As summer is flying by, I had a unique opportunity to join a friend and her mom at the International Convention in Atlanta from July 2 to 5. It worked out perfectly as I was able to celebrate my friend's 1 year soberversary while we were there and speak with her mom, who was one of the first people I messaged on the day I decided to stop drinking. I knew she was in the program and I thought she might have some advice for me. She told me to get a Big Book and that I would live a life beyond my wildest dreams. She was so right. Reminiscing with those gals was enough to make the weekend worth it, but I also attended a bunch of fun meetings too. Let me explain what an International Convention is all about.
International in Atlanta 2015
I wasn't sure what to expect going into this weekend. People told me it would be amazing. The guys I was on the podcast with last month called it the "Recovery Olympics." I prepared myself for the unknown and hopped a quick flight from Florida to Atlanta. Arriving at the airport was a telltale sign of how the weekend would go. There were greeters hootin' and hollerin' as you exited the airport gates with huge signs using the convention's logo reading: Welcome! Happy, Joyous, and Free, 80 years! Riding the MARTA public transportation to my hotel, I was surrounded by conference attendees and that's when I knew I was in for a treat. Everyone was SO nice. We helped each other figure out the way to our hotels, talked about the convention, and even our sobriety dates - with complete strangers! It was awesome.
The conference spanned three different venues: the Georgia Dome, the Georgia World Congress Center, and the Omni hotel. On Thursday we picked up our badges and explored the set up. It was HUGE. We got our schedules and I downloaded the official app. I scanned the thousands of big meetings, small meetings, and panels they offered for Friday and Saturday. It was hard to choose only a few. Thursday night they had a sober dance and it was filled with sober people getting down, seriously jamming out to music, and not caring how bad they awkward danced. It was hilarious and very freeing.
Friday was when I realized this convention was packed with around 80,000 people. The streets were filled with alcoholics all wearing our blue and white badges with our first names and where we were from. People were your friends right away. There were 2 tent areas set up by the venues, one called "Sober Village" with different organizations selling shirts, chips, books, Big Book covers, sober vacations, you name it. The downside to all the people was the line waiting. There was a line for everything - food, coffee, bathroom, convention workshops, etc. It was hard not to keep a positive attitude though, since we were surrounded by thousands of happy people, all recovering alcoholics.
The first session I attended on Friday was called Emotional Sobriety. Most panels had 3 speakers, each with a limited amount of time. The session was flooded with people and I ended up sitting on the floor. The first speaker talked about learning to walk through the pain of life and how the 12 steps can help you do that. As an alcoholic we all know the darkness of being alone, but with a higher power and the fellowship you're not alone. I could relate to that. Also in this session I learned that emotional sobriety is about the mind, body, and spirit combination. Without emotional sobriety, it's so easy to become restless and discontent. One of the speakers mentioned that it's possible to be free of drugs and alcohol and still continue the immoral behavior you have engaged in before. Emotional maturity is a big component of continued sobriety. One quote I loved from this session was, "Everyone has the right to be wrong and live their own experience." It was a great first session to attend.
My 2nd adventure was 12 step programs* and the digital age. I'm sure you can understand why I was eager to attend this session. The first speaker spoke my language. He had been working with computers and the Internet pretty much forever. He mentioned that this particular 12 step program* can and does adapt to the changing digital world. He reported that they were receiving lower emergency hotline calls from alcoholics in need, because most people now go to the Internet first. However, he mentioned that he believes this 12 step program is under attack on the Internet. Those that take the initiative to talk about it online often bad mouth it and this is the only representation they have because this 12 step program* does not believe in having an online presence. By not having an online presence, people who surf the web only hear the bad stuff -- I agree with this to a point. He also mentioned the poor web design and applied technology, as well as the non-streamlined look the fellowship's many websites have. He stressed that young members find the fellowship online and mentioned that all suffering alcoholics should be able to access information about meetings and literature easily and accurately in the digital space. The 2nd speaker was clearly motivated by fear and mentioned the fellowship's traditions and the responsibility of members to protect them. She painted a picture of a friends of Bill W. presence online as dangerous and selfish. The last speaker spoke about the fellowship and Google search results. He mentioned that when you actively look for information online with the fellowship name (imagine it being written out here haha*) it doesn't come up in search results until page 3 or 4. He talked about other countries like the Netherlands who are actually doing paid online advertising using the name of the fellowship. His stance was that we are responsible when anyone reaches out and needs help and we are completely missing the mark online. I could not agree more!
Friday night brought on the biggest meeting I've ever been to hands down, inside the Georgia Dome. There was a flag ceremony comparable to the Olympics, with representatives from each country who walked out proudly waving their flag when their country was called. The three speakers were dynamic, diverse, and worldly, but they weren't hotshots. They all had one thing in common, they were just regular alcoholics like me and you.
Saturday I woke up early and ventured out on my own. The first session I attended was called the fellowship* and the Internet: Carrying the Message. This session was a bit disappointing from a personal viewpoint. I guess I was expecting more open minds, but that wasn't really the case. The speakers discussed the power of the Internet, how alcoholics were able to find the fellowship through chat rooms, deaf alcoholics could use Skype to be included, and how app development is being discussed that will use cellular gps' to help people find meetings. One panelist went as far as to say that the Internet is a "slippery slope," while another talked about how our livelihoods are at stake and claim people are losing opportunities to jobs because of loss of anonymity online. This was even after they pointed out how helpful the Internet has been in helping alcoholics stay sober. There was a Q&A at the end where I raised my hand, went up to the microphone and told the panelists and everyone in the audience that I blog about sobriety. I told them I thought the power of the Internet was phenomenal and that it must be harnessed to help others and carry the message. I shared how I have literally saved lives with my writing. I told them I didn't like the "slippery slope" message. People are looking for help online and it's our responsibility to share what worked for us. I asked what their views were on bloggers using every other type of 12 step program language and wordage except the acronym [2 letters here that are at the start of the alphabet*]. Not surprisingly they suggested I speak with a sponsor, educate myself on the traditions of the program, and speak with someone from general service. The one woman on the panel told me good job for what I'm doing and to keep up the good work.
I also attended the We the Agnostics session, my favorite of the weekend. It was comforting to be in a room where people loved the program, but didn't use the concept of God as their higher power. I think I will speak about that topic in a separate post as it will take me awhile to organize all of my thoughts on it.
A Magical Experience
Overall the International Conference was a great experience. I learned a lot. I said the serenity prayer with 80,000 people in the Georgia Dome. I laughed. I cried. I met young people who are sober and old people who had over 50 years of sobriety. We celebrated Independence Day, watched fireworks, and toasted (with water) to mark my friend's one year sober. The camaraderie at the conference was something I've never experienced before. It was like we all had a hidden bond - that struggle of hitting bottom, picking yourself back up, and living in the joy of the light. Walking through the streets of Atlanta was magical for that reason. You could talk to anyone and know that they just... get you. I left there feeling happy, joyous, and free. I think that's the point in the end.
I'll leave you with this quote that I thought perfectly summed up my thoughts on the weekend, 4th of July, conference, and all.
Freedom"I craved freedom. First, freedom to drink; later, freedom from drink. The AA program of recovery lies on a foundation of free choice. There are no mandates, laws or commandments. AA's spiritual program, as outlined in the Twelve Steps, and by which I am offered even greater freedoms, is only suggested. I can take it or leave it." - Daily Reflections, p. 95
*In an attempt to be more respectful to the program and its traditions I omitted the use of its full name in this post apart from the title and a literature quote. I don't know if I'm doing this right, but then again there are no fellowship police.