How to Handle (or Survive) Your First 12-Step Meeting

12 step meeting - group of people sitting in a circle

After you’ve made the often very difficult decision to go into rehab and get professional help to overcome your addiction, it’s not the end of the healing path but merely the beginning. Along with detoxifying your body from addictive substances, learning about the disease of addiction, becoming familiar with and practicing coping skills and techniques, and learning how to prevent, deal with and come back from potential relapse, there’s the whole vital element of ongoing support to navigate. While you’ve probably been introduced to 12-step meetings, once you’re back home again you’ll need to figure out how to handle (or survive) your first (post-rehab) 12-step meeting.

Get Your Feet Wet — Dive In

The first recommendation is to get your feet wet and just dive in. The first meeting you attend after the safe and supportive environment you experienced in rehab might seem a bit scary. That’s to be expected. Many newly recovered individuals say they feel qualms about entering the so-called “rooms of recovery” away from the familiar faces they’d interacted with during treatment. Still, knowing this is normal to feel this way and being able to get past it are two very different things. So, how do you navigate this first post-rehab 12-step meeting?

It helps to have a friend to go with. Ideally, this will be someone who’s already participating in the 12-step group process. That way you’ve got a person who knows the people who generally attend and can give you a heads-up on what happens during typical meetings, what, if anything, is expected of you when you first attend, how long it takes, and any other pertinent details you should know.

Suppose you don’t have anyone you know who can accompany you to a meeting so you feel more at ease? In this case, you’ll just need to take a deep breath, research meeting locations and times that are convenient to you, get in your car — or arrange other transportation — go to the meeting and walk in the door.

Take the Welcome — It’s Well-Meant

The first thing you’ll probably notice once you step through the door to your first 12-step meeting is how welcome other members try to make you feel. It might seem like this is a large group of strangers, so how can they be so friendly, but here’s a secret: Each one of them was once in your shoes, entering the rooms of recovery for the first time and feeling a bit terrified at the prospect of what’s to come next. From this perspective, it’s natural that they’d want to ease your discomfort in any way possible. They’ll extend a greeting, put out their hand to shake yours, welcome you to sit down and join the group —and that’s the extent of what needs to happen.

Your first meeting is really to allow you to see the who, what, where, when and to realize why. Everyone who goes to 12-step meetings is there to be supported by and to support others who are serious about maintaining their sobriety and learning to live in joy clean and sober. That’s as simple a statement about why people participate in 12-step meetings as ever there was.

Suffice to say that these people mean well, so take the welcome that’s extended to you. Sit in the back if that’s what you want to do. Observe, listen and absorb what goes on. This is your introduction to a powerful healing community that will serve you well in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. This is true whether you ultimately decide this will be your home group or you find another 12-step group meeting that you like better. These people are here to help — you as well as themselves.

Don’t Feel Obligated — You’re Not 

It’s important to note that you’re under no obligation when you go to your first meeting — or any 12-step meeting, for that matter. You are free to choose any meeting you like, wherever and whenever it takes place. Online or in-person doesn’t matter either. You are the driver of this choice, no one else.

You might also appreciate knowing that there are no dues or fees to join. There is one requirement, though: a sincere desire to remain sober, to quit your substance use, and to encourage and support others on their healing journey.

What if you feel like you just can’t handle this right now? You might ask yourself what’s really underneath your reluctance. Is it that you don’t like strange surroundings? Do you find it difficult to communicate with others? Are you still feeling too raw from rehab and aren’t up to interacting with people you don’t know well? Keep in mind that everyone feels this way to begin with, but if you’re still filled with apprehension, perhaps talk with your therapist, a close friend, loved one or family member about what’s going on with you. Remember that healing takes time and you do need allies you can trust. There’s no better place to do this on a universal basis than 12-step meetings — if you choose to utilize the 12-step group approach.

Allocate an Hour

As for what you’ll be doing, like anything else, it helps to have a schedule. If you can reconcile an hour of your time for an activity that’s proactive and beneficial to your recovery, set that time aside and go to a meeting. An hour is a relatively short period of time, an increment that you’ve probably wasted on many an occasion with nothing to show for it. When you go to a 12-step meeting, however, you’re doing something that can provide insights, camaraderie, solutions to common problems, offer hope and inspiration — all things you so desperately need at this phase of your recovery.

There’s no need to speak up at your first meeting. You might acknowledge the welcome you receive and then sit quietly observing. That’s perfectly fine. It’s what most newcomers do and is expected. No one will seek to intrude or pester you to “share” your story with the group. There’ll be plenty of time for that later, at another time, possibly even a different meeting. For now, you’re just acquainting yourself with the process, seeing what happens, and trying to determine if this is something that will work for you — as millions have before you.

With no obligation and only an hour out of your schedule, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  So go ahead and allocate an hour and get this process (of healing) moving.

Suspend Your Judgments — This Is a Supportive Community

While it’s difficult to keep biases and preconceived notions in check when encountering any new experience, make it a point to suspend your judgments when you attend your first 12-step meeting. That’s because everyone in the 12-step rooms is nonjudgmental. In fact, there’s no room for judgment or harsh criticism of any participants at any time. That is contrary to the purpose of the group, for the 12-step meeting is a supportive community of like-minded individuals, all focused on their own and fellow members’ recovery.

What if the person sitting next to you doesn’t fit your idea of someone in recovery? They may dress differently, speak a different language or broken English, or appear to be highly successful (so how could they be a recovering addict?). It could be that they speak with conviction, have stories of great success in overcoming addiction, are here newly sober or sober again for the umpteenth time. How can you relate to these people? Why would you want to? These and similar thoughts may appear and dissipate while you sit in the back of the church hall or restaurant private room or the basement of a community center.

Again, this is normal. Most people feel this way upon attending their first 12-step meeting. Just keep in mind that nurturing and supportiveness is the operative philosophy here. Everyone wants you to succeed in your sobriety, just as they earnestly desire to maintain their own recovery.

Get the Low-Down

Many people want to learn as much as they can about the process of 12-step meetings before they walk through the door. If you’re someone who insists on such detail, go online and find the resources that are readily available that will give you all the information you need. For example, you can read and print out the 12 steps, along with the 12 principles and other key 12-step concepts. You can read about sponsors, how to choose one, what to expect, and how sponsors are your guide as you begin working the 12 steps. And, yes, you will need to commit to working the steps. As is often said in the rooms, recovery works if you work it. Action is what matters. To achieve results, to become stronger and more self-reliant and self-confident in recovery, you need to work at it.

Get the low-down. Commit to the process. Understand that healing will take time. Then, just go for it. There’s no time like the present and no better way to begin your lifelong healing journey than to go to your first 12-step meeting.

Here’s an added inducement: Welcome to the rest of your life of joyful sobriety.

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