Personal stories – He was a derelict

Nine years and some months ago, I was a derelict. I don’t mean that I had simply fallen on hard times, or was going through a temporary rough patch. I was replete with filthy clothes, shoes without socks, bearded, unkempt and unwashed. I stank. And I knew it.

Because the bank into which my invalid pension was paid was located in Adelaide, I had to make regular trips by bus into the city. There I knew that I was seen by people with whom I had gone to school, by former work-mates and by ex-friends and relatives. I was deeply ashamed, brain-damaged and confused. I was taken to a lock-up ward in Hillcrest Hospital, having been treated in the Royal Adelaide Hospital for malnutrition and associated vitamin deficiencies. That was followed by a couple of weeks more hospitalisation, and, for a brief period, a rest centre for alcoholics. I had no idea why I was an involuntary patient in a mental hospital. I could not remember what any given day or date was, nor recall what I had eaten a few minutes before. But I did know that I was locked up, bewildered and afraid, and that I had no idea as to when or how I would get out, nor to where I could go if I did get out.

Understandably, I was unwanted by my family, and I knew that too, but it still hurt. My dominant thought was “Why am I in a place like this?” There were some rather strange people in that ward, (I thought) and we were told that we were there because we had suffered brain damage attributable to alcoholism. I could see that that may have been true for some of them, perhaps not others, and in particular, certainly not in my case. I resolved that when I was released, I would drink again, but in such a careful way that I could not be locked up again. I believed “them” to have been badly mistaken in their assessment of my case. That belief was rooted in the fact that I could tolerate very little alcohol, at that time, before becoming violently ill.

But life for me did not seem to have promised such an ignominious end. I’d had a good education, provided by a scholarship which I had won, studied for years at a tertiary level, worked in significant positions in Canberra, Darwin, Perth and Adelaide. At a relatively young age, I had achieved those things which I sought: power, property and prestige. But of inner security I had none. I had also succeeded in ruining two marriages, distorting the lives of five children, and causing other emotional havoc. I always felt deeply about people, causes, issues, and could not see that such emotional intensity was not appropriate to a mature person.

So far, I have barely mentioned alcohol, just describing what I now know to have been the manifestations of my alcoholism. Of course I drank, but I did not really know anyone who didn’t drink. In fact, I was suspicious of men who did not drink, and thought them to be odd, and somehow not “real men”. And I had an array of clever quotes to prove it. I loved the stuff from the first drink to my last, and defended my drinking to the bitter end, even when my tolerance for it was gone and I was near death. Alcohol was all that I had to relieve the horror of my circumstances. That, and the daydreams of revenge and my ultimate triumph. Now, I wonder that I blanched at the “restore us to sanity” phrase in the Twelve Steps. In short, alcohol allowed me to achieve certain things by creating in me the illusion of being normal. It provided the element missing in my personality.

To this day, I don’t know whose idea it was that I should be escorted from the hospital ward to a meeting of AA, but it wasn’t mine. I sat at the back of one of those large gatherings and heard some wonderful stories. None of them touched me in the sense that I consciously “identified” with any speaker. At the very end of the meeting, the chairman, who had recognized me from my childhood days, called my name. Without thinking, I simply stood up and heard myself saying, “My name’s Terry, and I’m an alcoholic.” I immediately sat down, with thoughts and emotions tumbling through my head, because not five seconds before, I could not have uttered those words. Since that meeting, the compelling desire to drink has never returned.

When I was escorted back to the ward, the staff saw that something significant had happened to me. Within a couple of days, I was re-examined and offered the opportunity to shift into the rest centre. There, I was exposed to the Twelve Steps and learned that I had been sick rather than evil. My isolation and sense of uniqueness was gone, and I became “part of” rather than “apart from”, as I once heard the process described. Since then, I have been alone, but never lonely.

I completed the course of treatment, and its associated compulsory attendances at AA meetings, which was extended to seven weeks, because I had to go to Darwin for almost a week. It had been my home for many years, and I was required to appear as a witness for the Crown in a case which attracted much notoriety. My name and present address, and the fact that I was being treated there for chronic alcoholism appeared in the local press, which was a beginning in the humility department, because I was well-known within the Darwin community.

Shortly after I left the rest centre, I was given a Housing Trust flat across the road from the AA House. There were meetings aplenty for me, and, in particular, a Step Study Group which gave me the understanding that I had to do something about the Steps if I wanted a contented sobriety. I learned that action, however daunting, brought the results which mere knowledge, or discussion, could not. The members were patient with me, and Step Four and Step Five were done “by the book” after about nine months. I met my sponsor in that group, and others who became, and remain, friends. For what it’s worth, I offer the observation that almost all of the members of that step-study group have remained sober. Perhaps it’s because we learned that it was not a matter of knowing but of doing that gave us the basis of sobriety. Fortuitously, and at no cost to me, I was given two extended trips to the United States, and became deeply involved with the Pacific and other groups. Those intensive exposures to AA came when I was ready to benefit from them.

I did have a “honeymoon period” which convinced me that AA was for me. It made the transition to daily reality more comfortable. But there were plenty of lumps and bumps. A second and messy divorce had to be endured. I learned that to forego my “rights” led to peace of mind. My inability to remember things was a continuing source of frustration, anger and, sometimes embarrassment, because I knew that my short-term memory was still defective. Nowadays, it does not betray me as often as before. I remained obsessional, a trait which has not entirely left me.

Since then, it has been a matter of time and regular AA. Not everything goes my way, but I’m doing, and have done things which I did not foresee, all of which are satisfying. I’ve no clear idea as to where life may lead, although I’m studying again at a tertiary level, and plan to do so for many years yet. Sometimes I still daydream, but now I recognize it for what it is.

An old Adelaide member always quotes “Let your conscience be your guide,” and I have found that to be a useful adage. In the beginning, my conscience was far more elastic than it is today, but I’m less bothered by baseless scruples than I was. Tolerance of my own, and others’ humanity was sometimes slow in coming, and I had to learn that others too have been or are grievously ill, and not necessarily misguided. I began to admit to the possibility that I may often be wrong, and that what sits well with me may not be the product of the experience of others. I can still be a bit judgemental, but I now know that when I am pointing my mental finger at someone, there are three pointing back at me. At least, I now know when my thoughts and actions are not what they always ought to be.

The Twelve Steps have provided me with all that I need in order to achieve some peace of mind. Step one came spontaneously. I have always known since, that no matter what differences I thought there were between me and my fellow alcoholic, I am 100 percent alcoholic. Therefore, because the AA program works, then it will work 100 per cent for me, and the character defects and all the rest of it are mine, one hundred per cent, too.

The second has been a constant reminder to me that I did not seek out AA for myself; that my sobriety is a gift.

Step Three and Step Eleven sometimes go out the window, and I decide to anticipate, organize and take credit for my present life. Inevitably a wheel falls off, or develops a wobble, and I am driven back again to realizing that no person, and few circumstances, are really subject to my own control. With luck, that realization sometimes induces a bit of gratitude for what is, and that’s Step Three. I’ve never had to re-do the fourth or fifth steps. Sometimes I try to dodge the sixth, seventh and tenth by explaining to myself that I’m only human, but I know that that is just an excuse to take it easy for a while. (I deserve a break!)

My eighth and ninth steps were done with the knowledge gained from the step-study group, and I had wrongly thought that there were a few people whom I had been justified in harming. In the end, I tried to sweep clean at least my half of the streets. And the twelfth step continues to be done both by sharing in meetings, and through telephone and personal calls. One benefit which I have always derived from a prospective member is a vivid reminder of my own past sense of difference and isolation.

One old habit persisted. I had been so accustomed to feeling anxious, and of relieving my anxiety with alcohol, that I would leave undone some small thing which I knew would play upon my mind, and so generate a bit of the familiar anxiety. It has taken conscious effort to recognize and to stop it.

For me, getting truly sober has been a long business, but worth the effort. I am comfortable about the things that are important. I don’t fear or hate alcohol. And I’ve slowly got my mind off myself. I’ve had to find my own way with my Higher Power, and to establish a conscious contact with God which works for me. And that’s a story in itself, but an important one. I don’t beat my gums about it, because I was sensitive to other views, and to concepts with which I could not agree. I still cringe a bit when I feel that I’m being told that one view of God is superior to mine, because I know that, in the end we all sink or swim together.

I am grateful to the older members, who will always be “older”, for lighting the way, and to the newer ones for reminding me about whence I came. Some teach me what to do, and others what not to. Some ideas given to me have been useful, and others have been tried and discarded in a process of changing perspective. There are always many who have what I want. Most of the time, I am grateful.