Twelve Steps

We Are Not Saints — Dysfunction In Recovery Groups

We encounter dysfunction in recovery groups, as we will in any organization of whatever purpose. Because this is sometimes used as an excuse not to participate, we’d like to discuss some of them here.

We need to remember, first of all, that people at AA, NA and other recovery-oriented meetings are not usually there because they are well. They are there to learn skills that will enable them to live without engaging in harmful behavior. The emphasis is on learn. Not everyone learns quickly; some resist, and don't learn much. Some may use their presence in the fellowship to convince themselves that they are okay, and that they have only one problem to address. Unfortunately, some of their “outside issues” have the potential to cause problems within the group.

There are people who may befriend newcomers in order to take advantage of their vulnerability in various ways. Some see the fellowships as a social club, and make no effort to change. (Those folks don’t usually last long.) There are people with control issues who keep running groups when they have many years in recovery, unwilling to pass the baton to younger leaders and support them while remaining out of the spotlight. There are those who are merely annoying — who share frequently and long, and repeat mostly the same things every time. Some folks love to quote the literature but share nothing personal, leaving us feeling preached at, rather than shared with. As the saying goes, “Some are sicker than others.”

I could go on, but that’s not really the point I want to make. My point is this: we gain from our recovery programs according to the effort we put into them, and part of that effort is taking a good look at others and deciding if we really want what they have. We need to look for people who seem as though they are living stable lives, and who behave as though they actually have something to offer besides flash and big talk.

If dysfunction in recovery meetings is really the reason we’re turned off, the remedy is simple: find another meeting. If there is no other meeting, we need to decide if we really want what the fellowship can give us. If so, we need to tuck it up and attend the the annoying meetings anyway, taking the good stuff away with us and leaving the b.s. in the parking lot.

Recovery is a life or death issue. Alcohol and other drugs kill people. If we don’t want to be part of that group, we need to work at becoming part of a different kind. Just as with any other collection of human beings, there will be jerks. But there will also be folks who are genuinely helpful, and — on extremely rare occasions — we may even run across a saint.

Beginners’, Gender-Specific and Specialty Meetings

There are a variety of 12-step meetings, in addition to those discussed previously, that are designed to meet the needs of specific populations and purposes.

Beginners’ (Newcomers’) Meetings

Typically held before “regular” 12-step meetings, and often of shorter duration, beginner’s meetings usually concentrate on the first three steps, or on other issues especially affecting beginners.  The effectiveness of these meetings is largely dependent upon the skills and attention brought to bear by the leader(s). Outside speakers are often brought in to talk about their early recovery or other more specific issues. On occasion, a panel of “old-timers” may be convened to answer the newcomers’ questions.

Beginners’ meetings are an excellent resource for newcomers, and are also a wonderful way to become acquainted with others in the group.

Gender-Specific Meetings

The subjects of mixed-gender sponsorship, “13th-Stepping”, newcomers in relationships and other issues of poorly-focused recovery are best left for another time. Suffice it to say that it has been found inadvisable to do too much gender mixing, especially in early recovery. People who don’t know how to have relationships with themselves  have no business in relationships involving lust, sex and whatever they imagine passes for “love.”

There are a number of axioms in NA and AA regarding separation of gender groups in recovery, perhaps best summed up in the popular one used by our women members, “Women will save your butt. Men will just pat it.”  For this and simple reasons of common issues and answers, we have men’s meetings, women’s meetings, gay meetings and trans-gender meetings. Obviously, in most cases, each is limited to people of that gender or gender preference.

“Specialty” 12-Step Meetings

There is a fairly broad range of meetings that need a bit of explanation. Although they generally fall into the category of “discussion” meetings, they have aspects that set them a bit apart.

As Bill Sees It meetings are similar in format to Big Book meetings, but are based on the book of the same name, a collection of Bill Wilson’s writings from various sources. This format lends itself to broad topics that are indexed in the back of the book.

Living Sober­ meetings are also based on a book of the same name. This paperback book, official AA literature, contains 30 short articles on various aspects of the sober life and how to deal with them. The format is generally the same as the other literature study meetings.

Grapevine meetings are based on the AA Grapevine, a monthly magazine published by AA The magazine contains a variety of articles and letters that make excellent topics for discussion, including at least three each issue that are intended to be used that way.

Old Timers’ meetings usually involve a panel of members with a good deal of sobriety under their belts. (No one has actually ever defined “old-timer” specifically. It’s generally accepted that if you have 20 years of continuous sobriety, you are one, and if you have 5 years you probably aren’t. Clearly, there’s a wide gray area.) In any case, these folks answer questions posed by members from the floor.

Askit Basket meetings are similar to Old-Timers’ meetings. Members write questions on pieces of paper, which are placed in a collection basket or someone’s hat. A panel of experienced members answers questions drawn at random, after which there is a general discussion. This format allows shy people to ask  questions anonymously, and is usually quite popular.

Meditation meetings, also called Eleventh Step Meetings, follow a variety of formats, generally centered on a reading or short discussion of a particular idea, and then guided or unguided meditation on the subject. Often there is a period of discussion after the meditation period, as well.

Business and Group Conscience Meetings

Business meetings are for discussing the everyday operation of the group: who will chair meetings, who will find speakers, who will be the General Services Representative, and so forth. Secretaries and Treasurers are elected at these meetings. The twelve-step groups do not have presidents, etc. “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”

Group conscience meetings are called when needed to resolve non-business issues. They are often held before or after business meetings in order to arrive at a consensus regarding a problem or potential problem that may have arisen within the group. This could, for example, involve whether or not to move the location of meetings, or how to deal with subjects such as discussing other drugs at AA meetings.

It is extremely important that we attend these meetings. They are the primary means by which we may let our ideas about our home groups affect their operation. If we do not attend group conscience and business meetings, we have no right to complain about the way our groups are being run.

Kinds of 12-Step Meetings — Open and Closed Meetings

I thought I’d do a few posts about the different kinds of 12-step meetings.  Many people in early recovery don’t seem to understand that there are a variety of meetings available to them, not just the ones they were introduced to in treatment or that they stumbled across on their own.  AA is particularly known for having women’s meetings, gay meetings, Big Book and Traditions meetings, and a number of others.  NA does too, and so do some of the other fellowships.

So, here’s my first effort:  Open and Closed Meetings

Open meetings:

In open meetings, anyone is welcome. You can bring your Aunt Minnie, your boss, your significant other, your cousin Hank who “might have a problem.” Anyone you like. Open meetings are most commonly discussion meetings, where someone proposes a topic and attendees take turns sharing about it. Others may be speaker meetings, where folks share their experience, strength and hope in a more formal and longer way. These speakers are usually — although not always — prearranged.

Sometimes the formats are combined into a speaker/discussion meeting. In these, a speaker, or leader, “qualifies” by telling his/her story, and then leads the meeting in discussion of a topic that the leader has picked.

Closed meetings:

The purpose of closed meetings is so that those suffering can share their issues without feeling judged by non-addicts.  They also discourage people who are just curious, and who have no real reason to be there.   Such people, having nothing to lose in the anonymity department themselves, might knowingly or unknowingly speak about something they heard.

Only alcoholics and addicts are welcome at closed meetings. In NA, alcoholics are welcome, since NA officially views alcohol as being a drug. It is customary, however, to identify yourself as an “addict,” or as an “addict and alcoholic.”

In AA, due to traditions that go back more than sixty years and that no one seems in any hurry to change (because they work), only alcoholics are welcome at closed meetings — along with those who have a desire to stop drinking.

Many other kinds of addicts have taken offense at this — usually because they have identified themselves as an addict and been told that the meeting is for alcoholics only. This is an embarrassing situation that arises from time to time. It is a matter of poor manners on the part of the person correcting the other, but we must remember that “some are sicker than others,” and that waiting until after the meeting to explain it politely is not within the capacity of some people.

If a person is an addict at a closed AA meeting, the simple way to deal with the issue is to say, “My name is (whomever), and I have a desire to stop drinking.” At first thought, this seems dishonest. But is it not a fact that addicts need to avoid all mood-altering substances, including alcohol? Do we not therefore — at least in spirit, and sufficient to the moment — have a desire to stop drinking, (or not \start drinking)? Or, we can just grit our teeth and say we’re alcoholics. What’s so bad about that? Bottom line, like it or not, it’s good manners to conform to this tradition. If we do not wish to do so, we may need to find another meeting.

For Me, New Years Resolutions Aren’t The Way To Roll

In a way, January 1st is just another day.  But people like milestones, and New Year's Day is a big one.  When this particular milestone comes along, we like to look back and see where we've come from.  Then often we try to plan for the coming year.  We make lists of all the things we're going to do, the things that we're going to change, and we make New Years resolutions that we're hoping we'll keep.

I don't like resolutions.   They set us up for failure.  If I resolve to stop using the “F word”, then don't, I've failed.  If I resolve to get going on the latest weight-loss program and it doesn't go well, then I've failed.  Get the idea?  Resolutions are like laws.  They’re black or white.  We break them or we don’t.  We addicts don’t need to set ourselves up for failure.  What we need to do is look at how we’re living our lives, and try to make improvements in the things that are already going on.  It’s easier and healthier to make small changes that move us in the direction of what we need to accomplish than to decide to make huge changes at which we have a good chance of failing.

What I can do is skip the super weight-loss program, which is basically designed to make someone money, and decide to improve my diet instead.  That beats the heck out of nothing but carrots for six weeks, and it’s something I can do and keep doing.  Maybe I can overcome my inertia and do some walking too, instead of riding everywhere, if my physical condition is up to it.  I can decide that when I catch myself dropping the F bomb I will apologize, out loud, to whomever I said it in front of.  After a while, I’ll start remembering not to say it to begin with, and I’m on my way.  If I’m having trouble sleeping, instead of giving up coffee I can decide to limit myself and not use caffeine products after about 3:00 PM. (Caffeine has a  6 hour half-life in the body, so by nine or ten I should be winding down.)

As the therapist John Bradshaw used to say, “180 degrees from wrong is still wrong.”  We’re still in the same rut.  We need to get out of the rut and onto a new path.  If we exercise moderation in the things we are doing, we’ll find these small changes begin to add up.  We’ll feel better about ourselves, we’ll see success that is much less likely to turn into failure, and since we haven’t stressed ourselves out, we’ll feel better physically, too.

We need to think, not in terms of “I won’t,” but rather of “I don’t.”  Think about the difference: “I don’t drink coffee after 4 in the afternoon,” versus “I won’t drink coffee.”  Which is easier to swallow?  Which gives us permission to be human, and make mistakes?

More importantly, which is easier to keep?  Just think about it.

Online Meetings And Forums Give Recovery A New Dimension

I’m fortunate enough to live in an area often referred to as the “Recovery Capitol of the World.” It’s hard to find a place in southeastern Palm Beach County that is more than five minutes away from some kind of 12-step meeting, and there are dozens — perhaps as many as a hundred — treatment and recovery facilities within 15 miles of where I sit, from medical detox like Sunrise, to primary treatment centers, to halfway and sober houses. There are at present 289 AA meetings a week — just AA — and that's not counting the North County area, where there are plenty more.  I’m not going to count up all the Narcotics Anonymous meetings (AA did theirs for me), but a quick look leads me to believe there are between 120 and 140 NA meetings per week around here.

And then we have the myriad other groups such as Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Pill Addicts Anonymous, Adult Children Of Alcoholics — we could increase the list practically ad infinitum. Sure, some big cities have more meetings, but the concentration of meetings, treatment and newly-recovering people here is unlike anyplace else I know of. Alcoholics and other drug addicts in this area have no excuse for not getting the support they need, if they want it.

Which makes it really easy to forget that this is not the case in most parts of the country, and certainly not in most of the world.

For many years, recovering people had to rely on letters back and forth to other AA or NA members, or to the World Services offices, if they were — for example — crew aboard ships, in the military overseas, or residents of rural areas far from meetings. Later on, listserves and other early forms of online communication became available, followed by email and the Web. Today we have dozens of online meetings, forums and similar sites where recovering folks can find support for any kind of addiction imaginable.

Often we old-timers tend to resist such changes in the recovering community. That’s akin to the attitude of “Cold turkey worked for me; why should these kids go to detox.” Times change. Resources become available, and people take advantage of them. Just because I’d prefer to attend a face-to-face meeting, that doesn’t mean that the digital natives aren’t able to get support elsewhere. Heck, I’m part of that system myself, come to think of it, both here at Sunrise and on my own sites.

Bill and Doctor Bob pioneered the use of the telephone in recovery, and opportunities to connect long-distance have since improved a hundredfold. Does that mean I think electronic meetings are as good as face-to-face? No. I still believe that human interaction works best at close range. Even Skype, as great as it is, can’t convey the feeling and compassion that comes from a look and a nod across a meeting room, or from a hug. But I do think that alcoholics and other addicts who fail to avail themselves of online connections with other recovering people are missing out on some of what present-day recovery has to offer.

Why not join an online forum, and maybe get involved in an online group? It’s convenient, and you might help someone who needs it — maybe even yourself.

Get started now:   or

Happy Birthday Bill Wilson!

Bill Wilson's 108th birthday anniversary is this week.  In this article from The Fix, Susan Cheever tells us a bit about the early years of AA's co-founder.

…Bill Wilson was born on Thanksgiving behind a bar. His father’s family owned an inn, the sprawling red-gabled Wilson House on the south side of the village green in East Dorset, Vermont, a small town where quarrying and polishing local marble was the only industry. (His father, Gilly Wilson, was a quarryman.) Raised in these humble circumstances, Bill Wilson grew up to pioneer a movement that has forever enriched our view of addiction.

Read more at The Fix

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 12

This is the twelfth in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend.  There are a variety of programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

Step 12 reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to (others), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

The principle behind Step 12 is service.


“What if they had a meeting, but nobody came?”

Some of us in recovery have had that experience. We arrive at a hall where a meeting was scheduled, only to find that the time or location has been changed and the building is dark. The 12 step fellowships have no leaders, just folks who volunteer to help, and people make mistakes. Stuff happens. It’s not uncommon to find others who showed up as well. Sometimes they are newcomers, or people who desperately need a meeting. The usual thing that happens in such situations is that everyone goes for coffee and an impromptu meeting takes place anyway — perhaps not as formal, but often even more satisfying.

This sort of thing is the essence of Step 12 — immediate willingness to support another addict who needs help. “Practice(ing) these principles in all our affairs” most definitely includes helping others who are suffering what we went through. If we aren’t willing to give back what we got from others, to “pay forward” our experience and our hope, then we probably haven’t picked up the program very well at all.

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There are many ways to practice Step 12, or “do twelfth step work,” as program folks often say. Early on, we do our part by simply showing up at meetings, as indicated above. Even newcomers can contribute that way. A person at their first meeting may be intimidated by (or may not even believe) some old guy who claims to be 20-plus years clean and sober, but they can certainly relate to someone with six weeks. Six weeks is something they can aspire to.

Newcomers practice Step 12 by setting up and taking down chairs when needed; by making coffee, and by helping close up after the meeting. They go for coffee or a snack afterward, with other members, and encourage that awkward first-timer to join in. Later they move on to more active service, by reading at meetings, chairing meetings, serving in group positions of responsibility and so forth. They carry the message to others by setting a good example, and eventually by sponsoring newcomers and helping them negotiate the steps the way they were helped.

It’s not much of a stretch — in fact, it isn’t difficult at all — to take the skills we have learned and apply them to our daily lives. In reality, recovery becomes part of our daily lives. We need to live in such a way as to reduce the likelihood of wanting to use alcohol or other drugs again, and the way to do that is to live the kind of life that allows us to feel good about ourselves. We have to return to society, because we can’t hide in meetings forever, and try to live productivly according to our abilities. In time, and with practice, we become habitually clean and sober. The good habits become second nature, just as the old ones were.

Back in the bad old days.