We tend to associate alcoholism with northern European countries, but it is also a problem that affects many Spanish people, male and female, and of all ages.  I spoke to Luis Cok, who is the President of APAEX (Asociación para la Protección y Ayuda de los Ex-Alcoholicos - the Association for the Protection and Help of Ex-alcoholics) in Torrevieja about his life and the work of his association.

APAEX Torrevieja was founded in 1978 and at present has 250 people in attendance at its various meetings.   It was set up to help alcoholics start a new alcohol-free life and to provide support for their family members.  As Luis pointed out, if someone is an alcoholic then they are one for the rest of their life.  The most important key to rehabilitation is to recognise the fact that you are an alcoholic, and to acknowledge the fact to other people.   Only then can you start to deal with the problem on a daily basis and gradually learn to change your habits and attitudes.

APAEX is funded by the local government and has a full-time psychologist and a lawyer.  When a person first comes to the association they are referred to the psychologist who assesses their case.  There are two possible courses of action, either they are sent for treatment in the Unidad de Conductas Adictivas where they are under strict medical supervision or they may be sent directly to the Clínica Betera which is in a village near Valencia for a 21-day rehabilitation programme.  The first job of rehabilitation is to completely clean out the body system – which in itself can be very traumatic, and then starts a teaching process about what the person can and cannot do.  Very often alcoholics are deceitful in their personal relationships, so there needs to be a dialogue established with partners and children.  Alcoholics need to learn to be truthful to their families as well as to their friends.  If someone offers them a drink they should say, “No, I can’t have a drink, because I am an alcoholic.”  If they do not admit the fact openly, then they are leaving the way open to return to the habit at any moment.  They have to explain that although it might only be one beer now, the next day they will want two and the following day  three, and as the alcoholic has a low tolerance to the effects of alcoholic, he or she will fall straight back into alcoholism. That is why acknowledging and explaining the situation openly is so vitally important. 

In the case of many women, it is not so much a problem of social drinking as secret drinking at home.  Sometimes a woman will drink in the morning when her husband is out, and then sleep off the effects with a siesta so that by the time her husband arrives home she is sober.  Eventually though, her addiction will become apparent.  The alcoholic often arrives at the door of the association in a state of desperation because he or she has been threatened by the family – either you do something about your problem or we will leave you.  In Luis’s personal experience this process took a very long time.  His addiction started when he was a very young man in Madrid.   He started drinking at 17 when he lost his parents, and was married at 19.  Despite his heavy drinking habits his wife has stayed with him over the years,  but he was completely alienated from his son for a very long time.  He eventually came to the association seven and a half years ago and has been able to overcome his habit of a life time.  He is now reconciled to his son and lives a happy and fulfilling retirement here in Torrevieja.  His self-respect has been restored and he is able to deal with many normal situations which would have been impossible for him before.

The association holds therapy groups twice a week for alcoholics in their first year of rehabilitation, from then on the meetings are once a week, and there is a group session for wives and partners once a week.  They tried to start a group for husbands of alcoholics but it received little support so it had to be suspended.  They also organise holidays away for members and their families and are going to Tenerife in October.  These are so helpful as people learn to share their lives with each other in a different situation and can help each other in many ways.  APAEX is affiliated to regional and national associations and as president Luis is a delegate at national level.  The association has a success rate of 65 to 70% in the first year.  It is essential that people continue to come to meetings regularly after that, otherwise sooner or later they will succumb again to alcohol.  However, there is a drop-off in attendance, so it’s impossible to know what the long-term success rate really is.

APAEX is open to foreigners, but unfortunately they have to be able to speak some Spanish.  The whole crux of the therapy is about communication – members must talk about their experience and listen to the advice of others, so obviously this is impossible if there is a language barrier.  At present there are one English person, one German, three Russians, one Scandinavian and several South Americans in attendance. Even though they can’t speak Spanish perfectly, they can make themselves understood and follow what is said to them.  There is an AA group in Torrevieja which is also open to foreigners.

Finally, we talked about the social aspects of alcoholism in Spain.  Luis is seeing that younger and younger people are falling prey to alcohol and a lot of this is to do with the changes in behaviour.  Years ago youngsters were strictly controlled by their parents, but now it is typical for young people to be out of the house from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon without their parents knowing where they are or what they are doing.  What do they think they are doing all this time?   Of course as well as drinking they have to take drugs to keep them going all that time without sleep.  It is a big problem in the cities, although the government has recently banned the “botellón” – which involved buying alcohol from supermarkets and drinking it in noisy groups out on the streets.  (This habit was getting out of hand in Spanish cities, and as it was dangerous for the participants, as well as disturbing the neighbourhood,  the government finally clamped down about a year ago.)   Sometimes very young people come to the association with drink and drug problems.  APAEX deal with one part, and they have to go to the association called Esperanza y Vida (Hope and Life) to deal with the drug addiction.  In this sad situation there is at the moment a young married man of 23, who is also the father of a small boy.

For Luis his role as president is a great source of comfort.  “APAEX opened its arms to me and helped me when I was at rock bottom.  It is very satisfying to be able to give back some of the same happiness to others that the association has given to me.” 

APAEX, c/Zoa, 73, Torrevieja.  Open afternoons and evenings from 18th August.  Tel:  965 707 166 / 966 704 036


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