Addict for a Day: Inside AA

One of the final classes of my degree – the long, painful, exceedingly expensive (okay, also purposeful and rewarding) last 2 years of my life – is an introductory course on addictive disorders, their treatment, and the pharmacology of substance use.  While dark, disturbing, and downright depressing, the subject matter is also curiously intriguing and interesting.  Anyone who’s watched an episode of Intervention knows what I’m talking about.

There’s something about addiction that just tears people right apart, along with their career, family, and hope for a future.  Yet, we’re drawn to this suffering, moths to the flame.  Perhaps we wonder on some level how far we ourselves would have to go, how bad things would have to get, before crossing our own line.  Isn’t it our way – as people and as society – to try to get as close as we can to self-destruction without actually doing it?

So, the class is a mixed bag.

One assignment sent me to an alcoholics anonymous meeting.  I had never been to one before.  Plus, I never agreed with their philosophy of recovery, being the stubborn atheist/humanist I am.  I guess the whole concept of surrendering control of yourself to a higher power never sat well with me.  Nonetheless, I looked forward to going and seeing what it was all about.  The assignment was simple enough: attend a meeting, write about it and whether or not you think the program is effective.

Sure.

It was about 2 in the afternoon.  I don’t know why, but I was feeling nervous as I walked up to the building.  Maybe it was fear that I would be “found out.”  That somehow the fact that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol at all would be written all over my face and I would be some kind of outsider.  Maybe it was that I just had no idea what was going to happen in the meeting.  I mean, everyone sees them portrayed on TV or in movies… people sitting in a circle of chairs, taking turns talking about their daily struggles with sobriety, maybe praying, that kind of thing.  But I wasn’t taking anything for granted.  I knew how inaccurately therapy is portrayed in the media, so I was ready to be surprised.

It wasn’t until later that I realized why I was feeling nervous.  It was fear of being judged.  Did other people know what went on in there?  What if they did, and saw me walking in, and thought – god forbid – that I was an alcoholic?

With a sinking feeling, I thought, ‘wow…  what must it be like for someone with a real problem?’

Inside there was nothing to write home about.  A bunch of chairs set up in rows, a podium and mic at the front, flanked by windows covered by large posters emblazoned with the 12 steps and the 12 traditions of AA.  There was a coffee bar.  $1.50 to indulge in an addiction that I actually did have.  I was happy to have something to do as I took a seat in the back row, directly facing the podium.  Sip, sip… don’t mind me…

There were a few people already there, some at tables behind me, some on couches lining the perimeter of the room, a couple seated in the rows of chairs in front of me.  A man was at the podium now, he read some rules and something called a ‘daily reflection,’ not, of course, without introducing himself under his breath with the perfunctory “I’m an alcoholic” statement.  At least the movies got that part right.  There was a murmured greeting from the crowd.  He went on about something to do with honesty and admitting powerlessness, periodically scanning the crowd, who now numbered maybe a couple dozen.

One by one, he called people to the podium.  There was a couple – American – who had just got off a cruise ship that didn’t have any meetings on board.  “Real glad to be at a meeting now,” he said.  About a year sober, trapped on a cruise ship for 2 weeks with no way of avoiding booze.  I believed him.  An older woman was next.  Then a ‘newcomer’ who was clearly in a rough spot in his life.  He talked about treatment centres, relapses, boredom, mental agony trying to decide whether or not to drink on any particular day.  Another guy said that he used to go to a bar, order a beer, and stare at it for half an hour trying to decide whether to take that first sip.  Sounded like torture to me.

Everyone spoke eloquently.  Some very convincingly.  I got the sense these were experienced people.  And then, the inevitable moment came.  Podium guy looked for someone to come up to speak, and sure enough, gestured to me.  Of course, I had thought of what I might do if this situation arose.  Sure, I could pass – not speak, stay in the silent comfort of my seat – but then, this was an educational opportunity.  ‘I’m here, aren’t I?  Might as well get as much of an experience as I can while I’m pretending to be an addict.’

My introvert alarms were sounding as I stepped up to the mic.  ‘I told you not to do it!’

Sshh.

“My name’s David,” I said, without the ‘I’m an alcoholic’ part – I couldn’t make those words come out, like they were cursed or something, or would sound too forced, or any of a million other lame excuses.  I didn’t want to lie to these people, who had shared such painful stories that were, in all seriousness, pretty courageous and inspiring.

“Hi, David!” came the group’s reply.  I couldn’t help smiling.  I felt accepted.  The nervousness started to evaporate.

“I’ll make this quick,” I said instead.  “This is actually my first ever meeting,” I blurted, to cheers from the crowd.  I went on to say that I wasn’t sure where I was in the grand scheme of things, and that I wanted to see what these meetings were all about, which were both technically true.  When I was finished, there was more applause, and several encouraging handshakes on my way back to my chair.  I felt welcomed, but still pretty awkward as I listened to the next few speakers mention what it was like for them when they first started coming to meetings.  Speakers consistently made direct eye contact with me when talking about how important it is to keep coming to meetings.  That nice feeling of being welcomed started to turn into a sense that I was being gently pushed.  A vivacious, attractive younger woman was last to speak.  She was a great speaker, very charismatic, very personable.  She made a convincing case for following all the steps and reading all the AA literature.  I wondered if she was routinely asked to speak at the end the meetings with young newcomers.  Or maybe just at the end of meetings to provide those in attendance some motivation to return.

Finally, everyone formed into a circle, holding hands, and a prayer was spoken (the “serenity prayer“):

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

It was pretty awkward to be the only one that didn’t know the words.  The meeting ended and I think I was the first person out of the building, as if I had a limited time before my ‘clever guise’ wore off.  I didn’t get out without a short conversation with the young woman who spoke last, she gave me a booklet with meeting times and locations for the whole month.

I did feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders as I walked away.  I think it was the whole pretending thing, and the mindset that I seemingly adopted to go with that ‘addict’ role.  That feeling that I was being judged by ‘normal’ people.  It was all very automatic, which is kind of frightening.  We do this to people, society.  Great job.

So, is the whole thing effective? From what I saw, it was keeping some people sober.  Maybe their addiction just switched to having to go to meetings, but there’s surely a lot worse out there.  I can tell you that I felt welcomed, supported.  That if I really needed it, these people would help me.  I don’t think that means that it’s going to work for everyone, nor should it.  I still don’t believe in the same things they believe, and I don’t think I ever will.  I think that the power to change, for better and for worse, is fundamentally within one’s control, not outside it.  I believe in responsibility, on a personal and a social level.

5 thoughts on “Addict for a Day: Inside AA

  1. Hi Dave… thanks for sharing your experience. Fascinating to hear a non-member perspective. Reminds me of when I started attending meetings convinced I wasn’t “one of them”. When for me, in fact I was. Meaning an alcoholic whose problem was beyond the power of my will.

    Non-members are welcome to attend “open” meetings. “Closed” meetings are for AA members only. So simply a heads up… please be aware of what type of meeting you are attending.

    It does not surprise me at all that a non-member and non-problem drinker does not see that many of us have problems with alcohol or other substances that advance beyond the power of the will.

    Being an educated person myself, and largely self-reliant and self-made, having enjoyed many achievements, felt I could manage this problem myself. Until numerous efforts to do so failed. Even applying the same discipline and determination that achieved results in other areas failed. As these self-powered efforts failed for many highly achieving people in business, science, law, entertainment, sports, academia, military, politics and numerous other walks of life who are also now AA members who found it necessary to turn their problem over and seek help from a power other than ourselves.

    If I can say this in as friendly and kind a way as possible…. I have heard many theorists state that we should be able to find the power within ourselves to deal with our problem with alcohol. These are indeed theories that have not proven out in the lives of thousands if not millions of alcoholics like me. People of proven inner-strength and discipline who did not find the power within. Ought we have found it? Theoretically, yes. Practically though, we did not.

    Until you’ve been there my friend, it is all theory and academic study and speculation. Until you’ve exercised every bit of cunning, commitment, and inner resource you ever knew, relied on, or could get ahold of and still felt owned by your alcoholism or addiction, and finally, in desperation cried out to any power other than yourself that you hoped could hear you, to either help you or kill you and spare of the hell you are in, I honestly do not believe you can understand.

    By virtue of my gender, I will never know what childbirth is like. I have been present for it. I have read about it. I have talked it over and over and over again with my wife and other women. But I will never know it. My knowledge of childbirth can only ever be academic and theoretical based on observation. It is not experiential. And this absence experience limits the validity of any outlook I have on what labour and childbirth is really like.

    I am glad you are curious about us. I am glad you have experienced us. And by all means, you are entitled to your opinion on what we are all about and what you feel should or shouldn’t be. Until you have been there my friend, you will never know. And this man of will and self-reliance writes to you sober for a number of years with the help of significant powers greater than myself. Powers that helped me when I could not help myself.

    AA does not need academic validation or approval. Millions of individual members are alive, sober, and thriving. Our families are restored and we offer hope to others who are still suffering. We are more available than any other recovery organization or method. Even if we are not the solution for everyone.

    Our fellowhsips continue to grow without the support of religious, medical, academic, or political establishments. Why? Beause it works for those of us who are alcoholics of this type. Nothing more complex than that.

    Once again, thank you for your post and outlook. I hope I have been successful in sharing my feedback with candidness and kindness.

    Ciao.

    Chaz

  2. Hi Chaz,

    Thanks for your response! It was indeed both kind and candid, and well-written. I think what you say has a great deal of truth – that there’s nothing to replace lived experience. If anything, my experience in grad school has taught me to be more skeptical of empiricism than anything else.

    I appreciate your perspective. Despite my misgivings, I would definitely not be opposed to referring clients to AA.

    All the best,

    Dave

  3. Thanks for hearing my perspective Dave. And for your courage to actually get out there and experience a meeting of AA. It undoubtedly gave you a sampling of what actually happens.

    I am convinced that AA is not perfect and certainly not for every alcoholic. It was simply revolutionary for its day. It offered a solution where virtually none existed back in 1935. Chronic alcoholics were considered a lost cause. Drug addicts even more so.

    Today, there are other approaches. Many report positive results. Yet often philosphies end up competing. And the debate overshadows the fact that alcoholics and addicts need help pretty much any way that works.

    All the best in our studies.

    Ciao

    Chaz

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