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Aa Meeting

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Meeting at a church on a Friday night is not usual for most college students, but it is for the members of an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) women's group in my hometown. A square room with windows, two couches, and an odd assortment of chairs, the space is the home for a vast array of women who meet weekly to discuss their addiction journey, as well as to both provide and receive support for their decision to remain sober.

My experience at the AA meeting began with a mix-up, not to be confused with a mixer. A classmate and I spoke first with the woman who was opening the door and greeting members as they arrived. I asked her if she was the group facilitator and she explained that she was just the attendant. I later discovered that the group was autonomous and had no true leader. I explained that we were students and she let us know that it was a closed group. While apologizing for the misinformed website and letting her know we'd try elsewhere, the attendant stopped me and said that they could ask the group if we could observe. She explained that as long as no one objected, we could stay.

The meeting opened with the leader for that week explaining that students were here, and asking for discussion. This was the first glimpse into the leadership and decision-making of the group. Collective leadership ran the decisions, with every member playing an equal part in voicing their opinion. While one member was chosen each week to facilitate, decisions were unanimous or majority-based depending on the topic. For this question, the decision had to be unanimous. The leader explained that if anyone objected, we would leave. It felt awkward as an outsider, but I imagine that for the group, the process felt good due to the inclusion of all members in the decision-making. The method was honest and open, with a few members expressing their opinion. As no one objected outright, we were allowed to stay and observe after introducing ourselves.

There were several supportive roles during the meeting in addition to the leader, which also appeared to rotate on a weekly basis. AA is based upon a number of tenets, including twelve steps and twelve traditions. The steps include the idea that AA founders "made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" and "when we were wrong promptly admitted it," amongst ideas of meditation, making amends, and seeking support through a higher power (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007, pp. 60-61). The use of "we" in these statements helped to add to the feelings of group cohesiveness. The traditions state that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, that AA is focused solely on promoting sobriety within an autonomous group, and that anonymity is of upmost importance (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007). Members read aloud these steps and traditions, as well as an anonymity pledge. Their roles included the orienteer and coordinator by defining the purpose and goals of the group (Mohr, 2009). Meanwhile, the leader acted as the gatekeeper by guiding the members between different parts of the group and opening the floor for discussion (Mohr, 2009). Other members in the room played the role of followers by acknowledging the speakers and reciting certain parts of the meeting from memory, as well as participating in group customs (Mohr, 2009).

The AA meeting we attended was a speaker week, which meant that the majority of the time was spent listening to a particular member give a testimony of her journey with alcohol. According to Borg, James-Andrews, van Wormer, Wheeler, and Yeres, "a critical factor in the success of 12-step programs is the opportunity to share experiences with others who have suffered similar problems" (2010, p. 6). The speaker recounted her story with addiction which began as a teen and led her across several states and various relationships. The group processed the story in a positive way. I noticed several times when members laughed, smiled, and made brief supporting comments while she spoke. Rather than judge the events of her life, the group members seemed to connect in a personal way, relating her story to their own. The idea behind having a speaker relates to the concept of catharsis, which Mohr states "is the expression of feelings, especially those involving deep emotions" (2009, p. 254) Later, a member shared with me that "this is the kind of place where you can talk about things, and everyone just judgment but support." This woman explained that she had stayed home from a Christmas party last year in order to come to the AA meeting. She had worried about how those who did attend the party would react to her absence. However, she added, she soon discovered that no one made a big deal of her absence, and attending the meeting instead of the party meant staying away from alcohol. Being able to talk about her emotions and experiences, receiving support, and the lack of judgment was a large part of her decision to keep coming to meetings.

In addition to the readings and the speaker, there was an achievement portion of the meeting. One member received a chip for eight months of sobriety, while another announced her year anniversary without alcohol and was met with a cake. The system for rewards kept members feeling connected to the group, with senior members acting as mentors called "sponsors" who guided their newer counterparts toward these goals. Opening its arms to alcoholics in all stages of change helps keep the program one of voluntary choice rather than force. This illustrates a therapeutic component of the AA meetings described as an existential factor (Mohr, 2009).

One observation I made amongst the members was the demographics. Most of the women appeared to be middle-aged, with the youngest-looking woman stating that she was 28 years old. Those who embraced me and were willing to talk after the meeting concluded were mostly younger. Borg, et al. states reasoning behind the older demographic:
The most obvious reason may be its focus on adults. As mentioned above, adolescents do not display the level of addiction severity, or the long history of substance use, that adults may have accumulated. The presenters and participants attending AA/NA meetings are generally much older (the average participant is a 46-year-old Caucasian male) and discuss issues that youth simply do not relate to (such as child custody, divorce, and financial problems) (2010, p. 5).
I noticed that these issues were common themes in the story of the speaker; problems related to long-term relationships, career troubles, and business dilemmas, topics that many adolescents would have not yet encountered, were discussed in detail during her testimony. While the older women seemed attentive, with good eye contact and focus, some of the younger women seemed distracted and more apt to whisper to themselves at intervals. In addition, one of the younger women discussed graduating from college and having a new baby, experiences that are typical for a woman in her late twenties, and seemed excited by the idea that I had been a nursing student at the hospital where she'd delivered. I believe these observations support the idea that relation of life experiences is so critical to the group experience. Group members at different age levels or life stages may have more trouble connecting, which is why bridging the gaps between members is an important aspect to facilitating satisfaction and retention.

Years later, I look back on the meeting with fond memories. It changed the way I looked at addiction. It was no longer an evil faceless demon, or an episode of Cops. These were women who rotated between pouring their souls on the carpet and lifting up those of other members. They were mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, and friends. Some were professionals, some were students, and some were unemployed. Despite their differences, they united in their common goal for a better life. Even for my experience being at a closed meeting, and technically closed to outsiders, we were greeted warmly and treated as part of the group. I was touched when we stood, held hands, and recited the Lord's Prayer because the women on either side of me squeezed my hands. I think it's essential to have support when you're struggling with addiction, as with any lifestyle change. AA is a prime example of how groups support sobriety in individuals if they are willing to follow a program and commit to changing their habits.

And it doesn't hurt that sometimes after the meeting, everyone has a piece of cake.


Alcoholics Anonymous. (2007). The twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous. Young people and A.A (pp. 60-61). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2007). The twelve traditions of alcoholics anonymous. Young people and A.A (pp. 62-63). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Borg, M.L., James-Andrews, S., van Wormer, J., Wheeler, G., Yeres, S.A. (2010). Using "sober support" groups in your juvenile court. Technical Assistance Bulletin. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Retrieved from

Mohr, W. (2009). Groups and group interventions. Psychiatric-mental health nursing: evidenced-based concepts, skills, and practices (pp. 241-260). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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