Annette thought she only drank socially — but she realized there was a problem after she lost track of her three daughters during Mardi Gras in New Orleans because she was drinking beer at a bar. She said it was a miracle she managed to find her kids again.
“I thought my family had issues with alcohol, but not me,” she said.
Now sober for 33 years, Annette shared the story of her personal struggle with more than 100 recovering alcoholics at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Saturday. The gathering was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous in the Baton Rouge area.
At regular meetings, AA members share their stories and support each other through a 12-step program as well as sponsorships designed to combat alcohol addiction through lifetime sobriety. The members remain anonymous, except to give their first name and their last initial.
Another longtime member, Charlie J, said he can still vividly recall his last drink. It was 10:30 a.m. on a Monday morning on Jan. 8, 1973, when he woke up and began to drink some Canadian Club whiskey, then suddenly decided to pour out the rest. His recovery began from there, he told the audience.
Charlie knew he needed help soon after he was pulled over on the interstate near Omaha, Nebraska, for driving slowly. When the officer asked him why he was driving at such a low speed, Charlie said, “When I drink, I drive slow.” The ensuing arrest was his fifth DWI arrest. But the judge offered him probation and a promise to enroll in AA or face jail time.
“I’m very fortunate,” he told the audience. But, he added, “You got to keep coming.”
The first Baton Rouge meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was held on Dec. 10, 1944, at the Laurel Street apartment of Pat O’Brien, who later went on to cofound the O’Brien House almost three decades later, members said.
O’Brien had read about other chapters starting nationally — the first AA meeting was in 1935 — and he published a newspaper ad inviting people to meet the following day to discuss staying sober according to John M., an AA member who researched the group’s local history for a presentation Saturday.
Only seven people showed up to that first meeting in Baton Rouge, John M. said. But eventually the meetings were held in other people’s homes, in a room of the since-closed Bruin Hotel where a manager would let the group use a room for free and in a cottage-style house with holes in the floor on Scenic Highway that was eventually torn down.
The network expanded dramatically over the decades, to roughly 300 registered meetings across the city spanning several thousand members, John M. said.
Coming to meetings wasn’t easy for Annette in the beginning. One gathering in the early 1980s was filled with bikers, and she remembers one of them picking his teeth with a knife. “I thought, ‘This is weird,’ ” she to the audience with a laugh.
But she added that she quickly was “astounded by their wisdom.” Annette has met more than a dozen friends who have stayed sober with her for about three decades. She ultimately met her current husband at a meeting. Their 28th anniversary was Saturday.
“So many of us drank to be who we wanted to be,” she said. “With each other we found we could just be ourselves and be comfortable with each other.”
Other members also recounted the intense fellowships they’d formed. Karl looked up to attendees more than 30 years his senior when he showed up at the age of 15 in 1996. He was estranged from his family, had dropped out of school and had logged arrests for truancy and drug possession.
“When they described what went on in their heads, I could relate,” said Karl, who wore a tie and dress clothes on Saturday and added he has since finished high school and has a job. “It was like they read my mail or something.”
He added that he hoped to be sober just like other members in their 80s. “It was the first time I felt like I was part of something,” he said.