Finding the Perfect AA Meeting
At one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I recently attended, there was a tweaker in the corner bellowing about how he was stillborn and brought back to life by the devil. On the other side of the room, an extremely old, wizened drunk who could barely move shuffled in slowly and painfully, took 10 minutes to migrate 20 feet to an armchair, and then sat, shitting and pissing himself throughout the entire meeting. The toothless speaker who smelled of dirt and sweat then proceeded to tell us a long, convoluted story about how he and his wife got sober together, then his wife committed suicide, he lost his job, and now he’s homeless. He never got to the part about how great his life was, as he ran out of time. That’s what I keep telling myself anyhow. He ran out of time.
That wasn’t my first A.A. meeting, and I was well enough acquainted with the program by then to know that this particular location was prone to crazies because two blocks away, there’s a non-profit rehab full of down-and-out addicts expelled there by the courts. But I still go to this meeting to remind myself of what might happen if things get really bad, and it kind of works. Still, had this been my first introduction to A.A., I would probably have never come back. And, sadly, I hear that a lot from newcomers.
“I went to this meeting and everyone seemed kind of miserable—no one even said hello,” says Gary, a friend from London who I dispatched to a meeting in Notting Hill. He tried a few more, and eventually found some N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings he really liked. “Everyone kept talking to me and it freaked me the fuck out,” says Jenny, a Brit in Las Vegas who gave up after a couple of tries, convinced of the cult-like quality of the 12 steps. Jenny still drinks and is addicted to Valium. “It was kind of cliquey,” says Dave of meetings in LA, “but I kept going back, and then I realized I was keeping my head down and my arms crossed, so no one wanted to talk to me.”
My own first meeting was a lot luckier. I went with a friend who had 18 years of sobriety, and he tightly held my hand as he guided me to the popular "Log Cabin" meeting in West Hollywood. He warned me of potential pitfalls before I even sat down. "They’re gonna talk about God but if it’s not your thing, don’t let it put you off. Find an atheist’s meeting if you feel that strongly about it. Everyone holds hands and prays at the end. Don’t give your number out to guys. Don’t feel pressured to share, just pass if you don’t want to say anything. Take a commitment at a meeting you like. Try and hang out with people who have more time than you. If you put up your hand and say you’re a newcomer, expect a bunch of people to give you their number and say hi afterward. If you don’t, they’ll leave you alone. Find a meeting you like and go back to it...." Advice like that.
The truth is, finding a meeting you like and going back to it may be one of the hardest tasks of early sobriety. A great many of the meetings you’ll attend will have their own annoying quirks and drawbacks—they’re often what you imagine on TV. But the prevailing attitude from those who have weathered the nutso meetings and sleazy people hitting on them, who have been molested by the super-friendly while spurned by the uber-cool, is basically: suck it up. Suffer if you want to get better. It’s character building. If you stay and listen and contribute, it really might help.
There’s a grain of truth in this. Navigate the worst of A.A. and the “real” world is a walk in the park. Of course, if your idea of a good meeting is that no one drones on about the steps, everyone’s gorgeous, rich, successful and new to the program, then your conception needs a little reshaping. Still, one of the reasons that it’s difficult to find meetings that work for you is that meeting directories are really fucking confusing. I’m sorry, but they are. A quick look at my LA directory reveals a long list of codes to decipher: P for participation—even after two years, I don’t know what this means. S for speaker meetings—ah, so someone speaks, and you listen and don’t share. G, it turns out, is for gay but there are plenty of meetings with all gay attendees that aren’t marked G in the directory. And, just as I began to get a grip on my LA directory, I went to New York, and discovered that theirs was even more confusing—and organized completely differently.
Even once you’ve deciphered the directory, though, choosing the right meetings isn’t easy. A Monday night women’s meeting in Venice Beach can be very different from a Tuesday night women’s meeting in exactly the same place. Different people, different vibe. How to know the nuances? Well, when I moved to Portland, Oregon after only a month of sobriety, I looked up meetings online. Discovering that the online information was out of date (not uncommon), I called the A.A. hotline (each state has one) and spoke to an awesome guy on the phone. We chatted about what kind of meeting I was looking for, and he directed me to a great 5 pm meeting at the Alano Club in Portland. (To check out A.A.'s state-by-state list of meetings, check out the group's website at aa.org. Another great resource is the meeting finder published by our friends at InTheRooms.com which will direct you to the nearest 12-step meeting within a mile of your location.)
I loved it right away—a balanced mix of people of all ages and lengths of sobriety with comfy chairs and decent coffee—so I went back to it the next day, and the one after that. And after four days, everyone knew my name, and people started suggesting different meetings. By following their suggestions, I began to make friends there and even pick up a few commitments.
The thing is, if you’re like me, you find your niche in A.A. after a couple of months only to then get bored, or become annoyed by one particular asshole who shows up, week after week, to spoil the party. That’s when I shake it up: I’ve been the only girl in a room full of 200 gay men in West Hollywood and had the gayest old time. I’ve been to Native American meetings in the mountains, meetings on the beach, meetings in living rooms, even a meeting in a swanky Italian restaurant. I’ve been to star-studded meetings and meetings with five sad teenagers stowed away in a sober living situation. I think the worst meeting I ever went to was billed as a “writers meeting.” It sounded like just the thing. Writers? Tick! Writers-as-speakers? Tick! Rich, clean, fragrant people? Tick!
Actually, it sucked. The secretary, it quickly became apparent, had zero concept of personal space, plunging his face inches from mine every time he said anything. I was in my first six months, new and shy, and his questions felt personal and probing. Plus, he was a relentless name-dropper—as was everyone at the meeting. One woman trilled about a famous Academy Award–winning actor who’d spoken there. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this man, talented as he was, was not a writer. I never went back, and instead hung out with some crazy Venice tweakers and my good friend Billy, a laborer in his 60s with 32 years of sobriety. And I love that A.A. allows you that kind of choice.
Ultimately, I believe that whatever gets you to sit through a meeting is good. It might be a really hot guy, a bunch of new friends, or the fact that a famous celebrity frequents this venue. Or maybe it’s because a particular meeting serves awesome donuts, has great speakers and plenty of people so you don’t have to talk, or there’s no speaker and 10 timid people so you always get to share.
Before I got sober, I assumed A.A. would be a magical place full of kind, understanding people who had seen the worst side of life, learned from their hard knocks, and emerged as angels on earth to help those suffering from the same disease. But of course, A.A. is chockfull of the same people who piss you off in the real world—except worse, because we’re all addicts and alcoholics. At the same time, those moments when the rich actor dude from Malibu and the homeless bum from Culver City can share a coffee and laugh over shared experience—that’s what A.A.’s about. And along the way, we all meet the lunatics and snobs and whoever else turns up. But we also meet people who will inevitably come to be essential to your recovery. And it’s all good. Since, of course, there’s always another meeting to check out later on.
British-born author, screenwriter and journalist Ruth Fowler lives in Venice, California and has written for The Village Voice, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Post and The Observer, among others. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote Falling in Love with an Addict.