What To Expect From Your First 12-Step Meeting
For all the talk I’ve done about addiction and recovery, this post probably should have been written several years ago. Knowing what to expect from your first 12-step meeting would have been incredibly helpful to me in early recovery — broken and terrified of having to learn how to live a new life.
I attended 12-step meetings for six years and I credit a lot of my success in recovery to them. That being said, there are a variety of different treatment options and approaches to dealing with addiction. Over the years as my recovery has evolved, I’ve branched out to other fellowships and learned other mechanisms and tools to continue to stay this path. I no longer feel the need to attend meetings, but I absolutely know where I can turn should I feel like I need one. Because they were invaluable to me, I’m sharing my own experience with what to expect from your first 12-step meeting.
Types of Meetings
In researching for this post, I realized that there are a TON of different 12-step meetings — many more than even when I started going almost 10 years ago. It seems like there is a meeting for almost anything these days, as evidenced by this list.
It’s important to note that there are also 12-step meetings for family members and friends of those suffering from addiction. These are typically referred to as -Anon meetings (Al-Anon, Narc-Anon, etc.) and follow virtually the same format as detailed below.
To find a meeting near you, simply search for the type of meeting and “near me” (e.g., “AA meetings near me). You will see a description of the type of meeting, which is usually pretty descriptive, but here are the meanings to some commonly used terms:
- Open: anyone is welcome, including those who want to observe (e.g., an addict wants to bring a family member)
- Closed: only addicts/alcoholics/those identifying with that particular meeting are welcome
- Speaker: the meeting revolves around one speaker sharing for an extended period of time, usually to share their experience and how they got where they are today. Sharing is opened up after the speaker has concluded
- Discussion: no main speaker, open format, and anyone may share
- Study: many different study subjects, but typically focuses on a part of a piece of literature which is read aloud and members share on/discuss that topic
For each fellowship and each type of meeting, slight variations may occur, but they still contain the same general events. Note that your meeting may choose to do things in a slightly different order.
Meetings start with a call to order and several different readings. These usually outline the basics of the fellowship that you’re attending and help inform newcomers (while reminding current members) why you’re there and what to expect from the meeting.
During this meeting opening, the chairperson of the meeting will ask if there are any newcomers. All you have to do is say your name (don’t feel compelled to identify yourself as an alcoholic or addict if you do not yet feel ready). You do NOT have to raise your hand or speak if you don’t want to, but doing so often means that the group will put together a meeting list with phone numbers of other members to give you after the meeting. It’s a valuable resource to have.
Depending on the format of the meeting you’re attending, there will either be an extended share by one person (speaker), open sharing (discussion), or the reading of a certain piece of literature followed by sharing about that topic (study).
People who choose to share start by saying “my name is ______ and I’m an ________ (alcoholic/addict/etc.). If you don’t yet identify as one, you can simply say your name. If you go to more than one fellowship, simply identify yourself as whatever meeting you are attending. There is no need to state that you are an “alcoholic, addict, overeater, compulsive gambler, etc.”
If this is your first meeting (or at any time), you are NOT required to share. In fact, newcomers are advised to simply sit and listen during their first few meetings. If your meeting format is round-robin, meaning that one person shares, then the next, then the next, and you don’t feel comfortable sharing, simply say “pass” or “I’m just here to listen” when it gets to you.
A basket will be passed around to accept donations at some point during the meeting in accordance with the seventh tradition of these fellowships, which states that “we are fully self supporting of our own contributions.” Donations are voluntary.
Keytags or chips are handed out to celebrate sobriety and clean time. There are 30, 60, 90 days, 6 and 9 months, 1 year, 18 months, and multiple years. The last one to be handed out is the white newcomer tag for anyone with 1-29 days or simply a desire for a new way of life. You are not required to pick up a keytag, but the amount of love and support given to those who do can be really empowering.
Meetings are typically closed by forming a circle and saying the serenity prayer. Members often hold hands, but again, this is not required.
After the meeting, many people gather to have coffee or snacks and catch up with other members. Frequently, groups head to a second location such as a diner or coffee shop to continue fellowshipping.
Things to avoid
- Sharing too long: for smaller meetings, this may be fine, but be mindful of how many people are there and try and limit your share to no more than 5 min
- Sharing more than once: similar to the above, only share once at a meeting
- Graphic descriptions: since addiction is a “feelings disease,” there’s no need to go into graphic detail about what types of drugs you used or how you used them. This can be triggering to some members. Talk about how you felt and what you did about it
- Sharing if you’re only there to observe: if you don’t identify as a member of the fellowship you’re attending (e.g., an addict’s mother), please refrain from sharing
- Cross-talk: cross-talk refers to directly referencing another person’s share in your own. This usually occurs when someone tries to offer advice to someone else based on what they share. These types of conversations can happen after the meeting
To close, these meetings are what you make of them. The less you utilize the resources that are provided, the less help you will get and vice versa. It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed and scared at your first 12-step meeting, but as you continue to go, you’re going to have to take the uncomfortable step of introducing yourself or sharing in order to start to see real change and get help from others.
If you have any other questions that I didn’t address, feel free to ask in the comment section below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve been before, let others know what to expect from your first 12-step meeting in the comments below.