“The newcomer is the most important person at any meeting, because we can only keep what we have by giving it away. We have learned from our group experience that those who keep coming to our meetings regularly stay clean.”
Narcotics Anonymous, page 9
“Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage, all the men and women merely players.’ He forgot to mention that I was the chief critic. I was always able to see the flaw in every person, every situation. And I was always glad to point it out, because I knew you wanted perfection, just as I did…
“…I can do the same thing with an AA meeting. The more I focus my mind on its defects—late start, long drunkalogues, cigarette smoke—the worse the meeting becomes. But when…I focus my mind on what’s good about it, rather than what’s wrong with it, the meeting keeps getting better and better.”
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 451 (Third Edition)
Don’t drink (or use)!
Go to meetings!
Get a sponsor!
Work the steps!
We hear these “suggestions” repeated over and over again throughout treatment and at meetings. We hear them referred to as the “Four Secrets of Recovery,” or the “Four Open Secrets of Recovery.” We are told, that there are no “musts” in recovery, but that there are a lot of “You (darn) well betters.”
It’s been said that, “No one ever got drunk at an AA meeting.” This may or may not be true. But it can certainly be said that no one ever got drunk at a meeting by accident.
Clearly, “Don’t drink or use” is the number one rule. We can’t recover if the effects of alcohol and drugs impair our minds and bodies. The other three rules are dependent upon each other: we obviously can’t get a worthwhile sponsor if we don’t attend meetings, nor can we properly work the steps without a sponsor. Meetings, then, are of paramount importance: we can go to a meeting high, but once we decide to start the journey of recovery, we need to make it to the station so that we can get on board.
But what do we do at meetings? Do we behave as we do in group? Do we take with us the confrontational style that we may have picked up—rightly or otherwise—in treatment? Do we share at every meeting, no matter what? Do we sit and keep our mouths shut—“take the cotton out of our ears and put it in our mouth,” or do we let people know who we are and what we think we’re about? Do we need to get the answer to these questions by trial and error? Why hasn’t someone explained all this stuff to us? Help!
Kinds of meetings
In open meetings, anyone is welcome. You can bring your Aunt Minnie, your boss, your significant other, your cousin Hank who “might have a problem.” Anyone you like. Open meetings are most commonly “discussion” meetings, where someone proposes a topic and attendees take turns sharing about it. Others may be “speaker” meetings, where folks share their experience, strength and hope in a more formal and longer way. These speakers are usually—although not always—prearranged.
Sometimes the formats are combined into a “speaker/discussion meeting. In these, a speaker, or leader, “qualifies” by telling his/her story, and then leads the meeting in discussion of a topic that the leader has picked.
Only alcoholics and addicts are welcome at closed meetings. In NA, alcoholics are welcome, since NA officially views alcohol as being a drug. It is customary, however, to identify yourself as an “addict,” or as an “addict and alcoholic.”
In AA, due to traditions that go back more than sixty years and that no one seems in any hurry to change because they work, only alcoholics are welcome—along with those who have a desire to stop drinking. Many addicts have taken offense at this—usually because they have identified themselves as an addict and been told that the meeting is for alcoholics only. This is an embarrassing situation that arises from time to time. It is a function of poor manners on the part of the person “correcting” the other, but we must remember that “some are sicker than others,” and that waiting until after the meeting to explain it politely is not within the capacity of some people.
If a person is an addict at a closed AA meeting, the simple way to deal with the issue is to say, “My name is (whomever), and I have a desire to stop drinking.” At first thought, this seems dishonest. But is it not a fact that addicts need to avoid all mood-altering substances, including alcohol? Do we not therefore—at least in spirit, and sufficient to the moment—have a “desire to stop drinking,” (or not to start drinking?) Or, we can just grit our teeth and say we’re alcoholics. What’s so bad about that? Bottom line, like it or not, it’s good manners to conform to this tradition. If we do not wish to do so, we may find another meeting.
Step (Step and Tradition) meetings:
The Twelve Steps, as originated by Alcoholics Anonymous and modified to their own purposes by more than 100 other recovery programs, are the absolute basis of the AA and NA programs of recovery. They are usually accompanied by a variation of the Twelve Traditions of AA, as well. Since they are the basis of the program, it is thought that we need to understand them thoroughly. Thus, we have series of meetings dedicated specifically to their study.
These meetings usually follow a format that involves reading all or some of an article about the step or tradition from the appropriate source. Often the reading duties are shared around the room in succession. This is done in two distinct ways, and it is up to each group how their meetings are formatted. In one case, the entire selection is read, and then discussed. In the other, each person reads a paragraph, which is then open to discussion by all until the topic “runs out of steam,” at which time the next paragraph is read and discussed. Although it takes much longer to get through all the steps and/or traditions in this way, it makes for an exhaustive and illuminating study.
The text for step and tradition meetings in AA is usually the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, written by Bill Wilson over several years time based on the input and experiences of AA members. Narcotics Anonymous uses its Basic Text (see below.)
Big Book and Basic Text meetings:
The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, written in the late 1930’s by William (Bill) Wilson with input from the first 100 members of AA, is the ancestor of all Twelve Step programs. Were it not for this book, millions of alcoholics and addicts—not to mention codependents and others—would still be suffering today. The “Big Book,” as it is affectionately known, has been on nearly every list of “Most Important” books of the 20th Century. There are those who hold it equal in importance to any spiritual text that has ever been written.
The Big Book is, indeed, a spiritual text, as is the NA Basic Text and the programs that have evolved from them. As such, they are deserving of detailed study. Big Book and Basic Text study meetings are generally carried out in the same manners as Step and Step/Tradition meetings.
Some AA meetings concentrate on only the first 164 pages, the “instructions” section of the volume, while others consider not only that portion, but the 410 pages of personal stories and appendices that follow.
Narcotics Anonymous has seen fit to put into their Basic Text, in one volume, the information that AA has put into two, the Big Book and the “Twelve and Twelve.” Thus, the Basic Text contains most of the material used for literature study.
Beginners’ (Newcomers’) meetings:
Typically held before “regular” meetings, and often of shorter duration, beginner’s meetings usually concentrate on the first three steps, or on other issues especially affecting beginners.
The effectiveness of these meetings is largely dependent upon the skills and attention brought to bear by the leader(s). Often, outside speakers are brought in to talk about their early recovery, or other more specific issues. On occasion, a panel of “old-timers” may be convened to answer the newcomers’ questions.
Beginners’ meetings are an excellent resource for newcomers, and are also a wonderful way to become acquainted with others in the group.
There are a number of axioms in NA and AA regarding separation of gender groups in recovery, perhaps best summed up in the popular one used by our women members, “Women will save your a–. Men will just pat you on it.”
The subject of mixed-gender sponsorship, 13th-Stepping, newcomers in relationships and other aberrations of poorly-focused recovery is best left for another time. Suffice it to say that it has been found inadvisable to do too much mixing, especially in early recovery. People who don’t know how to have relationships with themselves and folks of their own gender have no business in relationships involving lust, sex and “love.” ‘Nuf said.
For this and simple reasons of common issues and answers, we have men’s meetings, women’s meetings, gay meetings and (no doubt) trans-gender meetings. This is as it should be. Obviously, each is limited to people of that gender or gender preference.
There is a fairly broad range of meetings that need a bit of explanation. Although they generally fall into the category of “discussion” meetings, they have aspects that set them a bit apart.
As Bill Sees It meetings are similar in format to Big Book meetings, but are based on the book of the same name, a collection of Bill Wilson’s writings from various sources. This format lends itself to broad topics, such as “gratitude,” that are indexed in the back of the book and which allow users to access the various excerpts relating to those topics.
Living Sober meetings are also based on a book of the same name. This paperback book, official AA literature, contains 30 short articles on various aspects of the sober lifestyle and how to deal with them. The format is the same, generally, as the other literature study meetings.
Grapevine Meetings are based on the AA Grapevine, a monthly magazine published by AA ($15 per year from P.O. Box 1980, Grand Central Station, NY, NY 10163-1980 >>http://www.aagrapevine.org/ The magazine contains a variety of articles and letters that make excellent topics for discussion, including at least three each issue that are intended to be used that way. The meetings are generally run more-or-less like the other “publication based” meetings.
Old Timers’ meetings usually involve a panel of members with a good deal of sobriety under their belts. (No one has actually ever defined “old-timer” specifically. It’s generally accepted that if you have 20 years of continuous sobriety, you are one, and if you have 5 years you probably aren’t. Clearly, there’s a wide gray area.) In any case, these folks answer questions posed by members from the floor.
Askit Basket meetings are similar to Old-Timers’ meetings. Members write questions on pieces of paper, which are placed in a collection basket or someone’s hat. A panel of experienced members answers questions drawn at random. This format allows shy people to ask “dumb” questions anonymously, and is usually quite popular. For some reason, they aren’t all that common, though.
Meditation meetings follow a variety of formats, generally centered on a reading or short discussion of a particular idea, and then guided or unguided meditation on the subject. Often there is a period of discussion after the meditation period, as well.
Business meetings are exactly that. In them, we discuss the bread-and-butter operation of the group: who will chair meetings, who will find speakers, who will be the General Services Representative. Secretaries and Treasurers are elected. (AA and NA do not have presidents, etc. “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”)
Group conscience meetings are called only when needed to resolve non-business issues. They are often held before or after business meetings, (usually before,) in order to arrive at a consensus regarding a problem or potential problem that may have arisen within the group. This could, for example, involve whether or not to move the location of meetings, or how to deal with subjects such as the “alcoholic/addict” identification issue mentioned previously. Obviously, these meetings are for group members only.
Business meetings and group conscience meetings are usually held after regular meetings, typically scheduled on a particular day of the month (last Thursday, for example.)
It is extremely important that we attend these meetings. They are the primary means by which we may let our ideas about our home groups affect their operation. If we do not attend group conscience and business meetings, we have no right to complain about the way our groups are being run.
Sharing at meetings
Many of us get to meetings with no real idea of how to share at a meeting. Those of us who come out of treatment are accustomed to the kind of sharing done in groups, or in the community meetings we hold at treatment centers. Since we go to meetings with other newcomers while in treatment, we may not notice that others do not share in the same ways. Thus, a few guidelines…
First of all: if we are really hurting—if we want to drink or use—we just stick up our hand and babble away. We don’t worry about any of the following suggestions.
Before we share, we make sure we have something to say—
Many of us, as newcomers, felt that we had to share at every meeting. Perhaps we even had a sponsor who told us to do so. So, we raised our hands and babbled away. This isn’t the way we should do it. In the case of “sponsor’s orders,” we can just raise our hands and say, “My name’s ( ), I’m an alcoholic/addict, and I just want everyone to get to know me. Thanks for letting me share.” (Or words to that effect.) This will impress everyone at the meeting with our humility and willingness, and we will avoid embarrassing ourselves by babbling.
If we are hurting, or really relate, and feel that we need to share, we raise our hand, identify ourselves, say what we have to say—briefly—and stop talking. If we are asking for help, we need to close our mouths and listen for the answer. We do not need to spend a lot of time explaining ourselves.
If we have nothing to say, we need to remain quiet. If I have nothing to say, I may use up time that is badly needed by someone in crisis. I need to keep an eye on my ego and not talk just to hear myself.
Just as importantly, when I decide that I am going to share I begin thinking about all the wise things that I am going to say. This can cause me to miss out completely on other folks’ sharing. After I’ve shared, I may spend some time turning the speech over and over in my mind, again missing out on what others have to say. And finally, if I don’t get a chance to share, I may feel resentful about missing out, giving me an opportunity to waste the meeting entirely.
There is a reason that the old timers say, “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” Newcomers need to listen and learn.
We keep to the subject—
If we don’t know much about the subject, we need to keep quiet and listen. However, it’s always OK to ask questions about things we don’t understand.
We say what we have to say, then we stop talking—
Unless we are professional public speakers, it is most unlikely that we can talk for more than about three minutes—at the most—without beginning to lose track of what we’re saying. We then either repeat ourselves, or begin to ramble. Also, unless our audience is totally mesmerized by our performance, they will begin to get bored about that time and quit paying attention anyway.
If we want people to remember what we say, we need to keep it as short as possible: bumper stickers, not books.
We don’t share “at” others—
It is never appropriate to share in a way that makes us seem to be offering advice. If we feel a need to offer direct comments about someone’s sharing, we wait until after the meeting and do it one-on-one. If we don’t feel confident enough of our advice to offer it that way, we would probably do well to keep it to ourselves.
The fact that we often hear advice given during meetings doesn’t make it the right thing to do—and seldom does it favorably impress anyone but the person giving it.
We keep our sharing “in the ‘I’”—
We say, “In my experience”; “When I was out there”; “When I bought my drugs”; “I stole from my family.” We do not say, “When you’re out there using, you steal from your friends and your family.
We don’t say, “You have to work an honest program if you want to stay clean.” We say, “If I want to stay clean, I have to work an honest program and stop my lying and my cheating and my stealing and my scamming.”
Why? When I say, “You,” it separates me from the reality of my disease. Instead of talking about what I need to do, I’m telling you what you need to do. I am supposed to be sharing MY experience, strength, and hope. I was the one who used. I know nothing about your using, or your recovery—although I may think I do. I only really know about my own.
Yes, we hear a lot of “you’s” out in the rooms. That doesn’t make it right. Do we like it when someone at a meeting—or anywhere else—says “we” have to do such-and-such? Of course we don’t. Think about it.
We arrive on time, and…
If we want respect, we need to learn to show respect for others. We arrive for meetings on time, get our coffee, and find a seat—preferably not in the back of the room. We do not, however, use “I’ll be late” as an excuse to not attend a meeting. If we arrive late, we enter and find a seat quietly. Even being late to a meeting is better than no meeting at all.
Some people get up during the meeting, walk over people’s feet to get coffee, and slop it around getting back to their seat. Some carry on conversations when others are sharing, too. How do we like it, when they talk while we’re sharing? How does it make us feel? How do we feel when someone gets up and walks out while we’re sharing? When they scrape chairs? When they slam doors? How might they feel if we do it?
How long is a meeting?
“Oh, I worked all day, and I have to get to bed early.” “I’m so tired, and I need to spend some time with my family.” If we spend 1/10th the time on our meetings and program that we did stoned, drunk, or both, we will have good recovery and continue to have our families and jobs. If we get stingy—well, as they say, “Anything we put ahead of our recovery, we’re going to lose.”
Most meetings last for an hour, or an hour and a half with a smoke break. However, people who are serious about recovery will also attend the “meeting before the meeting” and the ‘meeting after the meeting” (often held at a local coffee bar).
We can hide out at meetings with very little trouble. All we need to do is arrive during the Serenity Prayer and leave as soon as the people next to us in the circle let go of our hands at the end of the meeting. This guarantees that we will not have to interact with anyone on a personal level. When we behave this way, we are shooting our recovery in the foot.
We need to figure on arriving 20 minutes early, and staying until people leave the area. We need occasionally to go for coffee with the folks from the meeting. What? No one invited us? Maybe it’s because they didn’t notice us. Whose fault is that?
There are many other fellowship activities that don’t fall into the category of “meetings” at all. There are conventions, ranging from a couple of counties to a worldwide convention held every five years in some large city here or abroad. There are “weekends,” seminars held on a variety of subjects, such as sponsorship, Big Book, Steps and Traditions, group administration, General Service Representative duties, and so forth. There are dances—which are a lot more fun than most of us imagined a dance could be without drugs or booze. There are picnics, fishing trips, lectures by famous figures such as Father Joe Martin. There are even shows by stand-up comedians who are in recovery and who understand our weird ways of looking at the world. There are the less-pleasant gatherings—the sober wakes and funerals of our fellow alcoholics, the visits to friends in hospital.
Would you believe it? It reaches the point where the lives we live are almost like those of “Earth People.” But not quite. We’ve got Fellowship, friends we can talk to, sponsors, promise of emotional and physical health—things that many of them will never have. We are truly blessed.