A group of 15 men gather in a gloomy room in the busy part of the city at around 7 p.m. at Rosary Church on Thursday

The room is one of the meeting halls for the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), an international volunteer body committed to the cause of de-addiction all over the world since 1935.

A few minutes after they gather, the men take turns for the next two hours to narrate their experiences as alcohol addicts, how they joined the AA, how it was helping them overcome the addiction and how life has changed after joining the AA.

Dhanaraj (35) (name changed for anonymity) says he started drinking alcohol from when he was 20-years-old. “I did not spend a day without drinking. I was consistently suspended from my job and was even asked to quit because of my uncontrollable drinking habit. I joined the AA on the advice of one of my friends. As I started attending the daily meetings, I realised that every person addicted to alcohol has the same personality. I was able to identify with every one of them”, he narrates.

Dhanaraj, one of the senior members of the AA has stopped drinking for six years now, and he attends the meetings every day to help the newcomers forsake the drinking habit.

“I earned a decent sum from work, but I spent almost all of it for drinking. I had even sold my bike and my wife’s gold jewels for the sake of drinking. I saved money and built a house after joining the AA”, he recounts.

Even today if he does not attend the AA meetings for four consecutive days he gets the urge to drink, but has kept the habit under check by attending the therapeutic meetings as a ritual, he says.

As Dhanaraj narrates his story, a few more men drip into the meeting taking the count to around 40.

Govindan (50) (name changed for anonymity) is one of the senior most members of the AA. He was addicted to drinking for almost 15-years, but has abandoned the habit for nearly a decade now. “My drinking habit was a cause of embarrassment for my wife and my daughter. I started drinking for fun and soon became addicted to it”, he says.

Govindan then explains to the gathering the difference between restrained drinkers, social drinkers and addicts like him. “All of us who have gathered here are victims of a disease called addiction. People like us cannot stop drinking after tasting it. We need to have self-control”, he says.

The AA meetings were miraculous in his case as his life was resurrected from being on the verge of collapse, Govindan recalls. “When I joined the AA, my wife used to wait outside for me just to ensure that I did not walk away. It then proved to be a miracle. At the time of joining the AA I was drinking heavily as I wanted to die”, he says.

The AA reached Chennai in 1950 and has been effective in Madurai since 2001, says Karmegam (40), another senior member.

“Since 2001 it has benefitted more than 1000 addicts and their families. The concept in the AA is very simple. We ask the members to avoid drinking the next day and then attend the meeting in the evening to tell us how their day was. We ask each member to do this for a minimum of 90 days. The senior members offer them moral support during the 90 days and extend the support to the members who keep in touch with us”, he explains.

According to him, some of the AA’s members are teenagers. “A few students in the high school and higher secondary are brought to the AA by their parents, who say their wards are addicted to consuming shoe polish and whiteners”, he says.

“Some of the newcomers who come to us or are brought to us by their family members are generally in a bad condition. If they have suffered any physical damage because of drinking, we take them to a doctor. In the beginning, until they get accustomed to the regular meetings, we ask them not to talk about their past. We ask them to avoid friends who encourage them to drink. And we insist that they eat properly because hunger is a major factor that leads to drinking”, he told The Hindu.

Janet Sankar, Professor at Madurai Institute of Social Sciences (MISS), says that detoxification needs a multi-disciplinary approach.

“In MISS we organise awareness camps frequently where we insist that the spouse of the addict and the children play a major role in overcoming the addiction. The social stigma attached to the addicts should be changed and the society should realise that they are not criminals but are people suffering from a disease”, she says.

The AA also organises discussion among the spouses of the addicts to ensure prevalence of a supportive ambience at the home as well. “My husband has sold everything from utensils, jewels, bike and my silk sarees for the sake of drinking. I and my children have been beaten on several occasions. When we came to know about the AA, he was in a chronic condition. Today he is more patient at home, helps my children in studies and is not angry as he used to be before. In the meetings for women we discuss as to how we understood what they went through and how to help them overcome it”, says Parvathi (32) (name changed for anonymity).

K.S.P.Janardhan Babu, director (programmes), M.S.Chellamuthu Trust, says, “Two out of ten persons who come to ‘Trishul’, a de-addiction centre run by the trust, are adolescents. Most of the addicts are hesitant to go for de-addiction programmes fearing social stigma”, he concludes.

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