Meetings are the foundation of recovery in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

It’s here that people learn more about how others cope with the challenges of addiction, and it’s here that they find out more about the skills they’ll need to develop in order to stay sober.

But even though meetings can be remarkably helpful, the experience is a new one for people who have been steeped in substance abuse. We asked a few people to share their experiences about going to a meeting for the very first time, in the hopes that their words might inspire those new to recovery, and we paired their responses with those provided by Ryan Miller, NCRC II, the Futures Alumni Coordinator. Here’s what they had to say.

Common, Normal Reactions

mixed-emotions-first-meetingIt’s not at all unusual for people to feel apprehensive about attending a meeting for the very first time. In fact, that apprehension is common when people are asked to deal with all sorts of novel experiences, Miller says, likening it to the first day at a new job or the first day of school.

“You don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what you’ll be asked to do, and you don’t know anyone when you walk through the door,” Miller says. “These are familiar feelings; people have been through them before.”

Some people combat these feelings my masking them with hostility. If they behave in a manner that seems confident, they reason, they’ll be less likely to feel ill at ease. It’s an approach that Katie (last name withheld) understands quite well.

“I didn’t want to go to my first AA meeting; the judge made me go. So I walked into that room just looking for proof that I didn’t belong there. I was willing to latch onto anything. People who were too young, too old, too wealthy, too poor,” she says. “I smirked through that whole meeting without really listening. But that kind of sarcasm is really hard to sustain, you know? I had to keep going in order to stay out of trouble, and over time, I guess I started to listen instead of being so defensive.”

“The great thing is that everybody just let me work through that,” Katie continues. “They didn’t confront me or argue with me or kick me out. They seemed to know that it was just part of the process, and that it would go away in time. Now, I try to do the same thing for newbies who come to my meetings. I know just what they’re thinking, and I let them work that out.”

Broken Expectations

intimidating-meetingOften, when people come into a meeting for the very first time, they have a set of expectations about what will happen. They might expect to be:

  • Hugged when they enter the meeting
  • Forced to use the phrase, “I am an addict” or “I am an alcoholic”
  • Required to share stories of their addictions
  • Pressured to hand out their phone number and real name

“I thought my meeting would go like this: I’d walk into the room and get mobbed by a bunch of people who wanted to hug me and hear all of my secrets. Then, I’d have to stand up in the front of the room and admit that I was an alcoholic, and I’d have to share some stories about that,” Katie says. “Turns out, my meeting was nothing like that. I got greeted, sure, but I didn’t say anything at all in the first dozen or so meetings I went to. I just listened.”

Often, people allow their concerns and fears to hijack their imaginations, and when that happens, they become convinced that the meeting will be somehow frightening or even damaging.

“In general, it’s a lot less scary than people realize. Most people build it up in their minds into something much worse than it could possibly be. But I’ve never had anyone come to me and tell me that the meeting was scarier than they thought. It just doesn’t work like that,” Miller says.

Katie learned a similar lesson in the first meeting she attended. “Everything I knew about AA came from movies or television shows. Not surprisingly, I expected to see super-drunk people falling out of their chairs in my first meeting, and I fully thought I’d be able to smell alcohol on the breath of everyone I met. I thought it would be miserable,” she says. “I was so surprised, then, to walk into a room of people who looked just like me. They were clean, they seemed nice, and they were just overwhelmingly normal, if that makes any sense. It really drove home the fact that alcoholism could happen to anyone at any time. The disease is just that common, and it truly doesn’t discriminate. I learned that lesson, for the first time, at my first meeting.”

Help From Others

Meetings often follow a specific format, in which participants share stories, examine text, or study some aspect of addiction recovery. The lessons that take hold due to this formal structure can be transformative but often, the other people in the room transmit important information informally. “Within a minute of walking into that room, someone came up to me with words of welcome. I didn’t have to explain why I was there or what I wanted or anything. This person just wanted me to feel welcome, and she even let me sit by her during the first meeting, so I wouldn’t feel alone,” says Jack (last name withheld).

Good Advice

find-helping-hand-at-12-step-aaIt can be overwhelming to attend a meeting, as many participants use phrases, terms and lingo that new members may be unaccustomed to. But simply looking for similarities, not differences, may help some lessons to become clear. “My meeting was dominated by sharing. People spoke up about the things that had been going on in their lives, and they tried to make sense of some of the mistakes they made,” Jack says. “I didn’t understand everything, but I absolutely related to the feelings these people shared, and while it made me sad to think that so many people are struggling, it was amazing to understand that there were people out there who were just like me, who might be willing to listen to and understand my stories.”

Miller also suggests that people new to recovery could benefit from sharing openly, even if the thoughts they have don’t seem happy or positive. “Everyone in that meeting attended their first meeting at some point. It’s okay that you don’t know anyone. It’s okay that you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. All of that is fine,” Miller says. “The people in that room really want to help. They get excited when they see new people, and they really want to hear about how people feel and how they’re doing. Sharing those feelings can help you to connect with the people who want to help you. Even sharing feelings of nervousness or fear is really well received. Sharing those feelings means meeting people, and that can be really powerful.” Bringing a buddy from a treatment program can be a great way for some people to deal with the stress of a brand-new meeting, but Miller also suggests that feelings of nervousness might fade more quickly when solo attendees go to meetings on a frequent, and regular, basis. “The more someone goes to meetings, the less apprehensive they’ll be,” he says. “But if you only go once a month, or you go a few times and then skip a few times, you’ll be apprehensive for a while. You won’t know anyone and you won’t make connections. It just takes longer if you don’t go consistently. Once people start to get to know you and they can put a name with a face, they become very welcoming and very comforting. This kind of thing can really help people feel comfortable with the idea of going to meetings.”

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