What to Expect From 12-Step Meetings: Addressing Questions and Alleviating Anxiety

Attending your first 12-step meeting can be intimidating regardless of where you are in your recovery process, especially when you don’t know what to expect. What are meetings like? Do you have to talk? Are people going to lecture you? By answering some common questions and clarifying the role of these groups in the overall treatment picture, we help you understand what to expect from 12-step meetings to help alleviate your anxieties.

One of my best friends recent attended her first 12-step meeting. The road to getting there was not easy—not because she was in denial about her alcohol addiction (she knew very well that she was an alcoholic), and not because she didn’t want to get sober (she hadn’t touched alcohol for a year). What kept her from 12-step meetings was apprehension about 12-step meetings themselves. Like many addicts, her primary exposure to 12-step recovery had been through movies and television shows, which are known to be unreliable representations of reality. She imagined sitting in a poorly-lit basement surrounded by people eating stale donuts while being preached to about their personal shortcomings. She pictured all eyes on her as she was implored to spill her soul to perfect strangers minutes after meeting. She worried that the much-touted higher power was code for a Christian god and that there would be no place for an atheist Jew in their ranks. And so for months she committed herself to sobriety largely alone, disconnected from other recovering addicts and from a community of healing. It was only after standing on the brink of relapse that she finally walked into her first meeting.

“It was amazing,” she texted me on her way home. “Why did it take me so long?”

Addressing Apprehension

12-step meetings have become ubiquitous within the recovery community, offering a safe space and immeasurable support for people at all stages of healing. Whether you’re in an urban center or a sleepy rural town, at home or traveling, chances are that there’s a 12-step group available to you within a matter of miles. For decades, these meetings have served as an integral part of recovery for people just starting their journeys, for those who have been sober for years, and for everyone in between. And, yet, many people have reservations about joining a meeting.

It is normal to be apprehensive about entering new situations, particularly when it involves some of your deepest vulnerabilities. By shedding light on what 12-step meetings are like and disrupting some of the common myths surrounding them, you can get a better sense of what to expect—and what not to expect.

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How Are Meetings Structured?

Most 12-step meetings follow a familiar pattern. Yes, you will probably be invited to have coffee and maybe even donuts before the meeting starts. People will probably introduce themselves to you and make small talk; these meetings tend to be welcoming spaces and everyone has been where you are—a trepidatious newcomer trying to find their way in a new environment. Kathleen Jones describes what to expect once the meeting is underway:

The chairperson may start the meeting with the Serenity Prayer. Next, the chair will ask if anyone is new. Don’t be scared. They just want to welcome you. You needn’t say that you’re an alcoholic, if you’re not sure. Just raise your hand and say your first name only. Remember, we are anonymous. The group may circulate a meeting list for you, with members writing down their first names and phone numbers for you to call if you feel like [using]. The chairperson will also welcome those who are new to the meeting. Then the chair may ask if anyone is celebrating an ‘anniversary’ or ‘birthday’. In AA, we celebrate our sobriety and groups often give out ‘coins’ or ‘chips’ to commemorate each year. You may be clapping for a celebrant of over 50 years or 24 hours.

What happens next depends on what kind of meeting is being held; you may focus on a speaker who shares her personal story or a discussion about topics such as gratitude, acceptance, and surrender. In AA, some meetings focus on sections of the Big Book or specific steps. At some point, a collection may be taken up for group expenses, such as coffee and space rental. It is up to you whether or not you want to contribute. To conclude the meeting, it is likely that the group will form a circle and hold hands to say a prayer. You do not have to participate if you feel uncomfortable. Afterwards you may be invited out for coffee with the group, given contact information by other members, or connect with people who offer to be your sponsor. For many, these activities can be just as important as the meeting itself, but you are not obligated to participate.

Do I Have To Talk?

Some people are reluctant to attend meetings because they are worried that they will be expected to share deep, personal information and be interrogated about their innermost thoughts. In reality, you can choose how much to participate and disclose. While it is very helpful for many to open up more as they gain trust in other group members and see peers delving into their own private struggles, you are always welcome to share at your own pace (or not at all). Some people find that connecting with a specialized 12-step meeting such as those geared toward women, members of the LGBTQ community, or men-only makes them feel more comfortable in opening up.

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Are 12-Step Meetings Religious?

12-step recovery as a whole integrates the concept of a higher power, and for many that higher power is religious in nature. However, people of all religious beliefs—and no religious beliefs—are welcome and accepted. As Jones says, “Yes, you may hear about God. Don’t be afraid. AA lets you choose your own Higher Power, but no one will kick you out if you’re an atheist. They will simply suggest that you use the ‘group’ as your Higher Power. Many atheists have stayed sober that way.” Part of your recovery process may be figuring out what a higher power means to you and how to draw on that to fortify your healing.

Will People Tell Me What To Do?

Some people come to 12-step meetings wanting others to tell them exactly what to do to solve their problems. Others are worried about getting lectures and unsolicited advice. Both are highly unlikely to happen. “One of the first things newcomers have to learn is that ‘cross-talk’ – meaning dialogue, talking ‘to’ others in the group, during a meeting – is a no-no,” says John Sutherland, author of Last Drink to LA: Confessions of an AA Survivor. “You share, spill your guts. The others listen, carefully reflecting on your spilt entrails, like Roman soothsayers. They do not respond (other than with a formal ‘thank you, John, for a wonderful share’, or whatever). No one offers ‘advice’ or ‘counselling’.” What is encouraged, however, is for members telling their own stories about how they have stayed sober and overcome challenges to their sobriety, which each person can choose to use or disregard as appropriate.

Am I Addicted Enough for a 12-Step Meeting?

The only requirement for going to a 12-step meeting is wanting to go. Others are not there to judge you or evaluate your level of addiction. In fact, chances are that you will meet people whose addictions have been either much more or much less damaging than your own, and often you will meet both. Sometimes, however, people feel out of place if the other group members have significantly more severe problems as the result of their addictions, and this feeling of not belonging can be damaging in two ways: it can help you convince yourself that you don’t really have a problem, or it could make you feel out of place in a particular recovery community, depriving you of valuable psychosocial supports. It is essential to remember that your addiction is about how your use affects your life, and cannot be measured by how someone else’s use affects theirs. Furthermore, the longer you put off getting help, the more likely it is that you will follow in the footsteps of those whose lives have been ravaged by drug use—early intervention will save you the pain you see your fellow group members struggling with.

Is a 12-Step Group Addiction Treatment?

There is no doubt that 12-step groups can play an essential role in the recovery process; the understanding, learning, camaraderie, and support can be lifesaving. However, it is important to have a realistic sense of what to expect from 12-step meetings and to recognize their limitations. 12-step meetings do not take the place of comprehensive addiction treatment programs. They are peer support groups, not therapy. They are run by fellow addicts whose insights are often invaluable, but who cannot dispense medical advice or treatment. As such, 12-step meetings are ideally used as one piece of a larger treatment puzzle.

For many, residential or intensive outpatient treatment programs offer the best path to long-term recovery by integrating individual, group, and holistic therapies along with pharmacological treatments tailored to the needs of each individual. 12-step groups may be a part of the treatment program itself or attended concurrently outside of treatment. Where 12-step meetings truly shine, however, is after you have concluded residential or intensive outpatient care; these groups give you a structured way of continuously engaging with your healing within a welcoming environment of peers who understand your struggles. As such, they can serve as an invaluable part of your continuing care plan, ensuring you always have access to meaningful recovery tools.

Alta Mira offers a comprehensive suite of treatment programs for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our programming and how we can help you or your loved one create a healthier, more fulfilling future.