Alcoholics Anonymous buoys members, aides

By Marcia Gelbart

(In keeping with the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, no real names are used to identify AA members.)

It's a brisk November day at the Capitol, almost noon, and Congress' marble halls echo with talk of the pending government shutdown.

But in the basement of a Senate office building, eight men and three women sit around an oak table sharing their most private thoughts.

"I promised myself I wouldn't drink that day," Andrew says, tapping his black wingtip shoes as he recalls how he wanted to be sober when he met President Clinton. But at lunch, he sipped one cocktail, then three more. When the meeting was delayed, he gulped another two.

Andrew is just one member of Capitol Hill's least talked about, but most regularly attended, meetings: Alcoholics Anonymous. Founded on the Hill in July 1979, AA groups today convene usually three times each weekday in offices throughout the Capitol.

With names such as "Yeas and Nays," which is the oldest group, "Attitude Adjusters" and "Old Fashion Beginners," AA, much like a Women's Caucus or Republican Whip meeting, has become a fact of life on the Hill.

Although one group is restricted to only members of Congress, most include staffers, lobbyists, custodians, reporters, police and even members sitting side by side. "Alcoholism knows no bounds. It treats everybody the same," says Rep. Bill Emerson (R-MO), who went public with his alcoholism in 1988, during his fourth term in Congress.

Indeed, at the epicenter of the nation's democracy, AA functions as a kind of ideal body politic, in which there is no partisanship or hierarchy. There's even a consensus vote taken at meetings to decide on policy type matters, such as smoking or opening the meeting to a visitor.

Ironically, though, the egalitarian nature of the meetings can make for some awkward circumstances. Deirdre, a member of AA who works for a Senate committee, recalls how a colleague she knew for many years once plopped down beside her in the middle of a meeting. "'We hide it well, don't we?' he said."

At another meeting, she says, a first timer walked into the room and froze when she saw her boss--a senator. Eventually, though, "she just hid among the others."

It took Deirdre herself several weeks before she went to her first meeting, even though she made up her mind well beforehand. "I wouldn't even walk up to read the posting [of times] on the door," she says. "I was too terrified of exposure and rejection."

Doctors as well as AA members dispel any notion that alcoholism is more rampant on the Hill than other workplaces, despite the irregular hours and hard work. But the Washington power culture, where image is often everything and martinis a part of negotiations, can make dealing with alcoholism on the Hill unusually difficult.

"Politics," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a psychiatrist, "is a profession where appearance becomes reality."

But the strength of AA, he says, "is that people can't buffalo each other. At that point you're not a Republican or a Democrat, you're just a person."

McDermott, who helped found the Navy's first alcoholic rehabilitation program nearly 30 years ago, said, "It takes real strength of character to admit 'I've got a problem and I'm going to do something about it.' But if you deal with it, that in my opinion is what you want in a leader: strength."

Several lawmakers, like Emerson, confront the process. And sometimes, as in the case of former Sen. Bob Packwood (ROre.), their dissolute behavior becomes front page news.

While the drinking problems of celebrities or public figures are the most well known, for many alcoholics anonymity is central to the recovery process. For one thing, on Capitol Hill, as elsewhere, alcoholics fear being seen as incompetent or even losing their jobs.

The Hill is "saturated with ego" says Robert, a former Hill staffer and longtime lobbyist with a Washington trade association who's been in AA for more than 30 years. And ego is often an obstacle to getting over denial, the biggest challenge for recovering alcoholics.

Some say fear of exposure has been exacerbated by the Republican takeover in the last election. With the loss of many Hill jobs due to reform initiatives, some AA members say attendance has dropped at meetings because some alcoholics are afraid their drinking problem might cost them their job. "It's been a hostile like environment," said Kevin, who no longer works at the Capitol but still attends AA meetings there.

But whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, alcoholics face a difficult time confronting their disease.

"I wasn't afraid of the stigma of alcoholism per se," but people's responses to it," said Mark, a top committee aide who has been in AA for 18 years.

When he later told some colleagues that he joined AA, he said, "The reaction wasn't unsympathetic, but they had a hard time believing I had a drinking problem. I mean, I was functioning well: working and going to school at night.

"What nobody knew was that I was dying inside," he adds.

Despite the hindrances faced by many alcoholics on the Hill, many also view it as an oddly ideal place to recover.

"The meetings are a cocoon where you can be yourself, you can ventilate and get the love you need," says Charles, who has been going to AA on the Hill since meetings began.

And once alcoholics begin honestly treating their disease, their experiences can breed wisdom and prove to be assets in their everyday life. 'You can be a better employee than the people who are still in denial," Charles says.

He notes also that the noon meetings help alcoholics get through a tough day. "When you see people [from the meeting] in the hall, that helps you too."

Mark agrees. "I regard alcoholism as a gift because it's been a source of perspective in my life," he says. "It's very easy when we work here to think the most important thing in the world is the continuing resolution or tax bill or Bosnia or clean water bill. It's easy to lose sight of other things important in our lives, like family and community."

Last month when the government shut down, dozens of furloughed Hill employees suffered when they were deemed by their bosses "nonessential."

"I don't think someone in AA would have a real difficulty with this," said Sharon, who attends AA meetings four times a week, "because they have more self worth."

Rep. Emerson's experiences inspire friends and colleagues

On March 28, 1988, Rep. Bill Emerson (R-MO) stopped by his office before leaving Capitol Hill for the night. Unexpectedly meeting him there were two of his House colleagues, a few personal friends, his wife and his l0 year old daughter.

Tired of standing by silently while Emerson drank too much Scotch or vodka or beer, they chose to confront him.

Two hours later, with a prepacked suitcase in hand, the 50 year old legislator was on a plane to California. "A member of Congress doesn't just disappear for one month and not explain where he is," Emerson said last week as he recounted the evening he says changed his life.

So on the plane, he pulled out a notepad and wrote a public statement to say he was on his way to the Betty Ford alcoholic rehabilitation center.

"I used to kid people, if you're going to drink, drink!" Emerson said. "That should have told me something."

It didn't.

Emerson, serving his eighth term in Congress, is a recovering alcoholic. Since returning years ago from the 28 day treatment program, he's been a guide and inspiration for many others on the Hill.

For weeks on end, people called his office to speak with him. "People I knew for 20 years or more who I didn't know were alcoholics identified themselves to me," Emerson said.

A few years later he helped create the House Employee Assistance Program, which provides legislative and administrative support services for the House, and helps alcoholics find treatment. A similar program exists in the Senate.

Emerson, who first came to the Hill as a page in the 1950's, continues to hold interventions for other alcoholics like the one that was held for him.

"If people have a drinking problem or think they do," he said, " they should avail themselves of the incredible network and good help readily available.''

He added, "I haven't had a drink for eight years, and I think I've had a healthy normal life of social intercourse that wouldn't have been added to if I had a drink."

And he hasn't.

Source: THE HILL Vol. 2, No. 48, December 13, 1995

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