How to Make 12-Step Recovery Meetings Work for You

Whether you live in a rural area like mine where 12-step recovery is often the only addictions care in town, or you’re court-mandated to attend 12-step recovery meetings (questionably against your constitutional rights, but it can happen), if you’ve got an addiction problem, you’ll be encouraged (or cajoled) to attend a 12-step recovery meeting.

For addictions recovery, 12-step recovery isn’t enough. This physician estimates only 1 in 15 people who enter one particular program will stay abstinent. Freeing ourselves from addictions requires each of us to custom design our own recovery.

How to benefit from support groups

I offer 2 caveats and 11 suggestions in hopes they may prove of value in helping you receive from 12-step meetings what you personally need for your recovery.

Caveats follow.

Caveat 1: A meeting is not a treatment.

While the focus of 12-step recovery meetings varies tremendously (Wikipedia lists several dozen), 12-step recovery is not a treatment for addiction. In fact, maddeningly, there’s actually no consensus on how to successfully treat addictions. (Middle chapters of this book offer the most current, thoughtful, thorough and informed critical analysis of addictions research I’ve seen.)

Caveat 2: A meeting is a gathering.

Simply put, 12-step recovery meetings are gatherings of people with similar problems who are trying to solve them.

A meeting is a very human event. That means much of what happens there is complex, intangible, and beyond words. Researchers have attempted to quantify what people really get from being together.* For me, sometimes the only eloquence I can muster after a meeting is, “I feel better.”

Suggestions follow.

Accept that you, and you alone, are your own 24/7/365 addictions caregiver.

Addiction is an all-day, every-day condition that requires around-the-clock care. Most of us don’t have the dollars to hire someone to be with us every minute to monitor our abstinence (or harm reduction) or give us a chance to sleep. Attendance at 12-step recovery meetings is free, fills up some of those hours we need care, and lets us join a group vigil so we can take a break from being the only one on watch.

Focus on yourself.

Become aware. Since our addictive behavior tends to occur when we’re unconscious of what’s really going on with us, sitting still for awhile is a chance to become aware of  what we’re feeling, thinking and sensing.

Practice self-management. Becoming aware of what we’re feeling and thinking can be distressing. Many of us are working hard on becoming aware of that distress and managing our feelings and thoughts to ease it. Alone, this can be very difficult. We can use the calm company of others in which to practice self-calming.

Bask in order.

Many of us have lived many of our days in chaos. We were out of control and so were the people around us. Exceptions exist, of course, because people have good days and bad days, but at most 12-step recovery meetings, the same things are done in the same order and everybody does what they’re supposed to do. Stability helps us heal from addictions. Some people do go on and on or say the same things over and over again, day after day. Ah, the blessed, peaceful, healing predictability of it all!

Speak and be heard – without interruption.

If you care to share at a 12-step recovery meeting, that will probably be the only time that day in which you will not be interrupted. Whether with family, a work crew, a committee, or in line waiting at the grocery story, we’re rarely given a chance to complete a thought, much less a sentence. Group norms at most meetings allow people to take turns speaking with silent listening, no interruption, and no correction, criticism or judgment. Freud’s patient coined the phrase “talk therapy,” but she wasn’t the first to understand that we discover understanding through speaking. Enjoy the novelty of uninterrupted self-discovery.

Sing along.

What one hears read aloud at meetings can be difficult to comprehend. If it doesn’t make sense, just let it be like a song on the radio where you can’t quite make out the words. Enjoy the pleasant voice reading, or respect the person who doesn’t read well but is giving it a go. If you find yourself starting to know some of the words, perhaps imagine yourself at a campfire singing Kumbaya or at a football game singing The Star Spangled Banner and join in. Some words may still not make any sense either, or may not be in accord with your beliefs, but there’s something about saying words together – pretty much any old words will do – that makes us feel less alone, that eases, if only a tad, the isolation of addiction.

Talk with, and listen to, people who get it.

As well-meaning as our non-addicted family members, friends and co-workers might be, they just don’t understand what it’s like to not be able to stop. What a relief it is to walk into a room full of people to whom one does not have to explain or justify one’s behavior. They know why you did it. They know why you still might be doing it. They did it, too.

Do what works for you individually.

Notice my suggestions do not include, “Get a sponsor,” “Work The Steps,” “Make conscious contact with your Higher Power,” or “Do service work.” Each of those may be useful and meaningful for specific individuals. For addicts as a group, however, it’s being and talking with people who are intentionally trying to change, rather than us being desperately alone, that has the most impact on our recovery from addictions.*

Accept the paradoxes.

It’s hell to recover alone, often impossible. It can be more possible to recover in the company of others. But we have to individualize our recovery programs. What is said to work for the group as a whole may not work at all for the individual. And the very people whom we depend upon to help us recover will, at times, make us feel crazy enough to drink or use. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s life.

Be open.

Where else can you go where every single person in the room is single-mindedly wishing you well? You might not like everyone in the room and you might not like everything you hear. But no one, not one person, wants you to drink or use or do what you’re trying not to do again. Listen for practical tips from people who’ve been there and done that. And take in what is inexplicably moving, touching, inspiring and uplifting about being with kind-mindedness for an hour.

Take what you like and leave the rest.

That’s a standard 12-step recovery slogan but it’s the place to begin and end. Consider what you hear at a 12-step meetings to be a buffet meal of possibilities. Some ideas will seem tasty; some will seem distasteful. Serve yourself with what sounds good, maybe try a few spoonfuls of something new on the side, and don’t force down anything you distrust. Let no one tell you what to put on your plate. We’re trying to free ourselves, after all.

. . . . .

*If you’re interested in research on the social network effects of 12-step recovery for addictions, these articles may be of interest. Titles are abbreviated and/or excerpted, and the most recent are listed first. Thanks to Laurel Sindewald for her research assistance.

The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my associates, employers, clients or relatives.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Further reading:

Why Attend Addictions Recovery Support Groups?


  1. Well said, Anne.
    Best of luck in all you do. -Lisa