By Bill Hatton
If you’ve struggled to find the right support-group meeting, you’re not alone. Many newcomers find themselves discouraged, and some may even stop attending meetings altogether. Recovering addicts and leading counselors agree that’s an understandable, but unproductive, choice. Instead of bailing out, they offer the following suggestions for finding the right meeting for you:
Let the miracle happen.
“You don’t find the right meeting; the right meeting finds you,” says Chuck, who has been in Alcoholics Anonymous for 30 years in New Jersey and for 20 years managed his company’s Employment Assistance Program (EAP), where he counseled hundreds of people with alcohol problems. “After all, you didn’t find sobriety, sobriety found you. Get involved, do service and eventually, you’ll find yourself somewhere that’s comfortable for you.”
Go to a meeting at least six times before deciding “this one” is not for you. “We urge people to attend six Al-Anon meetings before deciding they like it or not,” says Claire Ricewasser, associate director of communications at Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters. “Meetings feel strange to a lot of people if they haven’t gone to a support group before. You absorb a lot by osmosis, and then you start to get better.”
Chuck adds: “Give meetings a chance, at least a month of the same meeting. Go to a lot of different kinds of meetings, do the right things and eventually you’ll find yourself comfortable somewhere.”
Go with someone.
“We recommend to our alumni that it’s helpful to attend meetings with another recovering addict,” says Lisa Reynolds, manager of alumni relations at Hazelden. If you went to rehab, reach out to the alumni contacts they provide. If you have a call list from a meeting, use it and see if someone needs a ride. You’ll naturally talk before and after the meeting, which will give a richer experience.
Show up early, and help set up.
Or stay late and break down. “Even if you don’t feel like it, sometimes forcing behavior will change your attitude toward a meeting,” Chuck says. Once you’re actively moving your body, you may naturally meet people more easily. You will also break out of that addict-prone isolation that comes from merely saying hi to everyone and sitting in the back. “Show up early, make coffee and set up the literature racks and the tables,” Chuck suggests.
Mix it up.
Go to a variety of kinds meetings: speaker, closed, step, literature, Big Book and open discussion meetings. Or find meetings in locations you feel comfortable with. “You will naturally fit in better with people who are more like you—except they’re recovering,” Chuck says. Ricewasser adds: “If you don’t like church basements, well then go to a hospital. If you don’t like evening meetings, check out a mid-morning or lunchtime meeting.” Reynolds advises to “try meetings in different parts of town or different parts of the community.”
Find the winners and hang with them.
Remember the people you “feel comfortable with,” will be safe and loving but won’t necessarily make you feel comfortable. The people who make you feel most comfortable may be the ones who don’t challenge you at all, which is not a good thing. The comfort level lies in knowing you’re learning, growing, safe and that these people know what they’re doing to help you recover. “You can’t share honestly unless you’re out of denial,” Ricewasser says. “And denial sometimes has several layers to it.” A good meeting will involve others helping you see through that—even if you’ve been in recovery for a while.
Caveat: Share at your comfort level the next day.
Share in a general way, being honest about the feelings, but don’t give details that you may be uncomfortable having disclosed the next day. You don’t want to tell the whole room that your alcoholic spouse is dealing drugs, for example. “There are things that are not appropriate in a meeting and should be a shared with a sponsor,” Ricewasser says. “There are a lot of sensitive subjects. Sometimes, in my experience when newcomers come, they disclose too much and then don’t want to come back. One thing we learn is how to pace ourselves in what we share.”
Ask yourself what you didn’t like about a meeting.
Bad reasons: The meetings didn’t flatter your preconceived biases. You had something burning to say and didn’t (“stuffing your feelings”). You don’t like someone. You felt that the people there were way more messed up than you. You sat in the back, didn’t share and left immediately. You compared and didn’t try to identify. Someone got more attention than you. Or you went once. “Try to take with you what can help you, rather than trying to find the perfect meeting,” Reynolds says. More understandable reasons: The meeting was crowded, and you felt intimidated or lost. (Find a smaller meeting, or introduce yourself to one person after the meeting with whom you identified.)
You’d heard the same story from the same people too many times and were tuning out. “Sometimes, if you’re in a rut in a meeting, you need to go to one you haven’t been to before,” Ricewasser says. “Sometimes you pay more attention if you’re hearing a story for the first time from a stranger.”
Remember the first meeting involved two drunks and a pot of coffee. Bill W. and Dr. Bob got sober by talking about how the disease of alcoholism impacted their lives and relationships. Not every meeting has to be a formal, scheduled one. In a pinch, you can have lunch or a cup of coffee with a recovering friend, with your sponsor, with a newcomer and talk “the program.”
“Recovery is a way of life,” Ricewasser says. “You adjust to it one meeting at a time. The realization you are growing and you are in recovery is what keeps you coming back.”
Bill Hatton, a veteran service journalism writer, has worked for some of the leading business and legal newsletter companies in the U.S. In addition to running his own freelance business, Hatton managed the press for the Archdiocese of Newark and served in the Peace Corps. His home office is in the mountains just short of the Poconos.