People walking into AA are all over the map in terms of experience and expectations. Some are frequent attendees. Others are first-timers. Part of the challenge for AA is meeting the expectations of these very different audiences. Succeeding at this is a very tall order and is rarely accomplished.
This article will address what first-timers might want to know about AA coming in cold, knowing little or nothing about AA and AA meetings. The article will go on to cover why people come to AA, what they can expect at meetings, and what they can expect during the meeting itself.
I think knowing this going in might be helpful. My hope is if you know someone going to a meeting for the first time, you pass this information along to them so they can feel comfortable and figure out if AA is right for them, and then if it makes sense, “Keep coming back!”
First Timers’ Reasons for Coming
The reasons people coming in the door for the first time to AA may include:
- Checking it out for a friend (not yourself) who you think has a drinking problem.
- Checking it out for yourself (on your own volition) because you think you have a drinking problem.
- Fulfilling a request from someone to check it out because they think you have a drinking problem. This someone could be a friend, family, clergy, doctor, or school.
- Fulfilling a mandate to check it out because the courts (after drunk driving), an employee assistance program (drunk on the job), in or out patient rehab obligation says you have a drinking problem,
- Attendance is required to obtain a degree or certification.
All Over the Map
Setting expectations is the best way to go about fulfilling them. So, if the expectation is to “cure your drinking problem in one meeting,” that is for almost everyone is an unrealistic one. But then, how would you know that if it’s the first time you’ve gone and no one prepared you?
Another factor is that AA is by design (through the traditions)is both unprofessional and decentralized. Across the world, meetings can be vastly different in terms of the format. Add to that the impact attendees can have upon meeting what they share that day; meetings can vary wildly even at the same location and same format on different weeks.
Add to this the differing expectations that accompany each use case. Describing what to expect at a random meeting can difficult, if not impossible. While this is frustrating to many that the experience is not more consistent, it is what it is and is unlikely to change.
What to Expect At the Meeting
Meeting halls can be rooms at a church or school or dedicated AA/recovery places. Locations can be hard to find, so always allow extra time to find them your first time. Many locations have discreetly placed AA signs out so people can find the meeting and maintain some anonymity.
Beyond that you can expect the hall:
- A greeter or leader at the meeting.
- Wildly varying degrees of friendliness from attendees.
- You might be approached, welcomed, and asked questions – you can always decline. You may also be left alone.
- Chairs and/or couches arranged in a circle or classroom style (sometimes with desks).
- There may be a podium with or without a microphone.
- There will typically be coffee and snacks (before COVID) set out.
- If early, you might be asked to set up or make coffee – again, you may decline.
- There may be a literature table with books and pamphlets set out. Pamphlets are free, and books are for sale. Sometimes the meeting has books to be used during the meeting. You may be asked to read. You can decline if you want.
- There may be signs on the walls with the twelve steps, twelve traditions, twelve concepts, and AA cliches.
- You may be asked to help clean up.
- You might be approached after the meeting and offered phone numbers.
This is a lot to take in your first time. Then, there is also the meeting itself.
What to Expect During the Meeting
Meetings around the world have many formats and regional differences. Adopting a slightly detached “let me check this out” might be the best approach, at least for the first time. To prepare you, here are some typical elements of the modern AA meeting.
- A meeting leader (aka “secretary” or “chair”) will open and lead the meeting.
- A prayer may start the meeting.
- Some initial readings, announcements, and instructions will be given after the prayer.
- Birthdays, anniversaries, and newcomers may be encouraged to identify themselves.
- Sharing by members – is the bulk of the meeting. Sharing can be long-form or short. People may be called on, or they can volunteer to talk. At book studies, members may read from a book and comment.
- A timer may be used to limit sharing (this will typically be announced).
- The content of speakers and members will contain some jargon (Big Book, Higher Power, sponsorship, and working the Steps). It may be alternatively sharp and concise or totally off point and meandering. There are few professional speakers in AA.
- What they share is their own experience and opinion, as no one speaks for all of AA.
- People who share may be sober for years or brand new and maybe regular attendees of that meeting or meetings in general.
- A basket will be passed for donations. Typically people put in $1-$5, although it is not required. There may be additional reading while the basket is passed.
- There may also be a short break during the meeting.
- Another prayer may follow this break.
- A formal close to the meeting by the leader or chair is followed by joining hands in prayer.
AA’s primary purpose is to “help the alcoholic who still suffers,” yet people continue to come to AA for many reasons. My hope is this article provides some context for some who are considering attending a meeting so they can get the help they need and decide if it is right for them!