By ELISE HONNINGDALSNES
Chimgee was already four drinks down when the phone rang. It was her husband. After three days of silence he finally called her, but what he said was the last thing Chimgee wanted to hear.
“I can’t live with you anymore,” he said.
When she asked him why, he offered no more of an explanation than “I just can’t,” before hanging up on her. Chimgee pored herself another drink, it was already 2:00 p.m. and her daughters would soon be home.
Chimgee used to drink before her husband left, but suddenly when she was left alone with their two young daughters in their home in outer Ulaanbaatar, she went into a dark place and alcohol became the only solution. Not a day went by without heavy drinking. “I drank heavily, I was always drunk,” Chimgee says about her past.
In Mongolia, there are more licensed points of alcohol sale per person than in any other country in the world. The issue of alcohol abuse has gone so far that it has been labeled a national security and it is one of the major public health challenges in the country. It is said that Mongolia has nine months of winter, and it is commonly known that depression hits harder in the dark.
Elena Kazantseva, coordinator of the National Health Program, says that people living in isolated, colder places are more likely to suffer from depression, and alcohol is often the easier solution. Most cases at the mental health hospital are cases of addiction, and then especially alcohol abuse.
The woman who greets me when I arrive is a beautiful lady in her 40s. She looks good and she has a pretty smile on her face. You would never expect her to be an alcoholic with
many drunken years behind her. The former university teacher has been through a lot.
“I destroyed everything, I lied and stole from my daughters,” she says, “I knew their father gave them money, so I used to go through their clothes and things to find money. When they asked me about it I pretended that I didn’t know what they talked about.”
As many others in Mongolia and worldwide, Chimgee struggled with drinking problems.
“I’m a different person when I hit the bottle, I have so many bad sides to me when I drink,” she says. Chimgee has now been sober for more than five years, and she attends regular Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings. Usually she goes to the women’s group twice a week.
There is only one women’s group in Ulaanbaatar, but there are about 20 groups that men can attend. Women are also welcome to these meetings, but many choose to stick to the women’s group because many of them have had bad experiences with men and alcohol. Men in Mongolia drink five times as much as women.
“Every day I used to go to the bar where I drank vodka with the guys. They did dark things to me and I hated them because they’re bad people,” Chimgee says without going into depth. “Usually, at every meeting we hug each other. In the beginning I used to run out of the meetings whenever a guy tried to hug me. Now I don’t mind at all, I actually like giving them hugs,” Chimgee says laughing.
AA is not very well known in Mongolia and many people don’t know where to go for help with their problems. Chimgee wouldn’t have found AA if she hadn’t begged her doctor for help.
“One day I realized that I had to stop drinking, I was ruining my daughters’ lives and I couldn’t bear it anymore. Still drunk I went to the hospital where I told the doctor that I had a problem, I just couldn’t stop drinking. She told me that there was no medicine that would cure me, but she suggested going to AA,” Chimgee says. “I didn’t know what AA was, but she told me about it and said that it would probably help me. My first reaction was that I wouldn’t meet such awful alcoholics, especially not the men!”
There is a well-known stigma when it comes to alcoholics in Mongolia. Chimgee says that the label is hard to deal with sometimes as people tend to look down on people with drinking problems.
“For normal people it’s very hard to understand, but alcoholism is a mental and a behavioral disease,” she says, “I think that I drank so much because it made me feel better, I’m more social when I drink. Usually I’m shy, but I turn into a social and fun person when I drink.”
When a family member drinks heavily, it affects the whole family.
“My daughters have suffered so much from my alcoholism. I realize that me being drunk all the time for so many years, really affected them. I wasn’t there and they couldn’t trust me,” Chimgee says, “I can never make it up to them, but every time I manage to get my hands on some money, I give it to them. My daughters now trust me, they know I’m sober and they know I’m there for them. I’m as honest as I can with them and tell them stories.”
Another member of AA, Bat, found out about AA through a friend.
“I was living on the streets, it was after the change of power in Mongolia and times were rough. I drank every day, I wanted to drink myself to death,” he openly tells us.
When walking around Ulaanbaatar today, you will see plenty of drunk men in the streets. No matter the time, you will find them sipping on their vodka bottles and talking loudly to the foreigners, inviting them for a drink. Many of these men have been kicked out of their homes due to their drinking problems and violence.
Bat spent years on the streets and only realized what way his life was going when his best friend died. He has now been sober for 13 years and he is now married to another member of AA. Together they have two kids and a happy home.
AA is a support group where people have to come voluntarily. They help each other through hard times and they always listen when you’re ready to talk.
“I’m not happy, but now I feel better about myself, I have so many friends in AA and I like to share my experience with them. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be happy, I destroyed so much and I always wonder that if I hadn’t gone through this period, maybe I could have been a good wife and a good mother,” Chimgee says.
“It’s very hard to tell these dark stories, but sometimes we just have to look back and be open about it, it is a common problem,” she says.
Note: Some names in this article have been changed fro privacy.
By ELISE HONNINGDALSNES