If you’ve never been to an A.A. meeting before, you may not be sure what to expect. The first thing we want to stress is that you are welcome. Nobody is going to judge you or think less of you for being an alcoholic. Why would we? Our organization is made up of alcoholics helping alcoholics.

During your first meeting, you will be asked to introduce yourself to the group. It’s okay to use only your first name if you’re concerned about anonymity. After this, you can say as much or as little about your situation as you feel comfortable sharing.

The group will then take turns sharing any struggles they’ve experienced recently, as well as any strategies they’ve developed to stay sober. There are two kinds of group meetings: open meetings, which anyone can attend, and closed meetings, which can only be attended by people who want to stop drinking.

If you’d like to bring a spouse or a friend to an open meeting, that’s fine, but we do encourage you to speak to your sponsor or group leader first so everyone is on the same page. Closed meetings are a time where we can share as honestly as possible, with the knowledge that the people we are sharing with understand our disease.

Sometimes, we also host speaker meetings, which are time for either one of our members or an outside guest to spend a longer time – sometimes the whole meeting – talking about their personal journey.

In all our meetings, we encourage our members to be respectful and listen while others share. Interruptions, side conversations and cell phone use are discouraged. There is time after each meeting for members to socialize, so if there’s someone you want to talk to there will be an opportunity.

Our meetings are the heart of the A.A. experience. By sharing with others, sobriety begins to feel like less of a burden. By listening to others, we learn that we are not alone. We particularly encourage our new members to listen to veteran members when they share strategies for maintaining sobriety. Some tips may work for you, others may not, but by listening we have the opportunity to learn and make our own decisions.

One of our members, Ramon, has offered to share his story here, in the hope that new members will be encouraged to come and join our meetings.

 My name is Ramon, and I’m an alcoholic.

I started drinking with friends in high school, but never felt like I had a problem. I passed all my classes, and even got accepted into the Army. When I got to boot camp, I quit drinking cold turkey. I thought this proved I could control my drinking, but all it really proved was that I was smart enough not to get drunk in boot camp. Sobriety is surprisingly easy when you’re getting up at 4 in the morning for PT and spending the rest of the day in training with a drill sergeant breathing down your neck.

When you finish boot camp, the Army gives you 10 days of leave to do whatever you want before you start Advanced Individual Training, which is basically Army school for a particular job. I was training to join an armored unit, so both Basic Training and AIT were in Louisville, Kentucky. I had ten days of freedom, so I did what alcoholics usually do. I spent my 10 days of leave on a bender, bar-hopping around Louisville and telling myself I was having a good time.

At this time, I was wallowing in self-pity. Recruits’ families are welcome to come to watch you graduate from boot camp, but my parents didn’t come. My dad is an alcoholic and can’t hold a job, and my mom works two jobs to make up the difference, so to this day I couldn’t tell you what I expected.

I ended up in one particular bar on the last night of leave, and got in a fist-fight with a local guy. At the time, I blamed the local guy for “starting it”. Now, I see that I was young, dumb, drunk, belligerent and hitting on his girlfriend. Long story short, I ended up catching an assault charge from the State of Kentucky, and received a dishonorable discharge from the Army.

I moved back to Schaumburg and tried to build a life, but my dishonorable discharge made it impossible to get a good job. I’m handy with home-improvement tasks, so I started doing odd jobs to cover rent in a small apartment with two roommates. They were both heavy drinkers, and the three of us spent most of our money on alcohol. After six months, we were evicted for not paying our rent.

My parents let me move back in, but my drinking had gotten so bad that I needed a beer in the morning just to get my day started. I was drunk every day, my dad was drunk every day, so it was less than three weeks before we had an explosive argument and my parents kicked me out. I spent the next few months couch-surfing with “friends” who were happy to drink with me and encouraged me to drink more. It wasn’t long before I got a DUI while driving my handyman van to a job, and spent the night in jail. In my mind, it wasn’t my fault. It was the cop’s fault for being a jerk.

Without a driver’s license, I lost my income and ended up homeless for a few weeks before I was finally able to get a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant. At this point, I decided to get help. I didn’t think I was ready. I didn’t think I was able to get sober, but I knew I never wanted to be homeless again. I went to an A.A. meeting, and have been a member ever since.

I’ve been sober for eight years now. I got my driver’s license back, and my business is successful. I still struggle some days. I still have to work on all 12 Steps, because it’s a process that takes a lifetime, but thanks to A.A. and my faith in God as I understand Him, my life is better than it has ever been.