What's AA Really Like?

By Kathleen Jones 09/02/15

Before you go, you may want to know what it is really like. . . from someone who's actually been there.

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Has someone suggested you try AA? Perhaps the court has ordered you to attend? Maybe you know someone who should go? Before you go, do you want to know what it is really like?

As a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for over 10 years, let me walk you through the church basement doors that lead to a typical AA meeting and you can judge for yourself.

After you find a meeting from an AA phone volunteer, online website, or AA meeting list, you will typically be directed to the nearest church basement.

After you park your car, you will see a small group of men and women smoking in front of a door or by the sidewalk. You can bet they are waiting for the meeting. Before you have a chance to ask where the meeting is, someone will direct you to the right door.

Once inside, you will see metal chairs arranged in the center of the room. There may only be 10 chairs if the meeting is small or there may be 100 chairs if it is large. It doesn’t matter. You only need two alcoholics to have a meeting. After all, AA started with just Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

The familiar aroma of coffee greets you as you walk into the basement. Coffee is a staple at AA meetings. Help yourself to a cup. There may even be donuts waiting for you.

You will meet the maker of the coffee in the kitchen. Don’t be frightened. He or she is probably a newcomer, too. Making coffee is the first commitment a newcomer can take on. He or she will remember how scary it is to attend the first meeting and will introduce you to some new friends.

With your coffee and donut in hand, feel free to take a seat. There will be a table and chair upfront where the chairperson will run the meeting. You may see a banner of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous nearby.

Sitting in the back will do you no good. Members will introduce themselves to you anyway. Folks at AA are very friendly. You may be surprised by the amount of laughter you hear. We are not a “glum lot.”

The meeting almost always starts and ends right on time. The chairperson may start the meeting with The Serenity Prayer. Next, the chair will ask if anyone is new. Don’t be scared. They just want to welcome you. You needn’t say that you’re an alcoholic, if you’re not sure. Just raise your hand and say your first name, only. Remember, we are anonymous.

The group may circulate a meeting list for you, with members writing down their first names and phone numbers for you to call if you feel like picking up a drink. They may even give you a free copy of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

The chairperson will also welcome those who are new to the meeting. Then the chair may ask if anyone is celebrating an “anniversary” or AA “birthday.” In AA, we celebrate our sobriety and groups often give out “coins” or “chips” to commemorate each year. You may be clapping for a celebrant of over 50 years or 24 hours.

At some point, a member will read the AA Preamble, which sets forth AA’s primary purpose for members to “stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” Most groups read “How it Works,” which is from the Big Book and sets forth AA’s program of recovery through the 12 steps.

Once all the announcements and readings are completed, the heart of the meeting will begin. The format of the meeting will determine what you will hear.

Perhaps, your meeting is a “speaker” meeting. Speaker meetings are what most people think AA meetings are like. In speaker meetings, a speaker shares his or her “story.” This typically entails the speaker sharing “his experience, strength and hope” or “what it was like, what happened and what it is like today.” In other words, the speaker tells his or her “war story" with alcohol, but more importantly shares how he or she got sober and became “happy, joyous and free.” The war story qualifies the speaker, but the real message centers on recovery.

Maybe the meeting is a “discussion” meeting. A discussion meeting, which sometimes follows a speaker, usually centers on two topics selected by members of the meeting. Popular topics are “gratitude,” “acceptance,” and “surrender.”

Some meetings focus on the steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. During the meeting, the group reads a chapter from the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous followed by a discussion. The steps and traditions are the meat of AA. They comprise the “Program of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Another meeting format is the “Big Book” meeting. A Big Book meeting is a meeting in which the book Alcoholics Anonymous is read and discussed. The Big Book discusses the nature of alcoholism, the spiritual solution, the 12 steps and member stories. It is the AA “Bible.”

Halfway through the meeting, a basket will pass through the group. Our Seventh Tradition states that we are “self-supporting.” The collection pays for rent and coffee, as well as a donation to Intergroup and General Services. Contributing is strictly voluntary. However, if you can spare a buck or two, the group will be grateful.

During the meeting, you may hear a lot of AA sayings that seem a little silly at first. Things like: “One day at a time,” or “We don’t drink under any and all circumstances,” or “But for the Grace of God,” etc. Don’t brush these sayings aside. They could keep you from picking up a drink.

You may hear newcomers dump their problems on the group. However, you won’t hear people telling him or her what to do. That is known as “cross talk” and is discouraged. Instead, you may hear an old timer talk about how he stayed sober under all conditions. You will hear more solutions than problems. AA is not a typical “group therapy.”

And yes, you may hear about God. Don’t be afraid. AA lets you choose your own Higher Power, but no one will kick you out if you’re an atheist. They will simply suggest that you use the “group” as your Higher Power. Many atheists have stayed sober that way.

Once the meeting is over, the chair will announce that “we have a nice way of closing” and the group will form a convoluted circle and hold hands. You are free to not participate if you feel uncomfortable. The chair will lead the group in prayer, probably The Lord’s Prayer or The Serenity Prayer.

After the prayer, the group will break and put the chairs away and clean the coffee pot(s). A group of men or women will approach you to offer their phone numbers and encouragement. One of them may sponsor you.

You may be invited out for coffee. This is called “the meeting after the meeting.” Go. Fellowship is a critical part of sobriety.

Congratulations. You have just survived your first AA meeting. “Keep coming back.”

Kathleen Jones is a pseudonym.

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