At the beginning of the week I consulted the Al-Anon meeting calendar, and honed in on the Friday 7:30 p.m. meeting. For years I’ve struggled with the concept of attending Al-Anon because I felt I did not belong there. After all, I have not spoken to my alcohol dependent father for 5 years, and before that it had been 3 years, and before that it had been at least 20 years. I had read a cursory amount of Al-Anon material years ago that led me to the assessment that because I was not an “enabler,” and since I was now “detached” I did not need Al-Anon. I believed Al-Anon was for those still entangled with the alcoholic, still trying to get them to stop drinking, and lost in the vortex of covering up for the loved one. Al-Anon was for everyone else but me.
The other part of the puzzle that kept me from entering those Al-Anon doors was my own problem with alcohol. The thought of sitting with people who suffered because of a loved one’s battle with alcohol made me feel like an interloper hiding their true identity as an alcoholic.
Lately, I’ve been ruminating about my father, missing him as if he left yesterday. It’s as if mourning his loss many years ago had been arrested, and now, after all this time, the loss was finally being felt.
I pulled up to the church, and waited in the car until the last minute. I encountered a woman in a lovely dark green wrap dress wearing cross trainers who whispered, “Welcome” as she held the door open for me. I asked her, “Is this the Al-Anon meeting?” She nodded and showed me to a seat. There was a long rectangular desk in the middle of the room with 13 of us gathered around it. The group ranged in ages across the spectrum, easily from twenties to seventies. I immediately felt comfortable with the orderly fashion in which the meeting was being run. It felt like a well-oiled machine, yet one that could take new and broken parts like me.
They went through the typical motions of reading the 12 steps, and there was a preamble that was read (of which I cannot recall much of the contents because I was anxious at the mere fact of being in attendance). They asked if this was anyone’s first Al-Anon meeting, and I raised my hand and introduced myself. I was immediately given a Newcomer packet of pamphlets with a local meeting schedule. And then people shared, and it was so different from AA in that there was accepted silence between shares. If no one wanted to share, or if there was a large pause before the next person shared, the pause just hung there like the damp air after rain. There was no cajoling, or putting people on the spot to share. I immediately relaxed when I saw this was the group format. I’ve always appreciated people who are comfortable with silence, and feel no need to just “fill the gap.”
During one of the silences I found myself thinking about some of the AA and Al-Anon differences. During the introduction that was read the reader mentioned that a person should try Al-Anon for 6-8 meetings in order to see if the program works for them. I also recall hearing the reader say that people could attend regularly or infrequently. She also said something to the effect of “take what works, and leave the rest.” I was aghast at hearing this because it’s so different from the way AA is presented in “How It Works,” a chapter from The Big Book, which is typically read in an abbreviated form at the start of most AA meetings.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our directions. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. They are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a way of life which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”
I finally have a window into beginning to understand my issues with AA. It starts with that first sentence, “Rarely have we seen a person fail …” That sentence conveys an immediate arrogance that has always set me on edge, though I was never conscious of it until I found myself comparing the differences between the two groups. That first paragraph in “How It Works” conveys to the listener/reader that AA is the only program that works for sobriety. And if you do not recover it is because you did not fully give yourself over to AA. I’ve always felt that the second sentence of “How It Works” is overly simplistic and presumptuous. Here’s the response I’ve always wanted to write to the first paragraph of “How It Works”:
“I have not followed all of your directions. I tried, but some of them asked me to check my brain at the door, and I could not do that. I could not completely give myself over to this program. However, I am in long-term recovery, and I plan on staying that way for the rest of my life. If you were a fly on the wall of my life you would see that I demand rigorous honesty of myself. I may be mistaken about a number of issues in my life, but it’s because I’m still working through deep-seated issues. I may be afraid of my past, but I will face it, and do whatever it takes to get out of this ditch. But I cannot give in to the AA group think. Perhaps my chances are less than average. That’s okay. I’m familiar with being an underdog. Tell me something new, we all know I suffer from “grave emotional and mental disorders.” Who the hell doesn’t? But I will continue to recover because I don’t give up.”
Since I did not feel the pressure to share I felt comfortable sharing. In AA I’ve been known to go for long stretches of meetings before I share because of the feeling of expectation. I’ve never liked feeling like I’m expected to do something. I can be as stubborn as a rat terrier going after his prey. But remove the expectation, and I’m likely to get there on my own. I talked about my missing my father, and feeling like I did not belong in the meeting since I was no longer entangled with him. I started crying at the mention of missing the good parts of him. I wrapped up my share quickly for fear of turning into a spectacle. Then an older gentleman got up and brought me a box of tissues.
I’ll keep coming back.
Wonder full, wonder full post!!
I hear you about AA meetings. I have been sober 26+ years and their is a pedagogy that is poisonous in many ways in the meetings. Shame based people do what they can to avoid their shame including projecting it out onto others.
I do disagree a little about page 58 though. I hear your trepidation about how people express it. But those steps are set up to help people stop killing themselves with alcohol. It is no accident that virtually all 12 step programs have adopted a slightly adopted version of the 12 steps.
Also, that book was written after only 100 people had gotten continuous sobriety. They did not really understand that the basis for most if all people who take poison into their body to relieve the emotional pain they suffer was their grave emotional and mental disorders.
Please know that I dont disagree with much of what you wrote. I left AA at about 3 years sober because they didnt want me to talk about the issues that you and I talk about freely on our blogs.
It is a different world now than 25 years ago in oh so many ways. But the people who go into those meetings are still shame based and that may not ever change. It is my responsibility to be present and talk about the issues that are important to me.
Now those issues that they told me I could not talk about in 1990 are now more talked about than ever.
Thanks for your courage and perserverence
I appreciate your point of view on this, and I always welcome other points of view on my positions. I don’t have a problem with the 12 steps. It’s probably one of few parts of the program that I have little problem with.
You make a very good point about The Big Book being written in a very different time when there was less understanding about psychiatric conditions, and even alcohol dependency. When I read “How It Works” with the lens you provided I have a less harsh reaction to it. I almost want to rewrite the piece!
Thank you for pointing this out.
I am glad you wrote the piece the way you wrote it. The pedagogy that is in a lot of AA meetings, and in my opinion in a lot of Al-Anon meetings, can be very poisonous
I call out my home group meeting all the time. I did it today. I criticized them for all being parrots and saying the same thing over and over
It sounds like a much more relaxed meeting then the others you describe. That’s so good. I don’t like expectations either.
It was a very different meeting in a good way!
It sounds like a gift. 🙂
Well written. My problem with AA is also the shame game…but I hope this group works out for you. Good luck going forward.
Thanks! I also hope it continues to work for me. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one that does not care for the shame in the rooms.
AA is a simple program. The largest club that no one wanted to belong to! From what I’ve observed, very few people come into AA and just accept the 12 Steps, Big Book and the meetings. I certainly didn’t.
What changed for me was that I was tired of being miserable and I knew that there were some basic principles in AA that made sense. I could criticize AA and parse words with the best of them. I had been sober for 6 years and yet I still suffered with bouts of depression, anxiety and a general uneasiness. I saw a Psychologist for 9 years and that provided some insight and temporary relief from time to time.
I went back to AA and worked the Steps all the way through this time. And, I just decided to focus on the simplicity of the program. Alcohol was the symptom, I was the problem.
Things are much better now. I haven’t had a bout of depression for some time. Every part of my life has improved. I’ve learned a lot about myself and I’m learning more every day.
AA works for me. I truly never thought I would ever say that.
I don’t rule out the possibility that I can find myself in AA in the future. For now though, it doesn’t work for me. Though I am very glad it works for you. Thanks for stopping by …
I used to do a fair amount of research into 12 step programs (uncle, treatment, long story) – and there is pretty much zero evidence that they are effective treatment for long term unless a second therapy is employed (I mean, lets be honest, it was founded by two guys on the “it works for me!’ model) But there is evidence that there are certain people that it won’t work as well for: those that don’t respond well to groups, those that are agnostic, those that have complex issues that outside of the addiction that need to be worked through and are not be treated elsewhere.
I have a friend of mine here who has managed to do wonderfully on the program by compartmentalizing the parts of it he disagrees with; I have no idea how. When I read this: Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our directions…I actually felt myself cringing. That is just…I can’t even say that is a passive way to shame someone. That is just a slap. I would react the same you do – the more they tell me what I have to do the more I would push back!
Anyway, the Al meeting sounds like a proper support group. Actually supportive! Imagine that!