December 21, 2011
The newcomer is the most important person in the room. Where did that come from?
It goes back to AA member #3, Bill D. “The Man on the Bed” is an oil painting created by Robert M. for the A.A. Grapevine; it was reproduced as the center-spread in the December 1955 issue. In the artist’s rendition, the man on the bed may not literally be Bill D, but that’s the guy facing us.
Bill D had been trying to get sober. He had been medically detoxed six times in less than a year. Religion – that didn’t work. He was a deacon at his church. He was the classic one who believed in god but was quite sure God did not believe in him.
Bob and Bill were desperately trying to stay sober themselves. They knew their sobriety depended on talking to another suffering alcoholic. According to Ernie Kurtz in his history of AA, “Not God,” Mrs. D told her alcohol-poisoned husband, “part of the plan these two drunks had for staying sober themselves was to tell their plan to another drunk: that was how they were going to stay sober.” Later Bill D would reflect, “All the other people that had talked to me wanted to help me, and my pride prevented me from listening to them, and caused only resentment on my part, but I felt as if I would be a real stinker if I did not listen to a couple of fellows for a short time, if that would cure them.”
So Bill D let the first two AA members help him, for their own good initially. Only later did he realize that these two could help him; they had been where he had been, felt what he had felt and experienced that overwhelming despair that only another alcoholic can describe. But these drunks were sober. Maybe, just maybe, he could stay sober too.
When we are new we hear, “Welcome to the newcomer; you’re the most important person in the room.” We think that’s cute. It feigns humility and it’s great soft-selling for this outfit. But the truth is the newcomers are essential. Even back in the early days, there were no old-timers, no clichés, no slogans, Steps or 164 pages to quote chapter and verse. There was just the need to give it away in order to keep it, and it worked for most who were earnest.
I believe there is a spiritual conversion in recovery. It is not religious. When I turned the corner from despair to hope it was while connecting with another alcoholic. My despair was transformed by their hope. I was converted. If we believe in God, we weave His grace into the narrative; sobriety goes well with God. But mysticism isn’t necessary to explain spiritual conversion in recovery.
There are none so righteous as the recently converted. Think of how little experience the first AA sponsors had. I hear a lot of people say that you have to have worked the Steps to carry the message; bullshit. There are some great reasons to work the Steps. They are life altering. But the newcomer will settle for credentials of looking and smelling good, showing up when we say we will and demonstrating an expectation of staying sober tomorrow.
That’s awesome. That sounds too good to be true. No new member needs to hear our inventory or get references from our amends list to see if we “have worked the Steps thoroughly and are qualified to carry the message.”
What makes this an egoless, anonymous program is that anyone can carry the message. We are not a fellowship of men and women who share a universal experience. We all experience the Steps in an individual way. The newcomer seeks a modicum of hope, not five-star credentials.
Back to the recently converted, I was one who wasn’t sure I was going to stick around. But my cousin was a real addict/alcoholic who had to get sober or die. I don’t know if that is true. I believed that she was at risk and she needed my help. So I told her how it was, I told her I was an alcoholic and that one day at a time, “Yes we can,” or something like that. My cousin got me sober. I don’t know exactly what got her sober.
AA population has flat-lined. It isn’t lost on me that if I was taking a newcomer to a meeting, out for coffee to talk recovery I wouldn’t be pontificating on why AA is the same or smaller in population since 1991. That’s 20 years of no growth. For the 20 years before that, we doubled in size twice, from under 500,000 to 2 Million. From 51 to 71 it grew ten-fold.
12,000 treatment centers pour graduates into our meetings each month in the USA alone. Every one of these treatment grads knows more about alcoholism and treatment than the first three members accumulated until the day they died. Why isn’t AA growing? Do we no longer treat the newcomer as important? Do they not need us like they once did? Is AA more of a social club for “recovered” drunks than a place to learn about getting sober? Maybe we point to “the book” or expect someone else is taking new people through the Steps. Maybe we think they will ask when they want to. I don’t know. All I know is that new people are pointed our way and our numbers are flat. Either “the most important people in the room” don’t see a reason to stay or for everyone that gets sober, an old-timer says, “here, have my seat. I have had enough.”