Addictions Anonymous, 23: Group Traditions And Management
This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.
Not long after A.A. was founded in
in the 1930s, meetings began to experience problems with personalities
and procedures. Recovering alcoholics proved to be a tough group to
lead without firm rules. They all knew they needed a group for support
in their difficult path to recovery, but most addicts live lives on
their own terms for years before seeking help. Molding oneself to the
ideas of a group was a problem for many. On the basis of early
experiences, A.A. developed twelve very simple rules to govern
individual chapter meetings. I recommend that the ideas in each of
these traditions be adopted in one form or another in all self-help
groups for addicts. Should there ever be an organization called
Addictions Anonymous, the members would quickly accumulate experience
and be in a good position to write specific rules or traditions. At
this point, I will suggest only that the basic ideas evolved in
Alcoholics Anonymous be given serious consideration. The exact wording
of the A.A. Traditions is easily obtained from any local library, from
meetings of A.A. or from the Internet, and I need not repeat them here.
Idea Number One: Unity of purpose. A
self-help group exists for only one primary purpose: to help the addict
achieve abstinence and develop a rewarding life. The time and energy of
the group must go exclusively to this individual work. It's what it
does very well. The list of things the group cannot do well and should
not attempt is long. A twelve step group is not primarily a social club
although it can improve social skills. It is not a place to get a loan,
buy a car, find a job, or pick up a soul mate. It is not designed to
change or educate society. All these missions may be worthy causes, but
there are better ways of doing them and organizations better equipped
for those tasks.
Idea Number Two: Living with an authority.
One of the most difficult tasks for the addict is the subjugation of
individual will—the big ego—to the power of some higher authority such
as the wisdom of the group. The original A.A. traditions spoke of a
loving God as the ultimate authority. The idea was that this mystical
authority would express itself in what the called group conscious. The
collective wisdom of the peer group usually is, in fact, superior to
the judgment of the individual addict. Difficult as that may be to
admit, it almost always is true. We can argue about where that wisdom
comes from, but does it matter so long as the member is willing and
able to bend personal will to the voice of the group? The
group, and the group's consensus or conscious, becomes all the higher
power we need to get things going in the right direction. Religious
language should be avoided so that each member can decide on a personal
The second A.A. tradition also spoke of group leaders being trusted servants
who do not govern. There is, perhaps, a group secretary and a treasurer
who keeps track of donations and buys the literature they distribute,
but there is never a president, chief executive officer, or central
decision maker. There isn't even a permanent chairperson since, in many
groups; members take turns leading the meetings. All problems are group
problems to be solved by discussing and consensus. A self-help group
must be a true democracy.
Idea Number Three: Open Membership. Membership
is open without reservation to any addict with the desire to stop using
and, I would add, who can conform to basic standards of social conduct.
Problems emerge when certain people attend infrequently and then
pretend to be experts. Other people will take as much time as possible
for personal stories causing the chair person to use the gavel and
limit the time each may speak. Foul and abusive language can cause big
problems. In very rare cases, the group my have to call in civil
authorities to control violent or obnoxious members. Most groups
tolerate members who are still using, and even those who may come to
meetings intoxicated or high on some drug so long as that person does
not disrupt a meeting. Coming intoxicated to a meeting is to be
discouraged, of course, since little can be learned in such a condition.
The big problem is, of course, asking a
chairperson to impose order, something many recovering people find very
hard to do. This is certainly a time for tough love.
There are no age, sex, financial, race,
educational or religious standards to be met, although is may be
possible to create special age defined criteria since young people may
gain more in a group of peers.
Usually, the goal of a group is total abstinence, and so the old phrase desire to stop
is incompatible with the goal of moderate use. Not that moderation is
impossible for many, but if someone states that as a personal goal,
conflict and argument are almost sure to follow in an
abstinence-oriented program. Group unity will suffer, and so the person
with a desire to continue moderate use of an addictive should be
referred to a program that advertises that as a goal.
Membership is never extended to non-addicts although there may be so-called open
meetings at which curious members of the news media as well as
students, health care providers and even family members may attend with
the appropriate caution to respect anonymity.
Idea Number Four: Group autonomy. Other
than the organization's approved literature, there is no central
authority that governs different meetings. If there is a central
office, as there is in Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous, it
serves mostly as a provider of information and literature to different
groups and to the interested public. A central office may also plan and
organized regional and national meetings. Individual meetings
contribute funds from time to time for the support of a central office.
Sometimes there is an elected board of trustees which deliberates
problems that affect all meetings and approves any needed changes in
program literature. Always, however, the central office volunteers
serve as trusted servants, not as rulers and never with a profit motive.
Idea Number Five: Limited purpose. The
wording of the original Fifth Tradition talked of carrying the message
of hope to the addict (alcoholic) who still suffers. Addictions in the
past were regarded as hopeless problems from which people seldom
recovered. The fact that there are groups of people who are, in fact,
successfully abstemious does inspire hope for many beaten down addicts.
When William Wilson reached his bottom, he desperately wanted to talk
to another alcoholic knowing that another addict would understand and,
through that understanding, be able to offer at least a sympathetic
acceptance. So, that's basically what groups do, they provide an
understanding audience for the addict who needs to tell his or her
story but does not want the usual lecture and ineffective advice. This
tradition speaks of carrying the message to other addicts, not to the
world or to newspapers, families, people on the street, or to any
outside groups. It is definitely not a call for crusading, evangelistic
Idea Number Six: A spiritual program. The
basic belief is that a radical change in thinking—call it a spiritual
recovery, if you like—is basic to abstinence and personal growth. Any
material or worldly focus will distract from that effort. The group
does nothing outside the group except, possibly, something that
promotes the recovery an individual member. The group does not endorse,
fund or sponsor any outside activity. It takes no position on anything
such as politics, financing, or business.
Idea Number Seven: Group independence. Each
group is financially independent and takes no funds from any outside
source. Although a collection may be taken at each meeting, donations
are never required of members. In fact, if the group is using donated
space in a church or public library, it may decide to offer a small
donation to the landlord.
Idea Number Eight: The group as non-professional. There
are no special privileges and no payments to group officers. From time
to time professional counselors may turn up at meetings seeking
clients, and they should be politely asked to leave unless they are
there for their own recovery. Even members of religious orders should
attend in civilian clothing. Titles such as Doctor and Reverend should
not be used. If a self-help group is attached to a professional
treatment program, as may happen if the meeting uses space provided by
a treatment facility, professional staff, if they attend the meetings,
should do so as recovering addicts for their own sake, not a therapists
or patient supervisors. Outside professionals have no authority in a
Idea Number Nine: Service boards or committees are directly responsible to those they serve.
A service board exists to serve, and for no other reason. Sometimes,
outside groups and schools ask for speakers, and a service board might
arrange this. News media often seek information. Home interventions may
be planned. Many demands may be placed on a self-help group, and the
need to deal with problems can arise from within and without of the
group. But, there is no general government.
Idea Number Ten: Neutrality on all outside issues.
The self-help group never takes a firm stand on any issue not directly
related to the needs of it members. It never endorses products, never
takes money from outside donors, does not back political candidates,
favors no particular religion, and so forth. Unity and focus are easily
ruined by controversy over outside issues, so they are scrupulously
Idea Number Eleven: Attraction rather than promotion. Meetings
are announced, often in newspapers and bulletin boards, but there is no
hard selling and no crusading for new members. Groups are usually very
tolerant and welcome so-called backsliders when they choose to return.
This tradition is based on the important idea that recovery is a
choice; it cannot be forced on others. The group makes the outside
world aware of it presence in terms of meeting times and places, and
that's all. The rest is up to the practicing addict.
Idea Number Twelve: Anonymity is spirituality.
Shame has nothing to do with belonging to a twelve step self-help
group. Most members have little to hide anyway since most of the
important people in life are painfully familiar with what addiction has
done to their loved one. Those who do not know about a person's
addiction problem don't need to know, so it is almost never necessary
to talk about membership to outsiders. Beyond that, anonymity is based
on humility. Over the years of working with addicts, I frequently heard
comments such as, "I'm going to tell you a story that…
will knock your socks off…
will be worth publishing…
would make a great movie…
will top anything you've heard…"
Such boasting is ego talking. After hearing one
horror story after another over the years, they all start sounding the
same—horrible, but all very similar, except the details. My advice is
to tell your story to the group and leave it there. One of the greatest
themes in all of literature is the story of death and redemption. Yes,
we need to hear the downfall and ruin part, but what is most important
and often neglected is the redemption part, the return to or first
discovery of normal living.