COMPULSION: AA member Pam was one of six people to sit down with the QT and share her story.
COMPULSION: AA member Pam was one of six people to sit down with the QT and share her story. Hannah Busch

Life as an alcoholic in a city and country full of drinkers

LATE one Wednesday afternoon, a group of six friends gather around a table at Queens Park Cafe.

They're here today to talk to the QT about alcohol, although no one here has let it touch their lips for a good few years. They've turned their back on the stuff as best they can.

They refuse all offers for an alcoholic drink when at parties or a pub and every week they come together in various Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to talk about how drinking ruined their lives.

All six people at the table are intimately familiar with what an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can do to a person. What it can do to a life.

Pam, a woman who joined AA six years ago, says being sober is not a cure from alcoholism. It is a remission.

"I had a 10 year drinking career late in life and my behaviour became so unruly and embarrassing when I was drinking - my personality changed," she says.

"Embarrassment eventually drove me to do something about it."

Embarrassment is something most of the people here have learned to move past - they have to if they want to socialise.

"I remember my first social function I was invited to, I was terrified. I thought 'oh, how am I going to handle this? Everyone will look at me while I say no, I can't, I'm an alcoholic'," fellow AA member Terri says.

"The drinks tray came around and there was water, fruit juice. I thought, what, you mean they can drink and they don't want to?"

Terri, sober for 38 years, no longer worries. David, an AA member of 28 years, doesn't either.

"If it comes up in conversation, I'm not embarrassed or ashamed by it," he says. "I usually tell them they won't like me if I drink."

"What I've noticed is 25, 30 years ago there was a lot of pressure to drink but nowadays, generally people accept no for an answer."

Richard, a former defence force member offers the same reasoning to those who push him to drink.

"If people offer me a drink too many times I just say I won't drink it because I'm an alcoholic. That usually shuts them up," he says.

Both men say it's become easier to wave away a beer thanks to changing views in the Australian psyche. Nationwide drinking statistics backs up that view.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, the latest report of its kind, shows daily drinking levels across the country are at their lowest since 1991.

Four out of five people over the age of 14 had a drink in the 12 months before the survey, but only 6.5% of people say they drank every day.

The survey also shows 49% of people reduced the amount they drank, mostly choosing their health as the reason behind the reduction.

The statistics do show alcohol retains its role in Australian life, particularly for older people and young men.

Males aged 18-24 were the most likely to drink at a risky level during a single occasion.

Both men and women aged over 70 were the most likely to drink every single day. One in five men and one in ten women over the age of 70 had a daily drink.

For the ex-drinkers at this table, there is no doubt about the role alcohol has in Australia - one man describes it as the national pastime.

"It's part of our culture; it's always been part of our culture. There's nothing to be done about it," Richard says.

"It's an Aussie thing - if they don't drink, don't trust them."

Terri says it is sad to see inebriation celebrated by famous names and faces, knowing that a percentage of people who are watching will end up with a drinking problem.

"I think the only problem is the heroes are often seen drinking," Terri says.

For Kim, the role alcohol plays within the national culture is one of confidence.

"Perhaps we're too shy. We're able to get up on the dance floor, we're able to do karaoke, we're able to do a lot of things with alcohol in us that we can't (without it)," he says.

Missed part one? Step inside an AA meeting here. Keep reading next week for part three of our special series.

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