So you’ve made the decision to check out an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting. Maybe people have been subtly (or not-so-subtly) suggesting you go, maybe you’ve heard good things about AA and think it might be able to help you, or maybe you’re just not sure of where else to turn. Whatever your reason, attending your first meeting can be a stressful experience. Will it be a bunch of people smoking cigarettes in a church basement, like in the movies? Will you have to get up and share your whole life story in front of strangers? After seven years of regular AA attendance, here’s what I can tell you: No two meetings are exactly the same. (It’s worth mentioning that there are plenty of other recovery support group that are AA spin-offs or completely unaffiliated with AA; I don’t have any personal experience with any of these.) Here are some of the more unexpected things you ought to expect from your first AA meeting:
Hugs and Phone Numbers: Do not be alarmed: If you announce yourself as a newcomer at the beginning of the meeting (and I would suggest you do so people can offer support and answer any questions you might have) after the meeting ends you will almost certainly be approached by members introducing themselves. Some may try to hug you; even more might give you their phone number. This might be when alarm bells of “I heard AA is a cult and this seems like a very cult-y thing to do” go off in your head.
I repeat: Do not be alarmed. I, too, was initially freaked out by this sudden invasion of personal space. And I certainly wasn’t going to call a stranger, or answer the phone if a stranger called me. That’s OK; you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But it might help to understand why regular members descend on newcomers like bees to honey. Simply put, we have been where you are. We vividly remember the feelings of vulnerability and loneliness that invaded so much of our early sobriety. Even if we come across as mildly creepy, we want you to know that you can talk to us about whatever it is you’re going through. What’s a support group without offers of support?
No “Crosstalk” Allowed: This is one of those rules that’s referred to a lot but not explained enough, so it can be a little confusing. Anon Press, a major publisher of Alcoholics Anonymous literature, defines crosstalk as: “interrupting someone while they are speaking or giving direct advice to someone in a meeting.” This means that you’re free to speak about your own experience, but you should refrain from giving any advice to a fellow member, or offering your opinion. So instead of saying “Susie, your ex-husband sounds like a real jerk; I’d kick him out of the house if I were you,” it might be more helpful to say, “I found that even though I wasn’t romantically involved with my ex-boyfriend anymore, I couldn’t have him around the house when he was still drinking and using.” You may find, too, that someone at a meeting you’re attending wants to share something with the group but doesn’t want anyone to comment on it. Sticking to your own story and experience is a way of being supportive without crossing any boundaries.
Lots of Gallows Humor: There’s a joke in the “rooms” (as AA meetings are often called) that members break the ice by comparing suicide attempts. While there’s nothing funny about suicide, part of the joy of recovery is being able to look at the pain of your active addiction and know that it’s a part of your past, not your present. When I first came into the rooms, I was shocked that people would share openly about things I could relate to but considered shameful: wetting the bed, blacking out, trying to convince people I hadn’t been drinking while still holding a half-empty bottle of vodka in my hand.
When those embarrassing nightmares are your daily reality, it’s hard to think that one day you might laugh about them. Only the truly fortunate get to do so. But if you are one of the lucky ones who manage to get sober without causing too much irreparable harm to yourself or others, sometimes you do have to laugh at the absurdity that was your addicted life, and laugh with relief that it’s not your current reality.
Fast-Tracked Intimacy: In the average AA meeting you’ll likely experience hysterical laughter, sometimes followed moments later by hysterical crying. I realize this sounds a little “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” but members don’t just go to meetings to talk about how great their sober life is, of course. We come to talk about the everyday struggle of addiction and, well, life. Strange as it may seem at first, if you keep coming to meetings you’ll soon see that it’s good sign when someone feels comfortable crying. Usually, it’s an indication that the group is supportive. So when you’re having a bad day (and you’re bound to have at least a few), you know you can go to your meeting without feeling pressured to keep it together.
AA meetings are practically everywhere, offered at almost any time of the day or evening. So that first meeting you decide to check out may not be the right one for you. A little weirdness is to be expected (we’re a bunch of crazy, recovering alcoholics, just trying to help each other through things one day at a time, after all), but if a meeting feels too weird and you just aren’t comfortable there, try another. And as many as you need to after that. A good “home group” (meaning a regular group you attend, where you have the strongest connection to the members and feel committed to the group as a whole) is one where you can laugh, cry and support others as they do the same for you. It can take a little while to find that place; it took me a few weeks to find mine. Now, my home group is like my crazy little family and I love them dearly. I hope you find yours.