End of Discussion: AA Discussion Meetings Aren't Doing It For Me Anymore

By Christopher Dale 02/25/16

I love AA because it saved my life. But as I grew up in the program, I found that the discussion meetings grew old.

Christopher Dale
via Author

I am a grateful recovering alcoholic and member of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose program and fellowship have, through my now four-plus years of sobriety, restored me to something resembling sanity. 

There is no shortage of meetings in my northeast New Jersey area, meaning I’ve been fortunate to experience a wide range of formats: three speaker, one speaker plus discussion, step/tradition, beginners, clean & sober, and men’s only, to name just a few. For my first few years in the program, however, my favorite was a notably boisterous Friday night discussion meeting, a well-attended area mainstay that served well as my first home group. 

As a newcomer who, to my credit, was regularly reading the literature and working the steps with a sponsor, I loved the discussion format for its free-flowing diversity. Like many meetings in this genre, the “discussion” generally derived from the first person to share—someone who was either struggling with a facet of sobriety or who simply wanted to volunteer a recovery-relevant topic.  

Week after week, the result was an interesting and altogether helpful deep dive into a variety of subjects: gratitude and grief, arrogance and anger, temptation and trust. I found it akin to going to Sunday school on Friday evening; I was gaining insight into wide-ranging subject matter from folks who had what I wanted, chiefly five, 10, even 25 or more years of content sobriety. Hearing how people I respected were applying the principles they learned from the Big Book, the 12 steps & 12 traditions and their wealth of personal experiences was a truly valuable crash course in practical sober living, and no doubt prevented me from committing numerous mistakes I otherwise would have made—perhaps at the expense of my sobriety. 

But as I grew up in AA, the discussion meetings grew old. Here’s a few reasons why. 

Change the channel – I’ve seen this one already. 

Though they certainly cover a wide range of topics, discussion meetings trend heavily toward about a dozen recovery-related topics. Gratitude’s a big one. So are anger, grief, impatience, and “keeping it simple.” All worthwhile topics but, as my water level of AA knowledge rose from empty to ample, the discussion topic rotation started looking less like a wheel of fortune and more like a revolving door of reruns.  

The turnoff here is natural: after a while, repetition becomes, well, repetitive. And redundant: The fourteenth time you hear, for example, a fellow AA member break out the HALT (hungry-angry-lonely-tired) acronym is simply less effective than the subsequent 13 references. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m all set on that front. It’s sound logic, I’ve fully digested it, and my current recovery consists of progress on less remedial levels. 

Topic Telephone

Like no other format, a discussion meeting runs the risk of becoming a meandering mess that, at about the 25-minute mark, makes me look around for a fire alarm to pull. 

Of the four most prevalent AA meeting formats—Speaker, Step, Big Book and Discussion—discussion is by far the least focused. Big Book and Step meetings typically have the benefit of sanctioned literature, firmly rooting the gathering in the actual program. Meanwhile, the extended qualifications inherent in Speaker meetings afford attendees the chance to identify with a fellow alcoholic in real-world scenarios. Personal histories are more grounded than sweeping themes because the former is hard fact, the latter malleable philosophy.   

Often, the topic proposed in the opening minutes of a discussion meeting bears little resemblance to the one being bloviated upon in its waning moments. The reasons for this vary, but usually showcase our ability, as humans and certainly as alcoholics, to hear whatever we want to hear. Share by share, the resulting “topic twisting” further distances the discussion from its initial intent—usually at the expense, ironically, of someone who suggested the subject because it reflected a recovery-related problem he was facing. 

Is there some insight? Sure. But by and large, most discussion meetings trend downward along a slope of descending dialogue. 

More is Less

The short share, pack-as-many-as-you-can-in nature of discussion meetings means that they, far more than other formats, display what for me is a best-forgotten truth: A surprising percentage of people in AA simply don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.  

A hater, you say? Nonsense. I LOVE this program. 

I love this program because it saved my life. I love this program because it helped me stop drinking and stay stopped. I love this program because, after wandering aimlessly for 32 lonely years, it gave me 12 rational Steps by which to conduct my affairs and, in doing so, grow into full adulthood. And I love this program because it delivered what it promised to deliver: a solution to my chronic, seemingly hopeless alcoholism. 

Yes, I LOVE this program…and I HATE seeing it misconstrued and misrepresented. Its messages are too beautiful, too profound for that. This program is too worthy of comprehensive comprehension for me to comfortably sit in a discussion meeting and listen to people who only sort of get it.  

People who think Step 9 means tracking down a classmate you fought with in kindergarten. People who think “live and let live” means sitting idly by and watch loved ones destroy themselves despite our unique, program-instilled insight. And perhaps worst of all: People who think God conducts every micro-movement on Earth and, therefore, that they were somehow saved from this disease while others perished in its grasps—a childish, self-important notion that is far too widely held in AA. 

AA is a simple program that requires a modicum of sophistication to fully interpret. Regardless the format, I go into every AA meeting fully aware of that. But discussion meetings, with their heightened susceptibility to getting sidetracked, hijacked or otherwise diverted, seem to showcase more surface-level silliness than other formats.  

All totaled, in the interest of taking what I need and leaving the rest, I’ll be leaving discussion meetings out of my recovery for the foreseeable future. At least for now, that’s the end of discussion. 

Christopher Dale is a freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues. He is the founder and sole contributor to www.ImperfectMessenger.us, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.

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