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.

 

 

 

 

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.

FYI: relationships are hard

Getting sober is not always raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Sometimes being an adult really fucking hurts.

Earlier this month, my marriage of seven years came to an end a week shy of our eighth wedding anniversary. While this was not unexpected (one cannot plumb the depths of alcoholism and addiction without it wreaking havoc on close personal relationships), my wife’s decision has knocked me off balance. However, I refuse to harbour any ill feelings towards her and am committed to ending our marriage as we started: as best friends. To achieve that goal, while staying away from alcohol, I need to Do The Next Right Thing (or DTNRT, if you like acronyms).

DTNRT

The million dollar question at this point is: How do I know if I am responding to a situation in the right way? In AA’s Step 4 we conducted ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’ and then admitted all our bad behaviour and character defects to another person in Step 5 (and God, if you believe in one). These steps are important because they allowed me to identify the qualities I admire in others, to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, to identify situations and relationships that place me at risk of relapsing, and to learn when I am behaving in a way that doesn’t reflect my personal values.

When I was at a low point last week I rang someone close to me for support and, instead of finding a sympathetic ear, I received two full barrels of anger, a torrent of abusive text messages and nine missed calls while I was at work the next day. Unsurprisingly, I was angry and upset by this person’s behaviour. Fortunately I had the smarts to call my sponsor. We decided I should block the offending phone number until temperatures returned to normal, and to resume the relationship when I am on a more solid emotional footing.

Sometimes doing the next right thing is as simple as not responding to anger with anger, or attempting to find a point of agreement in an argument. At other times DTNRT is pausing when agitated or not having the final say in a conversation.

In the case of my marriage breakdown, DTNRT is about me being supportive of my wife’s decision, and to accept that she needs to grow in her own way, even if it causes ripples in my present circumstances. After all, I owe my wife my life. If making this transition in our relationship easy is what I need to do to make an amends for the harm caused by my drinking, then that is what I need to do.

No person is an island

Given the set of circumstances described above, my first instinct is to withdraw from social relationships. There is sadness there, and quite a bit of grief. That is understandable. But, if history is any lesson, I don’t fare well when I withdraw from society and attempt to do life as a solitary organism. We humans just don’t work like that.

When I was drinking and times got tough, I would dream I was marooned on an island with perfect waves and a never ending supply of rum. Instead, I found myself lying in bed at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon with a cask of wine wondering if I had any relationships left.

The point is that, as social creatures, we need human contact.

So, instead of fleeing down the coast with a dog, a tent and a surfboard, I stuck it out this weekend and went to a bunch of AA meetings. I even went to a punk rock gig on Saturday night, drank soda water and laughed my head off with another AA member. It was good. The best thing was that I woke up Sunday morning with no regrets.

Oh, and real footy’s back. Not that thing with the round ball and the play acting. Or the other things where large men run straight at each other. No, Australian Rules! Go the mighty Cats!

Take your medicine: how a spiritual program can work for atheists

Q. How can an atheist follow a spiritual program of recovery without his or her head exploding in a puddle of existential goo? A. Start by accepting you don’t have all the answers and then fake it till you make it.

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I’ve mentioned previously that, when I first encountered the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I saw the word God scrawled across the calico banners on the wall and pretty much ran screaming into the sunset. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the drift. Contempt prior to investigation is probably closer to the truth.

One would have thought that as an anthropologist – someone who is trained to identify their own cultural biases, and who is fascinated by the human condition in all its forms – I would have had a more open mind about this. But no, I chose to put my preconceptions ahead of sobriety and it nearly killed me. After all, I hadn’t believed in a God in more than two decades. Why start now?

I was baptised Anglican in a rural community. I went to Sunday school, youth group and was eventually confirmed as a 13 year old kid with pimples who could eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood. It was about the same time that we were being introduced to biology at school, including the legendary story of Charles Darwin’s journey of discovery in The Beagle. Needless to say, the story of how finches evolved on remote islands seemed more plausible to me than any of the magical horseshit I was hearing or reading on Sundays. Still, the Minister had a drop-dead-gorgeous daughter, so I hung around the Church like a bad smell until I discovered beer and Saturday Nights.

Later, I nurtured resentments against ‘the Church’ for a whole swag of reasons, real or imagined: Religion is a drug that keeps populations subjugated; Christian people are duplicitous; Catholicism is institutionalised tax evasion and child abuse; etc., etc., etc. Worse still, I looked down my nose at people who believed in something spiritual and sometimes got into heated, drunken debates with Christians, armed with so-called reason and a quick, nasty wit.

Then I plunged headfirst into rehab and received my first real introduction to AAs 12 Steps, half of which appeared to exclude athiests:

  • We need a ‘Power greater than ourselves’ to cure our insanity (Step 2)
  • To get well, we have to ‘turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him’ (Step 3)
  • After all that, we then had to admit to God all of our wrongs (Step 5), become willing to have God remove all our character defects (Step 6) and humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings (Step 7), and
  • Practice prayer, every single day (Step 11).

Unsurprisingly, I spent most of the long hours in rehab wrestling with AA’s God concept figuring out how I could bypass the spiritual aspects of the program. While I didn’t have a religious experience, rehab did give my body and mind a chance to dry out, and my loved ones a break from having to deal with my bullshit.

It took three weeks for me to bust after rehab, which took my tally of sober days up to 60. This was the longest I had been without alcohol in my system for more than two decades. I suppose we could call that a success.

Willpower?

If you’re reading this and you don’t have a problem with alcohol, you may think that alcoholics just suffer from a lack of willpower. In response: imagine you wake in the morning after one of your best friends’ weddings in a resort town. You have spent a considerable amount of money to get and stay there, and it was a rare chance to see your old mates together again before they run off and breed. You were so excited to see everyone that you got completely carried away drinking expensive wine and can’t remember anything after the sun went down. Your partner, who will not speak to you for many hours yet, eventually informs you that you were found by the police half stumbling/half crawling down a road in an 80km/hr zone. You’d probably vow off the grog for a while, if not for life. And, you’d mean it too.

This exact situation happened to me. I vowed off grog and I meant it too. Like AA’s founder Bill Wilson, I woke up and meant business:

This had to be stopped. I saw I could not take take so much as one drink. I was through forever…

Shortly afterward I came home drunk. There had been no fight. Where had been my high resolve? I simply didn’t know. It hadn’t even come to mind. Someone had pushed a drink my way and I had taken it.

While recovering from drinking to blackout and being rescued by the police, I went out with one of my mates to get groceries. Ten minutes later I had a can of ‘Dark and Stormy’ in my hand, the first of many hangover cures consumed that afternoon.

Like Bill, my best efforts kept achieving the same result and it never took long for the wagon wheels to fall off.  For example, while I was on medical leave to ‘sort out my drinking’, I’d give my partner all my cash, credit and debit cards before she left for work. When she returned, without fail, I would be falling-down drunk.

I spoke to my best mate the other day – a prodigious and regular drinker – but not an alcoholic. He just had a month off the grog and he said it suprised him how easy it was. I was dumbfounded. I asked him if he had trouble sleeping or was irritable. He said no more than usual. I congratulated him, but not before telling him I thought he was an alien from outerspace.

We alkies have plenty of ‘willpower’, the problem is that it is directed towards drinking. Take away our wallet and access to money, we’ll still find a way to get drunk. A recent review of neurobiological advances from the brain disease model of addiction shows that addictions have not only changed our brains’ reward and decision-making centres, they have increased our reactivity to stress and given rise to negative emotions and dysphoria (researchers call this an ‘antireward system’). This means that, ‘in addition to the direct and conditioned pull toward the “rewards” of drug use, there is a correspondingly intense motivational push to escape the discomfort associated with the aftereffects of use. As a result of these changes, the person with addiction transitions from taking drugs simply to feel pleasure, or to “get high,” to taking them to obtain transient relief from dysphoria.’ So, its not a question of willpower, we just aren’t like normal folk.

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Gift of Desperation

Apparently fate had decided that I needed to become broken just enough to come back to AA with an open mind: I needed to become desperate enough to suspend my preconceptions about the program, including the fear I might get infected by some virulent strain of Godbotheryitis and turn into Ned Flanders.

In AA, we call this the Gift of Desperation (G.O.D. – see the theme here?! )

The following extracts from my journal provide a pretty good indication of my headspace before and after I arrived at my personal rock bottom. For context, the first extract from August 2014 was written by an active alcoholic who has just had a major relapse at work, and was looking to get his employer off his back by having the AOD doctor write a letter of support. The treatment plan included relying on an alcoholic self-administering a drug that causes life-threatening side effects when it is mixed with alcohol. The second extract, recorded three months later, was my first attempt to write about my rock bottom, still shaking after five days in blackout.

12/8/14

Appointment with Dr XXXXXXXXXX today. I need a plan of treatment and support and a letter to Human Resources after my last bust at work.

After appointment: plan is:

  • Six months of self-administered Antabuse (Disulfiram) 250mg daily.
  • No benzos, opioid painkillers or any other sedative style or potentially addictive drugs.
  • Regular counselling.
  • Engage with and attend AA.
  • Daily diary and journaling (i.e. this)
  • Check out SMART recovery – good for athiests?
  • Read, write and learn more about WHY I drink like I do.

Feel like a big weight is off my shoulders now that I have spoken to the doc and have the letter for work. Back in the pool swimming today!

 

5/11/14

First day sober, shaking, fearful of my own shadow, jumping at the groan of trees in the wind. Sweating buckets haven’t eaten. Lost litres of fluid in tears. Probably should hydrate.

Stopped taking Antabuse around the 31st and had a light beer but immediately had acetaldehyde reaction, got flushed, heart palpitations, etc. so backed off. Relapsed proper on the 1st and all hell broke loose. From then, piecing together events gets too hazy: at least three bottles of vodka, two boxes of cask wine…who knows what else? I didn’t turn up for work again Tuesday 4th (Melbourne Cup Day) and got my formal, final written warning from work this morning.

Somewhere in there I had a massive argument with XXXXXXXXXX and fear that relationship is over. I also seriously considered stringing up a rope in the garage, but was way too pissed to even make it that far. Fear is pretty much all I’m made of today.

I’m done.

Acceptance

Soon after I penned the above entry into my journal I walked into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and haven’t had a drink since. What changed?

Quite a few things actually. I’ve written previously that I needed to own my alcoholism before I could even think to  change my maladaptive behaviours. This acceptance meant that I  walked into that meeting knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am an alcoholic and that my life had become unmanageable. I knew then, as I know now, that everything good in my life could be taken away in the blink of an eye if I have another drink. This is another way of saying I had succeeded in taking AA’s first step.

Second, I did the opposite of everything I had done before when I attended meetings. Instead of sitting in the corner and not making eye contact with anyone, I shook the hand of the first person I saw and when I was asked to share, told everybody present about what a horrid fucking mess I was in, cried some tears and humbly asked for their help with snot running down my chin. I walked out with a bunch of phone numbers and got a sponsor shortly after.

Third, when people said I didn’t have to believe in any Gods or Goddesses to succeed in the fellowship, I listened to them. I asked them how they interpreted AA’s steps to make meaningful changes in their lives and did what they suggested.

Fourth, I kept going back to AA meetings. I learned to appreciate Nestle Blend 43 freeze dried coffee and Arnott’s Assorted biscuits, and realised that the more I listened to other people’s stories, the less I spent worrying about having another drink or losing my job. In the process of doing this, I stopped isolating and became a human being again. Time, as they say, is a great healer.

Lastly, I learned to meditate and *gasp* pray. Not the ‘Sky Daddy strike down my opponents so I can win the tennis tournament’ type of prayer. No, these prayers are all about forcing a change in perpective in me. If I’m feeling resentful at someone, it was suggested to me that I ‘pray’ for them: visualise all the good things that I would wish for myself, and then project those feelings onto the other person – e.g. that miserable, stinking bastard who cut me off in traffic. If I do this for long enough, sometimes through gritted teeth, the feelings of anger and resentment slip away.

Final word

Australia is a proud, successful multicultural society whose religious beliefs have become more diverse over the past 50 years. While half of Australians identify as Christian, other faiths like Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Buddhism all increasingly common religious beliefs. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that, in 1966, Christianity (88 per cent) was the clearly the main religion. By 1991, this figure had fallen to 74 per cent, and then to 52 per cent in 2016. Catholicism is still the largest Christian grouping in Australia, accounting for almost a quarter (22.6 per cent) of the Australian population. Those reporting no religion was higher than the number of Catholics in 2016 at 30 per cent.

The fact that there are now more atheists than Catholics in Australia is notable, reflecting a trend that has been happening for decades. Those reporting no religion increased from 19 per cent in 2006 to 30 per cent in 2016.

It is within this context that a number of secular, athiest, agnostic, humanist, and freethinker AA meetings have sprung up in the eastern cities, offering hope to people like me who use their athiesm as another excuse to keep drinking. This is a welcome development in Australia and elsewhere that shows that the fellowship is being responsive to Australia’s changing community, in line with it’s first tradition that ‘the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking’.

 

 

Notes on a meeting

A couple of guys in white collared shirts are having a laugh and a cigarette on the footpath, the adjacent building casting cool shadows in the early evening summer sun. I walk up, make some small talk and ask how their day is going. I’ve long since quit tobacco, so I don’t linger and head inside.

The group meets for one hour each week in a small room at the back of a local-government administered community facility. There are three core members of the group who have taken on the responsibility of keeping the doors open each week. This requires a number of tasks to be completed, including picking up the keys and opening up, welcoming newcomers and visitors, chairing the meeting, bringing and setting up the tea, coffee, biscuits, literature, collecting donations, putting out the chairs and, later, packing up.

People who attend the meetings always help out where they can, for example washing up coffee cups and stacking chairs. In the old days, the ashtrays had to be emptied too. These are what we call in AA ‘esteemable acts’: actions that build one’s self confidence and self-esteem through being useful to other human beings. Esteemable acts also include smiling and showing interest in other people, rather than ignoring them.

AA understands that when we value ourselves, we are less likely to drink or to behave in ways that are unhealthy to ourselves and others. In short: doing esteemable acts, like saying g’day to someone new and offering to make them a cuppa, helps us stay well. So, that’s what I do.

How do you take it?

White with one thanks.

Biscuit?

Members drift in and out of groups. Sometimes, there are more members of this group than there are service jobs to fill. At other times, such as now, there is little redundancy and therefore more responsibility is needed to be taken on by the three members. In practice, these are simple tasks. But the important thing is that they get done, by someone.

There are other members of the group who have drifted away. Some may have drunk again. Some may have moved to another town, or just to the other side of this one. Some may have even got the shits and developed a resentment against the group. It happens.

It is an open meeting, which means that anyone is welcome to come along and listen. However, only those people who identify as an alcoholic are called on to share. As the group is self-supporting in line with AA’s traditions, only those who identify as alcoholics are asked to give coin donations at the end of the meeting. If a friend or family member comes along in support of a newcomer, for example, it is considered inappropriate for them to contribute a coin to the basket at the close of the meeting.

Usually, no more than 15 people attend this particular meeting, which means that everyone gets a chance to share for a few minutes (going on for more than 5 minutes in a full room is considered poor form).

Some groups take a tougher line than others on asking addicts to share, although most of the addicts that come to this meeting identify primarily as alcoholics and are always called on to share.

We start with introductions, sitting in a circle.

The famous ‘hello I’m … and I’m an alcoholic’.

Some add their length of sobriety in years or months or days. Others mention where their home group is located and when.

This particular meeting starts with a reading from AA literature and then members get to riff on the topic or to share their experience, strength and hope in recovery. Usually it’s a bit of both.

Once everyone has had a chance to share, the meeting is closed with a reminder of AA’s principle of anonymity. The basket is passed and each person throws in a few coins, some gold.

We join hands, as the embodiment of strength in unity, and recite the serenity prayer.*

There are some announcements, including one about an upcoming camping weekend away. Coffee cups are washed, chairs are stacked. Hands are shaken, hugs given, laughs had. Phone numbers are exchanged. Some friends head off for another coffee.

The shadows have lengthened as the butane flames lick paper and tobacco.

I leave feeling better than before. More level. The right size. Just for today.

* ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.’ Personally, I prefer meetings that close with the secular Responsibility Pledge: ‘I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.’