*GUEST BLOG by Zoltan Buchan*

NAhugsI love a good hug. Who doesn’t? Is there any more human gesture than the simple embrace? Whether it’s to greet a much missed friend, comfort a child, express intimacy and affection with a lover, or share an explosion of mutual joy with a total stranger at a football match, we all know the hug is King. As an expression of empathy in any number of situations, to convey a limitless range of emotions, the hug is peerless.

Don’t MAKE me do it though. For that way disaster lies. Because, and make no mistake on this: obligation robs the hug of it awesome power.

Due to my issues with both alcohol and drugs, I went alternately to outside AA and NA meetings when I was in rehab. While there was no culture of the compulsory hug at any of the AA meetings in the city, NA was a very different story; indeed, they even had the t-shirts…

NAcoffeeDo Hugs Not Drugs (a bit of a chicken/egg issue, this one – did this trite little message come into being first with the mandatory hug culture resulting from it, or was mandatory physical contact with complete strangers and acquaintances you may neither like nor trust the existing order of the day,  which then gave birth to the ‘catchy’ t-shirt slogan?) was a message that had not only been absorbed by the city’s NA groups, but had also become as much a part of meetings as the preamble, main share or serenity prayer. Before you leave the rooms, it’s hugging time. And that’s a good thing, because hugs are great, right? Haven’t I already said as much above? Well…no, actually.

My first couple of rounds of ‘hug everyone in the room’ weren’t actually too bad. I was new, nervous, and still very much suffering the physical and psychological effects of a three week stimulant and alcohol binge that had left me horrifically sleep deprived and a stone-and-a-half lighter, and it did actually feel kind of welcoming and reassuring. However, it quickly became neither of these things when it became apparent that it wasn’t really an option. OK, so I doubt if I had made it clear that I would have no part in it, I’d have been either manhandled or told not to come back, but the coercive, peer-pressure aspect was undoubtedly there. Besides, I was a new and nervous remember, not to mention vulnerable and massively lacking in self-esteem and confidence. Who in that situation isn’t going to just grin and bear it, regardless of how reluctant they are?

NAhuggingNext up, was the hypocrisy. In a room of 20-odd people, you’re not going to like everyone, whatever the situation or how much you have in common.  So there will inevitably be some tension, a certain amount of sniping, and a degree of talking behind each others’ backs. That’s not the fault of 12 Step meetings; that’s simply what people are like. But, that said, seeing two people locked in an embrace, only to hear them viciously slagging each other off 15 seconds later inevitably made me question why they bothered. Hey – it just so happens that you don’t like each other, but do you know what? That’s OK. By all means be polite – that’s just good manners – so why not shake hands, or maybe even just give each other a smile and a nod on the way out? That would be more than enough. Why, instead do you insist on pretending that you’re bestie mates who’ve just shared a two-hour journey into ultra-spirituality together? At best, it’s hugely hypocritical, while in reality it’s simply taking the piss.

In fact, I’m going to go further – by making hugs practically compulsory, you completely devalue the very concept. A hug is an expression of your affection, passion or sympathy for someone, or maybe a spontaneous expression of joy. Joylessly hugging someone for whom you feel none of these emotions reduces it to an expected chore, and may also even go some way to robbing a real hug of genuine meaning.

NAhugscryingWhat do I mean by this? Well, first let me be clear that I’m not against hugging at meetings per se, it’s just that I think it should be genuine. For example, both in rehab and at meetings in the city, I have seen people I knew well and liked a lot in floods of tears – indeed, I was in tears myself on more than one occasion. The hugs I gave in these instances were genuine, those I received (from my friends) I was grateful for. And yet, I couldn’t escape the nagging voice in my head telling me: “It’s good to be comforted by him/her, but they were going to hug me anyway, weren’t they? Would they have done so if it wasn’t expected of them?” Not an ideal situation, is it?

NAhugsbearLastly, there’s the gender issue. I’m mercifully unaware of any serious 13th Stepping issues in my local area. I’m not saying it doesn’t go on, merely that I haven’t seen any of it. Female meeting attendees may well beg to differ. However what I have heard after more than one meeting are comments such as: “X wasn’t too keen on hugging tonight, was she?” followed by general agreement and laughter. Nice. I’m not going to speculate as to what percentage of women with alcohol and drug issues have suffered sexual abuse or domestic violence, but I don’t think I’m entering into the realms of wild speculation by guessing that the percentage of women at 12 Step meetings who may not be relishing the prospect of close physical contact with a male stranger is probably higher than zero. I’ve certainly seen great reluctance in the eyes in more than one woman I’ve hugged after an NA meeting. Who knows, maybe (hopefully) they read ‘I know, I’m not keen on this either, let’s get it over with’ reflected in mine?

NAsponsordogMaybe I should have had the courage of my convictions, and refused to have anything to do with it? Actually, there’s no maybe about it, is there?. In my defense, though, I was vulnerable, loaded with guilt and shame regarding the circumstances that led me to rehab and NA meetings in the first place, and therefore eager to please, to conform, and most of all to be accepted. It would have taken a far stronger and braver person than me to have stood up and declared: “This is a total farce, I’ll have no part in it”.

NAhugartHaving been a former member of XA for three months now, I find myself getting far fewer hugs than I used to. Although I don’t miss the groups, and am incredibly relieved to be free of their message, there are a few good people who I do miss.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss their hugs.

To put it into context though, I only have to compare the last two hugs I received. The first came from the stranger sitting next to me at the football last Saturday, whose arms were spontaneously wrapped ’round mine (in mid-air, we were both jumping!) to celebrate a last minute winner to keep Aberdeen in the title race. The second was later the same day, when my daughter leapt straight into my arms from the train, having arrived to visit me for the school holidays. Though they were from completely different people – one a stranger I’ll never see again, the other the most important person in my life – and both conveyed vastly different emotions, they were both very much REAL hugs. I very rarely had those in XA, and I’m pleased to say that I won’t ever have to endure them again. After all, ’endure’ and ‘hug’ are two words that should never go together in the same sentence.

THANK YOU for sharing your story here Zoltan.  Readers, I will be posting more in the next few weeks.  I think it’s good to take breaks and allow other bloggers to post and remind me why I blog, even when I feel I’ve little left to say and contribute to the topic of abuse in 12 Step recovery.  I’m inspired by all these other great writers, the events and activities taking place worldwide about harm reduction and ending this war on drugs, and by amazing people I’ve met because of leaving AA behind.  A reminder to all readers, I am anti-abuse, anti-sexual harassment, anti-sexism, and will not take the label “anti-AA” to mean anti-help or anti-members-I-care-about-in-AA… This label “anti-AA” has been used to vilify and condemn those who speak against AA.  People who speak their opinion about AA about 13 stepping or the steps “not working for them” are not BASHERS and they are not ATTACKING the program.  (Same goes for anyone saying they are “anti-AA” as though that is a separate organization, when you start acting like those you purport to despise in AA- (gossipers, rumor mongers, abusers, etc.)- then that defeats your purpose.  You’re stooping to their level of personal attacks instead of concentrating on the issues at hand.  It has propelled me to distant myself from the cult-like gangs running around the ‘net claiming they are “anti” anything.  You’ve become part of the problem NOT the solution.

Share your comments below about the topic of hugs and see you again soon!  Happy Spring!