What To Expect At Twelve-Step Meetings

by Michael Sweeney, JD, CADC III

Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have saved many lives since Bill W. and Dr. Bob first got sober in 1935. Although AA meetings are occasionally depicted in films or on television, nothing can compare to the experience of attending a meeting firsthand. For people who are contemplating attending their first AA meeting, this article may allay some anxiety and dispel some illusions about what to expect.

AA meetings can be held anywhere, but frequently they take place in public buildings such as churches or schools—accessible locations that usually have plenty of parking. Approaching the meeting location, you may see people gathered outside, chatting before the meeting starts (or smoking, as many AA meetings are now smoke-free). Frequently, there is coffee available. Most AA meetings start (and end) on time, so at the scheduled hour the chairperson or group secretary will call the meeting to order. Other conversations stop and people take their seats. The chairperson will announce that the meeting will begin with a moment of silence, sometimes followed by the recitation of the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”). Sometimes, other readings are included, such as “How It Works” from chapter five of the text Alcoholics Anonymous, colloquially known as “The Big Book.” (The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1939 on oversize paper because the group received a good price on the paper, making the book larger than standard publications.)

As the meeting begins, the chair usually asks if there is anyone attending AA for the first, second, or third time ever. The chair may then ask if there are any out-of-town visitors. The purpose is to welcome guests and newcomers. Individuals who are at their first AA meeting or have less than 30 days of sobriety may be welcomed with a hug and awarded a “keep coming back” coin or chip. The chair may talk for a few minutes and then will call on meeting participants to talk or “share” and may request that they limit their comments to three to five minutes and restrict their discussion to issues relating to alcoholism and recovery. Sometime during the meeting, the chair may open the meeting to anyone who has not been called on who really needs to talk, frequently referred to as a “burning desire to share.” People who are called upon to speak usually do so by identifying themselves, for instance, “My name is Michael, and I am an alcoholic.” The group usually responds with “Hi, Michael,” and then the individual speaks for a few minutes. If a person is called upon and does not wish to talk, he or she has only to say, “I think I will just listen today,” or, “I’ll pass.” Another safety feature of the meetings is there is no cross talk or interruption. Unlike group therapy, AA members share their own experience, strength, and hope with each other, rather than telling one another what to do.

At some point, the meeting pauses for announcements and to collect funds for AA’s Seventh Tradition, which states that AA groups are self-supporting through their own contributions. Cash donations of a dollar or two are usual, although newcomers are not required to contribute until they understand what AA is about.

Most meetings last one hour or 90 minutes. At the end of the meeting, the group members stand, join hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer, for those who care to join. With slight variations, this basic meeting format is the same throughout the world, varying only in language. An AA member can walk into a meeting anywhere and feel at home.

What else should one know about an AA meeting? Some meetings are “speaker meetings” where one individual talks, usually sharing the story of his or her recovery. Others are “discussion meetings” where everyone shares, talking about a topic or whatever is on his or her mind. There are also “Big Book” or “Step Meetings” where AA literature such as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions or Alcoholics Anonymous are read and discussed. An AA meeting may be “open” or “closed.” In closed meetings, only alcoholics (or individuals with a desire to stop drinking) may attend. Open meetings are open to anyone, including family or friends of an alcoholic. Meetings may also address a specific population such as women or men only or gays and lesbians. In all meetings, attendees are urged to observe the confidential nature of the sharing, expressed by the saying, “What you see here, stays here.” Sometimes you may encounter a meeting composed of professional men and women. There are organizations such as International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous or International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous (www.ilaa.org). Many of the lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) feature meetings for lawyers only.

If you are interested in attending an AA meeting or any of the other 12-step programs, please call your local LAP for information about a meeting near you. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) maintains a directory of LAPs in each state. See www.abanet.org and go to legal services, then click on the CoLAP directory to learn how to reach your local LAP director. All state programs have confidentiality provisions so you may safely access programs without fear of losing your anonymity.

At meetings you may witness a lot of laughter and joking. People in AA are not a glum lot, and they insist on having a good time. The humor shows itself in an AA meeting, and newcomers are frequently surprised to hear members laughing about an incident that might seem grim or unfortunate. Usually, the laughter is based on identification with the speaker, as well as relief that sober people are no longer getting arrested, crashing automobiles, or engaging in unmanageable drunken behavior.

Sometimes, anecdotes express important lessons in AA, or “the Program,” as some members refer to it. For example, a few years ago Tiger Woods was playing in a golf tournament. His ball was lodged behind a large rock. The question was whether that rock was a movable object or was Tiger going to have to take an unplayable lie and a penalty stroke. Tiger alone could not move the rock despite his great strength. Four or five individuals stepped forward and collectively as a group were able to carry the obstruction away. Tiger played the shot without a penalty. Clearly, the power of the group was greater than the individuals’ power alone.

Some people who have never attended an AA meeting express unease with 12-step programs because of “all the talk about God.” In AA, “God” is to be understood as “a higher power”—interpreted in any way that works for you. Therefore, a “Group of Drunks” (GOD) providing “Good, Orderly Direction” (GOD) can be the higher power for the alcoholic if he or she so decides. AA is a spiritual program, not a religious one, and takes no position on political issues or any controversy.

The success enjoyed by Alcoholics Anonymous has been so great that many other groups have developed using the AA model for meetings and the 12-step format. There are Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Co-dependency Anonymous (CODA), and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), just to name a few. Of course, there is Al-Anon for the spouses, family members, and friends of alcoholics. For the purpose of simplicity, this article talks about AA, but the word cocaine, sex, emotions, gambling, etc., can be substituted for the word “alcohol” in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and other 12-step programs follow similar formats.

Many treatment centers, whether inpatient or outpatient, involve the use of the 12-step format. One of the goals of treatment is to assist alcoholics to break through their denial about their disease and to see the problems alcohol has caused in their lives. Treatment centers also like to involve the client in 12-step programs because part of the ongoing recovery process will consist of aftercare, including maintaining sobriety and attendance at outside support groups. With more than 100,000 AA groups in 150 different countries and a membership of more than 2 million, treatment providers know that recovering people can find AA meetings readily available.

Research also indicates that participation in 12-step programs increases an individual’s chances for sustained recovery. A 1999 study at UCLA found that patients who completed treatment and participated in 12-step meetings had twice the abstinence rate compared to those who completed treatment and did not go to meetings. In a 1994 study of 65,000 patients who attended AA after treatment, those who attended AA weekly for one year had a 73 percent rate of staying sober. Of those who attended AA only occasionally, 53 percent stayed sober. In contrast, those who never went to 12-step meetings or stopped going had a 43 percent rate of sobriety.

If you think you may have a problem with alcohol, you probably do. Now that you know what to expect from an AA meeting, try attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and see for yourself if the solution that has worked for more than 2 million people can work for you.

 This article is reprinted with permission from Michael Sweeney, JD, CADC III, an attorney counselor with the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  This article originally appeared in the October/November 2004 issue of GP Solo, Volume 21, Number 7. 

Wondering if a 12 step group could be helpful to you?  If so, please contact MOLAP at 1-800-688-7859.