Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought A.A. membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
AA’s third tradition tell us that anyone with a desire to stop drinking can consider themselves to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s remarkably inclusive.
And yet, if you’ve been to an AA meeting yourself, you’ll notice that the average age in the rooms tends to skew a bit older than the general population of people-who-can-legally-drink should confer. Having started my AA career at the age of 19, it was always one of the first things I noticed at every meeting I walked into.
At 19, I didn’t want to be there, of course. Like many of the younger attendees I’d get to meet over the next couple of decades, I was there for legal reasons. I didn’t want to take the program seriously, I didn’t think it applied to me, and I certainly didn’t think that whatever it was those people were doing would help my situation.
My addictions weren’t the problem — I couldn’t possibly be held responsible for something I thought to be entirely out of my control. I didn’t even consider my addictions to be addictions. This was college — haven’t you seen Animal House? Van Wilder? Any college movie ever made? I certainly wasn’t going to spend the rest of my youth sober.
I was welcome at almost every meeting I walked into, of course, and often reminded of AA’s third tradition: the only qualification for being in that room was that I had a drinking problem. I just refused to admit that the problem with my drinking lie within — after all, I seemed to enjoy it well enough. It was the rest of the world that had a problem with my drinking. Perhaps I didn’t have enough to lose.
The consequences, handcuffs aside, just didn’t seem real to me. I discussed this with the other, older people who attended my local meetings. I was told I’d lose my job, but I didn’t really like working night shift doing tech support anyway. I was told I’d lose all of my money, which, at 19, was about five dollars. I was told I’d lose my health. Good luck trying to scare someone at 19 with that line. I was told I’d be kicked out of school, but everyone who’d ever heard of my university knew it was a party school; the worst possible consequence of drinking, academically, was having to watch a 40 minute video and take a quiz about it.
The one thing I know I was afraid of, the aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous that frightened me to my core, was the implication that I’d never drink again. Forever is a long time.
“We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality – safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.” (Big Book, pg. 85)
Where was that serenity? I couldn’t see it in myself, sober or not. I didn’t think I saw it in anyone else, either. Why was everyone else in AA so sure that they could avoid a life of quiet desperation by maintaining some sort of vague, ethereal sense of spiritual fitness? And why did it appear to be so hard to maintain? What are these people trying to be, Jedi?
There was a big difference between what I actually saw in meetings and what was actually happening.
I didn’t realize that in sharing their struggles with the group, these people were finding catharsis. They’d have an issue, try to work out exactly why it was an issue, and then bring it to a meeting — somewhere twenty-odd other alcoholics would understand it, have experience with it, and even may have solved it themselves before — where it would be released to the group and then left at that meeting where it belonged.
The meetings were a tool to maintain the spiritual fitness they’d developed to deal with what I considered the stress of being sober (and was actually, mostly, just the stress of dealing with life on life’s terms). That was what I didn’t get at 19 (or 25, or 27, or 31). It wasn’t a game, you didn’t accumulate points and experience, you didn’t become better at life and its difficulties because you had sober time. You had to put in the work. Maintenance was required.
I do have things to lose now, so I’m sure that’s part of my motivation to stay sober. The biggest driver of my abstinence from drinking, though, is my desire not to be the person I am when I drink. That person evolved and grew over the years to be an awful, awful creature.
Maybe I did need to be older to “get it.” The difference between sober me and drinking me, at 19, wasn’t that noticeable — I probably just showed up for class more often when sober. Outside of the playground that is college (and, to be fair, most of my 20s), the real world had harsh lessons to teach me about the consequences of alcoholism.
I’d like to say I’ve wholly embraced spiritual fitness at this point in my life, but that wouldn’t be true. I think, at this point, I’m more of a fitness enthusiast. I’ve got a membership to that particular gym, but I’m not giving out tips on form. And that’s just fine. I don’t need to be an expert. I don’t need to have long-term sobriety plans. I don’t need all of the answers.
I just need to show up today. I’ll worry about showing up tomorrow tomorrow.