by Michael Sweeney, JD, CADC III
Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have
saved many lives since Bill W. and Dr. Bob first got sober in 1935. Although AA
meetings are occasionally depicted in films or on television, nothing can
compare to the experience of attending a meeting firsthand. For people who are
contemplating attending their first AA meeting, this article may allay some
anxiety and dispel some illusions about what to expect.
AA meetings can be held anywhere, but frequently they take
place in public buildings such as churches or schools—accessible locations that
usually have plenty of parking. Approaching the meeting location, you may see
people gathered outside, chatting before the meeting starts (or smoking, as
many AA meetings are now smoke-free). Frequently, there is coffee available.
Most AA meetings start (and end) on time, so at the scheduled hour the
chairperson or group secretary will call the meeting to order. Other
conversations stop and people take their seats. The chairperson will announce
that the meeting will begin with a moment of silence, sometimes followed by the
recitation of the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom
to know the difference”). Sometimes, other readings are included, such as “How
It Works” from chapter five of the text Alcoholics Anonymous,
colloquially known as “The Big Book.” (The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous
was published in 1939 on oversize paper because the group received a good price
on the paper, making the book larger than standard publications.)
As the meeting begins, the chair usually asks if there is
anyone attending AA for the first, second, or third time ever. The chair may
then ask if there are any out-of-town visitors. The purpose is to welcome
guests and newcomers. Individuals who are at their first AA meeting or have
less than 30 days of sobriety may be welcomed with a hug and awarded a “keep
coming back” coin or chip. The chair may talk for a few minutes and then will
call on meeting participants to talk or “share” and may request that they limit
their comments to three to five minutes and restrict their discussion to issues
relating to alcoholism and recovery. Sometime during the meeting, the chair may
open the meeting to anyone who has not been called on who really needs to talk,
frequently referred to as a “burning desire to share.” People who are called
upon to speak usually do so by identifying themselves, for instance, “My name
is Michael, and I am an alcoholic.” The group usually responds with “Hi,
Michael,” and then the individual speaks for a few minutes. If a person is
called upon and does not wish to talk, he or she has only to say, “I think I
will just listen today,” or, “I’ll pass.” Another safety feature of the
meetings is there is no cross talk or interruption. Unlike group therapy, AA
members share their own experience, strength, and hope with each other, rather
than telling one another what to do.
At some point, the meeting pauses for announcements and to
collect funds for AA’s Seventh Tradition, which states that AA groups are
self-supporting through their own contributions. Cash donations of a dollar or
two are usual, although newcomers are not required to contribute until they
understand what AA is about.
Most meetings last one hour or 90 minutes. At the end of the
meeting, the group members stand, join hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer or
the Serenity Prayer, for those who care to join. With slight variations, this
basic meeting format is the same throughout the world, varying only in
language. An AA member can walk into a meeting anywhere and feel at home.
What else should one know about an AA meeting? Some meetings
are “speaker meetings” where one individual talks, usually sharing the story of
his or her recovery. Others are “discussion meetings” where everyone shares,
talking about a topic or whatever is on his or her mind. There are also “Big
Book” or “Step Meetings” where AA literature such as Twelve Steps and Twelve
Traditions or Alcoholics Anonymous are read and discussed. An AA
meeting may be “open” or “closed.” In closed meetings, only alcoholics (or
individuals with a desire to stop drinking) may attend. Open meetings are open
to anyone, including family or friends of an alcoholic. Meetings may also
address a specific population such as women or men only or gays and lesbians.
In all meetings, attendees are urged to observe the confidential nature of the
sharing, expressed by the saying, “What you see here, stays here.” Sometimes
you may encounter a meeting composed of professional men and women. There are
organizations such as International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous or
International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous (www.ilaa.org). Many of the
lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) feature meetings for lawyers only.
If you are interested in attending an AA meeting or any of
the other 12-step programs, please call your local LAP for information about a
meeting near you. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP)
maintains a directory of LAPs in each state. See www.abanet.org and go to legal
services, then click on the CoLAP directory to learn how to reach your local
LAP director. All state programs have confidentiality provisions so you may
safely access programs without fear of losing your anonymity.
At meetings you may witness a lot of laughter and joking.
People in AA are not a glum lot, and they insist on having a good time. The
humor shows itself in an AA meeting, and newcomers are frequently surprised to
hear members laughing about an incident that might seem grim or unfortunate.
Usually, the laughter is based on identification with the speaker, as well as
relief that sober people are no longer getting arrested, crashing automobiles,
or engaging in unmanageable drunken behavior.
Sometimes, anecdotes express important lessons in AA, or
“the Program,” as some members refer to it. For example, a few years ago Tiger
Woods was playing in a golf tournament. His ball was lodged behind a large
rock. The question was whether that rock was a movable object or was Tiger
going to have to take an unplayable lie and a penalty stroke. Tiger alone could
not move the rock despite his great strength. Four or five individuals stepped
forward and collectively as a group were able to carry the obstruction away.
Tiger played the shot without a penalty. Clearly, the power of the group was
greater than the individuals’ power alone.
Some people who have never attended an AA meeting express
unease with 12-step programs because of “all the talk about God.” In AA, “God”
is to be understood as “a higher power”—interpreted in any way that works for
you. Therefore, a “Group of Drunks” (GOD) providing “Good, Orderly Direction”
(GOD) can be the higher power for the alcoholic if he or she so decides. AA is
a spiritual program, not a religious one, and takes no position on political
issues or any controversy.
The success enjoyed by Alcoholics Anonymous has been so
great that many other groups have developed using the AA model for meetings and
the 12-step format. There are Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Overeaters Anonymous
(OA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Sex Addicts Anonymous
(SAA), Co-dependency Anonymous (CODA), and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA),
just to name a few. Of course, there is Al-Anon for the spouses, family
members, and friends of alcoholics. For the purpose of simplicity, this article
talks about AA, but the word cocaine, sex, emotions, gambling, etc., can be
substituted for the word “alcohol” in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and
other 12-step programs follow similar formats.
Many treatment centers, whether inpatient or outpatient,
involve the use of the 12-step format. One of the goals of treatment is to
assist alcoholics to break through their denial about their disease and to see
the problems alcohol has caused in their lives. Treatment centers also like to
involve the client in 12-step programs because part of the ongoing recovery
process will consist of aftercare, including maintaining sobriety and
attendance at outside support groups. With more than 100,000 AA groups in 150
different countries and a membership of more than 2 million, treatment
providers know that recovering people can find AA meetings readily available.
Research also indicates that participation in 12-step
programs increases an individual’s chances for sustained recovery. A 1999 study
at UCLA found that patients who completed treatment and participated in 12-step
meetings had twice the abstinence rate compared to those who completed
treatment and did not go to meetings. In a 1994 study of 65,000 patients who
attended AA after treatment, those who attended AA weekly for one year had a 73
percent rate of staying sober. Of those who attended AA only occasionally, 53
percent stayed sober. In contrast, those who never went to 12-step meetings or
stopped going had a 43 percent rate of sobriety.
If you think you may have a problem with alcohol, you
probably do. Now that you know what to expect from an AA meeting, try attending
meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and see for yourself if the solution that has
worked for more than 2 million people can work for you.
is reprinted with permission from Michael Sweeney, JD, CADC III, an attorney counselor with
the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program. This article originally appeared in the
October/November 2004 issue of GP Solo, Volume 21, Number 7.
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