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FASD Awareness Day

September 9 is International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Awareness Day. The 9th day of the 9th month was chosen to remind people that they shouldn’t drink for the 9 months of pregnancy. Seeing as my doctoral research was on FASD, it’s an issue that is near and dear to my heart.

A few facts about FASD:

  • FASD represents a range of disabilities (that’s why it’s called a “spectrum” disorder) – from full-brown Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) to differing levels of disabilities in different areas.
  • FASD is caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy, nor is there a “safe” time to drink during pregnancy, which is why it is recommended that pregnant women don’t consume alcohol.
  • FASD is, essentially, brain damage due to alcohol.
  • While there is no cure for FASD, given the right supports, people with FASD can do very well.  Thus, it is very important for those who have it to get a diagnosis of FASD, so the right supports can be provided.
  • FASD is a challenging disorder to diagnose, and a specially trained professional is required to give a diagnosis of FASD.
  • It is estimated that 1% of people in Canada have FASD.

When I was doing my research on FASD, a comment that I often heard from people was, “Why would you study that? Everyone knows that it’s bad to drink while pregnant. Just tell people not to drink.” Unfortunately, not everyone can easily stop drinking. Alcohol is addictive and addiction is a serious disease. Women who are unable to stop drinking need to be supported by their family, friends, and community, so that they and their babies can be as healthy as possible. The Public Health Agency of Canada has some information on where to go for help on their website.

Here’s a video1 describing the TWEAK – a screening tool we use to help identify people who may have a problem with alcohol:

  1. it was made for last year’s FASD Day []

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I went to an AA meeting with a friend this weekend and I was really struck by one thing: everyone there was a whole lot more happy than people are at AA meetings on TV and in the movies.

Jack at confronts his dad at an AA meeting in an episode of Lost.

Niki speaks at an AA meeting in an episode of Heroes.

I find that portrayals of AA meetings in pop culture usually have a very sombre crowd listening to a heart wrenching story by the speaker about how terrible their life is, with no happy ending in sight. But at the meeting I went to there were a lot of people talking about how much better their lives are sober than they were while they were using. That’s not to say that no one talked about bad things that happened when they used or how hard it is to deal with alcoholism – and there is no doubt that it is a really, really difficult disease to fight – but it was always in the context of talking about how to fight it and that there are things you can do stay sober and build up a better life. There were also a lot of speakers who talk about how friendly everyone at AA is and how these friendships are what helped them get – and stay – sober. And it’s true – you walk into the room and there are smiling people waiting to shake your hand and say “Good morning.” And there is something in their smiles that tell you they really mean it. And everyone is laughing, smiling and having a good time. For sure there were people who looked a little intimidated, or overwhelmed, and no doubt some of these were newcomers who are just starting their journey into recovery. But you also saw people willing to give out their phone numbers to complete strangers so that they can have someone to call when they need it. How often do you see things like that in every day life? Most people won’t even have a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop, let alone give out their number to someone in need of help.

The thing that I struggled with at the meeting, though, was the whole God thing. There are references to God in the 12 steps of AA and many people talk about putting their trust in God, etc. But, of course, not everyone believes in God (and when I hear “God,” I’m thinking of the Christian God), which is where my discomfort with that comes from. It gave me the impression that if you don’t believe in God, AA isn’t going to work. But it was explained to me that “God as you understand Him” can have a very broad interpretation – the “Higher Power” can be anything you choose that will work for you – the idea, I think, is that alcoholism is too big of a disease to deal with on your own and you need support – so the “Higher Power” could be, for example, the support of other AAers – it just needs to be something beyond yourself. And from what all the speakers were saying, the support of others is really key.

It was definitely an interesting experience to go to an AA meeting (of course, I study addictions for a living, so I think it’s extra interesting for me) – I hadn’t realized that some AA meetings are open to anyone to attend – uplifting to see a group of people so willing to help others, so positive about the future despite having been through so much.

Read more about alcoholism on the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism website.

To find an AA meeting near you, just Google to find a meeting directory for your area. For example, the Vancouver meeting directory can be found here.