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Common Questions About Twelve Step Meetings An invitation to another way of life

Common Questions About Twelve Step Meetings
An invitation to another way of life
This is a guide for people who wish to get or stay sober, to find or deepen their recovery through Twelve Step practices. Step One, Step Two, and Step Three serve as the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Marijuana Anonymous (MA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Debtors Anonymous (DA), and any other program ending in “A.”
It represents the experience, strength, and hope of exactly one sober alcoholic who desires to share the good news of Twelve Step recovery—that there is a solution, and that you never have to drink, use, or be lonely again—if you’re willing to follow our proven path.
Twelve Step program can be challenging for many people to approach. But the key is to focus on the joy of recovery, the relief from the bondage of alcoholism and addiction, or the spirituality of the program. I’d like to share some common questions I hear and answer them from my 25 years of experience in long-term recovery. Hopefully this will help you see that this is a program that works and a program that could work for you.
Q: What Are Twelve Step Programs? Are They Cults?
A: Twelve Step recovery groups describe themselves as fellowships. The word is well chosen—it means that there is no leadership, no elected officials, no political parties, no dues or fees to pay.
Twelve Step recovery is also not a religion. You can remain a member of your religion, or you can have no religion in your life, and still have the Twelve Steps work for you.
Twelve Step programs are peer-to-peer entities in which no member is more important than any other. Everyone in a Twelve Step fellowship has the same basic goals—to stop drinking, drugging, spending, overeating, or whatever, to stay stopped, and to live a better, more fulfilling life. That’s it.
Sometimes people worry that Twelve Step fellowships might be cults, especially when they go to meetings and see people reciting rote phrases like some bad 1950s sci-fi film about brainwashing.
Consider this: If the fellowships were cults, they would specialize in recruiting new members who still had money in the bank, two cars in the garage, and a steady income. But that’s not how it works. Most people have to lose everything, or almost everything—their careers, their relationships, their dignity, their savings, sometimes even their freedom—before they are willing to come to a meeting. If Twelve Step programs were self-serving cults, they wouldn’t recruit people who had nothing left in the bank!
You will undoubtedly find people who want to be considered powerful and important within the fellowship. But as it’s been said, “Wanting to be important in AA is like wanting to be head leper in a leper colony.” A healthier approach is to believe in another expression, “AA is not my whole life, but it makes my life whole.”
Q: Where Did Twelve Step Programs Come From?
A: The first fellowship (or program) was AA, which came into existence when its co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, met in a manner that seems—to most people in recovery—an act of Divine Providence.*
Bill W., as we still refer to him, was a severely alcoholic Wall Street type who had found a spiritual solution to his alcoholism. He was a few months sober when he traveled from his home in Brooklyn, New York, to Akron, Ohio, in the spring of 1935 to oversee one side of a proxy battle for control of a local company. Bill’s side lost, and he was stuck in Akron for a weekend with nothing to do and nothing to show for the time he and others had invested in the project.
That Saturday afternoon, he paced the lobby floor, peering into his hotel’s bar, where people were enjoying themselves drinking. The temptation he felt to join them was unbearable.
Fortunately for him (and for us), Bill did not succumb. Instead, he relied on the solution to his drinking problem that he had hit upon in previous months in New York—to find other alcoholics and talk to them about sobriety.
Bill hadn’t been very successful in New York, going into barrooms and preaching the joys of not drinking to men who were sitting on their barstools, nursing their beers. He might not have kept anyone else sober, but the process of discussing his alcoholism had kept him from touching alcohol for many months.
Bill decided to change his approach. Stuck in a hotel for the weekend, far from home, Bill set out to find an alcoholic in Akron with whom he could discuss sobriety.
But how do you find a drunk in a city not your home? This was Bill’s dilemma. He noticed a listing of clergymen on a wall in the lobby near a pay phone. Bill went down the list of clergymen, calling ten of them, asking them if they knew any alcoholics with whom he could work.
Imagine for a moment that you were one of those clergymen. It’s a nice spring Sunday afternoon, you have concluded religious services, and are now enjoying lunch with your family and perhaps a few parishioners. And then you get a call, out of the blue, from a stranger who tells you that he is an alcoholic from New York, and he wonders if you know any alcoholics with whom he could talk.
What do you do?
You hang up on him.
Such was Bill’s experience with the first nine clergymen he called. Then he dropped his tenth nickel into the phone and reached a pastor named Reverend Walter Tunks. Bill explained his mission.
Tunks knew an alcoholic.
“Let me get back to you,” Reverend Tunks replied.
The alcoholic in question was Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon and proctologist whose drinking problem was legendary in Akron medical circles. He would show up at the hospital, drink a bottle of beer to steady his nerves, and then go operate. Bill was looking for a practicing alcoholic who needed to get sober; Dr. Bob, Tunks knew, was just such a man.
Reverend Tunks reached out to an Akron woman, Henrietta Sieberling, heiress to a tire fortune. She knew Dr. Bob. The good reverend explained about the mysterious visitor from New York and his desire to reform a local drunk. Dr. Bob, inebriated much of the time, was living in her guest house. She somehow got the doctor to commit to a fifteen-minute visit with Bill, in her guest house. The visit actually had to be postponed briefly, because Dr. Bob was as drunk as a skunk.
Bill and Dr. Bob finally met. By then, Bill had been cautioned by a man we will come to know better in these pages, Dr. William Silkworth, who ran a drying-out hospital for alcoholics on Manhattan’s West Side, not to preach at alcoholics but instead to win their trust by talking about the nature of living as an alcoholic.
This is decades before Oprah. People—especially men—did not share their innermost feelings with one another, especially when the other man was a total stranger. People seldom went to therapy back then. And yet, Bill had the courage to describe to Dr. Bob, in convincing detail, the nature of his alcoholic thinking and actions. Dr. Bob, a physician, had never before encountered anyone who could speak openly and knowledgeably, and from his own personal experience about being addicted to alcohol. That fifteen-minute meeting lasted for six or seven hours.
If only there had been a third party in the room to record and transcribe the conversation! In that discussion, the two men, both small-town New Englanders by birth, both middle-aged, and both familiar with the hopelessness of finding a solution to their drinking problems, talked about the basic idea Bill shared. That idea was that an alcoholic could stay sober through a combination of spirituality (to be explained; stick around) and ongoing contact with fellow problem drinkers.
And thus AA was born, in Akron, Ohio, as a result of a conversation between a New York-based businessman in early sobriety and an Akron-based proctologist who had tried—and failed—to conquer his drinking and was likely on the verge of losing his medical license.
This story is revered in Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Step groups, in large measure because of its utter unlikeliness. The whole story is rife with what ifs—what if Bill had not gone to Akron for the proxy fight? What if he had won? What if he had succumbed to the temptation of the bar and drowned his self-pity in alcohol? What if he had not thought to call all those clergymen? What if one of the first nine clergymen had offered up an alcoholic other than Dr. Bob? What if Dr. Bob had refused to see him? What if Bill had just decided the whole thing was foolishness and gotten on the first thing smoking, as they talked quaintly about inter-city trains back then, instead of sticking around to meet an Akron drunk?
And yet. If you believe in a Higher Power, or karma, or whatever you want to call it, it’s hard not to see the hand of Providence in such a seemingly random encounter. That initial conversation led to a complete transformation of the way the world looks at alcoholism and addiction. Those two strangers, meeting and forming a fast friendship that would last until Dr. Bob’s passing sixteen years later, led to an ever-widening circle of individuals finding sobriety—and now, miraculously, that circle includes you.
You are part of that circle no matter what fellowship you are exploring, whether it’s AA, NA, Al-Anon, or any of the other more than 200 Twelve Step fellowships that use, with modifications, AA’s Twelve Steps. (AA was the first Twelve Step program, which is why some of the other programs use AA language, meeting structure, or literature, in addition to the Steps.)
This is the only disease in the world for which recovery comes from listening to other people tell shockingly funny stories about how insane their lives were. It beats chemo, organ transplantation, and insertion of pacemakers every time.
Q: Why Are There Meetings, and Why Do I Have to Go?
A: Alcoholism and addiction are lonely diseases. It’s said in meetings that when you are home alone and still a practicing addict or alcoholic, you are behind enemy lines. It’s also said that the disease wants to get you alone, so that it can kill you.
As addicts and alcoholics, we often find it very hard to connect on a deep level with other people. We choose the wrong people, bring out the worst in other people, lack the courage to get involved with other people, or simply can’t stand other people. Whichever scenario rings true for you, there’s a cosmic loneliness inside each of us. Connecting with others in a healthy way is actually a big part of the solution.
AA meetings came about as a means of sharing the method by which alcoholics became and stayed sober, and this is the format that’s been followed by every fellowship since. Initially, the first meetings took place in the living room of the home of an early member of AA. At the time, the group didn’t even have a formal name. The name Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t come about until later. Meetings took place once a week. In order to join, you went over to the home of someone you really didn’t know, where the meeting took place. You had to go to one of the upstairs bedrooms with a sober member of the group, and take the first three Steps right then and there. Only then would you be admitted to the meeting.
Many things have changed since then, but the basics have remained the same. Today, if you want to go to a meeting in any fellowship, you just go. No more taking the Third Step prior to the meeting. Search online for a group meeting in your community and you’ll most likely find a meeting list and also a phone number manned by a friendly volunteer who will answer your questions. Today, everyone is welcome at an open Twelve Step meeting—sober people, people who are drunk or using (as long as they aren’t overly disruptive), friends, family, hostages, observers, everyone. (Open means that anyone can attend and closed means that only individuals who are sober or seeking to become sober are welcome.)
Twelve Step meetings work because pretty much everyone in the room understands why we’re all there. We’ve all been where the newcomer is. We aren’t judging you. We’re just happy you found us. We know the pain and suffering of active alcoholism and addiction. We understand that alcoholism and addiction are not moral issues. As we say “in the rooms” of recovery, it’s not about bad people becoming good; it’s about sick people becoming well. There are few places on earth aside from Twelve Step meetings where alcoholics and addicts can talk openly about their “adventures” while drinking and using and still feel accepted and appreciated. Very little goes unsaid or hidden: getting in trouble with the law, losing jobs or careers, destroying marriages and relationships. If anything, when you tell stories like that in a meeting, people love you all the more. (After a while, it’s time to tone down the “drunkalogue” or “drugalogue”—but in your earliest days, let it rip.)
In short, meetings provide a safe place for people in recovery to meet, share their experiences, positive and negative, feel better about themselves, feel less lonely, and begin or continue the recovery process.
When AA started, you could only find a meeting in Akron, Ohio, where Bill and Dr. Bob so fortuitously met, or in Manhattan, when Bill returned home. Eventually, people would hear about the program through word of mouth—a doctor in Akron might mention it to a colleague in Columbus, or a person in Chicago might find his way into an Akron meeting. Those individuals took AA and spread it to those other cities. Little by little, meetings grew around the country, and eventually, around the world. As time passed, AA’s blueprint for recovery from alcoholism became the roadmap for the other Twelve Step fellowships.
Today, we take for granted that wherever we are, we can look online and find a comprehensive meeting list with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of meetings taking place each week within a given locale. Today, we have meetings for men, meetings for women, open meetings, closed meetings (just for those who have acknowledged a problem with alcohol or other drugs), meetings for young people, LGBTQI meetings, meetings in Spanish or Persian, meetings in the United States and across the globe, and so on. It’s possible to step off a cruise ship in Alaska and find a meeting in Juneau, catch the meeting, and make it back before the ship sails on. You can find beach meetings in Hawaii. You can find meetings in London, Berlin, and Tokyo. You can find meetings in churches, office buildings, courthouses, police stations, or a thousand other places. In many ways, we just don’t realize how lucky we are that the hand of the fellowship is available, pretty much anywhere, any time.
Just come in, talk to no one if you don’t feel like talking, sit in the back and just observe, or if you feel like it, you can speak at the very first meeting you attend. However you play it, Twelve Step fellowships will welcome you.
Q: What Goes On in Meetings?
A: People talk about alcoholism and addiction, about how they recovered from those issues, what they do to stay clean and sober on a daily basis, and sometimes, how their cat is doing. Every meeting is different. Twelve Step meetings run the gamut from highly disciplined and focused to cocktail party chatter about how everyone’s day went. Some are run democratically, in keeping with the “Traditions” of AA. Others, alas, are run by autocratic power trippers who have no life aside from being important in Twelve Step meetings. Every meeting is different because each is a reflection of real life and real people. Will you like everyone you encounter? Probably not. It’s said that if you like all the people in all of your meetings, you aren’t going to enough meetings.
It’s also said that you want to try at least half a dozen different meetings to find the group or groups where you feel most comfortable. As the Twelve Step cliché puts it, “We have a wrench for every nut.”
Q: What Do I Have to Do in a Meeting?
A: Nothing.
You will hear suggestions, and it’s advisable to follow some or all of the suggestions if you want to stop drinking and using and stay stopped. But as for obligations, the good news is that there are none.
In some meetings, newcomers will be invited to identify themselves, to stand, or to come up and get a “chip and a hug.” You don’t have to do anything. You can just sit there quietly, minding your own business.
If I could make one change in Twelve Step recovery, I would eliminate the “newcomer chip and a hug.” For people who have been to meetings and who have accumulated any amount of clean time, whether it’s thirty days or thirty years, the idea of coming back to a meeting and having to go up there for that humiliating “chip and a hug” can be horrifying.
My guess is that the newcomer chip has kept more people from coming back to meetings than anything else on earth. If I ever slip, and I hope I don’t, I will sit quietly in the back for as long as it takes until I have the courage to admit that I went out. Please do not ask me to go up in front of the group and publicly admit that I drank again. I couldn’t stand the shame, and I truly believe I am not alone.
So don’t feel as though you’ve got to identify yourself in any way. You don’t even have to call or label yourself an alcoholic or addict. That’s the beauty of the Twelve Step program—you don’t have to do anything or be anyone. Just show up and work the program in the manner that suits you best. (How to do that? Keep reading.)
Come on in; grab a seat in the back. But just come in. You might hear something that transforms your whole life, and you might meet someone who will help save your life.
It happened to me, and to millions of other people. It will work for you, too, if you give it a chance.
Q: Michael, What’s Your Story?
A: Since you’ve asked . . .
Okay, you didn’t ask, but my editor thought it would make sense to give you a little background. Here goes.
Drank too much. Got fired too often. Got dumped too often. Too much month at the end of the money. Had a good family background and a great education, but that didn’t keep me from addiction.
I overcame every advantage on my way to the bottom.
My sisters got me into Al-Anon, where I attended my first meeting on August 25, 1987. A few years later, I got sober.
My last drink to date: January 31, 1992.
So I’ve been sober for “a few twenty-four hours.”
To be honest, I wasn’t one of those people who walked in the door and said, “I’m home.” Instead, I walked in the door and immediately wanted to walk back out the door.
When I first started attending meetings, it was before that sobriety date I just mentioned. At the time, I really didn’t believe I was an alcoholic, and I really wasn’t ready to stop. I didn’t understand what the disease was, and I didn’t grasp that I had a problem.
It wasn’t until I’d attended enough meetings that I began to recognize how much I really belonged. I stuck around. Eventually, as the expression goes, AA ruined my drinking. When that happened, I put my hand up and identified myself as a newcomer.
Then I studied the literature. Did service. Picked up ashtrays and put away chairs. Made coffee. Was secretary. Asked a lot of questions. Found a sponsor and began to sponsor others. Took the Steps. Found a Higher Power. Did jail and prison panels. Went to a ton of meetings.
The usual.
“AA is not my whole life, but it makes my life whole.”
Book Cover of Step Up by Michael Graubart
*While the practice is to protect one’s anonymity in Twelve Step programs, I’m using the full names for Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and also Lois Wilson and Ebby Thatcher, because these individuals are historic figures and are often named in full in Twelve Step circles.
Circle of people in a meeting, looking at books
Michael Graubert
“Michael Graubart” is a long-time sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous, has been a member of Al-Anon for decades, and attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings as well. As he says, “If it moves, I’m obsessed with it, and if it stands still, I’m addicted to it.” A New York Times bestselling author, Michael is married and the father of four children. He writes under a pseudonym to maintain his anonymity and speak frankly about his experiences in Twelve Step recovery. 

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