I have entered another world, meeting drinkers and those who spend much of their lives working hard to never drink again.
My sister is a drunk.
We can all see it, but she can’t.
It’s hard to fathom how that can be. It’s not like she is a little bit of a drunk, or a sometimes drunk — she has been on a non-stop bender for months.
Today, I was called to Central Railway Station. Fred, a gorgeous young man, had phoned me. For the past month, every time my phone rings my heart sinks.
It was exactly a month ago that I got the call to get to the airport to retrieve my sister from security. Ever since, my life has not been my own.
When I showed up at the airport, she didn’t know me. Her alcohol-fried brain could not register the person standing in front of her was her own sister.
But, back to Fred. He was on the phone and nervous. He identified himself, saying he was calling from Central Station. I knew what was coming.
I sensed he had stopped when he saw my sister on the country train platform, simply because he saw she needed help. But he didn’t know what he had walked into.
My sister was lucid-ish and, to the untrained eye, not immediately obvious as drunk. Now my sister was asking him to call me, another complete stranger. No wonder he was nervous.
He was right to be worried. He just didn’t know he was about to be caught up in “the crazy” that a drunk, like my sister, whirls around in.
An hour earlier, I had been on the phone to Bianca. She had just become my AL-Anon contact.
My sponsor of sorts, from the “we have a family member who is a drunk” support network.
She had given up her time to listen and offer support.
Yes, there’s not just AA out there, but AL-Anon. It’s for relatives, friends, carers of those with an alcoholic in their lives. Bill, a decades-dry alcoholic, had put me in touch with her.
Bianca impressed upon me, “your sister is not your responsibility”.
“If she wants to drink, you can’t stop her. She has to want to stop,” she said.
I have been stunned by those working hard to keep the alcohol demon at bay. (ABC Goldfields: Sam Tomlin)
In the past month, I have entered another world. I’ve been meeting drinkers and those who spend much of their lives working hard to never drink again, and those affected by alcoholics.
And I’ve been meeting those who spend their days dealing with drinkers, who have a problem which they are willing to accept or one their alcohol-addled brain can’t see.
A few nights ago, Bill and I talked on the phone for almost an hour, as I started to gain a first-hand honest insight into the world of alcoholism.
As my sister has spiralled downwards, I have been stunned by the generosity of those working hard to keep the alcohol demon at bay while working to help others do the same.
Last night I met Bill in the flesh. He had invited me to an AA meeting.
“Where else can you find anywhere that will accept anyone, be it from the board room, to the rat house, or the nuthouse, with the offer of, ‘Come in, have a cup of tea’?” Bill asked.
Yes, it was in a church hall. The Twelve Steps of AA were on the wall. And yes, there was bad instant coffee, and everyone introduced themselves by first saying their name and then stating, “I am an alcoholic”.
These rituals, often portrayed as cliches on film, suddenly had real meaning.
In the face of her current three-month bender, my sister still refuses to accept she is an alcoholic. She came close once. The night I reclaimed her from security at the airport.
She had staggered out, holding onto my arm, unable to walk straight, telling her “new best friends” — the mortified airline staff — how she smoked in the toilets at the airport every chance she could.
But as she staggered, twice she stopped.
The first time she declared: “I am my father’s daughter.”
Yes, my father died from alcohol, as did his father and my mother’s father. In our family cancer has never had much of a look in. Alcohol has done the job.
And then she was moving again, before suddenly stopping and crumbling. It was as though her armour had suddenly dropped to the ground.
She shrank and moaned: “Sorry, I’m so sorry.”
But as quickly as her armour had fallen, she suddenly straightened herself and staggered forwards — to the airport doors. She knew once she passed that threshold she would be able to light up. Alcohol and cigarettes are wonderful companions.
The following day, she was deep back into denial again.
In quick succession, she bounced back and forth from, “I only use alcohol to help medicate my anxiety”, “OK, I may have a bit of a problem with alcohol”, to head-in-the-hands, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no”.
And then, out of the blue, my sister agreed she would go into detox. We spent a weekend together looking for somewhere to take her. For the first time in a long time I felt there was hope.
Gorman House at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital agreed to take her in.
But we would have to wait until Monday. She would stay with me for the next five days. I got to hear how much she was drinking, two to three bottles of wine a day, at least.
I was told not to stop her drinking — to do so without medical supervision could be dangerous. She promised she would moderate.
The first night at my apartment I was on tenterhooks. I had been warned by friends who she had been staying with in the past months what she was now like.
They were right. But tonight at least, I hoped she would sleep. Getting her to first have a shower was a major challenge. She stank.
It was hard to believe this was my sister. The person who used to take hours to get ready, doing her hair, her face, and making sure she looked just right before leaving the house. Now I was pleading with her to have a shower.
On Monday morning, I dropped her off at Gorman House. She was committed.
“I need to do this,” she told me.
I watched her walk through the doors to the detox unit. It looked and smelled like the medical unit it was. And then I had to say goodbye.
For me, there was relief. Finally she had agreed to get help. I thought maybe now she had a chance.
When I told Bill she had agreed to go through detox, he had bleakly replied: “Well, at least she will live for a few more days.”
I didn’t want to believe it was that bad.
But the roller coaster of “drunk crazy” was not done yet.
After three days, my sister checked out.
“I’m not doing rehab,” she declared.
The excuses came thick and fast: “I have manners. I am not like them. The things I saw… The meth-heads throwing furniture.”
The reality was that she had started to feel better. In her mind, she no longer had a “drinking problem”. She wanted to leave. It was time to drink again.
A few days later, I was called again. This time to a pub known to a generation of journalists, The Evening Star.
My sister was there, and not making a lot of sense. She had a “new friend” with whom she had been drinking.
Her “drunk logic”, and inability to connect the dots was one thing. The imaginary insects she kept swatting away, another. In the past month, she has developed these strange tics where she clenches and clicks as she speaks.
I looked around, trying to quickly work out who was who. Who were the “good” guys, and who were the “bad” guys.
I wasn’t getting a good vibe from the guy she was with. She had met him in the pub a few hours earlier. I found out later he had spent the past couple of hours using my sister’s credit card to buy drinks.
When the guys behind the bar found out he’d lied to them, they were furious.
“He said she was his girlfriend, and that there had been a death in the family. He said he was consoling her,” bar manager Andrew Yuen said.
They asked him to leave. Separating her from him.
With the help of Andrew and fellow manager Jafer Halweh, we then moved onto convincing my sister to leave.
But where could I take her? She wouldn’t come back to my apartment.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she kept telling me.
The only option I could think was to take her back to St Vincent’s Hospital emergency department and hope she might get admitted to detox again. But once we got there, she wouldn’t go in.
After an hour, I had to walk away. I had completely run out of ideas.
Despite a brief surge of commitment to rehab, my sister is out again, and I don’t know where she is. (ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)
I thought of what Bill had said to me just a few hours earlier: “You can’t cure her, you can’t change her, you can’t stop her drinking. If she wants to drink herself to death, that is her right.
“No-one at an AA meeting has ever said, ‘I stopped drinking because of something my sister said’.”
And so I went home and wrote this. Then I went to bed physically and emotionally exhausted, and I slept.
I woke up to a text message from my sister: “Good morning. I’m dressed and ready for Gorman. Hope you’re well and have a good day.”
So encouraging. But a week is a long time in a drunk’s life. My sister made it through detox. She was taken to start a new chapter at a rehabilitation treatment centre in Rozelle.
She rang me from there, just before signing in. She was full of enthusiasm and commitment.
“You know, they say only 3 per cent make it,” she told me.
“I am going to be one of them.”
At midnight, I got a text message from her friend: “She’s out of rehab.”
Just where, I have no idea.
What I do know is I am running on empty. Nothing I have said or done so far has helped. The only thing I have left is being able to write it down, and the hope that one day she may read this and it may make a difference.