Alcoholic Anonymous Takes Root In Lebanon,
attracts clients from across region

By Simona Sikimic

August 06, 2010

BEIRUT: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol/drugs – that our lives had become unmanageable,” is the ritual mantra for the attendees of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings that now take place almost daily in Beirut, and are growing in popularity.

The AA and NA programs, which have already been immortalized in the psyche of many contemporary film and television viewers, are only now beginning to establish a footing in Lebanon despite first appearing in the country during the 1960s.

These alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs, which are currently thought to be helping some two million and 650,000 people respectively across the world, have had a fitful history with Lebanon.

The turning point came some six-years-ago when Bob, a professor at a prestigious university, first arrived in Lebanon and started looking for meetings.

“Up until just two summers ago the meetings would often be just me and one other person but that’s all you need to keep you sober,” said Bob. “Then the word started to get around when councilors and people started coming. It is not as easy as putting up an advertisement; people want to observe what you are doing. If they see it is working for a period of time, only then will they begin to trust it.”

AA – and its offshoot NA, which started in Lebanon about a year ago and now runs side-by-side with its sister organization – works by following the same 12 steps, first requiring a person to admit their problem and then make amends with the help of the people around them. Recovering addicts need to attend regular meetings where they share their experiences and divulge their difficulties in staying sober, all the while helping one another stay on the straight and narrow.

“Using your spare energy to help other people actually helps you stay sober,” said Bob. “As we have learned in AA, helping another alcoholic helps you keep your feet on the ground and stops your ego from expanding.”

Each new member is awarded a sponsor who has stayed sober for a longer period of time; they become the go-to person when an addict thinks about using or drinking. This buddy system has proved surprisingly resilient over the decades and is seen as responsible for the relatively low rate of relapse associated with AA’s method.

“Sobriety is so hard because when you come down to earth all the things that you have done over the years come back and hit you in the face forcing you to have to deal with all the hurt you have caused and all the relationships you have damaged,” said Bob. “You’re facing reality for the first time in five, maybe ten, years and it can be extremely difficult if you don’t have something to pull you out.”

Preconceptions about addicts coming from lower social classes should be abated and the range of people who attend the Beirut-based meetings is surprisingly large. Alcoholics, and to a certain extent addicts, can oftentimes be functional and even brilliant at their jobs. Many are young, well-off, outgoing and successful.

But addiction, to both alcohol and drugs, is a growing problem in Lebanon and the Middle East alike. It is eating away at the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and is indiscriminate of age, sex or religious belief.

The number of alcoholics is known to be rising, especially among young women, while the number of drug addicts in Lebanon alone is estimated to be somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000. Even staunchly conservative Saudi Arabia has not escaped this trend and has one of the world’s worst amphetamine problems with the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealing that almost half of the world’s illegal-pharmaceutical amphetamine seizures take place in the kingdom.

“The program is big in Saudi Arabia, too big! There are chapters in nearly every city,” said Said, a recovering Saudi addict who visited AA Lebanon for the first time in July. “There is every kind of drug there. It is just more underground but just as destructive. I didn’t know there was a meeting in Lebanon but I’m grateful to be here at the fellowship and that the meetings happen in Arabic.”

While numbers across the region may be rising, understanding and acceptance of the problem remain low and treatment options are limited. Close family ties often mean that an alcoholic or addict will be sheltered from the worst of their problem by their relatives, claims Bob.

“This is a big shame and honor society and the family structure is very big. Families are larger and they wrap around the person much more so the person is not cut off from the money which keeps them using for longer,” said Bob. “The family ends up co-enabling or enabling the addiction.”

Nor is the problem restricted to the home. Employers are also strangely unwilling to acknowledge the problem and tackle it face on.

“We have had an addict in our group for almost three years who has had a terrible record of relapsing on pills but her boss has sheltered her, much like a family member would, which gives little incentive to get clean,” said Bob.

An addict rarely wants to stop unless they are forced to. The process is long and difficult and there are no quick cures.

Even hospitalization, where a person is committed for an intensive detox session that clears their body of all toxins, is only a short-term answer to something seen as a chronic, life-long affliction, which AA members liken to an “allergy.”

After being released from hospital patients still suffer from the same impulses to use or drink. Follow-up therapy sessions are usually advised but these can be expensive, lengthy and do not always provide the necessary level of support to prevent relapse.

“The difference between AA sessions and the group sessions that we provide is that ours are always led by a professional, while theirs are led by a fellow addict,” said Dr. Karine Zabek a psychologist at St. George’s University Hospital. “Both types of meetings are good but it comes down to personal preference and sometimes people feel more comfortable with the latter.”

Approximately a year ago the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at the hospital, under the auspices of Dr. Elie Karam, began referring its patients to AA meetings in addition to its own outpatient program, a combination which Zabek insists is working and is helping more people to stay sober for longer. “AA has a proven track record with helping addicts,” said Zabek. “It’s a good program. We don’t exactly know why it works, but it works.”

However, the program is not without its critics. Its insistence that only “A power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that the addict will turn their “lives over to the care of God as we understood him,” have proved the most controversial, especially in the West. Seemingly linking recovery to a belief in a monolithic religion can be alienating and adds an additional hurdle to the process of accepting help.

Some skirt the issue by linking this power to something more tangible, be it a loved one or a chair that you sit on which keeps you from getting up and using. Others, however, insist that this is only a temporary measure and that the full acceptance of the steps will eventually lead you on a path of religious realization.

“My higher power for the first year or two was the meeting itself, it was what kept me sober,” said Bob. “But I don’t think any human power has the ability to keep you sober. If we could have done this alone, we would have done so long ago.”

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