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AA Rules: Seeing Someone Outside of a Meeting

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When you start attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, it can be a very intimidating experience. You may not know anyone there, and you might not even know if you want to be there. Fortunately, this tends to change pretty quickly. Once you attend some of the same meetings, you will start to see some of the same people. You will probably get to know them very well—you might even know their last names, phone numbers, addresses, and kids’ names. But once you leave the rooms, what are the rules of AA, given that you are supposed to maintain a person’s anonymity. If you run into them in public, what do you do? Say “hi”? Ignore them? Pretend you know them from somewhere else?

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AA Rules: AA is Anonymous

Anonymity is often referred to as the most significant pillar of AA. Without anonymity, it’s possible that AA might not even exist. The unfortunate reality is that a stigma still exists for people who struggle with their alcohol consumption. Interestingly, a stigma even exists regarding people being sober and getting the help they need, which is very counterproductive.

Why Anonymity is Important in the AA Rules

When AA began in around 1935, its founders and other members understood how stigmatizing it was to be an alcoholic and seek help. AA gave people a private space to share their struggles, experience, strength, and hope about recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD). The founders clearly understood that to draw sustained attendance at AA meetings, they needed a level of secrecy and anonymity.

Even though it’s more acceptable now to struggle with alcohol misuse and seek help through AA than it was in 1935, many people still feel ashamed. For some, the only reason they’re willing to attend AA is due to the anonymity of the meetings.

For some, the only reason they’re willing to attend AA is due to the anonymity of the meetings.

It’s up to the attendee themselves to share their attendance with their friends, family, coworkers, and whomever else they wish to share with when they’re ready. You might know a lot about members you meet in AA, but you’re still expected to maintain the anonymity of their attendance and participation in AA.

Research clearly shows that people who experience higher levels of shame also experience more negative drinking-related consequences; if someone is too ashamed to get help because they worry that others will know about their struggles, it is very difficult to get the treatment they need. This is one of the reasons that the anonymous aspect of the AA rules is so crucial.

What to Do if You See Someone Outside of AA

It can be a difficult situation to navigate—you don’t want to seem rude, but you don’t want to open them up to questions from friends or family by saying hello. What if they can’t come up with an answer for who you are and they then feel pressured to tell the truth before they’re ready?

Take Cues from the Other Person

If you run into someone from AA outside of a meeting,  one of the best ways to figure out what to do is to first see how the other person reacts. While this can be somewhat complicated because it might leave both people waiting on the other person, it’s probably your safest bet. If they seem uneasy about seeing you, it might be best not to approach them. For example, if they see you and then refuse to make further eye contact with you, you should keep walking. If, on the other hand, they see you, continue to make eye contact, and walk in your direction, you can probably safely bet that they’re okay to speak with you outside of the meeting.

Other things to consider include where you run into them include who’s with them and who’s with you. If you’re shopping alone at a supermarket and  run into someone from AA who is also solo, it’s much more likely that they’d be okay stopping to speak with you. If you’re out with your family and see a fellow member out with other people, this can make the decision a bit more complicated. You have to consider explaining to your family how you know them, and the other person will likely get questions from the people they’re with about how they know you if you approach them.

Research shows that involvement with the AA rules leads to better outcomes when it comes to controlling alcohol consumption, so, it’s essential to do everything you can to keep everyone comfortable and attend meetings—which often means maintaining other people’s anonymity.

Ignore Them

If you aren’t sure what to do when you see someone outside of a meeting, you can always ignore them. You might be worried about coming off as rude, but this is much better than unintentionally outing someone’s AA membership. Even if you don’t say where you know the person from, stopping to talk to them might cause their companions to ask how you know each other. Your fellow member can certainly come up with something to tell those around them, but it will likely put them in an uncomfortable situation if they don’t want to disclose that they attend AA meetings.

If you’re worried about being rude, don’t be! That is normal, but something you can talk about privately. Once you see the person again at an AA meeting or can talk to them on the phone privately, you easily explain why you ignored them and figure out a plan going forward.

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Make Sure You’re Comfortable

It’s important to figure out what you are comfortable with. Are you with people who you aren’t ready to disclose your AA membership to? Are there many people with the other member you know, and you don’t feel comfortable with all of them knowing that you’re attending AA meetings? If, for any reason, you don’t feel comfortable stopping to speak with this person in public, keep walking! Consider the other person’s feelings, but also be comfortable with your decision.

Research shows that the more comfortable and honest a person is with their recovery, the more likely they are to expand their circle of support and let others know about their recovery. Therefore, the more comfortable you are, and the more comfortable everyone else is with their recovery, the easier it will be to speak with someone if you run into them outside of an AA meeting, which will enhance your recovery and help you maintain sobriety. When someone is honest about their recovery or their struggles, it makes it easier for you to learn how to help someone with AUD.

Think and Talk About What to Do Before This Happens

Another option is to think about what you will do if you run into someone before it happens. It’s probably not possible to ask every single person you know from AA how they’d like you to respond if you run into each other outside of a meeting, but you can ask some people. If you know people from AA but don’t spend much time with them outside of meetings, you may want to ask how they feel in this situation. For people you don’t really know or speak with at the meetings anyway, it should be easy to simply keep walking and ignore them, and then discuss it with them after the fact if you feel it’s necessary.

Setbacks are a common part of recovery. A critical way to push back against those setbacks is to plan.

It’s also okay to discuss this in meetings; you can share your concerns and uncertainty about what to do in this situation. You will likely get some feedback from other group members on how to handle this situation. It’s also a good idea to share about your comfort level when it comes to running into people outside of meetings. Do you want people to stop and say hello? Does it depend on who you’re with or where you are? Think about what you need and want, and share it with the group so that people know how to react if they see you!

Setbacks are a common part of recovery. A critical way to push back against those setbacks is to plan.Whether this is planning how to tell people you don’t drink or planning what you will do if alcohol is around, planning is crucial and extends to how you respond when you run into someone outside of an AA meeting. That helps maintain recovery and prevent relapse as well.

You Can Talk About the Encounter in Meetings, But Be Mindful

If you want to talk about your encounter once you get back to the meeting, you can certainly do so, but be mindful. In AA, you’re typically supposed to share about yourself—your feelings and experiences. Of course, these will often include other people.

However, when these experiences include other people who are following the AA rules or might even be in your same meeting, remember that you’re sharing about their experience too. You may want to consider not using that person’s name or where you ran into them, just in case someone is able to figure it out. Even though you’re both following the AA rules, the other person may not want to discuss this issue in the meeting—it should be their choice. You can discuss it from your point of view, but be discreet.

If you want to talk about the encounter and provide more details, you should consider speaking with a therapist or perhaps with your sponsor. With a therapist, you should feel free to provide as many details as possible as everything is confidential.

If you speak with your sponsor or someone else from AA in a more private setting, you can provide more details, but don’t overshare if the person you’re talking about also attends the same meetings.

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