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Germany

Celebrating 50 Years of Fighting Demons

Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates the 50th anniversary of its opening in Germany on Thursday. Although such an event warrants celebration, it also shows that AA is still sadly in demand.

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Alcoholics Anonymous offers a way out of the personal hell of addiction

“My name is Max and I am an alcoholic.”

And so begins another session of Alcoholics Anonymous for Max, a 60-year-old man who has been fighting the demon drink since he first uttered his admission at a meeting way back in 1966.

“In the morning, I had to start with a drink. I would leave home and go to the kiosk at 7 a.m. to get a pack of Underberg (schnapps). And at 9 o’clock when the first bar opened, I’d go in there and hang out.”

Max started drinking as a young man, indulging in his preferred tipples of beer and schnapps. He would drink socially with friends and acquaintances in the evening but when they realized that they had had enough, Max would continue drinking alone until he was in a drunken stupor. When his university studies started to suffer, he knew something had to change and he turned to Alcoholics Anonymous.

50 years of support and recovery

The organization which helped Max and thousands like him celebrates its 50th anniversary in Germany on Thursday. The global support organization, which offers help to alcohol addicted people in over 150 countries, opened in Germany on October 30, 1953, just over 30 years after the first group was formed in the United States. The German branch held its first meeting in Munich two days later.

Bock Bier mit Whisky

The philosophy has remained the same since day one. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and the primary purpose of the organization is to help people stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety. There are no fees for AA membership; the organization is self-supporting through charitable contributions and fund-raising activities, most of which are staffed and planned by the members themselves.

On the one hand, 50 years of support and recovery is a cause for celebration. Alcoholics Anonymous has helped scores of Germans to battle the booze since it was established, helping addicts through the 12-step program to recovery and offering constant support thereafter as the constant fight to stay dry takes over the part of their lives that was dedicated to drinking.

Sad reminder of continuous struggle

Bierabsatz sinkt

On the other hand, it is a sad reminder that these conflicts go on and that the need for Alcoholics Anonymous is as strong now as it was 50 years ago. Around 1.6 million people in Germany are registered as having alcohol addiction and many thousands more go unnoticed in alleyways and parks across the country. As Max knows only too well, for those people who suffer every day, the continued efforts of Alcoholics Anonymous keep those who choose to seek help alive.

After taking that first step to get help 37 years ago, Max stayed on the wagon for 16 long years without a drop of alcohol passing his lips. That is until a personal tragedy in the 1980’s sent him tumbling back into a world of addiction that almost killed him.

“One minute, I was fully crashed out in a stupor and the next I was in the hospital with my mother sitting there, beside her 46-year-old son who was a total wreck.” It was this moment -- and the stark news from his doctor that if he continued to drink it would eventually kill him -- that forced a sceptical and unwilling Max back into the arms of AA. He has now been dry for over 19 years.

Working together to beat the booze

Now he and around 40 others gather at the AA meeting room in Cologne to reaffirm their pledge to stay away from the bottle every Wednesday at 8 p.m. The atmosphere is smoky -- although one vice is constantly being purged, another is permitted to soothe frayed nerves -- and the only drinks on offer are mineral water and coffee which stand in plastic cups on the creaking table. It is a scene that takes place in 2,700 AA groups across Germany every week.

Ehemalige Wechselstelle im Grenzübergang Berlin Friedrichstraße

Kiosks are a constant temptation.

Monika, a member at the Cologne branch, wanders through the crowd, acknowledging fellow addicts and greeting old friends. She looks up at the banner draped across the wall and comments on its message. “The meeting is called ‘Alcoholics Anonymous -- A Life Program.’ I will always be an alcoholic and I will also always stay on this course… because alcohol lurks on every corner.”

A life long program

Even though ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’ seems to be the reality, the support structures put in place for AA members go a long way to helping addicts maintain a life without booze. It may not be what some consider a normal life but for people like Max it is incomparable to the alternative.

“Today, you’ve heard about my life. Others go playing cards or go bowling once a week. I go to my meetings. That’s how it will always be.”