Elaina Mone, Let it begin with me

Elaina Mone is a writer based in Co. Monaghan. She has many opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. This is her first publication and was prompted by her husband, who encouraged Elaina to take up the pen as a way of saving his ears from a five-year-long hostile occupation.

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (AA) are usually held behind closed doors, confidentiality being sacrosanct. However, on occasion, members of the public are invited to an information evening where they can hear first-hand accounts of members’ experiences of addiction. I recently found myself at one such event, as a friend of someone who has been in the programme and sober for over ten years. He, who shall not be named for obvious reasons, organised the evening event. I decided to support him and I’m glad I did; not only were my eyes opened to the realities of this disease, but I have a newfound compassion for those who find themselves at the wrong end of an extended bottle.

My first observation was the dismal turn-out. When I asked my friend about it later, he simply shrugged and explained that this is quite normal. People who enjoy drinking are suspicious of those who don’t, and fear anything which points to the destructive aspects of social lubrication. In a society where alcohol is a necessary element of ‘the craic’, alternatives are unwelcome. It is perfectly acceptable, funny even, to torture your screaming liver with consecutive Jägerbombs, to find unidentified drinking injuries every Monday morning, to perform party tricks you would never dream of doing in your day to day life.

Take Subway’s new Christmas advert as an example. A girl suffers from the familiar paranoia of a hangover following her Christmas work party as a gleeful voiceover catalogues her various debaucheries from the night before. But wait, it’s okay, after a bite from one of their sandwiches, she realises ‘tis grand after all’. The advertisement is just one example of the prevailing attitude towards drink, and Subway are simply capitalising on the stereotypical vision of Ireland, one that should perhaps be examined, given the mental health statistics.

The panel at the open meeting was made up of two AA Members, an Al-Anon member (a support group for families of alcoholics) and a medical professional who works within various treatment centres. Their message was clear; alcoholism is a disease, and one that cannot be overcome without help. The health expert revealed some frightening statistics regarding the rise in young people seeking help with addiction issues; that is people in their teens and early twenties whose lives have been damaged by their drinking. This is partly due to the existing drinking culture – and let’s not be coy about this, it’s somewhat extreme – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between alcoholism and average drinking patterns.

Her speech gave me pause for thought as I examined my own consumption of alcohol, particularly in my late teens and twenties. Not an easy task, I’m probably not alone in cringing at memories I would rather forget, incidents I will never live down, and some advantage-taking I wish I had been sober enough to fend off. This is not to say I’m an alcoholic, but that I was an enthusiastic participant in the party scene, and often indulged in ‘the cure’ so I could do it all over again the next night.

I was moved by the Al-Anon speaker, who shared how she became as crazy in her behaviour as the alcoholic she was married to. In her efforts to control his drinking, pacify his rages and keep the peace amidst a constant cycle of drunkenness and hangovers, she eventually had a breakdown, and in doing so, left her children at risk of having two absentee parents. It was through the fellowship of Al-Anon that she finally learnt how to deal with her husband’s drinking, and to love him despite his behaviour. She stopped accepting the unacceptable and, importantly for recovery, let go of blame. She spoke of the importance of having people she could talk to, who understood the disease and its effects. And she found the strength to change her life. This is quite the feat for a voluntary, non-profit organisation. By the time, she finished her story, I was convinced that changing one’s own attitude toward the disease and having a healthy support system are the most essential aspects of familial recovery.

Welcome, acceptance, recovery, happiness; these were the recurring words of the AA members who spoke. The first, a female entrepreneur, had grown up in an alcoholic home, yet she had failed to spot the warning signs of her own problem because she was outwardly successful. It is erroneous to assume that all alcoholics are those guys you see falling on the street on a Sunday afternoon; rather it can take hold of anyone, at any time, and plays a part in dismantling one’s life and love.

The second was a man, who cheerfully admitted to having been the town drunk, the type who begged outside pubs for the price of a pint, whose need for alcohol was so overpowering, he would leave his children unattended to go to the pub. His drinking stemmed from severe social anxiety and what started as a means of fitting in quickly escalated to daily drunkenness, bedwetting and a cycle of shame that was to last over thirty years until he ended up in an asylum, and eventually came to AA.

We all know someone like this; a drunkard who turns mean and nasty, whose life is centred on the next drink and who will manipulate everyone around him to achieve the single aim of inebriation. What most of us don’t know is that behind this, there is a person desperately trying to get out and find human connection. Each dismissal or jibe only serves to further devalue this human being and worsen the cycle. I learned that while I cannot save others from themselves, I can show some compassion and point them in the right direction. It is up to the alcoholic to choose recovery but having someone who believes they are worthy of happiness is a good start.

The chairperson of the gathering went through the twelve steps and traditions of the AA programme. One struck me as being particularly relevant; Step 4 – ‘Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’. In a consumer-oriented world, we learn to work hard, play hard and spend money. Who can say they have spent time sitting still without reaching for a phone, a book, the remote control? Everything in life now seems designed to keep us busy and, essentially, keep us from thinking too much. Quite often we look to friends, celebrities, and media before forming opinions about ourselves and the world around us. Our identity is measured against what we have, rather than who we are.

Perhaps we all need to take a leaf out of the recovery programmes, look inwards, and ask the hard questions; How do I really feel about that? Is this what I really want? Am I happy? Are my actions based on fear? No one wants to be the weirdo who doesn’t drink. And I’m not suggesting we all become tee-total, but in a world where the middle-east is being swiftly decimated, where extremist terrorism is the norm, where Brexit can happen, where Trump can be elected U.S. President, it seems clear that people aren’t happy with the way things are. It’s time to examine how we are living, and how we see the future going. In the spirit of A.A., the only possible answer is, ‘Let it begin with me.’

gso@alcoholicsanonymous.ie                               www.alanon.ie
Tel: 01-8420700                                                        Helpline:  01 873 2699
Tel: 028-90351222 (NI)                                            (7 days 10am- 10pm)

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