Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ten Tips for your First AA Meeting

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope to assist in their common problem of alcoholism. It's completely free. I know there is a lot of stigma around the idea of the program created by popular culture. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. Alcoholism is a disease. Doctors agree that it is a disease, and it's listed in the DSM. The DSM is a diagnostic tool for doctors.

Being an alcoholic is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing more than one would be ashamed of having cancer. It's a difficult disease, and it requires treatment. If one does not establish regular treatment, the damage of the disease continues in full strength.

If you think you might have a problem with alcohol, or you know for a fact that you do, then AA is the place to go. There is a strong online presence for AA, and there are websites that can help you find meetings in your area. There are even online meetings in chat rooms, but I strongly recommend the in person meetings.

In my time in AA I struggled with a myriad of difficult addictions and the only thing that kept me going was attending 12 step groups and working the steps. Thankfully in the Wausau, Wisconsin area there were plenty of great meetings to attend. The biggest difficulty I faced was the age difference. Everyone was usually at least 20 years older than me! But I overcame this by finding the old timers I could get along with, and by making friends with younger people in Narcotics Anonymous.

I usually did pretty well in the meetings when it came to following the rules, but several times I did get dressed down by the old veterans for various breaches in protocol. It made me extremely angry, so I wanted to create this so you could avoid the embarrassments I faced.

Once you find a meeting you'd like to attend, jot down some directions and get there a little early to find a good seat. The following are some good tips to make sure you aren't taken aback by the procedures and unwritten rules of AA.

1. Turn off your cell phone - This can be extremely embarrassing when your phone goes off in a meeting. It's disruptive and veterans don't take kindly to it. No one is going to say anything or chop your head off. But it's a good idea to show some courtesy and turn it off before entering. There is a reminder at the start of the meeting to silence communication devices, but nervousness can get the best of us. Thankfully I don't think I've ever had my phone go off in a meeting, but I've been one of the lucky ones. It's happened to the best of us!

2. Listen - This is the best tip I can offer. Intently listen as everyone speaks. The people at meetings share their stories and struggles, and this assists in their sobriety. I always leave a meeting feeling refreshed from the fascinating and honest stories of the people around the tables. You'll tend to find a lot of good, intelligent people at these meetings with a wealth of knowledge on how to live life right. So just listen and soak it up. Think of yourself as a sponge. Being a journalist and writer I had to become good at listening. I remember taking several interpersonal communications classes that stressed "listening skills." Yes thats right, listening is a skill! So Google it and learn it!

3. Identify yourself as a newcomer - There are several pieces of literature that are read at the start of most AA meetings. Usually this includes the preamble, how it works, promises, 24 hour reading, and daily reflections. At some point during the reading of these documents the chair person for that night will ask if this is anyones first meeting. What you'll want to do is say "My name is _______ and I'm an alcoholic. This is my first meeting." If you don't feel comfortable identifying yourself as an alcoholic feel free to just say your name. Everyone will welcome you. At this point the meeting will sometimes change format to a first step meeting. This simply means that a lot of the things people will bring up will be about starting in recovery. Members will often direct a lot of attention to you, so if you'd prefer to just sit back and watch, then don't identify yourself as a newcomer. Assuming you do people will give a lot of great advice for just starting in the program. They'll often send around a list of phone numbers, usually written on a meeting list for the area. When people write down their phone numbers they are actively offering for you to call them for support. Personally in my area the focus really comes down on you if you identify yourself as a newcomer. I did it at my first meeting and felt like I was under a microscope for the rest of the meeting. It seemed like everyone was watching me! So be careful with this one.

4. Open and closed meetings - You should be aware that there are open and closed meetings. Open meetings are free for anyone in the public to attend. Closed meetings are only for those identifying themselves as alcoholics. When I was taking human services courses at North Central Technical college one of the assignments was to observe an AA meeting and write an essay on it. I found a meeting that was listed as "open" and came with a notebook. I was sure to adhere to anonymity. I only made observations which didn't include personal information.

5. Speaking format - This is how almost all meetings are run. You'll rarely see a meeting run differently. The opening documents will be read, then the chair person for that night will open the meeting up for discussion. For a person to speak, they will say "My name is ______ and I'm an alcoholic." This signifies to everyone that the individual in question has the floor. You should not speak while they are speaking. When finished the person will let the rest of meeting know by saying "I'll pass." Then the floor is open again. Another person may speak up during this time of silence. This is how the meeting is run, until the end. There are some meetings that go in a circle around the tables. One person speaks, then passes and the person to their right speaks next. If this is the format, when it comes to you and you don't want to speak you may simply say "pass." Personally I love the meetings that go in a circle around the table. It allows me to speak without having to jump in during the silent periods. I honestly like to talk at meetings, I find it extremely relieving. And I love deep conversation. That's what it is at meetings, it's deep.

6. Sharing - If you decide you'd like to share at the meeting there a few basic things you should know. Be sure to use the customary statement to identify that you have the floor for starts. Then it's good to remember that talking about others directly at the meeting is generally frowned upon. Mentioning names of people you used to drink with is generally frowned upon as well. Remember to tell your story and tell them what you're struggling with. You can ask for someone to speak to you after the meeting too. Also remember to generally use the word I instead of we. Speaking for yourself is the best way it works, using we can sometimes offend others, like you're trying to speak for them. Don't worry though, nothing is taboo and if you're new people will be understanding. Remember how I said I got dressed down by the old timers? This was why. I started using the word "we" instead of "I" and I was saying how we should all be so thankful to God for AA. Right after I spoke one of the old timers dressed me down and yelled at me saying "You're not a spokesperson for AA!" Truly embarrassing.

7. Free coffee - If you see a pot of hot coffee don't be afraid to help yourself. The coffee is provided by the home group members of the meeting. Everyone is welcome to it! No more alcohol, ever, right? Thank God for coffee. And thank God for creamer. I am now a creamer connoisseur. I always drink the coffee. One finds ways to survive..

8. Anonymity - The program is called alcoholics anonymous for a reason. Everything that is discussed at the meeting is considered private. What is discussed at the tables stays at the tables. This is an extremely important rule and sacred to all members. The ability to be brutally honest at meetings is one of the base precepts that make the program work. I'm writing here about the format of the meetings, but nothing personal is shared. Remember to use extreme discretion. If you see someone you know at the meeting you are required to not speak of their presence to others. This is as important to me as it is to the fellowship. This is the reason that doctors, teachers, lawyers, factory workers, and the such can walk into a meeting, divulge their darkest secrets and then leave without a second thought. I've never violated this rule. Sometimes my dad will ask me if I saw this person or that person at a meeting, I tell him I can't say.

9. Come sober - A terrible idea is to come to a meeting while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is extremely disruptive to the meeting and can cause serious problems. So if you're coming, make sure you're sober. I've seen chairs call the police when people show up on drugs or drunk, so be careful with this.

10. Get a sponsor after the meeting
- If you identify yourself as a newcomer at the meeting, I guarantee some veterans will tell you to get a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who you communicate with regularly. They coach you on getting into the program of AA. They take you through the big book. They take you through the 12 steps as well. It's extremely useful to have a sponsor, and keeps millions of alcoholics sober. Remember to listen during the meeting for people whose story sounds similar to yours. Also watch for individuals who seem to have peace and joy about their personality. Find someone who has what you want. After the meeting is over approach that person. All you have to say is "Will you be my sponsor?" As long as someone has a few years of sobriety they will almost always agree. If they can't take on any new people to sponsor at the moment, simply approach someone else. Members are generally incredibly giving, and will take you through the steps with joy. I have had a few sponsors in my time, and you really have to find the right one for you. It doesn't always work out either if you keep different hours. I watch for people that make me comfortable first off, because I'm known to be kind of anxious. That was the first thing I looked for. The second was peace and happiness. The third was spirituality and depth of thought.

Remember that AA isn't just about attending meetings. It's about going through the Big Book and working the steps. A sponsor can take you through the steps one by one. The steps are a process that keeps alcoholics sober. It's extremely important to work them actively in your life. Very few stay sober who don't work the steps. So buy a big book and get a sponsor!

Alcoholism is a terrible disease that claims thousands every year. Don't go through it alone. Get some help. A higher power can take away the insanity of drinking and bring about great changes in the life of the alcoholic. Meetings are a powerful experience, and I highly recommend attending several a week. I personally try to get to one a day, but realistically I'll hit 5 to 6 meetings a week.