Recovery on the Road

My wife and I decided to set off on a road trip to see what's invariant in the Alcoholics Anonymous experience, regardless of region and culture, and what's novel. We want to catalog the forms of AA, and explore what the differences reveal about the shared experience of sober living.
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Last spring I happened to be in Amsterdam on a business trip, and when I had the chance I stopped by a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have been in recovery from alcohol addiction for many years, so while traveling, whenever I can, I find a local meeting. It offers instant fellowship, no matter where I am, and of course helps me stay sober, one day at a time.

My wife (who is also in the program) and I found a listing of English-language meetings on the Internet and picked one nearby. We expected a meeting full of business travelers, and perhaps some ex-pats. So we were surprised that, other than the two of us, everyone in the meeting was Dutch. When the meeting was over, we chatted with some of the others, and asked them about this. Why not attend one of the many Dutch-language meetings in the city? A few said that they simply wanted to practice their English. but for others the answer was more intriguing: AA, they said, is an American program, with a literature written in English, and should really be practiced in English.

Is this true? This experience got us to thinking: What is distinctively American about 12-step recovery, if anything? There are, of course, some universal principles and practices across AA, but are there also regional and cultural variations, within the U.S. and beyond?

We decided to set off on a road trip to explore these questions -- to see what's invariant in AA experience, regardless of region and culture, and what's novel. We want to catalog the forms of AA, and explore what the differences reveal about the shared experience of sober living.

This is our first dispatch from this reporting trip. (I will be writing these occasional reports, but my wife, Susie, is an equal partner in the reporting.) We are reporting this week from Whitefish, Montana, a town of 6000 or so people located near the western entrance to Glacier National Park. It's a tourist town, focused on outdoor sports. The people of Whitefish seem fit and friendly.

This is also true of the recovering alcoholics, who we met (as 0ften happens) in a church basement. We attended a couple meetings here, and most of what we experienced was familiar -- recitation of the Serenity Prayer, reading of the Preamble and the steps, sharing of experiences. These things can vary from meeting to meeting, but not much. They form the core experience of the fellowship.

Another of the AA pillars is service, and here we did observe an interesting -- and really quite wonderful -- novelty in the Whitefish meeting. Service can take many forms. More experienced members help -- or sponsor -- new members. These are also duties that benefit the fellowship as a whole -- chairing meetings, keeping the books, or simply showing up early to make coffee.

But in Whitefish we saw a different form of service. Someone had made coffee beforehand, and it was on the table in a few large carafes when the meeting began. But during the hour-long meeting, people stood and walked a carafe of coffee around the table, filling mugs. First one person did this, and then another and another, unbidden. They were, as literally as we've ever seen, serving the group.

This may seem like a trivial difference at first, but we believe it is a meaningful evolution of the concept of service--one that adds a dimension to the concept of helping another alcoholic. It requires eye contact and physical closeness. We know from our study of psychology that those subtle forms of human contact can boost well-being in surprising ways, and here we see this personal connection ritualized in an AA church basement.

Our plan is to continue these reports from the road over the months and years ahead, as we travel both in the U.S. and abroad. We hope you will join in our journey of discovery.

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