Everyone has a story. Mine starts with my dad, who was an illegitimate child. His father drowned three weeks before the wedding and, for whatever reason, his mother couldn’t look after him. So when he was 2, he went to live with somebody called Uncle Toby, who was possibly a foster parent. He was a very brutal man, who used to starve Dad and beat him. It’s horrible to think of a helpless little boy, being beaten and lying in his bed at night with nowhere to turn. And so it’s no wonder that he shut down and became the very complicated, walled-off, alcoholic that my father was.
Dad, who very rarely spoke of it, went on to join the navy, became a New Zealand champion cyclist and a New Zealand champion boxer. He was tall and very good-looking. And he got engaged to my mother, whose father was an alcoholic. What dramatically changed their lives was a lottery win. My dad won £15,000 in 1936, which today is the equivalent of about $7 million. Wow.
They really had the world at their feet. They had money, they had intelligence, and they were both good-looking. But from then on, because of the addiction and co-dependency in their lives, it was a constant downward path.
When I was about 2, war broke out. Dad had been in the naval reserve, and so he was one of the first to be called up. And he went away for three years. Nobody thought to explain this to me, and children are egocentric. When something happens like that, we automatically think it’s our fault.
There were three girls and three boys in our family, and there was never enough love to go around. Mum and Dad hadn’t been loved properly, so how could Dad possibly be a good father and Mum be a good mother?
When I was about 8, it was just after the war, I woke one night and I could hear fighting and hear Mum calling out. I went running out to the kitchen and Dad had Mum pushed against the wall by her throat. He turned around when I yelled and he was so drunk he couldn’t focus. I was terrified. We had an American marine living with us at the time, and I tried to wake him up to help, but he was too drunk. And all I can remember is going back into the hallway and being on the ceiling, looking down at myself. And that was my first experience of leaving my body, or as we call it now, dissociation, which is a coping mechanism.
That night, I actually lost my childhood. I became a little mini adult and started taking care of the family, taking care of Mum and Dad, and I became very bossy and controlling. I didn’t get on well with children at school. Kids don’t like being bossed. And I was bossy with my brothers and sisters because it was the only way I knew how to cope.
I got married to a local farmer, and had four girls. I didn’t know children had emotions, because I didn’t have any emotions myself. Well, I did have feelings, but I was so dissociated that I had buried them too deeply. We lived on a farm. I used to look out the window and all I could see was cows. And I’m a real people person. So I nagged my poor, long-suffering husband into moving to the great metropolis of Auckland. But he was a farmer and he never adjusted, and our marriage didn’t survive the shift.
It was about this time that I met Bill. Now Bill came from Wollongong, and his father, who he adored, died when he was 12. A year later, Bill turned to alcohol. Bill was an alcoholic from his very first drink, which means there was obsession and compulsion from the day that he drank his first drop. By the time he was about 18 or 19, he was an out-of-control alcoholic. He did an apprenticeship as a carpenter and the day it was finished, he caught the ship to New Zealand. He wanted to move countries because he thought, ‘Well, my drinking is getting a bit out of control here, but if I shift to another country and make new friends, things will be different. ’Cause it’s nothing to do with me, it’s my friends.’
So he went to New Zealand and married a New Zealand girl, had three daughters and he ended up going into the police force. But eventually, his drinking caught up with him. So he left the police force and he went into real estate. Bill was a born salesman. So real estate suited him right down to the ground. But his drinking was still escalating at a rapid rate and he was really worried about it. He’d swear and declare that he wouldn’t start drinking before lunchtime and then the next thing he knew, he’d be over at the hotel. His health was deteriorating and he never could remember how he got home.
Every night he’d go over the Auckland Harbour Bridge and he’d have a fight with himself. Would he go home or would he go to The Gluepot pub? And always the car ended up at The Gluepot, which was his favourite hotel. And this particular night, the 1st of August, 1970, he was coming over the bridge and although he didn’t believe in God, he called out, ‘God help me.’ He never knew what made him call that out. But I believe there are angels and a higher power and people – and they won’t help you unless you ask. Bill called out for help, and as he drove to the other side of the bridge, he saw a phone booth.
So he stopped the car and he went in there and he rang AA – Alcoholics Anonymous. A man called Frank answered the phone and he lived near Bill. And Frank said, ‘I want you to get in the car and drive straight out to me now, will you do that?’ And Bill said, ‘Yeah.’ So he got in the car and drove out to Frank. And in the time-honoured tradition of one alcoholic talking to another, Frank shared his story with Bill and Bill just kept identifying with everything Frank said. That’s how the AA 12 steps work. It’s like you can’t tell an alcoholic what to do, they have to listen. And so Frank shared his story and he took Bill to his first meeting that night, the 1st of August. And Bill got sober that night and he never had another drink. He was one of those very lucky alcoholics who got sobriety at his first meeting. When I first met him, he’d been sober 12 months. And I remember he said to me, ‘I’m an alcoholic.’
And the first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Oh my God, my parents are alcoholics.’ It never entered my head that I was going to be marrying a man who was an alcoholic, just newly sober. I knew nothing about addiction, but I had met Bill twice just briefly. And then one day I met him in a room and he walked in and he said, ‘Hello, Lorraine.’ And I said, ‘Hello, Bill.’ And an electric current went across the room between us. I believe we have soul-mates and we were each other’s soul-mates.
He had three daughters, I had four and we had one of our own. So we ended up with eight children between us. And things were great in the beginning because he used to do AA probably four or five nights a week. And he was full of fun.
So things were going pretty well for us over there, and then suddenly after we’d been married about eight years, he decided he wanted to come back home to Australia. That suited me and the children were growing up. So in September, 1978, we moved to Australia and we got into real estate here and started to do well. And I got into my workaholism. Things were going well financially. But Bill stopped doing AA. He went to a few meetings, but it wasn’t the same as going to the meetings with all his mates in Auckland. And he wasn’t prepared to put the time in. There’s a saying in AA, I went to AA for my drinking, but I stayed for my thinking.’ And it’s very true, because if you don’t go to AA and keep up with the 12-step program, you become dry drunk. Dry drunk is when the mental obsession with not drinking plays out and all your issues come up. You have walls instead of boundaries, there can be rage, withholding, control, all these issues start to come up because going through AA is your medicine. You need to keep doing that. And it happens very gradually, it’s like a great cloak comes around you and you don’t even know what’s happened.
We’d been married 17 years when the wheels really fell off. It was September, 1986, and we were isolated. The children didn’t want to be around us. Bill was very angry. I was depressed and I had migraine headaches every second day. I suddenly realised that he wasn’t going to take care of me, he wasn’t going to fix me. If I was going to turn my life around, I had to do it. And I had no idea how to do it or what to do. So I sat down and in my usual black-and-white and flat-out way, I started writing down all the things I could do to turn my life around, because I was actually suicidal and I had a plan. I decided that by the time our youngest was 16 – and she was now 12 – I was going to take an overdose of pills if I couldn’t turn my life around. So I gave myself four years. I started with doctors and psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists.
But nothing made any difference. I just kept getting worse. On the surface, we looked great. We’d walk up the street hand-in-hand, we had a nice home, we had a good business. But underneath was the isolation of alcoholics and their co-dependent practice. And the loneliness, the pain. Our children were showing signs of depression and anxiety and addiction and they certainly didn’t want to be around Bill and I, and I was absolutely broken-hearted and had no idea what to do. And one day, out of the blue, somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to an Al-Anon meeting?’ Right? Check that off my list. And at half-past-12 one Saturday, I walked into Al-Anon and it was the first time in my life I ever felt I belonged anywhere. And it was the first time I’d ever been somewhere that everybody was telling my story. And I sat there and I just cried, cried, cried. And I went home and I said to Bill in the most Al-Anon way, ‘You’d better get back to AA – or else.’ And he did.
So, Bill got better very quickly, and within about three months he was back to his old self. And I’d forgotten how wonderful he was. He was laughing and happy and full of fun, and that charming, charismatic personality that I’d forgotten had come back.
I didn’t get well as quickly, but eventually I returned to Al-Anon and found that this was my passion. I loved recovery, but I knew there was a lot more. And by the greatest good luck and good fortune, I got into therapy with an American therapist who had trained at The Meadows in Arizona. She was talking about things like family of origin, co-dependency, boundaries. We’d never heard of that in 1986. And I couldn’t get enough of it.
While Bill did better for a while going to AA, he started having panic attacks and would go to the emergency department thinking he was having a heart attack. Eventually, this therapist said to him, ‘Bill, I think you should go to The Meadows in Arizona,’ which is where she had trained. He couldn’t get over there quick enough.
That experience transformed our lives, and those of our children as well. So when I was there, I said to Bill, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we started a place like this in Australia?’ And Bill said, ‘Oh, what a great idea. Sure.’ We talked to Pat and Pia Mellody, who ran The Meadows at that time, and they were only too happy to help us.
Bill started looking around for a place in Sydney and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine getting a hospital. But find it he did. To begin with, it was really tough. We came close to closing. Rehab was somewhere you went if you’d had an operation. Australians weren’t very keen on doing any sort of work on themselves at that stage. We kept going, but we were haemorrhaging money and our accountants told us to shut down. But I just said to Bill while we were driving one day, ‘You know, Bill, I think if we did this, this, this and this, I think I could turn it around.’ And Bill’s driving, and he looked at me and he said, ‘You think you can do it?’ I said, ‘Yep – I know I can.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I’ll give you a month. If you can turn it around in a month, we’ll keep it. If you can’t, we close.’ It showed trust, and gradually things started changing. It didn’t all happen at once, but we balanced the books for that first month. And as time went on, things got better.
That’s not to say it’s been an easy ride. Over the years, we have had all sorts of challenges arise. When you open and run your own hospital, the problems and issues can sometimes feel insurmountable. If you just put one foot in front of the other and keep doing what your heart says, it works out. Now we have a beautiful hospital which has helped thousands and thousands of people. One of the promises of AA is a life beyond your wildest dreams, and that’s what happened for me.
People often ask how it is that I believe everything will work out, even when things are at their very hardest. And all I can say is that it is because I have been given the biggest gift throughout this experience – learning to live in faith. There were times when we didn’t know how we would keep things running, and when Bill died, I didn’t know how I would possibly be able to do this on my own. But throughout all of it, the hurdles and curveballs, I just continued to have faith. And that’s how I live, trusting that it will be OK, and it always is, because I live one day at a time and I hand it all over to a power that’s greater than me.
Lorraine Wood, 11 June 1938 – 20 August 2019