Australians' relationship with alcohol has never been under more scrutiny than now. It is one of life's pleasures, a social lubricant - but it is also a major cause of violence and misery. In the first of a series on the role alcohol plays in our lives, Julie Szego meets a prominent reformed alcoholic.
PETER Faris, QC, once chairman of the National Crime Authority, frequent media commentator and constant flame-thrower, recently published an anecdote on his blog that takes the piss out of his pissed colleagues. He tells of hearing a "strident call" while walking down the street one day: "Faris, you're a c---!"
"Turning quickly I recognised the species, 'barrister inebriatus', commonly known as the 'fuzzy-eyed advocate'," Mr Faris writes. "I think that, when his time comes, the (Victorian) bar should bury him in a tomb in the foyer of Owen Dixon Chambers with an eternal flame, fuelled by whisky … the Tomb of the Unknown Barrister."
The vitriolic tone of both the incident and blog entry make sense when you remember that Mr Faris is the silk who claimed in May that cocaine had almost replaced alcohol as the drug of choice in some legal circles. Note, for present purposes, the word "almost".
Barristers, especially those who practise in the high-stakes world of criminal law, are famously heavy drinkers. Mr Faris, 67, used to put it away with the best of them before going dry more than 30 years ago. For this maverick lawyer, his status as a teetotaller helps underscore his disposition as a loner.
He blames his predicament partly on genes. His father, a bank clerk, was an alcoholic, "never violent, but often cruel". His affliction made life chaotic and unsettling. "No money, nothing. The bailiff at the door — my father spent the money on the grog. Usual story, " Mr Faris says.
"Alcohol was never on display at home — there were no bottles in the fridge or freezer. But it was always underneath, it was this massive undercurrent." Only once he turned 16 did he realise that grog was responsible for his old man's choppy moods.
Mr Faris was initiated into drink while doing his articles, a kind of apprenticeship year for young lawyers. For 14 years, from age 22 to 36, every week night was spent cultivating the next day's hangover.
"You'd go to, say, (Carlton bar) Jimmy Watson's with a bottle of red and then you'd go to the pub and drink beers till it shut, and then you'd go to a party or something, and then drive home.
"I didn't like the taste of it — it's not like chocolate or camembert. But what I did like was the hit I got; that warm feeling with the first couple of glasses of wine when all of a sudden your worries are gone."
Each night he set out to the pub with good intentions: three drinks, maximum. "So then I had three drinks and thought 'f--- it, I'll have 30'." The booze was controlling him, not vice versa. As this knowledge sunk in, so did depression.
Then one night his mate had offered to drive a girl home and, being drunk, ended up killing her. Summoned to the police station in the dead of night, it fell to Mr Faris, who knew the girl, to tell her family of the tragedy.
But even as he waded through alcohol's wreckage, he delayed putting the brakes on his own drinking. What made him change? It's hard to say. He took up jogging and hiking. His mother died. "I'm not sure about the relationship between the two things. Maybe you can work it out." Maybe the thought of years dissolving in a drunken haze was starting to terrify him.
Mr Faris resolved to go cold turkey: "On 30th June, 1976. Midnight." Out of loyalty to his mates, he returned to the pub on his first grog-free day to sip lemon squash. But the camaraderie he had once felt so intensely now soured into disdain.
"I realised all the people I had thought of as so witty, intelligent and fun to be with were the most boring, second-rate people, and we were supposed to stand around this hotel, with its carpet covered in glass and vomit, having ebullient conversations.
"I lost all my friends in one go."
They speak highly of him too, of course. Matters of personality and even ideology (Mr Faris tends to be alone among his colleagues in supporting tough anti-terror laws) explain his shortage of friends in the legal fraternity. He is now taking briefs independently from the bar and the bar's ethics committee is in turn investigating whether his comments about cocaine brought the profession into disrepute. But Mr Faris believes his non-drinking helps reinforce a perception of him as aloof and unfriendly.
"And, look, sometimes after a hard week in court I still think, 'God, I'd love a drink'. But I know I would lose so much self-respect."
His reward for abstinence comes in the form of more time for his wife and children and more clarity for intellectual pursuits. And more emotional fortitude, you could say, although inner-strength does have its downsides.
"I suppose the way I see it is that life is pretty hard — there's no soft edges. You don't get to have a couple of drinks and soften the edges.
"And that's difficult, but to use the cliche, it's character-building. I feel that I've lived every day at a time, rather than escaped."