By Tom Holmes
"The Suburban Fellowship Center (SFC) saved my life," declared Dan [not his real name]. Dan uses that dramatic language, because he considers alcoholism to be a disease which is terminal, if not in terms of one's physical life, then almost always in terms of marriages, friendships and/or jobs.
The SFC is a group of about 300 members of Alcoholics Anonymous who are serious about getting and staying sober. The building they own at 7438 Harrison St. in Forest Park is home to a host of activities designed to do just that.
The property is not officially affiliated with AA, but has been used for 12-Step meetings since the early 1960s. The SFC website lists 46 "closed meetings," i.e. meetings for recovering alcoholics only. In addition there are scheduled two Al-Anon meetings for the "friends and family of problem drinkers who are seeking understanding and support" and one open speakers meeting on Sunday mornings where non-AA members can sit in on a meeting.
Because it offers so many meetings SFC serves as a kind of port of entry into 12 Step recovery for many in this area. Many hospitals, rehab facilities and family doctors will refer people with drinking problems to the programs on Harrison St. Dan said, "Most people begin with us until they start to feel comfortable with recovery. They then begin branching out and finding meetings that they like to go to."
Because learning to work the 12 Steps well is a process, people with many years of sobriety attend meetings at SFC to help the newer people along. "You mature as you go along," Dan explained. "I have 18 years of sobriety, but I need support just as much as the newer people, so I go to other meetings where I can get that."
SFC also plans activities which are more social like the Sunday morning breakfast they serve—all you can eat—for just $5. They run a bingo night on Saturday, plan alcohol free dinner dances, hold two retreats for men and two for women, have AA literature for sale and rent busses to go to Cubs and Sox games. They have a picnic coming up and provide information on AA meetings and events all over Chicago and the suburbs.
The rule at all meetings is anonymity with only first names being used. The reason for anonymity is safety. "There's a lot of fear involved in taking the first step into AA," Dan explained, "fear of the unknown, fear of being sober the rest of your life, fear of losing your best friend, alcohol—the best friend that is killing you."
Karl [again, not his real name], who has been sober for 24 years, said that safety is so important in AA meetings, because the 12 Step program asks participants to become very vulnerable, to be honest with themselves first and then with other people. "One of the things you learn as an alcoholic," he shared, "is you learn to hide. You lead a double life. You let people see what you want them to see."
Safety is necessary because the fourth of the 12 Steps states, "We made a searching fearless moral inventory of ourselves," and the fifth step says, "We admitted to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."
Dan said that what goes on in most good meetings is story telling. Participants share their struggles with the group. "We're like broken records talking about the same issues week after week," he said, "and most people don't have the patience to listen to that, but as we tell our stories we see heads in the group nodding their heads in understanding. If you don't let it out, it gets stuck in your head and it drives you crazy."
AA is a fellowship of people who are all in the same boat, powerlessness over alcohol. In that sense, it is a great leveler. The first step declares or confesses, "We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—and that our lives had become unmanageable."
In many ways SFC in particular and 12 Step programs in general feel a lot like church. Step two, for example, states, "Came To believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity," and step three begins with "made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God. . . ."
However, AA is clear that their program is spiritual but not religious. The third step ends with the words "God as we understood Him." Some people in AA consider the people in the meetings as their higher power.
In that sense the 12 Steps do not come from doctrine based on revelation or some therapeutic theory but is rather a program that has proven itself to work. Karl emphasized that he sticks to the discipline provided by the program because his experience with himself and others is that when you don't, you relapse and start drinking.
Dan put it this way: "Doctors can transplant lungs, but they can't do a thing about this disease. Psychiatrists can give you a pill, but they can't take 'that thing' out of your brain to make you right. I went to rehab because I just wanted to break the addiction, but I didn't realize how big a thing addiction was. I never looked at myself until AA."