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The Boozers' Home by Henry Lawson

1899

“A dipsomaniac,” said Mitchell, “needs sympathy and commonsense treatment. (Sympathy's a grand and glorious thing, taking it all round and looking at it any way you will: a little of it makes a man think that the world's a good world after all, and there's room and hope for sinners, and that life's worth living; enough of it makes him sure of it: and an overdose of sympathy makes a man feel weak and ashamed of himself, and so moves him to stop whining—and wining—and buck up.)

“Now, I'm not taking the case of a workman who goes on the spree on pay night and sweats the drink out of himself at work next day, nor a slum-bred brute who guzzles for the love of it; but a man with brains, who drinks to drown his intellect or his memory. He's generally a man under it all, and a sensitive, generous, gentle man with finer feelings as often as not. The best and cleverest and whitest men in the world seem to take to drink mostly. It's an awful pity. Perhaps it's because they're straight and the world's crooked and they can see things too plain. And I suppose in the bush the loneliness and the thoughts of the girl-world they left behind help to sink 'em.

“Now a drunkard seldom reforms at home, because he's always surrounded by the signs of the ruin and misery he has brought on the home; and the sight and thought of it sets him off again before he's had time to recover from the last spree. Then, again, the noblest wife in the world mostly goes the wrong way to work with a drunken husband—nearly everything she does is calculated to irritate him. If, for instance, he brings a bottle home from the pub, it shows that he wants to stay at home and not go back to the pub any more; but the first thing the wife does is to get hold of the bottle and plant it, or smash it before his eyes, and that maddens him in the state he is in then.

“No. A dipsomaniac needs to be taken away from home for a while. I knew a man that got so bad that the way he acted at home one night frightened him, and next morning he went into an inebriate home of his own accord—to a place where his friends had been trying to get him for a year past. For the first day or two he was nearly dead with remorse and shame—mostly shame; and he didn't know what they were going to do to him next—and he only wanted them to kill him quick and be done with it. He reckons he felt as bad as if he was in jail. But there were ten other patients there, and one or two were worse than he was, and that comforted him a lot. They compared notes and sympathized and helped each other. They discovered that all their wives were noble women. He struck one or two surprises too—one of the patients was a doctor who'd attended him one time, and another was an old boss of his, and they got very chummy. And there was a man there who was standing for Parliament—he was supposed to be having a rest down the coast. . . . Yes, my old mate felt very bad for the first day or two; it was all Yes, Nurse, and Thank you, Nurse, and Yes, Doctor, and No, Doctor, and Thank you, Doctor. But, inside a week, he was calling the doctor 'Ol' Pill-Box' behind his back, and making love to one of the nurses.

“But he said it was pitiful when women relatives came to visit patients the first morning. It shook the patients up a lot, but I reckon it did 'em good. There were well-bred old lady mothers in black, and hard-working, haggard wives and loving daughters—and the expressions of sympathy and faith and hope in those women's faces! My old mate said it was enough in itself to make a man swear off drink for ever. . . . Ah, God—what a world it is!

“Reminds me how I once went with the wife of another old mate of mine to see him. He was in a lunatic asylum. It was about the worst hour I ever had in my life, and I've had some bad ones. The way she tried to coax him back to his old self. She thought she could do it when all the doctors had failed. But I'll tell you about him some other time.

“The old mate said that the principal part of the treatment was supposed to be injection of bi-chloride of gold or something, and it was supposed to be a secret. It might have been water and sugar for all he knew, and he thought it was. You see, when patients got better they were allowed out, two by two, on their honour—one to watch the other—and it worked. But it was necessary to have an extra hold on them; so they were told that if they were a minute late for `treatment,' or missed one injection, all the good would be undone. This was dinged into their ears all the time. Same as many things are done in the Catholic religion—to hold the people. My old mate said that, as far as the medical treatment was concerned, he could do all that was necessary himself. But it was the sympathy that counted, especially the sympathy between the patients themselves. They always got hold of a new patient and talked to him and cheered him up; he nearly always came in thinking he was the most miserable wretch in this world. And it comforts a man and strengthens him and makes him happier to meet another man who's worse off or sicker, or has been worse swindled than he has been. That's human nature. . . . And a man will take draughts from a nurse and eat for her when he wouldn't do it for his own wife—not even though she had been a trained nurse herself. And if a patient took a bad turn in the night at the Boozers' Home and got up to hunt the snakes out of his room, he wouldn't be sworn at, or laughed at, or held down; no, they'd help him shoo the snakes out and comfort him. My old mate said that, when he got better, one of the new patients reckoned that he licked St Pathrick at managing snakes. And when he came out he didn't feel a bit ashamed of his experience. The institution didn't profess to cure anyone of drink, only to mend up shattered nerves and build up wrecked constitutions; give them back some will-power if they weren't too far gone. And they set my old mate on his feet all right. When he went in his life seemed lost, he had the horror of being sober, he couldn't start the day without a drink or do any business without it. He couldn't live for more than two hours without a drink; but when he came out he didn't feel as if he wanted it. He reckoned that those six weeks in the institution were the happiest he'd ever spent in his life, and he wished the time had been longer; he says he'd never met with so much sympathy and genius, and humour and human nature under one roof before. And he said it was nice and novel to be looked after and watched and physicked and bossed by a pretty nurse in uniform—but I don't suppose he told his wife that. And when he came out he never took the trouble to hide the fact that he'd been in. If any of his friends had a drunkard in the family, he'd recommend the institution and do his best to get him into it. But when he came out he firmly believed that if he took one drink he'd be a lost man. He made a mania of that. One curious effect was that, for some time after he left the institution, he'd sometimes feel suddenly in high spirits—with nothing to account for it—something like he used to feel when he had half a dozen whiskies in him; then suddenly he'd feel depressed and sort of hopeless—with nothing to account for that either—just as if he was suffering a recovery. But those moods never lasted long and he soon grew out of them altogether. He didn't flee temptation. He'd knock round the pubs on Saturday nights with his old mates, but never drank anything but soft stuff—he was always careful to smell his glass for fear of an accident or trick. He drank gallons of ginger beer, milk-and-soda, and lemonade; and he got very fond of sweets, too—he'd never liked them before. He said he enjoyed the novelty of the whole thing and his mates amused him at first; but he found he had to leave them early in the evening, and, after a while, he dropped them altogether. They seemed such fools when they were drunk (they'd never seemed fools to him before). And, besides, as they got full, they'd get suspicious of him, and then mad at him, because he couldn't see things as they could. That reminds me that it nearly breaks a man's heart when his old drinking chum turns teetotaller—it's worse than if he got married or died. When two mates meet and one is drunk and the other sober there is only one of two things for them to do if they want to hit it together—either the drunken mate must get sober or the sober mate drunk. And that reminds me: Take the case of two old mates who've been together all their lives, say they always had their regular sprees together and went through the same stages of drunkenness together, and suffered their recoveries and sobered up together, and each could stand about the same quantity of drink and one never got drunker than the other. Each, when he's boozing, reckons his mate the cleverest man and the hardest case in the world—second to himself. But one day it happens, by a most extraordinary combination of circumstances, that Bill, being sober, meets Jim very drunk, and pretty soon Bill is the most disgusted man in this world. He never would have dreamed that his old mate could make such a fool and such a public spectacle of himself. And Bill's disgust intensifies all the time he is helping Jim home, and Jim arguing with him and wanting to fight him, and slobbering over him and wanting to love him by turns, until Bill swears he'll give Jim a hammering as soon as ever he's able to stand steady on his feet.”

“I suppose your old boozing mate's wife was very happy when he reformed,” I said to Mitchell.

“Well, no,” said Mitchell, rubbing his head rather ruefully. “I suppose it was an exceptional case. But I knew her well, and the fact is that she got more discontented and thinner, and complained and nagged him worse than she'd ever done in his drinking days. And she'd never been afraid of him. Perhaps it was this way: She loved and married a careless, good-natured, drinking scamp, and when he reformed and became a careful, hard-working man, and an honest and respected fellow-townsman, she was disappointed in him. He wasn't the man that won her heart when she was a girl. Or maybe he was only company for her when he was half drunk. Or maybe lots of things. Perhaps he'd killed the love in her before he reformed—and reformed too late. I wonder how a man feels when he finds out for the first time that his wife doesn't love him any longer? But my old mate wasn't the nature to find out that sort of thing. Ah, well! If a woman caused all our trouble, my God! women have suffered for it since—and they suffer like martyrs mostly and with the patience of working bullocks. Anyway it goes, if I'm the last man in the world, and the last woman is the worst, and there's only room for one more in Heaven, I'll step down at once and take my chances in Blazes.”

 
 
 

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