Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
I've come to recognize I can't stop this alone, and there is a meeting every week at night at a church very near where I live. What do I do? Just walk in, sit down and listen? Is once a week enough to realize results? I'm nervous and scared of what to expect, but my current level of drinking is unsustainable. If I get up the courage to go, what should I expect?
Dear Starting Out,
I want you to imagine that you've never been in a bar, and you asked me to describe for you what it will be like when you walk in your first bar. I'd be able to say that generally, all bars have certain things in common. There's the actual, physical bar, which you can usually sit at and also is the place to order drinks. There may be tables with chairs, and/or a dance floor. There will certainly be a bartender, maybe more than one. Possibly servers, maybe some security. There could be live music, or a dj, or an old school jukebox. The patrons might be a diverse group or very similar, friendly or flirty or mostly keeping to themselves. Having maybe been to a bar or two in your life (wink!) you can easily see how the answer to such a question is, strangely, both general and specific.
The broadest answer to your question is a lot like the answer to my hypothetical example above. That is, almost all meetings have a few things in common. You can usually expect that there will be a focus to the meeting -- meaning, it might be a speaker/discussion, or a book study of some kind, or a meeting which examines the 12 Steps in some way. There's usually a written format, often a speaker, generally a secretary who helps organize things and, while responsible for helping the meeting to function is not actually in charge in the traditional sense. You may find seats arranged in a circle, or classroom style. Generally in my experience, regardless of the kind of meeting or the city I've been in, people are usually pretty friendly, and someone will probably introduce themselves to you, and ask your name. If you tell them this is your first meeting -- and I encourage you to be as honest as possible right from the start -- someone may offer you a meeting directory, or the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (what is usually referred to as our "Big Book), and may introduce you to people. If the meeting has readings you might be asked to read one -- or you might not. None of this is done to make you uncomfortable, but is more a practice of trying to make you feel welcome and "a part of" the group.
Given that there is a mental component to alcoholism which is constantly trying to talk us out of getting help for our disease, sometimes AA members with good intentions can come on a little strong to new people, mostly due to their own experiences with the struggle to get sober. These extra-enthusiastic folks might seem a bit intense, but I assure you that it is only because they know too well how serious addiction is. Based on your email, Starting Out, I can tell you have a glimmer of understanding about that. Conversely, it is also true that when we're new some of us are a little hypersensitive, and it's not that people are coming on too strong, it's that we're tender and adrift without a drink in our hands. Either way I pray you give the people in the meeting a chance. It might seem strange, there could be lingo which feels alien or hokey to your ears. Some people might talk about God (and you do NOT need to believe in God to make a start in Alcoholics Anonymous. You can remain on the fence about God -- or choose not to believe -- for as long as it is right for you -- which might mean many years, or you may not be troubled by this element. AA only suggests you find a Power Greater than yourself -- eventually to many of us that is God, but it's okay if that's not where you are with it.)
People usually identify when they speak; they usually say "I'm so-and-so, and I'm an alcoholic" and it is a general custom for people to respond, "Hi so-and-so." The roots of this are from the need for people to be honest with themselves about their condition and also to be friendly and help people feel welcome. You are not required to do anything you don't want to do, but the more you participate the more you might get out of the experience -- so don't be thrown by this, and if you're asked to introduce yourself you can say out loud that you're an alcoholic (if that's what you believe) or just say your name, or say your name and say that you're just here to listen.
Can you get results from going to AA once a week?
Well, let me ask you, can you get results from going to the gym once a week?
I would suggest that once a week is a little light when it comes to treating alcoholism. I can absolutely tell you my experience is that I needed a good number of meetings for a good long while to help me stay sober. My dead sponsor -- he who's wise counsel I miss every single day -- used to sqint through his cigarette smoke, sip his espresso and say to me, "Did you drink every day?" and I would be forced to answer, "Pretty much. Yeah." Then he would nod and say, "Then what's your [expletive] problem about going to a meeting every day?" It would have taken a better man than I to balk at his dire glare and dry tone.
Now, Starting Out, I hope the above helps you feel like you know what to expect, and thus makes it a little easier to walk through the door, but the simplest answer to your email is this:
Yes, just walk in, sit down, and listen. No one can make you do anything, you can leave at any time. No one is judging you. Sure, they're people, with the attendant foibles of any group of people, but they are people gathered to share their experience in being drinkers like you, and to talk about how the solution AA offers is helping them stay sober -- and part of that solution is sharing it with other people, and they'll be more than happy toshare it with you if you let them.
There is a basket that is passed, but if you're short of cash no one will think anything of you not putting anything in. Most people have been there -- especially when they're new. You might get some phone numbers, so when you're afraid you're going to drink you can call someone and talk it through. Yes, this sounds appalling, to call a virtual stranger and ask for help about such a thing, but if you do you'll actually be helping them tremendously, since you'll help them get out of their head and be of service to you for a little bit -- and that is actually a life saving thing for most of us, self obsessed as we are.
AA is the best thing that ever happened to me, Starting Out, and I credit it with helping me become the man I am today -- and, for the most part, I'm pretty happy with the result. With the kind of drinking I used to do, and the things I used to do when loaded, or trying to get loaded, or trying to recover from getting loaded -- well, AA uses the word miracle a lot, and for the most part it feels pretty apt when I look at my life today.
Don't wait for the time you're not nervous or afraid -- that time might never come. Go anyway, despite the fear. I'm not sure of exactly what you'll find, but the one thing I can guarantee is that you will find people who truly understand.
Walk in, sit down and listen.
And despite having a terrible illness which will try every trick in the book from preventing you from doing so, you might just save your life.
Say a little prayer. "Help! Help! Help!" is good enough to probably get you through the door.
I'll say one for you too.