The 12 Unwritten Steps for the AA Newcomer

By Anna James 09/30/15

Congratulations. You’re a member of the coolest club that no one wants to be a part of: Alcoholics Anonymous. And you're probably burning up with questions.


Congratulations. You’re a member of the coolest club that no one wants to be a part of: Alcoholics Anonymous. A desire to stop drinking is all you need to gain membership to this 2 million+ person club, but upon your first meeting you discover a world full of regulations, rituals and awkward dialogue, namely back-to-back confessional-style soliloquies. 

In this club, there is no dress code and people arrive to meetings on bicycles and BMWs. Members of the group speak their own language and smoke fake cigarettes proudly. The tattered piece of calico barring the "12 Steps" does not give you any information. It’s Friday night in a musky scout hall and you’re next to a dude named Conan. It’s a fucking riot.

The Big Book promises spiritual awareness, but it’s your first few days in recovery and you don’t even know where the toilets are. You’re burning up with questions: is it AA okay to have two cookies? Who the heck is Bill? Here are 12 tips for the newcomer on how to survive AA:

1. Get a sponsor. If they aren’t a good match, break up with them and find another. A sponsor is a usually an older (and presumably saner) member of the AA program who can guide you through the actual steps and cushion your foray into the horror that is sober living. If you choose the wrong sponsor for reasons such as they are too involved in your process, or they are too uninvolved, they’ve relapsed, they smell like cabbage—whatever—if you’re not gelling, it is okay. It is also possible they don’t like you very much (this is a disease of self-obsession, after all). To end it, a text, phone call or email is acceptable. You don’t have to return their Muse CD, so no in-person meetings are necessary. A simple and sincere: “Thank you for your time so far, but I’ve decided to seek a sponsor better in line with my needs.”  

2. Contribute when you can. See that plate/tray/hat they pass around at the meetings? It’s for optional contributions, say it again, optional contributions. You’re in early recovery and Häagen Dazs ain’t cheap. If you can spare it, give it. If not, no need to apologize to the person next to you and do the fake hand-in-purse-shuffle. This is not Scientology.

3. Pick up a tea towel. Pretty soon you’ll be coerced into the wonderful world of service, which is taking on a volunteer position within AA that betters the collective. These range from the very lame—cigarette butt management—to the inspiring—Secretary of the meeting. All service positions are important (some report that service keeps them sober) and you don’t need to wait to be allocated one. Pick up a tea towel whenever you can and wipe cups. This is a great introduction to new people, and the humbling lifestyle awaiting you.

4. Learn the art of chair stacking. If possible, arrive early to meetings and leave late. Roll up your sleeves and be at the mercy of the direction of older sober members (OSMs) at the base level. Unstack chairs, restack chairs, wipe cups, rinse and repeat. 

5. Chair configuration is everything. Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, and seating arrangements. In some meetings, the speaker makes the pilgrimage up the aisle to face an audience of their peers. In others, chairs form a circle, sometimes complex Saturn-esque orbital structures. If you’re feeling anxious, do not sit near the Chairperson, otherwise your experience may be marred by #InnerCircleDread. Related: no one is staring at you, they’re too busy thinking of themselves. If you’re flying solo, try and sit next to someone new every meeting.

5. Clean time schmean time. The importance of sober time is a contentious issue, considered by some to be "just a number" and others, the barcode stamped on your very soul. Fact: your sober date is yours, and this means you can report it however you wish, if at all. Some members have different sober counts dependent on which meeting they’re attending (five months in AA, two months in CMA, still on maintenance in NA). Ideally in AA, this calculation is made from the date you put down the bottle. After a recent gallbladder attack, I took pain medication as prescribed—this doesn’t affect my sober date although some members disagree. Ask your sponsor. Or confirm "Sober today."

7. Share, always. It's one of the beautiful ironies in life: when you feel least like speaking is the time you have the most to stay. What wisdom could you possibly impart from your few days of recovery? Plenty. Older sober members sometimes attend meetings to remind themselves of how far they've come, and your raw insight could benefit them. Talk about your drinking, family, work (cutting-off-that-guy-at-the-intersection stories usually bode well). Share "on topic" or what is most pertinent to your recovery at that present moment. Talk about how you fear AA is a cult; the floor is yours.

8. Take breaks. In an ideal world, we’d stay glued to every speaker, breathing in their words, exiting the meeting cured by osmosis. The reality is, in early recovery staying stationary for one whole hour can be cruel and unusual punishment. If you’re restless, head out for a cigarette, scroll your Twitter feed, massage your calves. The importance of taking breaks in early recovery is paramount because it ensures you’ll get your butt back on the seat. For every person you piss off with your disruption, another will smile: “Ah, I remember when I couldn’t sit still.”

9. Take digits, give yours. In this club, the social rules of society seldom apply; an armed robber sponsors a judge, a soccer mom counts cups with a gutter punk. Young people lean on the old and at the same time, the old learn from the young. Aim to connect with AA members with the unbridled selection of Tara Reid on Fight Night.

10. Embrace the relating head nod. It’s the simplest way to communicate: “I’ve been there.”

11. Coffee = yes. Often referred to as the "2nd Half," the AA coffee shop after-party is the golden ticket. It may sound a little lackluster, but if you’re a drinker, noisily exchanging pleasantries with a bunch of strangers is not unfamiliar. When a member invites you out for coffee one on one, always say "yes" keeping in mind the "men with men, women with women" rule of thumb. There are plenty of creeps in the rooms of AA but no more than your average bar. Bonus tip: you’ll drink more coffee in your first year of sobriety than your entire life to date.   

12. Go to where the warmth is. If you're not feeling a meeting, try a new one. There’s a possibility that it could have something to do with how you’re traveling at that time, or maybe, it’s just a shit meeting. Try a gender-specific, age-specific, or hell, venture into another applicable 12-step fellowship. Go to where you feel loved, heard and where the coffee is ever flowing.

Finally: whether you drink, fuck or punch someone in the face, always, keep coming back.

Anna James is a writer based in Australia.

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