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Alcohol abuse is widespread among expats, experts say: Alcoholics Anonymous offers help for some

By David Morrill

Gerard, coordinator of Cuenca’s English-speaking Alcoholics Anonymous group, recalls standing on the second-floor balcony of the AA meeting room on Presidente Borrero on a Friday afternoon several years ago. Across the street, on the balcony of Zoe Bar & Lounge, two Gringo Night revelers raised their cocktail glasses in salute.

The bar scene for expats is active but most of the serious drinking occurs at private parties.

“I’ll never forget the irony of that,” Gerard says. “They knew I was with AA. I’m sure there were a few drinkers in the barroom behind those guys who could have used our help.”

Zoe is long-gone, as are the large-scale Gringo Night gatherings that, at their height, attracted a significant percentage of North American expats living in Cuenca. What’s not gone, however, is the fact that there are many expats with serious drinking problems.

“There are people everywhere who can benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous and there are probably more expats in need of it than in the general population,” says Gerard, who is careful to point out that not everyone who drinks heavily is an alcoholic. “Many people are able to control it and walk away when they need to. There are others, like myself, who need the help that AA offers.”

A 2013 Gringo Night crowd mugs for an ABC tv news camera in a feature about Cuenca expats.

Research supports the fact that expats have a dramatically higher rate of alcoholism than the population generally, as well as the fact that expats tend to be more reluctant to admit the problem and seek help.

“There has always been a serious drinking problem among expats, both those who have retired abroad and those who are working abroad,” says British drug and alcohol counselor Kathleen Simmons. “Expats, no matter where they live, tend to gather with those from their home country and drinking always plays a big role in those gatherings. Because of peer pressure, it’s more difficult for those with extreme problems to recognize the fact. There’s a high rate of denial.”

Cuenca expat Jerry Schaller agrees and says what he calls a “drinking culture” is entrenched among the expat community. “It’s not so much a bar scene in Cuenca, although there is plenty of that too,” he says. “You see the heavy drinking more at parties and at special events. There are certain folks who feel like they’re on holiday all the time even though they’ve lived here for several years. For them, it’s always party time.”

The AA meeting room on Presidente Borrero. Meetings are held every day at noon.

Schaller, who worked with the U.S. Veterans Administration in Virginia as a rehabilitation counselor, says there’s a much sadder, private side to alcoholism than what people see in public. “You see the happy drunk at the party. What you don’t see is the private torment, the drinking alone and the agony of trying control a runaway train.”

Cuenca expats are lucky to have a strong chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, Schaller believes. “It’s a great program. I steered a lot of veterans to it back home,” he says.

Ecuador’s only daily AA meeting

Cuenca’s English-langauge AA group formed in 2011 and is the only AA group in Ecuador that holds daily meetings — and possibly the only one in South America. “I know people who have chosen to live in Cuenca specifically because we have meetings every day,” Gerard says. “They might have been interested in living somewhere else but it was a deal breaker that there wasn’t a strong AA in those places.”

A sign on the wall in the AA meeting room.

The local group has 47 permanent members, many of whom attend the daily meeting on Presidente Borrero. “Most of our members are retired, in their 60s, and about two-thirds are men,” Gerard says. “On average, members have been sober for 22 years.”

It’s the group’s experience with confronting and controlling alcoholism that makes it valuable for those who need help, Gerard says. “We are eager to reach out to others who want it,” he says. “We are comfortable with each other since we all have the same disease and have dealt with it. We are happy to share our experience.”

He adds: “There’s a saying that AA will not open the gates to heaven and let you in, but it will open the gates to hell to let you out.”

… and another sign.

In addition to expats, Cuenca AA welcomes a steady stream of visitors. “Many tourists attend our meetings and some of hem tell us we’re a life-saver,” he says. “They’re traveling with friends and family, surrounded by parties where a lot of drinking goes on, and they need an AA meeting. They tell us they had no idea there was an English-speaking AA group in South America.”

The local AA meeting also welcomes a number of part-time expats, particularly snowbirds, who come who come to Cuenca during the winter in the U.S. and Canada.

AA is non-judgemental

Gerard emphasizes that AA is a non-judgemental organization. “There’s a misconception that we are a religious group, and we’re not. We accept everyone and don’t ask questions about peoples’ background. Anonymity is a key aspect to AA.”

“AA has a spiritual foundation,” he says. “For most of us, the idea of a higher power is important in helping us deal with our alcoholism but members choose their own concept of what this higher power is. We don’t tell you what you should believe.”

A women’s problem

Although Gerard says AA wants to reach everyone in need of assistance, he is particularly concerned about expat women. “In our experience, there are more women than men out there who need help,” he says, adding that he’s not sure why. “It may be because it’s easier for men to come forward and admit their problem. It may because more expat women live alone.”

He says Cuenca AA sees many women who attend a few meetings and then drop out. “They are still in Cuenca since I see them around. They still need help,” Gerard says. “Our message to them is, please come back, attend the daily meeting or the Thursday women’s meeting. We are here to help you.”

A lack of intensive rehab programs

Another issue faced by Cuenca alcoholics is the lack of an alcohol treatment and rehabilitation center. “Some people need more than AA. They need immediate, intensive help to simply dry out and there isn’t that kind of facility here,” Gerard says.

“Some expats actually go back to the states to enter a treatment program,” he says. “When they recover, they come back to Cuenca but they really need continuing services.”

He adds: “In the future, we hope that these services will be available in Cuenca.”
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Alcoholics Anonymous in Cuenca meets every day at noon at Presidente Borrero 7-68 between Sucre and Presidente Cordova in the historic district. The AA meeting room is upstairs, facing the street. The women’s AA group meets on Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Meetings are free and all are welcome.

For more information, contact Gerard at gtretton@yahoo.com