For Near-Beer Drinkers, Non-Alcoholics Anonymous a Refuge

BOSTON. For Jay Van Sang, his first taste of Miller Lite–the original “light” beer–was a revelation. “It was less filling, just like the ads said,” he recalls wistfully. And was the other part of the advertising campaign–“tastes great”–also true, this reporter asks. “Nothing’s perfect,” he notes.

“It . . . it didn’t even taste like beer.”

 

From that initiation into the world of “near beers”–malt beverages containing less than 0.5% alcohol by volume–Van Sang moved on to higher quality products as the market expanded; Amstel Light and Beck’s Premier Light, for example, which sought to counter claims that reduced calorie beers were less flavorful than their higher-calorie “regular” competing products. “I was on a hamster wheel,” he says ruefully. “I’d drink too much light beer in search of the taste of real beer I was missing. Eventually I went ‘cold turkey’ and switched to non-alcoholic beer.”

But that change had an unexpected side effect of its own; clinical depression. “My old friends would see me walking out of a ‘packy’”–local slang for a retail liquor store–with non-alcoholic beer and I’d be subjected to hoots and catcalls.” The low self-esteem this abuse produced resulted in physical symptoms. “I couldn’t sleep and would scratch myself even though I didn’t itch,” he recalls. “My hair started falling out in clumps–I had to do something.”

“I can’t fake it anymore. Unlike light beer.”

 

So Van Sang joined Non-Alcoholics Anonymous or “NAA,” the first program of its kind to aid those who have drinking problems without the alcohol. “It’s been a godsend,” he says as he enters a low-rise building in this city’s South End, which has historically been a dumping ground for those afflicted by substance abuse before yuppies made it fashionable to step over winos on their way to high-paying jobs.

The nondescript facility where NAA provides its services faced neighborhood resistance when the organization first leased the building. “I don’t want a bunch of guys who can’t hold their beer sleeping off faux hangovers on my front steps,” said Bob Naleszkiewicz, a bond trader. “Suck it up and get drunk like a man,” he snaps at a disheveled panhandler holding a sign that says “Just want to get a 0.05% buzz on.”

“Let’s go get you a REAL beer.”

 

Inside the building, the rules parallel those of AA: members retain their anonymity but must admit that they are present because they have a problem that needs treatment. The anonymity helps people preserve a boundary between their jobs and families, and the confessional process they hope results in a cathartic recover. “Say you go to a meeting and you see a guy who works in the next cubicle over from you,” Van Sang says. “By remaining anonymous, you can return to work after lunch and pretend you had an affair or robbed a bank on your break, instead of sitting next to him at an NAA meeting.”

This reporter wishes Van Sang “good luck” for lack of something more direct to say. After a few minutes of shuffling of folding chairs as the regulars and a few newcomers take their seats, a pregnant quiet descends upon the room. A few nervous glances are exchanged, and the staff member who chairs the meeting lays down some ground rules; discussion is to be limited to matters pertaining to recovery, not “politics, sports and revenge,” the three principal pastimes of Boston according to the former president of the Boston Garden. After a few moments of throat-clearing by several men don’t produce a speaker, Van Sang raises his hand and is recognized by the chair.

“My name is Jay,” he begins, “and I’m a non-alcoholic.”

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