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Attending Your First 12-Step Meeting

If you feel nervous about attending your first 12-Step meeting, you’re not alone. It’s very common for people starting out in sobriety — or at any stage of recovery, for that matter — to feel hesitant about going to a meeting dedicated to recovering from alcohol or drugs. But overcoming those initial fears can produce great rewards in the end, as you’ll find a wealth of support and information in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and Al-Anon.

Beginning with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935, 12-Step groups have become one of the most effective methods of recovery in the world. According to Scientific American, there are approximately 2 million members in AA alone, with over 115,000 groups around the globe. Membership in these groups is free, and the principles of the 12 Steps speak to a desire for spiritual as well as physical healing among recovering addicts.

Twelve-Step meetings don’t work for everyone in recovery, but the popularity of these groups suggests that they are well worth a try. If the first meeting doesn’t resonate with you, try another group before you give up. Meetings can be very different in their tone, membership, and focus, and sometimes it takes more than one attempt to find the right match.

Common Myths About 12-Step Meetings

Public stereotypes of 12-Step groups and media portrayals of these meetings can add to the confusion, presenting misconceptions as the truth. In reality, most 12-Step meetings are different than anything you’ll see on television or in the movies. Some of the most common fears about 12-Step meetings include:

  • The fear that you will be forced to talk about your substance use in front of others: Although you will be offered the opportunity to share your story or to say something about yourself, you are not required to do so. Sharing your experiences with others is one of the most therapeutic aspects of 12-Step programs, but if you feel more comfortable just listening, that’s fine, too, especially if you are a first-time visitor (known in 12-Step groups as a newcomer).
  • The fear that you will have to introduce yourself as an alcoholic or drug addict: In many meetings, the members introduce themselves with the words “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m an addict.” However, this tradition is not a requirement of attending meetings. All that’s required is that you have a desire to stop drinking or using. You can simply introduce yourself by your first name, if you’re more comfortable doing that.
  • The fear that you will have to participate in religious worship: It is true that the 12-Step principles have a basis in spirituality, and members are encouraged to seek support from a higher power. But the higher power is an entity, principle, or form of energy of each member’s choosing, and the structure of the meetings does not resemble a formal religious service. Some meetings do end or begin with the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, but members are not required to participate.
  • The fear that you will have to hug or be hugged by others: At some meetings, members do hug each other as a way to convey their support and friendship, but again, this is a matter of personal preference, not a requirement or formal part of the meeting structure. If you are uncomfortable being hugged, it’s perfectly fine to step back or say “no” if someone does approach you for a hug.
  • The fear that 12-Step programs are a cult: According to Tradition 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step programs draw members on the basis of “attraction, not promotion.” This means that there is no pressure for visitors to attend more than one meeting, or for members to keep going to meetings if they choose to stop. All participation in 12-Step programs is voluntary. In a cult, members share a devotion to a single divinity or human figure that they follow at the expense of their own wellbeing or the welfare of their loved ones. In 12-Step programs, members develop their own idea of a higher power and pursue spirituality in their unique way.
  • The fear that 12-Step meetings aren’t “really” anonymous: Anonymity has been the cornerstone of 12-Step groups since the program was founded in the 1930s. The purpose of keeping membership confidential is not only to protect the identity of members, but also to promote equality among everyone in the group. According to Bill W., founder of AA, anonymity “serves as the spiritual foundation of our fellowship” (from Understanding Anonymitya publication of the AA General Service Conference). Anonymity is one of the most cherished principles of 12-Step groups. Although no one can be completely guaranteed that his or her identity won’t be compromised, you will find that most members are meticulous about maintaining their privacy and respecting the confidentiality of others.

How to Find a Meeting

Twelve-Step meetings are available in most major cities around the world, as well as smaller towns, rural areas, and remote regions of the globe. You can also find meetings to attend online, or connect with others in recovery by telephone. To find the next local meeting, most 12-Step groups have online schedules you can access via the Internet.

Meetings are held in a wide variety of locations, including churches and religious centers, detox centers, residential treatment facilities, schools, private homes, dedicated 12-Step clubs, halfway houses, and homeless shelters. Many of these venues are located within easy access of public transportation.

What to Expect

There is no one-size-fits-all 12-Step meeting; all groups are slightly different. However, there are a few standard conventions and expectations that you’ll find at almost any meeting. Here are a few rules of thumb to help guide you through your first meeting:

  • No fees or dues are required at 12 step meetings, but small donations will probably be requested at some point during the meeting. There are no expectations about the size of the donation — you don’t have to contribute if you don’t want to. Nonalcoholic beverages and snacks may be served, and donations partly help to cover the costs of these items.
  • A chairperson, an informal role that is usually shared among members, leads meetings. The chairperson will open the meeting and may either introduce a topic of discussion or ask if anyone wants to address a specific issue.
  • At the beginning of the meeting, the chairperson may ask if there are any newcomers present. The purpose of this question is to identify first-time visitors who may need help, support, or guidance. Newcomers are highly valued in the 12-Step community, as they give the more experienced members the opportunity to pass on the gifts of sobriety to others in recovery.
  • Participants should not interrupt each other while they are talking, even to give advice or offer support. This kind of interruption is known as “cross talk.” In 12-Step protocol, members sit quietly and listen until the speaker has finished talking.
  • Meetings generally close with a secular or religious prayer, a moment of meditation, or a reading from 12-Step literature. At some groups, members hold hands, but they are not obligated to do so. If you feel uncomfortable with the closing ritual, simply sit quietly with your arms folded.

After the meeting, you will have the opportunity to socialize with others. This can be a great opportunity to get to know people who share your interest in recovery and your desire to be sober. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with the members of a particular group, it’s okay to leave as soon as the meeting ends. Everyone understands that new visitors are likely to be uncomfortable and nervous.

Types of Meetings

First-time visitors may be surprised to find that within any given 12-Step group, there are several types of meetings. Listed below are a few of the most common categories that you may find when you start your search:

Open meetings: These meetings are open to any member of the public. People may attend if they wish to support a member, learn about the group, or fulfill a court’s mandate to go to a meeting. Anonymity must still be respected within the meeting and outside the group.

Closed meetings: Closed meetings are specifically for people who wish to stop drinking or using. First-time visitors and members from other 12-Step groups are welcome if they share the group’s interest in recovery.

Gender-specific meetings: Some meetings are designated “Women’s Meetings” or Men’s Meetings.” These sessions are dedicated to the issues and concerns of the gender and should be attended only by the gender specified.

LGBT meetings: Within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, there are special issues surrounding substance abuse and recovery. These meetings allow people to speak freely about their concerns and feel fully accepted within their sexual identity.

Step meetings: At a step meeting, the group focuses on one of the 12 Steps and discusses it in detail. Although these meetings contain detailed discussions about specific stages of recovery, newcomers are still very welcome to attend.

Meditation meetings: Meditation meetings include periods of silence, in which participants can reflect on their work in the program, communicate with their higher power, or simply practice quieting their thoughts. Meditation is a powerful tool in the 12-Step program.

Keep in mind that for your first experience, the type of meeting is not as important as the fact that you’ve made the commitment to seek help. In larger cities, you will find that there are many different types of meetings to attend. Eventually, you’ll identify the meetings that affect you most powerfully, where you feel most strongly supported. Meanwhile, trying different meetings can introduce you to the richness and diversity of the 12-Step community.

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Getting the Most from 12-Step Meetings

The greatest sign of a successful first meeting is the fact that you overcame your fears and showed up. But once you start feeling comfortable in this community, there are several ways that you can maximize the benefits of your meetings:

  • Share your experiences with others. Sharing experience, strength, and hope is the point of all 12-Step meetings. Talking about your own substance use history will not only help you understand your addictive behaviors; it will give others a sense of hope for the future.
  • Learn from the other speakers. Members of 12-Step groups have a host of good advice about how to cope with the stressors and triggers that can lead to a relapse. Many meetings even focus on the topic of how to deal with high-risk situations, such as traveling, holidays, relationships, social events, work stress, and more.
  • Collect phone numbers and use them. The people you meet in a 12-Step group can become not only your friends, but also some of your biggest supporters in sobriety. Before or after meetings, many members exchange first names and phone numbers. If you find yourself at risk of a relapse, or you just want to meet another member for coffee or a walk, you’ll always have someone to call. By the same token, if you give out your number to other members, you may have the gratification of providing support to someone in need.
  • Look for a sponsor. After you’ve been to one or more meetings, you’ll be better prepared to make a decision about whether you want to commit to the group and go through the 12 Steps to recovery. This process can be challenging, but it is also extremely rewarding, especially if you go through it with the help of a sponsor. A sponsor is a seasoned member of the group who has been through the steps and who is living a life of sobriety. You can find sponsors at meetings, through sober friends, or through referrals from other members.
  • Attend at least one meeting per week. The phrase “keep coming back” is often heard at 12-Step meetings, and for good reason. The members with the longest time in sobriety are often the ones who attend meetings the most regularly. Research studies back up the importance of going to meetings on a weekly basis. According to Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, the results of one study showed that individuals who attended meetings and participated in 12-Step activities consistently had higher rates of sobriety after one year than those who did not. The same study showed that after three years, individuals who attended at least one meeting a week and who identified themselves as 12-Step members were more likely to remain sober.
  • Read 12-Step literature. There are many inspiring and informative documents written by members of AA, NA, and other 12-Step groups, from the original Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to contemporary books, brochures, and reflections. Literature is available at a reasonable price at most meetings, and many documents are available at no cost. Reading these works when you’re not at meetings can help you understand the 12-Step principles and learn how to use them in your daily life to support your sobriety.
  • Volunteer for 12-Step activities or community events. Being of service to the group and to the community in general is one of the keys to recovery, according to the 12-Step principles. Volunteer work doesn’t have to be time-consuming or labor intensive; it could be as simple as preparing and serving coffee at meetings, cleaning up the room after the meeting is over, or contributing to a holiday clothing drive in your neighborhood. Taking the time to introduce yourself to new visitors at 12-Step meetings is a great way to reinforce your sobriety and strengthen your commitment to recovery.
  • Participate in other recovery services. Being a member of a 12-Step group doesn’t mean you can’t engage in other recovery-related activities, such as alcohol or drug treatment programs, individual therapy, or family counseling. In fact, many rehab programs integrate the 12-Step principles into their treatment plans so their clients can benefit from the support and insight the steps provide. If you have the opportunity to attend meetings or learn about the 12 Steps through a recovery program, this can be a valuable introduction to the program.

Your first 12-Step meeting could be a turning point in your recovery, introducing you to a new world of support, friendship, and hope. On the other hand, the experience probably won’t be perfect, and it may not match your expectations. Keeping an open mind will help you prepare for your first meeting and get the most from the experience.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Greenhouse Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More