I Sent a Bunch of Earth People to Some AA Meetings

Earth people is a colloquial term that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members sometimes use to describe non-alcoholics. It is neither a compliment nor an insult – just a way of separating the kind of person who would drink despite horrific consequences or take ludicrous risks from a person…who wouldn’t.

For the last 10 semesters, I have co-taught a senior level seminar at the Rutgers School of Communication with Lea Stewart, who is both a much loved professor and the Dean of Livingston Campus (she is also a major ally of the Recovery House). The class is Advanced Health Communications (AHC) and we conduct outreach with 1st and 2nd year students to address problem drinking. The outreach campaign is called RU Sure, and we share statistics to let students know what normal drinking looks like. We put theory into practice. Simply put, we let undergraduates know that:

– 2 out of 3 students drink three drinks or less

– and that 1 out of 5 don’t drink at all

Each semester, I teach students about how I diagnose someone with a substance disorder, how alcohol (and drugs) affect the brain, services available on campus, and I bring in a student who is in recovery to tell his or her story. The final part of the class that I am responsible for is that I send all of them to an open 12-step meeting and have them write about it. In their papers, they have to write a paragraph about what they expect the meeting to be like. After they attend the meeting, they have to tell me where they went, the demographics of the meeting, a gist of what was shared (while keeping it completely anonymous) and then their reactions to the entire experience. The 15 students this spring probably did the best job of any class with this assignment, and one student wrote the greatest 12-step reaction paper that I have ever read.

Some highlights from what these Earth people expected:

1) I could just see everyone staring at the “new girl” coming to get help. The uncertainty of what it was going to be like showing my face for the first time at an AA meeting was causing me extreme stress and anxiety. I did not want to go there and have people think I was an alcoholic, or have someone ask me to tell my story and then I would have to awkwardly answer, “I’m here for a class.” As I continued to wonder and worry, I expected everyone to be quiet or sad.

2) I was very nervous. I didn’t want to be in a room with older, scummier male alcoholics. I didn’t want to sit through a venting session and I didn’t want to have to awkwardly have to say to the group, “Hi, I’m XXXX and I’m not an alcoholic.”

3) I thought it would look like people in a small room, sitting in a circle, telling each other about their feelings. I also assumed it was going to be a lot of white people, based upon what I’ve seen in the media.

4) In class, we had spoken about how prior alcoholics sometimes turn to caffeine or cigarettes to ease their cravings. Therefore, I was expecting to see some people smoking outside of the building. I was also expecting coffee to be provided at the meeting.

5) I figured it would be a group of people sitting in a circle half talking about the struggles or temptations they’ve had to stay sober, and the other half not wanting to say anything. I imagined AA to be therapy or catharsis for those involved, but lacking in positivity.

6) For some reason, I picture gray folding chairs in a circle and people open to anything. Everyone is willing to share and not afraid to cry. I expect to see only a handful of people, but amongst those that are at the meeting there is a leader – someone who organizes and was previously certified to host these meetings.

7) I was amazed at the amount of meetings available to me within a five-mile radius.

8) Going into this meeting I feel especially anxious to see a large population of college students because I think it will make me feel sad and upset that such young kids are dealing with addiction; although I really feel sad thinking about any person of any age having addiction.

And their reactions to their actual AA experience:

1) It made me upset when a member mentioned that he would constantly drive drunk. I was shocked to learn that many members attend daily meetings, regardless of being sober more than five years. Lastly, it was interesting to hear how God and prayer are both a large focus in these meetings. Since I come from a religious family, I enjoyed hearing about God’s presence in the members when they spoke.

2) AA continues to exhibit the patriarchal monotheistic society of its origins. AA is not as open as it would have you believe. The literature may profess a higher power of your understanding, but it continues to address that high power as God and Him.

3) …I’m a complete stranger and she seemed so happy to see a new face here and welcomed me.

4) …after the meeting, almost everyone went outside for a smoke, which kind of threw off the whole vibe I was getting where people come here to fix problems and not just to replace them with something else.

5) The family-feel and the work those involved put in just gave off a really positive vibe. It put a new perspective on alcoholism for me and took away the stereotype I had in mind of what meetings are like.

6) One thing that stood out to me about the speakers was that they were really humble. They did not credit their recovery solely to their own strength and abilities, but made sure to recognize the major role that their loved ones, AA community, sponsors and/or higher power had in their journey.

7) I was really impressed with one guy who had been sober for 20 years. I thought that was amazing because I cannot imagine the amount of dedication that this took for him. Some people’s stories made me tear up a bit and I have a new appreciation for people going through this struggle. The people at these meetings are like one big family. It was very welcoming and I felt so comfortable the entire time.

8) I was surprised to find out what a big role God plays in AA, and at first I was a little taken aback by this factor, but I came to better understand the concept of “God as we understand him,” especially when one of the speakers shared that he does not believe in God. He was able to make the program work for him though. Besides that, I think the biggest impact this meeting left on me was seeing that anyone can be an alcoholic.

9) It was disappointing to see the speaker as the only Latino besides myself.

10) It made me realize that I should learn to practice empathy.

11) It was surprisingly difficult to find the meeting.

12) I realized that although they have a problem I do not have, I am more similar to them than I could ever imagine.

13) I could tell these people really cared for each other and wanted the best for each other.

14) One small thing happened on my way to the meeting. I got lost and met a girl who was also trying to find it. Her name was XXXX, she was an alcoholic and this was her first time coming to this meeting. I helped her find the building and we walked in together. This interaction immediately made me think about all the times I have been new somewhere and hadn’t been so graciously received and welcomed. Overall, and maybe most importantly, after leaving the meeting I can truly stand behind the RU Sure message for the first time and feel authentic doing it. When I came into the class,  I was afraid that I would look like a hypocrite campaigning for safe drinking when I went out and drank, but I realized that I do drink safely and when I drink unsafely I really hate it and end up regretting it. These experiences make me feel ready to be an active part of RU Sure, eager to help people and well-equipped to educate students.