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May 1988

The Best of an Awkward Situation

Many AAs can tell horror stories of the colliding egos of recovering alcoholics and those of judges, doctors, and other professionals. Even though all involved are moved by good intentions, the results are often resentments on both sides. The ultimate victims are the unknown numbers of alcoholics who are not referred to AA by professionals whose AA contact has left a bitter aftertaste.

In my community, members of a certain AA group are grateful for a narrow escape from such an incident. Recently the chairman began the closed meeting with the usual preliminaries, then asked if there were any visitors. Instead of the expected first name and identification as an alcoholic from another community, the group heard a visitor announce that he and his companion were counselors from a local university. Concerned about the increasing problem of alcohol and drug abuse among students, they had decided to visit an AA meeting to see how our Fellowship could help.

Never in the chairman's experience had a nonalcoholic so revealed himself in a closed meeting. Uneasily, he made a polite expression of welcome and was about to proceed with the discussion. Aware of the tension on some faces around the table, a member remarked that this was an established closed meeting for alcoholics only. Embarrassed, one of the visitors defensively said they had phoned AA and were directed to this meeting.

In this awkward moment, several turned toward "Clarence," the longest sober member present, who was familiar with AA meetings in many parts of the country. Clarence explained to the visitors that the number they had reached was the intergroup answering service. The operator, a nonalcoholic, was accustomed to giving locations to AAs who didn't care whether meetings were open or closed, and had assumed the callers were members.

A possible solution, he suggested, was to determine by the group conscience whether to declare this meeting an open one just for tonight. As several heads nodded, Clarence added that it would only be fair to ask if any alcoholic present would find it uncomfortable to participate in other than a closed meeting.

A woman broke the silence. Yes, she said quietly, she would find it difficult to express herself with nonmembers present.

The two visitors promptly stood up to leave, apologizing for causing this situation. Immediately, Clarence and others expressed regret for the misunderstanding, which certainly was not the fault of the visitors. They told the counselors their interest in AA was greatly appreciated, and gave them the location of an open meeting being held that same night.

The visitors departed and the meeting resumed.

In the aftermath, however, several members were troubled. How, they pondered, could such situations be prevented? They could become more frequent as professionals and the general public became more concerned about the growing alcohol and drug problem. Was there a better solution than choosing between offending visitors and compromising the integrity of AA closed meetings?

By coincidence, members of the closed meeting learned that they had made the best of an awkward situation. The next day one of the group was chatting with an AA friend who told about an open meeting he had attended the previous night.

"At the end of it," he said, "a couple of people got up, said they were counselors from a local university, and were here because they were concerned about a big alcohol and drug problem on the campus. They said they'd gone to a closed meeting by mistake, and told how courteous the members were in explaining the different types of meetings and referring them to our meeting."

Not all nonalcoholic professionals can be expected to be so patient and understanding of either our procedures or our explanations. Obvious preventive measures include AA phone services specifying which meetings are open or closed. And the chairman's clearly stated announcement that a closed meeting is for self-described alcoholics only, along with an offer to direct nonalcoholics to an open AA meeting.

Most of all, members of our local group want to avoid forcing upon an alcoholic the Catch-22 dilemma: either revealing to an outsider that a deep personal problem exists, or enduring the pain of withholding its expression when nonalcoholic visitors are permitted to remain.

The presence of nonalcoholics in a closed discussion meeting can arouse in members fears of being recognized and gossiped about by those not bound by AA's code of anonymity and confidentiality. A cautious member may feel that outsiders will interpret his reluctance to speak as evidence of scandalous or degrading behavior by himself or his family. Whether well founded or not, such fears result in maintaining resentful silence, or an awkward, unproductive tailoring of expression.

Years ago in the Grapevine, cofounder Bill W. suggested "Let's Be Friendly with Our Friends." Surely we resourceful ex-drunks can do so without penalizing those AAs who, whether new or old-timers, need the security and comfortable intimacy of a closed meeting.

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