Beginner’s Guide to AA

Big Book Thumping

When I got sober, I was a mess. I had no idea if I was coming or going or what was happening in between. I had no idea about the Big Book, meeting, or steps. I didn’t understand the role of the “chair” versus the “lead.” I didn’t understand what crosstalk was or why some people could talk about drugs but others couldn’t.

Early sobriety is hard enough without the additional confusion of whether one is following the rules or lingo of AA. I know what it feels like to be vulnerable only to have some “Old Timer” reprimand me for doing it wrong. Because of this, I tend to ask the new woman if she has any questions about the details of AA that I might be able to answer. I am not talking about the big questions: how do I make contact with my higher power or what is the meaning of life. Jeeze, no. There are other people more qualified for that sort of thing. I just wanna make sure they know the difference between a closed and an open meeting.

Big Book and Twelve and Twelve: The Big Book, whose proper name is actually Alcoholics Anonymous, is the basic text of AA. It was published in 1939 when AA was approximately four years old. The book is general divided into two sections: the first 164 pages and the stories. The first 164 pages contain the specifics of AA. In a relatively short amount of pages, Bill W. addresses the disease concept of addiction, spirituality, and identification. The Big Book explains the Twelve Steps as well as instructions on how to “work” them.

The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is an addendum that Bill W. and AA published in 1953 after the Traditions of AA were approved at the first AA World Convention. The Twelve and Twelve feels different that the Big Book. When it comes to the steps, the Twelve and Twelve is less instructional than the Big Book. Instead, it focuses on the spiritual principles that make up each one of the steps. The second half of the Twelve and Twelve addresses each one of the Twelve Traditions that guide AA as an organization.

Sponsors: One of the main focuses of AA is sponsorship. Most of us have a sponsor or a spiritual advisor. While some AAs say that the only role of a sponsor is to walk one through the steps, there are as many different ways of sponsorship as there are sponsors. Some are strict; some are aloof. Some will only work through steps; some will be friends. I think everyone would agree though, look for someone who has what you want, and then do what he or she does.

Meetings: There are open meetings and closed meetings, discussion meetings and speaker meetings, and book studies. Open meetings are open to anyone interested in learning more about AA. There may be nurses and doctors or family members present. Closed meetings are for alcoholics only. The purpose is to ensure anonymity. We ask that the public respect the open/closed format. Thank you.

Discussion meetings generally have a “chair” and a “lead.” The chair runs the meeting (announcements, preamble, etc) while the lead chooses the topic for discussion. Different meetings have different vibes so you will want to choose one that feels right for you. Some leads open the meeting to volunteers to share on the topic; others like to call on people. When we speak, we usually start by saying, “My name is Ann, and I am an alcoholic.” If you are not ready to self-identify as an alcoholic, you do not have to. Just state your name. If you do not want to share, just simply say you’d like to listen. The leader will call on someone else. And don’t worry of you stray off topic when you share. We all do.

Speaker Meetings generally have one speaker who speaks for the length of the meeting on how they came to get sober.

Book studies start at the beginning of the Big Book or the Twelve and Twelve and work their way through. One person will usually read a paragraph or two and then comment on that section. Step studies do the same thing. They start on step one and work their way through. These meetings can really support one’s sobriety. It is interesting to hear how others read the books/ work the steps. If you are uncomfortable joining in the middle, just ask the chair. They usually have a feel for how long it takes a certain group to get back around to the beginning.

Crosstalk: When people share in a meeting, their share ends when they finish talking. What they spoke of is not be acknowledge, praised, or countered. Advice should never be given across shares. AAs should not speak across the room at each other.

Talking about Drugs: AA has a singleness of purpose. Therefore, AA meetings focus solely around alcohol and alcohol related problems. This keeps meetings from meandering towards smoking, gambling, or food, but this also means some meetings would rather people not talk about drugs. If you are want to speak about drug addiction, you may wish to find a more liberal meeting. Also, CA (Cocaine Anonymous) is very clear that they are not drug specific. Anyone is welcome, alcoholic and drug addict alike.

Birthdays: At the end of meetings, AA celebrates “milestones” in recovery. 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, etc. Then the chair will ask if anyone has a birthday. This is not one’s birthday, birthday. It is his/her sobriety birthday; people who have been sober for a year or longer.

AA is an amazingly complex culture, with its very own set of rules and vocabulary. I’ve shared this story before, but I will do it again. When I was newly sober, I remember a meeting where a young woman shared about, “Growing up in public.” I did not know what she was talking about, but I figured she was a child star. I spent the remainder of the meeting trying to figure out what TV show she was on. Then, just last week, I egregiously crosstalked (more like cross yelled) at a friend of mine. When he said, “I don’t have to be right…,” as part of his share, I blurted out, “Yes, you do!” before I could stop myself. Luckily he was a good sport. My point is we all make asses of ourselves sometimes. It’s a learning curve. If you don’t know, ask. One of us will be more than happy to fill you in. See you at a meeting soon!
If you have a funny story you’d like to share regarding an AA misunderstanding, please share below. We could all use a laugh on a Monday morning.

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