What are your thoughts about addicts in AA instead of NA?

There is absolutely no reason why addicts shouldn’t attend AA meetings.  However, AA has traditions that are important to the fellowship and to many of the members.  One of those is that they generally confine their discussions to alcoholism and recovery from alcoholism.

Disregarding the fact that alcoholism is an addiction like any other, and disregarding the “a drug is a drug is a drug” of NA, keeping drugs out of the conversation is the custom at the majority of AA meetings.  Everyone attending — cross-addicted people like me, and people not addicted to alcohol at all — should follow that custom in most cases.  It’s simply good manners.

There are, however, situations where a person is in crisis, and simply needs a meeting of whatever kind.  In that case it is perfectly proper — hell, it’s a life-threatening emergency — to say whatever we need to say in order to get whatever kind of support we need.  What I would do in that situation is simple.  I’d raise my hand and say “I’m not an alcoholic, but I really, really need help because I’m about to use.  Will someone come outside and talk to me about it?”  I would probably be invited to stay and say what I need to say, and if not I’d have a horde of people headed for the door with me.

Really, the substance has nothing to do with it.  What matters are the emotions, the behaviors and the solutions.  Those are the same for all addictions, and anyone should be able to talk about them in any meeting without ever mentioning alcohol or any other drug.

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.

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.

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

No Holiday Secrets

Relapse is a symptom of addiction, just as much as the craving, obsession and withdrawal.  Most addicts relapse one or more times.  That isn't to imply that it's a good idea, but it is a fact.  (This may seem like an odd subject for Thanksgiving Day, but bear with me here.)

Holidays provide two things that are dangerous for addicts: plenty of different kinds of stress, and ample opportunities both to think about using and to actually do so.  Some of us are going to start some additional research over the next day or so.  Some of us have already started.  Those who do will discover that it's not working any better this time than it did before.  Most will find that things are even worse.  Some will die.  Some will make it back into the rooms of recovery.

It is vital that those who make it back share about it — at meetings, after the meeting, and especially with their sponsors.  (If you don't have a sponsor, perhaps you might take your relapse as a sign that you need one, eh?)  There's a saying that we're as sick as our secrets.  It's true.  Secrets lead to lies, and they lead to more secrets, and the first thing we know we're so tangled up and emotionally exhausted that a drink or other drug seems like the only way out.  Once again.

So no holiday secrets.  They lead to the wrong sorts of celebrations for us — and sometimes for our survivors.

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 5

This is the sixth 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 other 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 5 reads, “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

In recovery, we say that we’re as sick as our secrets. Each of us has things in our past that we believed that we could never tell another person. They are almost always related to shame.

Shame is not the same thing as guilt. Guilt is the knowledge that I have done a bad thing. Shame is the belief that I am a bad person. See the difference? “It was bad,” versus “I am bad.” That’s a huge difference! We can put guilt behind us with relative ease by making up for our actions in some way, but shame becomes a part of us.

If we’re cleaning the kitchen, we can take the garbage out to the dumpster or we can dump it in the closet. If we do that, eventually it will start to seep out under the door, and it will become impossible to enter the kitchen, let alone the closet. To get our kitchen in order, we must first clean out that closet — a job no one wants, but one that is essential. Recovery — the rest of our lives — is like that kitchen, and Step 5 is the primary tool for cleaning all that garbage out of the closet. It is probably safe to say that complete recovery is impossible unless we free ourselves of that burden, and the only way is to tell another person about it.

The power of confession has been known for many centuries. For a couple of millennia it was one of the mainstays of Christianity, and it still is in some parts of the church. Our modern version is therapy, and sometimes we do need to talk to professionals about these things, but it is amazing how much of the burden can be lifted by the simple act of telling our secrets.

By telling them to another addict, we can be sure that we’re not divulging anything that’s likely to be new to them, shock them, or make them think less of us. We all have those closets, and we all had to take out the trash. We all understand that we were good people who did bad things, not the other way around. When we share with others, we rob the secrets of their power over us.

Obviously, in order to do this we need someone we can trust. Some use a sponsor. Some use a person in the fellowship with whom they feel especially comfortable, but have no close ties. Some do use clergy. As far as the “admitted to God” part goes, that’s a matter of personal belief. If we are religious, we might want to offer up the experience to our higher power as a kind of prayer for forgiveness. If our personal philosophy doesn’t run that way, the process will still work.

The principle behind Step 5 is Integrity: honesty with ourselves, with others, and willingness to practice it even when we’d rather not — doing the next right thing, regardless of our fears. It’s scary. Along with Step 4, the Step 5 was a hard mountain to climb for all of us. But once over it — as every recovering person will tell you — the rest of the road is pretty much downhill.

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 3

This is the fourth 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 other 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.

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Step three has been the source of a great deal of controversy over the years.  It seems to be the reason for most objections to the 12 step programs, as well as the cause of most claims that they (especially AA) are religious cults.  Let’s deal with the cult issue first.

The overriding issue in defining a cult is harm: is it harmful or helpful to its followers?  All cults have three things in common:

  • Material and/or social gain on the part of an individual or individuals, with an essential disregard of the effects on the rank-and-file.  
  • Coercion of followers to remain in the group.
  • Isolation of members from the rest of society in various ways.  

There are others, but these three things are common to all cults.  The twelve step groups fail to meet any of the above criteria.

  • There is no material gain. Members can donate a dollar or two to help defray expenses such as rent, if they wish — or they can attend for months without contributing a penny.  
  • There is no social gain for leaders, because there are no real leaders.  “Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.”
  • Although some few people might argue otherwise, it is difficult to sustain any real suggestion that the fellowships do not help members.  Certainly it would be hard to support an assertion that they do them harm.  Obviously, for many, they do a great deal of good.
  • There is no coercion or isolation of members.  The general attitude among groups is that you are welcome, but that if you want to leave and try something else, or go back to your drug or activity of choice, then you are perfectly free to do so.  That is not to say that no one will attempt to talk you out of it, but that is the extent of any effort to prevent your leaving.
  • Finally, the entire purpose of the 12 step approach is to help people remain abstinent, deal with their issues, and return to a normal life.  Although there may be suggestions that a member limit contact with some people and situations in the beginning, in order to avoid temptation and stress, the ultimate purpose is to help them become productive members of society.  

The principle behind the Third Step is Faith.  If we do not believe that our course of action is in our best interest, we are unlikely to sustain it long enough to gain from our efforts.  When the steps were formalized, the expression “care of God as we understood Him” was an easily-understood way of expressing the need for faith.  In the 70-odd years since, it has become socially acceptable to think of religion in a variety of ways that were not common — or were left unspoken — in 1939.  

Religious people today adhere to the literal meaning of the words, but others choose to think of them as simply an expression of the need for faith in the process in order for it to have much chance of succeeding.  Many, this writer among them, have succeeded in remaining sober without faith in the religious sense.  

However, belief that we cannot do it alone (Step Two), and faith in the process of “working” the steps are essential.  Those who remain around the groups long enough will witness change in other members, and themselves.   They will grasp that the program works when people are serious about it.  Such direct, personal observation should be all the proof that anyone needs, if they are open-minded and willing to change.