Last drinks – an interview with Gavin Crosisca
By Adrian Panozzo, Director of Better Life Group
Contact: [email protected] or 0407 318 747
Former Collingwood premiership player, AFL coach, loving father and husband… you’d assume that Gavin Crosisca had it all. But unbeknown to most, Gavin battled an addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs throughout his playing and coaching career. Gavin talks to Adrian Panozzo from the Count Me In, alcohol culture change project about how it all started as a 15 year old, the influence of peer group pressure, his role as a Count Me In ambassador and his role today helping others through the difficult journey from addiction to recovery.
ADRIAN PANOZZO: I’m really keen to understand your life post-footy over the last 10-15 years, can you tell me about that?
GAVIN CROSISCA: My recovery from alcohol and drug addiction started six and a half years ago, it was something that I battled all through my career. It all started when I was 15 or 16 years old, when I first started drinking and using illicit substances. It carried on from there and I was able to function and manage through my football career. That basically enabled my denial to be a lot stronger than what I should have been and then on retirement going into coaching the process continued and escalated. Alcohol was a key component of my addiction and over the next eight years I basically hit rock bottom in 2011. My wife helped me out considerably and got me into treatment and my life changed, I didn’t realise I could live without drinking daily and to be able to have that freedom and the ability to not have to do that, was just a life changing experience for me.
AP: Why do you think there is such a strong relationship between drinking and being accepted into groups like a footy club or a group of workmates?
GC: I think peer-group pressure has a huge role to play in anyone’s drinking, it certainly was for myself. I was a young person, playing football at a higher level and I was around older guys.
"That (peer-group pressure) was how I initially started drinking. I think it’s the same for the workplace, if you have strong leaders who drink and behave poorly then the young people follow and continue to behave the same, peer-group pressure is a key component."
If we talk about shouts or rounds, if you’ve got a person that doesn’t drink much and they’re in a shout with four or five others and he’s the last shout and he gets to his fifth beer and was probably going to finish at three, he feels like he needs to have the next couple of beers to finish off the shout.
You’re basically coercing people who may not want to drink that amount into drinking more than they wanted to.
AP: What are the consequences of not drinking or being part of a drinking culture when everyone else is on it?
GC: You can certainly get a few strange looks, for myself doing that abstinence-based lifestyle being able to tell my story and let people know what’s going on is important. My simple thing is, I just don’t drink anymore it doesn’t work for me anymore.
You do get some strange looks and people question you and I guess if you have been a big drinker and you stop drinking, those strange looks and concerns from people can lead to some peer group pressure and I guess belittling conversations.
"I guess you can be put down, especially men, I mean for some reason the Australian culture of drinking and lifestyle we can be emasculated if we don’t drink with the boys and so forth so I think that has a huge impact."
AP: Do you see that play out as alcohol being used as a reward or incentive or that justified drinking because it offsets other things that they’ve been doing?
GC: It (alcohol) can be anything it can be a reward for of a hard day’s work, because it’s raining, because it’s Friday afternoon, a birthday, a Grand Final, just can be because it’s Sunday. I think people get into their routines and their structures and I guess the abnormal behaviour becomes normal to a lot of people.
"People who may drink three, four or five drinks a night that’s not really normal drinking, that’s excessive drinking but because of the culture that we have here in the workplace and obviously that of Australia culture it’s become a lot more normalised."
If we look at the harms that alcohol causes it’s out of any of illicit substances or drugs that’s out there in the community, it’s the one that causes the most harm still and it’s the legal one. We all need to be really careful about our own relationship with alcohol because it’s a key component in our lifestyle.
AP: In your view do people use alcohol to relax or as a coping mechanism?
GC: It certainly does, alcohol is used as a medication. If you want to change your reality or change your feeling, if you drink it’s going to change. It may not stay changed the way you want it to be but it will eventually change the way you are and the perception that you have. It’s a really difficult thing for people to understand the damage and the harms that it causes for you. I guess even working in my environment now, I run a program called Sober Living Housing, we have many young people that come in that have experienced peer group pressure to start with, then they manage their emotions. I think when you talk about high end or corporates or people in high stress jobs it becomes that excuse, that justification to allow myself to drink a little more than I normally would because I’m medicating the stress, or the nerves or the worries that I have around my position.
AP: I’m really interested to know more about the work you have been doing over the last few years I mean you’ve disclosed you are in recovery which I assume means you don’t drink or have any substances anymore, so no drinking?
GC: No drinking, abstinence from all mind-altering substances. Which includes everything, no gambling, no behavioural things at all so I’m very careful with those sort of addictions as well. So it’s abstinence from those for me.
AP: So that’s possibly an extreme position and not everyone ends up needing that sort of intervention. What are the early warning signs if you’re in an environment where there is that culture to drink and the social norm is to have a few drinks – what do you see as the starting point in changing a culture that really encourages drinking to unhealthy levels?
GC: I think the key thing is that we all know someone or we look at someone and go ‘geeze Billy can drink a lot, geeze he’s a big drinker’ or ‘Johnny, geeze he’s always out partying’ and so forth. Guys that never want to night to end, having their last drinks, it’s never their last drink – that’s a worrying sign. You know there’s lots of certain things, I guess it’s the negative impact that comes from the drinking, you know if people are missing work the next day because of their after works drinks Thursday night, if they are getting in late, if they are having longer lunches.
All of those sorts of things are key components of, you know, is there an issue? I’m probably going onto something else here for a second, but we also do family interventions and it’s the same thing for the workplace. Generally speaking, they say when a family member sees (negative) behavioural changes and issues with a loved one, they say it normally takes them six years before they do something positive and proactive to help that person.
"I think the same situation at the workplace, it’s about asking that person, if you are concerned about their behaviour when they are drinking not to be afraid to go and ask them, if they think their drinking is under control?"
Generally speaking if someone does have a concern about their own drinking they’re going to deny it and say, ‘yeah I’m fine nothing wrong with me, I’ve only had a couple’ and they will certainly minimise the amounts they are drinking. If you are close enough to someone, you’ll be able to pick their behaviour, you’ll be able to see what’s going on.
AP: So when you ask around about people’s drinking habits, are they more likely to accurately report or underreport, what’s the normal response from someone when you directly ask them about their relationship with alcohol?
GC: Even when we get people that come in (to Sober Living Housing) and we do our first assessment on them, we will always add on at least 30 or 40 per cent in terms of how much they’ve drank or how much they’ve used. It’s a classic trait of people who are suffering from alcoholism, they will usually minimise the amounts they are drinking and that’s usually through shame and guilt. You know I minimised everything I did for a long period of time, because if I had admitted what I was doing I knew people would have been straight onto me and pushing me to do things differently and I didn’t want that, I was quite happy being miserable being in the position that I was. It’s an interesting part of it but yes the minimisation is the key trait.
AP: Is it possible to have a positive relationship with alcohol?
GC: For sure, I talk on extremes because I was completely addicted to alcohol and completely dependent on it. I had all these negative consequences that were occurring in my life and I still couldn’t stop drinking. So the key is catch it before you get to that level.
AP: What tips or what advice can you give to individuals or groups to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol and drinking?
GC: If you’re concerned or unsure about your drinking, we (Sober Living Housing) would suggest a three month trial where you basically stop drinking, don’t drink for three months. But don’t change your lifestyle, so if you are going to work and are going for a beer after work, you still go and you still participate, you still socialise, but just don’t drink and see how your behaviour is, how your mood is in those periods or times and then afterwards as well. Just see how you go with that. If it’s really hard for you to stop, then you need have a closer look because you could be getting into dangerous territory.
You can listen to the full interview with Gavin along with other interviews that are part of the Count Me In podcast series on Soundcloud . The series delivers stories, advice and conversations about how middle-aged men can support one another to engage in low-risk rather than high-risk drinking.
Count Me In seeks to influence the drinking culture within the construction industry in Victoria, with a particular focus on middle-aged men by trailing targeted approaches that increase social support for low-risk drinking practices.
A co-designed website is currently being developed in partnership with Senior Managers and workers from within the construction industry and will be launched late March 2018.
Download: Count Me In: A visual guide (PDF, 1.29 KB)
Adrian Panozzo, Project Lead for Count Me In has over 20 years’ experience in the areas of health promotion and culture change and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in recognition of his innovative approaches to designing and developing social impact programs.