More than what they remember hearing in their first few meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, or any type of twelve-step recovery meeting, people tend to remember how they felt. Afraid, relieved, angry, hopeful, sad, encouraged, embarrassed, curious, confused, peaceful—or maybe some combination of them all. If you or your loved one is new to twelve-step recovery, knowing even a little about what to expect can help relieve some of the initial anxiety or confusion that might accompany being in a new place with new people.
While no two meetings are alike, here are five things common to most meetings to help you navigate those early days of recovery.
Open or closed meetings?
A quick Google search in your hometown for A.A. meetings will likely bring you to your city’s local intergroup website. Intergroup, sometimes called “central office,” is an A.A. service office that supports local groups in the area. They are also often a good resource for finding local meetings as they typically post meeting schedules on their websites, print meeting schedule books (usually available for free or for a nominal fee), and utilize volunteers to answer phone inquiries. In addition to helping answer questions about meetings, intergroup is a great resource for finding out about A.A. news and events in your area.
As you scroll or flip through your city’s local meeting schedule, it’s likely you’ll see quite a few abbreviations and A.A. shorthand to describe the types of meetings. One of those will usually be “open” or “closed” meetings.
Open meetings are just like they sound—open to anyone interested in attending a meeting of A.A., alcoholic or nonalcoholic. It’s not uncommon, however, to hear in open meetings a request that only alcoholics share in these meetings.
Closed meetings are reserved for alcoholics or prospective A.A. members.
Discussion, literature, speaker?
In addition to open or closed meetings, there are also different meeting formats. Most twelve-step meetings are between 60 and 90 minutes long. Some common meeting formats you might encounter are:
Open (OD) or closed (CD), discussion meetings mean someone will introduce a topic related to sobriety that the rest of the group will discuss.
Open (OS) or closed (CS), speaker meetings include an A.A. member sharing his or her story of recovery. They will share what it was like when they were drinking, how they came to A.A., and what it’s like today in sobriety.
These meetings center around topics pulled from A.A. conference-approved literature (Lit), including the Big Book (BB), the unofficial name for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the 12&12 (TT), the unofficial name for Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. (“Conference-approved” literature refers to materials approved for publication by the General Service Office.)
After opening the meeting, the group may spend a part or the rest of the meeting in silent meditation until it is time to close.
These meetings typically center around the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are not, however, restricted to only those new or returning to sobriety.
It is also common to see meetings designated for only men, only women, LGBT-friendly, or Spanish-speaking or another foreign language. Meeting schedules will also list those meetings which are wheelchair accessible, have an interpreter or child care available, or any other specific accessibility needs being addressed.
Each meeting will have its own rhythm and personality. Most twelve-step meetings, however, will open and close in similar ways.
A chairperson, secretary, or both will lead the meeting, usually opening the meeting with the Serenity Prayer. There are typically a couple of readings from A.A. conference-approved literature including “How It Works” from the Big Book and one or more of the Twelve Traditions. Some meetings may include other readings at the beginning or end of the meeting.
Following the readings, and depending on the meeting format, there may be a discussion, a speaker, additional reading, or some combination.
At some point during the meeting, someone will pass the 7th Tradition basket. A.A. is self-supporting and contributions are used for a variety of purposes including covering the meeting’s expenses (coffee, rent, literature) and contributing to other areas of A.A. A contribution is not required to attend an A.A. meeting.
Some meetings will take a few minutes to offer chips or medallions to mark various lengths of sobriety. One of the chips may be called a “white chip,” “surrender chip,” or “24-hour chip.” This chip is for anyone new or returning to A.A. interested in giving sobriety a chance for 24 hours.
The meeting may also leave time to see who is available to sponsor by a show of hands. This is an opportunity to see who is willing to take another person through the 12 Steps.
The chairperson or secretary will eventually bring the meeting to a close. Those who wish to participate will circle up and close with a prayer.
Participation in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting
There are many opportunities to participate in various parts of an A.A. meeting. Each is a way to begin to connect with others and the group.
Many meetings will take a moment to allow visitors or newcomers to introduce themselves. This is not to embarrass or call anyone out; it is simply an opportunity for others in the meeting to get to know you. Remember, everyone was new once.
If the meeting is a discussion meeting, you may be able to share for a few minutes on the topic.
“The meeting before the meeting” or “the meeting after the meeting”
One of the best ways to get involved with the meeting may actually be before or after the meeting: “the meeting before the meeting” or “the meeting after the meeting.”
Arriving early or staying late gives you additional time to get to know other members in recovery outside of the meeting. Most meetings will need help making coffee, setting up chairs, greeting people, or any number of small tasks before or after the meeting. These are great ways to chat with others while also helping the group.
In some groups, members will go out for coffee or food before or after the meeting. Many newly sober alcoholics arrive to recovery deprived of connection and community, having been in some state of isolation, physical or mental, prior to sobriety. Getting phone numbers, talking with others before or after the meeting, or pitching in to help with the meeting are all ways to begin to find your way back to the middle of the pack.