Going to Your First 12-Step Meeting

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What can you expect when you attend a 12-step or Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? If you've never attended one, you likely have fears and reservations. Often, your only exposure is through what you've seen depicted in movies or television shows. What is the reality?

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Common Myths

These things you may think happen at 12-step meetings, but might be myths rather than typical occurrences:

  • You will be surrounded by "helpful" alcoholics.
  • You have to stand up and say, "I am an alcoholic."
  • You have to tell all of your secrets surrounding my addiction to alcohol.
  • You have to participate in group hugs.
  • You have to pray.
  • You are joining a cult.
  • You might see people you recognize.

The First Meeting

What is the reality for most meetings? The meeting might be held in a building connected with a church or a community center. You arrive to find most of the people you see are there for the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Outside of the room are a few folks making coffee and talking.

Inside the room, there are people sitting here and there; some talking together, some sitting alone. You take a seat by the door (just in case you want to make a quick exit) and as people passed by, some say hello, some nod, some stop and introduce themselves, and some keep to themselves.

After about 10 minutes, there are 50 people who are seated in a semi-circle of chairs. One person sits in the middle of the circle. They are the meeting chairperson for that particular day.

How It Works

The meeting begins with the chairperson reading the AA Preamble, then leading a group prayer, the Serenity Prayer (short version). Afterward, different members of the meeting read sections of AA literature, including the "Alcoholic Anonymous" book (commonly referred to as "The Big Book") and "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions."

The chairperson asks if there are any newcomers, or first-timers, attending the meeting who would like to introduce themselves by their first name. A few raise their hands. You may or may not be one of them as this is an option and not mandatory.

Step Study Meeting

The meeting might be a Step Meeting. The chairperson announces which step they would be discussing. After the step chapter is read from the book, "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," the chairperson asks if anyone had any experience, strength, or hope relating to the step that they would like to share.


During the meeting, people simply begin talking. Each starts off by introducing themselves as, "Hello, my name is (first name) and I'm an alcoholic." Just as in the movies, everyone responds with, "Hello (first name)!" After they complete their "story" everyone in the room thanks them. Then the next person can speak up.

After everyone completes sharing, the chairperson asks if there are any AA-related announcements. In some cases, they announce that it is time for the Lord's Prayer, and everyone stands in a large circle, holding hands, and recites the prayer. You do not have to participate in the prayer. Once the prayer is over, the meeting ends.

After the Meeting

People gather, talking, and there is a social air now to the meeting. Some may introduce themselves to you and may ask questions. You are free to leave if you don't want to socialize.

Other Formats

Different meetings have different ways of doing things but, for the most part, they are run in a similar manner. That said, there are a large variety of meetings for different types of people, whether business executives, women, young adults, pilots, or medical professionals, and each will have its own feel.

No two meetings are alike. Some will be large while others are small; some are connected to a treatment program, and some meetings will feel more religious than others.

In some meetings, people are randomly called on, the thinking is, that it prevents the same people from constantly sharing, overriding the more shy, quieter people. In other meetings, at the end of the prayer, everyone may say a popular AA slogan, such as, "meeting makers make it."

Some meetings are purely discussion meetings where the topic is random and more derived by an interest that one of the members may have. Speaker's meetings feature a person chosen to talk about their experience, strength, and hope in regard to their recovery.

One member, Barb M., relates that the thing she was most relieved about was the non-imposing feel that she got when she first began attending meetings.

"No one bombarded me with his or her religious slogans, no one pestered me to hold hands and pray, no one cared if I sat in the back or sat in the front, drank coffee or didn't drink coffee, helped clean up or ran off before the meeting ended." You may indeed run into someone you recognize or who recognizes you.

The only set rules are those of common respect which may include:

The Helping Hand of AA

If you aren't sure if you are an alcoholic, find an "open" meeting to attend in your area. Many non-alcoholics may attend these and no one assumes because you are there that you are alcoholic.

Barb M. says she waited for many meetings before making the decision to introduce herself as an alcoholic and to accept her first chip.

One common practice is that when you introduce yourself to the group as a newcomer and an alcoholic, you will receive a meeting schedule book with the names and numbers of people who you can call if you feel the need to drink and need help.

People who put their number in this book do so because they really do want to help. It isn't required of anyone to do so but it keeps with the tradition of AA that when alcoholic calls for help, the helping hand of AA will be there.

How to Find a Meeting

Your primary care physician or mental health professional can help you find a local 12-step meeting. You can also search for a meeting in your area the old-school way by looking up AA in the white pages of your local telephone book and calling the number for information on meetings in your area.

The Central office, intergroup, or answering service numbers throughout the world are available on the AA World Services website. In larger cities, "where and when" booklets that list AA meetings throughout the week often exist.

During the COVID-19 crisis, AA is also offering virtual meetings, phone calls, and emails. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Niebuhr R. The Serenity Prayer.

  2. Alcoholics anonymous: The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. 4th ed. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services; 2001.

  3. Twelve steps and twelve traditions: A co-founder of alcoholics anonymous tells how members recover and how the society functions. 1st ed. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services; 2002.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.