The Bombay Drug De-addiction Centre of Excellence along with the Department of Psychiatry, G S Seth Medical College & KEM Hospital, and Alcoholics Anonymous, more commonly known by its acronym, AA held a seminar called ‘Road To Recovery: An International Experience’ on Sunday evening. The three-hour long seminar was held at the MLT Hall, College Building, Parel. Special guest Aamir Khan stole the thunder, amidst plenty of heartfelt accounts of the pain of an alcoholic and trying to understand and become aware of the different ramifications - physical, social and economic of this disease.
The focus was on ‘Female Alcoholics and Functioning Alcoholics.’ While the former is self-explanatory, the latter means alcoholics who are still working/functioning, seemingly normal and many do not even know they are alcoholics. They are the ones who have not hit rock bottom as yet. The ‘international experience’ label came because the seminar wrapped up a visit by 89 recovering women alcoholics, mostly from Australia and New Zealand with a smattering from other countries. These women are all AA members, and had been in India since January 13 to share their stories with other women alcoholics and to spread awareness about the disease. One must stress the disease aspect as it was drummed in repeatedly that alcoholism is a disease, not a disgrace.
While Aamir Khan was yet to make an entry, in flesh ‘n’ blood, he appeared on screen as the alcoholism episode from his television show, Satyamev Jayate was beamed for the audience. The foreign women peered at the English sub-titles as the programme was in Hindi. First up, Dr Kranti Kadam illustrated through slides the magnitude of the alcoholism problem in India. Her presentation focussed on figures and she ended with a telling statement about what she dubbed as the ‘Cost of Alcohol’. She said that though the sale of alcohol is a revenue spinner, there are intangible costs to the society like physical deterioration of the individual and social problems. Dr Kadam’s presentation was a mix of urban and rural society and she ended with telling the audience that now is the time to take a call about tackling alcoholism. She ended with a rousing rendition of ‘hum honge kamyaab’ (we will succeed).
A Class ‘A’ trustee (non-alcoholic member) of AA Australia, social health worker Louise Dunne, who has worked in hospitals, spoke about how women felt it was especially challenging to share the truth about their drinking with workers and felt less shame and embarrassment, when they shared their stories with others in AA. “As professionals, we have a vital role to play but we are limited in terms of time and resources. AA complements the work we do. In AA, alcoholics don’t feel separate. We offer short-term support but AA offers long-term support,” she said to applause.
Indian woman alcoholic Heena, AA member, said that her sobriety date (the day she stopped drinking) was October 24, 2009. “I was 1.5 years into recovery when I saw Satyamev Jayate. My husband too was an alcoholic and I was in denial about my drinking. I used to think that I am the one running the house, I have a successful career, and I cannot be an alcoholic. When my husband lost his job, I used to drink to combat the stress. But I came into AA and now, since I have been sober I have noticed that not just my health but also my self-esteem has improved. I lead a guilt-free life. I remember once, when somebody posted a message on my Facebook page saying: ‘Congrats! You are sober for two years’ and I was ashamed, not proud.” With her account, Heena broadly summed up the situation of the Indian woman alcoholic, saddled with shame and guilt and many times, in denial about the problem.
It is not just the alcoholic but the families of alcoholics too who suffer. Nitya, a member of Al-Anon, a support group for families of alcoholics spoke about the burden of facing society, with an alcoholic husband. Nitya spoke about how she thought her husband was ‘cool’ as he drank and partied during their dating years but realised the extent of his drinking only after marriage. “Then, my life focused on how to stop him from drinking everyday.”
At this juncture, Aamir entered the auditorium to claps, cheers and whistles. Nitya had to wait till the excited audience settled down. Aamir listened intently to a candid, enthralling account. “I became a person filled with hate, negativity and anger. I used to beat my eight-month-old child in frustration; I became a physical and mental wreck because I could not control his drinking. I had no family relationships.
I used to think whether I am the cause of his drinking. I even once made a ‘bar-like’ atmosphere in my home, so that my husband could only drink at home, and not shame me by his uncontrolled drinking outside. Then, I found Al-Anon and learned about the three Cs I am not the cause of his drinking, I cannot cure it, I cannot control it. Today, I am more positive, have a changed personality and different attitude. I continue to go to Al-Anon, while my alcoholic (husband) is in AA.”
While the compere claimed that Nitya’s account was a testament to the power of support groups, a senior AA member said, “Women alcoholics battle tremendous stigma and as a society we are closed to the problem, so society has to be more open.” Padmashri Joe Pereira, of Kripa Foundation said, “We come in only to get this person to become aware that he is loved, he is ‘not’ a junkie but a ‘good’ person.” Fr. Pereira claimed that “Women alcoholics are a silent majority” and added perhaps (tsk, tsk) not in very Fr-like language that the, “Australian women have given us a Maradona-like kick in our butts” to acknowledge and address the problem.
It was Dr S Parkar, deputy Dean, KEM Hospital who said that women alcoholics are “Rejects. This is a cultural issue. For a male alcoholic, there is a mother, wife, sister or daughter to bring him to the hospital. There is no son, husband, father or brother for a woman alcoholic who can take her for treatment with the same intensity and regularity. Within the family and outside, they are rejects in every sense of the word.”
An Australian woman AA member, Karen, who has been sober for 22 years, spoke about her story and evoked laughs when she said, “I like to quote from a T-shirt that had the lines: ‘Alcohol gave me the answers’. And then, in small type below that was written, ‘Alcohol made me forget the questions’.
Karen spoke about shame, guilt, and remorse and added like many others, “I never knew I was an alcoholic.” She spoke about building walls around herself, till she let AA in and found love, acceptance and hope. Most importantly, Karen said that, “There is not that much difference between India and Australia. Even in Australia, women hide in their homes and drink.” Karen’s story echoed Class ‘A’ trustee Dr Vanda Rousenfell’s belief that “the countries may be different but the stories are pretty much the same.”
The programme anchor warned that, “the age of experimentation” is coming down and gastroenterologist, Dr H Udawat claimed, “There are 13-year-old children, dying of oral cancer. I exhort parents to be a little suspicious at times.” Meanwhile, the seminar was interrupted by an uproar. Aamir Khan left the podium to answer the call of nature and people thought he was leaving.
The media, cameras in tow, nearly tripped over each other to catch the actor and there was a flutter till the compere reassured people that Aamir would be coming back. Whew! The price of fame! When one cannot even pee in peace. Meanwhile psychiatrist and AA friend, Dr A Deshpande made a case for a ward for women alcoholics. “Today, they are put into a psychiatric ward or a general female ward which does not suit the purpose. Let us push forward the agenda.”
Then, a senior AA member put it succinctly when he said, to loud cheers, “There is an ‘AA’ in your name Aamir. What we could not do in our 50 plus years in India, your 62-minute episode did.” He claimed that, “Post that episode, AA got 300 calls a day and till today, the phones have not stopped ringing.”
After that, it was dial A for Aamir and the actor, Ghajini muscles straining through his black-checked t-shirt got up to speak. As requests of Hindi, Hindi flew through the air, Aamir said he would speak in English, “For the foreign women here, they too should understand what I have to say. Then, maybe, I can speak in Hindi for you who want that” he said to the television crew.
Aamir said he was thrilled about the response the alcoholism episode generated but he was equally impressed about how the AA had responded by setting up call centres to pick up and address all those calls pouring in. He said to the women from overseas, “I thank you for coming here.
With women alcoholics in India, the problem may be even more complex because it also becomes a moralistic issue, so it is important that somebody comes here to give them the strength and courage. My episode on alcoholism had not touched upon women alcoholics and functioning alcoholics.
Maybe, we can think about that, sometime in the future. I know some of my friends, they are functioning alcoholics. Just because they seem to work well, they may be in stronger denial. They may not know they have a problem but if they address it, they can lead better lives, because everything is not about success. And all you lovely ladies there, thanks for coming to India.”
Then Aamir told the press, “Abhi Hindi mein bolta hoon”. He then proceeded to read out help line numbers for those who think they should seek help for alcohol problems, telling the camera men, “Let it roll, roll karo” in actor mould. Finally, the aati kya Khandala man left the dais and went up to sit amongst the young medical students, who were not really very doctorly, but shrieked like giggly teenagers as the star climbed through the rows to sit amongst them.
With the bodyguards a little hassled at Aamir’s impromptu decision to sit amongst the students and general confusion all around, the curtains fell on a meet which sought to educate, and enlighten with a dash of Bollywood glamour thrown in. The India-Overseas experience showed that women have lots in common.
Dr A Deshpande had put it earlier, “You all must have heard about, Doctors without Borders, but we have Alcoholics Without Borders,” giving the problem a global dimension. Addicts are realising that they are not alone, in unity and sharing there is strength to break the vice-like grip the bottle has them in.
Dial H for Help
A special hotline has been created for women alcoholics. This is a national help line: 022 23016767
A general help line for those who think they need help with their drinking problem: 09022771011
There is also a line for Al-Anon or families of alcoholics who need a support group. Call: 09321271122