The ins and outs of court ordered AA
Q: I was arrested for driving under the influence, and now I’m court-ordered to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. All I know of AA is what I’ve seen on TV and in movies, so I have no idea what to expect. Can you give me a general idea what I’m in for?
I’m worried about gossip, as I live in a small town. I don’t want my kids hearing that some other kids’ parent saw me at an AA meeting. Should I go somewhere out of town?
I can’t believe I’m being forced to do this—I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I’m an alcoholic. Don’t you think it’s wrong to make people go to these meetings if they are not even alcoholics? What am I supposed to say about why I am there?
A: There are many different kinds of AA meetings, and the “flavor” of meetings can vary a lot from region to region. With that said, here is some general information to help you feel more prepared.
- Alcoholics Anonymous is a self-help group with a program of recovery. It does not have a leader, per se. Therefore, you will not be treated or counseled at an AA meeting. Instead, you will hear from people who have had trouble with alcohol and are now at various stages of recovery.
- The meetings are free, but there is usually a passing of a basket (or something similar) during the meeting for people to donate money if they want to and are able to. A few of my clients have shared that they were embarrassed not to know this ahead of time, because they did not have any money with them to put in the basket. Do know that many people do not donate each and every time for various reasons and nobody is keeping track, so don’t feel you have to contribute.
- You will almost certainly see and hear references to God at a meeting. For some people, this is reassuring. It can make others want to run screaming from the room. If you are in this second category, know that Alcoholics Anonymous suggests an approach that includes belief in some kind of Higher Power, but it does not require members to have religious beliefs. The people who go to AA meetings run the gamut in their belief systems. You are not required to believe in a specific God, or any god at all, to be at an AA meeting.
- The anonymous in Alcoholics Anonymous means that to whatever extent possible, people’s attendance at meetings is supposed to be confidential. People typically introduce themselves by first name only, and most meetings include reminders to those in attendance that you are not supposed to say outside of a meeting that you saw someone at the meeting. People who have been going to meetings for any length of time are known (generally speaking) to take this seriously. With that said, some people still feel most comfortable going to initial meetings in an area where they are unlikely to run into someone they know.
- The format and expectations of an AA meeting vary by meeting type. A list of meetings from AA itself (either a print version or online version) can tell you what types of meetings are available in your area, which might in turn help you choose one that might be optimal for you. For instance, a Closed meeting, marked with a C, is for those who identify as alcoholics only—therefore, if you are planning to bring a support person with you who does not identify as an alcoholic, you might choose an Open meeting (open to the general public) instead. There are also Speaker meetings (in which people share their stories of drinking and recovery), Discussion meetings (in which members take turns sharing, sometimes about a particular recovery topic), and Step meetings (which focus on the 12-step approach to recovery), as well as meetings which combine these aspects (such as a Speaker-Discussion meeting). There are also meetings geared to one particular population: women’s meetings, LGBT meetings, and Spanish-speaking meetings, for example.
- AA literature states that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. In other words, no, you don’t have to consider yourself an alcoholic to be there. You may hear other people identify as “I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic,” but you are not expected or obligated to use those words yourself. Sometimes people just say their first name, or that they are court-ordered, or that they are visiting, or “This is my first meeting.” Feel free to choose the introduction that feels right to you.
- The purpose of the meetings is for people who are recovering to share their experiences with other people who want to get and/or stay sober. Often, there are people in AA meetings whose lives have changed dramatically for the better, talking about the things they did to bring about such positive change. Therefore, even if alcohol isn’t an ongoing problem for you, you are very likely to hear something helpful and hopeful at an AA meeting.
Being arrested for driving under the influence is a stressful event in and of itself. I encourage you to consider talking to a substance abuse counselor or therapist, if you haven’t done so already, to help you figure out whether and to what extent you have a drinking problem, and what things you might do to avoid future problems related to drinking. I hope things improve for you, and I wish you the best of luck.
Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
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