Many people ask me about AA: if I go to meetings, if I went to meetings, what is my opinion of AA and so on, so I thought I would share exactly the experience of my first meeting in the hope that it will relieve some of the anxiety felt by those who are considering going along.
Before I do so, I would like to state my personal opinion.
I do not go to AA meetings at present as I found it was something I could only relate to a little. I found there to be many aspects, usually unquestioned 'givens,' that I did not agree with. However, I went to several meetings in the early days and found them very useful; the stories terrified me. Hearing how bad the lives of others had become through alcohol, was a huge deterrent against returning to drinking and served as a warning that, while I was not perhaps as bad as many, I was on the same slope and would only slide downwards if I continued my most recent drinking pattern. I do believe dependence is progressive and I feel lucky I recognised this in time and stopped drinking when I did.
Approaching a year of sobriety I returned to a few more AA meetings. I found out more about the 12 steps and having a sponsor in the hope of reaching that higher plane of contentment where many in AA claim to be. I didn't want to be one of the 'dry drunks' they spoke of; I didn't want to want to drink.
On balance I couldn't relate to the process that was described to me. Instead I sought and received support from alternative sources: on line and through the sober blogosphere, (admittedly as a silent voyeur until I felt brave enough to participate). This led to me meeting a couple of friends in real life too and my first conversations with each of them immediately fell into place. These friends (and they know who they are) can understand the crazy part of me that was all about wine and while being relative strangers at first, we had massive amounts in common. I am grateful to have them.
If you are considering AA, the best thing about it is that the door is always open. You will always be made to feel welcome, each and every time you return. At the same time, there is no pressure to return. No one will initiate contact with you outside of the meetings. The ball is firmly in your court and it is there for taking should you want to attend.
Below is my diary entry after my first AA meeting.
I searched for a meeting far from my home in the hope that I would not see, nor be seen, by anyone I knew. Although I knew that everyone would be there for the same reason I still wanted to retain my anonymity and keep my ‘real’ life private.
On the day, I scouted out the meeting venue and parked nearby half an hour before the start. I had a good view of the door and was able to see the comings and goings at the entrance. There were a few people hanging around outside with large steaming cups of tea and cigarettes.
My initial impression was how happy they all looked. They were laughing and looked as if they were having a good time. People who joined them also looked happy and pleased to see each other. There were friendly greetings all around and they conveyed a sense of true camaraderie. I had expected them all to look miserable, to be miserable, the way I was feeling right now but nothing could be further from the truth. Surely they could not all be wrong? Surely they could not all be pretending or be the exceptions to prove the rule? Perhaps it was possible to be happy and enjoy life without alcohol?
I felt brave yet very nervous as I walked into the building, trying to look confident as if I knew where I was going. A woman ahead of me hung back and said, ‘Are you a friend of Bill’s?’
‘No,’ I said, thinking she had mistaken me for someone else. “I’m here for the AA meeting”.
I soon found out that being a friend of Bill is a code phrase that AA fellows use to identify each other. Bill or Bill W, refers to the original founder of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship, William Wilson. This was news to me, as was much of what took place over the next hour and a half.
My second impression of the meeting was that I have NEVER before walked into a new club alone and not knowing anyone, yet have people spontaneously approach me, welcome me and introduce themselves. This just does not happen at a gym class or the school gates. Here, people seemed genuinely welcoming and I really was touched, if a bit overwhelmed. I was ushered in, given a large cup of tea and offered biscuits. A ‘regular’ immediately took me under her wing, sat beside me and told me what would happen. I became the ‘newcomer’
My third impression was that there seemed few barriers. Usual social groupings and barriers did not apply here. Looking around the room alcohol was the only common factor. There was a vast array of age groups, ethnicity, clothes, hairstyles (or not), accents, piercings and personalities. None of these seemed to matter. The meeting opened with some AA formalities and then someone shared their story with the group and became the Chairperson for the rest of the meeting. My guide was almost apologetic that the ‘share’ may not be one that I could readily identify with but suggested I should try a few meetings as they were all different. During the share I felt wonder at the speaker telling of his deepest darkest moments to a roomful of people and also privileged that I had been invited in and allowed to listen, despite being an unknown.
After a break for more tea, biscuits (a cigarette if needed) and camaraderie it was time for the second half. Here, the Chair would go around the room, inviting people to comment or respond to his shared story or indeed just to speak. I was reassured by my guide I did not need to speak and could opt to pass when it came to my turn. As talking aloud was one of my reasons for going I decided I would speak. I said I had accepted the fact that I could not moderate or control my drinking and was not sure I could remain alcohol free alone. Out of the blue I became over-whelmed with emotion and began to cry. Tears were pouring down my face as I randomly spoke of all the things in my mind but strangely, I did not seem to care. I continued to speak whilst sobbing and hiccoughing throughout. It was such a relief to speak out loud to an understanding unknown audience. I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders as I finally admitted it aloud. By confessing I could really wipe the slate clean and live differently. I felt calm and relieved. Things were actually going to be okay.
Afterwards, another woman gave me her mobile number and said to call anytime. I chatted to her for a few minutes outside and she suggested if time allowed that we continue our chat at the coffee shop across the road. I surprised myself by accepting the invitation there and then. Now that my pressure relief valve had opened I wanted to continue to talk. I enjoyed the hour we spent talking about alcoholism, her experiences and my hopes and fears.
I left feeling a great release of tension. I felt lighter. I could now talk openly and honestly to a friend about my problem and the millions of thoughts buzzing around my brain.
Subsequently I went to a few other meetings. I became accustomed to meeting and greeting strangers with infectious enthusiasm. The tales I heard were varied. People who had lost everything, their job, their spouse, their children. their self respect. People who were grateful for things now back in their life because they were sober, being allowed contact with grandchildren or once again being invited to family celebrations. These accounts re-enforced my view that if I returned to drinking I would end up further down that same slippery slope. No one was immune. The disease, as those in AA believe it to be, is progressive. Over time alcohol consumption continually increases. Our need becomes greater and our requirements increase as our bodies become ever more efficient at handling the drug. More and more is required to attain the same mind altered state as time goes by and more is required to normalise the habitual drinker and render him or her functional. I had experienced this throughout the preceding ten years of my life and felt thankful I had recognised this increase and drawn a halt to it, before I lost the big things in life that were important to me. I always left AA meetings with renewed conviction to remaining free from alcohol. My feeling it was the right thing to do was affirmed and the stories I heard sent me a frightening warning of what could happen, if I were to give alcohol a way back in.
I never joined a particular group or attended any one meeting regularly. Subconsciously I did not want to be one of them or commit fully to their program. Hence I was always identified as the Newcomer at meetings. This was welcoming at first and I appreciated the good wishes and accepted the congratulations for having taken the brave step of attending. With time it became tiresome. I felt conspicuous. Most people, when speaking, referred to the new person in the room with some advice or comment and I felt all heads turn to face me each time. It was too much attention, well meant but over bearing. Neither was I sure I agreed with some of the underpinning philosophies. I don’t believe in higher powers. Personally, I don’t believe I have a disease for which there is no cure. I don’t have a constant day in day out hankering for alcohol and am not worried I could be drawn to drink at any minute of any day. Indeed I still have a lot of alcohol in the house which would be against the advice of many. I have removed my temptations though, and as long as there is no white wine chilling in the fridge I know I will be okay. I believe simply that I have a choice whether to drink or not and that the correct choice is hard to make at certain times. This will always be the case for me and I will need to be continually on my guard to identify and plan for when such situations arise.
There are many sound bites regularly repeated in AA circles and many of them I find very helpful and so true. You never regret not having another drink. You never regret not drinking. Avoid the first drink and you will be okay. One day at a time.
One day at a time is an interesting concept. It is used in AA to keep things in the current moment. Not to plan or commit to the future. It is used to convey a knowledge that while one is sober today, it is not guaranteed you will be so tomorrow. I like the idea of one day at a time. I like that it is a small manageable chunk of time, but I find it has many negative connotations in AA. It is used to depict a life where today is yet another that I’m struggling through. I am trying hard not to drink at each and every moment of the day and it is such an uphill struggle I do not know if I can manage it tomorrow as well. Who knows what may happen then? There is a reluctance to look forward to a more enjoyable life as well as a guarded reticence to looking back, celebrating that already achieved.
I prefer to reframe this thought so as to mean that I’m enjoying this way of life, one day at a time. The number of days passing is not the focus of my life, rather they represent a marker of the beginning of this new way to live. The time passed is an accumulation of many single days of this way of life, rather than a millstone around my neck. I do not want alcohol and the fact that I do not drink it to be the defining feature of my life.