The biggest impact made on me was when I actually attended an open AA meeting. Going into it I had no idea what to expect and I found myself experiencing a decent amount of anxiety walking into it. I felt out of place because I felt as if I was almost invading these people’s sacred space. I don’t have the same affliction they do so in my opinion I had no business being there. But, at the end of the meeting I felt at peace and renewed. It was similar to the feelings I have when I walk out of church. There are many positive attributes to attending AA meetings, these include a feeling of social support and belonging captured in the group therapy concepts of “Universality” and “Instillation of Hope.” (Kelly, Stout, Magill, Tonigan, & Pagano, 2010, p. 627). One of my interviewee’s echoed similar sentiments, “But when I first, walked into my first meeting, I actually felt safe and I felt comforted. And I felt like I belonged, which is something I had never experienced before in my life, not even at home. I didn’t even feel like I belonged in my house. It was definitely a spiritual experience walking into my first meeting.” That response really evoked a lot of thought during the interview, to not even feel like she belonged in her own home, and then just show up at some random meeting with complete strangers and feel at peace. Now that is a powerful testimony. And that same feeling is echoed by the findings of George Vaillant, “Alcoholics Anonymous appears to be equal to or superior to conventional treatments for Alcoholism” (Vaillant, 2005, p.431). And for more information on this study, visit http://www.csam-asam.org/sites/default/files/pdf/misc/Vaillant_AA_Article.pdf.
Anytime there is a nationally recognized, or in this case internationally recognized organization like AA, there are obviously going to be stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about it. AA is no different, and throughout the course of my research I found there are a few main stereotypes that plague AA. The first is that many outsiders think that AA is a cult. The mission statement that was mentioned previously disproves the notion that AA is somehow a cult. It is merely a fellowship of men and women, who according to the members of AA I interviewed, pay no dues or fees. The notion that the 12 Steps are similar to the 10 Commandments is incorrect because the steps are only suggestions. The 10 Commandments do just what they say, command. The 12 Steps as well as the entire program are very different according to my interviewee Matt, “It wasn’t anyone telling me what to do, it was strictly suggestions. And that’s part of what pushed me away for a while, you know people told me, you can’t drink, you can’t do this or that.” While a great deal of the program is faith based, it is essentially non-denominational. Even though you kind of need to have some sort of concept of a higher power, the absence of religious doctrine has accommodated agnostics, atheists, and believers in nontheistic religions such as Buddhism (Gross, 2010, p.2361). Members do not worship the Holy Bible, or the Koran, or anything that has a religious affiliation. While some may call it a cult, I would not, due to the aforementioned reasons found while conducting my research and interviews.
The second stereotype I found during my interviews was that the people in AA are all Jesus freaks and preach the results of being in AA. In my own personal experience, this notion could not be farther from the truth. I have known and met many in the program, and not one has, imposed their religion on me, tried to teach me things about AA, or even mention the program unless asked about it. According to one of my interviewees Mary, “if the people who did it were working a good program, then they wouldn’t be doing that. So its just like certain people that have done that give the program a bad name.” I am positive there are people out there that do attempt to preach about AA and things of that nature, but not enough to have the entire AA community fit the mold for that stereotype. In fact, one of the twelve traditions advises against preaching AA to others. Tradition 11 states that, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion: we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films” (Gross, 2010, p.2362). Again, this reaffirms the idea that the small percentages of people who choose not to follow this do not represent the entire community as a whole.
The final stereotype I found was not centered on the organization as much as it is on the individuals that make up the organization. This final stereotype imagines that the people you see at the meetings are mostly bums on skid row who were drinking out of the brown paper bag right before they came into the meeting. This is a view I had before I went to an actual AA meeting. As I scanned the faces in the crowd, nothing jumped out at me. These people were all normal looking; you could never tell they were all alcoholics. When asked about the people in AA, Matt said, “some I call friends, years before they got sober they were living on skid row, or were in the pen (penitentiary). But now they own businesses, they have families and its because of the principles and steps of AA.” I can personally attest to what Matt mentioned about people having miraculous transformations and becoming successful after becoming sober. A good family friend of ours was a raging alcoholic for years but when he became sober, he married and got an incredible job. I think that these stereotypes to a person who didn’t know anything about the program before wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe. But, after my research and interviews, none of these stereotypes turned out to be true.
Figure 3 illustrates what essentially are the social norms of the AA community, the 12 traditions. There are a few notable cultural norms found in my focus culture. The first of which is actually twelve. The twelve traditions are essentially the twelve social norms for the AA community. They suggest and guide what is considered to be appropriate action amongst the members of AA as well as how to handle certain things with people that aren’t apart of the community. My interviewee Mary elaborated in detail about the social norms of Alcoholics Anonymous, “You have to, well you don’t have to, but the seventh tradition suggests you give a dollar, because it needs to be completely self-supporting, they will receive no outside contribution.” Another obvious norm in this community is complete and total sobriety from drugs and alcohol. If you are going to these meetings it is an unwritten assumption that you do not come under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. Obviously it is highly inappropriate to do this as well as just flat out disrespectful to the people there struggling to maintain their sobriety. In addition to this, the mental obsession of alcohol is a cultural norm as Matt my interviewee describes in depth, “The mental obsession of alcohol, because that’s the biggest thing. Is, even before we took the drink and the drug, we knew what was going to happen and we couldn’t stop it. And that’s with everybody, that’s our common bond, obviously that and our desire to stop drinking.” Everyone is there for a common reason, to become sober and then proceed to maintain it while leading a normal life. They are also there because they all share the same obsession with alcohol, or at least did at one point in their lives. What AA does is truly amazing; it revives broken souls of lost people, heals old wounds, and gives people a second chance at life.