How To Give Up Drinking


The booze genie strikes all kinds of people. One serious drinker tells of the way he put it back in the bottle.

From The Weekend Australian Magazine
August 4th, 2017


I’d been out until 8am on New Year’s Day and hadn’t had a sip of alcohol. I had held firm although everyone around me had been enthusiastically imbibing the spirit of the occasion. What a legend. New Year’s Day was a hot one, 30-something degrees with that north wind whipping through Melbourne from the deserts of Central Australia. I felt sorry for all the people nursing hang­overs. It was a day when a sophisticated drinker — someone like me, for example, who hadn’t got messed up the night before — might have a gin and tonic to quench their thirst. Yes. One. In a tall glass. With a slice of lemon. So I dropped by the bottle shop and bought a litre bottle of gin, some tonic water and a handful of lemons.

I remember reading the label on the back of the empty bottle later that night to see how many standard drinks it contained, and thinking that if one person put away that many standard drinks they should be well and truly drunk, if not unconscious. But I was still steady enough to get the scotch and cask wine from the cupboard.

I explained this to the triage nurse at the Emergency Department the next day. I’ve been here before, I said, I know what I’m doing. I had drunk so much, again, that I was sure I was going to have a seizure — again. So if it was OK with her, I’d just sit in the Emergency Department with my book waiting to have said seizure. I’d rather it happen in the safety of the hospital than at home alone where I could get injured because, well, that would be irresponsible. She cocked her head gently to one side and asked, “Mr Nicholson, have you ever thought about quitting drinking?” “Yeah, I have,” I said. “I went to an AA meeting once.” “Have you thought about going back?” An invisible hand slapped me across the face. Hard. Then it slapped me again. “Um, I haven’t. I think I might though.”

As I left the hospital, I thumbed through my wallet looking for a business card I vaguely remembered putting there some weeks ago, given to me by a man at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I had sat there without saying a word, and he’d leaned over to me and said, “Listen mate, no one can tell you you’re an alcoholic or not, it’s something you need to decide for yourself.” He looked me up and down, and said, “But I think you are.” As I took the card he held out to me, I thought to myself, Get f****d.

But now I called him and he sounded like he’d been expecting me and that it was no big deal, this stranger telephoning out of the blue. Among other things, he told me where there was a meeting that night. I still had a car and — somehow — my driver’s licence, so I drove to the meeting. In the years before this, I’d ploughed through jobs, relationships, housing situations, opportunities, friendships, you name it, the whole time thinking this kind of living would surely, eventually, give me insight into the human condition — enough so I could write down something meaningful. I was 29 and this was my “career path”. I’d “retired” from everything else; that’s how it felt and that’s what I told people. In reality, I smoked so much weed that I couldn’t learn anything ­anymore, like how to use the new touchscreen cash register in the pub I’d been working in, so for that and a few other reasons I was asked to leave. Without that regular income, I resorted to withdrawing cash advances from credit cards to pay my rent and bills and to have money for booze and drugs, plus my latest shitbox car. It only took three months to get $20,000 into debt.

A niggling part of me thought this was how people ended up ­homeless and dead.

It was all part of that bigger plan, though: the tortured existence that would give me unique insight. I would write a book about bypassing the daily grind, describing how I did just that and made a living from the royalties. It made perfect sense but only I could see it, because only I had the clarity and the freedom that came from shutting off to everything else. But I couldn’t write. Ten years working behind a bar meant I hadn’t experienced quite enough of life outside strip clubs and pubs. I used to turn on the computer, open a bottle of wine and ruminate on the work that lay in front of me. Drink, type a few lines, repeat. By the end of a couple of paragraphs, I’d begin rehearsing acceptance speeches in my head. Drink, rehearse, repeat. Soon enough, I skipped the writing part altogether. Lacking the motivation to get the words down, I slept until four in the afternoon, smoked weed for breakfast and devoured casks of red wine and cheap scotch until I passed out again. There was a niggling part of me that thought this was how people ended up ­homeless and dead in the gutter. I was scared I might be dead before my 30th birthday.


Picture: Julian Kingma

That’s where my life was when I turned off the car engine and walked into that AA meeting, into a room full of people who wouldn’t normally mix. Men, women, old, young, bums, suits. I took a seat and listened to a woman talk about how she hadn’t had a drink for six years. Six years? Why was she still coming? I listened to another guy and thought, Jesus, I’m glad I’m not as f****d up as he is. Then the guy in the chair at the front pointed and said, “You in the red T-shirt, would you like to share?”

I told a room full of strangers what I’d been up to. I told them that I was at the point where I couldn’t drink and I couldn’t not drink any more. And they applauded me, which felt weird. It was only later that I realised they were ­congratulating me on telling myself the truth, not them. It was devastating, because I’d resisted it for so long, but also incredibly liberating. I asked if there was someone my age I could talk to, and got introduced to Mitch, who had been sober just under a year. The only thing I remember him telling me that night was to just keep coming back to meetings.

I returned the next night, and met another guy in his 20s named Shane. He looked like he’d just walked out of a Gillette commercial but he assured me he was in a hell of a state between the ears. I remember him telling me that sometimes not drinking comes down to a minute at a time, not just a day at a time. Driving home, I thought about pulling into the drive-through bottle shop near my house when I heard Shane’s voice in my head. I went to bed without a drink. The next day it occurred to me that I hadn’t drunk anything the day or night before. A day at a time. Those people in AA knew something I didn’t.

I kept going to meetings and kept not drinking. I began to see my life clearly. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t without hope. Minutes became days became years and still I wasn’t drinking. I talked regularly at the meetings and people applauded; strangers talked and we applauded them too.

I went to a good school and my parents are still married after more than 50 years. I was never abused, my childhood was great, I had family and friends and although we weren’t rich, we never suffered either. Thing is, I’m an alcoholic, a junkie for instant gratification. I innately crave a sense of ease and comfort. I have personal default settings of restlessness, irritability and a general feeling of discontent. I discovered that alcohol alleviates these feelings. I also discovered that once I had a drink, there was no off switch.

So there I was — in my early 30s, not drinking, attending AA, and trying to grow up. AA helped me but it wasn’t a cure, and never will be. It doesn’t work like that. To make a motoring analogy, my steering is still a bit wonky, and if it’s not constantly monitored it’ll run me off the road.

I could feel that longing, that need to get away from anywhere to feel better.

After a few years, my life had done a U-turn. I’d held the same job and even enrolled in a writing course at university. But I still had impulses and an insatiable want for a full life. I was also concerned that I was tethered to the support of the meetings. Could I cope free-range? Onto that fertile ground blew a seed: a trailer for the movie remake of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. “A young writer trying to take off,” said the voiceover.

I set out to read the novel. I read about Sal ­Paradise living in New York and meeting Dean Moriarty, the side-burned hero from the snowy west who lights a fire under Sal’s arse and gets him on the road to Denver and beyond. I raced through page after page, reading about guys with names like Remi Boncoeur and Bull Lee and Carlo Marx, all poets and writers and thinkers, put down on paper by Kerouac, the book’s real Sal Paradise, the best writer of the lot.

I read about the frantic movement, the desperation, the longing. The cars, the girls, the kicks, all of it. I could feel that longing, that need to get away from anywhere to feel better, but I could also see the fundamental flaw in the plan. Jack Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady (fictionalised as ­Moriarty in On the Road) drove all over the States for years, searching for the solution to their restlessness and discontent. But maybe the reason they never found it “out there” was because they never realised the problems were inside — the demons in their heads. Or maybe they just didn’t find any pearl of wisdom that would explain their discontent and powerlessness over their own impulses; maybe they drove straight past it and missed the damn thing. Was the obsessive, abusive behaviour of an addict really what drove Sal and Dean across the country in the name of freedom? Is an answer out there, I wondered, on the routes they took in their mad dashes across the country, holding out hope of finding some kind of freedom right up until the bitter end?

The applied wisdom I was hearing in all the AA meetings was great, but I wondered if the mundane attendance, week in and week out, was really all there is to this freedom business. Deep within me grew a desire to look for myself and to find out if Kerouac and I were seeking the same thing. Is freedom “out there”, or do I really need to just keep coming back to AA? Are their principles something I can take with me and use to ensure I’m free from picking up a drink but also free to roam as I please through the world?

Surely there was more to this idea. I’d have to find out from people in all the places Sal and Dean passed through. Could I take my brand of freedom with me or would I discover it was all hanging by a thread from a comfortable bubble of AA meetings and familiarity? If Sal couldn’t find freedom on the road, would I be able to even keep mine?

One Wednesday night I’m at a local meeting, early, making myself a cup of tea in the kitchen. Jimmy Delane, a photographer friend of mine and fellow member, sidles up to the bench. “Lenny. What have you been up to?” he says.

“Well, actually I’ve booked a ticket to fly to the US. I’m going to cross overland from New York to San Francisco. I’m following the route from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and then going to that massive AA convention in Atlanta, at the meeting to beat all meetings.” His eyes widened. He had clearly been expecting less from his inquiry.

“Who are you going with?”

“Anyone who wants. You want in? You’re in. Just fly over and get in the car.”