Inside an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting

ON A DAMP Tuesday evening just before the sun is about to set, a woman who hasn't had an alcoholic drink in 38 years meets me on the footpath outside an Ipswich church hall.

The meeting she and I are about to attend is strictly anonymous, so I won't tell you her full name. Instead, I'll call her Terri.

Terri grew up as the child of an alcoholic. She became one herself as a teen, as well as a heroin and pill user.

A stint in a long-term rehabilitation program and almost four decades in Alcoholics Anonymous has now led to almost four decades of sobriety. Even though she still wouldn't mind a cold beer on a hot day, she knows herself better now than to take the risk.

Tonight she shares the responsibility of unpacking chairs and making tea with three men inside the church hall who all know how to share a quick joke.

Each of them has spent at least 20 years going to meetings just like this one, where self-confessed alcoholics talk about their personal rock bottom courtesy of alcohol.

"The best definition of an just a person who drinks against their own will," Terri says.

"We're an enigma."

Kim, a tall man in a red shirt, is a member of a motorcycle chapter of AA. He became sober in a mental institution before joining Alcoholics Anonymous at the behest of his mother in 1973.

"That's where most of us dried out in those days," he says.

For the nearby Colin, 2016 will mark 20 years in AA. Near the end of his 'drinking career', he lived above a bar and worked as a driver.

He says he was never under the limit when he jumped behind the wheel.

David is the man who will chair tonight's meeting. He quit drinking alcohol 28 years ago.

As these long-term members set up, more people file up the hall stairs to join them.

Tonight's AA meeting is one of about 14 held across the Ipswich region each week. A few of those are closed to anyone but alcoholics themselves and will attract a handful of people. The average meeting has about 8-12 people, and the biggest of the year will have up to 80 people in the audience, Terri says.

This evening, 16 people take a seat amongst a circle of yellow chairs, not including myself.

Just after 7pm, David takes his seat at a table in front of a large banner printed with the AA's infamous 12 steps. These steps have become synonymous with the group since they were written in the 1930s. To start tonight, David reads them out and shares a little on how being sober changed his life.

Then he calls out Kim's name, and Kim begins to share.

Even now, more than 42 years after his last drink, Kim still goes to AA meetings an average of three times a week.

He first drank at the age of 14 after starting his working life as a tradie.

"I found it really hard to mix unless I had alcohol in me, so I thought I'd mix a lot," Kim tells the group.

"By the time I was 16, I was a daily drinker - a morning drinker. By age 17, I couldn't get enough

beer into me and turned to the brandy."

At age 19, Kim shot himself.

It was his rock bottom.

"Physically I was still okay, I was working. Apart from that, I was bloody hopeless. I was an emotional bloody ratbag," he says.

Kim entered a mental institution, where he sobered up. When he was released, his mother urged him to go to AA and follow the steps. She herself was an AA member.

In the 42 years since then, he has always come back to AA and often worked within the drugs and alcohol treatment sector.

The reason he keeps coming back is simple.

"I know that other person is still there, that derelict little drunk. If I have one drink, I'm gone. I know that for a fact," he says.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a massive organisation, with each group running autonomously. The Ipswich region hosts about 14 AA meetings each week.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a massive organisation, with each group running autonomously. The Ipswich region hosts about 14 AA meetings each week. Hannah Busch

More people share their rock bottoms. A man named Paul tells the room he was living in his car when he joined the fellowship.

"Every once and a while, people would have to tell me what happened the night before. I didn't know that was a blackout. Come 20 years, a blackout was normal. That's what I drank to achieve," he says.

Sue is one of seven women in the room and the first to be called on. She tells her story with a melodious voice and the right pauses for humour. It is a story she has been repeating at AA meetings since she was 39.

"Hi everyone, my name is Sue. I'm an alcoholic, a compulsive gambler and drug addict," she says.

"Hi Sue," the circle responds in chorus.

Sue labels her old life, the one she led while drinking, not so much a life but an existence.

"I do know that when I had that first drink, something happened in my head and that was it. I was married to it from then on," she says.

Sue's story is full of anecdotes of hiding her habits - of manufacturing ways to mask her shaking hands and making her one cask of wine last the week.

"I'd be falling over and I would pass out. Every morning I'd check myself for injuries, because I didn't fold gracefully at the knees. I would fall, bang! Into the coffee table, bang!

"My unit...had a spiral staircase.

"I woke up entwined in my spiral staircase like a little paperclip."

Sue compares her first AA meeting to the same sort of impression that being hit by a piece of 4x2 timber might make.

"I just got it," she says. Sue also gave up marijuana and gambling.

"Here I am today, sober and clean. I've morphed into somebody that I would have hated," she says.

The women on either side of Sue share their stories.

Karen woke up one Sunday morning knowing she could not drink anymore. Ricki describes what it's like to be able to see beautiful things again.

Later on, a man named Peter details a childhood in a violent home and an adulthood determination to drink himself to death. His first AA meeting was 11 years ago.

Peter's neighbour is a long-term AA member but tonight is his first time at this meeting. He talks of stress, suffering and self-hatred.

The next to speak is Colin, one of the three volunteers setting up earlier.

Colin also sobered up in a long-term rehabilitation program. That came after living in a pub, borrowing money from the publican and marrying his drinking buddy.

Sitting in this room 20 years later, Colin taps the skin over his heart.

"AA made me reach in there," he says.

The last person to speak tonight is Richard. A life in the defence forces was accompanied by a life with alcohol.

One of his final comments sums up much of what everyone else here tonight has also been saying.

"I know what feelings are now," he says.


This is the first part of our series The Bittersweet Drink, where reporter Hannah Busch will explore the relationship we have with alcohol and its effect on the community. Keep reading the second part in the series.