What To Expect at A Support Group Meeting

Contributor: Kathryn Hostettler, LCSW, LCADC, Primary Therapist, GenPsych, PC

iStock_000020290937LargeAs a therapist specializing in addiction recovery, I recommend that clients attend support group meetings such as AA (http://www.aa.org/) and NA (http://www.na.org/) and I also suggest Al Anon (http://www.al-anon.org/) and Nar Anon (http://www.nar-anon.org/) for loved ones.

The suggestion is typically met with some resistance. This resistance can be the result of many things – fear, shame, and denial among them. The first thing I tell them is that it’s OK to feel this way. Few people happily skip into their first meeting declaring the need for help! It’s not easy to ask for help but it’s a courageous and important step in recovery.

Each and every person sitting in the room has had to cross that threshold for the first time so they will have some understanding of what the newcomer feels. To assist the newcomer, following are some answers to common questions I have received about what to expect at support group meetings.

Where Do I Find a Meeting?

There are tens of thousands of mutual support meetings going on each day all over the world and online. Current lists can be found at mental health and substance abuse facilities and via an internet search.

If you are referred by a professional, ask them to assist you with finding local meetings. If you know someone who attends a mutual support group, ask them for their recommendations for local meetings. Better yet, ask to go with them since it can be anxiety provoking to walk in to a meeting alone for the first time.

Who’s in Charge? Do I Have to Pay to Attend?

Portrait of a happy young man smiling on gray backgroundIn terms of the meetings themselves, they are mutual support meetings, meaning they are run by the members who are there for a common reason. For example, those at an Al Anon meeting are there because of they have been affected by someone else’s drinking.

While there are those who volunteer for various service positions, there is no one in charge of the group or its members. There is no cost to attend a meeting though there will be a collection taken for expenses.

This is entirely optional and should not deter a newcomer from attending. The meetings are anonymous so there is no need to reveal your identity. You will notice that members introduce themselves by first name only to further conserve anonymity.

What Kinds of Meetings Are Available to Me and What Happens There?

In general, there are Closed (for example, in Alcoholics Anonymous, closed meetings are for alcoholics only) or Open (open to anyone who wants to attend, including friends and families). Meetings can also be for women only, men only, or mixed gender.

Some meetings are also LGBT-specific as well. In terms of meeting formats, there are Discussion, Big Book, 12 Step Study and Speaker meetings among them. At a Discussion meeting, the discussion leader introduces a topic, speaks briefly, and opens to the larger group.

In Big Book and 12 Step Meetings, members will discuss specific content from recovery literature. At Speaker meetings a guest speaker will share his/her personal experience in the program of recovery. Meeting specifics will be indicated in meeting lists.

Focusing on the Content

trees-451089_640The content is the focus on the purpose of the group itself. At a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, the content revolves around the effects of narcotics on members’ lives and how they are utilizing the tools of recovery to live life now.

At many meetings, they will ask if there are newcomers present. This is a good time to raise your hand and introduce yourself so you can get to know people however, it is not required that you say anything at all.

If you feel more comfortable speaking with people one on one, then do that. But don’t leave the meeting without connecting with at least a few people. They may offer you their phone numbers so you can call and ask questions and for additional support. You can learn a lot from connecting with members who have been around for some time and are working a solid program of recovery.

What Is All This Talk about God?

12 Step groups have a three-pronged approach to recovery: physical, mental and spiritual. The spiritual belief is that recovery is achieved with the help of a “higher power.” God is essentially short hand for a “higher power” or a God of your own understanding.

12 Step meetings do not have any religious affiliation so you can believe whatever you want to believe. The best advice for the newcomer is to keep an open mind and do not let this deter you from attending or benefiting from meetings. This is another area where it’s beneficial to seek out those who have time and experience in recovery.

Isn’t This the Same Thing as Group Therapy?

conduct_faith_based_intervention_for_your_loved_one_sm_2015_01_20Mutual support groups and group therapy differ in some very important ways. Group therapy is run by a professional counselor or therapist, an expert adept at facilitating therapeutic discussion. Mutual support groups are run by members who are equals.

In group therapy, members are often encouraged to provide advice or feedback to each other in a back and forth discussion format. In mutual support groups, members share about their own personal experience and what has worked for them which may inspire others to do so.

They are not acting as professionals and do not advise others. Because a professional is there to provide support, discussions in group therapy can be very expansive and include difficult topics such as trauma. In mutual support meetings, the content is focused on the purpose of the group, for example, in AA, how to recover from alcoholism.

How Often Do I Have to Go?

Many groups will suggest 90 meetings in 90 days so this may be your initial goal. For the newcomer, the more meetings the better. This will allow you to hear many personal stories, connect with other group members and learn more about the groups.

The best advice is heard at the end of almost every mutual support group: “Keep coming back. It works if you work it!”

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Are you or someone you love attending group support meetings? What has been your experience and what advice do you have to share?

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addiction. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 27th, 2015
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.