12-Step Meetings

I attended my very first AA meeting — voluntarily — about three months before entering rehab after my worst self-detox yet, five days of agony. But I didn’t go because I thought I belonged there. I went as aversion therapy.

The meeting didn’t discourage my preconceived prejudices. I read the 12 Steps on the wall and found objections to more than half from the “God thing” alone. I looked around the room and didn’t identify with any of the two dozen people there, a scraggly-looking bunch. (I certainly didn’t realize that after a five-day detox, I probably looked a lot worse than they did.)

I don’t recall what they said except that there was a speaker who talked for about half the meeting about how out-of-control his life was until he found AA and got sober. At the end, they held hands and prayed, which made me very uncomfortable.

I remember my reaction exactly: I wasn’t like them. If it worked for some people, good for them. But they were alcoholics and I, still in denial, insisted I wasn’t. I didn’t go to the meeting to learn anything about getting or staying sober. I was sober. Weak and sick and emaciated, sure, but sober. In my fifth day of detox, I was still swathed in misery and determined never to go through that again. But just in case, I went to an AA meeting to show me what my life would be reduced to if I didn’t finally control my drinking. I’d end up sentenced to a lifetime of meetings like the unfortunates I saw in the room. I wouldn’t let happen to me, I was certain.

Despite my dubious purpose, however, I was struck by one thing the speaker said: the program enabled him to live an honest life. When he was using he lied about everything and could never keep straight what he’d told to whom. “Honesty is so much simpler,” he said. That struck me because I knew I’d lied the same way. Not bearing the burden of living a life of falsehoods was tremendously attractive, so I remembered it. That nugget didn’t make me willing to admit I was an alcoholic or enter treatment. But it planted a seed that was later nurtured in rehab. And it proved to me that you can go to AA meetings for all the wrong reasons and still get something positive out of them.

Not surprisingly, after landing in rehab and being forced to attend, it took a good while to get over the feeling that AA meetings were punishment. To me, the standard invitation for newcomers to identify ourselves was asking me to pile disgrace and dishonor on humiliation. I wanted to fade into the background to the point of invisibility not stand out in front of audiences big and small proclaiming my weakness. If I had to declare myself an alcoholic, I’d want to wear a burka.

I asked how long I was supposed to go to meetings. The counselors said, “Go until you like them.” I didn’t understand that but kept going, first because I had to as an in-patient, and afterward because they said if I didn’t, relapse was nearly inevitable and relapse meant death.

As I kept attending, though, my attitude evolved. I couldn’t help but notice that though I was reluctant to go to nearly every meeting, I invariably came out feeling better than I went in, convinced that going was beneficial and my hesitation was misplaced. I could access the group’s hope and strength even if I had a hard time believing it was possible in advance.

Early on, I also found it impossible to ignore the sameness of all the stories: “I was addicted and it ruined my life; I got sober and was saved.” Over time I realized the difference from meeting to meeting was what Icarried to each: my emotional/psychological/spiritual state unique in that moment. So, I found the AA cliche, “You hear what you need to hear,” to be true. I could hear something I’d heard at meetings many times before but because of where my head was that day, I’d perceive it in a different way, relevant to how I was feeling right then. Old ideas could have new meaning.

Since it’s a lot easier to see the irrationality of drug abuse in others’ lives than in one’s own, one of the most important things I got from attending meetings was a look at others’ irrationality. That made me reflect on my own, just like my rehab mates’ First Step Stories. Meetings were also invaluable to practicing gratitude. At a meeting, I could always hear from someone whose situation was worse, usually much worse, than anything I faced.

And meetings, especially the big ones like where I first shamefully confessed, “Steve, alcoholic,” in front of least 200 participants, re-enforced the ordinariness of sobriety. When that many people identify themselves as one type of drug abuser or another without a trace of disgrace and in some cases with more than a bit of celebration — one participant at a meeting I attended for many years famously always said, “I’m still just one damn drink away from a drunk,” despite his decades of sobriety — even a shaky rehab resident with barely a week’s sobriety has to be impressed.

But most importantly, what I heard at meetings provided a bottomless source of hope, inspiration, and support. That was so beneficial I went to at least a meeting-a-day for years. In early sobriety, after my relapses, and whenever I felt particularly shaky, I sometimes went to two or three a day without complaint. And to my amazement, I got to the point where I liked them.

AA Meetings are an informal therapeutic community. You can drop in on a meeting and get immediate help. And if you keep going to the same meetings, you get to know the people who attend regularly (and they, you), which deepens your connection to the community. Meetings are a good place to find people who “have the serenity you want” and ask them to become sponsors who can lead you through the 12 Steps.

At meetings you hear variations on your own story told by others, proving that you’re not alone, that you’re not the only one who has been overwhelmed and baffled by your continuous irrational reliance on drugs that have turned on you. You’re not the only one who has gone from thinking drugs are the solution to all of life’s problems to understanding that they’re the cause of them.

Addiction is often characterized as a disease of isolation. Just going to a meeting where there are people can help break through that isolation. It’s nearly impossible to over-estimate how positive it can be for someone who feels alone to have a place to go where people welcome him with open arms, remember his name, take an interest in his welfare and urge him to keep coming back for more of the same warm welcome. Social support is tremendously beneficial. I heard this expressed by one speaker who said, “What I found at meetings was people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and who loved me when I didn’t even like myself. They taught me how to do both.”

In my experience the most important thing you hear is honesty. Yes, there are people who share because they like to hear themselves talk (and it’s a challenge in recovery to ignore that), but they still may have things to say that can be helpful. And the overwhelming majority share honest emotions, admit their insecurities and grope to express what they need to get out of their systems at that moment in a way that can help others.

So, for example, it’s OK to cry at meetings (though there’s at least ten times as much laughter in my experience), it’s OK to drop the pretense that everything is OK, to admit to having crazy thoughts and having done illogical, irrational things (there’s always someone who’s done nuttier things than you).

Hearing people share raw emotions so honestly is astonishing in a world where everyone spends most of their time trying to look good. More surprising is that honesty is contagious. Hearing someone else talk about his failures and struggles, his craziness and obsessions, his self-doubts and denial, not only makes you reflect on your own, it opens you up to the possibility that you could emulate that honesty. You see that it’s OK to be honest in a meeting and that people accept you anyway. What you learn is that AA meetings are a supremely safe place to talk about how you feel and you’ll be met with understanding and compassion. That’s what I mean when I say meetings are informal therapeutic communities.

There are a variety of types of meetings. Some are “open” to visitors while others are intended only for alcoholics or addicts. At most meetings all stages of recovery are represented from the newest of newcomers to those with decades of sobriety. That mix reminds you of where you were when you were a newcomer, forecasts what you might achieve with continued sobriety, and remind you of the insanity that will recur if you relapse.

There are “speaker” meetings where the speaker shares “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” Others are “speaker-discussion” meetings where participants talk about issues brought up in the speaker portion. There are also book-study meetings focusing on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, or other sobriety-related texts. There are meetings just for men and others for women. There are meetings in Spanish. There are meditation meetings. In some places, there are meetings for gays, lesbians and  transgenders. Especially in large population centers, there are such a variety of meetings that you can always find one that fits you. No matter the format, the underlying themes remain the same: helping one another face the challenges of living a sober life in fellowship with others who have been there.

For the next article in the Treatment series click here.

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