The chairs are in a circle, the brochures and pamphlets are out, the tea and coffee are set up. Pink is belting out her hit single ‘Sober’. In an attempt to let people know that something is going on, the doors are wide open, yet once in the meeting room, anonymity is secured through the heavy closed curtains. Welcome to the Student AA Meeting. Salient was there.
As it begins its third year of operation, a number of questions are posed in relation to the disheartening fact that the Student AA Meeting has never really taken off. In one way, this is good—for it may mean that there exists no need for such a meeting, for the meeting itself though, the extremely low number of members is disheartening. For an AA meeting to succeed, at least two people are needed, an occurrence that has rarely
So, what is an AA meeting?
We know the stereotype: the twelve-step programme, the meetings held in the basement of a church, a dim lightbulb swinging, weak cups of coffee on offer. The images of the people who attend these meetings aren’t much more appealing: the word ‘alcoholic’ conjures a lost soul who bums cigarettes and sleeps in parks.
The few students that have crept through the doors to AA gatherings on campus, however, have been greeted by the classic circle of chairs and a whiteboard with some kind of prayer on it. These notions of self-help groups are interesting to explore in an attempt to understand the resistance there is to attend such meetings. Students are often referred to AA by Student Counselling Services, who say students “regularly” come to talk to them about their drinking—but it seems to be the term ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ itself that stops them from coming through the doors.
To remedy this, people new to the meeting are offered brochures with titles like The Young Person and AA and A Brief Guide to AA. They’re then given a rundown of the meeting, which opens with the ‘Serenity Prayer’. Though this prayer does refer to ‘God’, it is always reinforced that the word ‘God’ is open to interpretation; it is not necessarily the Christian God that is being referred to. It is quite common for AA itself to be thought the ‘higher power’ referenced in this prayer.
The first step of the twelve-step programme is admitting that you’re a total failure at handling the booze, and recognising that it has now come to control you. Later, comes the admittance that because you’re shit at trying to control the booze, you’d better put your faith into someone or something else. That something is referred to as your ‘higher power’, and as a support group for people with problems with alcohol, AA is the gateway to it.
Sounding like a cult? Not so much. It is up to the individual member to participate as much as they want to. Some people need three meetings a day to feel sane; others go once a year. AA is insistent that there is no leader in charge of any one group, so the chairperson who opens and closes the meeting is always someone different.
Most of the meeting revolves around the classic self-introduction and personal disclosure to strangers. Yes, people do say, “hello, my name is… and I am an alcoholic”—but there’s absolutely no pressure on anyone to say this, and certainly not at the first meeting. Then, other members share what AA terms their “strengths, hopes and experiences” in the form of riveting horror stories, followed by miraculous survival and recovery. The more meetings you go to, the more you’ll find that you’re in the company of like-minded individuals and a bond is formed, so any admittance eventually comes freely, as an assertion and confirmation that you are among friends.
Having said that, not everyone is comfortable with the honest nature of an AA meeting (or more specifically, the terms associated with an AA meeting) and the words ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’. But in its purest form, an AA meeting is a solution to an all-consuming, life-destroying problem. Today’s binge drinking culture seems to have normalised the detrimental effects of alcohol and substance abuse. Is it normal for a student to arrive at a lecture after sleeping under a bridge? Of course not, but this was a real scenario for one student who emailed me, desperately seeking help. (That particular student is yet to come to an AA meeting, but has emailed me sporadically with cries of needing to do something about alcohol, which is “destroying my life”.)
It may be that the requirement to label oneself an alcoholic is what stops most students from coming to an AA meeting. How bad does it have to get before you find yourself in that chair, surrounded by other alcoholics sharing the same stories?
For one older AA member, the realisation that he was an alcoholic was a long and tedious process. He shares his experience wholeheartedly.
“Sometimes I find myself wishing that my susceptibility to alcohol was more immediately apparent when I was younger; it took me many years to accept that my addiction to alcohol was the real reason for the mess my life had become. There are many younger AA members who describe the rapid onset of the consequences of their inability to cope with the effects of drinking alcohol. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that there was a strong likelihood I was ‘allergic’ to drink and drugs, it still took years to swallow my pride and finally admit that I needed help because I couldn’t solve this problem by myself. Even to admit that drinking alcoholically was what I was doing was very difficult to accept.
“There is still a stigma associated with the whole phenomenon of alcoholics and alcoholism… Most people don’t realise that the stereotypical image of an alcoholic as a grizzled, unwashed old guy living rough is merely the visible end of a spectrum which includes all ages, creeds, colours, socio-economic backgrounds, professions, etc.; the reality is that a large percentage of people who suffer from alcoholism can be described as ‘high-functioning’ in that they are somehow able to hold down a job, have never been in prison, don’t draw unwanted attention to themselves in public and to all intents and purposes, outwardly at least, appear to be ‘normal’ members of society. It’s difficult to imagine that behind this faade there is a great deal of suffering being endured not just by the alcoholic, but also by those who are living with them.”
Although many seem to agree that a ‘student drinking problem’ does exist, a huge variety of opinions are offered as to why this is and what we can do about it. Many students feel that they have a right to explore alcohol and to have a beer-saturated experience at university—and if there are some people who take it too far, then they’ll eventually drop out of uni and become society’s problem, instead of ‘our’ problem. A quick opinion poll of students at the Hunter Lounge revealed that yes, students like to drink; a mixed consensus on whether or not this was a problem; and the alarming view that students who are alcoholics may not find a place on campus. It was also found that students who take their drinking problems seriously are—well, just not taken seriously themselves.
An idea that alcoholism just is not relevant to the young seems to be preventing students from making their way to the AA. Student alcoholics may just have to carry on wreaking havoc on their academic careers until they reach the ripe old age of at least 30, when they can seriously claim to be an alcoholic and attend proper AA meetings out in the community.