Alcoholics Anonymous in UAE: ‘attendees are getting younger’

Alcoholics Anonymous has been helping those in the UAE suffering from alcoholism since 1977 – but one counsellor says those attending its meetings are getting younger these days.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been helping expatriates return to fruitful lives for 37 years. Its members these days are younger, a counsellor says. John van Hasselt / Corbis
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ABU DHABI // Several times a week, men and women of all ages and nationalities meet behind a closed door to support each other in their battles with addiction.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been helping those suffering with debilitating addictions in the UAE since 1977 – but a counsellor says those attending its meetings these days are younger.

Loneliness, work stress and financial worries are among the reasons expatriates are seeking help for excessive drinking and addiction, experts say.

What started as just one meeting a week has expanded to 36 weekly sessions of six to 10 people in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah, as addicts of all nationalities help one another to stay clean, one day at a time.

An AA member, who handles media for the UAE branch, said that while many veterans were aware a service existed in the country, those seeking help for the first time were surprised.

There are some government-run addiction programmes, such as the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Khalifa Medical City’s chemical dependency unit, but these services are for Emiratis only.

Programmes for expatriates, such as the AA, have less recognition, she said.

“I would like to see an umbrella charity or a social club for all 12-step programmes recognised by the Government so they could have a phone number, obtain a bank account or have a post office box,” she said.

Despite this, the country is helping more addicts, she said.

“Now AA UAE has translated the ‘Big Book’ – the text of getting sober – into Arabic, in hopes of reaching Arabs, and treatment centres are also available for locals,” she said.

“George”, an American expatriate, is a member of the UAE chapter of AA. The first thing he did when seeking work here was to look for a local AA branch.

“I would not have accepted my job in the UAE if AA had not been here,” George said.

The 59-year-old, who spent decades addicted to alcohol, had his first drink at the age of 15.

When it became a daily and debilitating occurrence, his family, friends and coworkers all warned him.

“My wife had enough and was getting desperate. She was threatening to throw me out,” George said.

“My physical condition was deteriorating. I would lie in bed and sweat would pour out. My eyes would flicker with every heartbeat due to high blood pressure.”

From 2005, he spent three years drifting in and out of AA meetings, but the turning point came on Father’s Day 2008 after George once again fell off the wagon.

“That day was the last time alcohol entered my body,” he said. “I got home, my wife was crying and the alcohol was not working for me anymore.

“The euphoria I often felt as a young man was not there. It brought no happiness into my life. I sat and cried, feeling miserable and regretful.

“Alcohol had defeated me.”

The first step was admitting he was powerless around alcohol. After attending regular meetings George found a sponsor whom he credits for getting him on the road to recovery.

He believes many are afraid to seek help in the UAE – a country with strict laws regarding drink and drugs but said addicts should not suffer in silence.

“I now feel there is hope and that I have a future.”

There are certain tests that indicate a problem with alcohol, he said, such as if a person has ever had anyone express concern about his level of drinking; if a person has ever got into trouble after he had been drinking; and if a person has ever lost control when drinking.

While there is a lack of local statistics, in the United States, alcoholism is recognised as a major health problem and is the third-biggest killer after cancer and heart disease.

George admires the Government for recognising that there are people who need help and for setting up recovery centres for people afflicted with alcohol, narcotics and other addictions.

“Alcoholism knows no bounds. It does not discriminate.

“It does not matter if you are rich or poor; white, black or brown; male or female; Christian, Muslim, Hindu or non-believer. The problems are the same and the solution is the same.”