HAD she not given up alcohol, something she did nine years ago, Mary* doubts she’d still be alive.
She says that giving up and then staying off the drink after years of abuse has been a hard road and the support she has got from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been very important in the fight to stay sober.
Everyone is aware that AA is out there somewhere, but most won’t realise how active it is on their own doorsteps. In Ennis, there are two or three meetings most days, while there are regular meetings in small towns and villages throughout Clare, from Scariff to Kilkee.
Mary, who now has an active role in the running of AA in the county, says that although she was very down when she went to her first meeting, she had been very low at other times. “I would have to say that if I told you stories about my drinking, there were probably worse times and worse situations that I was in. So what triggered it at that particular time is hard to know but I was very miserable. It’s a terribly lonely place to be when drink has taken over your life. They say you take the drink to start with and then the drink takes you if you cross that line of alcoholism.”
She feels that people must want to come to AA for themselves rather than to satisfy others if it is to be effective. When people do join it, sometimes it takes them a while to get comfortable. “The first thing that’d happen is that somebody would pick you up and bring you to a meeting. You might get brought to the first few but after a while you’d be encouraged to find your own way. Some people mightn’t feel like sharing for a while, the defences would be up. When you’re in trouble with alcohol you are vulnerable and you’re also very defensive about what you want to say. There are a lot of things that people say are typical of alcoholism, a lot of deep-seated anger, that go with it.”
Being open about feelings is important but not easy for people who have been trying to avoid revealing things about themselves. “You have to get honest and I mean honest in how you’re feeling. I found it difficult to do that because in alcoholism, life is a total cover-up. You’re constantly in trouble with everyone, you can’t meet anyone’s eye, you’re always apologising, forgetting what version of a story you told to whom. It’s difficult to try and be honest about how you feel about something and even difficult to know how you feel about something.”
For all that, there can be fun associated with AA and she says that sometimes things can be “very, very light-hearted” while the interaction with people provides warmth and support. “You get close to people. There’s a cup of tea at the end of meetings and sometimes what happens afterwards can be as important for some people as the meetings. You talk to people, get support from them and give support and you try and understand the nature of the disease.”
On its website AA lists a series of questions, the answers to which might indicate if you have a drink problem or not. However, Mary believes that individuals know themselves and their own problems best. “It’s when it becomes impossible for you, when life becomes unbearable. It’s really when you start getting into trouble. You’d know yourself. There’s people who only take a drink every few months and they get into trouble, it’s different for everyone.”
In her own case, Mary avoided asking herself uncomfortable questions. “I didn’t want to think about it. I avoided it. If I saw a questionnaire in a magazine or something like that I’d have avoided it. My resistance would have been very strong, really.”
After her first couple of months of sobriety she relapsed, before waking up with a raging hangover and a head full of regret.
That’s well over eight years ago now, but Mary still attends a couple of meetings a week and doesn’t allow herself to forget her situation. “I’d still have to watch myself and what I do but I’d go to a pub to listen to music. At times a glass of wine could look attractive so it’s important not to get complacent and it’s important to stay close to the disease because it reminds me of where I was myself.”
Nowadays, life is more active and more full for her. “That’s the biggest change, actually getting up and doing things. I got very little done when I was drinking. I’d think about things but once I’d had the first drink or two I’d get nothing done.”
People joining AA get a sponsor early on and the organisation has its famous 12-step programme, the first of which is the basis of the AA. “The first and most important one is to admit that you’re powerless over alcohol and that your life is unmanageable as a result of the powerlessness. It goes on from there.”
While she doesn’t want to partake herself, Mary is able to be in the company of people who are taking alcohol. “Sometimes I’d be at a social event and I’d have planned to go away early but I’d be enjoying the craic so much that I’d stay. Sometimes it can get messy when people are drinking a lot but sometimes it can be great craic.”
She says that she received a mixed response when she tried to get off the drink but admits her attitude to people giving up alcohol wasn’t very supportive when she was drinking. “Some people would have asked ‘why are you doing this?’ But I was p***ed off myself with people I knew when they went to AA, I thought they were spoiling all the craic, making it so serious.”
To get in contact with Alcoholics Anonymous call 061 311222 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Not her real name.