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Old Timers in AA

Go to enough meetings and you're bound to tangle with some less-than-friendly members of AA's old guard. What’s the best way to handle it?

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By Kristen McGuiness

12/01/11

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Not long after Eric, a 35-year-old father of three with long brown hair and a thick, bushy goatee, began going to AA meetings, he came face-to-face with something many newcomers eventually learn to avoid: the crotchety old-timer. (An old-timer, for the uninitiated, is generally considered someone who has at least a decade of sobriety.) “I had just gone to a meeting with my sponsor and I was feeling pretty good,” he says. Afterwards, the two went to another meeting taking place across the street, where his sponsor warned him that their shorts and t-shirts wouldn’t fit the meeting’s business casual dress code. “But since it was meeting with over a thousand people, he wanted me to see just how big AA could be,” Eric explains.

Once in the door of the mammoth meeting, however, the good vibes of the night instantly evaporated. “There was a line to meet this old man who sat waiting to receive all the people and my sponsor introduced me to him and told him that we were just visiting—not staying,” Eric remembers. “The guy looked at me and said that I had a terrorist beard and that we were dressed like bums, and added that if we weren’t staying, we shouldn’t be stealing their coffee. It was the first time I had ever met anyone like that in AA.”

“I know of an old timer in AA who says if you don’t talk about alcohol, then don’t come in...And to deny people the place to share—to make them feel excluded—is cruel.”

Eric’s experience isn’t, sadly, altogether unique. Much like the rest of the world, AA has its share of autocrats and assholes—people who believe that, as the old saying goes, it’s their way or the highway. Says Dr. Adi Jaffe, an addiction specialist at UCLA and an expert for The Fix, “I think in any situation, you end up with people who are hardliners. You see it in politics, in religion, and we see it in recovery. They drink the Kool-Aid—they don’t question any aspect of the program. They believe whatever doctrine is being served. And though it can be someone who has 20 days or 20 years, often the person with more time is able to wield more power.”

In other words, despite AA’s pledge to put “principle before personalities” and its request that members act as trusted servants, there are always going to be the people for whom ego is still tantamount and AA just another playground for that ego to roam. Though there are no actual leaders in AA, often the void gets filled with folks who either want to see the meetings or—in some instances—just their own personalities thrive.

You don’t have to be around AA too long to realize that just because someone’s sober a long time doesn’t always mean they’re mentally healthy. Melody Anderson, a family and addiction expert in Los Angeles explains, “There’s a large percentage of people suffering from addiction who also suffer from other issues. Some might be dealing with neurochemical disorders—depression or bi-polar disorder—that need to be treated and others are simply dealing with the narcissism and immaturity that can come from untreated alcoholism. Just because the person is sober doesn’t mean they have grown up emotionally.” Add to that the fact that after a certain number of years in program, it’s possible to get complacent and cocky and think that working the steps is no longer necessary. Anderson continues, “The dry drunk is experiencing the same emotional pain that they experienced while drinking and so there is something in their behavior that isn’t accepting the situation as it is. The person’s job in recovery is to tolerate, accept, and become self-motivated when something doesn’t go their way, but that’s hard to do when one’s emotional health is compromised.”

Eric, who has six months of sobriety now, has discovered since being called a terrorist that different people handle double-digit sobriety in all sorts of ways. “I see a lot of old timers at the meetings I go to who have a real sense of humility,” he says. “They say that they get a lot of hope from me because I am staying sober through the toughest days—the first ones—which is also humbling because I get so much hope from them. It’s all for one, one for all.”

And yet the other kind of old-timer is sure to still exist—as 27-year old Erica, a sales assistant at a cosmetics company in Houston, discovered when she was in her first two weeks. “I was just learning how to share in AA meetings,” she recalls. “I was talking and the timer hadn’t gone off but this guy with like 15 years called me out, interrupting me to say I wasn’t supposed to share about drugs. I had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to do that and it made me never want to go back again.”

The drugs-versus-booze debate has long raged in the rooms of AA, as more young people come in and times change as there are fewer clear-cut alcoholics who haven’t experimented with drugs in the mix. And this, perhaps unsurprisingly, ruffles the feathers of many old timers. Anderson explains, “I know of an old timer in AA who says if you don’t talk about alcohol, then don’t come in. Some people are afraid of new ideas and afraid that AA is being diluted by other forms of addiction. But to deny people the place to share—to make them feel excluded—is cruel.”

Though there are reports of salty dogs in Boston and born-again’s in Texas who are particularly sensitive to keeping drug talk out of AA, anyone—as Anderson points out—can start a new meeting anywhere. “If people are not able to find a meeting that won’t accept them, all they have to do is find an available meeting space, set the meeting up with [AA’s] Central Office, and start one of their own,” she says.

In the end, Erica didn’t use what happened in the meeting as a justification to stay away. “I guess I was just desperate enough that I was willing to ignore someone being a jerk,” she says. “When I later heard the quote ‘We are not saints’ in the AA book, I laughed. We’re not, and if someone has a lot of time, that doesn’t mean they are any closer to sainthood.”

Andy, a 39-year old heavily tattooed graphic designer and artist in Newport Beach, made a similar discovery after entering the program at 24 after having survived a youth fuelled by methamphetamines. Though Andy certainly heard old timers begrudge his age, he thinks his demeanor bothered them more than his birth year. Now that he’s 15 years sober—and thus an old timer himself—he says, “They [the old-timers at the meetings he attended] didn’t know what to do with these kids who had a ton of energy—all these tweakers and dope fiends—and I think there was a bit of resentment because unlike many of them, we had found our way to sobriety at such a young age. We hadn’t lost our youth.”

At the same time, Andy was able to glean plenty of wisdom from those who’d been around a while. “What I appreciate to this day is the way the old-timers taught me the fundamentals and the basis of AA—why we have commitments, how AA functions, that the steps are for the individual and the traditions are for the group,” he says. “But I also had to find young people who understood where I was at and together we tried to figure out a lot [of the rest] on our own.”

Melody Anderson’s advice for the newcomer at odds with an embittered old-timer is to “look at why you’re bothered,” she says. “Part of the process of recovery is learning to handle other personalities. The first principle is not picking up the substance to which you are addicted. But you’re going to hear a lot of crazy things [in AA] and if that’s what sends you out, you probably weren’t going to stay anyway.”

Yet the old-timer-newcomer animosity can provide, according to Dr. Jaffe, opportunities for growth. “We can treat hardliners—people who think that the way they see the world is absolutely right and if it’s not that way, it’s absolutely wrong—with the same tolerance we might wish they would offer us,” he says. “It really comes down to what you’re looking for in recovery: are you looking to better your own life or to seek acceptance from others?”

Melody Anderson concurs. “If you don’t like one meeting, go to six more,” she adds. “There will always be someone you don’t like anywhere you go, which is why, ultimately, only you are responsible for the quality of your meeting.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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