Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Residents given a personal insight into alcoholism

Michael Greenwell giving his talk after formal dinner

In a frank, sometimes graphic talk, friend of Warrane Michael Greenwell spoke to college residents on Wednesday 6 August 2014 about his struggle with alcoholism.

Michael, a Sydney builder and father of five, who has helped with many of Warrane’s workcamps over the years, urged his listeners to be on the alert for signs of any kind of addiction. He warned them that the common image of an alcoholic as a someone on “skid row” was not accurate.

“I am not saying don’t go out and have a beer, but be careful, be vigilant,” he said. “One in every 10 people are alcoholics and out of 10 only five percent are skid-row bums. The rest, the 95 percent, are normal people.”

He said many were like himself when he was still drinking – married men with a wife and children and a full-time job.

“But at the end of my drinking I began to have problems,” he said. “I shook like a leaf and I became a derelict in my own home at the age of 27.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. And it is not a matter of a lack of willpower. The World Health Organisation says it is a disease and it could be hereditary.”

Mr Greenwell had his first drink at the age of 14 at home. At 16 he began to drink at parties, partly because it helped him to get up and dance, to tell a joke and to hold hands with a girl.

At the age of 18 he moved to Kings Cross while he was working for a big company in investment in nearby Double Bay.

“That was probably the beginning of the end because I used to go out at night drinking,” he said. “At the age of 21 I decided it was all getting a bit much. I was drinking very heavily and knew I had a problem. I was making money. I had a car and a beautiful family. My father was a surgeon and I had been educated at a private school – a good GPS school. I wanted for nothing really, but I had this problem: I was an alcoholic.

When he decided to travel overseas, he says he took his alcoholism with him.

“I went to England and worked in a pub and I got into a fight and was fired. I went to France and picked grapes in Bordeaux where there was wine on the tables in the morning.”

He worked in the ski fields as chair-lift operator until there was an accident that occurred while he was under the influence, so he moved on.

“Wherever I went there was alcohol,” he said. I came back to Sydney and worked at five jobs, but I kept on drinking.”

At the age of 25 he married his wife Marie, but he continued to drink and his business went downhill. Over the next three years he had 13 successive jobs and things kept getting worse, with the early signs of brain damage beginning to show in the form of the early stages of Korsakoff’s Syndrome and Peripheral Neuritis.

“I was a shivering, shaking mess,” Mr Greenwell said. “I worked for a funeral director, picking up the dead bodies. The last job I had was packing snail killer into boxes with people with mental problems and I lost that job too. I was a total derelict in my own home.

“So I couldn’t work and I was lying on a couch at the back of my home and – I’ll never forget – I was 27 years of age and I was drinking liquor out of a bottle.

“This is not a religious thing at all, but I can’t tell my story without introducing Our Lord into it … A politician once told me: ‘You can tell your story Mike, but don’t introduce religion into it.’ I said: ‘Well you can forget it, I’m not going to talk about it, because that’s how I got well.’

“So I have to – I’d be a total hypocrite if I didn’t… “So I was lying on the couch and I couldn’t move and I was crying and I said if there is a God, and I don’t believe there is, but if there is a God I need help. I need help right now. Right now please help me.”

It was then, he said, that he was inspired to ring his brother who invited him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Asked to say something at the meeting, he walked out the front and said: “My name’s Michael and I am an alcoholic and I burst into tears and went back to my seat.”

That was the beginning of his recovery and he kept returning to AA for the next two years, getting help from other alcoholics, but still not taking what he calls “the necessary steps”…

“There’s a prayer that says, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.’ But I had changed nothing. All I had done was to put the cork back in the bottle.”

A friend who had recovered from alcoholism urged him to start to pray regularly, quoting St Augustine’s words: “Our hearts are made for thee O Lord and restless are they until they find their rest in thee”.

“My friend told me: ‘You will be restless to the day you die, Michael, unless you hand your life over to the God you don’t understand. You have to put your faith into action.’

“That night I started to pray with my wife and I have been praying for 38 years since then on a daily basis.”

Mr Greenwell emphasised that people can be addicted to many things – to everything from drugs to pornography – and every form of addiction could be very detrimental. He was particularly concerned to alert the young people in the audience to the dangers of marijuana.

“Marijuana is one of the most potent drugs in the world on the adolescent brain,” he said. “It is simply shocking. People tend to think it is a soft drug, but it is not, it is highly dangerous.”

He said that each and every one in the room would come into contact with three alcoholics during their lifetimes and it was important that they knew how to treat them.

“If you have a friend who you think has a problem,” he said, “give him an arm, help him up and don’t say: ‘You’re an idiot.’ Just be a friend. Be a total friend and love them.

“You don’t take away their beer. You don’t treat them with kid gloves, but with love and, understanding. But be tough.

“For an alcoholic there are three alternatives: death, insanity or they get well.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]