What Can I Expect at a 12-Step Meeting?

You Don't Have to Say Anything, Pray or Hug Anyone

12 step meetings
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Those who have never attended a 12-step meeting have some misconceptions about how the meetings actually work. Barb M., a long-time member explains what you can expect at your first meeting.

I often hear people, new to the concept of attending a 12-step meeting, voice fears and reservations surrounding their expectations of what will go on during the meeting. For those who hold these fears or for those who are just curious, let me start off by saying, the door isn't locked!

For myself, before attending my first AA meeting, here were some of the thoughts that went through my head.

  • I would be surrounded and generally malled by these so called "helpful" alcoholics.
  • I would have to stand up and say, "I am an alcoholic."
  • I would have to tell all of my secrets surrounding my addiction to alcohol.
  • I would have to participate in group hugs.
  • I would have to pray.
  • I would be joining a cult.
  • I would see people I recognized.

Sound familiar? Let me share with you my experience with AA thus far.

My First Meeting

My first meeting was held behind a church in a separate building upstairs. It was on a Sunday afternoon and almost everyone there was there to attend the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I walked down a hall and found the meeting room fairly easily. Outside of the room were a few folks making coffee and talking.

Inside the room there were people sitting here and there; some talking together, some sitting alone.

I took a seat by the door (just in case I wanted to make a quick exit) and as people passed by, some said hello, some nodded, some stopped and introduced themselves, and some kept to themselves.

It seemed like ages, on that first day, before the meeting actually got started. In reality it was about 10 minutes.

There were about 50 people who were seated in a semi-circle of chairs. One person sat in the middle of the circle. Later I learned that she was the meeting chairperson for that particular day.

How It Works

The meeting began with the chairperson reading the AA Preamble, then leading a group prayer, the Serenity Prayer (short version) in which about 80 percent of the people recited. Afterwards different members of the meeting read brief AA literature, "How it Works," the "Twelve Traditions" and "The Promises." I listened to each of them very closely having never heard them before.

The chairperson asked if there was any newcomers, or first timers, attending the meeting who would like to introduce themselves by their first name. A few raised their hands, I was not one of them, as this was an obvious option and not mandatory for me to do.

At that point I simply wasn't prepared to even make the commitment of giving my name to this room of strangers, so I didn't.

Step Study Meeting

This particular meeting that I attended was a Step Meeting.

This of course meant very little to me since at that time I had no experience with these "steps" but I continued to sit and listen. Thus far, no one had imposed himself or herself on me so there was no reason to leave and I was curious about this "AA" thing.

The chairperson announced which step they would be discussing. To be totally honest with you, I was more transfixed on being in awe of the meeting itself and the fact that these people all sat there seemingly unashamed, that I, to this day, haven't a clue which step they discussed.

After the step chapter was read from the book, "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," the chairperson then asked if anyone had any experience, strength and hope relating to the step, which they would like to share.

Sharing Experience, Strength and Hope

To me this was the most fascinating part of the meeting! Watching people begin to share their experiences with alcohol then relating it to the step was fascinating and familiar since some seemed to emulate my own experiences.

During the meeting, people simply began talking. Each starting off by introducing themselves as, "Hello, my name is (first name) and I'm an alcoholic" and yes, just as in the movies, at this point the room burst into a, "Hello (first name)!" After they completed their "story" everyone in the room thanked them. Then the next person would speak up.

After everyone completed sharing (they all seemed aware of the time the meeting ended) the chairperson asked if there were any AA-related announcements. Then she announced that it was time for the Lord's Prayer, and everyone stood in a large circle, holding hands, and reciting the prayer. I opted to stand back at this point and did not participate. Once the prayer was over, the meeting ended.

Meeting After the Meeting

People gathered, talking, and there was a social air now to the meeting. Again, some introduced themselves to me, asking questions which I avoided answering with any direct answer. I left fairly quickly after the meeting ended.

My feeling as I drove home from that first meeting was one of awe, relief, and some fear. I knew though, regardless of the fear, I wanted to go again.

Different Meeting Formats

Since that first meeting, I have learned that different meetings have different ways of doing things but for the most part, they run the same. In some meetings, people are randomly called on, the thinking being, that it prevents the same people from constantly sharing overriding the more shy, quieter people.

In other meetings, at the end of the prayer, everyone may say a popular AA slogan, such as, "meeting makers make it." Some meetings are purely discussion meetings where the topic is random and more derived by "a burning desire" that one of the members may have. Speakers meetings are just as they say where a speaker is chosen to speak about their experience, strength and hope in regards to their recovery.

No One Pestered Me

Regardless of a meetings "platform" the main thing I was most relieved about was the non-imposing feel that I got when I first began attending meetings. No one bombarded me with his or her religious slogans, no one pestered me to hold hands and pray, no one cared if I sat in the back or sat in the front, drank coffee or didn't drink coffee, helped clean up or ran off before the meeting ended.

There seemed to be no set rules other then those of common respect which may include - Try to be on time. No smoking. No cross talk during shares. Have court vouchers signed at the end of a meeting.

As far as running into people who would recognize me? Well, that did happen but it was no big deal. Surely not the big deal I used as an excuse for years prior for not attending a meeting.

The Helping Hand of A.A.

The decision to introduce myself as an alcoholic and to accept my first chip did eventually happen. I attended many, many meetings before that point and although people did slowly learn my name, I still to some point keep a distance. The nice part of AA is that I'm allowed to! It may not be the best way to work the program but for me, it is working for now.

One common practice however, is that when you do introduce yourself to the group as a newcomer and an alcoholic, you will receive a "meeting schedule" book with the names and numbers of people who you can call if you feel the need to drink and need help. People who put their number on this book do so because they really do want to help. It isn't required of anyone to do so but it keeps with the tradition of AA, that when an alcoholic calls for help, the helping hand of AA will be there.

Good luck! Just remember, there is nothing to be afraid of! If you aren't sure if you are an alcoholic, find an "open" meeting to attend in your area. Many non-alcoholics may attend these and no one assumes because you are there that you are alcoholic.

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