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Paynesville Press - October 16, 2002

Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates 50 years in Paynesville

By Michael Jacobson

(Editor's Note: To reflect the anonymity used by Alcoholics Anonymous members at their meetings, sources for this story are identified by fictitious first names. These are local members of AA, but their names have been changed.)

Alcoholics Anonymous started in Paynesville in August 1952 when four men - two from Paynesville and two from Eden Valley - held the first meeting above a local bar.

Soon Father Joseph Varley aided the group and they met for a time at St. Louis Catholic Church.

Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps AA groups, which have multiplied, still meet today. Paynesville still has four active groups, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of AA in town. The groups meet on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Hospital, on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Hospital, on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Center, and on Fridays at 8:30 p.m. above Ben Franklin.

Groups in Eden Valley and Lake Henry have split off from the Paynesville groups. In Lake Henry, AA meetings are held on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. at St. Margaret's Church.

The total membership of the four Paynesville groups is nearly 100 people, though the average weekly attendance might be half that. Including the groups in Eden Valley and Lake Henry, total membership in AA is around 150 people.

AA's 12-step recovery program starts with admitting that you are an alcoholic, that you can't fix it yourself, and that you need to rely on a higher power (God, as you understand him) for help. Members credit the Alcoholics Anonymous support group for their sobriety.

"We all have to meet to know we are recovering alcoholics. We share the same disease," explained John, who has been sober and attending AA meetings for seven and a half years. "If we need help or can give help, it's there for what we need."

"We're sharing our experiences," explained David, an 11-year member. "By sharing our experiences, we're getting stronger."

"Our sobriety does depend on the meetings. We need that reminder," stressed John. "We need to hear from other alcoholics. We need to hear what it was like."

Mary has attended AA for the last 18 years, since her family arranged an intervention and had her attend a 30-day treatment program for her alcoholism. When she was released from the hospital, they told her to attend AA. And she plans to continue with the program forever.

The program gave her serenity, she said, and helped her fight her hereditary disease and refrain from using alcohol. "Life just got too good to mess it up by not going," she said of being alcohol free with the help of AA. "I liked the improvements in myself too much."

"It's a new life compared to what we had," agreed John. "Compared with what we had, it's the top of the world."

"Really you've just been through hell," he added. "You're a slave to the disease."

Alcoholism, like diabetes, is a lifelong disease, members believe, and it needs lifelong treatment. "There is no cure," said John, who still regularly attends an AA meeting each week. "It can be treated."

The idea that alcoholics are just drunks who can't handle their booze or have some character flaw, while receding, is still common. Thinking that an alcoholic is a skid row bum is backwards, according to John. The person is probably on skid row because their alcoholism has ruined their life, he said.

Alcoholism is also an ecumenical disease, affecting Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and anybody else, said John. "Human power alone can't cure alcoholism. We have to believe, as we say in AA, in a power higher than ourselves. God, as we understand him," said John.

Meetings offer a mixture of emotions: fun, sad, emotional, serious, and spiritual. They reflect life and the variety of effects of alcoholism. The meetings are built on the trust that what is said and shared there stays there. In addition to that anonymity, it's a meeting of peers, people who know what it's like to be an alcoholic and who don't look down on it. "Everybody's in the same boat," said David.

Members know that alcoholism is a cunning, baffling, powerful, and patient disease, and most alcoholics start in denial about their disease. But in a room with other alcoholics, it's tough to fool anyone. "BS don't cut it in AA," said John. "People see right through it."

What is needed for an alcoholic to successfully use the AA program is to have the desire to quit drinking. This may not happen overnight. In fact, lots of people are court-ordered or doctor-referred to AA, but only personal desire to stop drinking makes the program effective, David and John agreed.

"Everybody knew I was supposed to be there long before I did," said David.

"Keep coming back," he urged. "If you don't get AA, eventually it'll get you."

John knows. He was ordered by the court to attend AA 20 years ago, went for his required year, and then reverted to his old life and ways. Nearly eight years ago, when another DWI led to further legal problems, he resumed attending AA meetings, at first because he thought it would help his position in court. Then, after some soul searching, he decided to stay with the program and stop drinking and using drugs.

"One thing about AA (is) they don't shoot their wounded," explained John, on how AA welcomes people back to the group. His experience with AA 20 years ago, while not successful at the time, helped prepare him for his success this time, he believes.

"I believe if I quit going to AA I'll start drinking and using again," said John. "It might be two weeks or two years, but my alcoholic personality will justify using again. That's past history."

"I don't want that," he continued. "I don't want to lose what I have. I have a good life. I have a good family. My kids love me. It's worth keeping, and I need the program to do that," he added.

Recovering alcoholics still have cravings, which is why each group has an emergency phone list. They also have sponsors who can help.

Members even have their own code words. A bar, for example, is a slippery place. A wedding reception is a slippery situation. Alcoholics not only must fight their disease; they must break old habits, build a new life not centered around alcohol, and learn to successfully deal with temptations.

"Alcoholism and drug addiction ruin lives," said John. "It affects the people around you as well as yourself."

Al-Anon - a support group for friends, family, neighbors, and anyone else affected by an alcoholic - is celebrating its 40th anniversary. This group started in August 1961. Wives of the original members had met informally for years prior to the formation of the official group.

Al-Anon still meets on Monday nights at 6:30 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Center.

To learn more about Alcoholics Anonymous in Paynesville, call 320-243-3680 or 320-243-4660.

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