The Calm at the Center of the AA Storm
The mood of AA meetings can range from the ridiculous to the sublime. But amid all the commotion and emotion, you can access a rare stillness—with lasting benefits.
No one wants to go to their first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Children don’t dream of growing up to be alcoholics, and parents don’t eagerly search toddlers’ behavior for early signs that they will end up in rehab. By the time people get to AA they are often angry, beaten down and physically sick. Meetings bring together the most diverse, irritable group of people imaginable. There are court-ordered crack addicts, clutching their records in sweaty palms; day counters who clearly would rather be in a bar; reeking drunks who have had a couple of pops to summon the courage to get to the meeting; an assortment of men and women with mental health issues ranging from ADHD to OCD to bipolar disorder. But although no one aims to be in AA, amazing things can happen once they get there.
The first AA meetings, held in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, were decidedly upper class. Bill Wilson, who hadn’t had a drink for months, and Dr. Bob Smith, who couldn’t stop drinking, had been introduced by the ladylike Henrietta Seiberling, wife of one of the Goodyear rubber scions. Bill W., however, was a man of the people—a Vermont quarryman’s son whose snobbism was regularly overcome by his empathy for others with drinking problems. When Bill and wife Lois started having AA meetings in their house on Clinton Street in Brooklyn, Bill welcomed anyone who needed help—with predictably rowdy results: a ragtag bunch of down-and-out drinkers.
Those early Brooklyn meetings, with their hungry and often obstreperous drunks, set the tone for many meetings today. Gathering in a dank basement room where the linoleum has been mopped to a high sheen, and weak coffee is brewed in huge vats, recovering alcoholics of all stripes—PhDs and GEDs, Park Benchers and Park Avenue residents, WASPs and Muslims—sit, more or less quietly, in folding chairs for an hour.
At the beginning of a meeting your own problems loom large. Whether it’s the IRS or your aging mother, your difficulties seem acute, important, insoluble. But as you sit and listen to other people, it is hard not to experience a shift in perspective. Slowly you realize that other people do have problems, some of them quite awful. AA members say that when Jesus talked about turning the other cheek he was urging not simply nonviolence but a way of seeing the world from a different angle. Your view of the world suddenly includes other people, making your own struggle seem less isolated and less important. In my experience, this shift is often calming—if I am less important, perhaps I don’t have to worry so much—and happens in an AA meeting just because I am sitting there.
There are famously no rules in AA, but custom coerces us to sit and listen, providing support, bearing witness.
The ostensible purpose of attending AA is, of course, to stop drinking. The many health benefits of sobriety are well known. But there are also some less-remarked benefits to attending meetings—even if you just sit in a straight-backed chair for an hour and listen every now and then.
The experience of calmness, in my view, comes close to the inner peace of meditation. According to many studies, meditation has significant health benefits: a decreased risk of a variety of diseases and even a slower aging process. However, meditation is actually a wide spectrum of moods and thoughts. It ranges from being at one with the universe to not being able to stop thinking about when you will have time to do the laundry. People in AA are encouraged to meditate; AA’s eleventh step specifically refers to meditation: "we sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out." I meditate, although less than I should. Sometimes I sit and make a mental to-do list, sometimes I try to shake an obsession or failing. But sometimes meditation is a kind of stillness, a balance with the universe, a floating unencumbered in the river of life.
There are famously no rules in AA, but custom typically coerces us to sit and listen, provide support, and bear witness. Turning off the volume—if that is what you need or want to do—and just sitting still for an hour can heal you. “Teach us to care and not to care/teach us to sit still,” T. S. Eliot wrote, addressing his higher power, in the poem "Ash Wednesday." In AA meetings we sit still.
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.