January 2019 / Scarborough, Ontario, Canada
AA Helps Local Clients
By Heather Anne Hunter
Every week, a group of men and women from twenty-something to senior citizens, assembles by the side entrance to St. Paul’s Church in Cliffside. Each night of the week, similar groups convene in church basements throughout the GTA. The home-made sign beside the door shamelessly announces there is a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. People are smoking, laughing and talking. Smoking is understandable; after all they are self-admitted addicts, but what do they have to laugh about? Addiction is a serious illness according to CAMH. Right?
As 8:00 p.m. approaches, they dutifully deposit their cigarette butts in a large coffee can filled with sand, and then trickle down to the basement where chairs are set out in neat rows before a head table and a microphone. They file past the greeters stationed at the door giving quick hugs or handshakes and then line up at the coffee urn for their caffeine fix before taking a seat with friends.
A newcomer sheepishly sneaks into the back row close to the exit hoping to remain invisible, but no such luck. Someone notices and comes over with a handful of pamphlets from the library table and a big smile. She looks up with red-rimmed eyes, guilt-filled and precariously close to tears.
A young man, probably still in his teens, sits beside his mother. She is intently reading AA literature. He is focused on his shaky hands fidgeting in his lap. Anyone can attend these open meetings. Members identify themselves only by their first name and last initial to safeguard their anonymity and reassure newcomers that their identity is protected by this important principle.
So what goes on in these rooms that prompts doctors, judges and family members at their wits end to give someone the ultimatum, “Go to AA”. Or have they hit bottom and had an awakening on their own? The chairperson calls the meeting to order with a reading and qualifies himself as an alcoholic. He has already asked all participants to do the standard readings or interpret the slogans. “You are no longer alone” always hits home with the newcomer. There are no professional addiction counsellors leading the group, just garden variety alcoholics, kindred spirits, gathering together to share “their experience, strength and hope.” This is the secret behind the success of every support group.
The Twelves Steps and Twelve Traditions, written by the founders in 1935, are displayed on placards at the front and read at each meeting. If followed painstakingly, they will keep a chronic alcoholic sober, “one day at a time”, and lead to a happier, healthier life even for the most hopeless case.
Several of the steps refer to God or a Higher Power! What then is the scientific or atheist alcoholic to do? These fears are quickly allayed when members get up to speak. One person’s Higher Power is God, while another’s is the strength of the group. Everyone is encouraged to rely on a purely personal God of their own conception. Step one is clear: “We are powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable,” so it is time to turn over the reins to something or someone greater than yourself, to surrender.
How many tax dollars are spent on these programs? Exactly none, according to the 7th Tradition, “we are self-supporting through our own contributions”, declining outside contributions thereby avoiding interference. A collection basket is passed around at every meeting and those who can throw in a toonie or a fin to pay for coffee, rent and AA literature distributed free to newcomers.
The chair, who has been sober for decades, claims that he attends every week, not because he is tempted to drink, but to pay it forward and to enjoy the comradery of others wired like himself. AA members flock to meetings, sober dances, barbeques and regional and world conferences because they enjoy it – socializing without drinking – something almost unthinkable to the majority of the population. Yet, these hard core alcoholics can do it.
A well-dressed person gets up to the microphone, not a professional speaker, just an ordinary member who has been asked by the chair to tell his “story”. He is a truck driver who brings himself and the audience to tears one minute, but by the next, everyone is laughing at his past escapades. They identify with the absurdity of alcoholic thinking. He attributes the near miraculous transformation in him and his life to “the program” which he believes is attainable for anyone if they just “keep coming back”. The previous week a housewife, actually a granny with 40 years of sobriety under her apron, spoke. This week she made the coffee and put out cookies. She sponsors three young women, nestled as close to her as chicks under the wings of a mother hen.
When the meeting concludes several people rush up to thank and empathize with the speaker. Others stack the chairs, and put away all the paraphernalia hauled out for display at every meeting. People chat happily in clusters before heading home. A few old-timers stand to the side with anyone who needs to talk.
The whole thing took just over an hour. A non-alcoholic couldn’t be blamed for envying members of this happy close-knit group who, in choosing sobriety in AA, received so many unforeseen rewards. No one is turned away who has the honest desire to quit drinking. So, if you think you have a problem with alcohol (then you probably do), you have nothing to lose by checking out one of these meetings happening in every neighbourhood. If you don’t like it, they will refund you your misery, no questions asked. If you don’t have a problem, you will have learned a little about the legendary 12-step program which helps sufferers of all manner of addiction worldwide. You never know when it will come in handy.