First a disclaimer, my most intense AA grudges are rooted in the trauma of growing up Catholic. Otherwise, I would do what many folks do: Focus on the good of AA and ignore/laugh off the rest, plus add a zing of rebellion. I would refer to myself as “AA Member” and not “Alcoholic” because that’s my truth. It wouldn’t matter how many heads whiplashed my direction. Any objectors would be asked to look to the AA Big Book, where the only requirement for Alcoholics Anonymous membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no demands to vocally label yourself, introduce yourself, describe yourself, or identify wholly as an Alcoholic or someone with the disease of Alcoholism. That tradition grew within the group culture. In my meetings, intro lines were all over the map including “Grateful Recovering Alcoholic.” At least that person was leaning away from the negative, baggage-laden, vague, undefined, shame-tainted label of Alcoholic. Just not far enough of a lean away for me.
1. The Program Culture of AA
Some people whine about the structure of Alcoholics Anonymous, the rituals, the slogans, the outdated Big Book language and the AA lingo.
No, it is not a cult but AA is a culture that will feel unfamiliar or even weird in the beginning. But none of it is complicated and the meeting leader explains things along the way, including no pressure to share or say a word. Yes, new people are asked to share their first name to distinguish a new face from a “just new to this meeting” or out-of-town Alcoholics Anonymous visitor, but mostly to give members a chance for a personal welcome, offer of support, or maybe an invitation to join the after-meeting coffee klatch. Some newcomers are starving for support and connection and others are horrified to even be there and only want to run out the door and hide.
Walking that fine line between respect for privacy and support is tough but most AA folks do a pretty fair job. The good news? You’ll get used to the lingo and structure very quickly, and once you do, you can go into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting anywhere in the world and feel a sense of being “home” with your extended family. And that says a LOT. If you move to a new place, you have instant AA friends as your ground floor adjustment. Wow.
2. The Community that AA provides
You will meet some of the coolest people on the planet and a few you want to strangle with both hands. That’s humanity and AA is waaaaay human.
Studies have shown that those with the greatest AA success formed the strongest bonds with others, not necessarily the ones who “did the program” with a sponsor and the 12 steps. Absolutely, the right sponsor can be a life-saving support but my own experience confirmed that the community has the ultimate power to uplift and carry and sustain. I fell in love with some of my Alcoholics Anonymous tribe, with raw truth-telling, with taking off my mask at the door and seeing other beautiful naked faces looking back at me. No one is pretending to be okay, much less perfect. Your hot mess of a self and trainwreck of a life can feel safe, loved and supported instead of judged. I fell in love with the smiles and laughter and tears and shared stories and morning coffees and lunches where our table of sober ladies had the loudest, most genuine laughter in the joint.
My most precious memory was heading out in the black predawn of Christmas Morning for our 7 AM Saturday meeting. No one else was on the road or even stirring in my neighborhood. The birds and wildlife were still sleeping for God’s sake. My little Honda was blasting the bass vibes of a Manheim Steamroller holiday tune as I turned onto a hauntingly empty main highway. The only signs of human life were three sets of rear car lights that I could barely see up the road ahead of me, each one blinking to signal an upcoming right turn. My peeps, my buds, my family, my tribe, my sober fellows! That early Saturday morning group were my beloveds, the ones with the loudest laughter and no brooms up the ass. And there they were, coming together in the wee quiet hours as my collective Christ Consciousness and Santa Claus all rolled up into one heavily caffeinated bundle of warm and fuzzy holiday cheer. The surge of joy I felt in that sacred darkness was pure heaven.
The other thing I loved about Alcoholics Anonymous was the unfolding miracles as sobriety grew in people’s lives. The chance to see someone crawl in broken and watch them heal and grow and blossom, not just personally but in their relationships and financial security and careers. It’s amazing how quickly transformation can occur when the chains of addiction to a poisonous, toxic substance are broken and the True Spirit is free to rise and expand and soar. For some the path is longer and slower but no less miraculous.
3. The accessibility of AA
Depending upon where you live, you are likely to find an AA meeting (or 10 or 20) within a reasonable distance. As the old saying goes, all you need to start an AA meeting is a coffee pot and a resentment. That’s why the number of meetings have grown exponentially in recent years compared to the number of new AA members, but maybe that’s a good thing. More meetings mean great accessibility, more connections, and better chances to find just the support you need in a group you can relate to and love.
Above all, I would always suggest giving AA a try for anyone who is near or at the bottom, for those who feel broken, unraveled, and hopeless or lost in such self-loathing they can’t function. For those who are deeply discouraged and fear that they will never “get it” so why try? That close in-person frequent support of AA can make all the difference.
For starters, it breaks up old routines. You have a new place or places to go that gets you out of their own head and automatically surrounds you with new sober friends who understand the struggle. Alcoholics Anonymous invites you to just come in and sit, cry or remain silent, it’s all okay. And it’s okay if you can’t stop drinking. Unless you are making a scene, you are always welcome to keep hanging out and encouraged to “keep coming back.” The door is always open and the coffee is always on. I’ve heard so many happy-ending stories from people who kept going to AA for a year or two or more before they were able to achieve any solid sobriety. I’ve also heard MANY stories from sober people who found solid ground in the program and then left. Their reasons for moving on were many but in almost every case they add: “I will always be grateful to AA because it saved my life.”
So that’s it, folks. From my heart to yours, that’s the best of what you can find in those rooms. If you are lucky, there will be a contingency of LONG term sober leaders with abundant wisdom about the sober journey but also about personal growth. The program itself provides no real tools, no recovery resources, and no guidance toward holistic, ever-evolving recovery. AA is a spiritual approach (not religious) that relies at least in theory on the workings of a higher power to get and keep us sober. Even the wording of the 12 steps turns a lot of people off, me included, but the best six-word summary I’ve ever heard of the 12 steps is: Give up, clean up, live up. Give up the idea that alcohol is something you can ever control. Clean up the past by forgiving yourself and others and making any amends your heart demands because there’s no pillow quite as soft as a clear conscience. Now focus on living up to your integrity and start creating a truly amazing life. That’s an interpretation I can get behind.
And remember, lots of agnostics and atheists are out there doing their interpretation of the program with great success. Joe C is the official leader of that movement, author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for a 12 Step Life and also the RebellionDogs podcast host. Their annual convention is called Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention, or WAFT IAAC, a combined acronym they pronounce as WAFTY-ACK (and is that super fun to say or what? It sounds like the name of Daffy Duck’s boat).
Thank God we live in the present moment in a world that offers tons of additional tools and books and podcasts and social sites and other program approaches and resources and connections that were never around before. Contrary to what the Alcoholics Anonymous old-timers and hard-core members believe and preach, AA is NOT the only path that works and yes, you CAN walk away without ending up drunk and face-down in the riverbank mud within 48 hours. Millions of people have proven and continue to prove that there are many paths to successful long-term sobriety and the journey of recovery and endless evolution beyond that.
We have learned SO MUCH about addiction and brain function, positive psychology, healing modalities, nutrition, the effects of unresolved trauma, and countless other breakthroughs since AA was founded in the very early 1930’s. Just know that the real magic of AA, the community, the connection, the love, the support, the accessibility—those precious things are timeless. And for some, they will be pure gold.
My sober path may be different than yours but no matter where we are along this magical mystery tour to freedom and wholeness, I’m staying happily alcohol-free today and I’m looking for some colorful companions. Any color, even blue will do.
Anyone joining me?
So much love, Maggy
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