Before attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I had a preconceived vision of what a person labeled as “alcoholic” might look like. I think what struck me most during my visit is that a person recovering from alcoholism does not have a certain “look” or fit a stereotypical set of physical characteristics. While there were certainly a few individuals in attendance who fit the mental images I had associated with the term alcoholic, there was really no overarching “type” that could encompass the diverse array of individuals attending the meeting I observed.

Skin tones ranged from the color of strawberry yogurt, to butterscotch, to roasted coffee beans. Attire ranged from oversized sport team apparel evidently drenched in cigarette smoke and body odor, to lightly starched designer chic business casual attire, to a white fur coat adorned with a diamond encrusted brooch. A woman in her mid-sixties, with a chubby pug on a leash, bore a striking resemblance to Paula Deen, all the way down to her buttery East Georgia accent. A warm and stylish Jewish lady from Long Island shared her testimony with the crowd, while sitting next to the meeting facilitator, a Santa Claus character who wore a Rush Limbaugh tie that I’m pretty sure my late grandfather also owned. Attendees were in various stages of recovery, evidenced by responses they volunteered after hearing the speaker’s testimony. Varying degrees of pain, anxiety, triumph, hope, and resilience emerged in each response, but the only physical features all members shared were those that are common to all human beings. This meeting was literally open to anyone.

The sponsoring AA member who hosted my classmate and myself to the meeting was a nurse living in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. She bore a striking resemblance to the two of us medical students, a bubbly brunette with a generous smile, tortoise framed eyeglasses, and a practical, classic pair of leather boots. She commented that this meeting was not representative of the usual meetings and apologized in mild embarrassment that we had witnessed this particular event. In consideration of her sentiment, I still feel that I was able to piece together an understanding of the concepts, services, and implications of this wide-ranging, long-standing, worthwhile organization. 

Alcoholics Anonymous is not unlike Weight Watchers meetings, community yoga studios, religious groups, and mommy-and-me story hours at suburban libraries. It is an organization that brings together people struggling with a common life challenge. It is a safe place where these individuals can discover truth, meaning, and healing, but perhaps most importantly, where members find that precarious strength from within–the one that we all find most reliably when supported by community. Alcoholics Anonymous is successful because those who have found strength to overcome the specific hardship of alcohol addiction stay faithful to the organization and sustain the community so that others might continually conquer the same feat. This disease can affect anyone, and anyone can overcome it with determination and proper support.

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