There’s a certain church in my town, and maybe in yours, where every weekday as noon approaches you see a man, and then another and another, shuffle out into the middle of the parking lot near a telephone pole and stop there, smoking cigarettes. Some cars pull up and the group gets a little bigger. You hear the thrumming of a Harley as a man with long gray hair arrives, wearing a sleeveless levi jacket with an MC patch. Then a black-haired woman in a blue bandanna parks her motorcycle, too. An overweight, middle-aged man stands off to the side, talking loudly to no one in particular. Nobody seems to mind. Another man on a bicycle, with a crate strapped to a rack behind the seat, chains his ride to the handicap railing. Soon there’s maybe a dozen men and women standing there, talking around the telephone pole in the parking lot. By noon or a little after they’ll toss their cigarettes into a coffee can and shamble into the church, and then down into a large room in the basement where six long tables have been arranged into a rectangle, with chairs all around it. “The Noon Unity in Recovery” meeting is about to begin.
These people aren’t wearing church clothes, although you might see a suit now and then, or a nice dress. They range in age from maybe 18 to half past dead. They don’t look like the people you see in television commercials, enjoying some product that they want you to buy. They look like your neighbor, or somebody from the other side of town; from the highway or the railroad yard, from across the counter or beyond your back fence. One or two of them might look a lot like you.
Most weekdays I’ll be at this twelve-step meeting. I call it my “nooner”.
A lot of times when someone wants to tell you about twelve-step meetings, they tend to talk about the twelve steps themselves, or the published literature of the fellowships, such as the “Big Book” and the “Twelve and Twelve”. That seems like the obvious thing to do, to both outsiders and twelve-steppers themselves. But the reason that I go to my nooner doesn’t have much to with the literature. It’s the community of people that I become a part of when I go down in that basement and sit down. There’s some magic at work there that brought me back after the very first time, without knowing anything, and that keeps me coming back after three and a half years. So I thought about that and I came up with what I’m going to call my “Ten Implicit Precepts” of twelve-step groups.
- There isn’t any boss
- Everybody is welcome
- Everybody gets to have their say
- You don’t have to agree with anything
- You don’t have to pay a dime
- Nobody is better than anybody
- You always deserve another chance
- Helping others is crucial
- Only you can find your spiritual path
- You are worth the trouble
I’m going to talk about of these in turn, to explain them and their significance more fully. I’ll reference AA literature where it occurs to me, but I’ll let others find the origins of perhaps all of my precepts in the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve and elsewhere. For my purpose, it doesn’t matter if some precept exists in the literature, if it doesn’t find expression in the actual life of the group. This is just how it looks to me, and not claimed to be authoritative in any way.
There isn’t any boss
The nooner has four laminated documents that we read at each meeting. How it Works (which includes the steps), the Traditions, the Promises, and a document for the chairperson of the meeting. The person who makes the coffee lays the documents on one of the tables and whoever walks in and picks one up has the job of reading it, including the one for the chairperson. But even the ad hoc chairperson isn’t the boss of anything, except leading the meeting. AA, the original twelve-step fellowship, has an explicit tradition that all the groups are autonomous, and that “our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern”. That anarchic spirit flows all the way down in most groups— certainly it does in my nooner. Technically the ultimate authority is said to be “a loving God”, but since nobody gets to speak to anyone but himself on god’s behalf, that point is moot. Nobody’s in charge. And this is not just technically true, but is apparent in the feel of the room, and the demeanor of its occupants. Bossless though we be, things almost always go pretty smoothly, even though many of us have proven ourselves to be not so great at following rules. I’d guess probably a quarter of us are ex-cons, and three quarters have spent at least a night in jail. When I think about it, it seems quite remarkable. I challenge you to find a group of people who have been thrown out of more places for disruptive behavior, often in handcuffs and yet, put us together in this room with no boss and we become the epitome of civilized behavior. Pretty much.
Everybody is welcome
Literally anybody can walk into the nooner and get a cup of coffee and sit down. But what if you have a psychological condition that makes you carry on conversations with yourself out loud all the time? You’re welcome, we can filter that out. Or a condition that causes you to yelp involuntarily a lot? You’re good. Or if you look and smell as though you’ve never taken a bath, basically ever? That’s okay. Let’s just say we have a high tolerance for human foibles.
And I don’t know this because of some group policy that I’ve read or that somebody has told me about, I know it solely by observation. I’ve watched each of these assertions be tested, time after time.
Of course, if you come in and starting yelling angrily at someone, or start to get in a fight, you’ll have to leave. But come back in a day or two, when you can keep it together. I’ve never seen anyone get 86ed permanently. Do people who aren’t even alcoholic, maybe just people off the street, abuse the hospitality, and come in just for cups of coffee with extra creamer and a bunch of cookies? I don’t know because I can’t read minds, but if they wanted to they’d surely get away with it. I’ve never seen a place that is as dedicated to the principle of welcoming everybody. If you walk in that door, we want you here, end of story.
Everybody gets to have their say
I’ve listened to so many people in these meetings who have a burden in their hearts that they need to share. Some people in recovery say that you should share the “solution” more and the “problem” less, and they get that squinty look at yet another tale of woe, but I don’t agree with that. There’s something beautiful about a whole room of folks falling silent as someone offers up the tale of their struggle, though it be a dark, sad, terrible tale—and it very often is. It is a sacrament, holy in a way deeper than religion; in fact these are the human realities that give religions their only true purpose.
The custom at most twelve-step meetings is for someone who wants to speak to wait for a little space of silence or for someone else to say they are finished, and then to just introduce themselves by first name only and go ahead and talk. There is a very strong custom to keep quiet when another person is talking, and just hear them out. There is also a strong custom against “cross-talk”. This means that one isn’t supposed to direct their comments or questions to a person in the room, inviting a dialogue, but rather to speak in a monologue to the room as a whole. The chairperson for the meeting always suggests a topic; however that topic is routinely set aside when someone has something else they feel they need to talk about, and that is completely acceptable. This safe place for people to share their struggles with a sympathetic audience is a very precious resource and provides a huge pressure valve for the community. I’m certain more than one life has been saved because it’s here.
You don’t have to agree with anything
The Third Tradition of AA is: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” In practice, as I say above, everybody is welcome. It’s not as though you have to promise that you want to stop drinking, or are even asked if you do. I’ve never seen anyone attempt to enforce even this loose requirement in any way. I think what this tradition is trying to say is that you don’t have to agree with anything to be welcomed here. I’ve heard many people say that they don’t like twelve-step meetings because of all the “god talk”, and my friends know that I’ve complained about this quite vehemently myself. But here’s the thing—and I’ve repeatedly tested this out—when it’s my turn to talk, I can say that I don’t believe in any god and don’t intend to, and even that I believe that it is ill-advised, at least for me, to do so. I will be listened to respectfully, and will often hear some people talk later who agree with me. The way I look at it is, this is America and any random sampling of folks is going to have more god-believers in it than not. In my experience the virtues of god-believing will be extensively extolled in most twelve-step meetings. It is a huge tool in the recovery toolbox of many people and so it’s natural they talk about it. That being said, the remarkable thing is the respect with which a differing point of view will be greeted. It amazes me that this principle has been kept so pure and vital. It’s good stuff.
You don’t have to pay a dime
It’s true. They pass a basket at each meeting, and a lot of people put a buck in and a lot don’t. Nobody keeps track. Some meetings even explicitly say, “If you can spare a buck, throw one in. If you need one, take one out.” If contributions were required it would radically change the nature of the meeting. Many people couldn’t attend every day if they had to throw a buck in each time. I think the nooner would literally dwindle away and disappear. But we seem to get along fine with how it’s going. We can afford the coffee and cups and even buy some literature. Nobody ever talks about that at the meeting, though here are members for whom the nooner is their “home group”, who occasionally meet to take care of the purchasing & etc. But for someone just coming in, they never have to think about that stuff at all.
Nobody is better than anybody
My nooner is not a random sampling of the population. For one thing, it takes place at noon on weekdays. We don’t get a lot of people who work during the day, although we do get some who come in on their lunch hour. So we probably have more than our share of retired people and people on disability. We also get plenty of those who have been recently incarcerated and haven’t found employment yet. We have some people who work in the service industry at night. Also, the nooner takes place in a certain American city, and in a certain neighborhood within that city, which some would say isn’t a particularly good neighborhood.
I was tempted to say that we get people from all walks of life at the nooner, and from the entire range of the economic scale, but if I were to tell you that, it would be less than true. To be honest, the lower end of the economic spectrum is definitely emphasized at the nooner. I can tell you this though: if someone walked in showing obvious signs of wealth, we’d make them as welcome as anyone else.
The nooner is truly a classless society, as hard as that is to believe in this “money talks, bullshit walks” world of ours. If you walk in that door, we consider you one of us, no questions asked. Some will take a first look and think, “I’m not like these people. I just had a little problem with a substance; that doesn’t bring me down to this level.” They aren’t going to be happy at the nooner, because we are not going to put them in the position they think they deserve, although we wouldn’t be even a little embarrassed to be seen consorting with them. If you think you’re better than somebody, this isn’t the place for you. But if you could use “a chip and a hug” and to be accepted like a brother or sister, welcome home.
You always deserve another chance
In case you didn’t know, the statistics for twelve-step programs keeping you clean and sober are pretty crappy. As far as I know, the statistics for the alternatives are no better. The thing is: the odds are against any addict getting and staying clean. To bet on us is always a sucker’s bet.
When you’re in recovery for a while, you’ll see a lot of people come and go, and a lot of people go back out and come back, again and again. You’re tempted to get cynical about it and say, that guy isn’t going to change. But then you hear some “old-timers”, with two or more decades of solid sobriety. They tell about how they relapsed again and again, and went to prison and lost a hundred jobs and lived in a box—but then one day it finally kicked in, and who knows why? And now here they are, awesome people, cornerstones of the recovery community. And these are people you would have written off. So at the nooner we have come to see that transformation is never likely but it is always possible, and you can’t write anybody off. You never know where the magic is going to happen next.
Helping others is important and good
A common way to summarize “the program” that I hear all the time is, “Trust God, clean house, help others.” I’m one who is uncomfortable with the word, “God”, although I no longer call myself an atheist, and so I replace “God” with “good” or “your deepest convictions”, or something similar. That part is up to you (see next section), but the part I want to call attention to here is helping others, which has a central place in all the twelve-step fellowships and in my nooner in particular. There are occasional conflicts of course, and malicious gossip and other drama, but caring for each other is a value that is manifested in the things we say and in the way we behave, especially toward the newcomer. “We are not saints,” as it says in the Big Book, but we walk the walk as well or better than any, I believe.
Only you can find your spiritual path
A key value at the nooner is that no one can lecture you about your God, or higher power, or highest purpose, etc, whatever you choose to call it, if you call it anything at all. You’ll hear a lot about God in twelve-step meetings, and there are plenty of people with a pronounced proclivity for dogmatism. But in my experience even they will recognize that each person has to figure out their own take on these things. Any religious conviction (or lack thereof) is as valid as any other in our eyes, and discovering and following a spiritual path is the private work of every individual in the program. It must be respected by all. This isn’t just a principle buried in the literature somewhere, but something that is in the air we breathe in that room whenever we gather.
You are worth the trouble
Last thing, and the most fundamental and important: no matter what havoc you have wreaked,
lies you have told, laws you have broken, lives you have destroyed—all of which you are responsible for, and for which amends must be made—as long as you are a human being walking this planet, you are as yet entrusted with the gift of life and your piece of it is as precious as anyone else’s. You have not only the right, but the duty not to squander it—whether it spans five minutes or fifty years. If you’re alive, you are worth the trouble of transformation.
And you’re worth our trouble. So keep coming back.