When I returned to a 12 Step recovery group four years ago, 30 years after walking into the fellowship’s rooms for the first time, both the program and I had changed. Phone meetings made up a large proportion of all fellowship meetings, affording me the opportunity for recovery in my new home, a state with no face to face meetings. Beyond that, the phone meetings offered other advantages – a special type of anonymity in which physical appearance is not a part of members’ sharing of their experience, strength, and hope; the program’s ability to offer more meetings due to the ease of arranging them; and the greater ease with which members can attend them, especially as they get older and less independent.
Together, these factors also led to a larger number of literature meetings, an opportunity I was not sure I welcomed, because of the quasi-religious nature of the writing. However, other aspects of the 12 Step philosophy appealed to me, especially the call for humility, consideration for others, and civility in facing life’s challenges.
The Traditions particularly attracted me at this time in my life, after spending most of the years in recovery studying the interaction of race, community, and government in 20th century America. On my return to a 12 Step fellowship, I was impressed by the ability of leaders to maintain control over meetings in a warm and flexible manner, something that I had rarely seen in non-fellowship meetings. I plunged deeper into the Traditions, reading the monthly essays Bill W. had published in the GRAPEVINE in 1948; his history of AA and of its philosophy in AA COMES OF AGE, and books written by historians and sociologists about AA’s organizational philosophy and structure.
In my naivete, I assumed that most members were as familiar with the Traditions as the Steps and that they appreciated the importance that Bill W. had accorded them in ensuring the survival of AA. I was aware that members varied greatly in their levels of education and time spent in reading, but assumed that the leaders had undertaken the task of member education sufficiently to instill in all members the same respect for Traditions that most members had for the Steps.
These assumptions were tested when several issues arose that led me to learn how to effect change. The first was fairly minor. I have a slight hearing problem (which I did not realize at the time). At a business meeting, I asked whether we could ask members who left phone numbers for outreach to spell their first names. I was told that this suggestion had been made in the past, and had been rejected because of the belief that it would have taken too much time from the sharing.
The second issue was broader. I rely on electronic versions of most fellowship books because they are easier to obtain, cheaper, and more portable than print books. They are also searchable and offer the opportunity to increase the font size and to listen to, as well as to read, them, a feature I have come to cherish. Unfortunately, many do not include page numbers, and when I attended literature meetings at which the page numbers of the readings were announced, I found myself missing the first part of the reading in searching for the start place. I decided to propose that the leaders of the literature meetings read the first words of the reading and wait 30 seconds so that members with e-versions of the books can find the place.
I believed that making this minor accommodation for owners of e-books would increase the proportion of those attending the meeting who read aloud and make the younger people entering the program feel more comfortable, as they were undoubtedly more likely to own e-readers. Aware of AA’s willingness to accommodate change by its decision to publish e-books (and to produce four editions of the BIG BOOK with changes in the stories), I assumed that the suggestion would be uncontroversial.
Instead, members were disturbed by the idea of changing the format as I had suggested, and argued, yet again, that it would take too much time from the reading and sharing. Many said that it was unnecessary because most members had print books, although I knew that there were others who owned e-books who expressed the same frustration as I in finding the starting place for the readings.
I began to discuss this with individual members and was surprised at the hostility it raised, even among my program friends. They argued that I acted as if I “was entitled” to special privileges, and they ignored the arguments about the costs and weight of print versions that accounted for my preference. They challenged the statistics I offered that increasing numbers of Americans were using e-books. When I mentioned the inconvenience and extra cost of having print books shipped to me, they said I should be attending AA meetings in any case to strengthen my program.
I shared my frustration with an old-timer who seemed open to new ideas, and she suggested I contact one of the Intergroup officers about bringing it up at the monthly Intergroup meeting. At this time, no information on the officers was available on the website, but she gave me the phone number of the Treasurer. Why the Treasurer? The President was experiencing family problems, and other officer positions had not been filled when terms ended. When I called the Treasurer, her first words to me were an angry, “Who told you to call me?” I explained my purpose in calling. She said I should prepare a proposal and submit it to the Intergroup for consideration at the monthly meeting, a suggestion I followed.
I devoted a great deal of time to prepare my proposal. I offered statistics on the growing number of Americans who used e-books and described their potential for increasing the numbers of members who owned copies of the authorized literature and participated in reading, often only a small proportion of those attending. I finished the proposal in time for the May Intergroup meeting. In April, the Intergroup announced that the next two monthly meetings would be devoted to question and answer sessions about the governance of the fellowship. Each member would be allowed 2 minutes to ask a single question, with no provision to increase the length of the meeting if more time was needed.
I used my two minutes at the May meeting to introduce my proposal, describing the problem of using e-books without page numbers. I was surprised when the Treasurer (who had said that I should draft the proposal) indicated that this problem had been studied in the past and that e-books were composed in a way that would make it impossible to identify any places in them. As such, the proposal was rejected, the only one of all of the questions that were asked at the meeting. I was allowed no time to describe the simple approach of reading a few words aloud.
I decided to try again at the June meeting, planned as the second of the Q & A sessions. However, when I arrived, the officers announced that the agenda had been changed, and the meeting was called solely to vote on a proposal to suspend the monthly Intergroup meetings for six months. The suspension was intended to allow the officers time to oversee a new committee to create a service manual that would define Intergroup policies. I was stunned, as this was the first notice of the change in the agenda, and I protested that more GSRs might have attended if they had been aware of the significance of the agenda. No time was permitted for GSRs to bring this back to their groups, or for discussion among members. My objections were overruled, and the motion passed easily, paving the way for the creation of a service manual with little or no involvement by members.
By this time, animosity began to tinge the communications between the Intergroup officers and me. In a talk with the Treasurer, she called me “paranoid” because I did not trust the Intergroup officers to do the right thing for the members. She also informed me that, several years earlier, she and the other Intergroup officers had been charged with creating the service manual, and that this duty must be fulfilled. I pointed out that the people who had charged them with it were in many cases no longer affected by it, as many had left the program. There had been no election of new officers in some time. Her dismissal of this argument demonstrated to me that most of the decision-making at the Intergroup level was arbitrary, influenced by the “entitlement” I saw in the officers’ actions and attitudes.
My own animosity was fueled by the negligence I saw in the Intergroup’s failure to update their printable schedule of meetings, and in their failure to create a registration procedure for new meetings. They had created a “dynamic” online schedule that was almost up to date, but that was difficult to print. Meanwhile, they had made no changes to the printable schedule, which I later learned was the one they recommended to newcomers.
I decided to create my own up to date schedule and to include in it several phone meetings that had chosen not to affiliate with the Intergroup, which were listed separately on the website. At my age, I found it easier to have all meetings on a single schedule, and I used the opportunity to include the duration of meetings, and to use color to differentiate qualification and literature meetings. Once I created it, I began to tell others of its availability and to offer to send them electronic and laminated 11” x 17” print copies at no cost, as my service to the program. I had joined a Facebook group created for the fellowship, and announced it there, to great enthusiasm.
Within a short time, the Facebook page administrators told me that the Intergroup officers had asked them to refuse to allow me to post the schedule. After I announced its availability during the Announcements section of a meeting, the President came on and said that my schedule was full of mistakes (an untruth) and should not be used.
I made an effort to bring up the Intergroup’s behavior at the business meetings, but members informed me that that was not the purpose of business meetings and that I should mind my own business. Many said that criticizing the Intergroup officers violated the unity promised in the First Tradition. Some said I was too crazed by withdrawal to be able to think straight. When I responded with rising anger to these allegations, they muted me.
At this point, I began to question my own behavior. Although I thought that the Intergroup was doing a disservice to its members, I worried about the tension created when I spoke at business meetings, and the effect on newcomers. I was aware of the literature’s prescription for members in such situations to leave and start their own groups.
The decision eventually was made for me when I received a letter from a lawyer working for the Intergroup threatening to sue me for defamation if I continued to criticize the Intergroup officers at the business meetings. Although I knew I could easily back up my criticisms, I could not afford the costs of defending myself.
At this point, I stopped attending Intergroup affiliated phone meetings, attending only those that were not affiliated. It was a difficult adjustment but became easier over time, and I continued to use my outreach calls to “talk program” in order to fight the addiction.
This period allowed me time to reflect on what I had been through and to talk with others to obtain perspective. In the next part of this essay, I will discuss some of these thoughts.
About the Author
Wendy P. is a retired historian of the modern U.S., whose work focuses on the dynamics of race and cities. She lives in Arkansas.