“My wake-up call came after one of my many nights out with work colleagues, when the ‘one too many’ caused me to fall down some steps and almost knock myself unconscious. An X-ray at the hospital the following morning showed I had dislocated one of the vertebrae in my lower back, an injury that needed a lot of medical treatment and is still quite painful. The episode caused me to have a good long look at my social life, and my drinking habits, and after a lot of soul-searching and resolve I cut down.”
This account, from an Englishwoman in her early 30s living in Barcelona, who asked to be called Barbara, will ring true for many. The ‘holiday’ lifestyle, liberal alcohol measures, cheapness of beer, wine and spirits compared to other parts of Europe and a perceived tolerance to drinking here can easily take hold, until gradually alcohol consumption becomes more of a problem than a pleasure. It might be more frequent hangovers, alcohol injuries, the need for a lie-down after one too many at lunch or more weekends spent in club-land oblivion, but sooner or later the alarm bell rings and it is time for action.
Foreign residents with drink problems fall into three main categories, according to Stephen Joseph, a Barcelona-based English physician. The first is the person who brings the problem with them. “Many people come to Spain to escape problems back home, without thinking things through properly. When they get here, they find it difficult to integrate, especially if they don’t know the language. To avoid feeling isolated, they fall into a lifestyle that revolves around drinking, or they start drinking at home on their own.”
The second group, he said, are the “drifters”, the people who move around from place to place every couple of years and find, by their mid-30s, that it becomes harder to move on, so they turn to alcohol to help them cope. “The third group is made up of younger people who are tempted by a hedonistic lifestyle, who find good jobs, feel invincible and want to seize every opportunity,” said Joseph. “These people often have addictions to both alcohol and drugs such as cocaine.”
The move to a different culture can exacerbate an existing problem, if not cause one. Those who are not medically labelled alcoholics, i.e. those who are not physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol, but for whom heavy drinking forms a regular pattern in their lives, may be tottering just below the threshold, said Joseph. “They may not have developed all the signs, but drinking may already be causing social, legal or financial problems.”
What resources are available to people who are having problems with alcohol? The first thing, he said, is a visit to the local Centre d’Atenció Primària where a physician can advise on a treatment plan. For those wishing to speak to someone in their native tongue, group meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can offer invaluable support.
Alcoholics Anonymous Barcelona hosts 10 meetings a week for the city’s English-speaking community, in four locations, and has a membership of around 70 people. Members’ ages range from those in their early 20s, up to their 80s, and they are from various countries and segments of society. Most were alcoholics before they came to Spain, and none of them found any problem getting help locally. “It is our experience that no matter how much help may be available to the active alcoholic, nothing will change unless the individual wants and believes they need help,” said a group spokesman. “We are always working to ensure that any problem drinker who seeks our help will be able to find us.”
One member, an Englishman who asked to be called Bill, found sobriety through the support of a local AA group. Three years ago this month, he hit rock bottom, something he described as “a moment of clarity, when I realised this was not who I was or wanted to be anymore. It was an empty and very, very hollow feeling. When I went home, my girlfriend said she was leaving me. It followed a long string of events during which I had been bingeing on alcohol and cocaine solidly from Friday to Sunday, not remembering where I had been, and sometimes going home covered in blood because I had been beaten up and not knowing a thing about it. The next day, I rang AA in the UK and they gave me the number of the Barcelona branch.”
Like a large number of alcoholics, Bill, now aged 35, was able to hold down a job, despite having been drinking heavily for a number of years. “I remember even at the age of 15 planning what I was going to drink to get drunk and getting really excited about it. As I got older, drinking became very competitive amongst friends, which can be a normal part of the binge drinking culture. For me, however, the craving just took over. I was constantly thinking about my next pint. I didn’t recognise the extent of the problem until that night three years ago…alcoholism is a disease that puts a cloak over your mind and you blame all your problems on everything except the drug.”
AA meetings are free, and the only requirement to join is a desire to stop drinking. “Many people now in AA have been told in the past they are not alcoholics, that all they needed to do was have more willpower, a change of scenery, more rest or even a few more hobbies,” said another AA member. “These same people turned to AA because they felt deep inside that alcohol had them licked and that they were ready to try anything that would free them from the compulsion to drink.”
Bill is certain he could not have got sober without the group’s support. “The first meeting was weird and I felt very uncomfortable. There was a whole bunch of people present that I wouldn’t normally find myself talking to. But it was incredibly supportive. I cried for 20 minutes solid. Just admitting to another person that I had a problem was a tremendous release. I remember thinking that at least there’s hope, and that spark of hope got me back to the next meeting.”
Being able to talk honestly, openly and without fear of judgement is a major part of the recovery process. While many AA members can speak Spanish and/or Catalan fluently, most feel more comfortable speaking in their first language. This may explain why a growing number of foreign residents are returning to their native countries to get help. Linwood Manor, in Lincolnshire, in the east of England, is a centre specialising in the treatment of alcoholism. Staff there have seen an increase in the numbers of people resident abroad, particularly in Spain, seeking help in the last few years, according to director Sue Allchurch.
Professionals and alcoholics concur that accepting you have a problem and getting treatment is only the beginning. The recovery process is ongoing, and people must be given the tools they need to return to a normal life and learn to deal with issues without relying on a drink as their default option. Three years on, Bill goes to meetings three times a week to keep on track and to help others.
“One of the best things for me has been being able to help someone else overcome their addiction, because I know exactly what they are going through. At my worst, the only time I didn’t crave alcohol was when I was asleep. When you get sober, your life is so different. I am now doing all the things I used to just talk about doing from a barstool. I’m still young, although I do look back and think of how much time I wasted throughout my 20s. And money too; in just three months of being sober, I was able to pay off all my debts.”
As Barbara said, “I realised I was using alcohol to help me fit in with a new environment and it was getting out of control. Had I not really hurt myself that night, it could have become a much bigger problem.”
FOR FURTHER HELP:
Centre d’Atenció Primària. Find your nearest doctor’s surgery by calling 93 403 8585 or visit www10.gencat.net/catsalut
Alcoholics Anonymous Barcelona 24-hour helpline: Tel. 616 684 338 www.aabarcelona.org
Meetings are held in Barceloneta, Lesseps, Plaça Espanya and Plaça del Pi. Anonymity assured.
Dr. Steven Joseph: Tel. 93 330 2412
Linwood Manor: Tel. +44 1226 698 054
For information on sensible drinking, visit www.drinkingandyou.com (available in most European languages).