Sharing experience, strength and hope

Sharing at AA meetings

February 27, 2022

By Andy F

Categories: AA meetings

What is sharing at an AA meeting?

Unquestionably, sharing your experience, strength, and hope at an AA meeting is an important therapeutic tool. It is not only helpful for the person speaking but also for the person listening. Why is sharing considered a key aspect of AA’s effectiveness?

Whenever more senior members speak up, they offer newcomers identification. This reassures them that they are not alone. Often, their families and friends don’t seem to understand them. It is not until they come to AA that they feel accepted and understood.

Honest sharing at meetings gives newcomers a sense of connection and belonging. For many, hearing others open up is what keeps them coming back. A new hope is born that they, too, will be able to stop drinking. Perhaps even to find a solution to all their other problems.  

Experience

Nowhere else on the face of this planet is an alcoholic likely to hear the kind of honesty that they will hear in an AA meeting. Newcomers quickly realize that much of what they hear is strikingly similar to their experiences.

“Keep his (the newcomer’s) attention mainly focused on your personal experience.

(BB p.92)

Even more powerful is that new members hear testimonies from people who have found a solution. They listen to AA members share how they overcome serious personal difficulties. Many believe that if the older members can do it, so can they. They see and hear how the more senior members enjoy their sober lives. Having worked through AA’s suggested program, many have become “happy, joyous, and free.”

(BB p.133)

Strength

The AA Preamble:

“Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of people who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”

Across the world, the AA preamble is read out at the beginning of every meeting. The purpose of sharing is to encourage newcomers. They may also solve their common problem and help others recover.

Hope

A feeling of hopelessness is what drives many alcoholics to AA. They are powerless to stop drinking. Many arrive in the fellowship with the Gift Of Desperation. (A useful acronym for GOD)  To be unable to stop drinking, despite a heartfelt intention, is a pretty hopeless state of affairs.

“If you are satisfied that he is a real alcoholic, begin to dwell on the hopeless feature of the malady.”

(BB p.92)

To hear AA members proclaim that they have recovered from a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body” (BB p. XIII) is why sharing is so effective. It is the power of example. This is the main reason why AA is so successful. It offers tangible hope to drinkers, many of whom have lost hope. By the time they get to AA, many have lost everything worthwhile in life.

“Doubtless, you are curious to discover how and why, in the face of expert opinion, we have recovered from a hopeless condition of mind and body.”

(BB p.20)

A division in AA regarding the purpose of sharing

I came to AA thirty-seven years ago at the age of 30. My addiction to alcohol and drugs started in my early teens. Soon after I arrived at the fellowship, I noticed two opposing camps. There was conflict on what and how to share at meetings. Unity is one of the three legacies of AA—conflicting opinions about what sharing should be have led to division.   

In the early 1980s, when I was a newcomer, some members were using counseling and therapy as an added recovery resource. At the time, many of us believed that our solution lay in exploring unresolved issues from childhood.

For many, therapy involves an exploration of feelings. The idea was to identify, feel, express, and let them go. It was believed that this type of self-disclosure led to healing. For some AA members, this approach to recovery went way beyond opening up in the safe environment of a therapist’s office.

AA groups were frequently used as an extension to therapy. This practice was based on the idea that alcoholics drank to avoid their feelings. Now, in sobriety, exploring feelings in meetings was regarded as therapeutic.

As a newcomer, I was cynical about God and a higher power. In my early days, I was dismissive about the spiritual approach. Psychology and therapy seemed the only alternative. I was immediately drawn towards the pro-therapy camp in AA.

Addicted to therapy

After coming to AA, I spent many years in therapy trying to resolve my issues. Sponsorship and the twelve steps were not for me. Meetings became like group therapy without a therapist. Those who supported therapy told me that it was important to make myself vulnerable when sharing. Many of us believed this openness was the path to healing and wholeness.

It has to be said that in my many years of therapy, I was unable to stay sober. I sincerely believed that therapy was the only legitimate way to get well. With this in mind, I didn’t hold back. Much to my detriment, I got into the habit of using AA groups as a place to dump pain and suffering.

Reinforcing the victim’s belief system

With this approach to recovery, did I ever arrive at some cathartic moment of healing? No, the truth was that it didn’t help me to get sober. After I did the steps with a sponsor, I learned a very important thing. Negative sharing in AA was about reinforcing the idea that I was a victim. The victim belief system was the very thing that kept me in relapse.

If I wanted to survive, I would have to stop seeing myself this way. Actually, I learned that I had to stop dwelling on my problems. My sponsor taught me how to start living in the solution. Initially, my usual ‘doom and gloom’ approach to sharing was a difficult habit to break. It did nothing to improve my fragile self-esteem. On the contrary, I felt even worse acting out the victim role to my fellow AA members.

Becoming teachable through sponsorship  

Things began to change when I asked David B. to be my sponsor. He was considered a tough sponsor in the London fellowship. That was fine with me. After years of relapse, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and was willing to do anything to feel better.

I had to admit that therapy hadn’t worked to keep me sober and find happiness. For the first time in my life, I became teachable. I became willing to do whatever he suggested. David was someone who did not believe in therapy. He didn’t think it was useful if alcoholics were to stay sober and recreate their lives.

The self-centeredness of the alcoholic illness

He believed that alcoholics were already self-centered enough. Therapy made them worse. In his mind, the pathology of the alcoholic tended towards blame and self-pity. The actions suggested in the twelve steps were the only effective way of treating the alcoholic illness.

David was very clear about what AA members should say in meetings. The purpose of speaking up was to convey hope to the newcomer. He passionately believed that AA meetings were not an appropriate forum for talking about pain. That’s what a sponsor was for.

He referred me to the first page of chapter 5 of the Big Book to educate me about what to share and how to do it. “How it works.” He knew that I had been in therapy, and it had made me even more self-centered. He made it clear that therapy was unhelpful in the treatment of alcoholism.

“Our stories disclose in a ‘general’ way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

(BB Chapter 5, “How it works,” p. 58)

I gradually learned that David was right about what and how to share.

“Selfishness – self-centeredness” (BB chapter 5 p.62)

David was very much a proponent of the Big Book. If it wasn’t in the book, he wasn’t interested. David was committed to educating his sponsees about the nature of their alcoholism. He believed that selfishness and self-centeredness were the two core symptoms of their alcoholism and their failures in life.

Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.”

(BB p.62)

This was especially true on the issue of how and what to say in meetings. David maintained that the words of the AA preamble were sacrosanct. The purpose of sharing was to “help others to recover from alcoholism.”

(The AA preamble)

I was desperate to keep David as my sponsor. “Running the show” (BB p. 88) of my life always ended in relapse. I surrendered to his guidance unconditionally and agreed to follow Good Orderly Direction. (A helpful acronym for GOD)

David educated me about the true purpose of an AA group. In his mind, it was to carry a message of recovery to the newcomer. I began to feel much better about myself when I started to consider the needs of the newcomer. I was taught that what kept newcomers coming back was that the program works if you work it.

Grateful for becoming teachable

I will always be grateful to David for teaching me how to deal with the alcoholic illness. He undoubtedly saved my life. It was, however, important that I remain true to myself. My own ongoing growth has required that I move on from David’s somewhat rigid AA fundamentalism.

Do I still believe that all sharing should be about learning how to live in the solution? Overall, I still believe the newcomer is the most important person at an AA meeting. Like me, when ready, they should be introduced to the suggested actions offered by a sponsor.

Exceptions to the rule

I have come to believe there are certain situations in which sharing only for the benefit of newcomers doesn’t apply. When faced with a crisis, everyone should feel safe enough to share whatever will help them to stay sober. When picking up a drink looks like a good idea, a problem shared is a problem halved. Moreover, vulnerable newcomers should be encouraged to share whatever will help relieve them from the pains of early sobriety.

Whenever I relapsed, I needed to admit it to the group. I had to swallow my pride and be honest. “We can’t save face and our butts at the same time” (Popular AA slogan) I was never rejected. In AA, we don’t shoot our wounded. I always got compassion, empathy, and support when I had a relapse.

These days, I can see where David was coming from with his views about what and how to share in AA. That being said, if I were in danger of drinking, I wouldn’t hesitate to share it with my home group. Overall, though, I am on the same page as David. The solutions to my difficulties in sobriety are found in the twelve steps.

In fellowship

Andy F

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