Life, death and booze — and Alcoholics Anonymous

The meeting, in which alcoholics come together anonymously and discuss their struggles, has been a key component of the AA method since the movement was founded.
The meeting, in which alcoholics come together anonymously and discuss their struggles, has been a key component of the AA method since the movement was founded.

“How do you know when an alcoholic woman consents to sex? She’s conscious,” said Kathy D., a comedian and alcoholic who tells self-deprecating jokes in her stand-up routine.

Kathy is also a volunteer at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings at the Triangle Club in Atlanta. She comes to talk to participants every Saturday.

The participants are guided by the “Twelve Steps,” outlining the course of action for recovery from addiction. The steps were first published in a 1939 book, which people inside the meeting call “The Big Book.”

The steps are also posted on the wall, starting with “we admitted we are powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Other 12-step programs, patterned on AA, now address addictions to other substances and to various types of destructive behavior. But AA remains best-known because alcohol addiction is such a big problem. It affects millions of people in the United States alone.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 17.6 million U.S. adults are alcoholics or alcohol abusers. Alcoholism, classified as a chronic disease, affects an estimated 429,000 Georgians. AA meetings, like the one at the Triangle Club, can be found every day of the week all over the state.

For alcoholics at this meeting, sobriety is about knowing your strength without becoming complacent about your weakness.

An idea that has worked

AA has a few detractors, some of whom object to its spiritual, though completely nonsectarian, approach to addiction. But over the generations, a vast number of people from every background have attested to how it benefited them.

“AA is a brilliant idea. It’s free. It’s self-supporting. I myself went to AA meetings,” said Neil Kaltenecker, executive director of Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. “It is not only about healing alcoholism; it is about being a better person, having better relationships. AA serves a great need.”

Volunteers and participants agree to remain anonymous. The tradition was born out of the stigma of alcoholism at the time AA was founded.

“The tradition made sure there was a safe place where members could focus on recovery,” Kaltenecker said. “I can talk about my personal experience using my real name, but I cannot talk about other members.”

At meetings, participants share their stories using their first names. Bob C, a regular participant, shared his. “I am an alcoholic. I have been drinking for 32 years,” he said.

Besides self-awareness, AA is also about self-support. The organization never accepts donations from non-alcoholics.

“Once we received a check for $1,000, and we found out that the person was not an alcoholic, so we sent it back,” Kathy D said. “It is important for members to know how strong we are.”

But knowing their strength may lead to another problem recovering alcoholics try to avoid: complacency. As one member named Lanie said, most people start drinking again due to inflated self-confidence, thinking they are now strong enough to control their consumption.

This was the case for Bob. He has undergone many periods of sobriety, which all ended in drinking again. The longest period was from 1995 to 2008. “It was 13 years, and everything seemed so perfect to me — work, health, friends — and I had regular AA meetings, so I thought it was OK for me to celebrate it with a beer.” He did not stop drinking again until Sept. 25, 2011.

“You’ve got to drink again because you forgot what makes you sober,” Bob said.

Coming back from the brink

Complacency is the reason for all failed attempts at sobriety, according to Kathy D. “Once you have a big ego, you are edging God out.” The third step of the 12 steps to recovery is to let go of your own ego and let God take over: “Let go and let God,” the step says.

At a recent meeting, most of the participants’ stories were related to the deaths of loved ones. Jesse, 24, went to jail because of his alcoholism. His decision to stop drinking was triggered by the death of his aunt.

“I received a call in which I was told that my aunt died because of drinking,’’ he said. “I realized that this would kill me and my family would suffer, so I stopped.”

The host, Jimmy K, shared the same pain. “My wife died of cancer in 1982, and I was angry at everything. People always say that God gives you this, God gives you that. But I thought that was all bull, and I started drinking for eight years.”

Kathy D lost her brother-in-law in 2004 because of his alcoholism. “His organs were damaged, he went to clinic and rehab; that did not help, so he left us.”

Then, five months ago, she lost one of her friends. “I did not even know he was an alcoholic. If he told me, I think I could have helped, and AA could, too.”

Jing Luo is pursuing a master’s degree in Health & Medical Journalism and a Global Health Certificate at the University of Georgia.  As a journalist, she covers forensic stories as well as global health issues in both the United States and China.