A 12-step path, a lifetime's journey

Adherence to AA discipline can take decades

©Sharon Kirkey, CanWest News Service

V. joined the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous in Grande Prairie when she was 38, a drinker who endured life between binges, who showed up at work hung-over or called in sick on days she couldn't manage even that.

Nearing bankruptcy, trapped in an abusive relationship and socializing with street people, V. drank to cope, until the night she came home drunk from a Christmas party and swallowed a bottle of Aspirin.

She joined AA while in treatment, and was assigned a temporary sponsor, a former prostitute and single mother half her age, sober for a year.

Here she is, with a background like that, and here's me, successful career woman with no children," V. says.

"She took me out for coffee and with tears in her eyes she stared me right in the eyes and said, 'I am going to do everything in my power to stop you from drinking.'

"I burst into tears. This little slip of a girl with a little four-year-old she's trying to raise on social assistance, and I thought, 'She's going to help me?' And she did."

V., now 51, has been sober for 13 years.

AA was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, when Bill W., a New York stockbroker, met surgeon Dr. Bob.

Newly sober through the help of an Episcopal clergyman and looking to help other drunks stop drinking, Bill sought out Dr. Bob, a local MD with a drinking problem. In Bill, the surgeon came "face to face with a fellow sufferer who had made good."

It would take more than four years to produce 100 sober alcoholics through the three original founding groups in Akron, New York and Cleveland.

Today, AA spans the globe, with groups from Angola to Yemen, including 4,874 in Canada with more than 95,000 members.

Worldwide, AA is helping more than two million problem drinkers stay on the wagon.

The only price of admission to the fellowship is a desire to stay sober, and to help others stay sober, according to AA literature.

There are no fees. The "Twelve Steps" ("We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable") and "Twelve Traditions" ("Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity") are recited aloud. A speaker might be introduced, or if at a "closed meeting" for alcoholics only, members might read from "the Big Book," the basic text for AA and a record of the personal stories of recovering drunks. Stories, frustrations, struggles and victories are shared.

Members have their own vocabulary ("I am a grateful alcoholic"), and meetings end with three simple words: Keep coming back.

The things that help hold members together are the secrets. Knowing they can't drink like other people. Knowing they can't have "just one." Bottoming out and blackouts and rationalizations and lies. Alcoholics whose lives have become unmanageable. Alcoholics sick of drinking, feeling terrible and hiding.

"AA is a self-help program that is available to people 24/7," says Paul Welsh, director of Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services in Ottawa.

"They are delivered by folks who have been through it, who can recognize warning signs that the person might not recognize themselves.

"It's also very forgiving. You don't get thrown out for using alcohol and drugs. There is an understanding that recovery is very, very challenging and very difficult, and that people make mistakes, and that's forgiven and you're welcomed back into the fold. And you keep on going.

"Family members and friends and employers are not always therapeutic. People do get reactions of anger and shame when they fail, and they need a safe place to go, and they need it quickly."

Welsh says addiction is the most complex health problem facing Canadians, a disease whose causes are often rooted in childhood trauma -- abuse, neglect or violence -- and are reinforced as addicts age.

Studies have found that AA helps members stay abstinent over the long term.

David T., an Ottawa public servant is 35 years sober, but still attends AA meetings regularly, reads AA literature and listens to the tapes. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, the son of an alcoholic father, he stopped drinking at 22, because he knew if he didn't, " I would end up in jail, on skid row, or dead."

AA is built on abstinence, an idea that can be unthinkable. But telling alcoholics they can learn to control their drinking is like suggesting a heroin addict can learn to shoot up only socially, says Dr. Graeme Cunningham, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the addiction division at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont.

"This is not a personal bias," says Cunningham, himself a recovering alcoholic. "The science clearly shows you are addicted to a chemical, that the brain changes to develop the phenomenon of a craving, and that the change is permanent."

In the mid-'80s while a fellow at the former Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto, Cunningham assisted with a controlled-drinking program.

He says men would arrive with their drinking diaries and describe having had two beers on a Saturday night as they watched the hockey game, or a single shot of whisky on a Sunday, because they were bored.

Cunningham says he'd leave the clinic, walk over to the nearby Silver Dollar tavern, where he'd find "the controlled-drinking boys ... pounding back beers.

"There is no place for controlled substance abuse in addiction. Period."

For V., who was so paranoid when she was drinking that any time there was a knock at the door she thought it was the police, AA worked its changes gradually.

"People talk about life-changing events. But there were no burning bushes. There were no 'Aha' moments -- 'OK, now I know how to be sober.'

"It's a process of osmosis. The more I hung around the people of AA, the more I tried to work the steps, the better I got.

"Until one day, I was laughing again. I had hope. I was looking forward to the future."

- Friday: Alcohol's questionable benefits


- Alcoholics Anonymous has an Edmonton office at 206-10010 107A Ave.; the phone number there is 424-5900. AA meetings across Canada are posted online at www.aa.org.

- For a list of Al-Anon/Alateen meetings -- for people whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking -- go to www.al-anon.alateen.org. Or you can call 1-888-4AL-ANON (1-888-425-2666) Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. For meetings in the Edmonton area, phone the group's local office at 433-1818.

- If you need emergency help, go to your local emergency department or call 911.

- Distress and crisis phone lines are open 24 hours a day if you need to talk to someone.

© The Edmonton Journal 2007

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