Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest

aaI recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time. I’m not an alcoholic myself, but a friend of mine who is let me sit in as a guest. It was a fascinating experience.

The meeting was held in a church basement in a room dedicated to AA. A large AA banner hung on the wall next to a list of the famous 12 steps that guide the program’s philosophy. As people filed into the room, I was immediately struck by the diversity of participants. There were people who looked legitimately homeless alongside people dressed in nice button downs who could have fit right in at any law office. Black, white, hispanic, Asian. Fresh faces out of college next to people who seemed to be pushing 80. About an even male-female split. Truly, all walks of life.

After opening remarks from the volunteer coordinator, one participant got up and delivered a brief speech about his life. He was to be the main speaker for the day; everyone else who spoke at the meeting did so in reaction to the main speaker’s comments. The main speaker shared his story, abiding to what I gather is the suggested format: what it was like before, what happened, what it’s like now. Or: what life was like as an alcoholic, what catalyzed you to change, and what life’s like now. What it was like for him before was pretty brutal: constant drinking, constant fighting, constant arrests. What happened was that he hit rock bottom, one or two arrests away from heading to the slammer for good. What it’s like now is that he’s a successful business owner, property owner, and faithful husband.

He finished his remarks by saying: “Thank you for helping me stay sober today.” Today was a common theme. Day by day. To not drink for the rest of your life feels overwhelming; to not drink for the rest of the day feels within reach. Focus on today.

As people spoke in reaction, they introduced themselves with the famous utterance, “My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” Everyone else said, “Hi Joe.” Joe then proceeded with his comment.

One person who spoke in response had been sober for just two days. He was struggling. Another had been sober for 11 years, and yet still attending daily meetings. Another had been sober for six months, and yet was nervous he was going to fall off the wagon. His doctor had prescribed pain killers after a surgical procedure and he felt tempted. (Prescribed pain killers by doctors came up three times in this meeting.)

At the end, everyone held hands and repeated the Serenity Prayer aloud.

As I walked out, I envied the community and fellowship to which I had just been witness. A lot of people seemed emotionally close to others in the room who they’ve seen multiple times a week for years. One person said they had met their spouse at AA. I imagine for some AA is as much about a social network that functions in everyday life as it is a place where one focuses on sobriety. I could feel social connection in the room.

As the most popular addiction treatment philosophy by far, AA ought to be subject to scrutiny. And there are many critiques of AA. One is that it was designed to help the most severe alcoholics — those truly powerless over alcohol — but it’s routinely adopted by a broad section of the population. Indeed, an estimated 12% of people at AA meetings are there by court order after a DUI or such. It’s not clear that getting a DUI means that you’re powerless over alcohol and cannot ever take another sip — and that you must attend a meeting every day. Another critique is that the 12 step program should not be expected to work for everyone and yet many people in addiction-recovery believe just that. Those evangelists believe that if you fail in AA — as countless people have, the exact numbers being hard to measure given the decentralized nature of the org — it’s your fault, not the fault of AA’s unique approach. In fact, AA is just one of many, many approaches to dealing with addiction. Finally, there’s a view that says that if alcoholism is truly an illness it ought to be treated with real medicine, not treated with therapy as practiced by volunteers and peers.

What I do know from my one in-person experience at a meeting and from my friends who attend daily is that some number of people are being greatly helped in AA; that the social bonding and social accountability is real and critical to the recovery process; that the words shared in the room, at least in the one I attended, are wise and eloquent and useful. Those who find success in AA find it to be a real blessing.

Update: I edited the second to last paragraph to clarify that the official organization doesn’t blame people who do not succeed with AA’s approach–it’s rather a stance that critics attribute to AA evangelists. Also, see this comment in the comments section of this post for a response by one person who attends AA.

8 comments on “Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest
  • We crave to reveal our deepest selves and be accepted. It’s a shame AA isn’t available for people who simply want to belong to a community.

    • AA’s 12 Steps have formed the basis of dozens of other fellowships for various problems (Crystal Meth Anonymous, Clutter Anonymous to Overeaters Anonymous, etc.). For people who have no struggles of this sort, I would recommend Al-Anon. Originally founded by AA’s co-founder’s wife as a fellowship for the loved ones of alcoholics, it’s a really great program for anyone who has to deal with human beings in any way. I get a lot out of it myself, both for dealing with the addicts in my family and the workplace and for remaining focused on the fact that managing others’ feelings and lives is not my responsibility.

  • I’ve asked Ben to correct the part that claims AA blames people who don’t stay sober in AA for not staying sober. That is untrue and I’m not sure what his source was for that, but I am certain it was an honest mistake. (Of course, AA has no control over what individual members of AA believe or say.) The fact is that some people are not ready for AA when they first find it, and need to do more “research” to find out if they are an alcoholic or merely a problem drinker (AA’s literature distinguishes between the two, and specifically suggests that people who are not sure which they are try some controlled drinking and see how that goes.)

    I just wanted to make the point that AA is not just about abstinence from alcohol. Alcohol is only mentioned in the first step of the 12 Steps; the rest are all about how to live a meaningful, serene, useful life. AA makes no claim to being the only way to stop drinking, or the only way to lead such a life.

    For many people, stopping drinking is just the start – the bare minimum we have to do in order to have a shot at anything else good in life. Common sayings you hear in AA meetings include, “I came for my drinking and stayed for my thinking,” “When a horse thief stops drinking, what do you have? A sober horse thief,” and “I don’t have a problem stopping drinking. I have a problem staying stopped.”

    When my psychotherapist/psychologist told me, nonchalantly and without any gravity in his voice, that I should go to AA, I told him I hadn’t had a DUI or lost a job or lost a relationship, and in fact my ambition was keeping pace with my desire to “have fun.” He told me I didn’t have to wait for those things to happen, but I was welcome to do so. He also told me, “If you are going to do therapy OR AA, I would implore you to go to AA. Those people can help you far more than I or any medical professional ever can.”

    The 12 Steps offer a design for life that some of us didn’t get growing up. Even if some magic pill could take away the phenomenon of craving experienced by alcoholics and addicts after taking the first drink, that pill would not give me guidance in how to live a meaningful, serene, useful life. Nor would any medical professional.

    Life still happens even after you stop drinking. Help dealing with life on life’s terms is the #1 thing I get from AA meetings. That comes through hearing how others do it, seeing ordinary people do extraordinary things in recovery, and seeing evidence on a daily basis that no matter what happens to me, no substance is going to help me. For eight years, nothing so bad (or good!) has happened that I have felt the need to pick up a substance. And when those bad and good things happen, I go to meetings and share about it so that newcomers can see that it’s possible for them.

    So to say or imply that AA dictates that one “needs” to go to a meeting every day is also not true. AA doesn’t dictate anything; even the 12 Steps are referred to as the 12 *suggested* steps! The fact is that I came every day in the beginning because I needed to, and since then, I have come every day because I want to. Nothing in my life has been as meaningful or fulfilling as seeing people transform their lives by putting down a drink and learning to live sanely. Seeing someone go from day one – often physically decimated, and feeling an incomprehensible demoralization that all of us have known at some point in our drinking/drug use – to having years of recovery and making an amazing life for themselves (and helping others to do the same) is an incredible experience I get have on a daily basis. I hate to think I ever would have missed out on this. Why on earth would anyone need to drag me to a meeting, or order me to go, when the rewards for doing so are so immense and intense?

    Finally, I want to address Ben’s distinction between those who are “truly powerless” and others. AA doesn’t diagnose anybody and in fact is very clear that each individual needs to decide for his or herself whether they are alcoholic or not. The literature talks about younger people coming in and being spared decades of damage to themselves, their lives, and their loved ones thanks to hearing the experiences of those who waited until later in life to get sober. I was 29 when I came to AA and I thought my life was over, that I had destroyed it beyond repair. But my brother told me I was “stupid” to go to AA, since I hadn’t had a DUI (maybe because I didn’t drive at the time, though I had driven drunk with him in the car many times as a teenager), lost a job, etc. My best friend at the time, a registered nurse, told me I was “being dramatic” to quit drinking and should just focus on trying really hard to have one or two. (Turns out her own husband had secret, multiple DUIs and she was concerned that if I was an alcoholic, he might be too.)

    AA takes no position on this. I have heard people in meetings express the opinion that if you come to AA and your life gets better, maybe you’re an alcoholic. I have also heard that it’s not how much you drank or how frequently, but what it did to you. It’s progressive affliction; it doesn’t get better, it gets worse. So while I was “only” a binge drinker, the fact that as a teenager I had a bottle of liquor in my closet and would cry and drink it alone in my room was, in retrospect, one of the first signs of the progression for me. (I didn’t remember this until I had been sober three years.) Point is, people like to compare their drinking to others when what someone else drinks has nothing to do with any single individual’s drinking. If you are desperate enough to go to an AA meeting, it might be a sign that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life is in some way unmanageable. (That doesn’t necessarily mean external unmanageability.)

    More importantly, AA doesn’t force anyone to call themselves an alcoholic. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” I have friends who consider themselves drug addicts who drank alcoholically, and they introduce themselves as, “Hi, I’m Jane, I’m a member of AA.” These are people with 25+ years clean and sober in some cases.

    How does AA work? It works just fine. “Figure it out” is not one of our slogans. I wanted ALL the answers when I first came to AA. But eventually I realized the questions didn’t even matter to me. If someone cares to attempt to intellectually decode AA, that is their business. But personally, I object to such people claiming that AA “doesn’t work” and discouraging people from going.

    This weekend, thousands of people are heading to Atlanta for AA’s International Convention. They will come from approximately 80 countries around the world. They represent a fraction of the people who are being helped by AA today, and who have been helped in the 80 years since AA was founded in Akron, Ohio by two hopeless drunks. (Think not just of the drinkers themselves, but of the ramifications of sobriety on families, friends, and workplaces.) The amount of good AA has done in the world is literally incalculable. To suggest that it is negligible defies reality and sanity.

    One more note: Please treat the denouncers with the same amount of scrutiny you apply to AA. The founder of the Moderation Movement, Audrey Kishline, ended up killing two people in a drunk driving accident. AA accepts, and explicitly states in its literature, that for those who are problem drinkers (as opposed to alcoholics), moderation is possible. But for those of us who are not capable of moderation (it’s not like people don’t try moderation, often for decades at a time, before coming to AA!), that is not the answer for us.

    AA is not a cure, it’s a solution. Again: How does it work? It works just fine.

  • AA is a cult founded by the same people involved in the founding of Scientology. You’re really only welcome if you stop questioning and accept the *cough poison* meeting-and-ego-addiction-induced oxytocin.

  • I am sorry to see your comment.
    It is completely false.
    For those who want to try AA:
    Attend an AA meeting, and draw your own conclusions.

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