Four Things Newcomers Should Know

New to AA? Sent by the courts, your psychologist, or your employer and not sure what to expect?

Or, maybe you’ve stumbled into a meeting and are now scratching your head wondering, “what the heck is going on here?”

Well, this post is for you!

AA Background

AA may be the most successful mainstream “treatment” for alcoholism. It’s been going strong for over 80 years. Its popularity and longevity are no doubt due to its effectiveness. Many people get and stay sober through the AA program.

Another reason for AA’s success has to be its cost. AA is virtually free (a $2 per meeting donation is suggested). Being free creates plusses and minuses. t.

One minus is that AA is mostly unsupervised and self-regulated. Alcoholics “self-diagnose” their alcoholism. Meetings are similarly self-policed. The result is all sorts of people come and go into all qualities of AA meetings. Oddly, some members view this disorganization as being positive.

For those who have never been, AA meetings can seem like part group therapy, part self-help, with a bit of a religious feeling, sprinkled in.  But, unlike therapy, there are no trained facilitators directing meetings—only a meeting “secretary” who is often unskilled at leadership or facilitation. The secretary is typically a volunteer or someone elected by the group. It’s all pretty loose.

While some AA members love this unstructured approach, claiming it makes AA what it is, others find it a bit of free-for-all. This looseness can be frustrating. Newcomers might prefer something with more structure and formality to make them feel more welcome. But, the reality is other programs that tackle the drinking problem with a more structured approach aren’t any more effective. The AA program is free, works for some, and “it is what it is!”

Hence, newcomers should be prepared to “find their own way” and figure out what to do, where to go, and who to connect with, as well as who to avoid. Not the best situation, perhaps for someone whose judgment might not be in the best shape.

The “Right” Literature?

Also, the “AA approved” literature sometimes isn’t beneficial to newcomers. With 14 books and 77 pamphlets (at last count), there is a lot to digest from Alcoholics Anonymous World Service. Where does one start? Should one read it all?

Most will say a newcomer should start with the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” aka, The Big Book. Good advice, but the Big Book has some problems of its own, too.

Many of these issues arise from the “program of recovery” (the first 164 pages) that has remained largely unchanged since the initial publication in 1939. To many in AA, this part of the book is sacrosanct. Many members are adamant that this section should remain forever unchanged – much like a religious text. Go to a few meetings, and you’ll hear members quoting the book by page and verse as you’d hear in a church.

Add to this, the “program of recovery” is starkly unscientific with nary a mention of the role of DNA, alternative treatments, poly-addictions, or even some simple statistics of the efficacy of the program through the years. That type of updating might be helpful to one coming into AA from a hospital rehab or court where this type of information may be given.

Fortunately, that information can be easily Googled. I find the discussion about Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD (the medical term for Alcoholism) and the distinction between binge drinking and heavy drinking to be useful discussion points. As it stands, I rarely hear binge drinking ever brought up as they are typically lumped together with heavy drinkers, which many aren’t. In AA, there is an oft-repeated cliche, “No one gets here by mistake!” I take this cliche to mean that anyone who comes to any meeting is an alcoholic. This speaks for itself – untrue.

Four Things

Here are my four things a newcomer needs to know about AA. Knowing them going in might help you be more successful with the best solution to drinking out there – warts and all.

  1. AA is not for everyone, but it might still be the most effective way to get sober be you “heavy drinker” or “binge drinker.”
  2. AA is full of self-professed, mostly well-intentioned know-it-alls.
  3. The “God-Stuff” is pretty heavy-handed.
  4. Amazing personal transformations can occur through AA if you can deal with the above.

Let’s look a bit deeper at each of these.

Not For Everyone

All this is to say that for someone who is deep into their own personal alcoholism troubles and is genuinely looking for help, what they are greeted with coming to AA may not be a perfect fit for what they need. In fact, without some clear guidelines and expectations of what they are stepping into, it is common for a newcomer to have a bad experience and give up.

The net result is far more people check out of AA than actually stay in AA. Forty million Big Books sold, two million sober AA members. Clearly, this is evidence it is not for everyone. But, compared to other programs, it’s the best there is.

Some overconfident people (see below) will claim those who leave “didn’t really want to get sober” or “weren’t really alcoholics.” This, to me, is a gross oversimplification. Nor is it particularly empathetic; frankly, it is a bit cynical.  Many find other ways to get sober and go on to live productive lives. It’s a fact. But, indeed, many who don’t stay in AA do not stay sober permanently.

This lack of broad adoption and continued success for all visitors to AA is just due to the fact that AA is not for everyone.  Never will be. Here’s the conundrum, even though it is clearly not for everyone, it is likely to be the most effective treatment. So, if you go into AA knowing this upfront, you might be able to take better what they have to offer.

AA Know-it-alls

Anyone who attends AA meetings cannot avoid noticing the self-appointed “experts” who repeatedly share at meetings. These are often AA members with long stretches of sobriety, aka “oldtimers.” Or, they can be loudmouthed overzealous newcomers, aka “30-day wonders!

Either case, some are great communicators, others not so much. And while oldtimers and 30-day wonders often convey sincere, heartfelt, and simply entertaining information, charisma is no guarantee of accuracy or genuine wisdom on how to stay sober. Whatever is said goes unchallenged and unchecked. Any share, therefore, can be factually spot on or simply wrong.

This is because whatever is shared in a meeting is merely the speaker’s opinion; it’s not AA gospel (even if they quote the Big Book).  AA has made it clear that it is up to each meeting to govern itself, and in turn, each person to govern themselves.

This makes it difficult for the newbie to figure out who they are supposed to listen to. A smart newbie might be advised to take everything said in a meeting with a grain of salt. And, when given specific advice, confirm the speaker’s experience with the topic. Otherwise, the whole meeting can be very confusing.

God, God, God

If you are part of the 37% in the USA that Pew Research says “is not certain” there is a God, well, get ready for a lot of God-talk in AA. It’s ubiquitous and a bit over the top.

In fact, most meetings end with everyone holding hands in a circle saying the prayer of Jesus Christ from the New Testament book of Matthew, aka “The Lords Prayer.” This is a bit much for some.

In some states, courts have ruled “mandated 12-step attendance is a violation of your rights,” essentially calling it a religion. To that, you’ll hear “AA is not a religion” and “AA is spiritual, not religious” in meetings.  But, prayers, holding hands, chiming in, and the passing of a basket look a lot like to church to almost anyone.

And what of the higher power mentioned in six of the twelve steps themselves? The derivation is clearly Christian if you look at AAs history.  None of this is lost on the aforementioned know-it-alls who constantly speak of God as if everyone is on the same page. They aren’t.

So if you’re an alcoholic Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, or Hindu, I am not sure you will find AA initially welcoming. The same goes for the agnostic or atheist who will be told they have to find “a power greater than themselves” if they want to stay sober.

But, rest assured, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists have all gotten sober in AA. They recalibrate their expectations a bit and make it work.

So, if talk of God is not your thing, be aware that it is nearly impossible to avoid in AA. Expecting it may help you deal with it.

Amazing Transformations

Arresting alcoholic drinking, even for a short time, can be transformative for most. Through the years, AA has delivered more of these transformative experiences than anywhere else. That’s why courts, doctors, and pastors still send people to AA. It works.

Many in AA have stayed sober for the rest of their lives through “the program.” These folks, in turn, have also helped many others also get sober along the way.  Unproductive lives become productive. Relationships are repaired and new ones initiated.

Please make no mistake; AA actually can and does work for the people it works for. Sadly, this is not everyone.


Concerning AA and the 12 Steps, there is no clear, reliable, and more effective alternative for the treatment of alcoholism.

AA is, for better or worse, the best that is out there. Whether from rehab, the courts, your doctor, or any other ways people come to AA, understanding this context can help you succeed. Hang in there. Don’t be turned off by the know-it-alls and all the God-talk. Expect it. Then, deal with it.

Because, until some new method or treatment for addiction comes around, we’re stuck with AA.  And thank goodness, it works for so many. And, it’s free!

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