Members of Alcoholics Anonymous are marking its 75th anniversary, but what really goes on inside the group’s meetings?
David looks, in a word, respectable.
Bespectacled, and in a polo shirt and khaki shorts, he could be any respectable middle-aged man.
He sits in a circle of other respectable-looking people in a church hall in a well-to-do part of Washington. Without knowing the context, as he prepares to speak, one might guess that this was a heritage group, ready to save a historic warehouse, or a meeting of concerned residents, demanding traffic-calming measures.
Instead, when David opens his mouth, he starts to talk about his first use of drugs at the age of 12.
Later he talks about his conscious decision to drink himself to death.
There is the revelation of small-time drug smuggling trips to South America and a life of profound lows.
But he has an easy eloquence.
“I have fond memories of the moronic quality of being drunk,” he says.
“My story is getting far away mentally. It is almost like the Peloponnesian War now.”
One gum-chewing, room-dominating woman contrasts life as a high-powered sober Washingtonian with her previous pre-AA life in a series of expansive arm gestures. Another man quietly and movingly recounts his son’s troubles with the law.
It’s impossible to say whether these individuals were always raconteurs or whether their storytelling matured as they took the 12 Steps.
Certain lines provoke laughter in the group.
“The only thing I knew for sure about my problem was it wasn’t a drinking problem,” deadpans one man. “I knew you had to drink too much to have a drinking problem and I could never drink enough.”
There are other phrases that are reverentially repeated. Life became “unmanageable” and a “higher power” has been at work.
A 70-year-old salesman talks about a life where money was made in computers but years were lost to vodka.
A woman talks of her travels and a reassuring fact. “There are rooms like this all over the world where crazy people get to talk.”
Of the 11 men and three women in the room, eight have been sober for more than 20 years.
And their meeting is in a long tradition that stretches back to 10 June 1935, to the day Robert Smith – better known as Dr Bob – had his last drink. He had been working with AA co-founder Bill Wilson, now usually referred to as Bill W.
The organisation they created has helped millions give up drinking and rebuild their lives.
And the meetings, with the 12-Step Programme that is at the heart of AA, are familiar even to those who have had nothing to do with the group.
Countless depictions on film and television have familiarised people with what goes on at the meetings and the familiar formulation “I’m X and I’m an alcoholic”.
The organisation has its critics. There are those who disagree with the founding idea that alcoholism is a disease, a compulsion that the individual can do nothing about.
Others dislike the Christian nature of the group. The 12 Steps talk of God “as you understood him”.
Jack Trimpey, who runs his own programme Rational Recovery, is a trenchant critic.
“We do object that it is a bad religion, one in which people profess powerlessness against their bodily desires. We are not powerless. We have a moral duty to cease and desist once it is shown.
“It has been a massive inversion of public thinking that has entered the mainstream media.
“People do feel shame and guilt when they do things that are bad. In AA you learn to be shameless and guiltless.”
He prefers to call himself a former “bad drunk” and speaks of an alternative approach that calls for “zero tolerance in the family”.
Having been sober for many year, he dislikes the typical AA attitude towards that.
“It’s not an accomplishment – common decency is no accomplishment.”
But for the people at the AA meetings, common decency – and everything else good in life – is an accomplishment.
Jonathan speaks of the single day in 1987 when he first had a moment of happiness. And he knows how it must be maintained.
“I pray and I meditate, and I couple that with working with other alcoholics.”
People at the group seem to have no problem with the varied application of the religious element of AA. There are atheist and agnostic groups, but it’s hard to get away from the references to God in the 12 Steps that are at the heart of AA.
The softly-spoken Stan explains: “The higher power is not just the god of your understanding, it is the people in the room.”
And those other people are the key, one woman admits.
“It works because everything I attempted to do about drinking by myself never worked.
“By coming into AA I was able to get support to not drink – people who think exactly like me, that common bond.”