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Getting the most out of meetings

January 1, 2008
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
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Clinicians can give patients these 12 tips for 12-Step success

Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever to play baseball. It is said he could read the stitches on a ball traveling more than 90 mph. Yet it's rumored that his first attempt at hitting a golf ball was a complete failure. He missed it completely—several times!

That's because the golf swing is unnatural. There are many things to remember. It feels completely uncomfortable. Only with practice—years of it—does it begin to feel “right.”

Maintaining sobriety via a recovery fellowship such as AA brings similar challenges. It does not come naturally. There's a lot to learn and much to remember. This article presents 12 practical tips that a person might consider in trying to maintain sobriety via a fellowship-based recovery program. I encourage readers to share this information with all clients—newcomers and long-timers alike.

One caveat: Sometimes the newcomer is just too raw to embrace suggestions such as these. We can only hope that this person will keep an open mind—and just keep coming to meetings. Fortunately, there are no rules in recovery, only suggestions offered by those who have gone before us.

Here, then, are 12 tips for your clients:

1. Go, even if you don't want to.

AA and similar programs don't make house calls. To get your medicine, you have to show up whether you want to or not. Ironically, most people agree that once they actually get to a meeting, they're glad they went.

2. Show up early.

Let's face it; groups don't drink—individuals do. So one of your main purposes is to connect with other safe and sober individuals. (Of course, you're also there to hear something useful and to learn more about yourself and your disease.)

Initially, you'll want to identify people in the group, to determine which of them you might enjoy meeting. You'll also be identifying those whom you'll want to avoid. The best way to accomplish this is to show up early and to observe who's doing and saying what. If you're comfortable doing so, offer to help set up the chairs or make the coffee.

If the group is doing its job, someone will recognize you as a newcomer and will extend a welcoming handshake. But all of this is most likely to happen if you're there for the “meeting before the meeting.”

3. Let people know you.

If the group has a tradition of handing out chips or keychains to acknowledge various lengths of sobriety, stand up and get your applause. It's not to satisfy your ego, but to let people in the group know where you are in your recovery. If the group doesn't give out these tokens, it'll be up to you to share the information when it seems appropriate.

4. Join a group, get involved.

This is really part two of the previous section. A great way to get connected in the fellowship is to pick one group and make it your “home group.” This is the one meeting each week that you won't miss no matter what.

Get a job in that group (greeter, coffee maker, etc.). This will ease your introduction to other group members and will enhance the likelihood that you'll meet someone who might eventually become your sponsor.

Many groups speak at other meetings or at institutions such as hospitals, detox centers, and jails. Travel with them as they fulfill these commitments. Even if you're not willing or eligible to speak (some groups require 90 days of sobriety before you speak at another meeting), traveling with your group will help you to know members on a more intimate level—and to further your bond with these important people.

5. Speak only when you're ready.

Opinions differ here, but I've known people who stay away from recovery meetings because of their fear of public speaking. No one, in my opinion, should be badgered into speaking, although a gentle push from a trusted sponsor might be very useful indeed.

6. Go to the same meetings each week.

Again, your goal is to connect with others in recovery. Going to the same meetings each week will make it easier for you to identify and bond with the “right” collection of people. It'll also make it easier to remember which meeting you'll be attending on a given day. (“If it's Tuesday, I'll be at the hospital meeting tonight.”)

7. Go to different types of meetings, if possible.

There might be a variety of meeting types in your area. These might include discussion meetings where you can raise your hand and share what's on your mind; speaker meetings where a few speakers share their experience, strength, and hope; and literature meetings that examine certain pieces of recovery writing. You also might find meetings that serve a specific constituency, such as men or women, gay/lesbian, Hispanic, young people, etc. It is generally recommended that you include different types of meetings in your recovery program if possible.

8. Sit up front.

If you're easily distracted, please consider sitting up front—in the “intensive care unit.” Even after the meeting has begun, it's so tempting to see who's walking in the door, who's chatting with whom, whose cell phone is ringing, etc. Sitting up front will help you hear the message that perhaps you need to hear.

9. Listen to the message, not the messenger.

No doubt, you'll develop opinions about the people in recovery meetings. No doubt, some of these people will be (at least in your opinion) inappropriate, obnoxious, self-indulgent egomaniacs. Ironically, these same people just might be saying things that you need to hear. So try to ignore who is speaking and focus on the words, the message. Some of the most annoying people have experience and opinions that you can use. This is a learned skill. Work on it.