It looked like a beach party--nearly 150 people gathered on a sunny Sunday morning in Redondo Beach, carrying coolers, drinking from paper cups, working on tans, laughing and celebrating.
It was a little different, however, from the beach parties shown in wine cooler commercials.
The people at the Redondo Beach gathering were helping each other stay away from alcohol by sharing their experiences and thoughts with other members of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was one of three AA meetings that are held each weekend on Los Angeles-area beaches--two in Hermosa and one in Redondo. They sang Happy Birthday to several members celebrating the yearly anniversaries of their sobriety.
Brad, an alcoholic and a drug addict, explained that the AA program emphasizes enjoying life. “Part of that is finding a nicer place to (meet), such as on the beach, in the sun.”
For most of the alcoholics and drug addicts, the beach meetings are a way to get something they need--an AA meeting--and something they want--the outdoors--at the same time.
“There’s a lot of magic to being in the open,” said John, a 14-year member of AA. " . . . It gives people kind of a validation to their place under the sun.”
The groups meet on the beaches every week--predictably with fewer people in the cold, rainy, winter months. In Redondo Beach they crowd in under a leaky tarp when it rains, and in Hermosa Beach they have met under lifeguard stations or other makeshift shelters.
A woman named Cindy said she attends the smaller beach meeting in Hermosa--usually about 20 people show up--solely because of the other members there, not to work on her tan. A few people attend the beach meetings fully dressed or hide from the sun under large umbrellas, but most come clad only in swimwear.
Many say that meeting outdoors and communing with nature is better than getting together in smoke-filled rooms. And some feel that the good weather and nice surroundings help to lift people’s moods.
“I love the beach; I love the ocean; I love AA; I love the outdoors,” said Roger, another participant. " . . . This to me is the ultimate.”
“This is the epitome of Southern California,” said Claudia. “We drink coffee and we’re on the beach.”
But the reminders of alcohol also were there: “Foster’s Lager--Australian for beer,” read a sign trailing a plane above two recent Sunday morning beach meetings. In Hermosa Beach, it was ignored; in Redondo, it was laughed at. The alcoholics say they’re not bothered by the reminders, and can’t afford to be, since such ads are everywhere.
And, as Claudia said, “If I want to stay sober, it doesn’t matter where I am.”
Tom learned that the hard way. “The way I learn, unfortunately, is from a lot of pain,” he said at a recent meeting, distraught from the memories of the previous weekend. He had been sober for about six months. Then, after a long Friday at work, he “slipped.”
“I had this obsession to do what I like to do best--smoke cocaine, freebase,” he said, looking humiliated. “The only thing that stopped me was I ran out of money. If I had a thousand dollars, I’d still be there, or I’d be dead. I’d probably be dead.”
Members usually don’t comment on each other’s stories, but relate their own. One newcomer to AA, however, said he was inspired by Tom’s story “in some weird, twisted way.”
The inner turmoil clouding the faces of Tom and other addicts and alcoholics recalling painful experiences seemed out of place on the sunny beaches, where the biggest concerns of many visitors seemed to be keeping a volleyball in the air or rolling over at the right time to get a good suntan.
Some said they never enjoyed the beaches while they were practicing alcoholics, because they were either drinking on Sunday mornings or sleeping off a hangover.
Now, many make the meetings a part of a day at the beach with friends and family. For a man named Emmett, the meeting and socializing afterward are “like a family picnic.” A child occasionally wanders over to the group during a meeting to get a towel or something to drink from a parent.
Sometimes an adult approaches the group, too, curious about the gathering. Most wander away. But sometimes, according to members, an onlooker wanders over and ends up joining the group--for good.
For Carol, the beach meeting was less intimidating at first than other AA meetings because of the open environment. “In the beginning I was scared,” she said, “so I kind of sat on the outside.”
Many in the groups tell their stories, even painful ones, with humor, drawing knowing laughter from the others. Others speak of recent triumphs: facing the end of a relationship without turning to alcohol, accepting their parents or standing up to them, shedding the burden of other people’s problems.
A few said being on the beach and in a less restricted environment made people more honest and able to open up more easily than at other AA meetings. “We’ve never figured out what being on the beach has to do with it,” a woman named Leslie said.
Tommy said he feels the opposite--more restricted in what he can say at the beach because he’s aware that “outsiders” or “normies” might overhear what is being said.
Susan, an alcoholic and addict, said that honesty is not influenced by the location, but rather by the other people in the group and their individual experiences.
In any case, she said after a recent meeting, “I’m grateful that I’m on the beach and not in the gutter somewhere.”