David (not his real name) said he’s always had a drinking problem. But when he moved to Qatar, “it spiraled out of control.”
The British operations manager said he would typically start drinking as soon as he came downstairs in the morning, or even sometimes in the middle of the night, to help with the tremors he felt from withdrawal.
“The only thing to cure it was with alcohol,” he said, estimating that he consumed about two liters of vodka daily. “I couldn’t hold a job, I was a bad husband, a bad father. I couldn’t even sleep at night.”
Roughly three months after moving here, David said he needed help and – on the advice of one of his wife’s coworkers – called the helpline of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in Qatar.
An hour later, two of its members were at his front door.
After years of heavy drinking, David faced serious health risks if he were to stop cold turkey, so he was taken to Hamad General Hospital, where he was medicated and spent the night.
In the morning, the two AA members were still there with him and arranged to take him to his first meeting the following day.
“I was absolutely terrified to go because I knew my whole life was going to change,” David told Doha News in an interview last week.
For David and others like him, AA’s chapter in Qatar has served as a lifeline for many combating alcoholism. But most people don’t even know the organization exists here.
AA in Qatar
AA’s Qatar branch was founded in 1988 by an Indian expat from Goa who was a member of AA in his home country, according to Sam, a long-time Scottish expat and AA member.
Like “David,” the educational administer asked that his real name not be used in accordance with the organization’s rules around anonymity, particularly in media interviews.
In its basic form, AA is a form of group therapy, during which recovered alcoholics share stories about their own drinking problems and describe the sobriety they’ve found with the organization’s help. They also invite newcomers to join the informal fellowship, the organization says.
Found in the US in the 1930s, AA popularized the 12-step recovery process that begins with the addict admitting he’s powerless over alcohol, admitting the nature of his wrongs, making amends with those he’s harmed and eventually spreading the message to others.
While the steps involve improving one’s “conscious contact with God” and refer to a higher power, some members said it can be a spiritual and not religious process.
The Qatar chapter grew slowly at first, with members gathering in each other’s’ homes for meetings twice a week by the mid-1990s, Sam said.
The group is now comprised of 50 to 60 regular members – about 10 of whom are women – and meets nine times a week, mostly at the Hamad Psychiatric Department in Al Muntazah.
Don’t blame the brunches
AA Qatar operates in a country that has a complicated relationship with alcohol.
On the one hand, the sale of liquor is tightly controlled. Qatar’s only bars are located inside high-end hotels and private clubs where admission is theoretically highly regulated.
Additionally, expats need their sponsor’s permission to obtain a license to buy alcohol for home consumption.
But at the same time, some expats say binge drinking is part of life in Qatar, where hotels attract customers with happy hour drink specials and Friday brunches featuring free-flowing booze.
“With a disposable income and a safe distance from the responsibilities of life back home, Western adults have a habit of reverting to a kind of adolescence in Doha,” former expat Dane Wisher wrote in an essay titled How to Drink in Qatar earlier this year.
However, Sam said the country’s drinking culture is unlikely to turn individuals into alcoholics.
While there may be triggers in Qatar that accelerate the process, such as the stress of being in an unfamiliar country, he said alcoholism is a disease and a compulsion.
“If they didn’t have the brunches, they’d still drink at home,” he says.
Some people come to Qatar with the hope of finding a “geographic cure” and “reinventing themselves” by moving to a place where alcohol is harder to come by, Sam said. But this rarely works, he added.
“If an alcoholic wants a drink, he or she will find it.”
Reaching out to alcoholics who need help can be a challenge in Qatar.
In some countries, individuals may be sent to AA after being arrested for public intoxication or running into other alcohol-related problems. But in Qatar, those same offenses can lead to jail time and deportation for expats, meaning most referrals to AA are from friends, family members and employers.
Some AA Qatar members also come from the government-run Al Aween social rehabilitation center and Naufar treatment facility.
Locally, senior members are trying to expand that network to include more medical professionals. In February, they invited several doctors to a workshop to let them know that there was a place for their discharged patients.
Members have also been trying to reach out to men living in Industrial Area labor camps. Though the majority of them are effectively prohibited from drinking alcohol, individuals still drink sadeeqi moonshine and booze from the Qatar Distribution Co. that was resold on the black market.
However, Sam said labor camp supervisors often refuse to let them onto the premises or instruct their employees not to go out and meet them.
The anonymous and decentralized nature of AA make its success difficult to measure.
However, some experts have questioned its effectiveness, particularly its strict prescription of abstinence and reliance on leaders who lack professional training.
In The Atlantic last year.Gabrielle Glaser, a journalist who writes frequently about addiction issues, reported:
“The 12 steps are so deeply ingrained in the United States that many people, including doctors and therapists, believe attending meetings, earning one’s sobriety chips, and never taking another sip of alcohol is the only way to get better.
But although few people seem to realize it, there are alternatives, including prescription drugs and therapies that aim to help patients learn to drink in moderation. Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, these methods are based on modern science and have been proved, in randomized, controlled studies, to work.”
For his part, Sam said AA does not hold a monopoly on treatment and recovery. But he also argued that an alcoholic would take a fellow alcoholic more seriously than someone who hasn’t been through the same experiences.
“When (a new member) comes to me, I know his wife isn’t happy even though I’ve never met his wife. I know he has no money and that he probably owes money. And I know he probably has an urgent meeting with his boss who is on the verge of sacking him,” Sam said.
And for David, AA’s approach has worked.
Through attending meetings, he said he realized he wasn’t alone. He said he listened to other people in the program who told him he had to help others and fill his mind with positive thinking.
“My life is a million times better than it was. I’ve gone back to university and … have a healthy relationship with my wife and daughter. I have friends,” David said.
“It’s now my responsibility now to give the newcomers the support that I received.”
Individuals in need of assistance can call AA Qatar’s hotline numbers at 5560-5901 or 5514-3938 for men and 5505-9489 for women.