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[ Opinion ]

Stop Turning Off the Newcomer

I’ve worked in several treatment centres in the last 10 years or so. One thing they all have in common is that they allow clients to go to outside 12 Step meetings. I know when I went to treatment leaving the centre to attend meetings was an important aspect of my treatment as it got me used to going to meetings and feeling comfortable at them. Most 12 Step groups welcome newcomers from treatment centres with open arms but I have noticed some disturbing trends, particularly with some groups within Alcoholics Anonymous, that are turning newcomers off of AA.

I always make it a point to ask clients returning from meetings how they liked it. For the most part the clients report a positive experience but every so often I hear about a negative experience that should never have happened.

A common negative experience is the newcomer feeling put down by a regular AA member when sharing at a discussion meeting. The client will share how they are enjoying their treatment and the beginnings of their recovery. For most people this would be encouraged but for some reason, every so often, some bitter AA member will cross-talk stating that the client/newcomer doesn’t know what recovery is because they are wrapped in a bubble and that when they leave treatment they’ll be in for a fight. Every time I hear this I just shake my head. First of all when sharing at a meeting I’ve been taught to talk about myself and my own experience. I’m not there to give advice on someone else’s situation, especially as I have no idea of the whole picture. Secondly, I go to meetings to offer hope to newcomers not to dissuade them from continuing the journey. Sure there’s hard parts of recovery as life can be hard at times and I have shared the hard times I’ve had in recovery but I’ve also shared how I overcame those hard times through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12 Steps and my Higher Power.

There seems to be a trend by some members of Alcoholics Anonymous to dump on treatment centres. I often hear comments such as, “why go pay thousands to go treatment when you can get it here for free?” Well, with some of the things I’ve heard members say to newcomers it might be a good thing that they are forced to go to meetings while in a 21, 28, 35, etc. day program so the newcomer can experience different meetings and realize that one bad experience does not the Fellowship make.

Another frequent statement I hear from clients is an AA member telling them they are not welcome at the meeting because they introduced themselves as an addict. I fully understand the Primary Purpose ( and respect it. However, a newcomer is ignorant to the traditions and can be allowed some leeway at the beginning. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. If someone identifies as an addict because they consider drinking and drugging all part of addiction (which scientifically it actually is) it’s not our job to tell them to go elsewhere. Especially, if we are guiding them to a different fellowship that doesn’t have that great of a record of recovery. I would be willing to bet that ½ the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is cross-addicted but no one is asking them to leave.

I attended my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous on January 7, 2005 and haven’t seen the need to pick up a drink or drug since. I can’t say what exactly was said at that first meeting (most likely some First Step experiences were shared) but I do remember that I left with a little bit of hope and the knowledge that what I needed to know was written in what everyone in attendance called the Big Book. Everyone at that meeting welcomed me when I arrived and I was swarmed afterward and offered encouragement to keep coming back. When I asked where to get the Big Book I was invited to a meeting the next day and was told by the guy (who would later become a great friend) that he would get me one. I was even told about a great 12 Step themed treatment centre in my area which I ended up attending and that helped lay the foundation for my future recovery.

My usual comment to clients/newcomers when they have had a negative experience at a 12 Step meeting is to advise them not to judge the Fellowship as a whole based on that one experience. Sometimes the person takes my advice and sometimes they don’t – which is crying shame.