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Alcoholics fight 'rampant epidemic'

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 13:55 22/06/2014
Sunday Star Times

Former Junior All Black Roger Green talks about his struggle with alcoholism.

Roger Green, Craig Laseur, The Retreat
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ
ON A MISSION: Retreat directors Roger Green and Craig Laseur.

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Roger Green played for the Junior All Blacks. He screen-tested to play James Bond in Diamonds are Forever and acted on the big screen with Orson Welles. He married into British high society. Drove a white Mustang across the US. Made a fortune importing meat into Saudi Arabia.

But he also had fights, criminal convictions, and three failed marriages. And he looks back on it all with disdain.

It was, he says, a destructive life built on an addiction he refused to recognise. Not until the age of 41 did Green accept he was an alcoholic.

"It took me years to accept the consequences of my disease," he says. "I thought they were just consequences of my living or how the world treated me."

He was, he says, always in denial. "And this is a disease of denial: the whole nation denies this disease. It is always you out there, never me or my family."

But no more. Thirty-four years sober, the septuagenarian Green has returned to New Zealand and, sparked by what he calls a "rampant epidemic of addiction" here, has set up an addiction centre he claims is unique in this country. It offers cut-price treatment where the "guests", the counsellors and staff, from Green down, are all alcoholics: "The best people to deliver the message."

THE RETREAT

Hanging in the reception area of Green's year-old centre, The Retreat, is a huge framed portrait of the 1959 Junior All Blacks. Behind captain Wilson Whineray and next to Colin Meads stands a young Roger Green. That team played the touring British Lions at Wellington. "I wanted the roar of the crowd," says Green, recalling that game. "But it didn't elate me. It didn't fill the hole in the soul that addicts have. But I could only see that in hindsight."

While he managed to stay off the booze during the rugby season and was a fanatical trainer, Green blames drinking for his failure to make the All Blacks (he got as far as a final trial). Even from the age of 18, he says, he would black out during drinking sessions and he says it was drink that led him, at the age of 30, to walk out on his wife, children and the family sheep farm to "escape" on a delayed OE to England. His last night in New Zealand was spent in a jail cell after breaking a plate-glass window during a drunken night out (he was convicted of wilful damage and fined $40), and when he arrived in London he committed exactly the same offence.

His mother had paid him out his share of the farm, and when he went to the US, he bought the Mustang, driving it from coast to coast, with a stop-off to see his friend, tobacco heir Will Reynolds, on an Appalachian farm where they drunkenly hunted deer at 2am with sub-machine guns.

Then he took the Mustang across the Atlantic in the hold of the Queen Mary, arriving in London in 1967. "I kept riding up on the pavement and almost running over people because of all those miniskirts. I was in utopia."

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Green fell into acting after meeting the British screenwriter and playwright Robert Bolt (who wrote the screenplays for Dr Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia) and his actress wife, Sarah Miles, at a dinner party.

He even screen-tested for the part of James Bond in Diamonds are Forever. "The director sat me down and said ‘Roger, you've got a great chance of getting this part'. I drank for a week on that one. Ten people did the test that day and one by one were told they were not wanted, except for me. Then I read in the paper a couple of months later ‘Sean Connery agrees to do two more Bonds'.

"I loved the acting profession. Most of my contemporaries were gay - I wasn't, there were all these women. What a profession to be in for a practising alcoholic."

The highlight of this sojourn was a role in the 1970 Napoleon biopic Waterloo, alongside Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles, where Green spent two months on the bleak Ukrainian steppes drinking vodka with Russian extras.

Wives two and three followed. Green was Julia Williamson's fifth husband, the first not to have come from the British upper-class. One newspaper headlined its story "Julia marries husband number five from Civvy St". A reporter asked him which regiment he had been in and was disappointed to learn Green had been a one-stripe hut commander in his 10-week compulsory service at Papakura.

Williamson was an alcoholic too: "By then the only person who would have me was another alcoholic. And she drank well and heavily and I loved her for it." When Williamson was admitted to a treatment centre, Green originally signed up for a family support programme there but, after a week, finally admitted the truth he'd ignored for so long and he too signed up for treatment. His wife walked out. He didn't.

In the end, sober, he walked out on their marriage.

"I loved her. She was a great person. I had to walk out in the end. She implored me to stay . . . Her father, a British army colonel came to see me and he sat me down and said ‘I would drink too if I had to live with you'. Even that did not get me drinking again, thank God."

So Green left, saying he would return only if she stopped. Thirty years later he saw her again for the final time, dying in a home. "She died of it. She couldn't walk or talk, and hardly recognised me. I hardly recognised her, she had been so beaten up."

Sober, Green set up a successful meat-export business which air-freighted 100kg of lamb each week from Sydney to Saudi Arabia and, on a friend's advice, trained as a counsellor at the leading American treatment centre, Hazelden. He worked for Hazelden in the UK, before his savings were wiped out in the infamous 1991 BCCI bank collapse and he was forced back into the meat trade.

When he was back on his feet, he ran a private counselling service in London which specialised in interventions - where family, friends and workmates of an alcoholic gather together to persuade them into treatment. One client was Air New Zealand. After a successful intervention he would dispatch alcoholic flight attendants to an American unit run by a man called Craig Laseur. Now Laseur lives in Auckland, working as The Retreat's programme director.

Green had originally planned to return to New Zealand to retire. Instead, he spent seven years raising $1 million to open The Retreat, finding leased premises at a former retirement home down a quiet waterfront dead-end in Otahuhu, Auckland.

He modelled The Retreat directly on another centre of the same name in Minnesota, run by industry veteran John Curtiss. Laseur says Curtiss's stripped back treatment model was a reaction to the industry's rapid growth in the 1980s, which saw fees spiral as services grew more complex. When Laseur - sober for 16 years - went for treatment in 1998, his mother had to remortgage her home.

Yes, says Laseur, those with complex cases or longstanding addictions to drugs like P need a serious hospital-based treatment but The Retreat's simpler model works for the rest.

The "guests", not patients nor clients, pay $6727 for a 30-day stay, which compares favourably to the $25,000-plus charged elsewhere. The difference comes because there are no doctors and professional counsellors involved; instead they use recovering alcoholics who make weekly visits to lead classes as their "service" to the alcoholic community. Laseur says he came to New Zealand because he'd always wanted to live here, and was "tired of working in facilities where people are writing huge cheques for outcome rates that really aren't reflective of the money that you're paying".

Having seen people walking the streets in the US wearing treatment centre sweatshirts like they were Harvard University sweaters, Laseur believes the big commercial centres have persuaded clients to identify with the facility not the alcoholic community.

"If you go to some little B&B in the South Island, you pay for the food, a roof over your head, but inevitably, you are paying for the local flavour: some pictures from the 1800s on the walls, antiques, and the old guy running the place telling you of the secret places to go," Laseur explains.

"You pay for the experience. It's the same here but the experience we are showing you - the town we are showing you around - is the secret nooks and crannies of recovery. I go out and find those bright lights of recovery, people who have been sober for a while and know how to get sober and stay sober."

Of the first 10 graduates a year ago, seven are sober. They expect when they have the numbers to produce meaningful statistics to show they've secured high rates of sobriety.

Laseur and Green aren't at capacity yet but say demand is growing for their service. They claim statistics show there are more than 600,000 addicts in New Zealand and a chronic shortage of Government-funded detox beds.

"There is," says Green with the weariness of one who knows only too well from his own experience, "a rampant epidemic of addiction in this country and no-one wants to take a too-close look at it."

RETREAT OFFERS REDEMPTION ON ROAD TO RECOVERY

Swigging wine in the driver's seat of her van as it hung precariously over the edge of a ravine, Lisa* still didn't realise she needed help.

Instead, she wandered deep into bush, planning an extended drinking session. It sparked a search mission, and ended with her being winched out at 5am by helicopter. "It's ludicrous but, in my state of mind, those things became very normal to me," she says. "It was like I was watching a movie. It didn't feel like it was happening to me. I just wasn't present. I could see what was going on, but I couldn't feel it."

Rebecca* was hospitalised when she lost all movement below the waist - a condition called neuropathy. "I went to stand and realised I had no feeling at all in my legs. I had so much alcohol in my system. I had been obliterated for two weeks. At that stage, I was on the couch, unable to move. I would drink, go to sleep, wake up, drink, go back to sleep."

Lisa and Rebecca are now six months sober, flatting together after meeting at The Retreat, and "giving service" there by taking classes and sharing their stories.

Both were long-time heavy drinkers and had been through various treatment centres and detox sessions without changing their behaviour - but had hit rock-bottom when they were almost compelled to attend The Retreat.

Lisa first went through treatment a decade ago after the end of her relationship and a family suicide but saw no change. She held down two jobs and hid the extent of her drinking from family, but consumed four bottles of wine a day. She faced two drink-driving charges. "I was in a constant state of numbness, always topping up to be not quite with it, but not paralytic. For me, it felt normal."

In her final six months before treatment she had "shut the world out", attempted suicide and was hospitalised repeatedly from drinking to blackout. "I had mentally vacated. All hope of anything had gone. It was getting more serious."

After the incident in the bush, her parents didn't want her home. Instead, friends chipped in to pay for The Retreat. "Within a day of arriving here, I felt I wasn't insane. I finally realised other people were dealing with this; that I had a disease and maybe I would get through and life wouldn't be what it had been."

Rebecca was from a family of heavy drinkers - her father died of his alcoholism - and from her early 20s was drinking daily. In the past six years she became isolated, quit work, and relied on family and her long-suffering partner. With home and food covered, "it was really just a matter of being a full-blown alcoholic".

She went through several treatment programmes unsuccessfully. "I never got rid of the mental obsession at all. Every waking hour revolved around alcohol: when was I going to have it, how much did I have left, did I have enough? It not only controlled my life but to some extent, anyone else around me as well."

Once when she was due in rehab she instead ran off to Thailand, where she got so drunk she collapsed and knocked herself out on a terracotta pot and was invalided home. "In an alcoholic's brain, alcohol comes first, everything else is secondary."

The deaths of her father and grandfather precipitated a decline; she was drinking six bottles of wine daily, suffering bad falls and losing the use of her legs. She did one stint at The Retreat but went back to drinking. Then she returned for a second spell and "within a week felt like a different person. Within two weeks, I had lost all desire to drink".

She lived for a time in The Retreat's on-site "sober house" for those who don't feel ready to return to regular life. Flatting with Lisa works, she says. "We understand each other. If we're having a bad day, we understand that, we're quite good at coping." Lisa says: "We would be friends even if we had met under other circumstances."

They still spend a lot time at The Retreat.

"Being here keeps us seeing all the newcomers, it is a constant reminder for us," says Rebecca. "It helps them but it benefits us too, we never forget." Both believe that the "12 steps and Big Book" approach is vital: "If you can understand a problem you can fix it," she says.

Both seem determined to stay sober. "You just don't want to live like that any more, waking up repeating the same day over and over again," concludes Rebecca.

"What became important," says Lisa, "was waking up without that obsession. Waking up as a normal person."

* Lisa and Rebecca's names have been changed.

- Sunday Star Times

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