When Rehab Patients Come to Meetings: The Schism in Alcoholics Anonymous

By Allison Holland 06/01/16

At what cost are AA members barring potential new members by practicing the opposite of love and tolerance?

The Schism in Alcoholics Anonymous
Who invited them?

When I am asked to speak at an AA meeting, I generally lead in with the rhetoric—absorbed via osmosis from being in the roomsthat characterizes general happy and long-time sober people: “I have a sponsor who has a sponsor, I have a home group and service commitments..." I do have a sponsor, and she has a sponsor—which is beneficial. I also have a home group, and I have a service commitment—which, as of late, has become a drag.

My home group is an hour-long open discussion meeting in the mecca of addiction treatment centers in South Florida. That does not make attending my home group a negative or tedious experience, but the combination of treatment center meeting attendees and organic AA members mixing like oil and water creates a thick atmosphere of resentment. After an hour-long business meeting centering around AA etiquette and the most proper and effective way to promote it, I had to ask myself: at what cost are AA members who are attempting to carry on traditions barring potential new members by practicing the opposite of love and tolerance?

If treatment centers continue to transport their clientele—who may not even have the disease of alcoholism—to AA meetings, then there are sure to be individuals who cause disruption out of pure apathy.

Adaptation is sometimes a welcomed process, and other times it is avoided like an emotional growing plague. If I get a raise at work, I can easily adapt to having more money deposited into my bank account monthly. Depending upon the severity of the adaptation required, and how directly it impacts lives, rudimentary changes in our society and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous can have devastating effects, depending upon how personally we take these changes.

There should be no opposition to the fact that the program of AA has evolved wildly in the past 80 plus years of its existence. For God’s sake, they had to amend the Big Book and insert a clause to rationalize the blatant sexism within the first 164 pages—due simply to popular beliefs and society at large when the book was authored in 1939. The program has grown from humble beginnings of 80 members when the book was first published to countless members across the globe, all whom have gotten sober by following the directions so clearly written out.

This methodology of getting sober has worked—and will continue to work—for individuals far and wide who follow the program, despite differences in religion, economic status, ethnicity, and gender. The brilliant thing about Alcoholics Anonymous is that the program works for anyone who works it—not just for white, American, Protestant males. But this has only been made possible by individuals who were able to adapt to the program, and encourage its growth far and wide across the Earth. The fact that AA is now a widely mandated alternative to incarceration for drug and alcohol is in itself an achievement, considering when the book was first sent to print there was barely enough funding to get it off the press.

From a kitchen table 8th step to the countless meetings around the United States and globe, AA has grown to massive proportions with the capability to share its message and program with more individuals than ever. At its essence, that is growth and adaptation at its finest. We now have the capacity as a whole to reach people struggling with alcoholism who might never have found the rooms at all.

However, although organically reaching alcoholics through attraction rather than promotion may not have ceased, the methods through which treatment centers and the judicial system inject AA into peoples’ lives through recommendation or the threat of impending legal action has most certainly increased due to the growing number of addiction treatment centers.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites that there are over 14,000 addiction treatment centers in the United States—a number that essentially feels like one on every corner for South Florida residents such as myself. Capitalistic gain aside, the primary function of these treatment centers are to assist individuals in getting and staying off of addictive substances. The ones that are 12-step based transport their clients to 12-step meetings, so that their patients can get a taste of what living sober is like for individuals who have licked their habits and live sober. It seems obvious that if the enormous repertoire of treatment centers in the South Florida area busses their patients to AA meetings on a nightly basis, AA meeting attendance as a whole would increase due exclusively to the sheer number of bodies in a meeting hall at one time. More treatment centers that encourage meeting attendance equates to more people at AA meetings.

However, the road to addiction treatment ends up being shared with those who may not have drug and alcohol dependency issues—but rather pending legal charges, or other mental health issues that caused recreational substance abuse. So treatment centers end up with a trail mixed bag of clientele: those who are truly alcoholic, those who are not alcoholic, and those who might be alcoholic but also just might be heavy drinkers who have been pressured into treatment by other outside factors. But since tons of addiction treatment centers have tenets of recovery that are pretty one-size-fits-all in terms of 12-step work, all of these individuals—whether alcoholic or not—wind up at AA meetings on a nightly basis in an attempt to help them live sober and fulfilled lives.

I won’t pretend that the large influx of bodies who are transported to AA meetings that I attend isn’t an annoyance. It makes parking difficult, and more bodies in the room generally leads to more unnecessary disruptions during the meeting that might not occur if the treatment center attendants weren’t present. Visitors and attendees from treatment centers seem to be more likely to share on topics of “outside issues” such as drugs, mental health issues, or the state that they’re visiting from—which is mostly only frustrating to anyone who is a member of AA and opposed to meetings being hour-long group therapy sessions.

My personal home group had a lengthy discussion about how to best inform these outsiders of how and why these issues can detract from AA as a whole, and our primary purpose of helping alcoholics to recover from drinking. If there is no interest in the subject then it’s a safe assumption that our expectation will fall flat. If treatment centers continue to transport their clientele—who may not even have the disease of alcoholism—to AA meetings, then there are sure to be individuals who cause disruption out of pure apathy. These visitors and attendees may not even be alcoholic—but AA members will place expectations on them to act like seasoned members who are well-versed in meeting etiquette.

Encouraging individuals who identify as alcoholic and choose to participate in a meeting to adhere to general principals of respect for the AA program as a whole is not out of line. I doubt anybody would disagree with basic respect for visiting anywhere new and unfamiliar. But to require those who may have no previous knowledge of 12-step recovery to act accordingly based solely upon the fact that they are attending an addiction treatment center, with no definitive proof that they are indeed alcoholic, is ludicrous and prevents conversations and new membership that perhaps could be sparked by a more comforting atmosphere.

By restricting a meeting to only AA members, we limit ourselves to attendance only by those who are comfortable qualifying as alcoholics. There are benefits to these types of meetings, but those of us who have no qualms about identifying as alcoholics are doing a disservice to ourselves and AA as a whole by facilitating a schism of sorts between us and other meeting attendants—or possible new members. Working with someone in early sobriety is an exercise in learning to share our experience with those who are willing to be taught about a new way of life, which is amazing. But for those who walk through our doors not because they are alcoholic—or think they might be alcoholic—but because they are mandated through outside measures or addiction treatment centers, we must continue to facilitate an environment that is non-oppressive and non-judgmental.

AA as a whole remains open for those who want to see what life looks like without drugs and alcohol. And AA open meetings should remain open to the public so they can see what AA is about. We should remain steadfast in upholding our code of love and tolerance for all, especially for visitors who may not ever find a permanent seat with us, because we are stronger than trivial annoyances like attendees who remain oblivious to AA protocol; all of us at one point may have been those attendees. We are not a group who dismisses potential members due to a lackluster first impression, or because the facility that requires their attendance is deemed a nuisance. When we close ourselves off to experiences, we stop growing and adapting as individuals and as a whole.

I personally do not know a single original member of AA. My grandfather was in the Korean War, but his experiences are not my experiences and hearing his recollections does not give me the privilege to speak as to what a firsthand war experience is like. Similarly, just because I read the stories out of the back of the Big Book does not mean that I have firsthand experience in getting stockbrokers who almost jumped out of their windows sober—and I certainly do not have any idea of what those first 70 years of AA were like. The compass that I use as a guide is our literature, not dreams of what AA might look like if treatment center attendance plummeted. Our program has grown and we need to adapt to the changes of what our world looks like, rather than focusing on the trivial things that stand to tear us apart rather than bring us together.

We cannot survive without helping the next alcoholic—and we surely cannot hear him or her if we are too busy quarreling over the attendants who don’t want or need the help to begin with.

Because “justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.”

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Allison Holland is a native Virginian who currently resides in Florida. She blogs and helps share her story with other recovering addicts and those who suffer from eating disorders.