It's Often Harder Away From Home

PARIS Standing tall behind a large plastic drawer, a woman picks a pebble from one of the open drawers. The small pebble is known as a sobriety stone. Each stone stands for the number of years a person has not touched alcohol or become high on drugs.

"Fifteen years in sobriety, 14 years in sobriety," a man wearing a white polo shirt rises from his chair and walks to the front of the wood-paneled room. At 13 years, a petite woman joins him. Both stopped drinking 14 and 13 years ago, respectively, and for each of them the little pebble is a milestone.

At the American Church in Paris, it is close to the end of an Alcoholic Anonymous' open meeting. For the two dozen participants, some of whom are also recovering from drug addiction, these stones are palpable emblems of their path to sobriety.

At 24 hours in sobriety, a man stands to exchange the stone he picked the day before. For him it is the beginning of another attempt to stop drinking, at least for the next 24 hours. "A chip for the desire to stop drinking," he says.

Attending the meeting are tourists and expatriates, including two Americans, who attended the same AA meetings in Los Angeles. One is a painter learning French; the other works as a makeup artist on the set of a U.S. film that is being shot in Paris.

"The first thing I did when I learned I was coming to Europe was to check for AA meetings," said the makeup artist.

Sobriety, from drugs or alcohol, in a foreign land can be a challenge. At home, where addiction started for many people, a shared language and culture and the proximity to loved ones can help the recovery process.

Living abroad creates new pressures. Culture shock, the inability to understand the local language, can be sources of great frustration that can push non-drinkers to drink and lead recovering addicts back to alcohol or drugs.

In addition, in Europe, where wine and beer are cultural staples, the task is even more difficult for recovering alcoholics.
When Bill W., one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous visited France in 1955, "the first thing he said was: 'We're going to have problems here. They don't think wine is alcohol,'" explained David Delapalme, a Paris-based addiction therapist who works with English-speaking patients. "It is truly part of the diet."

That concern was apparent at the AA meeting at the American Church with one participant wondering how members "could do it" in Paris.

Harry (not his real name), an architect from the U.S. Midwest, recounted how he did not think he "could have gotten sober" when he arrived in Paris in 1993. However, he did. It has now been nearly 10 years since he has had a drink. He credits Alcoholics Anonymous, and "working the program."

For young professionals working in a business culture where meetings are often held over copious lunches and where declining a drink remains a subtle exercise, the pervasiveness of alcohol is especially challenging.

"I'll often say 'I'll have a Perrier,'" said one executive, who first attended an AA meeting in Chicago before relocating to Paris with her company. Over time, she explained, "I have learned not to put a lot of energy into this."

In Europe, drug and alcohol addiction are often taboo subjects. As a result, organizations like Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous are focal points for recovering expatriates.

In Paris about 100 people regularly attend weekly English-speaking AA meetings. Some of them are also members of Narcotic Anonymous, which conducts bilingual meetings in French and English.

In terms of treatments, said Delapalme, who went to the United States to recover from his own alcohol and drugs addictions, most of Europe lags behind the United States and Britain.

In the United States, addiction is perceived as "an illness rather than a weakness," says Barbara Van Pevenage, head of development at HOPE One, a U.S.- style addiction treatment center in Brussels. "Instead of going from bad people to good people," with the U.S. approach she says "we are going from sick people to recovering patients."

In Europe, recovery from addiction emphasizes medications like antidepressants and psychotherapy. American-based treatment is built around the AA's Twelve Steps of recovery and the Minnesota model pioneered by the Hazelden clinic. They include abstinence, emphasis on group therapy and spirituality and an acceptance of one's addiction.

Terrence Murray is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Copyright 2003 the International Herald Tribune All Rights Reserved

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