Anatomy of an AA Meeting

First and foremost, no AA meeting is held out in the open where the drunks could possibly influence normal drinkers or people with a high standard of dignity and conduct. No, we will walk down dark corridors, through janitor’s closets and strip malls, down into the labyrinthine belly of church basements, an abandoned room in a rarely frequented corner of the university health center, or the mildewed chapel in an assisted living home. We will trudge our way down these halls until we start to smell the familiar scent of Marlboro Reds and coffee, and soon we will see The Group.

The Group waits outside the meeting place, shaking stained hands and hugs with one another. Many of them seem off-kilter and over-enthusiastic, with big booming voices and huge smiles that stretch over their faces like an overfilled balloon. As soon as they see you, they know you are new. Most of them will make eye contact with you, but some of them will march over to you and introduce themselves. Some will leave it at the introduction, but some of them will take this opportunity to ask you invasive questions about your sobriety and impress you with their supposed mastery of the program. “The Twelve Steps changed my life,” they might say. “I used to be a gay prostitute. Now I wake up every day and praise God that the Steps are in my life and that I found The Program. The Program will change your life. Here is my business card/cell phone/home phone number. Call me if you want to CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” This person’s glassy eyes and leering smile scream “Jesus Freak” and reminds you of some of the kids on that documentary Jesus Camp. You consider picking up your bag and getting the hell out of here. This is not for you, clearly. You’re here because you have a drinking problem, not because you need to find God, and obviously these people think the two are one and the same.

As you begin to surreptitiously reach under your seat for your things, the meeting begins. The Group recites the Serenity Prayer, and you lip-synch the first few bars of “If Your Girl Only Knew” by Aaliyah (R.I.P. babygurl) because you don’t know the words. It’s too late to back out now. As everyone sits back down, individuals begin sharing their feelings and experiences based on the group topic, which is usually something like “Unity.” You’re sort of tuning the speaker out and scoping the room for hotties (there are none, unless you like the grizzled n’ bloated old man thing), until someone says something that sticks out, something that makes you suddenly realize and appreciate the fact that everyone is there for the same reason as you, and knows exactly what you’re going through. All of a sudden, you’re feeling your eyes get suspiciously prickly, and you wonder if you might be getting a little glassy-eyed yourself. Sure, some of these people have clearly put part of their addiction into the religious aspect of recovery, and cling onto these meetings and their “higher power” for dear life. You feel kind of sorry for these people, but at the same time you are filled with pride for these people you don’t even know who have managed to gain some morsel of control. Your head is whirling. You don’t believe in God, you’re not even sure you believe in anything. You’re a nihilist at heart, one of those “What’s the point of living or doing anything at all because our entire existence and then some is only a tiny insignificant speck of dust in the scheme of infinite time and space” types, and your mind is getting blown by the fact that these people sitting around you have managed to find something that matters and are holding on to it however they can.

Sure, for most people, sobriety isn’t an issue, and when you tell them you’ve been sober for eight months you can’t expect more than a “Wow. Why?” You understand that when you leave this room you will be back in the real world that sees you as a failure and only remembers you as a drunk, depressed, mess. You understand that the world outside AA sees your sobriety as a weakness, not as strength. And in this moment you realize that you “get it.” AA is not for fun. It’s not something you’re just attending to get fodder for your “writing career.” It is a sad place for sad people just like you. There is no more pretending that you don’t belong here. It’s ironic because this is the belonging you were chasing at the bottom of every can and bottle for the last seven years. For an hour and a half, you are in safe territory. You find yourself confessing your deepest, darkest sins that even your most hardcore drinking buddies don’t know about to total strangers and being relieved when they chuckle and nod at the conclusion, having been there many times before. You stand up and introduce yourself as an Alcoholic, and the chorus that welcomes you make you smile, embarrassed that you actually appreciate this hokey tradition. After the meeting, everyone will go their separate ways. You might run into one of them on the outside, and the two of you will exchange knowing glances before turning away and pretending you don’t share something significant and-ah, fuck it- sacred. TC mark

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  • Jim K.

    Ummmm…..not sure what to think. Aside from the anonymity breach; a poorly written and largely inaccurate portrait. Not sure where you attend meetings but ours are nothing like that at all. Halls full of respectable, clean and sane recovered people some of which have a faith that works and some of who don't. it's right in the “Big Book” … AA does not require that believe anything.” Your cherry-picking for literary effect is shameful. Progress not perfection, I suppose.

    • pluvia

      I think most people take Thought Catalog posts with a grain of salt, though (whether or not it was intended to be humorous).

    • Oliver Miller

      Huh, it sounds like pretty much every AA meeting I've been to, although mine do have hotties, but mine are in NYC, so go figure. I'm not seeing how it's an anonymity breach, since no names were revealed, and surely anyone who is interested can learn how an AA meeting is run, if they want to. Maybe a few recitals of the Serenity Prayer are in order here?

      • THE AUTHOR

        I guess I shouldn't be surprised by Jim K's response…some people take everything they read literally, I suppose. Damn, some people are so touchy.

      • The Ghost Of My Dead Child

        Yeah, addiction is sooooo funny! It cracks me up ALL the time! Especially the drunk drivers! They are the most hilarious! Alcoholism is laugh riot! And funerals for teenagers? The best fun EVER!

      • THE AUTHOR

        Sorry about your kid. I'm also sorry about my best friend who died in rehab, my roommates friend who was killed by a drunk driver on New Year's Eve, I'm sorry about that girl I know who smashed her best friend's face open in a drunk driving crash too. I'm sorry I ruined my life with alcoholism, but I'm definitely not sorry that I wrote an article trying to make people smile over a very sorry situation.

      • THE AUTHOR

        I think people need to know that AA is not just for the religious, and that people like me who formerly thought they had no place there are actually welcomed and get a whole lot out of it. You all would understand that if I could just get you to read the last two paragraphs of the article.

    • THE AUTHOR

      First of all, I have been sober with the HELP of AA for the better part of a year. I love the meetings and will continue to go to them for as long as I need them. There is absolutely no anonymity breach here-if you actually read the article you would know that there are no direct quotes or any damaging information whatsoever. I fully respect AA and the people in it, and feel like you need to read my words over to truly understand the meaning of the article. Of course it's tongue in cheek, you ass, that's how I write. I reserve the right to document my own recovery process however I see fit, and maintain that my article was an honest and heartfelt portrayal of what I've experienced in AA. If you feel like this is coming from someone who doesn't deserve to be in AA, just talk to Ryan O'Connell, editor in chief of this blog. He experienced my downward spiral first hand and will be more than willing to vouch for the truth in my words. Oh, and lastly- it's people like you I was lampooning. Maybe you should try taking yourself a little less seriously, or stop reading TC.

      • Jim K

        Hello Tessa Shoenrock! You broke your own anonymity! I think you forgot about a little thing called a byline. Perhaps when you have a little longer than a year, you won't feel the need to so actively diss the fellowship that has helped so many people for the sake of a tongue-in-cheek laugh. I don't know about you but if your “downward spiral” was as horrible as you say, why would you see fit to mock the very place that is assisting you in figuring it all out? I dunno, just seemed hugely disingenuous to me. I would also like to draw your attention to Tradition 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous which states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. That includes the internet, my friend. I will refrain from referring to you as an “ass” because unlike you, I do realize that we are all ultimately, “a work in progress.” Jim K. 45 years sober. .

      • Ghost Of My Dead Child

        I agree with you Jim K. This was not funny. My teen was killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Day and I thank God every day for Alcoholics Anonymous. If it saves one person from getting behind the wheel and taking a life who gives a sh** how “grizzled and bloated” someone is. This author needs a lobotomy. Stat.

      • THE AUTHOR

        I GO TO AA YOU NERDS. Read the last half of the article-you know, the part where i say AA is sacred? I've lost friends and family to alcoholism too, so if anyone gets to make fun of it, it's me.

      • THE AUTHOR

        Sure, for most people, sobriety isn’t an issue, and when you tell them you’ve been sober for eight months you can’t expect more than a “Wow. Why?” You understand that when you leave this room you will be back in the real world that sees you as a failure and only remembers you as a drunk, depressed, mess. You understand that the world outside AA sees your sobriety as a weakness, not as strength. And in this moment you realize that you “get it.” AA is not for fun. It’s not something you’re just attending to get fodder for your “writing career.” It is a sad place for sad people just like you. There is no more pretending that you don’t belong here. It’s ironic because this is the belonging you were chasing at the bottom of every can and bottle for the last seven years. For an hour and a half, you are in safe territory. You find yourself confessing your deepest, darkest sins that even your most hardcore drinking buddies don’t know about to total strangers and being relieved when they chuckle and nod at the conclusion, having been there many times before. You stand up and introduce yourself as an Alcoholic, and the chorus that welcomes you make you smile, embarrassed that you actually appreciate this hokey tradition. After the meeting, everyone will go their separate ways. You might run into one of them on the outside, and the two of you will exchange knowing glances before turning away and pretending you don’t share something significant and-ah, fuck it- sacred.

      • Luke o.

        Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with you people!? This is one woman's experience with the program and quite honestly it is a very realistic depiction of a meeting. The folks quite often are bloated and grizzled, although I think Jim K. up there may just be the former. Jim, I'm appalled at some of the shit that you wrote, you're an ignorant dick who needs to get out of the meetings a tad more and live your life (the purpose of the program…). Also there has been no anonymity breech; Tessah chose to share her  experience, strength and hope with all of us here at TC and, who knows, may have helped a suffering alcoholic, while you, a complete AA fascist, made it look like the program is filled with a bunch of pretentious, hard nosed, unsympathetic ass holes. As for this article being poorly written? That's hogwash sir… Total hogwash!!

        Keep coming back Jim K.; it works if you work it.

        This is like my third post on this article tonight, I'm sorry that so many people are angry at you; you're awesome!

      • THE AUTHOR

        Congrats on your sobriety Jim K. Try not to take everything so seriously, mkay? My childhood was ruined by alcoholism, my life and countless others have been derailed by addiction, but I don't find it offensive to crack a smile at it all once in a while. Don't be so offended.

      • THE AUTHOR

        Oh and way to COMPLETELY butcher my name. It's “Tessah Schoenrock”, and I'm proud of it. Call me out, send a pipebomb flying through my mailbox, I welcome it.

      • THE AUTHOR

        Sure, for most people, sobriety isn’t an issue, and when you tell them you’ve been sober for eight months you can’t expect more than a “Wow. Why?” You understand that when you leave this room you will be back in the real world that sees you as a failure and only remembers you as a drunk, depressed, mess. You understand that the world outside AA sees your sobriety as a weakness, not as strength. And in this moment you realize that you “get it.” AA is not for fun. It’s not something you’re just attending to get fodder for your “writing career.” It is a sad place for sad people just like you. There is no more pretending that you don’t belong here. It’s ironic because this is the belonging you were chasing at the bottom of every can and bottle for the last seven years. For an hour and a half, you are in safe territory. You find yourself confessing your deepest, darkest sins that even your most hardcore drinking buddies don’t know about to total strangers and being relieved when they chuckle and nod at the conclusion, having been there many times before. You stand up and introduce yourself as an Alcoholic, and the chorus that welcomes you make you smile, embarrassed that you actually appreciate this hokey tradition. After the meeting, everyone will go their separate ways. You might run into one of them on the outside, and the two of you will exchange knowing glances before turning away and pretending you don’t share something significant and-ah, fuck it- sacred.

  • Robin

    Thank you for writing such a fantastic piece!

    I would ask people to take a bit more time to read and contemplate this. If you are truly honest, which of you hasn't thought all of this and more? Come on! :-)

    Thank God for the honesty of people like Tessah, you are demonstrating the honesty and humility and humour that has kept me sober and coming to meetings for more that 20 years now. Please keep coming back and telling us your truth.

    In fellowship

    Robin
    UK

    • THE AUTHOR

      thanks robin. you rock, and i will be back!

  • mw

    I think it's funny that people see AA as this sanctimonious entity deserving of their compulsive protection–sure, it has helped, and maybe even saved, people but that doesn't leave in undeserving of criticism or the subject of a playful (and what appears to be fairly honest) piece of writing. THANK YOU for a smile and chuckle, from someone who has definitely has similar feelings and experiences with AA and is a million times better now that she's sober. My first experience of an AA meeting, after one of the lowest points of my life, was terrifying and a bit overwhelming, and although I recognized how big the hearts of the people there were I was raised with such a critical view of religion and ideology that I couldn't ever fully step within the group's boundaries again.

    • THE AUTHOR

      thank you! i'm so glad to see that people get it.

  • ED

    I've been attending OA on and off for the past couple years, and I loved this article. Particularly: “It’s ironic because this is the belonging you were chasing at the bottom of every can and bottle for the last seven years” – TRUTH, just food, for me. I found your perspective, sarcasm, and wit really refreshing and honest. Thank you!

  • Taylor Thompson

    Fantastic.

  • Guest.

    Tradition 11: Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. Al-Anon Addition: We need guard with special care the anonymity of all A.A. members.

    Pretty disappointing to see this on Thought Catalog. Of course I am glad you found some serenity in the rooms, but since you have a little time now you should know at least the short form of the traditions. They are all important but 11 is incredibly important. Hopefully your sponsor (if you have one…) can explain it to you, because you clearly don't understand it. I say this as a member who doesn't take herself “too seriously” as you put it, I just understand why anonymity is important in order for AA to function as a whole.

    • Tessah

      Ok. So what do you have to say about published non-fiction authors like Augusten Burroughs, James Frey (who although he made up half his book he did actually go to meetings), and Cupcake Brown? Are they also violating the code of AA?

    • Guest

      Dude, you're the reason people often refer to AA as a cult. You're that dick in meetings who interrupts someone in the middle of their share when they're talking about pot and reminds them that ” this is an ALCOHOLICS anonymous meeting, we don't talk about our drug problems HERE.” Shove the traditions up your over-blown ass and respect what this woman has poignantly and eloquently written here. Keep coming back holmes….

      • Guest

        …I digress, though, AA is pretty cultish sometimes. Still though… LIGHTEN UP DUDE!

  • Tak_arch

    i did AA after alcohol rehab several years ago, did great for 6 months then my disease told me i didn't have a disease…short story was after 2 relapses i found a 12-step meeting and a sponsor who painstakingly took me thru the 12 steps, sort of like AA grad school. best thing i ever did!
    alcoholism is just a symptom of the real disease, the fear and loathing inside our own heads…now i have no anxiety, self loathing or fear (mostly). i recommend a 12 step course of action (not just reading the big book) to anyone. and i'm NOT religious, i just have to have a higher power, whatever that might be. it's also FREE, except for maybe 1 or 2 bucks for a donation, and usually free coffee and sweets! what can you possibly lose?

  • http://allirense.com Alli Rense

    Great post. I had a rare experience of being a non-alcoholic at an AA meeting a few years ago. It was much different than I expected (in other words, nothing like AA meetings on television and film). Tessah, I'm happy that you've found the rare ability to laugh at yourself, unlike some of the commentors. It truly makes life so much more livable.

    If you want to say your full name and that you're in AA, that's your choice. You didn't give away anyone else's name, locations, etc. and therefore (from my outsider's understanding of the AA rules) you did nothing wrong.

  • Samthcat

    I love it that you are not afraid to think for yourself Tessah ! AA is a wonderful recover program and has helped me tremendously, I've met some wonderful folks, am enjoying sobriety and loving the giving back. I get the impression from some folks, however, that if you're not thinking and doing exactly what they are, you're for sure going to relapse! I am finding my feet and needed to see this today. Thank you for your blog! Oh, my name is Michelle Avila and I am a grateful recovering alcoholic! (oh, crap – did I just violate Tradition 11??)

  • Jamie Luke

    I seriously enjoyed this article so much. Probably one of the most outstanding things I have read on here. I’d love for you to continue documenting your journey. Oh yeah a huge congratulations to you for getting sober. :)

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