Alcoholism & Alcoholic Anonymous 

Speech to UniMas Medical and Sociology Students 16 Feb. 2000

Ladies and gentlemen it is a great pleasure and a privilege to be able to talk to you today. And I must thank Sara for inviting me. It is always a pleasure for me to talk about alcoholism even though it is an incurable and all too often fatal disease one that pervades all sections of society - even here in Sarawak.

You may think I have a bit of a nerve talking to medical and sociology students about a disease that you may think you know more about than I do. But I hope, before my speech is done, or at least before you have lost interest and dozed off, to show you that I do know something of what I am talking about.

More importantly, I hope to convince you that, here in Kuching, there is hope for sufferers from this disease. The disease I am talking about is probably one of the most widespread, most destructive and most ignored incurable diseases in our society today. First, let me set your minds at rest, this is not an attempt to get you to stop drinking or a lecture on the evils of the demon drink. If you enjoy a drink, good luck to you, and I hope sometime I can have the pleasure of buying you one. God knows there is an ample supply of drink in my home and it was dispensed freely at Christmas and Chinese New Year.

But there are millions of people around the world who no longer enjoy drinking. People whose lives are made a sheer Hell by drink but yet, they cannot stop. These people are alcoholics.

For the practising alcoholic drinking leads to terrible free floating anxiety, loss of self-respect, loss of job, family, friends, health, sanity and ultimately life itself. But the terrible effects are not confined just to the alcoholic. They affect his family, friends, business associates. Those living with an alcoholic often have feelings of anxiety and guilt themselves. They feel that somehow the alcoholic's drinking is their fault that they should be able to do something about it.

A recent study done in the United States suggests that this effect on the non-alcoholic associates of the problem drinker is far more widespread than previously thought. The study said that up to 100 million people in the United States alone are affected directly or indirectly by alcoholism. Forgive me for quoting figures for the United States but they are the only ones I have. So far as I know, no similar figures exist for Malaysia. It's about time they did, because alcoholism takes just as terrible toll on Malaysian society as it does on those in the West.

Just let me give you some of those American figures. It is estimated that 7.1 per cent of adults over 18 meet the standard diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence. That's a fancy way of saying that there are 14 million people in the States who are alcoholics. And that does not include those under 18 and believe me, there are teenage alcoholics. I have met several.

The same statistics show that one in four children in the USA is exposed to familial alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse or both. Alcohol contributes to 100,000 deaths annually in America. The cost of alcoholism to the United States economy is estimated at more than 150 billion US dollars a year. One in four of all persons admitted to American hospitals have alcohol problems or are undiagnosed alcoholics being treated for the consequences of their drinking.

So you can see why I described alcoholism as one of the most widespread, destructive and ignored incurable diseases. OK, you may be thinking, that's America. Why should we worry? We are in Malaysia. Well, research has shown that the seven per cent figure for alcoholics in the population holds true for most countries.

That means in Sarawak, with a population of roughly two million, there are 140,000 alcoholics. Given that half of those are children who may not have started drinking yet, it still means that there are about 70,000 adult practising alcoholics in this State.

Even closer to home in Kuching, with a population of roughly 400,000, there must be 14,000 practising adult alcoholics. In this room there are 40 of you. Statistics say that two to three of you will be alcoholic.

Don't worry. I am not going to ask those two or three to put their hands up. Anyway, you are probably so early in your drinking careers that you may not have realised yet that you are alcoholic.

Let's have a little quiz shall we. Don't worry there are no papers. Just answer these questions in your head. Nobody else will know what your answers are.

1. Do you drink because you have problems or to relax?

2. Do you drink when you get mad at other people, friends or parents?

3. Do you prefer to drink alone, rather than with others?

4. Are your grades starting to slip? Are you goofing off on your studies or job?

5. Did you ever try to stop drinking or drink less - and fail?

6. Have you begun to drink in the morning, before classes or work?

7. Do you gulp your drinks?

8. Have you ever had loss of memory due to drinking?

9. Do you lie about your drinking?

10. Do you ever get into trouble when you're drinking?

11. Do you get drunk when you drink, even though you don't mean to?

12. Do you think it's cool to be able to hold your liquor?

If you answered yes to one of these 12 questions then it's time you took a serious look at what your drinking may be doing to you. Frightening isn't it?

You medical and sociology students may well know more about the physical, psychological and sociological effects of alcoholism than I do. At least you should by the time you graduate. You may know far more ABOUT alcoholism but I suggest, in all humility, that you don't know alcoholism as well as I do. Why? Well, my name is Bernard and I am an alcoholic.

Having said that I have not had a drink for nearly 19 years. I have a resting heart rate of 45 beats per minute, a blood pressure of 110 over 70 and I regularly do a 20 mile bike ride before breakfast. Pretty fit for a guy of 60 and hardly the picture of an alcoholic in most people's mind. To what do I owe my present sobriety and well being? I can answer that in two words - Alcoholics Anonymous.

Without that fellowship I would have continued drinking. By now I would either be dead, or worse, a shambling dead beat with a wet brain, no job, family or friends and no future. I owe my life and my present well being to AA and I hope, with your help, to start Alcoholics Anonymous in Kuching.

What is AA?

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions.

AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organisation or institution, does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.

Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.

So far as I know, there is no AA group in the whole island of Borneo. Through experience at early meetings AA evolved 12 Steps that are the basis of our recovery.

The steps are these:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our lives over to the care of God, AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

This programme has proved highly effective in helping alcoholics on the road to recovery. So effective that it has been adopted by other programmes such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and several others. Why does AA work in keeping alcoholics away from drink when other methods don't? Well, if I knew that and I could bottle it and sell it I'd make a fortune.

I think it works simply because no one can understand an alcoholic like another drunk can. In our meetings we share our experiences, strength and hope honestly and the suffering alcoholic realises that he is not alone that there are other people who have gone through what he is going through and who understand his thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I think that we alcoholics are not really human at all. That we are visitors from the Planet Koozebane living among you in clever disguises. 

 I know that when I want to be really understood I have to go to an AA meeting.

A drunk fell in a hole and couldn't get out. A businessman went by. The drunk called out for help. The businessman threw him some money and told him get yourself a ladder. But the drunk could not find a ladder in this hole he was in.

A doctor walked by. The drunk said, "Help, I can't get out." The doctor gave him drugs and said, "Take this, it will relieve the pain." The drunk said thanks, but when the pills ran out, he was still in the hole. A renowned psychiatrist rode by and heard the drunks cries for help. He stopped and said, "How did you get there? Were you born there? Were you put there by your parents? Tell me about yourself, it will alleviate your sense of loneliness." So the drunk talked with him for an hour, then the psychiatrist had to leave, but he said he'd be back next week. The drunk thanked him, but he was still in his hole.

A recovering alcoholic happened to be passing by. The drunk cried out, "Hey, help me, I'm stuck in this hole." Right away, the recovering alcoholic jumped in the hole with him. The drunk said, "What are you doing? Now we're both stuck here." But the recovering alcoholic said, "It's okay, I've been here before, I know how to get out."

That's the secret of AA. We've been in the hole and we know how to get out. I can think of nothing other than AA that could have stopped me from drinking. I was born in Yorkshire where the definition of a queer is anyone who likes women more than beer. I started drinking at age 16 and had my first alcoholic blackout at 18. At the time and for years afterwards I thought blackouts were a normal consequence of drinking too much. I did not realise they were a sure pointer to alcoholism.

I won't bore you with my drunkalogue, suffice it to say I have been drunk in just about every state of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Thailand, Australia, New Guinea, Cyprus, Malta and Libya - oh, and not forgetting England.

Of course when I started drinking it was fun. It made me feel good and did away with those feeling of low self-esteem and of not really fitting in. But over the years that feeling of euphoria proved elusive. I was drinking more and enjoying it less. I drank more in search of that euphoria but instead I had feelings of dark despair, hopelessness and was getting into all sorts of scrapes.

After my last blackout, in Hong Kong, I asked a friend, also a doctor and also an alcoholic, for help. He took me to my first AA meeting and I have not had a drink since.

The biggest revelation in AA was that the reason I drank was that I had a disease called alcoholism and not because I was a moral degenerate. Of course, I am a moral degenerate, but that was not the reason I drank. It also taught me that I was not alone and that I was not the centre of the universe.

Since that time my life has continued to get better. I am convinced that it will keep on getting better so long as I don't pick up that first drink. You see, that's the drink that causes all the problems, not the fifth, or the 12th or the hundredth, but the first drink that sets off the alcoholics craving for more and damn the consequences. I have to remind myself daily that I am an alcoholic and that to keep this disease in remission I must work the 12 Steps. The 12 Step programme is simple, but it is not easy. But it is the only way I know to stay sober and sane. As I said before, alcoholism is an incurable disease. I know I am not cured. I have a daily reprieve from my disease so long as I don't pick up that first drink and work the programme.

It's a daily reprieve and that's one of the most valuable things AA taught me, to live one day at a time, because today is the only reality I have. Fortunately I did not have to make a vow to swear off drink for the rest of my life. I just had to resolve not to pick up a drink today. Living one day at a time I have managed, through the grace of God and the AA programme to stay sober for nearly 19 years.

OK you might be asking - so what's this guy after? Is he some kind of bleeding heart do-gooder wanting to save the world? Is he some kind of missionary who thinks he can save the benighted natives of Sarawak, or is he some kind of religious nut? Well, I hope I am none of these. I am an alcoholic who wants to stay sober. 

The only way I know how to stay sober is to work the AA programme and attend regular meetings where I can pass on my experience strength and hope and benefit from that of others.

To have AA meetings I need to know fellow drunks in Kuching and I don't know any. That's why I am asking your help to keep me sober. If you know anyone who has a drinking problem, or if you have one yourself, I can help, with the strength of AA behind me.

The good news that there is AA in Kuching. The bad news is that it's me. So I am appealing to you. Help ME stay sober. Help me find suffering alcoholics.

AA can only help those who want to stop drinking. If you want to drink that's your business. If you want to stop maybe AA can help. I am willing to turn out anywhere and any time to talk to a problem drinker who seeks help. My wife might not be too happy if you call at 2 or 3 in the morning. Come to think of it I might not be too happy myself. But, happy or not, I can assure you I will turn out if it can help someone.

If you are members of any church or religious groups or social clubs and you think they may like to hear about AA, please pass my name to them. I'll speak anywhere and at any time.

Even if you personally don't know any alcoholics now, I can assure you that as doctors or sociologists, you will meet plenty. I hope my talk has helped alert you to the prevalence of this disease and what to look for. Well. I've rabbitted on enough. Thank you for your attention. I hope you have not been too bored. I'll be happy to answer questions.