This post was originally published on September 29, 2014.
There’s an old saying that I heard when I first came into AA, and it’s a pretty standard response to newcomers who ask how long they will have to go to meetings. The answer, like many of the ones that we receive in AA, is not really what the new person wants to hear. It tends to be something along the lines of this: “Just keep going until you want to go.”
Let’s face it. Nobody wants to go to AA meetings at first. It’s not the sort of thing you do to enhance your already awesome life, like learning how to cook Thai food in an adult ed class. It’s not even like joining the gym to get fit and look great. No, you go to AA because your life has become so completely fucked up that there really aren’t a lot of alternatives. And although I’m happy that some people come into AA just because they thought stopping drinking would be a “good idea,” I honestly have trouble understanding them. Going to AA was the absolute last thing I wanted to do because I (wrongly) thought I could do it on my own and (also wrongly) thought it was some sort of cult. Even when I was desperate and wanted to die, I still didn’t want to try AA—despite having a brother who swore by it (and went from a high school dropout heroin addict to a college grad six-figure earner with a great wife, not to mention a much better guy, in the process).
It’s the world’s greatest club that nobody wants to join, because for most of us to get there and want to stay, our lives had to totally suck. And we had to admit that to ourselves for it to work. But in my experience, it doesn’t work otherwise. Unlike Domino’s Pizza, AA does not deliver.
So when someone new hears that not only do they have to go to meetings in order to get sober (in AA anyway) but they’ll also have to continue to go in order to stay sober, it’s not the greatest selling point. In a society that demands microwave results to complex problems, it’s a pretty tough sell to all but the desperate.
Thankfully, going to meetings has never been that difficult for me. I didn’t drink alone much (although I felt desperately alone in a room full of people at the end) and I’ve never been an isolator like a lot of alcoholics. I’m a barroom drinker, even if the ones I drank in were some of the biggest shitholes in Boston—ones that catered to lowlifes like me, where the main features were cheap booze and easy access to coke and pills. Even if I didn’t like being around other people, I no longer have much choice—I have to go to meetings to stay sober and relatively sane. I once heard a guy explain it this way: “Look, I didn’t want to come to meetings and hang around with you assholes when I first came around, but since I can’t seem to stay sober without going, I decided to make the best of it and have some laughs. Now I love it.”
And that’s been my experience.
The first objection I usually hear from newcomers (and even people who have been around for a while) is this: “I don’t have time for meetings.” Which would be perfectly acceptable for normal people who don’t spend most of their time drinking or drugging, copping, recovering from the “party” or covering their tracks with their work or loved ones. I can’t speak for every addict out there of course but I know that at the end of my drinking, I was not exactly writing the next great American novel, curing cancer or training for a marathon. Getting fucked up and staying that way, plus all the other bullshit that goes with active addiction, is a full time job. So when I put the booze and drugs down, I had lots of time for meetings because I didn’t know how to do anything sober, whether it was going to the movies, a club or even grocery shopping (of course, I wasn’t doing any of those things at the end anyway). As one of my friends says when he tells his story, “My dance card wasn’t exactly full when I got here.”
When I first came into recovery, I was told to put meetings in the number one slot while I was getting sober—over the gym, a second job, recreational activities, even family—because if I wasn’t sober, I wouldn’t be able to do any of those things for very long anyway. They told me that if I drank every day, I should go to a meeting every day. And after I leave a meeting, they told me, I can always do something useful.
I was also given a helpful analogy: if people with cancer—another progressive and fatal disease—could keep from dying by simply going to a meeting every day, you could fill a football stadium in every city in America with those people. And the harsher corollary is this: The general population feels bad for people who die from cancer, but not so much with drunks and addicts—mostly because they don’t really understand the whole disease concept.
And for those who say that meetings won’t keep you sober? In my (studied but not quite humble) opinion, that is pretty much bullshit—at least for people who have stayed clean and sober for a while. Although plenty of people that only go to meetings and do nothing else for their recovery are usually bat shit crazy or unbearable (I go to Al Anon—just ask their families), they’re far less likely to relapse than people who do. And while I can’t say I know anyone who said they relapsed because they failed to do a thorough enough fourth step, I’ve heard hundreds of people say it was because they stopped going to meetings. The absolute number one common denominator for people who relapse in AA is just that—they stopped going to meetings. And for many, it happens over time. Seven meetings a week become three, becomes one, then none, then drunk. Maybe not right away and maybe not for everyone. But as those who relapse and come back tell me, it’s nearly always the cause.
For me, there’s another perk of meeting attendance—they keep me socialized with people that are largely trying to do the right thing, instead of my former cohorts. If I’m not doing well, people recognize that I’m not doing well, ask me what’s wrong and actually listen and offer help when I tell them what’s wrong. Try that in a barroom, crack house, shooting gallery or even your workplace. Another boon: meetings help with the depression that many alcoholics have, including me.
I also enjoy going to meetings because I like watching really broken people get better, and there’s not a lot of places where you can see that happen—except in a movie. It’s also one of the few places where I can actually try to help somebody without having to write a check.
I still pretty much go to a meeting every day on average, and the way I do it is by following something I heard when I first came in—by building my day around a meeting instead of trying to fit a meeting into my day. And to those geniuses who say I’m swapping one addiction for another, I’ve never been arrested, cheated on my significant other, overdosed or smashed up my car because I went to too many meetings.
There’s a guy in my group who’s 26 years sober that still goes to four or five meetings a week, and he says this often: “Insanity may be doing the same thing over and over, but for me, insanity would be for me to stop doing what has worked so well for so long.”