What Happens at 12-Step Meetings?

Addicts in recovery are encouraged to attend 12-Step meetings regularly. But what happens at 12-Step meetings?

12-Step meetings are places to honestly share the challenges of sobriety (and life in general) and get help coping with them. They’re a place to access the group experience, hope and strength. Meetings provide a bottomless source of collective experience, instruction, hope, and inspiration.

Meetings are an informal therapeutic community. At meetings you can get immediate help from veterans of sobriety. And if you keep going to the same meetings, you get to know the people who attend regularly (and they, you), which deepens your connection to the community. Meetings are also a good place to find people who “have the serenity you want” and ask them to become sponsors who can lead you through the 12 Steps.

At meetings you hear others tell variations of your own story, echoing the way you feel, proving you’re not alone. You’ll find that you’re not the only one who has been overwhelmed and baffled by an irrational reliance on drugs that were once your solution but have turned on you and morphed into your deadliest problem. Virtually everyone at every meeting has had that experience.

Addiction is often characterized as a disease of isolation. Just going to a meeting where there are sober people can help break through the isolation. It’s nearly impossible to over-estimate how positive it can be for someone who feels alone to have a place to go where people welcome him with open arms, remember his name, take an interest in his welfare and urge him to keep coming back. I heard this expressed by one speaker who said, “What I found at meetings was people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and who loved me when I didn’t even like myself. They taught me how to do both.”

The most important thing you hear is honesty. Yes, there are people who share because they like to hear themselves talk (and it’s a challenge in early recovery to ignore that), but they still may have things to say that can be helpful. And the overwhelming majority share honest emotions, admit their insecurities and grope to express what they need to get out of their systems at that moment.

Hearing people share raw emotions so honestly is astonishing in a world where everyone spends most of their time trying to look good. More surprising is that honesty is contagious. Hearing someone else talk about his failures and struggles, his craziness and obsessions, his self-doubts and denial, not only makes you reflect on your own, it opens you up to the possibility that you could emulate that honesty. You see that it’s OK to be honest in a meeting and that people accept you anyway. You learn that meetings are a supremely safe place to talk about how you feel and you’ll be met with understanding and compassion. That’s what I mean when I say that meetings are informal therapeutic communities.

So, for example, it’s OK to cry at meetings (though there’s at least ten times as much laughter in my experience). It’s OK to drop the pretense that everything is “fine,” to admit to having crazy thoughts and having done illogical, irrational things. (There’s almost always someone there who’s done nuttier things than you).

At most meetings all stages of recovery are represented from the newest of newcomers to those with decades of sobriety. That mix helps everyone. Newcomers can see how life improves with continued sobriety by hearing from those with long-term sobriety. Veterans are reminded of how far they’ve come by identifying with what the newcomers say. And relapsers remind everyone of what can happen if you take sobriety for granted.

There are a variety of meeting formats. At “speaker” meetings, speakers share what it was like when they were active addicts, what happened that prompted them to get sober, and what life is like now in sobriety. A “speaker-discussion” meeting is similar, but after the speaker shares participants talk about issues raised by the speaker. There are also book-study meetings focusing on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, or other sobriety-related literature. Another common type of meeting is for “Step-Study.”

In larger towns and cities there are often meetings targeted at newcomers, while others are limited to men and others are specifically for women. There may be “meditation meetings,” meetings for gays, lesbians and transgenders, or meetings in Spanish or other languages. No matter the format, the underlying themes remain the same: helping one another face the challenges of living a sober life in fellowship with others.

Many newcomers harbor fears about meetings. They may be afraid they’ll be singled out when they’d prefer to blend into the background. They may be unaware that anonymity is a central principle of the program and be afraid to be identified as an alcoholic or addict, or anxious that they’ll run into people they know. They may fear that they’ll be recruited into a religious cult or that meetings are populated by derelicts with whom they don’t want to associate. Those fears are sincere, but if you think you may have a problem with drugs or alcohol you should go anyway because you’ll find that your apprehensions were misplaced. You’ll find that almost everyone shared some of your fears when they were newcomers (I sure did) but found that meetings are welcoming places of compassion and understanding. And you’re likely to come out of a meeting feeling better than when you went in.

For more questions about 12-Step programs click on What’s Sponsorship All About?

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