When Steve* was 21, he crashed his car while drunk and killed a 16-year-old passenger.
Steve, who lives in Newcastle, is 70 now.
He’s been sober, and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, for 44 years.
Steve had no memory of the crash, which happened in 1969 in a NSW country town.
“I woke up in a hospital. I didn’t even know what town I was in,” Steve said.
A policeman was standing guard at the door of his ward. Steve wasn’t game to ask what happened.
I listened to the news from my hospital bed to find out what I’d done.
He wasn’t ordinarily a criminal.
“It was just the drink. I’d never been in trouble.”
The night of the crash, he’d been drinking heavily at a pub. He robbed a shop and got in a fight.
“The police chased me at high speed and I ran into a railing,” he said.
“The passenger in the back seat was killed instantly. The two of us in the front – we were mangled up with broken legs.”
When he drank, he couldn’t stop drinking. He often had blackouts.
“It got to the stage where I started drinking on a Friday night and I didn’t remember some weekends,” he said.
“As much as I didn’t want to drink and promised I wouldn’t, once I had one drink I wanted 100.”
When Steve was a baby, his older brother died at age two in an accident on the family’s dairy farm.
And when Steve was 10, his dad died when he was a passenger in a cattle truck that rolled on a steep embankment at work.
“I believe that was when my life changed from a happy kid, full of life, to being angry inside,” Steve said.
He was sent to boarding school the year his dad died.
“I had a hard time at school, with dozens of floggings, but I wouldn’t cry. I don’t remember ever crying until I got sober.”
He didn’t know it at the time but, at age 15, he was having panic attacks.
“A doctor showed me how to breathe into a brown paper bag. I carried a paper bag in my wallet for 15 years.”
He joined the Navy at age 17 and served in Vietnam. He did three stints in military prison – 162 days in all – after drinking got him in trouble.
He was asked to leave the Navy at age 20 because of his drinking.
He did well at sport, but that took a backseat as the demon drink increasingly took over his life.
His drinking caused him to set fire to two houses, after falling asleep with lit cigarettes.
“One place had six people inside. If it hadn’t been for a boarder coming home late, we probably would have perished,” he said.
Steve admits he was lucky to avoid jail after the crash that took a boy’s life. He received a six-month suspended jail sentence and a three-year good behaviour bond. He wasn’t allowed to get his driver’s licence back until he got sober, which was four years later.
How rats ate my stomach
The guilt and shame from the crash led him to leave his hometown and move to Sydney.
“I didn’t stop drinking. I drank more,” he said.
To help deal with emotional turmoil, he also took prescription medication like Valium and Serepax.
His drinking led him to break many promises.
“It wouldn’t matter if my wife would say, ‘Dad and Mum are coming down the coast to visit, they’ll be here for the night, please be home tonight’.
“I’d say, ‘Of course I’ll be home, what do you think I am?’ And yet I couldn’t get home.”
He’d awake in the morning full of self pity and remorse, asking himself, ‘Why did I do that again?’.
“Someone who doesn’t understand alcoholism just thinks, ‘Wake up to yourself’, but I would have loved to have woken up to myself. I didn’t know what I was suffering from.”
He went to hospital for six weeks to try to detox, but “got out and drank again”.
About four months later, he went to hospital again to try to quit. He almost died from the DTs [delirium tremens]. He was heavily medicated to treat these withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms can be horrendous. Steve recalled that one of the worst symptoms he experienced in his attempts to quit drinking came when he had hallucinations of “rats eating my stomach”.
After five months of no drinking, he had a weekend binge. He came home briefly and told his wife he was going out for another drink.
His wife said something like: “What do you mean you’re going to get a drink? You just got home.”
It was then that Steve “lost it”.
“At the time I was in a rifle club. I pulled this rifle out. I was never an angry person, but the rifle was there and I pointed it at her.
“I said, ‘don’t you ever tell me what I can and can’t do’.”
He stormed outside and his wife followed.
“She said to me ‘are you all right?’. I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m frightened’.
“I felt really weird, like I’d completely left my body,” he said.
“It was an unreal experience.”
Some might call it an epiphany or spiritual experience.
“All of a sudden, I never wanted to drink again. And I’ve never wanted to drink from that day,” he said.
“I was 26 when I had my last drink. Some people can’t drink. I’m one of them.”
Labelled as weak
After he quit, he “didn’t have any craving for a drink”.
“I never obsessed for a drink. But I kept going to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] on a regular basis,” he said.
Sometimes he was bothered when “friends didn’t come around”.
“You think you’re missing out,” he said.
While some friends respected and encouraged his decision to quit drinking, others called him weak.
“I realised later they were drinking acquaintances. They drank like me. When I think back – seven or eight of those guys – none of them are alive today. They’ve all died from alcoholism – things like heart attacks,” he said.
Steve has tried to make amends for the things he’s done.
“I guess the way I can do this is to help others and not repeat it,” he said.
Alcoholics Anonymous members are often helped by sponsors – fellow alcoholics who have made some progress towards recovery.
“My sponsor, Tom, showed me the ropes. He died at 50 years’ sober. I spoke at his funeral.”
People sometimes ask Steve why he still attends AA meetings. He considers them to be insurance.
“I want to give back what was given to me,” he said.
- * Not his real name. He told his story anonymously to keep the code of Alcoholics Anonymous.
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