Can AA Please Evolve?
By Dave W
One of the things I admire the most about the simplicity of the way AA meetings are structured and conducted is the level playing field that is created for the typical one-hour duration of the gathering. No one is above anyone else. Even the chairperson, whose primary responsibility is to keep the meeting on course and at least reasonably timed, is asked to identify as an alcoholic and share a portion of their story at the beginning of the meeting.
We are a flawed, imperfect and broken peer support group in various stages of recovery. In meetings it’s common to feel a sense of admiration and compassion at the candor and courage people show when telling their stories, revealing details of past mistakes and blunders that would get you kicked out of a lot of social circles, job opportunities, and some families if the details were repeated outside our meeting rooms.
Despite AA’s simplistic structure, when change does happen it is excruciatingly slow. The plodding pace is understandable when one is dealing with a decentralized structure where autonomy flows from the bottom upwards. Change will be gradual, cautious and measured. Unfortunately, the process is handicapped further by a reluctance to understand that times change, societal norms evolve, and new knowledge about alcoholism and addiction continues to become available.
If I were to play word association, and someone said “AA” to me, my first response might be “dated”. When I attend meetings I often feel as if I have fallen into a time machine and am back in another era. Members display AA’s flagship piece of literature, an eighty-year-old book written in an archaic style and based on an understanding of alcoholism that was prevalent in the 1930s. I personally cringe at the thought of telling a newcomer that there is nothing new under the sun about alcoholism and addiction. It was all known in the 1930s. The book dismisses anyone who is an atheist or agnostic and makes it clear to them that if you do not get god you will not get sober. The sexism in the book is embarrassing and seems to imply that female alcoholics are as rare as hen’s teeth. There does not seem to be much appetite to archive the original text and present a more timely and relevant volume.
In meetings one of the first things a newcomer may notice is an apron proudly displayed across the table where the chair and speaker sit, giving the founding date of the group. Black and white pictures of Bill and Bob often adorn the walls. Slogans are displayed prominently, frequently in a font that reminds one of biblical passages. I am grateful AA has survived the decades to be here for me, but I don’t understand why there’s such an obsession with the past. I worry about the disconnect many newcomers must feel from a presentation from a different era.
In gatherings there are times when AA takes on a cult like behavior. At the Ontario Regional Conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto last year, I sat in the auditorium with two fellow secular AA members awaiting the opening speaker. I witnessed what I thought at the time and still do a bizarre and creepy spectacle, the conference participants walking to the stage while almost everyone in the audience rising to their feet and clapping in unison to a precise rhythmic cadence. As I remained sitting with my two non-participating friends, I wondered how many people who joined in the ritual were thinking this is stupid, I feel awkward, why am I doing this but were too intimidated to remain seated. It did not look like an effort to show appreciation to the participants, it came off as a robotic and an extremely uncomfortable ritual practice. The act may have looked harmless, but it appeared as an intent to control people’s behavior. Synchronized clapping has nothing to do with getting or remaining sober, but if you can get people to engage in mindless rituals it’s easier to get them to conform to the dogma and rigidity that exists in some meetings and the literature.
Ritualism and repetition find their ways into AA in a multitude of behaviors and beliefs. A cornerstone of many meetings is an obsession with readings that are narrow and dated. It is amazing that there is any time left for people to share their personal stories and issues given the plethora of readings done at some meetings and other events. At any given gathering a combination of The Steps, The Traditions (don’t forget to chant “principles before personalities”), The Promises, The Concepts, How it Works, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, The Spiritual Experience, The Serenity Prayer, and often of course, everyone’s favorite, the Lord’s Prayer are trotted out.
And if the readings are not sufficient to fill an hour, we have slogans aplenty. Think, Think, Think. You Are Not Alone. Let Go and Let God. First Things First. But for the Grace of God. Stick With the Winners…. On and on and on.
This obsession with repetitious readings and slogans makes it difficult for meetings to unfold organically and allow attendees to speak freely on present moment situations. Spontaneity is lost and people are taught to put their current problems on the back burner and talk about the chosen reading instead. There seems to be a rule in some meetings that if your present situation does not dovetail with the chosen topic at hand, you better not speak. It is also an effective way to prevent dreaded outside issues being discussed. We can’t have you talking about non-alcohol related addictions; this is AA. Take your childhood trauma, your PTSD, your OCD, your other sundry mental health issues out of the rooms. Whether these problems contribute to your drinking or not, if it is not covered in the Big Book, we do not want to hear it.
One of the unfortunate legacies of AA has been the white male heterosexual Christian dominance of the fellowship. Yes, it is changing. There are now meetings for women, for LGBTQ individuals, for agnostics and atheists, for people for whom language is a barrier. Despite this evolution, narrowness and bigotry still occur. In recent issues of our local Intergroup’s newsletter a picture appears on the last page announcing members sober milestones. It looks like a sketch from the early days of AA. Every person in it looks to be either a middle age or old white man. No women. No minorities. Given what has happened in recent months and years with the emergence of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, the picture is horribly tone deaf in a newsletter in 2020. We are not in violation of tradition 10 by having an opinion on outside issues if we are simply showing respect for and awareness of diversity.
If there is a silver lining for the current pandemic, it has been the opportunity to sit in on-line meetings and hear people from all over North America and other parts of the world share their experiences in traditional AA. It has been a revelation to hear people’s gratitude in finding our growing secular groups and talk openly about the struggle of fitting into meetings where their core beliefs and values don’t mesh with the traditional god centric literature. It becomes clear quickly when hearing these stories that there is no one size fits everyone approach to recovery and it’s ok to go off the common path of getting a sponsor and working the traditional version of the steps as soon as you walk in the door.
I have enormous gratitude for the secular meetings I found in Toronto in May of 2018 when my drinking was out of control. Even though I was not close to dying, I believe these meetings and the people I met in them have prolonged my life. Yes, these meetings too have readings. Yes, they have some ritual practices. I am totally at home with chanting “Hi, so and so” when a fellow member identifies. At one meeting, The Serenity Prayer, minus the G word, is recited in unison. The responsibility declaration is read routinely at the close. None the less, the meat of these gatherings is largely what participants decide it is. People are free to talk on what they need to at any given point. I have yet to be censored for any of my words even though I frequently speak of personal issues where the linear path back to my drinking may not always be clear. It is quite the contrast to what I feel in many traditional meetings where my mind seems to dwell more on whether what I want to share is acceptable or not. I believe traditional AA could benefit greatly from taking the handcuffs off. AA is not going to die if non-conference approved readings are done in a meeting, or an “outside issue” is discussed or if, God forbid, we actually rewrite the Big Book to reflect current times. It may die however if fear of change continues to weigh the fellowship down in a past that still looks too much like the 1930s.
David is a sixty two year-old agnostic alcoholic whose drinking career began late in life after growing up with an alcoholic father. After twelve years of daily drinking, he came to believe that a substance greater than himself trapped him in the same addictive cycle that had trapped various members of his family on both sides. Desperate for outside help, he found secular AA on-line in 2018 and was able to avoid the conflict with religion and a mandatory belief in god that traditional AA insists on imposing on members. His home group is Beyond Belief Toronto and he will be two years sober in December 2020.