Be more Dog


Today, I am grateful for the support I receve from my family, close friends and fellow members of AA to keep the good ship H.M. Beagle on an even keel. However, it would be remiss of me not to pay special mention to my non-human kin, otherwise known as dog, because he too has been central to my recovery story.

For starters, you could do worse than have dog’s outlook on life. He wakes up to a new day full of promise. Everything is excellent. He neither dwells on the past, nor worries about the future, because the present is all that matters. He loves unconditionally and doesn’t get grouchy unless it is absolutely called for. A few weeks ago he had his ear pierced by an out-of-control Kelpie. Dog didn’t care, in fact I don’t think he even felt it and wanted to play with the foul beastie.

Also, dog is my best mate and shadow. In the absence of other people being around, he is an excellent companion. But this hasn’t always been the case. When I was drinking, the dog didn’t want to know me.  This isn’t suprising, however. Have you ever smelled a wino in the street? Surely I had the same piquancy, hidden under freshly laundered clothes. I probably didn’t even smell like the same person.

My dog doesn’t care if anyone else has a drink. Just me. He’ll quite happily hang out for beers and the occasional dropped chip. But if I start drinking? Nope. I suspect this is because, dog knows, I have a radical and profoundly negative change in perspective and behaviour when I drink and thus become diminished in the esteem of my peers and pack.

When humans gaze into each other’s eyes, for example a baby looking at its mother, we bond emotionally in a process mediated by the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain. A group of Japanese scientists found that this gaze-mediated bonding also exists between humans and our closest animal companions, dogs. Nagasawa et al. show that the human-dog bond is facilitated by the interaction of oxytocin feedback loops that evolved over the course of canine domestication:

Urinary oxytocin variation in dog owners is highly correlated with the frequency of behavioral exchanges initiated by the dogs’ gaze. These results suggest that humans may feel affection for their companion dogs similar to that felt toward human family members and that dog-associated visual stimuli, such as eye-gaze contact, from their dogs activate oxytocin systems. Thus, during dog domestication, neural systems implementing gaze communications evolved that activate the humans’ oxytocin attachment system, as did gaze-mediated oxytocin release, resulting in an interspecies oxytocin-mediated positive loop to facilitate human-dog bonding. This system is not present in the closest living relative of the domesticated dog [Wolves].

So, if you feel that you have a closer bond to your dog than you do to most other humans, you’re probably correct. Certainly so if you spend a lot of quality time together.

I never intentionally hurt dog when I was drinking, but the effects of alcohol on our loved ones are not always physical. I was never violent with my partner either. Dog always got given his biscuits and his water bowl never ran dry. He got walked, but like me, he grew soft and nebulous from inactivity. No, fortunately the wounds I afflicted on dog were temporary. I think he was genuinely confused and worried.

Funny as it sounds, I’m committed to making an amends to dog for the perceived hurt and confusion I caused when I was drinking, in addition to the missed walks and adventures when I was comatose on the couch. It is, what we call in AA, a ‘living amends’. This means that we undertake, through our words and actions, to be a better person. To be more Dog.

In practice, this simply means that I make our daily walks and adventures an additional non-negotiable in my routine, along with AA’s suggested actions that include taking care of my nutrition and physical wellbeing, getting enough sleep and exercise, meditating (or praying, if that’s your thing), attending meetings and working with other members.

*Miho Nagasawa, Shouhei Mitsui, Shiori En et. al., ‘Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds’, Science, 17, Apr 2015, pp.333-336.



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 (


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.


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.


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:


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’:


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.




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


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:


Bad apples

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

Up in the system before they even crack 12

You can paint a pretty picture with all them pastels

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

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

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

They couldn’t spell their name off the bat

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

Briggs, ‘Bad Apples’, Sheplife, 2014.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My name is Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning it


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations you have reached step one! Level Up!

Accountability and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice? Best not.

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

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

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

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

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

Merry: Yes?

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

Pippin: Well, that’s good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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