I recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time. I wasn’t there because I had any issues with drinking. Instead, I wanted to learn for myself what this program is all about. Before I attended, my knowledge of AA was very limited. I knew only that the program has 12 steps and that sponsors help people stop drinking. To be honest, I never planned to attend an AA meeting, but the opportunity arose and my curiosity was piqued.
My oldest daughter is required to attend an AA meeting this semester as part of her nursing curriculum. She asked me to accompany her because she was a little uncomfortable going on her own. I thought as a health-care professional this would be a valuable opportunity for me to learn about the mindset of an alcoholic and get a glimpse of the recovery process.
Just a few days before I went to the meeting, someone close to me was diagnosed with pancreatitis. She’s a lifelong drinker and I feared that her behavior would catch up with her at some point. She’d always been a very “functional drinker” in that she kept a job and her behavior seemed unaffected by alcohol. As a result, it was very easy for her to deny that she had a problem. She often said that she just liked “to enjoy life.”
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After her diagnosis, I’m fearful that her life might soon be cut short by the ravages of alcohol.
I didn’t even realize that alcoholism is related to pancreatitis, but heavy alcohol consumption is the most common cause of this condition.(1) Pancreatitis can be life-threatening as it can cause the lungs, heart, or kidneys to fail. Patients are advised not to drink or smoke as this can cause the condition to progress.
When the opportunity arose to attend an AA meeting, I immediately thought about how I could be there for my sick friend. She was supposed to go to rehab soon and I knew it was going to be very difficult for her to stop drinking. I wanted to learn what she was going to go through and how I could help her.
I went to an all-women’s AA meeting and was amazed by what I saw. These women were from all walks of life and did not fit the stereotypical image of an alcoholic. They were also at all stages of recovery. One woman had only been sober for two days and another said she had been without a drink for over six years. The prevailing theme was one of support and understanding.
During the meeting participants were encouraged to share their stories. There was no pressure whatsoever to speak and attendees could pass their turn if they so desired. Many of the speakers felt as if alcohol controlled their lives and that they had made a mess of their lives as a result. They also shared the belief that a higher power (not specific to a religion) could restore order to their lives.
I learned that Alcoholics Anonymous has an extensive recovery guidebook referred to as the Big Book.(2) It has been around since 1939 and details how thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. The main purpose of the book is to show other alcoholics how to recover. It is free to view online, and there were many copies available at the meeting I attended.
AA also has an excellent resource guide written for health-care professionals available online, and it can help us understand how the disease of alcoholism can affect our patients. It explains how alcoholics tend to be evasive when asked about their drinking habits. Underestimating their alcohol consumption is common and they’re likely to deny there’s a problem. Most alcoholics are reluctant to be referred to Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s very helpful if you can tell them what it’s about from your personal experience.
As far as joining AA, the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. They believe that the recovery process is continual and achieved one day at a time. The group’s main purpose is to stay sober and help others achieve sobriety. Membership is free and meetings are held often in a variety of locations.
After I attended the AA meeting, I made a comment to a patient about how I found the experience very enlightening. I was shocked when the patient told me that he was an alcoholic. This was someone who I had seen for many years and I had no idea that drinking was ever a problem for him. I always looked forward to seeing him and I enjoy our conversations. He told me that he had been sober for a long time, but that he still attends meetings occasionally. He also said that AA had saved him and that it was a truly amazing organization.
Attending an AA meeting was truly an eye-opening experience that I will never forget. I recommend that all health-care professionals attend an AA meeting when they have a chance. It will help you understand how debilitating alcoholism is and how to relate to your patients who deal with it on a daily basis. Most importantly, it will help you encourage your patients with drinking problems to seek the essential support system they need to begin the recovery process.
Note from author: There is no nationwide meeting finder for Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather, they have a website that leads to each local organization's website. This in turn provides people with meeting locations and dates. I was told that AA loves to have health-care professionals attend their meetings and that no advance notice was needed. I felt so welcomed! Click here for the link for the Local AA finder.
Amber Metro-Sanchez, RDH, BA, has practiced dental hygiene for 11 years with Dr. Chris Bible at Comfort Dental in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was a member of the 2015 Colgate Oral Health Advisor Board. Amber has been a contributing author for the Colgate Oral Health Advisor webpage since March 2016. She can be reached at [email protected].