The AA Reopening Two-Step

As in-person meetings resume, an urgent call for AA veterans to take newcomers under their wings like never before.

by Christopher Dale

Aaaaannnnnnnd we’re back.

Well, sort of anyway.

With Alcoholics Anonymous meetings gradually reopening across the country, the Great Reset has officially begun. As COVID cases dwindle and vaccination rates climb, in-person and even indoor AA meetings are seeing a steady trickle of members moving from Zoom rooms to actual ones.

And while some meetings are experiencing difficulty finding a physical home amid continuing safety concerns, each day our AA meetings lists have another few in-person gatherings back from cyberspace exodus to once again occupy terra firma. Fittingly, the pre-summer months have brought a true springtime for AA, one promising the comfort of reclaimed routines and brimming with the hope of face-to-face, founder-intended recovery normalcy. It’s great to be back.

Now get to work. 

As Zoom rooms (hopefully) continue to fade from memory like a dystopian nightmare, the responsibility falls to those with longstanding recovery to show newcomers and recent relapsers – many of whom know AA only in its emergency-mandated online format – what they were missing lo these many long, dark months.

Any AA member with significant sober time has heard the phrase “two-stepping.” The disparaging term refers to a complacent pattern many of us, myself included, have regressed into from time to time. Specifically, the Steps involved are One and Twelve, meaning that while the uninspired individual is still staying sober (part of Step One) and attending meetings (part of Step Twelve), he’s not actively practicing the hard, introspective work of progressive emotional sobriety.

Two-stepping can be a slippery slope to sloth – a gradual and therefore less discernible disconnection from working a comprehensive program of recovery.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – two-stepping can be a life-affirming uphill trudge that sacrifices our immediate needs for those of other, less experienced recovering alcoholics and addicts. And one of those times is right now: this unprecedented moment in AA’s 85-year existence.

The Clock Strikes 12

Whether or not they saw Zoom rooms as suitable replacements for in-person meetings, all AA members would agree that we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Following an impressively nimble pivot to online meetings when widespread lockdowns commenced in March 2020, the percentage of AA meetings held online went from a tiny fraction to something approaching 100%. COVID disrupted all walks of society, and AA was no different.

More than a full year and nearly 600,000 deaths later, the coast is far clearer than our minds. Even as mask mandates lift for vaccinated adults across the country, our tepid reentrance into pre-2020 life is understandable. The whole world has PTSD, and the vast majority of AA members will need some deep-dive, Step 4 & 5-centric exorcisms. Thankfully, those of us with longstanding recovery have the tools and networks for such post-apocalyptic housecleaning.  

But others don’t.

There are newcomers that, despite having a year or more of familiarity with the program, are now walking into an AA meeting for the first time ever. Some managed to achieve and maintain fledgling sobriety online; many did not. Countless others who were sober pre-COVID succumbed to the fear and isolation we’ve all suffered to some degree over the past 14-plus months, mistakenly confusing an inability to maintain recovery over Zoom for an inherent flaw in AA itself.  

However necessary they were, Zoom rooms did not put AA’s best foot forward. In this space and elsewhere, I’ve written at length about the inferiority of online meetings – the clunky, stilted dialogue; the compromised anonymity; the lack of handshaking, seat-saving and eye contact.

Most importantly, the spiritual deficit suffered by many, myself included, who didn’t realize how physically-dependent their AA spirituality was until that living, breathing, Higher Power-instilling essence was suddenly and indefinitely suspended.

To my knowledge, no English-language terminology aptly describes Zoom rooms’ missing secret ingredient. Fortunately, a friend recently brought to my attention an old Sanskrit word: Satsang, which translates to something approaching the magic of in-person AA meetings: “Good company, especially on the spiritual path.” Another definition is, perhaps, even more poignant: “Gathering together for the truth.”

Widespread online meetings were never intended to be permanent, and the current pent-up enthusiasm for in-person meetings reflects this notion. As we reconvene following what for many was the saddest, lengthiest and most terrifying tragedy of our lives, we must recognize Zoom’s backup-generator status and meet this profound moment with the urgency it deserves.

Newcomers and relapsers must be reintroduced to the AA as it was always intended to be experienced: up-close and personal. For those of us with longstanding recovery, it’s time to Step Twelve like never before, placing emphasis on cleaning up AA’s COVID-caused recovery crisis. The rest of the Steps aren’t going anywhere, but that newcomer next to you just might.

Paying It Forward, Past Due

This is a call to prioritization rather than prominence. Most AA members have a “favorite Step” (mine is Ten, because promptly admitting my wrongs seldom comes easy). Neither I nor anyone else has the right to rank Steps by their value for others (with the possible exception of Step One, since its consistent practice is a prerequisite for the program’s eleven ensuing suggestions).

No, this is about a specific Step for a specific time in a specific place. As we reconvene in-person with green or recently returning members tainted by Zoom’s imperfections, showing them that our pay-it-forward program is more conducive to IRL than URLs takes on an urgency not seen, perhaps, since AA’s very inception. Simply put, we need to schmooze them before we lose them – and we’re starting from an even larger hole than usual.

Helping a new or returning member build a sober foundation isn’t easy even in optimal conditions. Now, we’re dealing with a year’s worth of would-be newcomers who think Zoom reflects all AA has to offer – which, in far too many cases, is exceedingly little. It’s not their fault: they need us to replace their poor experience with pure experience, and pronto.

Does that mean taking on a new sponsee or two or five? Perhaps. As we reopen, the newcomers walking through those church basement doors likely are not only disgusted with themselves but disenchanted with AA, due to the inferior format to which they’ve been subjected for upwards of a year. If you can grab a few and walk them through the Steps – which we all know helps us as much as it helps them, if not more – then please do.

But as someone with a five-year-old future alcoholic (I’m kidding … I hope) at home, I know full well that not everyone has that kind of time. So really, this is more a call to hypervigilance. As AA reopens, let’s keep our eyes open for newcomers who really, REALLY need AA to be better than it’s been during COVID.

Let’s remember that, for most of us with long-term recovery, Zoom was more a temporary deficiency than an existential threat; it affected our emotional sobriety but didn’t lead to bottles and baggies. But how many among us would have been able to commence our recovery during a society-wide health emergency where the only tool for group-centric recovery was a virtual platform? If we believe that to drink is to die… well, there’s a lot of dying to make up for now that we’re all together once again.

So if you don’t have the hours to sponsor, take the minutes to do the little things. Hold doors, pour coffee, make introductions. Offer to give a newcomer a ride, keeping in mind that the pandemic was an economic crisis as much as a health one. There’s a lot more carless folks out there, and most newcomers aren’t exactly rolling in dough even during the best of times.

Show up early, leave late, invite someone you haven’t seen around to sit with you. Look someone in the eyes who may never have had another recovering alcoholic look them in the eyes, ever, through circumstances they did not create. This program gave us our lives back well before COVID; help save someone else from our shared malady after it.

And for God’s sake, give new context to a phrase you’ve told so many newcomers in the past: It gets better.

Specifically, it gets better than Zoom. Tell them that, regardless of how thankful we all can be to have had some semblance of AA at a time when physical gatherings were impossible, Zoom was a mere waystation on a journey that is really just beginning. Tell them not to judge AA by a platform incapable of providing its full value… because that full value requires us. It requires you, me and the 30 other people now once again gathered for a common purpose: arresting alcoholism and becoming better people in the process.

A few weeks ago I attended my first in-person meeting in over a year. Afterward, I gravitated toward an old AA cohort, someone I’d known for years. We hadn’t been in touch during COVID, but I was 99% certain he’d remained sober throughout. I was right.

But I was also wrong.

In my excitement to embrace an old friend, I probably shot past one or more newcomers who really could have benefitted from hearing what my friend and I ended up discussing: how refreshing this was after a year of Zoom rooms.

One of the wonders of AA is that we can learn from others’ mistakes without having to repeat them. Please, don’t repeat my error, however innocent it was. The next few months are crucial – make them count, for the sake of newcomers and, through them, ourselves.

For the time being, two-stepping is a step decidedly in the right direction. Let’s dance.