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The Basics of Any 12-Step Program

The 12-Step programs, which originally began with Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, have a bad wrap as far as I’m concerned. When people think of 12-Step meetings, many stereotypes come to mind: People sitting around in church basements (which there might be some truth to that since most fellowships can only find space at local churches or community centers since they are self-sustaining groups); people whining about their problems (sharing is different than whining); a religious group (though the program was founded upon some religious principles, 12-Step groups are spiritual and open to everybody, including atheists and agnostics); and not helpful based on some past studies. For a more up-to-date view of the research which does show some effectiveness of AA in recovery and abstinence, click here. Let’s be clear, I’m not here to sell you on 12-Step programs as that is not my role (nor anyone’s) in your life. What I am here to do is provide, as a clinician who offers 12-Step Facilitation therapy in addition to other modalities of treatment, some information about the program for those who are interested and considering attending for the first time.

The reason I feel that an article like this is important is because 12-Step meetings have their own culture, much like any other groups or establishments out there, and stepping into that for the first time can be intimidating and uncomfortable. This information is intended to ease some of the discomfort and assist you on your journey.

1. What fellowship is suitable for me?

There is a 12-Step group for every manifestation of Addiction. You name it, there’s a group for it: Alcohol, drugs of any kind, gambling, food (overeating, anorexia/bulimia), sex, love, relationships, codependency, workaholism, emotions, shopping/spending, smoking, and I’m probably forgetting some here, so forgive me. With that plethora of choices, how does one pick? In most areas that I’ve surveyed, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) tend to have the biggest fellowships so will likely be the easiest to connect to. Even if alcohol or drugs are not your main problem, these meetings can provide a helpful introduction to the program, the steps, and the culture while providing a safe community of other people in recovery to be around. If this does not interest you, I would encourage you to seek out a group that is more in alignment with the behaviour you are looking to address. Start with a general internet search of whatever behaviour it is followed by ‘Anonymous group’ and that should get you to some information about the general group that is appropriate, and you can drill down from there.

2. How do I find a meeting?

There are meeting apps for some of the bigger fellowships (e.g., Meeting Guide by AA, NA Meeting Search). Meetings are usually divided into areas, so typing in the name of the 12-Step fellowship you are interested in attending followed by the city you are in can be a helpful starting point. You can also go to the main website of the fellowship as all of them have a meeting search engine embedded on there. There are different types of meetings. Open meetings are for anyone, including family, friends, and healthcare providers and you do not have to identify as having a problem to attend the group. Closed meetings are only for those who identify having a problem that the group is supporting. There are also other meeting notations, including same-gender groups, groups for certain populations (youth, LGBTQ2S+), as well as for certain languages so make a note of these before attending so that you don’t show up to a meeting you can’t understand the language of! (It happens, but it’s a bit awkward, especially if it’s your first one!).

3. In person or online?

A lot of meetings are now operating online but there are still in person meetings depending on your area. If there are no in person meetings, virtual meetings can be a great way to connect with a like-minded community. Virtual meetings can also be more convenient and accessible for people. Some people are more comfortable during the in person meetings and feel that there is added benefit to the accountability of showing up as well as the informal connection that can happen before and after the formal meeting. The long and the short of it is, there is no best modality, it is about what is best for you at that moment and what is available. The window of openness can close quickly when people are considering attending their first meeting, so capitalize on that openness however you can.

4. What will the meeting be like?

All meetings are slightly different but also similar. Once the meeting begins, there will be introductory readings and business shared by the meeting chair. Meetings have different formats, which might include reading from a certain book and people base their shares on that, coming up with topics that you can incorporate into your sharing, or open sharing format. For the first few meetings, you can listen and observe and, if called on to share, simply say your name and “I’ll just listen for today” until you feel ready.

Meetings can be emotional, contain humour, and be a variety of people and backgrounds. They are diverse and you may hear things that are shocking, relatable, and more. Your experience will be your own so I can’t say what it will or will not be like, but it will likely be a unique experience as it is a community that is quite different from most others that people have been in. You might find aspects of the meetings triggering and you might feel put off. This is common as the brain still active in Addiction is vulnerable and also resistant to change. These reactions do not mean that a 12-Step group isn’t for you; in fact, it probably says quite the opposite but it is also okay to have some resistance and to be questionning of everything at the beginning. I just hope you’ll give it a fair shot, so going to the same meeting at least 3-5 times before you try out another one, and trying at least 3 different meetings before you decide whether the program is or is not for you. By my count, that’s a minimum of 9 meetings before you make a decision, not just 1 or 2.

At a first meeting, you’ll be provided names and numbers of people you can reach out to for support and to talk. And, yes, they are prepared and happy to receive your calls anytime based on their own boundaries. The mutual support part is a key aspect to how the 12-Step program works.

You may also be provided or encouraged to purchase literature, such as big books or other pamphlets to read outside of the meeting. The cost of these supports rent and the purchase of materials, nobody is profiting from these purchases other than you.

5. What about sponsors?

Meetings themselves are a key part of the 12-Step program, but there is a structured aspect to the program too which can be very healing. It’s called the 12-Steps! There are questions and context to each of these steps which will get missed if you attempt to do this on your own. This is what a sponsor is there to do- guide you through the 12-Steps in an educated and informed way. Sponsorship may come up at your first meeting or it may never get brought up until you initiate the discussion, every meeting is different in how it approaches sponsorship. Whether it’s apparent or not, in the background to every 12-Step meeting is the opportunity to have this individual mentor, called a sponsor, to walk you through the steps. As a therapist, I highly recommend this to people as I’ve seen such benefits for health and recovery come out of the process. It’s a much more costly and time effective way to save a lot of time and money on therapy! You may want to ask around at the meetings you’re attending about who is available for sponsorship and how to go about that in order to get some direction.

If sponsors aren’t available, the group may run Step Studies which allow a larger group of people to go through the 12-Steps in a structured way together. This is also a powerful part of the program and provides benefits very similar to individual sponsorship.

6. What about after a meeting?

I recommend you take some time to reflect on or journal about your meeting experiences. Reflect on what the similarities were to your journey, what you took away from the meeting, and any points of gratitude. Try not to focus on what you didn’t like or what the differences were in your reflection as your brain will naturally be doing that already (remember, it doesn’t want to be there). If possible, hang around after the meeting and talk with people, help out down the road to be of service. These are also some golden nuggets of the program with many beneficial opportunities within them.

7. What if meetings aren’t for me?

That’s okay! You might come and go over time, you might love them, or you may not find a home there. Group support and community are important parts of recovery so if you do not find that at 12-Step meetings, I hope you’ll keep searching for them elsewhere. Perhaps you can try some other groups- SMART Recovery, Refuge, Dharma Recovery, She Recovers, or Tempest to name a few, or find individuals who have similar journeys that you can talk to. Any way you find connection, grab on to it as it will be a lifeline in your health journey.

I hope this provides some information to support you in your consideration of stepping into a 12-Step program. I write this article as a therapist who has seen people find benefit in this program and want to help those who are new and considering it for the first time. If this is not you, that is okay, I hope you will keep seeking and searching for the supports and resources that fit for your needs.

All the best to you.