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What to Expect at 12-Step Meetings

Here are some of the frequently asked questions about 12-step programs:

A lot of addicts new to recovery have many questions, fears and anxieties about 12-step meetings. This is perfectly natural. However, these gatherings are actually safe, straightforward, usually enjoyable affairs. Below are some of the more common questions people have about 12-step fellowships. Hopefully these will alleviate any concerns you may have about 12-step groups, which are the lifeblood of long-term sobriety and a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.

Q: I am worried about being seen at one of these meetings. How private is a 12-step meeting?

A: It’s ironic that people who will, without a second thought, photocopy their naked posterior at the office Christmas party, hit on the boss’s wife, and then drive home in a blackout are worried about what others might think of them—especially when the odds of being “outed” as an alcoholic or addict by a fellow 12-step group member are extremely slim. After all, the word “anonymous” is included in the name of every 12-step program. Certainly these meetings are not bound to the same level of confidentiality as, say, a therapy group, but the tenet of anonymity is nearly always upheld. If you choose to talk publicly about your recovery, that’s perfectly OK, but others should and nearly always will respect your right to privacy. Plus, if someone you know sees you at one of these meetings, he or she is in the exact same boat as you.

Q: I don’t want to talk about my shameful secrets in a meeting. If I go, do I have to talk?

A: Other than asking you to introduce yourself by your first name, nobody will expect you to participate unless you wish to. No one will ever make you share about anything you don’t want to talk about. Over time, as you develop trust in a particular group and the people in it, you will likely decide to open up. But you are perfectly free to remain quiet for as long as you’d like.

Q: I hear people talk about these meetings like they’re some kind of cult. I’m not OK with that. Are the meetings preachy and God-oriented? And will people expect me to believe a certain way about God?

A: While 12-step fellowships do have a spiritual component, the nature of that component (including having no spiritual beliefs at all) is up to the individual. In that respect, 12-step groups are actually “anti-cults.” Yes you will hear people using phrases like “higher power” and “power greater than ourselves,” but how they choose to interpret those words is nobody’s business but their own, and how you choose to interpret them is nobody’s business but yours. Simply put, no 12-step program is allied with any specific religion or spiritual belief system. You can keep the religion you’ve got, you can switch to another if it pleases you, or you can opt for no religion at all. The choice is yours. The only thing that 12-steps groups will ask is that you not judge and/or belittle the spiritual beliefs of others.

Q: What is a sponsor, and how do I choose one?

A: Sponsors are personal guides to healing and sobriety. They’re usually not friends (at least not at the beginning), and they should never be lovers or even potential lovers. A sponsor should be someone who has been involved with recovery long enough to have achieved at least a modicum of sobriety. A sponsor should be visibly involved in meetings, and he or she should have worked the 12 steps already, at least one time. This is important because a sponsor’s primary job is to guide you through the steps. The best way to choose a sponsor is to look for someone whose process of recovery seems stable, useful, and similar to what you want. If their life circumstances and experiences are similar to yours, that can be helpful, but it is not always necessary. Asking someone to be your sponsor does take a bit of courage, but no more than walking into a 12-step meeting for the first time. Simply approach your prospective sponsor and ask if he or she is available to sponsor someone. If the answer is yes, propose that you meet and discuss recovery. If the person says no, don’t take it personally or give up. Instead, find someone else to ask, and remember that him or her saying no probably has more to do with his or her own availability and self-confidence than with you.

There is still hope.

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