Episode 149: PJ from Sydney

PJ, originally from Ireland, migrated to Sydney in in 1989 and got sober in 1993. Having come from an Irish tradition of oral storytelling he naturally gravitated towards the wonderful Sydney AA storytellers, who shared their experience, strength, and hope. This has proven to be a mainstay of his sobriety with the tried and tested formula of sharing in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.

PJ co-founded the Sydney Brookvale Secular ID meeting with Dave in February, 2017 and has enjoyed a tremendous boost to sobriety from being part of a new meeting. The Brookvale meeting continues to grow and develop and provides a safe space for those not sure about the “God” bit. It was a pleasure to have PJ visit our group in Kansas City and to speak at our meeting.

Transcript

Thanks very much. My name is PJ. I’m an alcoholic. I’m from Sydney, Australia, and I’m Irish-born, so my accent is Irish. So, if you’re wondering, “He’s talking funny,” that’s the reason. I’ve spent half my life in Australia. I’m Australian, but I’m Irish-born. So our stories disclose, in a general way, what we used to be like, what happened, and what we’re like now. And that’s the format I generally use when I share. So, to tell you my story, before I picked up my drink, I was a goner. And what I mean by that, I’m one of those alcoholics who identifies particularly with feeling ill at ease as a kid and having ungrounded, unfounded fears, and the world was a mystery tour to me. And my way of describing it is, I felt like I was on AM and everyone around me seemed to be on FM. I had trouble fitting in. This is not every alcoholic’s story, but it was certainly mine. I don’t come from an alcoholic family. I can’t say when I was a certain age, something happened to traumatize me. From my earliest memory, I was like that. And when I got sober, I heard an American speaker called Jack Brennan say, “My name is Jack Brennan. I’m an alcoholic and I was born afraid.” And that was a really good description of me.

And my family, I came from quite a loving, caring family, two parents that looked after me really well. Not a perfect family, but just nothing there that would point to me being how I was. And when I came to be a teenager, and I got interested in girls, I was terrible. I was so afraid of girls, not the expected nervousness if you see teenagers checking each other out, there’s that nervous play. I was so terrified, if I got near them, I would have thrown up all over them. I was just so much anxiety, and you can’t tell people that. You wanna hide it, which makes it worse. And you’re flogging yourself, saying, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just walk up and say hello?” Anyway, at 19, I was in this pub in Dublin, and there was all these nice girls there, and I was really keen to go up and just introduce myself, just a, “Hello.” But had I got near them, I would have thrown up all over them. And I was standing there, wondering what to do, and a guy called Nick O’Mahoney provided me with the answer, ’cause Nick O’Mahoney bought me my first drink. And it was a pint of Smithwick’s in a pub called McGovern’s in Dublin, and it cost him 35 pence.

I cannot remember ever having my first cup of tea or my first cup of coffee, because it didn’t do for me what that first drink did. I had had a few mouthfuls out of it, and I began to feel very relaxed and very calm. And, suddenly, I discovered that I was on FM, the same as everybody else in the world seemed to be. And I could communicate and make sense of what was happening around me, and that was the power of it. And I didn’t plan on becoming an alcoholic. It wasn’t a career move. I really looked down on people that drank too much. But I’m an alcoholic, and I’d had that first drink, and I didn’t know about triggering that compulsion that gets triggered by the first drink, and that mental obsession. And, every single time I drank, I felt that. Now, I didn’t get into trouble every time I drank. I didn’t get drunk every time I drank, but I always felt that pull, and that’s what separated me from the rest, I believe.

That night, I got mad drunk, I threw up all over the bed, and I had my first hangover. And hangovers are terrible, lest we forget. And if I had ever eaten a ham sandwich that made me as sick as alcohol does when you have a hangover, I would never again touch… You just wouldn’t eat or drink anything that makes you that sick. And yet, I repeated that process over and over, because it was just too good, and I enjoyed it too much. And I was having a lot of fun. And my drinking story isn’t all that bad. In the beginning, I had God, so much fun. And I could talk to girls and I could go out and I could just take a few drinks and take that… Take the edge off and just settle down. The shoulder’s had relaxed, and you’d sort of breathe out. When I was getting sober, or trying to get sober, I was seeing a psychologist, and she said to me, “Alcohol works incredibly well for the alcoholic. It’s extremely powerful. It works very efficiently and it changes us.” And it did for me. And I had a lot of enjoyment, I went to parties, did a lot of fun.

But then a change came, and I began to have blackouts, where I couldn’t remember what I did the night before. I began to have a Jekyll and Hyde personality change. Then I tried to control it and regulate it. And you know what that means, you just can’t… You just can’t do it. I married somebody, which was really a disaster for her, and I’m not proud of a lot of stuff I did. And I have images in my head and memories that I would prefer weren’t there. But, when I come to AA, I have to have a resume, it’s like a job application. And I’ve done certain things, and that’s just the way it is. But I’ve discovered, when I got sober in AA, there was a way of dealing with these things, that I could handle them. And I drank for 14 years and I didn’t think I was an alcoholic, and I held onto this one thing for a long time, because I was a binge drinker. I was a start/stop periodic, and I could give up the booze for certain periods of time. And I thought alcoholics could never do that. To me, alcoholics were always drunk. And I was getting promoted at work. I had a good job, and I was on the up and up, and I thought, “You can’t be an alcoholic.” Now, my wife used to say to me things like, “Why can’t you have two drinks like everybody else, you know? And why do you have to do all those things?”

And my solution to that was, I’ll sneak my drinks and hide it. I’ll be such a good husband, I won’t let her see me drink. So I’d only allow her to see me drinking two drinks. And, meanwhile, I’d be going into the bedroom. I’d have a bottle, and I’d be having a few. And that’s a problem because social drinkers don’t drink that way. So we got married, and six weeks after we did, we migrated to Australia, because I believed my problems were in Ireland. It was the job, it was my family, it was the people I worked with. And guess what? I replicated my problems beautifully when I went to Australia. And I, again, began to have all the same problems. She gave me a series of warnings. She drew a line in the sand, and she left, and I hated her guts. And I look back on that now, and we hurt people. It’s not very nice. Active alcoholism is not nice. And we hurt people who are close to us, and people that love us, and she bore the brunt of my alcoholism, and I hated her guts.

And, before she left, she had pressured me to try and do something about my drinking, and I went to see a psychologist, and she said to me… She asked me my story and asked me about my drinking, and I told her… And she said, “There’s two possibilities here. One is that you’re an alcoholic, and that means you can never ever drink again, and the other is you’re a heavy drinker that’s lost control. And I will teach you how to do control drinking.” Now you can imagine which option I jumped at.

[laughter]

Control drinking. So I tried controlled drinking, which is disastrous because you only have two standard drinks a day. So I’d have my ration from Monday night, and I’d have my two drinks, and, of course, I trigger that compulsion, and I break into Tuesday night’s ration or Wednesday night’s ration, and on I’d go. And I used to go back and see her, and she used to say, “I don’t understand what’s going wrong.” I said, “I don’t understand either.” I said, “I come into AA, and they said, ‘It’s the first drink does the damage. And if you don’t pick up the first drink, you can’t possibly get drunk.'” And that was one of the best things I learned, first of all, when I came to AA, and there isn’t a stopping off point. There isn’t a point I can get to where I can drink safely. I have to give it up.

And the other thing that saved me in AA is the 24-hour plan. When I latched onto this idea, that you just didn’t have to drink for today, and the old-timers said to me, “Look, do you think that you can get through the rest of today without a drink?” And I said, “I think I can.” And then they said, “Well, then you can stay sober because that’s all any of us do.” And the AA people made it possible for me to see that this wasn’t a lifelong sentence, that AA wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me. But, going back to my story, I was seeing that psychologist. I had to drink some more, have a few more problems. And one night, I just woke up and I was drinking, and I just said, “I’m over this. I just cannot do this anymore.” And I had a simple choice, either fix it or do myself in. And we were talking about this earlier on tonight. There are people that don’t make it, it’s terrible. And it was a knife-edge for me, and I, luckily, just decided, I’ll reach out, went to a different psychologist. He said to me, “What’s going on?” And I told him the poor PJ story, which I thought was the saddest story in the whole world, and when I’d finished, I thought he’d break down crying, and all he said was… He asked me a question, “What about your drinking?”

[laughter]

And I said, “If I could just sort my life out first, if I could just get everything fixed up, maybe I could look at the drinking.” And he just said, “I think you have it the wrong way round. If you deal with the drinking first, let’s put the booze down first, and then we can deal with the rest of it.” And he said, “I’m quite certain, in fact, if you can do that, if you can put the booze down, a lot of problems will disappear.” And he was quite right. So drink driving disappeared overnight, blackouts disappeared overnight. Like today, I woke up in a clean, dry bed this morning. I love that. I remember where I parked my car like that last night. I really like that. I’m not going out, and on the street, looking for my car. I look up and I can see the back of it sticking out in the middle of the road, and it’s parked sideways. And then you go up and you check it for dents, and you check it for blood because you can’t remember driving home the night before. So a lot of garbage stopped happening when I put the booze down, and he just was very emphatic, and said, “I’ve got all these qualifications up here, but I can’t help you for your drinking problem. You need to go to AA.”

And he said, “Alcoholics Anonymous is where alcoholics go to learn how to lead a life without drinking alcohol.” And, in essence, that’s what I found. And the hotels and bars around are full of alcoholics who are experts in drinking, and it was a question of which world I wanted to live in. So I begrudgingly went to a meeting the following night, and I didn’t wanna be there. I parked the car a few blocks away. This is what happened, but what I got at that door was a handshake. And I really think that’s so important, if you’re new, you get a handshake and a welcome, because… That’s not here tonight, but they used to have the steps up and the traditions up and all the AA one-liners, and I couldn’t read. That was all just… My head was porridge, but I did understand a nice handshake and a welcome, and the secretary says, “Just sit down and try and relax,” which I tried to do. He said, “I’ll talk to you at the end of the meeting.” And I heard people share, and the thing that got me was quite a few guys there had been in jail, had some terrible stories, sleeping in parks, and they were all well-dressed and they were quite happy.

So I was fascinated by the story I was hearing and the person that I heard from. It didn’t seem to make sense. So I got curious, and the secretary just says to me, “Whatever you do, don’t pick up the first drink. Come to another meeting.” And that was my start in AA, and one meeting has lead to another meeting and another meeting and another meeting. And there’s a progression to alcoholism, the longer you drink, the worse it gets. And I believe there’s a progression to sobriety as well. It takes time. In the beginning, I couldn’t remember the names of people who spoke, never mind what they said, and I couldn’t read the literature. I couldn’t read The Big Book, ’cause my mind was racing so fast.

But a guy called Little Dave, he said to me, “Don’t worry, put all that stuff to one side, and down the track, you will.” And, you know, in hindsight, when I got sober a few years, many of the members who helped me had a very limited education; most of them left school before high school, some of them would’ve even been illiterate. So, they were not capable of reading steps and reading the literature, but they knew how to help you. And that’s what really… The AA, for me, is fellowship-based, really, is one alcoholic sharing, trying to help. And I was told to join a group, which I did, I joined South Hurstville, and I got sober washing up and sweeping floors and vacuuming. And, at that time, they used to smoke outside the meeting, and I used to have to wash the ashtrays outside, which I resented because I didn’t smoke. And I said to one of the old-timers, “Why the bloody hell am I washing these?” Because I don’t smoke. And he said, “You’re doing it for the group.” And also, he said, “This meeting is in an elementary school playground, and we don’t want the kids to come in tomorrow morning and find cigarette butts.”

So it was about forgetting about myself and just trying to do some service work. And my observations were that people with quality sobriety were just trying to help. And that’s what I began to do, and I became a meetings man, I did meetings all over Sydney. And, at that time, there were people sober longer than I was alive. There was one guy, Stan from Ramsgate, who was born six days after I was born. So, there was a lot of plan to sobriety and a lot of experience, and these people were quite prepared to help me. So, I just probably was on that first step for about 18 months. I had the third tradition, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. And I knew I was powerless over alcohol. The God stuff scared me because I was a renegade Catholic. I’d gone from an altar boy as a kid, growing up, but I was the altar boy who altered.

I believed in God, I had a total faith in God as a Catholic. Then I picked up a drink at 19, got away from it, came into AA, saw all the God-language, and I couldn’t say the word God for quite a while, but, over time, I was desperate, and I tried to read the Big Book, and put the steps in my life, and do all of that stuff. And, for a while, that worked for me, but when I was about 18 years sober, I began to have doubts about it. And I shared about this to a couple of people in Sydney, “I don’t think I believe in God.” One guy says, “What are you talking about? You have to believe in God to get sober. And I’ll just take you through the Bible and we’ll do the Sermon on the Mount together.” So I stopped sharing about it. I mean, I was happily sober, but I thought there was something still wrong with me because I didn’t know of anybody else that was an atheist, which is what I was.

And, until three years ago, I was on holiday here and I went to a meeting in Florida, a meeting… It was a theistic meeting, a lot of God-language, and this guy said, his name is so and so, he was an alcoholic and he was an atheist, and my jaw dropped. And he said he could put all the principles of the program into his life. And I was, “Wow!” And, two weeks later, I started to look up online, atheist AA, and I went to an atheist AA meeting in Berkeley, California two weeks later. And it was a room like this, with maybe a few more people. None of them believed in God. And they were all shapes and sizes and different lengths of sobriety, and I knew it was possible. So I went back to Sydney and I Googled. If you ask Mr. Google AA and atheist or secular, you get hit with all these hits. And I quickly discovered AA Beyond Belief and AA Agnostica, and I began to reach out to some of the people in this room here and make contact. And the great thing was I knew I wasn’t alone.

Now, we didn’t have any secular meetings in Sydney, there was only one at the time in Melbourne, which is the outer city. And, today, there are six, and another one, a seventh, is going to open in January. So, we had no meetings in Sydney, and I was going to meetings, I was online to people. And then, one day, I was at a meeting and it was full of God, and I just had enough. And I’d met another atheist, and I said, “I’ve had enough.” And he said, “Okay, let’s start a meeting.” So we started a meeting almost two years ago, which was the best thing ever. So, now, we have a room, where people come in and say, “Gee, it’s nice to stand up and say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ and not be corrected by the next speaker.” A safe place. Because, alcoholics, we’ve paid a massive entry fee to get here, massive, really big. We don’t need to be put down or corrected, or someone telling us, “You shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t do that.” Or, “You’re wrong.”

I just need someone to tell me, “Come and sit down. It’s gonna be okay, and we can work through this. And there’s a way. And there’s nothing wrong with you.” One of my friends, Bill from Paddington, says, “It’s okay to be not okay. Put your seat on a seat, and remember, have you had a drink today?” We’re talking with Darius earlier about gratitude. There was a guy called Don from Gordon. And I mention names just because they meant a lot to me. They were old-timers that shared. And, in my early days, my shares were a big complaint about my life and how hard it was. And Don used to say to me, “Have you had a drink today?” [laughter] And I go, “No! I haven’t had a drink.” And he’d say, “Well, that’s amazing. That’s wonderful.” I go, “Oh, I suppose it is.” And, eventually, he’d say, “Listen,” he said, “You’re an alcoholic, and you haven’t had a drink today, that’s truly amazing.” He said, “Because if you’re an alcoholic, you can do that, you’re in AA,” he said, “Then you are a real chance of being a participant in life.” And that’s what AA has given me. Because, when I was growing up, I had a wonderful father, and I aspire to be the man that he was, but I couldn’t be, because I picked up a drink. And I aspire to be the loving husband that he was, but I couldn’t because I was an alcoholic, I was drinking. And I aspire to be the father that he was, but I couldn’t be. And that’s what AA has done.

So I have had a chance to be the man I wanna be, the person I wanna be. I’ve gotten married, I’ve had a chance to be a husband, and a father. And that’s the thing AA has given me, because, as an alcoholic, while I was out there, drinking, it just chopped the legs out from under me. And we have a lot to give in life. Alcoholics generally have a lot of talent and can achieve a lot. And it’s about putting the booze down, coming in here, and trying to sort yourself out and find out what you can be. And, well, that’s what I do anyway. And here I am, on a holiday in the States, again, and that’s just because I have a job, and I save up. And I learned that when I was about six months sober, there was a guy in a meeting, and he said that all his life, he had this dream. He’d be at the bar, wishing to go to the United States, to visit the US. And all he ever did was talk about it. And all his money went behind the bar. And then he got sober. And, when I heard him, he was just about to go to America for his 14th trip. And what he used to do was, each year, he would go to a different state, and he’d just do one state. Right? And all he did was, he had a job, he opened up a bank account, a holiday saving account, and saved. And he took his annual leave. And so, you can do these simple things in life because AA gives you that ability.

And that’s what I’ve done. I’m still me. I thought that if I did the program perfectly with the right sponsor, at the right time, I would be re-invented. Right? That has not been my experience. I said here before, when I was a kid, I felt like I was on AM and the world seemed to be on FM, and that is still the case for me. The only place I’ve ever fitted in and felt 100% at home is in a room like this, with other alcoholics. Right? Without a drink. And one of our co-founders in AA in Australia was a guy called Sylvester Minogue. He was a psychiatrist and an alcoholic. And there’s a recording of him talking about an alcoholic. And his description of it is quite… Applies to me. And I’ll just share it with you. He said, “You know, the alcoholic is a misfit in society.” And he said, “We have the greatest trouble as… Communicating. We speak in a shorthand language and think in pictures.” And I certainly know that’s the case for me. And I seem to have to translate my form of thinking into what others were saying and doing around me.

But, in AA, I’ve managed to sort of reduce all that and make it manageable. Sometimes, I can still have anxiety, or I’m not sure what to do. Other days are great. At the end of the day, if you can get to bed tonight and you haven’t had a drink today, you’re a mile in front. And, some days, that’s all I can do. Other days, I can do a lot more. I was talking earlier on to… It’s important, I think, to… Physically, to look after yourself. I was drinking about 12 cans of Pepsi Max a day, about six cups of coffee, and I was wondering why I couldn’t sleep. This is early sobriety. And it took me about 12 months to figure it out because I got a… I got reflux. And I didn’t sleep the whole way through for about three years. And, now, most of the time, I can go to bed and sleep six or seven hours. But I can still have sleep disruption. So I’m still a human being. As my friend, Tattoo Gary says, “I do the best that I can with what I got left.” And humor and laughter are so important. And the old-timers are just very gentle. When I was nine months sober, I made a trip back to Ireland, because I wanted to tell my family, A, I’m an alcoholic, and, B, I’m in AA. And it’s quite daunting. And it’s a 24-hour flight from Sydney to Dublin and has free booze.

And so, I didn’t just walk onto the plane, and then scratch my head and wonder what to do. I planned it. And, at that time, I had tapes. Those of you who are old enough to remember C90 cassette tapes and Walkmans, when you had all your batteries, and I was armed with all this, getting on to the flight. And the first phone call I made when I landed in Dublin wasn’t to my family. It was to the AA office. And I found out where there was a meeting that night, and I went along, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what the Irish meetings were like, but I walked in and the steps were hanging up, under traditions, and the place was full of smoke. They used to smoke in the meetings there, it was just… The place was just chakras of smoke. Anyway, I sat down, and I was really worried about I’ve got three weeks here, am I going to be able to manage? And a total stranger came up to me and gave me a big mug of tea. He said, “There you go.” And, you know, I just felt… You know what? I think it’s gonna be okay.

Kindness. I’m attracted to meetings in Sydney where there’s kindness, and people are caring, and I like to have people in my life that care. I’m not someone that needs a sponsor, that tells me, “Oh, you did it. You should have done this and you should have done that.” And, you know, I need encouragement. I need honesty, but I need encouragement. So if you’re new or near new, you know, it’s the first drink does the damage. 24-hour plan, just try and live your life in day-tight compartments. Find people that you can honestly share with. I no longer pray. I don’t do the steps formally. The Big Book, I don’t read the first 164 pages. The stories in The Big Book I love, because I’m from an Irish storytelling culture, and what’s happened to me is I came into AA and I had a 14-year drinking story. It was terribly tragic. And what’s happened in AA is I’ve developed a sobriety story, to the point where a lot of that 14 years and all that stuff that happened is kind of in the past.

And I now have a lot of really good memories and a lot of people that came into my life. I’m healthy, and I’m here, visiting some friends. I never knew I’d come to Missouri, but I did.

[laughter]

And it’s really lovely to be here tonight, and thank you so much for listening to me, and thank you for asking me to share.

Thank you.


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