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Mazen Zahreddine 24 Jun 2014

On the Road to Recovery: AA and NA Offer Hope in Lebanon

“We rarely stumble into it because of tragedies. In truth, some of us are just disposed to it. It could be alcohol, drugs, gambling… fact of the matter is, some of us are born addicts and we stay addicts for the rest of our lives.”

Khalil’s face is marked by years of abuse and small victories. The Lebanese man, whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity, has been sober for five years. He says he was addicted to crack cocaine for nearly three decades. Now he’s a regular visitor to Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which along with its sister group, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provides free weekly support sessions to victims of drug and alcohol abuse in Lebanon.

While there are other drug rehabilitation programs in Lebanon, such as the Oum el Nour center for drug prevention and the JAD anti-drug movement, AA and NA are distinctly different in their approach and style.

Alcoholics Anonymous, an international organization which on June 10 celebrated its 79th anniversary, is based on the concept of 12 steps to recovery. As part of the steps, members are urged to admit they have a problem with alcohol, are powerless over the disease, and need help from a higher spiritual power. It is not a religious entity, however, and the the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking.

“You come here when you lose control of your life, when you hit rock bottom, when you can’t stop embarrassing yourself. Staying with sober people who faced these problems is the best company you can have,” said Sarah, a member of AA who, along with Khalil, agreed to meet with me to discuss their experiences.

It’s not clear how long NA and AA have been running in Lebanon since it’s not an official organization, but an informal collection of individuals who come together to talk and support one another. There’s not even a clear leadership. As Sarah, whose name has also been changed for the article says, ““it’s organized chaos.”

Khalil and Sarah could not be more different. Khalil has recently become a jeddo. Sarah is a student in her late 20’s trying to navigate through her life and earn an education. But what they both share in common is greater than their collective differences. They’ve both succumbed to a disease. Informally, AA is recognized as having popularized the notion that alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases. “We are here because we are fighting the same enemy. I might not like you as a person, but I will give my all to help you,” said Khalil.

“Some [members] sometimes come drunk,” Sarah said. “What are they doing there if they are drunk?” I asked, shocked at the admission.

“It’s not easy for them. They are trying their best,” she explains. “It’s a fellowship. We are here to help each other.”

I asked how many times a month Khalil and Sarah go to meetings, which are offered several times a week at the Notre dame Du Rosaire Church in Hamra.

“You’re thinking about it the wrong way,” Sarah said. “This is your life, you don’t have to come. There was a time when I realized that I do not have a drinking problem, but a living problem. I can relapse any day, and I am aware of that. These people help me stay sober.”

“One day at a time,” she adds, smiling.

There are no solid statistics available on drug and alcohol dependence in Lebanon, but the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association (MENAHRA), Elie al-Aaraj, told the media in November that his organization has witnessed a rise in the rate of drug abuse among young people in Lebanon and the Arab world. Meanwhile, between 2005 and 2011, the number of alcohol drinkers between the ages of 13 and 15 rose almost 40 percent in Lebanon, according to a global health study cited by Executive Magazine.

AA is believed to have some 2.1 million members and 115 groups worldwide. While some critics have dismissed Alcoholics Anonymous as ineffective, new research has shown stronger scientific evidence in support of the group.

“Thing is,” Khalil says, “it works.” “I took drugs for almost 30 years and everyone knew. When my daughter was born, everyone said this will change me, but it did not. I’ve had plenty of opportunities where I could have stopped. And I never could. The desire to stop is not enough. There needs to be a program that can take you out of this circle of addiction, and this was it for me.”

It’s clear from speaking with Khalil and Sarah that this is not an issue of beating addiction and moving on. It’s about struggling, perhaps every day for the rest of your life, with the desire to go back.

“Addiction never leaves you. Those who have lost a lot [in their lives] due to it understand this. I lead a sober, happy, productive life and NA works. But that doesn’t matter, I can relapse any day. But right now, I lead a sober, happy and productive life. That’s what’s important,” said Khalil firmly.

I turned to Sarah and asked if, like Khalil, she sees herself as happy.

She did not blink. “Yes.”

Alcoholics Anonymous meets ever Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Notre dame Du Rosaire Church in Hamra. Narcotics Anonymous meets on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the same location.