Your First 12-Step Meeting: What Can You Expect?

It can be difficult to tell a substance abuser apart from a non-abuser. In fact, many individuals become substance abusers without realizing it themselves.

However, as substance abuse and recreational intoxication become dependent and addiction, individuals begin to experience various physical health, psychological, and behavioral changes.

Depending on one’s substance of choice, continuous substance abuse can cause incredible damage to the body and its functions, but the damage with arguably the biggest impact on an individual—especially to his or her personality, behavior, and lifestyle—is that which occurs to the brain.

Addiction can turn compassionate, intelligent, and ambitious people into dangerous, destructive, irresponsible ones. The family members, friends, and other loved ones of individuals developing an alcohol or drug addiction often notice these changes accumulating over time, making them unreliable, unpredictable, withdrawn, and emotionally volatile.

As more and more time passes with an individual in active addiction, he or she will feel progressively unfulfilled and even empty. The passage of time often entails the crumbling of an addicted person’s life from beneath them, which might include the loss of employment and financial independence, damage or destruction of important relationships, homeless, and even resorting to criminal behavior to sustain an expensive substance abuse habit.

Fortunately, individuals struggling with addiction have many recovery options available.

While there are numerous effective inpatient and outpatient treatment programs from which to choose, 12-step programs—Alcoholics Anonymous and its many derivative groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Sex Addicts Anonymous—have been an essential resource for countless individuals as they work toward and sustain sobriety.

However, for those who have never attended a 12-step meeting before, the prospect of participating and sharing the intimate details of one’s life during addiction can be daunting. The following is meant to give individuals an idea of what to expect at one’s first 12-step meeting.

What Is the Purpose of a 12-Step Meeting?

The best way to summarize what attending a 12-step meeting for the first time is like is to begin by conveying the purpose and principles of 12-step groups.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the first and original 12-step group, which Bill Wilson started in 1935. Wilson struggled with alcoholism.

His goal in developing the Alcoholics Anonymous ideology was to help a colleague overcome alcoholism. Wilson had been a member of and was inspired by the Oxford Group, a Christian-oriented recovery fellowship that was successful and popular at the time.

However, whereas the Oxford Group saw drinking as a sin and encouraged members to resist being sinners, Wilson’s growing fellowship would instead see alcoholism—and, by extension, addiction in general—as a disease that could be overcome through spirituality and community.

Alcoholics Anonymous encouraged self-examination, forcing individuals to be accountable for their failings and misdeeds, and taking the initiative to right prior wrongs while guiding others through this process in the spirit of true fellowship.

Experiencing Mixed Emotions at the First 12-Step Meeting

Depending on whether an individual who is attending a 12-step meeting has not yet begun the recovery process or has completed a treatment program, he or she is likely to experience many different feelings and thoughts.

Moreover, since some people are forced to attend 12-step groups—perhaps due to being court-ordered or the criteria of an addiction treatment program—there could possibly be some anger and hostility that prevent them from being fully present and aware.

It’s common to feel intimidated while surrounded by members who have participated in 12-step groups for so long, making one much less willing to speak and participate. Feelings of hostility, aggression, and intimidation make individuals less receptive to the benefits a 12-step meeting can offer, but such feelings will continue to subside as one becomes more comfortable at 12-step meetings.

Individuals who have never been to a 12-step meeting will often have expectations and misconceptions as to what the experience would be like.

Many imagine being forced to address the group, introducing themselves as addicts and alcoholics, and having to share their darkest times during their addiction. Additionally, some fear they will be identified as a member of a 12-step group, perhaps due to some record of one’s having attended meetings on certain dates.

However, participation in 12-step meetings is entirely voluntary, and anonymity is central to a 12-step meeting; the group may record the number of individuals in attendance as a tally, but no identifying information about attendees is recorded or documented.

Choosing to Listen or Participate: There’s No Wrong Answer

When attending a 12-step meeting, one can choose whether to share with the group or simply listen to what others are sharing. Although many will share over the course of 12-step meetings, listening is also very beneficial as individuals gain much perspective on addiction and recovery by listening to the diverse experiences of others, learning how and why they handled those situations the way they did.

This is valuable because people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol tend to have similar experiences, whether it’s family problems related to substance abuse, job loss, spending all of one’s money on a substance abuse habit, or being unable to pay bills, the experience of overdosing or witnessing someone else overdose, homelessness, and so on.

At a 12-step meeting, individuals get to hear about similar experiences from a new perspective, which can be enlightening and help them to think of addiction in new ways.

Typically lasting for up to an hour and a half, many 12-step meetings consist of members who share their stories of addiction or the recovery process, but this occurs voluntarily. No one in attendance is required or obligated to speak or introduce themselves.

Most individuals will choose not to share for the first several meetings while getting acclimated to the 12-step way. However, those who share at meetings often feel a sense of relief by sharing their experiences with others. In fact, sharing can be both helpful to others who may be experiencing similar situations and therapeutic to those who share.

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