On a cold, windy winter’s morning they arrived in dribs and drabs at the featureless community meeting hall for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They were a mixed bag of people, from young and quite attractive through to the older ones, some of whose faces bore the signs of their long battles with alcohol and drugs. I’ve tootled along to the meeting to support someone who has a history of addiction.
It takes an iron resolve to overcome a severe addiction. The non-addict cannot imagine the daily torment of withdrawal which includes mental and physical anguish, enormous craving, depression, mood swings and stress levels so high that one feels as if one’s body might explode at any moment into a flaming inferno.
Addictive behaviour is firmly embedded in the genes of my mother’s side of my family. A number of my relatives became alcoholics and drug addicts and I was heavily addicted to smoking myself when I was young. At the age of thirteen I was already unable to get through a day without having a puff. Once I had reached the age of consent and I no longer had to skulk out of sight to have a smoke I quickly progressed to being a chain-smoker. Before I had even properly opened my eyes first thing in the morning I would light a cigarette or pipe and draw the smoke deep into my lungs to relieve my craving for nicotine.
I had tried many times to break the habit. In my late twenties I ‘cold-turkeyed’ and did not smoke for nine months, before taking up smoking once again. It was not until I was 32 years old that I succeeded. At that time I was so determined to stop smoking that I told myself I would die before I would smoke again even once, and I damn near died from the withdrawal symptoms because they were so severe. Years afterwards I still had recurring dreams of lighting a cigarette and deeply inhaling the smoke. Breaking my addiction to smoking was one of the most difficult things that I have ever done in my life.
The first person that I spotted outside the hall was one of my own people, an African who is a successful businessman from Uganda. I introduced myself and we first chatted about African affairs, as one does when one meets a fellow African. Then he confided to me that his wife had divorced him four years earlier. He was so heartbroken that he had purposely tried to drink himself to death, but he had survived and in the process he had become an alcoholic.
I told him that I had been through a divorce myself once. “Does the pain ever go away?” he asked me plaintively, and then added “I wish I could be married again, even if it is to someone who gives me a really hard time. That wouldn’t matter.”
During the meeting he recounted how he was shopping a few days earlier when he spotted a bottle of alcohol-free wine on the supermarket shelf. As he was about to put it in his trolley, a little voice in his head told him what would happen if he went ahead and bought it. He slapped himself on the side of the head for effect as he spoke. One bottle of alcohol-free wine, the little voice said, and the next one will surely be wine with alcohol. “That was my little victory for the week, putting that bottle back on the shelf.”
He had gone to see the movie Flight, in which Denzel Washington plays the role of an alcoholic pilot. In one scene the main character was in hospital and he had a water bottle by his bedside that contained an alcoholic drink. “Damn, I was so angry when I saw that. I thought I was the only one who had invented that water bottle trick!” He laughed heartily, his white teeth dazzling in his coal black face.
A man in his forties with a sorrowful countenance became an alcoholic after his daughter had died and he had found himself incapable of coping with his grief. He has had a couple of bad days during the week, he said, but he has survived them and has managed to stay clean. The others congratulated him and he smiled shyly.
There was an older bloke with a battered Akubra hat who wore his shirt inside out. “Why do you wear your shirt like that?” one of the others asked him.
“I do the same with me socks so I can wear them for longer before I have to wash them,” he explains. He had been to Queensland for a holiday and while he was there he had stuck to his routine of going to AA meetings. He has not touched alcohol for twenty years, but he knows what he has to do to stay sober. For him, addiction is a lifelong affliction which he cannot afford to allow back in through any small crack in his routine.
The person whom I had accompanied to the meeting to support hung his head when it was his turn to speak. He has fallen off the wagon over the weekend, taking mega-doses of painkillers. “I can’t even remember the last few days,” he mumbled, “but I’m still going to try to be clean.” The others all offered unqualified encouragement. They have all been there before.
An attractive woman in her early thirties talked about her addictions to alcohol, heroin and crystal meth and how they had brought her to her knees. She was softly spoken and talked hesitantly about her love for her five year old son, who was being cared for by her mum whilst she was undergoing an extended residential rehab program.
One fellow recounted how he would go on a binge drinking session every time that he had an argument with his wife. He would disappear for days, drinking himself into oblivion in a park and regularly ending up in hospital, nearly dying on a couple of occasions. Another bloke responded laughingly, “Hell, I used to pick a fight with my wife on purpose so that I could storm out of the house and go on a drinking binge!”
Listening to these people who are trying so hard every single day to repair their broken lives, I was filled with admiration for their heroic efforts against their powerful demons. Instead of finding a group of hopeless hobos at the AA meeting as I had anticipated, I discovered some articulate battlers from every walk of life, supporting each other daily on a treacherous journey through life that the non-addicts have been spared.