It was getting dark and I didn’t have anything else to do that Friday night.
So I decided to go to an AA meeting.
A “traditional” meeting.
As I wended my way down the street, looking left to right, I finally saw a crowd of about a dozen people smoking cigarettes and chatting away. “I found the meeting,” I thought to myself.
Sure enough, there was the church. The Ryerson United Church.
So I made my way through the side door and into the basement, shaking hands with people I had never met as I went down the stairs and into the meeting room. Towards the back of the room there was a table with some Styrofoam cups and a coffee machine. I poured myself a cup.
The coffee was awful.
There were about fifty or sixty chairs aimed towards a podium at the front of the room, so I picked a chair in the last row. People started filing in, chatting and shaking hands with each other. A fellow sat down beside me, introduced himself and asked, “This your first meeting?”
“Here, yes,” I answered.
“Keep coming back,” he said, and gave me a pat on the shoulder.
At the front of the room on the left of the podium was a huge and very old placard with the 12 Steps. I gave them a look. The word “God”, “Him” or “Power” (with a capital “P”) were in six of the twelve Steps, underlined in red.
I whispered to myself, “Amen”.
On the right of the podium was another placard, this one with the 12 Traditions.
On top of a piano to the left were five cardboard signs with slogans: “Think, think, think”, “First things first”, “Live and let live”, “Easy does it” and “But for the grace of God”.
Just to the right of the podium was a little table. In the middle of it were two pictures, one of Dr. Bob and the other one of Bill Wilson. To the right of the pictures was a copy of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. It looked like it might be a first edition, published in 1939.
Along the wall on the right was a table with a bunch of pamphlets on it and a few books. There were more recently published copies of Alcoholics Anonymous and several copies of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
Looking around now, still gagging on the coffee, I could see that there were about fifty people in the room. Mostly men, of course, but there were some women. The vast majority of those in the room were older than me, and I have been collecting my pension for a few years now. For a moment I felt young like a kid, and then I came back to my senses. It’s only in a traditional AA meeting that I get to be one of the younger people in attendance.
Bang. bang. bang.
The chair started the meeting. “My name is Linda and I am an alcoholic.” “Hi Linda,” people shouted back at her. “We will start with a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.”
A moment of silence.
God. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
“Today I have asked Gerry to read ‘How It Works’.”
Gerry gets up slowly from the back of the room and lumbers to the podium. Finally, he gets there and looks at his audience. “My name is Gerry and I am an alcoholic.” “Hi Gerry,” people shouted back at him.
He tweaks the microphone. And tweaks it some more.
Some excerpts from “How It Works”:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves…
Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now!
Somewhere around here Linda comes back to the podium and says, “I have asked Dianne to read the 12 Steps”.
Dianne arrived at the meeting in a wheelchair and with some help makes it to the front of the room. With a shaking voice, she says “My name is Dianne and I am an alcoholic”. “Hi Dianne,” people shout back at her.
She reads the 12 Steps. The same 12 Steps as on the placard. With the word “God”, “Him” or “Power” in six of the twelve Steps.
When she was done, I again whispered to myself, “Amen”. But someone to my left heard me and looked at me and smiled, knowingly. I decided not to do that again.
Gerry rumbled back to the podium to finish reading “How It Works”. I heard something about some stuff becoming clear. Apparently, we could not “manage our own lives”. Moreover we were to discover “that no human power could have relieved our alcoholism”. And then, in a loud voice, Gerry finished the reading and everyone in the room joined in:
God could and would if He were sought.
I sat there for a moment, in silence, and looked around once more at the people in the room. Everyone seemed at ease, comfortable, in the right place.
Linda came back to the podium and called upon Danny to tell us about what a few of the slogans meant to him. As it turned out, Danny was younger than me and pretty much ran to the front. “Hi. My name is Danny and I am an alcoholic.” “Hi Danny,” people shouted back at him.
Danny explained two slogans. For him, “First things first” was about “my recovery and working with my sponsor and working with my Steps”. And “But for the grace of God” Danny wouldn’t “get to be here and be sober and live my life”.
At that point in the meeting I needed a break. But I wasn’t going to get one. So I got up and went back and got another cup of coffee.
I sipped it and shuddered.
Linda came back and introduced the speaker, Gary. “My name is Gary and I am an alcoholic.” “Hi Gary,” people shouted back at him.
Gary then spoke for 45 minutes. It was his version of the classic “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now”.
I won’t go into details, except that after 38 years of sobriety, all of them in the fellowship of AA, Gary had reached a conclusion. He had come to understand why he was an alcoholic: “I am an alcoholic because I am an alcoholic”, he said.
Gary finished his talk by sharing his commitment to his home group and his work for it.
He got a round of applause as Linda thanked him. I got up and headed towards the door. I dodged a few people on the way and once out of the room I turned around to watch.
Linda announced that the meeting would end with the Lord’s Prayer. People stood up and reached out to one another, everybody holding hands.
“Who’s in charge?” Linda asked.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The meeting was over. It got noisy in the room, with people suddenly chatting with each other. A few of the men starting collecting the chairs and piling them at the back of the room. Others were taking the coffee machine and cups back into the kitchen. The placards were coming down and the pamphlets on the literature table packed into a cardboard box.
I climbed up the stairs and out of the church basement onto the street. Already there were a few people outside sucking on cigarettes.
And I went home.
Not long after I got there, the phone rang.
It was my friend, Denis. He has some 40 years of sobriety and has played a vital role in starting agnostic AA meetings in Vancouver.
“What have you been up to?” he asked.
“I went to an AA meeting, I said, “a traditional meeting.”
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Guess,” I said.
“Same old, same old?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right”, I replied. “It was pretty clichéd, for sure. Growth and change and keeping pace with the times are not a part of traditional AA. I swear it could have been a meeting in 1940. Well one in New York at Bill’s place, anyway. In Akron, they would probably have forced me to kneel down for the Lord’s Prayer.”
“Ha ha,” Denis said.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m genuinely happy for those people at the meeting,” I continued. “But it had such an ‘insider’ feel to it. You had to know the language to feel a part of it, to feel that you belonged. They don’t understand how effectively they are cutting – and driving – other people out of the rooms of AA. I can only imagine how an outsider – a newcomer – would react to the religion and the platitudes. If it had been my first meeting I would have had little choice but to head back out the door.”
“What I don’t understand is why they don’t understand that,” I concluded.
“Thank goodness for our agnostic meetings,” Denis said.
“Amen,” I replied. A religious day, as it had turned out. And not the least bit spiritual.
About the Author
Roger C. is a member of Beyond Belief, the first agnostic AA group in Canada. In 2011 the group was booted off of the official AA meeting list by the local Intergroup. Roger was part of starting the website AA Toronto Agnostics which eventually became AA Agnostica. He has managed that site for the past four years and four months, posting on a regular weekly schedule 300 articles written by atheists and agnostics in AA from all over the world. That seriously cut into Roger’s time for his two favourite sports: golf in the summer and squash in the winter.
He looks forward to the day when AA drops its antiquated religiosity and becomes a true refuge for all those suffering from alcoholism. He also hopes to see the next WAAFT convention in 2018 held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, one of the proud centres of the secular AA universe.