Fitting in rather than out

Fitting In

By Lance B.

Me in AA

Over 32 years of AA meetings in a small western city, I have seen many new potential members arrive at our group. Usually they were scared and tentative, but after a few weeks they would open up and begin telling us what they felt and believed.

There were some others who seemed to remain afraid to speak even years after arrival and after they had learned the lingo of AA. Many of them became discouraged and left. I was one of those.

It seems to me we all know what restrains these people and keeps them from fully enjoying life’s journey. Still many disappear from our groups before ever opening up. Could we do something more to encourage them?

It seems rather obvious that I and many others began drinking before we had become comfortable with ourselves and had found that alcohol solved that problem for at least a while.  We could go into a social situation fearful, have a drink or two, and become one of the crowd.

But, since we had a solution, we failed to go through the pain of really getting to know and like ourselves.

I came to AA looking like a successful and confident middle aged man but knowing I was a fraud. I began escaping at about age 12 and by 20 I had found a solution without ever learning how to get along with my peers. Older and younger people were easier as I did not feel it necessary to compare myself to them.

Strangely enough, the first solution I found to my self-destructive habit of comparing myself to others came doing exactly that. After a year or two of meetings where I was terrified that someone would call on me and I would expose my inadequacies, I discovered a fellow whose voice quavered even if he had to say his name. After he spoke, I found myself able to get out a few coherent words.

On the other hand, when Tom, the local guru with 4 years experience under his belt had spoken, I felt so scared and tentative that all I could do was say my name and pass.

Clearly being in a position where I could speak after Jeff but not after Tom was a rather poor solution to my problem.  I knew, however, that becoming more social and speaking casually about myself was part of the solution I’d have to come to eventually. Some do it by bragging about their drinking histories. I was ashamed of mine.  Hearing a speaker say his name, “I’m an alcoholic.  I’m not proud or ashamed of that – it’s just a fact” led me to repeat it more than three times so that it became mine.

The next step for me was probably in analyzing what the people I liked in meetings were actually doing and saying.  Instead of trying to come up with something entirely new and unsaid each time they were called upon, they would simply repeat what the last person said, maybe a little clearer and briefer, and then add some small insight of their own.

Next I learned a few of the quotable lines from the literature or the slogans. They could be stretched to fit in most topics.

What I’ve described so far are various tricks for adapting to a new situation. But the fact is that I was in the habit of comparing myself unfavorably to virtually everyone I came to know. If you baked well or got dates with knockouts or spoke well or had great hair, then that is what I saw and tried to exceed.

All relationships were a challenge and I felt jealous of almost everyone as they could all do something better than I.  With that inferior feeling, the first three years in AA required a weekend out of every few during which I could twist off and drink. My early solutions made it possible to get through meetings without sounding incompetent, but I still knew that I was not enough.

Being envious and in competition with people and not even admitting it to myself led to uncomfortable relationships with nearly everyone. Thus one night after a meeting I asked John, an old fellow back from his winter residence in Arizona, “How can it be that I am now doing everything I am supposed to do (meaning mostly not drinking) and yet I am unhappy and alone?”  John said: “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Huh? Mutually exclusive had never occurred to me.

With some thought and practice I found it was possible to let down my hair a little more and be happier.

Some of the thoughts in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, helped a bit also. For example the business about how we had never sought to be just a man among men or a worker among workers. I had always, like Bill W., tried to be the boss and people often accepted that but some resented me as a result. If I just stopped competing so much, life would become much easier and more pleasant.

The book said my problem was that I was selfish and self centered. My immediate reaction had been, “Hell no, I feel lower than whale shit and hate to think about myself.”  I’m not self absorbed.  I just need to constantly police myself to not make any mistakes or hurt people.

I read a story from the Big Book (Acceptance is the Key) which suggested that I was judging myself by my intentions and they were judging me by my actions. Now that’s a real problem since I am constantly trying to say and do the right things. I’m trying hard, but somehow I seem to sabotage myself.

When I stopped trying so hard and began to think about the other people in the room –  especially easy was the newcomer – my competitiveness seemed to become less of a problem.

A sponsor I’d acquired said it might be better for me if I’d just do the next right thing instead of planning the long term outcome.  Or plan the action and not the result. Thus I could feel OK without getting it almost perfect.

All of those ideas became incorporated into my idea of humility. There was a statement in a newsletter which said that “humility is not thinking less of myself, but  thinking of myself less”.  Later I heard that humility seemed to be just “knowing what I am, and what I am not.” Neither required comparing me to them.

I did, however, sometimes compare myself to me from the past and that comparison was often gratifying.

Then there are a whole series of simple polite actions which one might review in order to help the new person feel a part of your group. Dress appropriately; be where you say you will be when you say you’ll be there, or five minutes before; try to be helpful (if the garbage needs to be emptied take it out); stand in a greeting line if your group is large or  go around to each person before the meeting and shake their hand or say hi and welcome them; smile; protect people in the group who are vulnerable; cheer for the people who put in the effort to chair or contribute and thank them; participate up to your current comfort level.

Above we have a sequence of intellectual ideas which all led me to at least guess at how being humble must feel. I was close enough that occasionally I would deliberately say that I was not all that important and so trying and failing would be possible (not OK, but tolerable). And once I’d failed it would be possible to try a second time and do it better. I had been trying to be superior every time to everyone and it was boring me as I was trying nothing which I could not dominate or lead.

My sponsor suggested that I just do the next right thing. Or act my way into better thinking rather than thinking my way into better acting.  Trying to think my way sober did not work. For example, I’d tried reducing my beers by one fewer each day every week until I was down to 0 or a more moderate number. (As you would guess, it started out at 0 but became a more moderate number as the hours went on.)  Neither that nor any of my other self control measures worked for long. Stopping drinking completely was better, but I could not stop starting again. Getting into action seemed to reduce the periods in self absorption.

Cleaning up my house and body seem to help me feel more complete and less in need of berating others for their slovenliness. We all know about the defense mechanism of searching for others’ weaknesses to justify my own guilty conscience. So  even a small bit of progress on  speaking without swearing or emptying the garbage can reduce my need to compare.

Though it seems silly to pray for the person I hate, fear or envy, I can report that I’ve tried praying to my bedspread for their welfare and found it helpful.  Since that works for me, I should think it would work even better for one who lived with faith in an interested higher power.

Something else which I think was important to my feelings of adequacy was being made DCM of our district at four years of sobriety. It was not a popularity contest as the district was so sparse that the outgoing DCM simply could not find anyone else willing to do the job. But I was used to organizing other people and laying out objectives and goals. Soon I was involved with every discussion, business meeting and personal conflict in the district. I felt and was more popular than I’d ever been before. Go ahead and volunteer for those positions once you feel a bit more comfortable in sobriety.

Thinking about the function of AA, I began encouraging my fellows to compare themselves as inside the tent rather than special and outside. We do have common feelings and it works better for an isolating person like myself to try to be like you rather than spending even more effort trying to be different.

Now I’m 73, have been sober for 29 years, and my problem is not that of feeling unpopular.

The agnostic in traditional AA

With the advent of AA Agnostica et al I began to tell my home group for the first time that I never subscribed to some parts of the AA literature. Nor can I believe that members who tell me about miracles they’ve seen were adequately scientific in their investigation of the facts. My initial attempts were rather crude and inflammatory.

Twenty-five years of parroting the literature and older members while avoiding those things which I don’t believe, has left me a bit testy and anxious to get on with the process of expressing the real me.

No matter how diplomatic I am, it seems that there are people who insist that for the good of AA  this cannot be the right way to think. Those people, even if well meaning, see me as standing apart from those who have AA’s best interest in mind.

Re-emphasizing the methods of Dr Bob will work as well as ever with a subset of people showing up at our doors.  But a large and expanding proportion of those new arrivals are not going to be amenable to such insistence upon prayer and trust in a supernatural being. Have we reached the critical mass to move this behemoth one step better?

Ward Ewing at the 2014 WAAFT convention noted that AA has been at the forefront of acceptance of minorities. But for some reason nonbelievers have been a particularly difficult group to get recognized. It is interesting to me to realize that the more secular voice was really the first obvious one in New York when the book Alcoholics Anonymous was being written – and yet are there any other major minorities still awaiting recognition by AA? We are outcasts by definition in that book.  And so that is where we will have to modify perceptions to FIT IN by right of our existence.

I don’t yet have the words to gently suggest that we move on to a more productive AA which only regards the ideas which continue to work well for us rather than everything the first members hoped might work. With the help of other secular members of AA, I am gradually gaining the attitudes and words necessary to feel more connected to others both in and out of the meetings and less competitive and special because of my differences. And knowing that there are others who also stay in AA and try to speak up as well as they can to effect some movement toward secularization gives me a sense of security so that I can speak confidently of my beliefs without being disagreeable toward the honest opposition of the “back to basics” crowd.

I once read that one of the elder political Kennedy’s advised a younger emerging Kennedy to never forget that the Republicans love their country every bit as much as you do. They just see a different path toward fulfillment.

I remember the warm feelings of brotherhood with other flawed characters who surprised me by being able and willing to tell of their embarrassing histories and failed aspirations. With more effort I hope to regain some of that camaraderie with not just my closest intellectual companions but also with those more religious members who happen to have found their way via the belief that a supernatural power saved their bacon.

For me it was an unsuspected inner resource.


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Fitting in rather than out — 9 Comments

  1. When I first began a secular meeting, I called it a WAAFT meeting and announced what those letters stood for. Kind members who have been updating the printed meeting schedule put in that it was a meeting for atheists and free thinkers.

    Of course, that is not what I really wanted to announce. At least not unless there was a whole passel of WAAFTs going to show up. As I hand wrote in: “And for everyone else” it occurred to me that I should not have to do that.

    The proper description of many of the other meetings is that they are for Christians while this one is specifically for everyone. There are other meetings which are somewhat less dogmatic than average and are more comfortable for just any alcoholic who happens by even though not specifically designed for everyone.

  2. Thank you, Lance. I enjoyed reading your story and related a lot to “feeling like a fraud” when I came in, and for some time after that. It is a wonderful thing to come to know and like our real selves and to share that with others, as you have done here. I am grateful that I have support to do this at the meetings I attend, and your story has reminded me that I can give that support to others.

  3. This article is a gem. It has so much good, concrete advice about how to help ourselves and others get more comfortable in our own skins. I liked how you personalized it with you own story. And I thought you offered some great reflections about being an agnostic in traditional AA.

  4. Lance, thanks, I related to all of your story, including of course having become an outcast once I really became outspoken.

    I think one of the encouraging reminders I came across recently was that when Bill was in that hotel lobby in Akron thinking of having a drink he didn’t start praying a whole bunch, he merely started calling around looking for an alcoholic to talk to. We’ll have to start reminding people more of that. But I guess against fundamentalism even the gods fight in vain…

    Anyway, thanks, and I related a lot to your telling about comparing yourself, I did a lot of that, and still do. And good to have met you too.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your journey in AA, Lance. Like certain parts of the Big Book, the personal stories in particular, I can relate to the slow process of finding your true self and place. When I entered AA at two and a half years sober some 35 years ago, I felt a great need to fit in and be accepted, and I was therefore willing to “act as if,” since that was the common suggestion to novice nonbelievers. I also learned to “talk the talk” long before I surrendered to “walk the walk.” My anchor of hope was the promise that if I could learn how to do “the self-searching, leveling of [my] pride, the confession of shortcomings” as a daily requirement, I could find the freedom, honesty and self-acceptance I lacked. I have come to treasure the honest experience, strength and hope of others, like you, because you cause me to continue the work of looking inside myself and my experience for the key to happiness. It works. It really does!

  6. An excellent essay, Lance — thanks so much for sharing it.

    I especially resonated with your experience of being DCM in the General Service work of AA. I’m convinced that for us secular members of AA to be more widely accepted by the those AA members who have beliefs, likely Christian beliefs in North America like our co-founder, Dr. Bob, we must expose ourselves and get involved in the General Service work of AA.

    I value immensely my General Service Work in Oregon Area 58, which has resulted in an expanding and evolving community of secular AA members, groups and meetings throughout Oregon.

  7. Here in Britain there used to be, and still might be for all I know, AA groups for “shy sharers”; newcomers, and others, unwilling or unable to speak in large meetings or where confident (arrogant?) members monopolised the sharing. At a recent meeting, after the initial readings, the secretary said, “The meeting is now open for raised voice sharing.” I’d never heard that expression before. It was a good reminder that as well as raised voice (vocal) sharing there has to be attentive listening (silent) sharing for a meeting to carry its message. I don’t feel the need to speak at every meeting I attend. And I don’t make a big point of my non-belief when speaking; however, if someone promotes their understanding of God – as though that is the only possible understanding, I do share that I am agnostic. And when someone talks dogmatically about the Big Book I make clear that I do not believe the book has the whole truth or all the answers and that in some places it is positively wrong. I speak my (partial) truth to assure the newcomer that, as Bill W. wrote, “Each AA member has the privilege of interpreting the program according to their own outlook and experience.” (As Bill Sees It)

  8. Good to hear from you again, Lance. Your story reflects much of my experience, although I chose a noisier, extroverted style when I was an insecure adolescent, rather than withdrawing and keeping silent. It worked just as well at keeping me from dealing with the real me, and being on stage was taxing. That’s one of the reasons booze seemed like a tension-reliever. At first.

    I think our stories reveal that, although the potential to develop addictions such as alcoholism is some kind of biological predisposition, it takes the depression/anxiety stress of adolescence to make booze, etc., feel so good. As you point out so well, it stops our emotional growth in its tracks. So we get to grow up when we reach AA. I think that’s why we laugh so much when we find each other.

    I hope to see you in Austin!

  9. Thank you, Lance and Roger,

    Twenty-five years of parroting the literature and older members while avoiding those things which I don’t believe, has left me a bit testy and anxious to get on with the process of expressing the real me.

    No matter how diplomatic I am, it seems that there are people who insist that for the good of AA this cannot be the right way to think. Those people, even if well meaning, see me as standing apart from those who have AA’s best interest in mind.

    Well said.