The local group meeting is the center and heart of the A.A. Fellowship. It is, in many ways, a unique type of gathering and one that is likely to seem strange to the newcomer. The questions and answers that follow suggest how the A.A. meeting functions and how the newcomer fits into the group picture.
How does a person join A.A.?
No one "joins" A.A. in the usual sense of the term. No application for membership has to be filled out. In fact, many groups do not even keep membership records. There are no initiation fees, no dues, no assessments of any kind.
Most people become associated with A.A. simply by attending the meetings of a particular local group. Their introduction to A.A. may have come about in one of several ways. Having come to the point in their drinking where they sincerely wanted to stop, they may have gotten in touch with A.A. voluntarily. They may have called the local A.A. office listed in the phone book, or they may have written to the General Service Office, Box 459, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163.
Others may have been guided to a local A.A. group by a friend, relative, doctor, or spiritual adviser.
Usually, a newcomer to A.A. has had an opportunity to talk to one or more local members before attending the first meeting. This provides an opportunity to learn how A.A. has helped these people. The beginner gets facts about alcoholism and A.A. that help to determine whether he or she is honestly prepared to give up alcohol. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.
There are no membership drives in A.A. If, after attending several meetings, the newcomer decides A.A. is not for him or for her, no one will urge continuation in the association. There may be suggestions about keeping an open mind on the subject, but no one in A.A. will try to make up newcomers' minds for them. Only the alcoholic concerned can answer the question "Do I need Alcoholics Anonymous?"
What is an 'open' meeting?
An open meeting of A.A. is a group meeting that any member of the community, alcoholic or nonalcoholic, may attend. The only obligation is that of not disclosing the names of A.A. members outside the meeting.
A typical open meeting will usually have a "leader" and other speakers. The leader opens and closes the meeting and introduces each speaker. With rare exceptions, the speakers at an open meeting are A.A. members. Each, in turn, may review some individual drinking experiences that led to joining A.A. The speaker may also give his or her interpretation of the recovery program and suggest what sobriety has meant personally. All views expressed are purely personal, since all members of A.A. speak only for themselves.
Most open meetings conclude with a social period during which coffee, soft drinks, and cakes or cookies are served.
What is a 'closed' meeting?
A closed meeting is limited to members of the local A.A. group, or visiting members from other groups. The purpose of the closed meeting is to give members an opportunity to discuss particular phases of their alcoholic problem that can be understood best only by other alcoholics.
These meetings are usually conducted with maximum informality, and all members are encouraged to participate in the discussions. The closed meetings are of particular value to the newcomer, since they provide an opportunity to ask questions that may trouble a beginner, and to get the benefit of "older" members' experience with the recovery program.
May I bring relatives or friends to an A.A. meeting?
In most places, anyone interested in A.A., whether a member or not, is welcome at open meetings of A.A. groups. * Newcomers, in particular, are invited to bring wives, husbands, or friends to these meetings, since their understanding of the recovery program may be an important factor in helping the alcoholic to achieve and maintain sobriety. Many wives and husbands attend as frequently as their spouses and take an active part in the social activities of the local group.
(It will be recalled that "closed" meetings are traditionally limited to alcoholics.)
* Consult the group for local custom.
How often do A.A. members have to attend meetings?
Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long a man's legs should be. The classic answer was: "Long enough to reach the ground."
A.A. members don't have to attend any set number of meetings in a given period. It is purely a matter of individual preference and need. Most members arrange to attend at least one meeting a week. They feel that is enough to satisfy their personal need for contact with the program through a local group. Others attend a meeting nearly every night, in areas where such opportunities are available. Still others may go for relatively long periods without meetings.
The friendly injunction "Keep coming to meetings," so frequently heard by the newcomer, is based on the experience of the great majority of A.A.s, who find that the quality of their sobriety suffers when they stay away from meetings for too long. Many know from experience that if they do not come to meetings, they may get drunk and that if they are regular in attendance, they seem to have no trouble staying sober.
Newcomers particularly seem to benefit from exposure to a relatively large number of meetings (or other A.A. contacts) during their first weeks and months in a group. By multiplying their opportunities to meet and hear other A.A.s whose drinking experience parallels their own, they seem to be able to strengthen their own understanding of the program and what it can give them.
Nearly all alcoholics, at one time or another, have tried to stay sober on their own. For most, the experience has not been particularly enjoyable — or successful. So long as attendance at meetings helps the alcoholic to maintain sobriety, and to have fun at the same time, it seems to be good sense to be guided by the experience of those who "keep coming to meetings."
* Consult the group for local custom.
Do A.A.s have to attend meetings for the rest of their lives?
Not necessarily, but — as one member has suggested — "Most of us want to, and some of us may need to."
Most alcoholics don't like to be told that they have to do anything for any extended period of time. At first glance, the prospect of having to attend A.A. meetings for all the years of the foreseeable future may seem a heavy load.
The answer, again, is that no one has to do anything in A.A. There is always a choice between doing and not doing a thing — including the crucial choice of whether or not to seek sobriety through A.A.
The primary reason an alcoholic has for attending meetings of an A.A. group is to get help in staying sober today — not tomorrow or next week or ten years from now. Today, the immediate present, is the only period in fife that the A.A. can do something about. A.A.s do not worry about tomorrow, or about "the rest of their lives." The important thing for them is to maintain their sobriety now. They will take care of the future when it arrives.
So the A.A. who wants to do everything possible to insure sobriety today will probably keep going to meetings. But attendance will always be on the basis of taking care of present sobriety. As long as the approach to A.A. is on this basis, no activity, including attendance at meetings, can ever resemble a long-term obligation.
How will I be able to find the time for A.A. meetings, work with other alcoholics,
and other A.A. activities?
During our drinking days, most of us somehow managed to minimize the importance of time when there was alcohol to be consumed. Yet the newcomer to A.A. is occasionally dismayed to learn that sobriety will make some demands on time, too. If the beginner is a typical alcoholic, there will be an urge to make up "lost time" in a hurry — to work diligently at a job, to indulge in the pleasures of a home life too long neglected, to devote time to church or civic affairs. What else is sobriety for, the new member may ask, but to lead a full, normal life, great chunks of it at a time?
A.A., however, is not something that can be taken like a pill. The experience of those who have been successful in the recovery program is worth considering. Almost without exception, the men and women who find their sobriety most satisfying are those who attend meetings regularly, never hesitate to work with other alcoholics seeking help, and take more than a casual interest in the other activities of their groups. They are men and women who recall realistically and honestly the aimless hours spent in bars, the days lost from work, the decreased efficiency, and the remorse that accompanied hangovers on the morning after.
Balanced against such memories as these, the few hours spent in underwriting and strengthening their sobriety add up to a small price indeed.
Can newcomers join A.A. outside their own community?
This question is sometimes raised by persons who seem to have perfectly valid reasons for not wanting to risk identification as alcoholics by any of their neighbors. They may, for example, have employers who are totally unfamiliar with the A.A. program and potentially hostile to anyone who admits the existence of a drinking problem. They may wish desperately to be associated with A.A. as a means of gaining and maintaining sobriety. But they may hesitate to turn to a group in their own community.
The answer to the question is that a person is free to join an A.A. group anywhere he or she may choose. Obviously, it is more convenient to join the nearest group. It may also be the most straightforward approach to the individual's problem. The person who turns to A.A. for help is usually, but not always, pretty well identified as a drunk. Inevitably, the good news of this person's sobriety is bound to spread, too. Few employers or neighbors are likely to resent the source of their worker's or friend's continued sobriety, whether it centers in a local A.A. group or one located fifty miles away.
Few people these days are fired from their jobs or ostracized socially because they are sober. If the experience of many thousands of A.A.s is a reliable guide, the best approach for the newcomer is to seek help in the nearest group before beginning to worry about the reactions of others.
If I come into A.A., won't I miss a lot of friends and a lot of fun?
The best answer to this is the experience of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have already come into A.A. In general, their attitude is that they did not enjoy real friendships or real fun until they joined A.A. Their point of view on both has changed.
Many alcoholics discover that their best friends are delighted to see them face up to the fact that they cannot handle alcohol. No one wants to see a friend continue to hurt.
Naturally, it is important to distinguish between friendships and casual barroom acquaintanceships. The alcoholic is likely to have many acquaintances whose conviviality may be missed for a while. But their place will be taken by the hundreds of A.A.s the newcomer will meet - men and women who offer understanding acceptance, and help in sustaining sobriety at all times.
Few members of A.A. would trade the fun that comes with sobriety for what seemed to be fun while they were drinking.
This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature.
The following excerpts are from the A.A. Pamphlet "44 Questions":
Reprinted from the A.A. Pamphlet "44 Questions" with permission of A.A. World Services, Inc.