform remains some way off.

The United States, like Australia, is in the grip of an opioid crisis as the dried latex of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, continues its march across the world. This latex is made up of morphine, which is processed to make heroin and other synthetic opioids for medicinal/legal or recreational/illegal consumption, and other opioids including codeine.

In West Virgina, a media  investigation found that from 2007 to 2012, drug firms poured a total of 780 million opioid painkillers into the state:

  • Number of oxycodone dosages shipped to West Virginia pharmacies between 2007 and 2012: 224,260,980
  • Number of hydrocodone dosages shipped to West Virginia pharmacies between 2007 and 2012: 555,808,292

The unfettered shipments amount to 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia.

The region includes the top four counties — Wyoming, McDowell, Boone and Mingo — for fatal overdoses caused by pain pills in the U.S., according to CDC data analyzed by the Gazette-Mail. Another two Southern West Virginia counties — Mercer and Raleigh — rank in the top 10. And Logan, Lincoln, Fayette and Monroe fall among the top 20 counties for fatal overdoses involving prescription opioids. One of the drug companies implicated in these shipments was H.D. Smith, which made $4.0 billion from drug distribution in 2016 alone.

But, it seems, these legal drug dealers have killed the goose that layed the golden egg. Legal proceedings involving the major hydrocodone distributors are ongoing and a consolidated case is expected to yield an unprecedented settlement from manufacturers and distributors alike. McKesson and Cardinal Health, in the past two years, agreed to pay the federal government $150 million and $44 million, respectively. It was recently announced that AmerisourceBergen, Miami-Luken, and H.D. Smith have agreed to pay $16 million, $2.5 million, and $3.5 million, respectively, to West Virginia’s government, among other penalties and settlement agreements.

While opioid manufacturers and distributors are on the nose with regulators, legislators and the public, many investors are pouring into medical and recreational cannabis businesses. A century of prohibition has meant that scientists have only very recently begun to unlock cannabis’ vast therapeutic potential and there has been a real chance of a bubble emerging in cannabis-based company stocks, most recently in Canada. Even in laid-back Colorado, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are fighting for an ounce of the action. Is there not some irony in headlines like High Hopes Ride on Marijuana Amid Opioid Crisis?!

Exercise as treatment

Like drugs, sex and exercise stimulate the release of happy hormones in the human body, with the two activities not being mutually exclusive. Again, is it any surprise that some addicts swap their drug of choice for a sweaty sex addiction? Or become adrenaline-chasers and gym-junkies?

In May 2018, a group of Australian cancer specialists launched a ‘world-first’ position statement calling for exercise to be prescribed to all cancer patients as part of their routine treatment. Cancer patients who exercise regularly have fewer and less severe side effects from treatments like chemotherapy. They also have a lower risk of cancer recurring and a lower chance of dying from cancer. Dr Prue Cormie, Chair of the Exercise and Cancer Group within the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, writes:

If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment. If we had a pill called exercise it would be demanded by cancer patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist, and subsidised by government.

I too consider exercise to be an important part of my treatment for alcoholism. Not only does exercise provide an alternative healthy activity to drinking and other addictive behaviours, it has been shown to improve mood and psychological wellbeing. But, as we know, exercise requires a person to be active in their treatment. You have to want to get fit and enjoy doing it. For this reason, treatment with exercise is more likely to succeed when you are free to choose the type of exercise you enjoy. For me, this is surfing and more recently, trail running.

Research as treatment

If you hang around rehabs and AA long enough you’ll realise that many recovering alkies and addicts dream of getting a job in social services, particularly drug and alcohol support. This makes sense, since those of us who stay alive long enough to get sober and stay that way have become subject area specialists in our own personal recoveries. We have been through many different rehabs, tested and trialled and failed various pharmacological/psychological interventions, chewed through piles of literature, browsed countless websites and spent hundreds of hours either in quiet self-reflection, or conversation with other novice-experts.

I mentioned previously that I completed a PhD in anthropology around the same time as my alcoholism and other addictions were reaching crisis point. My PhD research was not about why and how people use pills (of various descriptions), booze and yarndi/cannabis. Regardless, the seeds of my present understanding of these things were first laid bare during fieldwork.

My research was also an example of anthropology at home. I did research in the same location as I spend most of my time when I’m not working. It is a type of Australian ecosystem in which I feel most at home (i.e. it has great waves and lots of gum trees). As much as I wanted to treat the ‘site of my research’ as a distinct spatial-temporal entity, it just simply wasn’t and isn’t.

In practical terms, my research ended with my PhD. This includes the funding and the research ethics agreement. Plus, I now work in the public sector for an employer that doesn’t support individual publishing. My circumstances have changed, and this doesn’t allow me to do formal research.

But, my ‘field’ has not shifted. It hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s become bigger, and more all-consuming. My focus shifted from *insert research question* to finding similarities between my experience and those of many of my informants and friends.


* For an excellent anthropological analysis of how the social, moral, political and legal atmosphere of ‘smokefree’ came into being, see: Simone Dennis, SmokeFree: A Social, Moral and Political Atmosphere, 2016, Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York.

** Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 1976, p. 140.

*** Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend, 2009, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, p. 19.

**** Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend, 2009, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, p. 106.

***** Philippe Bourgois,  ‘Disciplining addictions: the bio-politics of methadone and heroin in the United States’, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 2000, 24, pp. 165–95.