Each and every one of us was a newcomer to recovery at one point or another. Some people have a tendency to forget this when they have been sober for a while. In our eyes, this is likely at least one of the reasons you see so many people who seem to be just fine, only to relapse after a year or so of sobriety. It’s just human nature that we sometimes become too self-congratulatory. To prevent this from happening, we have to remember what it was like for the newcomers. And to remember what it was like, we have to spend some time around them so that we can hold a mirror up to ourselves and remember the early days.
In working with newcomers, whether at meetings or simply by observing those who enter into our programs, we have benefited from many memories. And one which sticks out is simply how frightening it can be to enter sobriety for the first time. Perhaps we get sober through AA or NA, groups that many people in the outside world have referred to as “cults.” This unfair reputation has kept many from becoming sober. But regardless of your views on this, there is no shortage of other reasons for which newcomers might enter recovery with some trepidation.
Each of these reasons must be addressed. In order to help answer the questions of newcomers to sobriety, AA released a pamphlet back in 1980. The leaflet known as “A Newcomer Asks…” is designed to answer any burning questions you may have if you have never entered into sobriety through such a program before. We would like to publish some of the questions answered to newcomers here, while also adding our own two cents to some of the answers provided by AA. We hope that this will be of use to those newcomers who are now contemplating sobriety for the first time.
A Newcomer Asks…
The first question in the pamphlet is one that many newcomers ask themselves (often more than once) from the very first moment that it is suggested they have a problem: “Am I an alcoholic?” The leaflet states:
If you repeatedly drink more than you intend or want to, if you get into trouble, or if you have memory lapses when you drink, you may be an alcoholic.
Only you can decide. No one in A.A. will tell you whether you are or not.
Some may have arguments against this reasoning. Many people have gotten into trouble without drinking excessively or suffering memory lapses. Drugs and alcohol tend to lower our inhibitions, and even casual users may occasionally suffer consequences. But if someone close to you has suggested that you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol, it is likely that they saw something in you which you may not be able to see in yourself. This is definitely worth considering.
Another way of putting this, in somewhat humorous fashion, is as follows—if someone spoke to you about bullfrogs, would you wonder if you were a bullfrog? Likely not. So if hearing people talk about drugs and alcohol causes you to wonder if you are an addict or alcoholic, it is likely that your subconscious already knows the answer. Many newcomers struggle with this until they take Step One, so do not feel bad if you are facing the same dilemma. If you really aren’t sure, try looking at our article on common signs of addiction and see if you can recognize any of these signs in yourself. But again, the fact that you feel a need to read such an article might be a fairly strong indication.
The second question: “What can I do if I am worried about my drinking?”
Seek help. Alcoholics Anonymous can help.
This is, of course, a fairly obvious answer. If you suffer from drug addiction, then you might try NA instead of AA, although AA groups who follow the Third Tradition in earnest should be accepting of you if there are no NA groups in your area. You can also contact us if you think the problem has gotten bad enough that you might need treatment.
“What is Alcoholics Anonymous?”
We are a Fellowship of men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking and have found ourselves in various kinds of trouble as a result of drinking. We attempt—most of us successfully—to create a satisfying way of life without alcohol. For this we find we need the help and support of other alcoholics in A.A.
There’s really not much we can add to this. You might be wondering about the Twelve Steps and why they are not mentioned in this answer, and the reason is simple—the Twelve Steps are merely suggestions. Many believe they are necessary, but they are not technically required of you.
“If I go to an A.A. meeting, does that commit me to anything?”
No. A.A. does not keep membership files, or attendance records. You do not have to reveal anything about yourself. No one will bother you if you don’t want to come back.
This ties into our answer above. All that is required of you is a desire to stop drinking. Even then, you may attend your first meeting out of sheer curiosity. This is fine. If you get something out of it, keep coming back. All newcomers must make this decision on their own, and nobody can pressure them into it. Unlike they pamphlet says, there may be some people who try to persuade the newcomers to come back. Such people can come across as heavy-handed, and this is often frowned upon. In general, we trust that any newcomers who want what the program has to offer will find their way back without coercion.
“What happens if I meet people I know?”
They will be there for the same reason you are there. They will not disclose your identity to outsiders. At A.A. you retain as much anonymity as you wish. That is one of the reasons we call ourselves Alcoholics Anonymous.
This is important. Your anonymity is yours to give away. It does not belong to anyone else. If you wish to be open with people you know, then that is entirely your business. But nobody else should be “outing” newcomers to mutual friends or colleagues. It is our great fear that such action would drive many newcomers away, and possibly prevent them from becoming sober. If someone else breaks your anonymity, you have the right to respectfully confront them. Never be afraid to set boundaries for yourself, especially those which are promised to you from the moment you walk through the doors of your support group.
“What happens at an A.A. meeting?”
An A.A. meeting may take one of several forms, but at any meeting you will find alcoholics talking about what drinking did to their lives and personalities, what actions they took to help themselves, and how they are living their lives today.
This is about as thorough a description as was ever offered. See our guide on telling your story for more information regarding how your share might be formatted. That guide is more pertinent to sharing at a speaker meeting, but you may apply many of its lessons to brief shares in open discussion meetings as well.
Also note that meetings are a great place to expand your support network. We firmly believe that groups such as AA and NA thrive on the unity of the fellowship, as per Tradition One. So talk to people whose shares you enjoyed, get a phone list, and don’t be afraid to utilize the tools you are being given. They might save your life someday.
“How can this help me with my drinking problem?”
We in A.A. know what it is like to be addicted to alcohol, and to be unable to keep promises made to others and ourselves that we will stop drinking. We are not professional therapists. Our only qualification for helping others to recover from alcoholism is that we have stopped drinking ourselves, but problem drinkers coming to us know that recovery is possible because they see people who have done it.
This is at the heart of the service work we do in AA. We understand that relational empowerment is at the heart of how this program works, and we do our best to set a good example. Many of us begin shares by telling the group our sobriety date. We mostly do this to remind ourselves to maintain gratitude for the new lease on life that we have been given, but we also do it so that newcomers can benefit from knowing that there truly is a solution.
“Why do A.A.s keep on going to meetings after they are cured?”
We in A.A. believe there is no such thing as a cure for alcoholism. We can never return to normal drinking, and our ability to stay away from alcohol depends on maintaining our physical, mental, and spiritual health. This we can achieve by going to meetings regularly and putting into practice what we learn there. In addition, we find it helps us to stay sober if we help other alcoholics.
This speaks to the nature of the disease itself. The prologue to the Big Book of AA notes that our allergy to drugs and alcohol is comprised of physical cravings and mental obsession. Long after the detoxification process, our physical cravings may be gone—but the mental obsession still remains. It may not always show on the surface, but we see it as simply having gone into remission. We have to maintain a strong relapse prevention program if we want to keep emotional disturbance and other relapse triggers from getting the best of us. This is something that all newcomers should learn early on.
“How do I join A.A.?”
You are an A.A. member if and when you say so. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking, and many of us were not very wholehearted about that when we first approached A.A.
In other words, all newcomers are welcome. Never feel like you have to become something or someone else just to enter into recovery. If newcomers work a solid program, they will experience such changes over time.
“How much does A.A. membership cost?”
There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership. An A.A. group will usually have a collection during the meeting to cover expenses, such as rent, coffee, etc., and to this all members are free to contribute as much or as little as they wish.
Contributions are a part of Tradition Seven, and they may put some people off. There may be newcomers who feel as if they are being watched, that there is some external pressure to contribute. But we understand that many newcomers are down on their luck when they first enter the doors of AA or NA. Contribute if you can, but do not feel bad if you currently have nothing to offer.
“Is A.A. a religious organization?”
No. Nor is it allied with any religious organization.
We believe that religion may complement true faith, but it is not necessarily the source. Spirituality comes from within you. Only you can find the best way of tapping into it.
“There’s a lot of talk about God, though, isn’t there?”
The majority of A.A. members believe that we have found the solution to our drinking problem not through individual willpower, but through a power greater than ourselves. However, everyone defines this power as he or she wishes. Many people call it God, others think it is the A.A. group, still others don’t believe in it at all. There is room in A.A. for people of all shades of belief and nonbelief.
You will wind up developing your own concept of a Higher Power when you work on Step Two and Step Three. If this takes you a while, then that is fine. Take as long as you wish. It is far better to spend a little bit of extra time in these steps than to rush your recovery and run the risk of not getting the most out of it. On the rare odd occasion, newcomers may run into some aggressive members who try to define their Higher Power for them. Pay them no mind. It’s none of their business what you choose to believe or not to believe.
“Can I bring my family to an A.A. meeting?”
Family members or close friends are welcome at “Open” A.A. meetings. Discuss this with your local contact.
It is not uncommon for newcomers to bring a friend or family member to their first few meetings. It helps them settle in, and puts the family at ease that their loved one is truly attending these meetings. Newcomers will usually find open meetings listed on district meeting lists. Some newcomers are uncomfortable sharing around non-addicts and non-alcoholics, however, so proceed with caution. At some point, you will have to learn to attend these meetings on your own.
“What advice do you give new members?”
In our experience, the people who recover in A.A. are those who:
(a) stay away from the first drink;
(b) attend A.A. meetings regularly;
(c) seek out the people in A.A. who have successfully stayed sober for some time;
(d) try to put into practice the A.A. program of recovery;
(e) obtain and study the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous.
This is a pretty comprehensive list, with one omission: get a sponsor. Newcomers should not dawdle in this pursuit. A sponsor can help you work the Twelve Steps, and is there to provide you with advice when you need it. Newcomers who take too long to seek sponsorship sometimes find themselves returning to alcoholism or addiction in a short period of time. Do not run this risk.
Some Extra Advice
The above covers most of the leaflet in question, but newcomers should still seek a copy of “A Newcomer Asks…” if they can get their hands on one. Not only is it available online, but many can find a hard copy if their particular AA group carries extensive literature. In addition to the above questions, it includes the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, the Declaration of AA Unity, AA’s Responsibility Statement, and information on other pamphlets that you might find helpful.
If you need any extra resources, remember that AA has a website. You should be able to find contact information here if you need it. For those who suffer from drug addiction, NA has a website as well. Again, this should help you find everything you need. And if you’re really stuck, you’ll find our contact information elsewhere on our site. None of these resources should turn you down if you are in need of help.
We know that sobriety can be a scary concept for newcomers who have grown accustomed to their old way of life. But if you seek help, there will be no shortage of people who are willing to guide you. Do not be afraid. You should never fear sobriety, and you should definitely not be afraid of asking questions. It is the only way for newcomers to learn. We wish you the best of luck in your journey, and we welcome you to the fold.