A common refrain among people who have decided Alcoholics Anonymous is not for them is that they went to a meeting and just weren’t into it. Maybe they went to two, but couldn’t take all the complaining, didn’t like the atmosphere, didn’t connect with anything they heard. Even Gabrielle Glaser, who wrote an article in The Atlantic and most of a book debunking the fellowship, told Jezebel that she drew many of her conclusions after attending “about 10 meetings.”
The trouble with cursory appraisals is that AA is not a monolith. Rather, it is extraordinarily diverse—atmospheres, demographics, structures and rules vary wildly among about 60,000 different meetings across the US, bound only loosely by common traditions and the shared purpose of helping people to quit drinking. Any assessment of the program, however critical, ought to acknowledge this.
One pervasive stereotype of AA is that meetings are intense places where attendees will be forced to work the program to the letter and follow rigid rules, such as going off all their psychiatric medications, or calling their sponsor daily. Such meetings do exist.
“I have seen groups use rigidity and rules and order to be really shitty,” says Tamara, a 39-year-old AA member from New Hampshire. Certain sects of AA are well known for their intensity, including the Big Book Step Study meetings held throughout New England.
“Big Book Step Study is so divisive a topic that people get into serious fights about it,” Tamara says. While BBSS aims to be about working the program as it’s laid out in the Big Book, which is what Tamara says she has done, the meetings can foster a culture that is anything but easy-going.
“Around here, there are BBSS people who shit all over ‘open’ AA and are very condescending about it,” Tamara continues. “That kind of rigidity about newcomers, sharing at meetings, procedures, does not agree with me because I think it’s divisive, when what our community really needs, and is fundamentally about, is inclusion.” She believes that AA should make newly sober members feel “a part of” in a way that fosters self-esteem.
The more rigid AA meetings may not close their doors to chronic relapsers, exactly, but they also might not take kindly to everyone who falls off the wagon. They might see it as an indication that someone is failing to put in the effort to work the program to its fullest potential.
In New York City, the Atlantic Group (like its older West Coast counterpart, the Pacific Group) is known for a particularly extreme culture. Supposedly based on the program exactly as it’s designed in the Big Book, it is often thought of as cult-like, even by other AA members. Its characteristics range from requiring suits and ties at meetings, to deriding “AA lite,” and alleged bullying.
Dee, 54, has been in AA in New York City since 1988. She attended the Atlantic Group early in her sobriety, but “found it too extreme.” She says that the group encourages people to stop taking prescribed psychiatric medications, and that its rules are punitive.
“You have to call your sponsor every day for 90 days,” she says. “If you miss a day, they make you start over.” She also recalls signing up as a speaker at an Atlantic Group meeting. Following her share, a member of the group reprimanded her for mentioning drug use (as opposed to alcohol), even though drugs are part of Dee’s story.
But practices like this, while off-putting for many, should never be taken to represent AA as a whole. At the other end of the spectrum are laid-back meetings that require nothing from people who attend—and these meetings are far more common than the restrictive ones.
AA’s program doesn’t actually require that members do anything—the literature says that everything about the program is simply “a suggestion.” In many meetings, you can keep relapsing as often as you need to, and the members will accept you back with open arms, simply telling you to “keep coming,” without judgment. AA “liberals” like these will end the meeting with the time-honored suggestion that you “take what you need and leave the rest.”
Having been an active member in groups at both extremes of this fundamentalist-liberal spectrum, Tamara feels that people may need different things at different points in their sobriety. It’s also true that what works for some people will not work for all.
The diversity doesn’t stop there. A glance at a Boston-area meeting list, for example, shows at least 14 types of meeting formats, including “open” (meaning anyone can attend), “closed” (only people who identify as AA members can attend), “speaker discussion” (someone shares their experience at length, then the floor opens to others), and “Big Book discussion” (a passage of Alcoholics Anonymous is read, then attendees reflect on the reading).
Size is another factor. One meeting might hold 300 people in a high school gym: Speakers come in from other groups to share their experience, and afterwards, everyone mingles and drinks coffee—it often feels more like a hangout with friends. Meetings held at a community center or school mean that people who are put off by the thought of entering a religious institution don’t have to.
Another meeting might take place in a small church basement, with about 15 attendees crammed onto couches: People take turns reading passages from program literature, then open up with personal shares and emotional reflections—it feels like group therapy, but with family.
Then there are demographic specializations—women’s meetings, men’s meetings, young people’s meetings, and LGBTQ meetings. In some cities there are meetings for veterans, for example, or atheists. When all the variations are considered, what this means is that every single meeting has a distinct culture of its own.
But you’ll never truly be able to know what a meeting is like from simply looking up the listing. The only way to get a feel for its culture is by experiencing it for yourself. Dee says that when she first came into the program, she was advised to attend six different meetings before deciding whether or not AA was for her. She says that this “meeting-hopping” helped her find what worked for her.
It also helps people to find what doesn’t work. Brian, a 43-year-old AA member from Massachusetts, had a bad experience at one of the first meetings he attended, where he was shunned from sitting in a particular seat at one of the tables. “If I had allowed that one meeting and one experience to define AA for me, I never would have found the amazing meetings I go to now,” he says.
Some people prefer large meetings for the fellowship aspect, as it allows them to meet a lot of people and, usually, get a service job in the group—making coffee, handing out sobriety chips to people who reach milestones, greeting people when they arrive—which is recommended by the program to give members accountability and a sense of belonging. Others prefer more intimate spaces, where they feel safer to disclose things.
Madeline, 35, from Rhode Island says that the pace and sense of nurturing she’s found in women’s AA meetings make her feel more comfortable than larger, co-ed spaces. “I can see role models there, the sober women of dignity I aspire to live like,” she says. “I can safely share and hear stories I identify with.”
Kelly, a 30-year-old AA member from Florida found that women’s meetings with a Big Book focus felt best for her. “I tried a few other meetings when I first started to go to AA,” she says. “One was a discussion and I didn’t really like it because it was just everyone talking about their problems; I can relate much more to literature-based stuff.” Many newcomers, on the other hand, find discussion meetings helpful as a way to identify with other people who are struggling.
Madeline also finds a sense of community and identity in the LGBTQ meeting she attends, in which she feels she hears another part of her story, which she identifies as “the otherness, the club culture, the expectations that your life will be a mess.” She says, “I identify and work towards healing with others who are working on the same things and have time to show me the program works.” Brian has similarly found gay meetings in Massachusetts to be a safe haven, where he can find people who share many aspects of his story.
Courtney, 31, has found her home in “young people’s AA” (meetings for people who have gotten sober at a young age, rather than people who are necessarily young now—though many members are). She says that she tried out “adult AA” for a year, but ultimately went back to her home group in the heart of Cambridge, Mass. because “there’s so much raw emotion there and it’s an amazing reminder of what it’s like to get sober.
“It reminds me that I don’t ever want to have to get sober again,” Courtney continues. “I’ve already been through early sobriety; I don’t have to go back to it.” She also appreciates that many of the people at her home group are in halfway houses or sober houses, or come in off the streets when it’s cold. “It can be known as a ‘crazy’ meeting,” she says, “but I’ve found that allows me to be helpful to people who are looking for a solution.”
Meeting diversity is of course a lot greater in big cities. In small towns, there are far fewer options. Brian, who spent time attending meetings in rural New Hampshire, says that he found this difficult, and that seeing the same people at each meeting felt “boring.” Still, he laughs that it’s ironic that he found the lack of diversity a turnoff, since he currently tends to gravitate towards meetings where “everyone is a lot like me.” This makes him think that he should try branching out a little more.
The fellowship is this diverse by design. In AA’s 12 Traditions, Tradition Four states: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” Every meeting has a “group conscience,” which allows members there to decide how things will be run—who it’s for, what the format is, what the rules are, and how strictly they should be observed.
Alcoholics Anonymous, for all its diversity, is not necessarily the right option for everyone with a drinking problem. But as these myriad experiences demonstrate, portraying AA meetings as one-size-fits-all is simply inaccurate.
“You have to shop around,” Kelly advises newcomers, “find an environment where you feel comfortable, where you can be yourself, and find a community that supports you in a loving and healthy way.”
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, feminist momma and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. You can follow her on Twitter: @britnidlc.