On Sunday mornings I chair my home group’s AA meeting. I just started doing so at the beginning of this month, and it’s a three month commitment. Other than showing up for meetings, occasionally sharing, and talking program with other alcoholics, this is my way of doing service. It is outside my comfort zone though, because I don’t usually like to call attention to myself, and I am generally pretty quiet in big groups. Just sitting up at the front and reading the AA preamble is a fairly big deal for me, so each Sunday morning I am a little bit anxious that there will be some issue that I have to handle as the ‘host’ for the hour. Up until today my worries had been unwarranted. Aside from having to cut-off one particular old-timer a couple of times, my job had been easy. This morning was another story, and I left the meeting with some resentments.
We have a fairly large home group, there are usually about 50 or 60 people there. The back corner seems to be reserved for the old-school members who have 30+ years of sobriety. They tend to be kind of a harsh, tell-it-like-it-is, sit-down-and-shut up sort of bunch. They quote the Big Book in every share, tell newcomers exactly what they need to do, and pass judgement on those that don’t do sobriety their way. They are Big Book bullies. I am not saying that they don’t have good things to say. As I mentioned, they have decades of sobriety, so they are obviously doing something right. But I do think that their approach, especially when it comes to newcomers, is sometimes way too far into the tough love category.
This morning when I asked if anyone had a topic for the discussion, a young man with around a month of sobriety spoke up. He has been really struggling with getting sober and he was full of emotion and confusion. Yesterday he went to an old girlfriend’s house and ended up drinking an O’Doul’s beer. He didn’t know if that meant he had a slip or not (in my book, it does, near beer is still beer). He told his story, and began to talk about his regret and confusion, obviously upset, when one the old-timers in the corner yelled out “shut the fuck up.” Several seconds of cross-talk, cross-yelling really, ensued as people in the group told the old-timer that everyone has a right to share, and that he needed to be quiet, and he told everyone that the newcomer needs to shut up at meetings and talk to his sponsor. I invited the newcomer to continue sharing and, thankfully, he did. The rest of the meeting revolved around the slippery slope of drinking the low-alcohol beer substitutes and the like. Most of the people that shared were in agreement that the newcomer had a slip and should change his sobriety date. The other old-timers echoed their loud, confrontational buddy’s sentiment and spoke with raised voices, rather angrily, as they thumped their Big Books and barked out orders.
As I sat there and listened, I became more and more resentful. I thought about my first months in the program, and what I needed at the time. Having someone yell at me to shut the fuck up was not what I needed. I needed to know that I wasn’t alone, that there were people that were just like me that had made it to a sober way of living. I needed to know that I had a place where I could fit in and not be judged. I needed to know that there was a solution, and there were people that could help me learn what it was. That old-timer gave none of that to the newcomer, and that really made me mad. Had I not been chairing the meeting, I probably would have walked out.
I know that each newly sober person has different needs, and that some do need a stronger push to get going in the right direction. I know that when you go to treatment the main focus is on loading you up with information and changing your behaviors through routine and structure. Lord knows I needed that when I went to rehab. There had to be rules, and I needed the keep-’em-busy-every-second structure. But even that was administered with a gentle hand. What I don’t agree with is trying to bully someone into sobriety. I don’t think that someone can get you sober anymore than they can get you drunk, but I do think that it’s the old-timers’ responsibility to help the newcomers, to offer encouragement, to show them the way, to lead by example. To share their experience, strength and hope. Isn’t that the mission of AA?
By the end of the meeting, things had settled down. Both the old-timer and the newcomer apologized to the group and to each other as we gathered for the closing prayer. Even though I’ve only been around the rooms for a couple of years, I know that once in a while, things happen at meetings that leave a bad taste in my mouth. I think that what happened this morning sucked, and I hope that the newcomer won’t go out and drink, and that he’ll be back tomorrow morning. I will definitely talk to my sponsor about the whole thing, to get her perspective on what happened. But you know what? By the time 6:15 a.m. rolls around tomorrow morning, I will happily head to my home group for a meeting, because I know, without a doubt, that AA has saved my life. The steps and the traditions have taught me a new way to live my life, and the fellowship has given me people who understand me to live it with. I won’t (can’t) let what a select few do or say keep me away from something that I know works. There’s no throwing the baby out with the bath water here. I’ll keep coming back.