Friday, 1 March 2013

An experience of AA

It's been over a year since the last entry here, my last real attempt to quit for any length of time. I can't remember if I managed it or not, but it's pretty unlikely. This time I'm not trying to quit completely, just pack it in for roughly ten weeks 'til I go to the States to see my fiance. Oh shit, yeah, did I mention? We're engaged. I almost keep forgetting.

I went to an AA meeting with a mate from work on Monday night. That was weird. I'd always been curious what they're like and well, here's an honest account. In the interests of openness, I should state I am atheist and have been drinking daily for around five or six years with breaks of no more than a month one January and the odd few days while ill. Over the last few years it has ruined great relationships, cost me a fortune and damaged my health which has led me to this point where I want to give anything a shot to help me cut out the everyday drinking and become the social drinker I always was.

So, you go in - this one was at a United Reform Church with a dedicated AA room, I guess, as it has the logo attached to the door - and there are rows and rows of chairs. Maybe thirty people milling around getting coffee and biscuits - this is a fairly busy meeting, he tells me. We sit at the back after he introduces me to a few of the people he knows - apparently almost everyone is a regular, and one guy describes AA as his social life, going to six meetings a week.

There's an awkward moment when I'm handed a sheet by the chairperson to "read" - I presumed it meant for me to read, then my mate explains it's what they take turns reading out at the end of the meeting, some kind of vows or something. Fuck this. So I go up to the front and quietly say to the guy that this is my first time and I misunderstood. He's cool with it and hands me a beginner's pack.

It seems the format is that the chairman does some sort of reminder of why everyone is there, because we're all alcoholics, and quickly runs through what will happen. He asks everyone to say hi to the newcomer and I get a lot of greetings. And then it's on to, well, what is the term, the... lead speaker? The accused? The confessor? She is a woman in her mid-30s who gets the rest of the first half of the meeting to tell her story - or "share" as the terminology they use is - in as much detail as she likes. It goes all the way from her youth through to where she is now, 13 years sober and for the first time ready to sit at the front and talk about it. It's really quite an intense experience as she goes into detail about how she ended up feeling she needed AA to help quit for good, and the 20 or 30 minutes fly by.

A short break for another coffee, and then it's on to more of the same, just in a cut down format. People seem to take turns saying, "Hi, I'm Bob and I'm and alcoholic", to which everyone replies, "Hi, Bob", and then Bob launches into a monologue about whatever is on his mind. When I say "his", I should mention that the split of men to women was probably two thirds to one third, so there is not a huge disparity by gender. It being my first time there, quite a few of the six or seven shares were directed towards me, encouraging me to come back and recounting the first time they came and all the fears and doubts over whether they would ever come back. One guy in particular told his story which was essentially a mirror of my own - the functional alcoholic hiding it just enough most of the time until it creeps up eventually and causes chaos. One other share hit me the hardest; a man in his 60s saying how the hardest thing about going sober was dealing with having feelings again; how for the first time in years his grandchild ran up and grabbed his leg and he actually felt something inside other than wondering where the next drink was, and he cried.

They were all a genuinely nice, normal bunch of people. If you met them in the street, you would never know they were struggling every moment of their lives not to pick up a drink and drift into blissful oblivion. They are just the alcoholics among us who for their own reasons have decided they just cannot keep that lifestyle up any longer. I was the youngest in the room by a good 10 years but I have reached that point, too.

The meeting draws to a close with everyone standing in a circle holding hands, reciting something I presume you are supposed to learn eventually, and then you leave at your own pace. I had to shoot off as I had a lift waiting but four people stopped me before I could leave to give me their numbers and tell me to call them any time I felt desperate. I've never seen compassion like that outside of CA.

I do not know if AA will help me, or even what help I am looking for. I know at the very least I want help towards long-term moderation, if not total abstinence. I have no idea who it will or will not work for until you yourself have tried it; this is just to give you an idea of how the meetings go, here in the UK at least. My only advice would be to give one a look out of morbid curiosity if nothing else, as some of the stories you will hear will echo your own experiences down to the bone and it's quite a fascinating feeling.

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