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Encountering Colleagues at AA Meetings.

29 October 2015

The meeting rooms are a haven for us alcoholics. A place free from judgement regardless of the worst things we’ve done. I know rapists and murderers and thieves. And I’ve done my share of horrible, unforgivable things. When you walk into an AA meeting, all that shit’s on the table. People might know, they might not. But what’s liberating is, it doesn’t matter if they do or they don’t. I can breathe easy without any fear of what I might reveal or how I might be seen. We’re all drunks. Drunks do terrible things. No one in the rooms has done anything I might not do if I were to drink again. We’re all the same.

Which is why it can be so disconcerting to meet someone in a room that you know from elsewhere. At first, when it happens (and it does happen), I generally feel disoriented. I think, “I know that person, I think, where from?” And it takes me a while to reintegrate lives I usually keep separate. There’s shock, panic, fear. I try not to betray any of that. I generally go say hi, and we talk about how we never thought we’d see each other here. Almost always I end up with a better friend or acquaintance than before.

There are two basic flavors of the occurrence for me now. The first is running into someone who also has longer term sobriety. In this case, there’s nothing to fear, and all is immediately well. The second is someone coming to the program newly, early in sobriety or not yet sober, who suddenly sees me and is astonished. This feels slightly more dangerous. Will they stay sober? What if they don’t? Do they understand anonymity? Will they behave appropriately outside work? etc.

Then I need to step back and relax. I need to remember what anonymity is for. I’ve been sober for nearly eight years. I keep my anonymity because I want to help the newcomer. I don’t really need to protect myself anymore. The harm that could come to me from revealing that I’ve been sober for as long as I have is minimal. My anonymity is to protect the new person. But demonstrating that I have kept my anonymity and have gone on to productive and effective participation in society, I show that newcomer that the end of their drinking doesn’t have to be the end of their life. And that they can regain their dignity without being publicly shamed for being an alcoholic.

I’ve had encounters of both types, and none has resulted in my being “outed” at work. Not even when one of the newcomers relapsed and never returned to the program (to my knowledge). He recognized that I was sober, that I wanted what was best for him, and he decided he couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t stay sober. But even though he returned to booze and crack, he never talked about me at work. And I never talked about him either. Nor would I.

But I also need to remember the other way round. When I was new, I ran into someone from work who had 20+ years of sobriety. I was shocked and terrified, because she was my boss’s personal assistant. It never occurred to me at the time that I was a far bigger risk to her than she was to me. When you’re new to sobriety and you run into work colleagues at meetings, you don’t need to worry. You just need to keep your mouth shut outside the meetings. They will too.

AA works because we all know that we are in the boat together. There’s nothing you’ve done I wouldn’t. There’s nothing that’s happened to me that might not happen to you. The pain and the shame and the fear is common to all of us, and that deflates its power. We walk together. Long is the way, and hard, that out of darkness leads up to light. But I know the way now. And when we meet in meetings, work colleagues or family or friends or foes, we are all just drunks, making our way from darkness to light.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    29 October 2015 13:28

    I have felt all the feelings and had all the reactions that you have. Unfortunately they are all amplified in my area by the fact that our closed meetings are no longer closed. You see our affiliation with the courts has reached a point where many closed meetings have parties (averaging over 50% of the attendees in any given meeting) that were sentenced there for a minimum of 18 months at up 7 times a week. Anonymity simply can not be guaranteed. So I don’t have to trust one random person every 4 years like or so like you did but rather 12-15 every night. As I am sure you realize the smaller the town the quicker word gets around. Many longer term members have left or have formed underground meetings to attempt to deal with the onslaught. If someone was there because they want to seek out sobriety and then find out that AA is not for them they would have the same attitude as your friend that left and you never heard from again. However, when they are there against their will and they see you as part of the enforcement of a penalty they become resentful at you and take that resent out in many ways. Not the least of which is your anonymity. Simply put more attendees that do not want to be there, the greater the opportunity for your anonymity to be violated.

    • 29 October 2015 13:31

      I concur. I do not like the courts sentencing offenders to AA. But I hold no authority over the courts. What I can do is refuse to recognize the court by not signing slips. And I don’t sign them.

    • 29 October 2015 13:33

      I also like the aspect of a closed meeting where you say: “If you’re not willing to call yourself an alcoholic, get the fuck out.” A closed meeting has every right to throw out a court-sentenced attendee if they are not seeking to give up alcohol.

  2. 29 October 2015 22:25

    “Long is the way,and hard, that out of the darkness leads into the light.” Wow! Powerfully true words my fellow traveler! Love that! May steal it😊. I remember the fear you speak of and it left me a long while back…. It had to because I live in small town America where they publish your transgressions on the front page of the newspaper. You almost know who is gonna show up at AA before the newcomer does. I’m not that anonymous but it leads to lots of phone calls from friends and family of loved ones who have a fellow sufferer. I’m just a drunk and by grace I get to be sober. Good blog!

    • 30 October 2015 01:17

      Please do! It’s a famous phrase from “Paradise Lost” by Milton.

  3. Syd permalink
    31 October 2015 10:05

    When I would go to more open AA meetings than I do now, I would see several people that I knew professionally. And one was a former graduate student. There I was in an AA meeting and there he was. Not sure what he concluded. Doesn’t really matter. Interesting dynamic though.

  4. 2 November 2015 04:22

    Terrific post. I spotted only a few colleagues at meetings I went to in my early days – for one thing I lived about 40 miles from work and most meetings I attended were local to home. There was one guy who had a few years on me. A few meetings in he came up to me at the end and just said “I won’t acknowledge you at work if that is ok. They have no idea about this”. Fine. I respected that although he did on a couple of occasions when we passed in corridors stop and speak – if no one else was about. Others were more open and for me that was really useful – at times two or three of us would meet up. Normally early morning an email would hit my inbox “Any of you free at 11am meet me in the coffee shop”. You knew then someone needed help – we’d meet and sometimes you’d never know why just “I’m feeling a bit odd” or a straight out “I had a row with my wife this morning about… ” It was a great little support network for me and I’m extremely grateful to them.

    Now it happens rarely if I’m honest but I am quick to reassure anyone who does know me in whatever capacity that them being there is never something I’ll ever say outside of the room. This has happened once recently and the person hasn’t been back and I’ve not spoken to them – it is up to them.

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