March 25, 2022

Health

Keeping step

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of an illustration of a tree, by Jeff Fisher
Alcoholics Anonymous in lockdown and out

The anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous might not be for the reasons you think. Gareth is an outreach coordinator for a Melbourne chapter, and he says there’s two main grounds for it. One is the rejection of “figureheads” in favour of a kind of communitarianism: a belief that all members “walk the same path”, that no one is “above anyone else” and that “no one can do alone what can be done together”.

The second reason, he says, is to avoid scandalising the group. “Say I move away from my program, and I start drinking,” he says. “Well, it’s like the people with gym memberships who aren’t fit. I can’t say that the gym doesn’t work. I’m the one not working the gym.”

I initially contacted Gareth in 2020 to ask how the lockdowns had affected him and other members. The organisation, after all, is avowedly non-professional; almost every role is assumed by a member – that is, a recovering alcoholic. Gareth had joined just over eight years ago, when he was 23. By that age, he told me, he’d already badly damaged himself, and effectively estranged his family.

“It’s a pretty cunning and devastating illness,” he said. “There’s a lot of self-deception. For me, I sort of wanted to stop sometimes, or I would make it look to others that I wanted to stop, until I got to a point when I really did want to stop. There was a cop chase, and I did a runner, and it looked like I was gonna get some jail time. I was brought to my knees, and I was blessed with a moment of clarity. Which was: I need help. I was willing then to get honest with myself and my family. I put the shovel down, looked up, and asked for help.”

I asked if he’d reflected on the causes of his drinking. It’s a common question, and Gareth was prepared for it. “This isn’t really something we look at in AA,” he told me. “The cause has never been a concern. I know what the treatment is, and that’s the 12-step program. A lot of people get caught up in the cause. I’m just happy to have found a solution.”

To reinforce this, Gareth relayed a parable. His sponsor had shared it with him years ago, and it remains popular among adherents. The parable is this: A man stands on a sinking ship. There are sirens, screams, confusion. Consumed by his need to know the cause of the disaster, he ignores the directions of the captain and makes his way to the engine room, where he sees where an iceberg has torn a hole in the hull. He makes his way back on deck, but all the life rafts are now gone. Shaking his fists, he screams: “At least I knew why!”

“I really like that,” Gareth said. “I was on a sinking ship, and I saw these other members who were on life rafts.”

Gareth spoke with the scriptedness of the proselytiser, but he was undoubtedly sincere about his faith in AA and his belief that it had saved his life. He told me that he had disgusted his father, that his sister had given up on him, and that for a long time his mother lived with the anticipation of his death or imprisonment. Now, he said, he enjoyed mutually warm and attentive relationships with his family. “My mother blamed herself and my upbringing,” he said. “But I was raised in a non-alcoholic home, with a loving, supporting mother and father. I told her: ‘Mum, if I was born on Mars, I would’ve been snorting space dust.’ I think I was just born an alcoholic … And the forgiveness they’ve given me is incredible. I’m very blessed.”

When we first spoke, Gareth was helping organise AA’s shift to virtual rooms. Some of those rooms were “bombed” – breached by mischievous or sneering trolls – but Gareth shrugged it off. He said the pandemic had helped reinforce his sense of purpose. “It was a crazy time, but not in a despairing way. The total shift online was almost overnight, and I saw the whole fellowship rally up and the tech savvy were helping the older folks and it was all go time, service-wise. AA got real busy. It was also exciting to see how interconnected the AA fellowship around the world was. You had America plugging into Australian meetings, you had Australia plugging into American meetings. We had people from the UK. Sometimes we’d have five different countries from three continents all in the same meeting.

“Those who have gotten into service have done well through COVID. Isolation isn’t easy, but when you’ve got that higher principle that you’re striving towards, and you’re wondering how you can be effective and help others in need, well, I felt like I grew a lot spiritually in the first few months of the pandemic.”

Physical AA meetings have now resumed in Melbourne, though online meetings still occur. The past two years – during which the city experienced hundreds of days of lockdown, and the subsequent isolation, anxiety, boredom and job losses – have tested recovering alcoholics and also encouraged greater drinking in others. A recent survey by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation found that a quarter of respondents were drinking more now than they were before the pandemic. AA now happily transitions back to in-person meetings, while unhappily anticipating greater demand.   

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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