Alcoholics Anonymous survivor John Sutherland explains why you should never interrupt someone or agree to buy a car while attending one of the fellowship’s meetings
1. The coffee is execrable
It’s like drinking paint-stripper. After years of alcoholism, you finally understand what ‘rotgut’ is.
But, for newcomers, what else are you to do with your shaking hands now that they won’t let you smoke? You gulp and gag and hope that it helps.
Occasionally, very occasionally, it’s a different story. The most upmarket AA meeting I’ve attended was in Gstaad, Switzerland. The place where, as the joke goes, they won’t even let Swiss born Roger Federer join the tennis club. At AA-Gstaad it was espresso coffee and Lindt chocolates to help the millionaires on their path to ‘recovering’. A rare experience.
I was so bowled over I almost couldn’t listen to the ‘shares’.
2. Sharing is not conversation
One of the first things newcomers have to learn is that ‘cross-talk’ – meaning dialogue, talking ‘to’ others in the group, during a meeting – is a no-no.
You share, spill your guts. The others listen, carefully reflecting on your spilt entrails, like Roman soothsayers. They do not respond (other than with a formal ‘thank you, John, for a wonderful share’, or whatever). No one offers ‘advice’ or ‘counselling’.
There’s a good reason. Dialogue leads to argument and argument, before you know it, leads to quarrels. Fights even.
‘Serenity’ is the desired atmosphere.
3. Chips with everything
AA is crazy about chips – or ‘sobriety coins’. You get a version of these small, key-ring medallions after 90 days, six months, and every calendrical milestone thereafter.
For newcomers they’re coloured leather (or its imitation). For old-timers (two years and plus), bronze. Mine? I’ve had it thirty years and my thumb has worn the inscribed serenity prayer off its surface. It’s flown away, I like to think, to help others embarking on a life without what they thought they couldn’t live without.
4. AA is not, oddly, all that focused on alcohol
Only the first of the 12 steps (the admission that you can’t control the stuff, or yourself when you’re drinking) touches on it. AA is about reconstructing your life. How you do it is ultimately up to you.
Don’t try to work anyone else’s programme, is the guiding motto. Just work your own.
5. No two groups are the same
Because AA is self-organising at the grass roots level, groups define themselves differently. Some go for big ‘speaker’ events. Others are ‘participation meetings’, where everyone has a chance to share. Some recommend ‘sponsoring’, others don’t.
There are men only meetings, women only meetings, and meetings for any variety of LGBT. Not exclusive (all are welcome), just self-selecting.
I’ve been to meetings at universities where the IQ is stratospheric. Others where there’s a guy just out of prison sitting on one side of you and someone who really ought to be there on the other.
Some meetings are fun, others glum. You find the slipper that fits your foot.
6. It works!
Or so meetings like to chant at the end of the session, after reciting the Serenity Prayer. But, of course, because of the anonymity rule, and no follow-up in the outside world, no one’s really that sure.
AA’s headquarters quotes figures as high as 75pc. Unlikely. But it’s a refrain in the fellowship that AA works better than aversive medicine (the dreaded antabuse, Ebola in tablet form), white coats (cognitive intelligence therapy), or sermons from self-appointed experts who’ve never themselves been there but know all about it (which, alas, includes most of the medical profession. Instruction about alcoholism at medical schools is abysmal).
7. Never buy a car from someone in your group
Likewise, never date anyone in your group. It always leads to tears.
What goes on in the meetings is a separate planet. Keep it that way. AA is not the Masons where, outside of gatherings, you keep in touch with code words or secret handshakes and conspiratorial ‘assistance’.
The AA World and the Real World should never meet.
8. Keep it simple
Supposedly the last words of AA’s founder, Bill Wilson. AA lives by the distilled wisdom contained in the proverb, motto, and slogan – not ‘theory’.
Top of the proverbial list is ‘One Day at a Time’. It’s a simple rule – but with a complex purpose. It shortens the horizon. Newcomers shudder at the prospect of never (ever, ever) being able to drink again.
‘Perhaps the Day after Tomorrow’ another proverb promises. But ‘tomorrow’ never comes. It’s always ‘today’.
Even more importantly, if I, after 31 years, 2 months, and 4 days, fall off the wagon, what have I lost? ‘Just a day’. It makes it easier to clamber back on again, and go for that 90 day chip.
9. Respect the first tradition: anonymity
Which, of course, is what I’m flagrantly not doing here. But the rules have relaxed since the patriarchs, Bill W. and Dr Bob, founded AA in Akron, Ohio, in the 1930s, when even to have stopped drinking was shameful – evidence of past ‘moral weakness’.
Nowadays, while sitting on appointment committees, I’ve seen personal statements in which the job seeker says they’ve been through AA (to counteract any mention of their drinking days in confidential letters of reference). No big deal.
10. The Serenity Prayer
Few have heard it before they first attend an AA meeting, but once it’s in your life it never leaves.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Could wisdom be any simpler?