Not to many people want to go to their first AA
meeting. Most cases this in fact is an occasion of extreme shame,
dread and despair. Most individuals going to AA for the first time are
doing so reluctantly, usually because they promised someone, or because
they have been directed to attend by a judge, an employer, a therapist
or a treatment program. Nobody wishes to require the help that is
provided by AA, and as a result virtually everyone attending their first
meeting wishes that they were someplace else. (I sure did) It takes courage to walk into an
AA meeting for the first time. Most severe drinkers simply lack the
courage to take this first step under any circumstances. They commonly
hide their fear by critical, often cynical remarks about AA and the
people who do have the courage to attend.
If no friend
or acquaintance who happens to be an AA member is available, contact can
always be arranged by calling the local AA Central Office and asking for
a volunteer to telephone one. Although many people avail themselves of
such measures to reduce the stress of their first AA meeting, many
others find such logical preliminaries themselves too frightening and
therefore do not follow them. It is principally to this last group, to
those solitary and always frightened and confused 'first timers,' that
this brief introduction is oriented.
Although there is a great deal of information about AA available on
the web and in traditional print, there is surprisingly little to be
found that deals with the practical concerns and fears of the individual
who is attending or thinking of attending there first meeting.
The result is sometimes a kind of 'culture shock' which takes place when
the newcomer attends and is temporarily overwhelmed by the newness and
strangeness of the experience. Even worse, people who seriously consider
attending an AA meeting may decide not to do so because of the natural
human fear of the unknown.
This guide is neither an official one nor
affiliated in any way with AA itself. It represents merely one person's
attempt to describe some of the common features of AA meetings. There
will be many individual variations and exceptions to this or to any
other relatively brief attempt to sketch the principal outlines and
common experiences in a program as diverse and unregulated as AA. The
best way to regard what follows is as one of those primitive and only
half-correct maps drawn by the early geographers. Not everything in such
maps is correct, and much that is important is omitted. But in favorable
cases the map does serve as a rough guide to the territory to be
explored, and provides at least some major landmarks by which the
traveler may hope to orient and guide himself in his own explorations of
Locating a meeting
The first step in attending one's first AA meeting
is to locate a meeting to attend. The best way to do this is to have or
ask for a specific recommendation from someone who is familiar with both
the prospective attendee and the meeting in question. Most cities have
what are called 'Central Offices' for AA that are listed in the local
phone book under 'Alcoholics Anonymous.' Mental health facilities and
hospitals usually have a current directory of meetings or a contact
Types of AA Meetings
Meetings can be categorized by their topic and format, who attends
them, and the facilities in which they are held. It is also useful to
consider the unofficial distinctions of small versus large meetings and
smoking versus non-smoking.
- Open versus closed
- Mixed, men only, women only, young peoples'
- Speaker, Big Book, Step Study or Discussion
- Clubhouse or church
- Small or large
- Smoking versus non-smoking
Meetings may be 'Open' (to anyone) or 'Closed'(for alcoholics only).
Many groups pay no attention to this distinction, and it is not uncommon
for regular participants in a meeting to be uncertain whether their
meeting is officially open or closed. Family and friends of the
alcoholic, along with observers and students of various kinds are
welcome at the open meetings. Closed meetings are reserved for those who
consider themselves to be alcoholics or who are investigating that
possibility for themselves. Newcomers are always welcome at closed
meetings regardless of whether they have made up their minds about
Meetings may be 'mixed'(male and female), men only, or women only.
Meeting schedules indicate by codes(usually MO or WO) if a meeting is
AA meetings are also characterized according to their format:
- Discussion meetings
- Big Book Study meetings
- Step Study meetings
- Speaker meetings
- Discussion meetings
- The discussion leader introduces a topic with some brief
comments and then throws the meeting open, recognizing those who
indicate their desire to share by raising their hands.
- Those who raise their hands and are recognized by the discussion
leader normally introduce themselves by saying 'My name is so-and-so
and I am an alcoholic.' Some people say 'I am a grateful recovering
alcoholic,' 'I am powerless over alcohol,' or some other variation.
Although it is generally expected, it is not required that those who
wish to share identify themselves as being alcoholic.
- Sharing usually begins with some reference to the topic
mentioned by the discussion leader or to comments by a previous
speaker, but each member who speaks is free to change the subject or
to introduce an entirely new topic if they need to do so. It is
expected that anyone having a particularly hard time, especially if
they are thinking seriously about drinking, will bring this up
regardless of whatever the original topic or subsequent comments may
- Certain conventions guide the content and format of sharing in
meetings, although these may be and sometimes are ignored. They
- Length around 3 minutes or less.
- Personal experience, feelings, struggles valued over
- Avoidance of direct advice and 'cross talk,' i.e. telling
another member what to think or how to behave.
- Some relation to alcohol or to conflicts in living that can
be related to the Twelve Steps.
- In general a 'single share' convention is followed in which
no member speaks at length more than once during a given
meeting, although exceptions to this are not uncommon depending
upon the group and circumstances.
- Identification and empathy with the experiences of others
who have shared. This is expressed by sharing one's own personal
experiences of a similar nature.
- Occasionally the meeting 'goes around the room' and everyone has
the opportunity to speak if desired, or the discussion leader may
call on individual members and invite them to share. Those who do
not wish to speak simply say 'Thanks, I'll pass' or 'I'll just
listen tonight.' This is always accepted and pressure is never
exerted to speak.
b. Meetings usually wrap up on time and are
closed in a manner chosen by the particular group. A basket is
usually passed around the room for voluntary contributions to defray
expenses. No contribution is required, and first-timers are often
advised not to contribute. The usual donation is one dollar. It is
common for the chairperson to read or remind everyone of the Twelfth
Tradition(the principle of anonymity) and to invite the group to
stand, join hands in a circle, and recite the Lord's Prayer or the
- These meetings are devoted to the study of the
Book of Alcoholics Anonymous' or to the "Twelve Steps and
Twelve Traditions'('12 and 12') written by
Bill Wilson, a co-founder
of AA. Participants commonly bring their own copy of the appropriate
book, but there are usually extra copies available at the meeting
for those who did not bring a copy.
- The typical meeting will involve reading some portion of the
'Big Book' or the 'Twelve and Twelve' and then commenting upon it
from the individual member's experience and perspective. The
discussion leader may read a selected passage and then invite
comments, or members may take turns reading a paragraph or two from
a chosen section of the work, followed by a general discussion of
the topics covered.
- As in the discussion meeting, sharing that consists of personal
experience and applications of the text is valued over purely
theoretical and impersonal analysis.
- Also as in the discussion meeting, 'cross talk' is kept to a
minimum. The usual etiquette is for members to remain silent until
the speaker has finished.
- A speaker is selected in advance who agrees to 'tell their
story' of drinking and recovery to the group. Speakers are usually
those with a year or more of sobriety who have previously been asked
and agreed to talk.
- A common format is to devote the entire meeting after the usual
opening readings to the speaker's story. When the story is finished
the meeting is wrapped up without formal discussion.
- Some meetings are combined 'speaker-discussion meetings' in
which a chosen speaker talks for a quarter or a half an hour,
followed by a group discussion of the themes raised in accordance
with the usual conventions of a discussion meeting.
Clubhouse and Church
AA Clubhouses are sites
specifically dedicated to AA meetings and usually have a wide variety of
meetings every day, often at all hours of the day. Clubhouses may be
freestanding buildings or rented space in other buildings. 'Clubhouse
meetings' typically include a wide spectrum of recovering alcoholics
from still drinking to recently relapsed to decades of continuous
sobriety. There are usually meetings in all of the above formats(open,
closed, mixed, men, women, discussion, Big Book, Step Study, speaker,
Young Peoples' &etc.). Often there are special beginner's or 'First
Step' meetings that are attended both by newcomers and those who have
been sober a long time. Clubhouse meetings tend to be larger than church
meetings – though this is not always the case.
are held on the premises of various local
churches by special arrangement with the congregation, usually including
a nominal rent payment from collections taken up by the AA group at the
end of each meeting. The meetings are not affiliated with the church in
any way but simply reflect a tradition in which churches have provided
AA with space to hold its meetings.
Church meetings tend to be smaller than Clubhouse meetings, though
this is not always the case. Meetings are held wherever space is
available – though seldom in the sanctuary or chapel.
Meeting size varies from small to
large wherever the meeting may be held and regardless of the specific
format(discussion, Big Book, Step Study, speaker) and who attends(mixed,
men, women, young people &etc.). 'Small' usually refers to meetings of
fifteen or less members while 'large' can mean thirty, forty, fifty or
Smoking and nonsmoking
'smoke filled room' of AA tradition was a definite reality but is now
becoming a thing of the past as more and more meetings become nonsmoking
only. Smokers still congregate outside the meeting before, during and
after it is held – but meetings in which smoking is permitted inside are
The Diversity of
No two AA groups are alike. There is an enormous diversity among
groups reflecting unique features of the particular group and the
individuals who constitute it. AA's Fourth Tradition states that 'Each
group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or
AA as a whole.' This is not just empty talk, as anyone who has sampled
the wide variety of AA meetings knows well. There is a tremendous
kaleidoscopic variation of emphasis, emotional tone, meeting philosophy,
readings and ritual, and informal group norms from one group to another.
This seems to be one of AA's 'secrets of success' and guarantees that
when there are enough groups to choose from, a newcomer will be able to
find something that closely matches his needs if only he is willing to
look. Though all are welcome, groups generally tend to mirror the
socioeconomic and ethnic characteristics of the neighborhoods in which
they meet. Exceptions, however, abound. Perhaps nowhere in modern
society are as much genuine democracy and class and status-less
affiliation of equals to be found as in the typical AA meeting.
Rituals and Readings: What Goes on at a typical AA Meeting
AA meetings vary considerably in their particular readings and
rituals from place to place, even within the same general geographic
location. Each meeting has its own style of opening and closing.
A common sequence(there are many variations) in the southeastern
United States is:
- Meeting called to order by volunteer chairperson.
- Chairperson reads 'AA Preamble,'
leads group in Serenity Prayer.
- Reading of
'How it Works,' the
Traditions' and 'The Promises,'
often by members who were asked before the meeting to do so.
- Chairperson asks if there are any newcomers or people attending
that particular meeting for the first time who care to introduce
themselves by their first name. (This is completely optional and may
be ignored by newcomers if desired, although it is obviously a good
idea to introduce oneself in order for others to begin to get to
- AA-related announcements.
- The meeting itself, whether discussion, Big Book Study, Step
Study or speaker.
- Conclusion of meeting proper.
- Chips handed out for length of sobriety(in SE US). Voluntary.
- 'Pass the basket' for optional one dollar donation.
- Statement of
- Lord's Prayer, usually said standing in a circle, heads bowed,
holding hands. Some groups close with Serenity Prayer.
The Problem of Fear
Regardless of the type, size or location of their first AA meeting,
newcomers face a predictable series of challenges that must be overcome
in order to begin to benefit from AA. By far the greatest problem
most individuals experience when beginning AA is how to deal with their
Fear is the great enemy of recovery from alcoholism and indeed
from any serious addiction. Intensely negative emotions such as
fear, shame, and guilt obstruct the road to recovery and detour the
alcoholic-addict away from what is good for him(for example, AA
meetings, therapy, rehab) and toward what is bad for him(isolation,
secrecy, alcohol and drugs). Even when a person has supposedly 'hit
bottom' as a consequence of his addiction and sincerely, desperately
desires to overcome it and begin leading a healthy life, the painful and
aversive affects of shame, guilt and fear often conspire with his
addiction to thwart him and bring his hopes to naught. In all too many
cases the fear of the steps necessary for lasting recovery may be
greater than the alcoholic's fear of relapse into alcoholism, resulting
in the familiar 'On again, off again' pattern many alcoholics and
addicts display as they begin to flirt with but not yet commit to
Why is Recovery So Hard? and
Obstacles to Recovery.)
It is the rare newcomer to an AA meeting who is not at least inwardly
quaking in his boots. Fear of the unknown and of strange situations is a
perfectly normal human response. In fact, it is a necessary response:
for without the capacity for fear, no individual would survive for long.
Fearful anticipation and resulting hyper-vigilance serve to protect
people from harm in strange situations.
The fear of the typical newcomer to an AA meeting begins but by no
means ends with this normal and adaptive apprehension in regard to the
unfamiliar. The newcomer is vulnerable to many other fears which usually
cause far greater distress and may eventually cause him to run away, to
adopt a combative attitude, or simply to be unable to profit from his AA
It is probably true in general that the famous 'fight or flight'
response is the characteristic response of most higher organisms to
perceived threat. If a danger is spotted one must either overcome it,
usually by attack, or run away to escape harm and even death.
The majority of alcoholics dispose of their fear –dread would
probably be a more accurate word- of AA meetings(and alcohol treatment)
by the classical phobic-avoidance method: they stay as far away from
them as possible. This phobic avoidance is commonly rationalized in
various ways, some of which may be superficially plausible. But the
underlying problem in almost all cases is fear.
The alcoholic who actually attends an AA meeting, therefore, is the
exception to this rule of avoidance. The 'normal' thing is for the
alcoholic to shy away from AA and anything remotely resembling AA. And
the chief reason for this avoidance is fear, followed closely by the
intense shame that is characteristic of most advanced addictive disease.
What is the alcoholic so afraid of that he is willing to go to any
length -sometimes even to die- to avoid AA meetings? Every individual
has a unique story – but there are some common factors which, while
varying in relative importance in each case, actually constitute the
principal explanation for the typical alcoholic's fear and loathing of
We should keep in mind that the alcoholic attending his first AA
meeting seldom does so in a state of mental calm and physical
equilibrium. Usually there has been a drinking-related crisis of some
kind that has prompted the first visit to AA. A considerable amount of
'energy' is required to lift the alcoholic from his normal, i.e.
drinking 'orbit' into the initially much more aversive AA 'orbit.' And
it is the nature of addiction that mere rational analysis seldom
provides sufficient energy for such a drastic change of state. Something
more, and often something painful and undeniable, is usually required in
addition to whatever intellectual insight the alcoholic may possess.
Attendance at one's first AA meeting does not take place in a vacuum but
in the context of an existence that more often than not is riddled and
riven with turmoil resulting from alcoholic drinking and behavior.
Something else to keep in mind when considering the first AA meeting
is the usually highly abnormal and unstable physical state of the
alcoholic. For whether he is still drinking, has attempted to cut down,
or has recently stopped altogether, his brain is seldom in a healthy
functional state. More often than not these days, drugs besides alcohol
are likely to be part of the picture as well. All of this undermines the
clarity and stability of the newcomer's psyche and makes the chore of
correctly perceiving and interpreting the meeting environment more
The basic fear of the average alcoholic attending his first AA
meeting is loss of face, i.e. fear of painful narcissistic
injury, humiliation, or social embarrassment. To attend an AA meeting
means to acknowledge that one is or might be an alcoholic who has been
unable to control his drinking! This fear originates and is maintained
solely in the alcoholic's head and is largely independent of external
influence – especially external influence that might be thought to
ameliorate it. Thus the newcomer at an AA meeting is frequently ashamed
to be seen there despite knowing full well that everyone else present is
also an alcoholic. This is because the 'seeing' that pains him is his
own seeing of himself as someone with a drinking problem who is in need
of help. Well-meant reassurances from other people are of little help
here and may even make the shame worse. For the alcoholic is ashamed in
his own eyes and before himself, feelings that commonly overflow and
then are projected upon others. The self-critical and ashamed alcoholic
thus experiences his own internal self-condemnation as external
criticism and disapproval coming or threatening to come from others.
A soldier on night sentry duty on the frontier of hostile and
dangerous territory will naturally be alert to every sound and shadowy
movement as possibly indicating the threatening presence of the enemy.
His attention is focused and organized to detect and act upon signs of
imminent attack. Everything else has been put on the back burner for as
long as he stands sentry duty. Such a soldier is not interested in, nor
would he be very good at learning various kinds of new information about
the theory of standing guard, the politics of warfare, or the geologic
history of the landscape he is presently patrolling. His survival
depends upon the capacity of his mind to weed out such extraneous or
distracting input and to remain fixated upon the immediate task of
survival through vigilance and readiness for quick response. Not merely
his weapon but the soldier himself is 'locked and loaded,' i.e. ready
In the same way the individual exposed for the first time to an
entirely new and, in his mind, potentially threatening environment such
as an AA meeting will be in a state of heightened defensive vigilance,
scanning the environment and the behavior of others for any signs of
danger. This is by no means the optimum state of mind to make objective
assessments and to draw reliable conclusions about what is going on.
People under conditions of perceived high threat view, organize and
interpret their environment just as the soldier-sentry described above
does: they are watchful, suspicious, cautious, and prepared to fight or
flee on a moment's notice.
In brief, the high anxiety and selective attention of many AA
newcomers causes them to experience and evaluate their meeting
environment and the people in it in a distorted fashion. Only by coming
back a number of times with a diminishing level of fear and anxiety do
individuals unfamiliar with AA meetings begin to acquire a more rounded,
accurate and in-depth view of what is actually going on – as opposed to
what they fear is or might shortly be going on.
All of the observations made above apply with even more force to
those not infrequent instances in which the newcomer, in addition to
suffering from alcoholism, also suffers from a significant anxiety
disorder such as 'social phobia' or 'social anxiety disorder.' A very
high percentage of alcoholics, 50% or more in some studies, show
evidence of an associated anxiety or depressive condition in addition to
their alcoholism. In these cases faster progress in AA and sobriety is
usually made when separate professional treatment is obtained for the
'dual diagnosis' condition.
90 Meetings in 90 Days? You Must be CRAZY!
The newcomer is frequently shocked and horrified to hear the
recommendation that in order to become adequately acquainted with AA, he
should attend at least ninety meetings in ninety days – a meeting every
day for three months! This recommendation amounts to a proposal for the
kind of 'total immersion' strategy that is often used in learning a
foreign language: the student is simply thrown into an environment in
which no language but the one he wishes to learn is spoken.
Also called '90-90' or 'doing a 90-90,' the ninety meetings in ninety
days suggestion is just a common sense and experience-derived attempt to
deal with the problems of perspective and interfering emotions described
above. The 90-90 proposition also serves notice that the AA recovery
path is not an easy or effortless one – and that a major change in daily
routine and therefore priorities is required for success. The
prescription is probably one of those :more honored in the breach than
the observance,' although a certain number of newcomers do manage to
follow it or something closely akin to it. The basic idea is that in
order to be successful the neophyte must spend the time and energy
required to become acquainted with AA.
A large number of alcoholics who attend at least one AA meetings
recoil in disgust from the 90-90 advice. It confirms for them some of
their worst fears about AA, for example the charge that it is a
dangerous cult that succeeds only by brainwashing the critical judgment
of its participants. The very idea of making time to attend an AA
meeting every single day for three months offends their sense of
proportionality because it seems to them an absurd, almost grotesque
over-reaction to their alcohol problem.
Late and Leaving Early
Not everyone is uncomfortable at their first AA meeting – but most
people are. Part of this is the normal social anxiety associated with
unfamiliar situations; the majority of it is connected with the intense
self-consciousness, hyper-vigilance, shame and guilt that the
prospective AA member feels for exposing himself as someone with a
significant drinking problem which he is unable to handle on his own.
For there is simply no satisfactory escape from the painful logic that
announces to himself and everyone who sees him at the AA meeting that if
he didn't have a bad drinking problem that he was having trouble
handling, he wouldn't be there in the first place. Just showing up at an
AA meeting, therefore, is a declaration of unmanageable personal
difficulty. And for many people that is an acutely painful source of
shame and stigma.
One of the common ways individuals attempt to manage their 'meeting
anxiety' is by arriving late and leaving early. This strategy not only
cuts down on the amount of time actually spent at the meeting, it also,
and more importantly, eliminates the unstructured time prior to and
after the meeting itself. Newcomers tend to feel uncomfortable and
awkward in such circumstances because they don't yet know anybody and
aren't sure how to behave. The simplest and most obvious solution to
this predicament is to avoid it altogether. This sometimes lead to a
pattern of meeting behavior that resembles a bank robbery: the getaway
car is left running outside while the robber darts into the bank, grabs
the money, and runs for his life before the police arrive. The role in
this behavior of intense fear and the resulting phobic-avoidance defense
Because the quickest way to overcome such irrational fears is to
confront them directly rather than to run away and thereby reinforce
them, individuals who are able to force themselves to come a little
early and to hang around and talk for a while after the meeting tend to
become comfortable more quickly. People vary markedly in regard to their
interpersonal anxieties and social skills, but even for the most
extroverted and gregarious souls the initial encounter with AA meetings
is almost always a kind of culture shock that requires some adjustment.
Anonymity and Confidentiality Concerns
Alcoholics Anonymous categorizes itself as anonymous for a
reason – actually for a number of reasons. It is the rare alcoholic who,
at least in the beginning, is not acutely concerned about matters of
privacy, confidentiality and anonymity. Most first timers are afraid of
being seen going into a meeting or of encountering someone they know in
the meeting itself. It is not unheard of for people to attend their
first meetings far away from their own neighborhood or stomping grounds
in order to avoid what they fear would be an embarrassing encounter with
someone they know. Such anxieties reflect and result from the intense
shame and stigmatization connected in the minds of most people with the
Going to AA requires courage –or desperation- because attendance at
an AA meeting undeniably moves the drinker out of the category of 'heavy
drinker' into that of 'alcoholic' – or a least is a major step in the
latter direction. Thus it happens that a great many, perhaps the
majority of newcomers to AA are ashamed of themselves merely for needing
to be there. As discussed above, this intense personal shame and
humiliation is commonly projected onto others and onto the environment
at large in the form of paranoid vigilance and fear of external
criticism, negative judgment and disapproval, when in fact the greatest
source of negativity is within the newcomer himself.
The shame that is often connected with the first AA meeting is
suggested in the following joke often told by alcoholism expert Father
Joseph Martin in his famous talks on alcoholism:
A man was attending the funeral of an old acquaintance he had
not seen for some time and spoke to the deceased's widow, who sadly
informed him that death had resulted from a drinking problem. The
man said 'I'm sorry to hear that. Did he ever try AA?' The widow
recoiled in horror and exclaimed 'Oh no! He never got that
AA meetings do not take attendance or keep membership roles. It is
traditional to identify oneself by first name only. All meetings include
a reminder to keep everything that is said in the meeting confidential.
This 'Twelfth Tradition' of AA is taken very seriously by those who are
familiar with and committed to the program.
Should You Say if You Share?
There is no requirement for newcomers(or anyone else) to say anything
at all. Participation, like attendance, is purely voluntary( those
ordered to attend by a judge or a treatment program are not quite so
'voluntary,' but their actual participation, if any, is still entirely
up to them.) If one happens to be called upon or otherwise asked to
speak and does not care to do so, the standard formulas for polite
refusal are 'Thanks, I'll pass' or 'Thanks, I'll just listen tonight.'
Everyone understands and accepts this and no pressure is applied to try
to change the person's mind who prefers not to speak.
The Third Tradition of AA states that 'The only requirement for AA
membership is a desire to stop drinking.' Even this 'requirement' may be
a little overstated, as many people attend AA who don't so much have a
desire to stop drinking as they have a concern about their drinking and
its consequences, and an interest in learning more about themselves. But
those who continue to attend and who subsequently identify themselves as
AA members do sooner or later acknowledge a desire to stop drinking.
Other than this Third Tradition requirement, there are simply no formal
qualifications or requirements for membership.
AA meetings are extremely diverse and thus vary considerably in the
attention, if any, paid to newcomers. Many meetings include a routine
question from the chairperson as to whether there are any newcomers or
people from other meetings who would like to be introduced by their
first name only. This is meant to offer an opportunity for those
desiring to introduce themselves. It is not a requirement. Although it
is usually a good idea for the newcomer's own progress and comfort just
to go ahead and introduce himself('My name is Bill and I think I am an
alcoholic. This is my first AA meeting.'), it is perfectly permissible
to remain silent and defer such an introduction to a later time if one
is simply too frightened to go ahead at that time. (Because such fears
are almost always overcome by facing them and pushing through them
rather than avoiding them, however, newcomers are wise to face their
fear whenever they can.)
It is not required, in order to speak, to identify or 'label' oneself
as an alcoholic, though most members choose to do so. Some people prefer
to identify themselves as 'recovering alcoholics' or even 'recovered
alcoholic.' Newcomers are entirely free to say whatever they like about
themselves in this regard. Since everyone present has had and can
usually remember their own 'first AA meeting,' there is normally a great
deal of empathy and acceptance of newcomers, whatever their comments or
non-comments may be.
If a newcomer does choose to introduce himself as such, it is a
fairly common practice in many discussion meetings for members to talk
either about their own first meeting and how they got there, or about
the First Step('We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our
lives had become unmanageable.') The hope here is that by sharing
personal experiences and vulnerabilities group members will help the
newcomer to realize that he is neither alone nor by any means as
different from others as he often feels to be the case. Though this
strategy is a useful and generally helpful one, some newcomers are made
even more apprehensive by such attention. The larger the meeting the
easier it is to fade into the woodwork and not be noticed – but this
temporary comfort may come at a high cost if the individual continues to
maintain such a low profile that he never has the opportunity to connect
with others. The AA recovery method is a 'hands on' practical program
that seldom works very well unless those attempting it sooner or later
let down their defenses and walls and allow others to begin to get to
know them. This may happen quickly, even in the first meeting; or it may
take a very long time. Much depends upon the individual history and
makeup of the individual and his degree of comfort or discomfort in
social situations. (Newcomers who are naturally gregarious do not always
fare better than those who are more shy and reserved, for the more or
less automatic and sometimes superficial social skills and faÁade of
some of the former may at times actually work against development of the
more fundamental relationships that recovery almost always requires.)
The speaking(or sharing) format in discussion meetings varies
somewhat in accordance with the size and seating arrangement of the
meeting. Large meetings almost always function in a 'raise your hand to
be recognized' fashion in which anyone wishing to speak indicates his
desire to by raising his hand until he is called on by the discussion
leader. Smaller meetings and meetings in which the seating arrangement
is circular or around a table sometimes 'go around the room' starting at
one side and continuing to the other unless time runs out. In this case
each person is automatically invited to speak when his turn arrives.
Such an arrangement often causes a great deal of anxiety in newcomers
and in those who simply have a fear of public speaking. They may sit in
their seats with mounting dread as their 'turn' gets closer and closer,
wondering what they are going to say and how it will be received. This
of course completely defeats the purpose of being at the meeting – and
it is also completely unnecessary. For if one doesn't feel like speaking
when his 'turn' arrives, saying 'Thanks, I'll pass' or 'I think I'll
just listen tonight' are common and perfectly acceptable responses. (But
just as in the case of whether or not to introduce oneself as a
newcomer, discussed above, it is almost always in the best interest of
the newcomer to say a few words if he can possibly make himself do so.
This behavior, that of facing rather than running away from one's fears,
is what eventually 'desensitizes' the socially anxious or shy person and
helps him to become comfortable speaking.)
Occasionally, especially in smaller meetings, the discussion leader
may call upon various individuals and ask them if they would like to
share. Here also it is perfectly permissible to say 'Thanks, I'll just
listen' – although here also it is usually advisable for the newcomer's
own progress to 'take the plunge' and jump in the pool by saying
something if possible.
What should one say if he wishes to speak in a discussion meeting?
Anything that comes to mind and seems relevant. There are no 'wrong'
shares in AA. Nor is there any official time limitation, although most
who share will finish in three minutes or less. Sometimes more time is
needed. There are no written or rigid rules.
The AA recovery program emphasizes personal honesty and openness to a
degree that is often startling to those unfamiliar with it. Sometimes
such frankness and candor may give the wrong impression that a speaker
is 'beating up on himself' and running himself down just for the
pleasure of doing so. Occasionally there are individuals who for reasons
of their own seem to do just that – but the healthy aim of the AA
program is simply to gain control over one's shortcomings by honestly
admitting them and then doing something about them. Wallowing in guilt
and self-blame is not the AA way, which is briefly stated as 'learning
to live in the solution rather than dwelling in the problem.'
Therefore the newcomer who desires to speak need not and probably
should not engage in a confessional litany of his sins and shortcomings.
The mere fact that he is present at the meeting is sufficient suggestion
that life has not been going well for him, and quite possibly also those
around around him. A common 'share' by a newcomer might consist of his
first name, identification of himself as an alcoholic if he believes
this fits(otherwise not – it would be dishonest to say something one did
not believe!), followed by a brief statement of what has been going on
in his life that has brought him to his first AA meeting. The main point
of such an introduction is simply to 'break the ice' and to begin to let
others get acquainted with one. Human beings are diverse and
individually unique, but the experiences of alcoholics, particularly
those at the stage of the illness at which AA attendance usually begins,
are quite constricted and stereotyped. There are perhaps a dozen or so
major alcoholic scenarios which, once known, can be 'filled in' and
fleshed out with a surprising degree of accuracy by those intimately
familiar with the thinking and behavior of alcoholics. And no group of
people is as familiar with the thinking and behavior of alcoholics as
those in attendance at the typical AA meeting.
What response does the newcomer usually receive to his sharing? This
of course depends upon many factors, including the nature of the
particular AA group, those who are present, and what the newcomer
actually says. In the typical scenario, subsequent speakers may relate
what has been said to their own experience. No one particularly enjoys
receiving unsolicited advice from others, and alcoholics probably enjoy
it considerably less than average. The usual way of communicating in
discussion groups is therefore by sharing one's own experiences, not
merely his opinions. The chances therefore are great that whatever the
newcomer specifically shares, others will respond by relating feelings
and experiences similar to his. The aim is to be nonjudgmental and
supportive as possible by simply fostering an atmosphere of mutual
openness and honesty in which all who are present acknowledge their
humanity and hence their imperfections. The usual 'masks' and social
role personae that may be worn in other situations are, ideally,
temporarily taken off for the duration of the AA meeting.
Religion and Spirituality
Although it is an undeniable historical fact that AA had its origins
in the so-called 'Oxford Group' movement which emphasized a return to
the presumed basic teachings of Christ, it is an equally undeniable
historical fact that AA itself only began when its founders split off
from the Oxford Group movement. Thus although the Christian religious
influence is omnipresent in AA doctrine and practice, AA itself is by no
means a Christian or even a religious organization – a fact that has
caused and continues to cause a great deal of confusion in the minds of
those unfamiliar with AA.
The newcomer only really needs to know that there is no religious
requirement for AA attendance and that he is free to believe whatever he
chooses to believe. There are many
agnostics and atheists in AA as well as many members of established churches and
organized religions, Christian and otherwise. The Third Tradition of AA
states that 'The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop
drinking.' Nothing is said about religion – or about any other
What then about all the talk of God and even the Lord's Prayer that
is said at many –not all- AA meetings? The basic idea is to attempt to
relate to some kind of 'power greater than oneself.' The reason
for this 'Higher Power' is to acquire a sense of perspective and also
support. Many people say that they use the AA group or AA as a whole in
this fashion. The Eleventh Step speaks of 'God as we understand Him,' a
qualification that leaves ample room for personal preferences. AA
members are free to believe anything they like about God, up to and
including his non-existence.
It is commonly said that AA is 'spiritual, not religious.' The goal
is direct personal spiritual growth without what many see as the
unnecessary and even harmful encumbrances of organized religion. In this
respect AA reveals its Protestant roots and dislike of the trappings and
hierarchy of organized religion.
Many people familiar with the challenges facing newcomers to AA
suggest that the whole topic of God, religion and spirituality be
reserved for a later and more suitable time in recovery. Excessive
attention to and analysis of this or any other abstract subject is
seldom useful and may in fact frequently prove harmful to recovery. Such
theoretical or philosophical concerns early in recovery from alcoholism
are often manifestations of the addictive process itself, or of the
afflicted individual's alienation from his own core self and feelings
into an over-intellectualized state where he feels comfortable and safe.
The important thing is to 'keep coming back' to meetings and to have
as open a mind as possible.
There is an official AA pamphlet on sponsorship that is usually
available in the literature collection of most AA meetings. It may also
be requested from the local AA Central Office.
Virtually all AA meetings and members recommend that newcomers obtain
an AA sponsor relatively early in their recovery. As with everything
else in AA, there are no official rules or regulations about sponsors
and sponsorship. The basic idea is to acquire a mentor or 'Big Brother'
or Sister who is willing and able to guide the neophyte as his recovery
progresses. Same-sex sponsors are generally encouraged except under
unusual circumstances. The suggestion that newcomers have a sponsor is,
like everything else in AA, just that, a suggestion. There is no
requirement that anyone have a sponsor, and no one checks to see whether
anyone else does.
The usual advice is to look for a sponsor 'who has what you want,'
i.e. who appears to be sober and emotionally balanced and who displays
the kinds of beliefs and behaviors that one wishes to emulate and from
whom one hopes to learn something of value not only about recovery, but
even about life itself. Because of the agitated and anxious emotional
state of many AA newcomers, it may not be easy to make such
determinations until a number of meetings have gone by and the emotional
dust has begun to settle a bit. There is no real requirement to 'get a
sponsor at any cost,' so it is permissible and probably better to take
one's time and look around a bit before actually selecting someone to
ask. This selection is usually done on the basis of observing and
listening to the potential sponsor speak during meetings and perhaps
noting their interactions with others before and after as well as during
Some meetings include in their 'readings'(the formalized way in which
the meeting is opened or closed) the invitation for anyone desiring a
temporary sponsor to contact a particular individual immediately after
the meeting. The suggestion is often made to newcomers to seek a
temporary rather than a long term sponsor just to get started in the
program. Like so-called temporary employment, many but not all of these
relationships will mature into lasting ones. Calling them 'temporary'
merely makes it easier for both parties to retire from them if for any
reason they desire to do so.
Sponsorship is a highly individual matter with no fixed rules or
regulations. The style and content of the 'mentoring' vary tremendously
from sponsor to sponsor. Some sponsors have a fairly structured approach
with specific suggestions and even 'assignments' for those who ask them
to sponsor them. They may ask their 'sponsees' to call them every day
for a while just to get in the habit of using the telephone, or they may
assign specific parts of the Big Book or other official AA literature to
be read and discussed with them. Sponsors and sponsees often meet before
or after the meeting for coffee or meals in order to get to know each
other and discuss recovery. Whatever the individual style of a
particular sponsor, it is always understood that the sponsee is free and
in fact morally obliged to call his sponsor any time he is in trouble or
about to drink.
Sponsors and sponsees are absolutely free at any time to terminate
their relationship if it is not satisfactory to either of them.
Principles Before Personalities
AA is an exceedingly diverse and usually colorful collection of
people with all kinds of personalities and problems in addition to that
of alcoholism. Individual meetings also tend to acquire a special flavor
and 'personality' of their own. All in all, AA represents a vast
cross-section of the general population. Along with the many good people
who attend and who are sober are always some who are not so good and who
may or may not be sober. An AA saying wryly but accurately notes that
'If you like everyone you meet in AA, you haven't been to enough
Although the natural fear and anxiety of many newcomers usually
serves to protect them from premature and unwise involvement with those
who may not be good for them, occasionally the newcomer is so desperate
for real human contact and even affection that he or she may be
vulnerable to exploitation for money, sex or other favors by
unscrupulous individuals. 'Thirteenth Stepping' –there are actually only
twelve steps in the Twelve Step program- is the common term for sexual
exploitation of female newcomers by males in the program. The reasons to
avoid premature emotional and physical intimacy in early recovery are
obvious and really come down to just one principal concern: such
involvements frequently become unmanageably complex or turn sour, and
the risk of alcoholic relapse for the newcomer is extremely high. It is
always best to keep one's life as simple and non-stressful as possible
in the beginning of recovery.
Sometimes newcomers plunge right into the after-meeting socializing
and personal relationships among members at a pace that is too fast for
their own good. Non-program related issues and concerns may sometimes
dominate these friendships and work to the detriment of the individual's
recovery by blurring their focus on the AA program itself. Conflicts and
complications in personal friendships with other AA members may even
serve to disillusion the newcomer and undermine his trust in the program
itself. It is therefore always wise to remember the advice, 'Principles
before personalities.' Individual human beings are always fallible and
hence apt to disappoint, but the principles of recovery and of right
conduct remain and are untouched by individual failings.
After the Meeting
AA meetings generally begin and end on time. Depending on the
particular group, its size and location, some people usually arrive
early and socialize before the meeting actually begins. After the
meeting officially concludes there is usually a period of time during
which people hold individual or small group conversations about various
program and non-program related topics. These before-and-after times can
be especially anxious times for the newcomer, who usually doesn't know
anybody and who may be extremely self-conscious merely as a result of
finding himself in a new and unfamiliar situation.
The best way to deal with such anxieties is the usually preferred
method of head-on confrontation with the fear, for it is a psychological
fact that what we are afraid of and avoid almost always gains more power
over us, while that which we face up to and conquer thereby loses its
ability to frighten us. The more actual interactions the newcomer to AA
has, the more data he acquires with which to refine his understanding of
what is actually going on at the meetings. Thus those who can make
themselves do so are best advised to arrive early and leave late rather
than the common and understandable tendency to reverse this polarity by
arriving late and leaving early.
If an individual identifies himself as a newcomer just getting sober
he will very often be given names and phone numbers by other members
along with an offer to be of help if needed. This is a sort of informal
and temporary sponsorship that reflects the AA tradition of service by
helping others. More than one newcomer totally unfamiliar with AA has
been startled and made temporarily suspicious by such unsolicited
friendliness, even to the point of suspecting that those offering him
their cards actually desire to sell him something or otherwise take
advantage of him.
Brainwashing, Mind Control and Cultism
AA has been accused of all of these, both by disgruntled former
participants and also by those who have never set foot in an AA meeting.
The newcomer will have to make up his own mind, based upon his own
observations and experiences, about such charges, at least some of which
seem to stem from negative experiences with the Dogmatists described
above. If one simply recalls that all opinions expressed by AA members
are just that, opinions; and if he remembers that no one in AA possesses
any official rank or authority to dictate to anyone else what to think
or how to behave in regard to anything at all, much of the air in such
hostile balloons is immediately deflated.
The newcomer who hangs around long enough will usually have the
pleasure of getting acquainted with as remarkably diverse, independent,
defiant and colorful a collection of personalities as it has ever been
his privilege to know. For far from it being the truth that all
recovering alcoholics are alike in some stereotyped 'programmed'
fashion, it is the recovery from alcoholism that releases the actual
individuality of each alcoholic. It is in fact the drinking alcoholic or
the defiant newly 'dry' alcoholic who is much more apt to resemble in
thinking and behavior everyone else in the same category as himself.
Genuine, as opposed to merely superficial, theatrical or pretend
individuality actually only begins with recovery from alcoholism. For
there is much more to being an individual than merely claiming to be
A New Vocabulary
One of the commonest stumbling blocks for AA newcomers is the AA
vocabulary itself. Familiar and everyday terms such as acceptance,
powerlessness, and humility are used in AA in ways that are somewhat
different from ordinary usage. This causes a good deal of confusion and
misunderstanding in some minds, as for example when the term
'acceptance' is mistakenly supposed to mean merely rolling over and
playing dead, or letting other people walk all over one; or when
'humility' is misunderstood to mean self-condemnation, groveling, or
putting oneself down. Although most newcomers, after a few meetings,
seem to pick up the context and the actual meanings of such terms when
used in AA, others have great difficulty understanding the AA usage and
continue to misconstrue them in ways that are often antithetical to
their intended meaning. The word 'powerless' has probably resulted in
more confusion than any other single term used by AA.
A brief unofficial lexicon of the actual AA
meaning of such terms might go something like this:
Acceptance. Recognizing and admitting the actual facts of the
case rather than clinging to what one would prefer to be true. Starting
from a reality base. Behaving like an adult in the face of
disappointment and frustration. It is acceptance to make other plans
when it rains on the day one had planned a picnic. Lack of acceptance
would be manifested by self-pity, sulking, and brooding all day on the
unfairness of the rain shower. Far from being passive, acceptance in
this sense is active and creative.
Humility. Seeing oneself and one's concerns in correct
perspective. Behaving in accordance with such a correct understanding of
oneself rather than in accordance with a falsely inflated or deflated
idea of oneself. Humility thus understood is merely perspective - sanity
- honesty. It is comparable to a scientific investigator doing his best
to collect, analyze and report his findings objectively, no matter how
he might wish them to turn out. It represents a net gain rather
than a loss in the adaptive repertoire of the individual, hence a
potential augmentation of his personal power.
Powerlessness. Lack of complete control over events,
especially one's intake of alcohol once he has started to drink.
Powerlessness is seldom absolute. But even relative or occasional
powerlessness is sufficient to do great harm. The valid identification,
admission, and acceptance of circumstances in which one is absolutely or
relatively powerless actually increases one's actual power. 'Nature, to
be commanded, must be obeyed.' Francis Bacon.
The AA subculture differs in many ways from the wider culture in
which it is contained. A kind of 'culture shock' is thus inevitable for
those who have no prior familiarity with AA or 12 Step programs. Wise
newcomers adopt a patient, wait-and-see attitude before arriving at
definite conclusions about phenomena they may never have encountered
before. The predicament of the newcomer is in fact akin to that of an
anthropologist living among and wishing to understand the habits and
mores of a strange and unfamiliar tribe. Time and open-mindedness
are required to gain a correct understanding in such matters.
AA and Psychiatry
Alcoholics Anonymous and its co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert
Smith from the beginning held and sought earnestly to maintain good
relations with the medical community, including psychiatry.
Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous' itself contains a famous
'The Doctor's Opinion' by William D. Silkworth, a psychiatrist.
The official AA position has consistently been one of humility and
cooperation rather than grandiosity and exclusivity in regard to various
ways of helping the alcoholic.
It is well known that individual physicians vary greatly in their
understanding of alcoholism and addiction and that those who lack such
an understanding may be less than helpful with their alcoholic and
addicted patients. However, there are many physicians and psychiatrists
who do possess an excellent grasp of the principles of addiction
treatment and who are therefore highly skilled in their treatment of
their alcoholic and addicted patients.
The individual experiences of AA members at meetings reflect this
broad array of professional abilities and range from highly favorable to
highly unfavorable. In this and in other instances newcomers should keep
in mind that opinions of others are just that: opinions. AA does not
claim to have, and individual members are not competent to give -unless
they have acquired special training- professional advice regarding
mental health disorders other than alcoholism - including advice on the
question of appropriate usage of medications for depression,
manic-depression(bipolar disorder) and anxiety disorders.
Occasionally individual AA members will express the erroneous opinion
that 'you can't be sober as long as you are taking any mind-altering
medications.' Newcomers may even be advised by some people to
discontinue medications without discussing this with their physician.
Such advice, should it be encountered, should be regarded as simply the
private and personal opinion of the person tendering it. There is
nothing in the official AA literature that prohibits the alcoholic from
taking appropriately prescribed and required psychiatric medications.
Attitudes toward psychiatry and psychiatric medications, while always
an individual matter, tend to vary somewhat in relation to specific
groups. Up to 50% of alcoholics suffer from an associated 'co-morbid' or
'dual diagnosis' condition such as depression or severe anxiety.
Newcomers in treatment for such conditions will generally feel more at
home in meetings whose members respect the stated limitations of AA in
regard to their diagnosis and treatment.
The AA Preamble
'ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS is a fellowship of men and women who share
their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve
their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The
only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are
no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our
own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination,
politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any
controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary
purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.'
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.
The Twelve Steps
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care
of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the
exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to
make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when
to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps,
we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these
principles in all our affairs.
The Twelve Traditions of AA
1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on
2. For our group purpose there is one ultimate authority - a loving
God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are
but trusted servants; they do not govern.
3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop
4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other
groups or AA as a whole.
5. Each group has but one primary purpose - to carry its message to
the alcoholic who still suffers.
6. An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to
any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money,
property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining
8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but
our service centers may employ special workers.
9. AA, as such ought never be organized; but we may create service
boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the
AA name ought never be drawn into controversy.
11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than
promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of
press, radio, and films.
12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever
reminding us to place principles before personalities.
'If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will
be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new
freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to
shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will
know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see
how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and
self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and
gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole
attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of
economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to
handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that
God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
'Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being
fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will
always materialize if we work for them.'
Chapter Six of 'The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.'