Women’s Meetings


By Mary M.

I am approaching thirty years of sobriety and am now living a long way from those incredible women’s meetings of the first twenty years of my recovery in Ontario, Canada. And far away too from those little women’s groups, gatherings and step studies within the overall structure of AA. They saved my life. Over and over again.

I was the usual alcoholic mess starting out on the recovery journey. Belligerent and proud but inside I was bankrupt in every sense of the word: emotionally, financially, spiritually, intellectually. If there was a “me” I couldn’t find her. I was numb. I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling apart from lost and cold. My children were disgusted with me, I was unemployable and self-hatred oozed from every pore in my being.

My whole purpose in sobering up was to plan a suicide which didn’t bear the stigma of dying an active alcoholic. To spare my children that additional shame. This whole plan gave my life some purpose and I hugged this secret to myself as I crossed my arms in front of my chest and sat very far back at meetings away from the sick alcoholics and their idiotic recitations of repetitive mantras. I privately pronounced such places the rooms of the doomed, damned and demented. I was only a visitor.

Enter woman number one.  Sitting next to me. Hitting my coffee cup with hers as if we were in a bar and toasting each other. Telling me of a women’s only meeting in Toronto on Friday nights. I should go. Why? I asked her suspiciously. She listed out a bunch of reasons, like Friday night being a “real” drinking night for most women, week’s work done, children in bed, the whole weekend ahead. I found myself nodding. She said she’d pick me up. This constant I’ll-pick-you-up stuff was getting on my nerves. I had my (restored) driver’s licence and I was perfectly capable of driving myself but others were obviously very needy.

I had an on and off relationship with god and there was much talk of god at all the meetings I was going to. The psychopathic sexually obsessed Holy God of my Irish childhood hadn’t had a place in my life for many years. I found I was tuning all this AA evangelism out and scraping around in the nuggets remaining for some enlightenment. My higher power was my terror – it ran my sobriety along with my fear of getting drunk with the consequence of messing up my own suicide (quadriplegic) or dying drunk. My suicide plan involved my car and a bridge abutment not too far from my home. Sober.

The first women’s meeting I attended threw me sideways. There were many women, about forty all told. All gathered around this hodgepodge collection of tables in a huge room with boxes of Kleenex scattered throughout. They each spoke of their own concepts of a higher power, Mother Earth, Grandmother Moon, Higher Self, Purpose, Truth, Honesty and in one case a locket she wore around her neck.  Of course there were Christians, one Jew and a Hindu. My perception of AA shifted. Tolerance. Love. And most of all a lack of fear when sharing about what was working and what was not.

I shared a little of my own journey. Failure at motherhood, at partnering, at relationships, at career. And felt the comfort of the nodding heads, the shared experience, the strength in that room and, for the very first time, a smidgen of hope.

* * *

Soon after this I went to my first AA weekend retreat, in a convent house in Hamilton. The women and the men were quartered in separate buildings. And late at night pajama-clad women were in and out of each others’ rooms, congregating, sprawled on beds and on the floors with coffees and tea and cookies. I shared, for the very first time, my planned suicide, and was astonished at the howls of laughter that followed my disclosure. One shared she had wanted to die of smoke inhalation (no burn marks) in a fire, wearing her best nightie, prone on her bed, while a handsome fireman tried to resuscitate her and wept at her lost beauty. Actually, we all collapsed, breathless with glee, as more and more of us shared our imagined obituaries and the grieving (we hoped) relatives surrounding the caskets. My first sense of “being no longer alone” and of not being “terminally unique”.

* * *

Fine tuning with other women’s intuition happened in spite of myself. Halfway through a meeting one night I bolted. I was five months sober. I planned to see a man with whom I had a drinking relationship. As I was putting my key into the car, I was surrounded by five women who badgered me as to where I was going, telling me, threatening me, that I could go with them anywhere I wanted, a cafe, someone’s house, even back to the meeting, but I was not getting into my car by myself, or going anywhere near his apartment. A slippery slope, they deemed it, they’d all been there. So, like a child, I was led off to a coffee-shop.

* * *

At the women’s meeting one night a few years later, there were six newcomers. An extraordinary event. Another woman and I took them to a smaller room and decided step one might be the place to start. So we shared a bit of our stories, what brought us to AA and what kept us there (each other). One newcomer woman started to cry and we waited. She finally blurted out she’d had her third miscarriage, life was hopeless, her body was useless. She was going to drink herself to death. And the practical magic took over that small room as each and every one of us shared that we too had lost babies. The healing tears from the shared experiences flowed between us. It still gives me goosebumps to write of it.

* * *

Another time, at a women’s step-study, we discovered, to our horror, that every one of the fourteen women in the room had been sexually abused as children. I’ve never forgotten the palpable pain in that room, the way we all held each other and cried openly and at length for our child-selves and two long term women shared information on therapists.

* * *

A few years later, I was still struggling with a sense of numbness, of not being in touch with my emotions. At this point in my life, with the help of my ever widening circle of AA friends, I was employed, my children were coming round and I was paying my bills. (“Where else,” said one AA friend, “Would you get a round of applause for announcing you’d paid your rent, except at an AA meeting?”). My AA sponsor said to me to call her at the end of every day and walk through the day with her, work life, home life, by the hour if necessary: the pressure, the stress, the interactions with everyone. And finally I was able to identify, with her help, my feelings throughout the day: fear, anger, hurt, love, insecurity, satisfaction. All the feelings so numbed with alcohol over the nearly 20 years of my alcoholic drinking finally had a label.

* * *

A question asked in the women’s rooms: Can you recall ever making love while sober?

Answer (to peals of laughter): How do you manage that?

* * *

And the friendships, that solidarity with other women: continuity, tolerance, inspiration and encouragement. Before alcohol had become my lover and my reason for living, I had been a sometime folk singer and stage performer. In one of our AA women’s gatherings, we talked of these long lost dreams and skills and aspirations and made little promises to each other of taking small steps, tiny steps, to rekindle these buried passions or find sparkling new ones. I still see, all these years later, the shining faces of my AA friends blocking the front row of the theatre as I made my sober debut. As I in my turn, showed up for friends’ art exhibitions, dance recitals, presentations, renewed careers, graduations, births, and weddings.

* * *

You see, I don’t think I’d have made it without these women and the practical help they offered in so many areas of my life. “Hate housework? Did you know that M*** (another member) cleans houses for a living?” “You’ll find that you’ll need a medical checkup and dental work, we all did.” “A group of us go to the symphony, care to join us?” There’s nothing like going to the symphony or a concert or a play with a bunch of AAs, to make one feel part of the human race, to sense the possibilities of a renewed life, to share in the community of once being lost and now being found by each other.

* * *

I’m at the age and stage where I attend funerals of dear friends in sobriety. The ones who trudged with me along the way, who validated me as we cheered each other on  through the tribulations of life and were able to use the word “successful” with each other and mean it. Who viewed much of the rigidity and Christian patriarchal framework of AA (“The Chapter ‘To Wives’ – how insulting! When will they grow up and join the 21st century?”) as something to be ignored while being mindful there were new women showing up at such meetings who might leave forever and  drink and die so we needed to be there even if we held our noses and ummed internally through the Lord’s Prayer. And yes, attended countless business meetings advocating for secularization and gender-neutrality.

* * *

There was and is a better way for women in the meantime. They find it in the safety and community of us sober women, as their stories emerge into the healing light of their sisters in recovery.

For we truly are no longer alone. Finally, we are home.


17 Responses

  1. Judi M says:

    What a great chapter for “The Practical Book”. Mary, you articulated many of my own thoughts and feelings. Thank you.

  2. Annette R. Smith says:

    I always like hearing from the women! I did some qualitative sociological research on gender differences in alcoholism in the 1980’s which might be of interest. See
    “Alcoholism and Gender: Patterns of Diagnosis and Response.” Annette R. Smith, JOURNAL OF DRUG ISSUES, Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1986. 🙂

  3. Kathy O. says:

    Thank you, Mary. I’ll share this with my women’s group. In my community there seems to be something in the water that “immunizes” women from alcoholism, or so you’d think in the local meetings by the lack of women in attendance. I go to some of them strictly so there will be at least ONE woman present and a new woman coming in won’t turn around and leave, thinking it’s a men-only meeting. Unfortunately many new women do not stay, put off by the male dominance they sense combined with the constant “he, him, his” in the literature (yes, such as in the “To the Wives” chapter). When is AA going to join the 21st century and address ALL of us????

    • Mary M says:

      Oh Kathy I can relate. Out in this neck of the woods I am the only woman in AA and a few others have joined me from time to time but left/drank (and in one tragic case suicide) but I’ve had to meet them in the parking lot and hold their arms or hands on the way in. A room full of men can be so intimidating, particularly to women who have left violent households. I wish AA as a whole would wake up and realize these male centred books and language are a complete turn-off to women.


  4. boyd p. says:

    The best gender discussion on this site, thus far. Great job Mary, for getting it started. Compared to the outside, men cry readily at AA meetings. Maybe it’s because I gravitate toward those that give license. I had been sober less than a couple years when I happened upon a mixed gender meeting in which a women shared her utter defeat at going out again after more than twenty years sober. The tearful share was among the most important that keeps me sober. Thanks for bringing that moment to mind again. I never want to go out again, at least not today.

    • Mary M says:

      Thanks Boyd. I must add that I have been to mixed round table meetings where usually very sensitive topics have come up and I have been completely enlightened as to the insecurities and perceived shortcomings of the men. Some of my closest friends in AA have been (deceased) and are men. Once the heart opens, there are no barriers in communication.


  5. Oren says:

    Very well done, Mary. Your story is inspiring to this man, and I think it can be a life-saver for a lot of women.

  6. life-j says:

    Sounds really nice. My first thought was where do I get a sex change operation? That’s neither here nor there of course, but I do wonder if all women’s meetings/groups are like this. I’ve been to a few men’s meetings, and aside from the language being a little coarser, I didn’t see much difference from regular meetings. We could freely bitch about our significant other, etc. but not much opening up in any sort of new way. I guess it must be more complicated being a man or something. I did a lot of non-12 step men’s groups back around 1980, where there was a directed program to break down male roles, and they did seem to have some helpful aspects, but it was really difficult to take it out into society at large. Seems that what women do in women’s meetings is to just “really be women”, and it is not too hard to take that out into the wider society, at least not with other women, whereas what men do in men’s meetings is to be quite different from what they do in wider society, and so it is very difficult to take what we may have learned in such meetings back out into the world with us.

    So the odd result was that it improved my relationships with women somewhat, but only made my relationships with “the man on the street” more weird. Of course there were a few of the other men, who had been to those same meeting with whom I bonded and have had lifelong friendships with.

    Anyway, thanks, an interesting look into meetings I’m not allowed to go to. Even LGBT meetings I’m allowed to go to, and I don’t think I ever have, but a friend of mine who was actually somewhat homophobic wound up in such a meeting when he was far from home, and really wanted to get up and leave, but was made to feel welcome, and so even though he did go to another regular meeting the following day just to keep his male ego intact, he said he went back to the other one the day after because they were just more welcoming and friendly. So you never know. I can’t help but wonder how much I might get out of sitting in ina women’s meeting, or for that matter participating in such a meeting where the topic and manner of sharing was already somewhat fixed. But then I know that’s difficult. the women all cry, we think, and find it just a bit irritating, even as we sit there, really wanting to cry ourselves, but can’t. Don’t anybody go think it is easy being a man, just because the boardrooms of big corporatinsa mostly are filled with men. those lives have nothing to do with mine.

    • Mary M says:

      I do believe if we see each other as flawed human beings first and not colour everyone by gender then the pathways open up for true communication and non-judgemental interaction.

      As I said above I’ve been to meetings attended by both sexes and I’ve been truly enlightened as to how similar we all are. We are all vulnerable and haven’t a clue how to act in a suddenly sober world. We desperately need each other.


  7. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Mary, a wonderful, most moving story of how important woman’s meetings were for you. My experience of men’s meetings is that there is a much different dynamic than you write about, one which unhappily reinforces rigid dogmatism in AA, for example the “Dog on the Roof” groups.

  8. Joe C says:

    Identity politics is as an important reality for us tribal creatures. As I was enjoying Mary’s story, I though of my own searching for identity. Drug addiction was a direct consequence for my thirst to find identity. Fools gold is what I found. Then again in AA I wondered if this program could work for me. We talk about identifying. As alcoholics we have a unique shame that other drinkers don’t know. Hearing others articulate this is empowering. For Mary it was women’s meeting, for me it was Young People’s meetings and conferences where I could really identify with the experiences and shame of others.

    Some of you know I’ve been exploring, maybe ranting, about the hype around stigma these days. The bumper-sticker slogans sound more like sales pitches than compassion. It’s compassion that we find if we’re lucky enough to find a community in recovery. As Andrew Solomon says, identity politics both helps us feel worthy/normal and our presence in the larger community helps break negative stereotypes. Mary talked about attending business meetings and engaging in service and I have found the same. When I act “a part of” I get treated like I belong. We’re all an example – be it a good one or otherwise. Oh, I have been both.

    • Mary M says:

      Thanks Joe. As I was reading your response I think it’s sometimes silence we need with each other. I remember visiting a woman in the hospital who had attempted to kill herself (in sobriety) and just sitting with her at the edge of her bed and staring at the wall together. For 30 minutes. And then a quick hug and I left her. She’s never forgotten it and actually visited me out here last year after celebrating 25 years.

      Bumper sticker clichés are of no value and can do much harm. Silence with a fellow being can be so comforting.


  9. Jeb B. says:

    Another great story to which I as a man can definitely relate. It evokes the tremendous gratitude I have to the many men and women who prodded, accepted and encouraged me a day at a time through times of stinking thinking and seemingly hopeless disappointments and loss. Thanks for sharing yourself, Mary!

    • Mary M says:

      Thank you Jeb. I know. I will never, ever forget the help I received from the wonderful men of AA also. A list would run the length of a book. It is so incredible to have a place to go where we can be understood and more importantly understand.


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