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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignition

February 2009, somewhere in regional New South Wales, Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospital.

Jai and Aiden.

Blood everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Ignition.

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

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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

Don’t give Santa rum

December 2008. Somewhere in regional New South Wales.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Cunce!

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

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

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

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Parents wheel their prams and usher children into shops.

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

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

Cunce!

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

A woman walks past, mutters:

Bloody Abos.

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

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

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

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

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

Get off the road ya fucking alco!

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


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

Santa’s take on that December morning in 2008?

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

.

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.

Be more Dog

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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.

 

 

(In)dividuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s ok to be weird

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

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

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

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

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

Pride and individuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A reply to Antze

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

Cocks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflexivity

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

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

More importantly: is he one of us?

Or is it none of our business?

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

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

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

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

[Passes joint to Klaus]

Klaus: Duuuuuude.

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

This is like doing AA 12 step work.

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

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

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

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

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

Resentments, or throwing out the baby with the bathwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know the hydrogen peroxide is working when it fizzes.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Three years

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

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Uncredited – circa 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

AoD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New directions in complimentary pharmacotherapy

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

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

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

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

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

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


Final word

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

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

Thanks Mick Taussig 🙂


 

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

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

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

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

 

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.