Fancy Another?

Young Women Open Up About Their Experience Of Alcoholics Anonymous

Illustrated by Natalia Bagniewska.
Jenine* (who asked for her real name not to be used) is a successful creative in her early 30s. She is bright-eyed and enthusiastic about everything in her life, including her two young children. She has a lot on her plate – an expanding career and motherhood – and for a few years, she used alcohol to take the edge off
When she was 29, Jenine decided to stop drinking. She woke up after a night out – a party at a friend’s house – and realised that things were out of control. "I just didn’t like myself," she explains. "I felt anxious and memories of what I had done the night before were haunting me so I decided to stop." She has now been sober for almost six years and takes a few non-alcoholic beers with her whenever she’s heading out to a friend’s for dinner.  
According to the latest data from the Australian Institue of Health And Welfare, this makes Jenine one of a growing number of people who are teetotal. As per the report, more Australians are giving up alcohol; between 2016 and 2019, the proportion of people who were ex-drinkers increased from 7.6% to 8.9%.
While it may be true that more young people are teetotal, it is also true that diseases associated with alcohol abuse are on the rise. Not everyone in this number will consider themselves to be an alcoholic, addict or problematic drinker but some, like Jenine, will.  
However, when Jenine was taken to a local AA meeting by a friend, she immediately knew it wasn’t for her. 
"There is a religious element and in AA’s literature there is the idea that having a problem with alcohol addiction is a 'sickness'," Jenine says. "And that wasn’t helpful for me."
AA was founded in the 1930s just after prohibition ended by a man named Bill Wilson, a stockbroker from New York who had tried several times to overcome his habit of drinking a couple of pints of whisky a day. To cut a long story short, Wilson had a religious experience in hospital, where he had staggered one day while drunk, and "the room lit up with a great white light". He saw God and subsequently quit drinking for good. When he co-founded AA shortly afterwards he based its principles on the beliefs of the evangelical Oxford Group, which taught that people were sinners who, through confession and prayer, can get back on the right track.
The science of addiction has moved on since then (we know, for instance, that alcohol is a psychoactive substance and understand the role of the chemical dopamine which is found in the brain) but AA’s 'Big Book' (the foundational text which contains the 12 steps) remains the same.

Being surrounded by people I would have been friends with outside of AA was particularly reassuring very early on in my sober life. It showed me that I would still be able to live as a young queer person, going out and socialising but without my chaotic addiction.

As a result, AA is not for everyone. "I had a really strong reaction to it," Jenine says. "So I’ve actually just stayed sober with podcasts and books which I’ve found really helpful." 
For the young women who do rely on AA as a lifeline in their recovery, new spaces are emerging. It’s difficult to get official statistics on Alcoholics Anonymous as the organisation does not publish data. Anecdotally, it is popular for those in 'recovery' from alcohol because it is accessible – there are meetings all over the country throughout the week at different times of day – and, above all, it is free.
Holly* (who also asked for her real name not to be used) attends AA meetings. She is a queer woman in her early 30s. Holly acknowledges that a lot of AA’s literature is "very outdated". "The 'Big Book'," she adds, "presumes that all alcoholics are men and is written in a very patriarchal style with drunken men and hard-suffering wives. If I was paying for it as a service, I’d have a lot to say about this but it’s free and accessible."
As meetings are organised at a local level by others in recovery, there is a degree of flexibility for shaping them. "There are women-only meetings and LGBTQ+ meetings which I attend and find hugely helpful," Holly explains.
That being said, Holly, who has also attended meetings in more rural places, says that this diversity is not always present. "I can understand how living in a place where there was only a male-dominated meeting might make that difficult but, at the meetings I attend, there is a safe space to talk about the often very specific experiences, such as sexual trauma and vulnerability, which women have as a result of active addiction."
Dr Ben Sessa is a psychiatrist and drug researcher who is particularly interested in trauma and addictions. He says that it’s difficult to define alcohol dependence because how our body and brains react to sustained heavy drinking depends on many things, including genetic makeup. "Some people can drink a bottle of vodka every day and not experience the symptoms of dependency, while others can drink three pints a day and experience them," he explains. He warns that "if you are physically alcohol-dependent, which means you have to drink every morning when you wake up, then coming off alcohol is more dangerous than coming off other drugs – like heroin – because there is a seizure risk."
The issue of access to support services is serious, according to Dr Sessa. "I would never knock AA because it works for some people and the state of our support services is disgusting and distressing," he explains. "However, in my own work I am currently looking at whether different therapies can help those experiencing addiction by testing ketamine and talking therapy in a controlled environment at my clinic in Bristol. The early indications are that this works but, because of Britain’s drug laws and draconian approach to them – which is far behind other countries – we are a long way off this being approved."
The science will undoubtedly continue to evolve but ultimately what Holly describes is a growing, supportive and diverse community which has made her feel able to tackle recovery. "As an LGBT person, hearing stories similar to mine in meetings, from people whose drinking was the same as mine, brings a sense of support."
"It has made recovery easier," she adds, "because I have been surrounded by people I would have been friends with outside of AA, which was particularly reassuring very early on in my sober life. It showed me that I would still be able to live as a young queer person, going out and socialising but without my chaotic addiction."
*Names have been changed to protect identities

More from Wellness