'I don't need a drink to live'

Times of Malta

2nd November 2008

Simonne Pace

A radiant man holding a chunky glass of tea smiles warmly outside his bar and says, "I've been waiting for you. I kept you a parking space. Have you been walking?"

"Would you like a strong drink?" Paul* jests, as I express my desire for coffee. I fumble for my spectacles in my bag, to which he reacts, "Don't you dare take out money! It's on the house."

The 63-year-old father of three and grandfather of two is an ex-alcoholic. He says he was, is, and will always be an alcoholic. He adores his wife and says we must wait for her. But she never turns up and he soon starts pouring out his heart.

"My wife has had to put up with a lot. She is a good woman and I love her with all my heart. I have given my children all they ever wanted... bought them everything they wished for, but I feel this materialism isn't enough. I always felt I ought to give them more."

Paul pauses and reminisces. "I had a tendency to drink since I was little. Aged seven, neighbours had to carry me home blind drunk from the traditional children's party organised by a childless couple who lived in our street. Each time the old man left his glass for a few minutes, I sipped happily until I could take no more.

"I grew up an alcoholic and my poor mother, who had six children and brought up another three, was worried sick."

On finishing school, she encouraged her son to start working as a mechanic. He did and was good at his job. But it didn't last for long.

During his one-hour lunch break, he often walked or hitched a ride on his friend's bike to a little tavern to help out and drink a liqueur.

"It soon became my second home. I started to work there earning 75c a week, including Saturdays," Paul says.

It was the beginning of the end and he soon had to leave his job. His mother was devastated. "Alcohol won the battle... I am so sorry I didn't help my mother when she needed me most."

Paul has been sober for 14 years. "But I am just one drink away from a binge, because alcoholism is a disease. I often thought about killing myself, because I felt miserable all the time. Guilty feelings gnawed at me constantly."

He says the worst part is "waking up to a blackout - wondering whether I had killed someone the night before."

As he sips his tea, he speaks about the family-owned business, which he inherited and runs with his wife.

"Fate has it that I first binged and also stopped drinking in this bar. Alcoholism is my problem. It is cunning, baffling, powerful. When you drink, it's like wearing someone else's shoes, and you're not yourself. You know you shouldn't drink, but you just can't resist the temptation."

It was just before Christmas when Paul first approached Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for help. It was guilt that really pushed him. "My children were born to an alcoholic father and learnt to live that way, accepting it as the most natural thing."

AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experiences, strengths and hope to solve a common problem and help others recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Paul attends four sessions a week. "We start off by stating that we're alcoholics... AA helped me a great deal. Without its help, I wouldn't be the man I am today."

"I have learnt to live. I still have my problems. The most important thing is that I face the challenge day by day. I feel fulfilled. I don't need to rush somewhere for a drink. It's not about not being able to drink. It's about being able not to drink."

Facts and figures
Ten per cent of the drinking population could be exposed to alcoholism. If there are 200,000 who drink regularly in Malta, 20,000 could have problems with alcohol.

There are no dues or fees to attend AA.

It is an anonymous group and no records are kept of the identity or number of members who attend meetings. AA membership is increasing as treatment centres (governmental and Oasi Foundation) are referring more members. The average number of alcoholics who attend AA meetings in Malta is 100.

Individuals who are referred or refer themselves to Sedqa, the national agency against drug and alcohol abuse, because of alcohol-related problems are mainly severely dependent individuals. Men outnumber women (84 per cent vs 16 per cent). Most of these are over 30, although Sedqa has a teen support service for young people and their families. There are other agencies and NGOs that offer services to people with an alcohol problem.

Sedqa's 2007 Lifestyle Survey among 18- to 24-year-olds in post-secondary and tertiary education (39 per cent male; 61 per cent female) revealed that alcohol was the most commonly used substance, 64 per cent binge drank and 33 per cent binge drank weekly.

* The man's name has been changed to protect his identity.

AA is organising an international convention next weekend at the Suncrest Hotel, Qawra. Over 120 recovering alcoholics from various countries will attend. Al-Anon, a fellowship of family and friends of alcoholics, has been invited to participate. For help call 2123 9264, write to PO Box 418, Valletta or e-mail [email protected]

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