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September 1976

How AA Came to New Zealand

The story of one man and a book, and of the impact he made on his homeland

The first copy of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1939, Some million and a half books later, in a brand-new third edition, the basic message of the Big Book remains the same. No modern discipline nor ancient esoteric philosophy can claim as many converts to sobriety as can the simple program set forth in the Big Book.

IN FEBRUARY 1976, AA in New Zealand celebrated thirty years of carrying the message, with an anniversary dinner held during the annual convention. One of the guests of honor was Ian, the first AA in New Zealand, who achieved sobriety in 1946 through following suggestions in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

In his prime, Ian was a big-framed man of some eighteen stone (about 250 pounds). He came from a well-to-do New Zealand family, which owned a large machinery firm with branches throughout the provinces, Ian enjoyed social drinking for ten years, and then crossed over that invisible line into alcoholism. He proceeded to run the full gamut of the disease.

Ian joined the family business, but the day came when his business associates hated to see him coming, and inevitably he was squeezed out altogether. He spent periods estranged from his wife and family, and at one stage his wife had to leave. His family did everything possible to help him. He saw doctors, and played the usual alcoholic games with them. They would shake their heads and say, "Ian, you haven't seen the end of this yet. It won't be very pretty."

Then he went to England to consult the medical experts on Harley Street, but they had no answer for him. When the crew of the liner Rangitane saw him staggering along the wharf for the return journey, they gave him a rousing welcome, for they had never seen a drinker quite like him before.

Later, he was committed to an island for inebriates in the Hauraki Gulf. When he was delivered to the island, he wrote down all the people he was going to get for this, and his wife headed the list. When he returned home, the drinking went on apace, so he decided on a geographical cure and bought a small farm. He thought farmers, being close to the land, had fewer worries, tensions, and pressures. But it made no difference.

One Saturday morning, Ian proceeded to the pub for his usual session. He decided to go home via the psychiatric hospital. He doesn't know why to this day, but when he arrived at the hospital, he asked the superintendent to admit him. "Maybe," he says, "I had reached the point beyond which I was not prepared to go, or possibly it was my wife's faith." His wife always prefaced her conversations with the words "Ian, when you recover," never "if you recover."

The superintendent knew Ian and his family well, and he was more than a little puzzled at his request. One is supposed to be in full possession of one's faculties for voluntary admission, and Ian hardly qualified--he was very drunk. So the superintendent rang Ian's wife, Heather, and said, "Ian is here and wants to be admitted. What will I do with him?"

She replied, "If you can get him, grab him." So in he went.

Though his parents and many other well-meaning people had made strenuous efforts to get him sober, this was the first move he had ever made himself. There was no treatment for alcoholism in the hospital. They simply dried him out and left him to mooch about as he wished. He didn't check himself out, for he was now far too frightened of what might happen to him next.

One day, he wandered into the patients' common room and picked up a Reader's Digest. He noticed an article called "Maybe You Can Do It, Too." It was about alcoholism, and the author drank the way Ian drank, felt the way he felt, and thought the way he thought. Ian was immediately able to identify. The article said that anyone who had a problem with alcohol and wanted help could write to GSO, New York, and the address followed.

This Ian did, and soon back came a letter from Bobbie of GSO, along with a copy of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The book came with the compliments of an American businessman, who had spent some years in New Zealand.

In Bobbie's letter, she said words to this effect: "We don't know if this thing will work by mail or not; we see no reason why it shouldn't. On one of our walls here, we have a map of the world, and a flag is pinned on all the countries where AA is to be found. As far as New Zealand is concerned, you are it. Goodbye and God bless you." That was in 1946.

Ian used the Big Book as an instruction manual, and tried to do what it said about the Steps. It took him a year to get anywhere near a contented sobriety. His wife had noticed that his drinking was always associated with tension, and so, whenever tension came Ian's way, he would do two things: take out the book and go through the Steps again to see where he was going wrong, and write to Bobbie and tell her how he felt. Always, the tension vanished. "Even when I popped the letter to Bobbie in the postal box, I felt better." Her replies would come back, and they were so accurate regarding his problems that for a long time he suspected Heather was writing to Bobbie on the sly.

So he read on, absorbing it all, accepting it all, and trying to do as the book suggested. Then he came to Chapter 7, "Working With Others," where it says, "Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics." He read the chapter very carefully and then sought out other alcoholics--which wasn't very difficult. Some of the practicing alcoholics used to come and stay on the farm with Ian and Heather. They soon found one Big Book was insufficient, so they imported five more. The five prospects would sit down, read, and discuss the Big Book with Ian. Few achieved sobriety.

Then Ian received word from GSO that a March of Time film with a comprehensive survey on alcoholism would be shown in New Zealand. A good portion of this film was devoted to AA. Ian got busy and told anyone he could about this film. Then Lillian R. and her husband Bert visited New Zealand. Lillian was on the comeback trail in show business, and her show opened in Auckland. To meet them, Ian traveled the 450 miles from Wellington, where he now lived. He learned much about AA from them--especially from Bert, who had been sober seven years. In addition, Ian told anyone and everyone who would listen that recovery from alcoholism was possible in AA.

Around this time, a doctor in Auckland was worried about his brother-in-law, Alf, a dental surgeon, who had a serious drinking problem. Though everything possible had been tried, Alf never remained sober for long. The doctor wrote to the Health Department in Wellington, said he had heard of some new treatment for alcoholism there, and asked for information, Ian had made the facts of his recovery known to the Health Department, so they got in touch with him and relayed the request, Ian sent the doctor a few pamphlets and his copy of the Big Book, and in an accompanying letter said that he had achieved sobriety by accepting the suggestions in the book and putting them into action, and that very likely Alf could achieve sobriety in the same way. The doctor took Alf some twenty miles out of Auckland to his weekend cottage, laid the book and the pamphlets on the kitchen table, said, "See what you can make of that lot," and went away and left him on his own. Alf became sober, has not had a drink since, and still is a staunch AA man in Auckland. As a result of Alf s contact with the Big Book, AA was on its way in Auckland Province.

Then a man wrote from Dunedin. His brief correspondence, written on toilet paper, said that though he hadn't lost everything, he was worried that he might have a problem. Dunedin is 600 miles south of Wellington, and Ian picked up his Big Book and went the 600 miles.

And so it went on and on, the carrying of this message, Ian's Big Book got such a workout that it fell apart at the seams. He got a bookbinder to repair it, but this time he left out the personal-story section at the back, for he felt he didn't need that section any more. He still reads something from his Big Book every day. Written inside the cover are these words: "It is foolish to assume that you can recover from alcoholism without a book which contains the recovery instructions." Underneath this, he has written, "Abstain from weakening the AA program with Twelve Step substitutions--or you will water it down to the point of drunkenness."

As a result of the powerful force of one alcoholic talking to another, groups began to appear in the main New Zealand cities. They had many problems and many arguments, but always they would solve these by reference to the Big Book. Then public meetings began to be held, and articles and meeting advertisements began to appear in the newspapers. In 1950, a commercial traveler staying at a hotel in Wellington was too sick to work, and contemplating suicide, when he saw one of these articles in the newspaper. He contacted AA and then grew impatient at having to wait for a Big Book. So, having some money left, he imported 100 copies. Today, the New Zealand GSO distributes 500 Big Books a year.

In the early years, Ian saw the necessity of having some organization to educate the public to the disease concept of alcoholism, so he formed the National Society on Alcoholism and was its first secretary. Today, the National Society is big business, and its work is slowly bearing results. There is still much to do. Not many medical men know much about alcoholism, but this will change, for alcoholism is now included in the curriculum of the country's medical school.

I have been fortunate over the years to attend the group to which Ian belongs. I have noticed that hardly ever does he speak at an AA meeting without picking up the Big Book and reading from it something relevant to what he has just been talking about. He then goes on to stress the value of this wonderful book to anyone seeking recovery from alcoholism, and the necessity of doing what it suggests.

Small wonder, then, that when Ian resumed his seat after his talk on the great occasion of New Zealand's thirtieth-anniversary celebration, everyone spontaneously stood, most with tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats, and applauded, for what seemed an eternity, this great old-timer's endeavors that began thirty years ago.

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