Episode #122

Recovery meetings can be a giant help to people as they move through recovery from all kinds of things. If you’ve never been it can be hard to know what happens at a meeting and to know how your clients would benefit from attending recovery meetings. Today we’ll talk about the benefits of recovery meetings, the spiritual aspect to meetings and what clients can expect when they attend a meeting. Be sure to check out the links below to check out some of the available support groups.


You’re listening to the All Things Substance podcast, the place for therapists to hear about substance use from a mental health perspective.  I’m your host, Betsy Byler and I’m a licensed therapist, clinical supervisor, and a substance abuse counselor.  It is my mission to help my fellow therapists gain the skills and competence needed to add substance use to their scope of practice.   So join me each week as we talk about All Things Substance.

 Welcome back to the All Things Substance Podcast. This is episode 122. As I’m recording this, there are lots of storms all over the Midwest and the Northeast, and because of that, my interview with Katie, who’s a therapist specializing in gambling addiction and I had to cancel. And so this week we won’t be able to hear from her, but she and I are working on rescheduling soon. 

Today, I thought I would talk about recovery meetings. It’s something that when we talk about addiction or when we talk about substance use the concept of recovery meetings comes up really. And I don’t know that everybody knows what that consists of. 

Certainly by context you can tell that it’s a meeting where people come together and talk about recovery. But for those of us who are”in the rooms”, as AA would call it, there’s a very specific flow that happens at a recovery meeting. So I thought we’d go into that today so that you have an idea of what it’s like if your client says that they’re going to a recovery meeting. 

One of my very first experiences being in, what I would think of as a self-help meeting was a Weight Watcher’s meeting when I was quite young. I remember sitting there alongside my mom and having the person up front do, um, talk a lecture of. I didn’t really think about it as being a self-help meeting and  really. I was just there looking around, reading a book, doing what kids do when they’re at an adult meeting, and it reminded me a little bit of church and it kind of was like that, although it was also in a church and so that might have had something to do with it. And recovery meetings are somewhat similar.  

The purpose, of course, is to help people feel supported; to be among like-minded people, to have a place where they know that they can get encouragement; that they can feel understood and that they can get some ideas of how to help themselves in their.

A recovery meeting is different from treatment groups because of a couple main things. One is that it’s always gonna be peer led.  This is not someone who has a paid position in order to do this. This is something that they just do as part of their own recovery. 

In AA it’s called service work, where instead of just showing up to the meeting, you are serving in a capacity of either chairing the meeting or helping get coffee ready, or setting up chairs, putting out literature, whatever the case may be, to help the meeting run more smoothly. This is something that people do who have been there a while similar to the setup of a religious meeting where those who are committed to that particular organization will do the extra things that need to be done rather than being just a part of the membership or the congregation as it were. 

In addition to being peer run, this is not a place to have anyone who’s in authority over anyone. This isn’t where there’s an expert  and that they are there to teach. And so in that way it differs from a religious setting.  In a treatment group, much like in a church. There is someone of authority and there is someone who’s supposed to be the expert on whatever the subject matter is. 

In this case of a treatment group, we’d have a counselor, who would be leading the group? Typically, the counselor has some kind of license or education and they’re an employee of the treatment center, making them the person that’s going to be leading. 

The job of that person is not to be sharing a ton about their own experience, although you will find that those who work in the substance use space, if they are in recovery, they will share more than perhaps most therapists would do, or would be comfortable with.

A treatment group in a mental health setting is typically gonna be about skills. I suppose there could be a process. Like classical group therapy that we learned about in grad school, but I haven’t found that a lot of places really do that.

Recovery groups  are not a replacement for actual treatment. They’re there as peer led support groups that are run by peers and by volunteers. The idea behind a recovery group is that it is free to be there.  Certainly in AA and na, and I’m sure in other recovery groups, there has been a basket passed around for an offering, so to speak, for lack of a better phrase, to collect donations, to do things like purchase coffee or purchase literature, or pay for the space that they’re renting in order to do it.

Those are the kinds of things money is used for in those instances, but it’s not a requirement. The idea is that the other people in the group are putting on this recovery group in order to encourage others and to also give themselves a space to practice their recovery.

I think recovery groups can be useful at any stage of recovery. Certainly in the beginning. It is a place to get hope and some guidance. The first hours and days and weeks of recovery can be really scary. There’s a lot of emotions that are no longer being managed with substances.

There’s a lot of restlessness and worry and confusion and days seem to take forever, where one day feels like it’s been a whole. . It can be really hard and oftentimes people in early recovery need to know, is this worth it? Is it gonna work? Am I gonna feel better? Going to a recovery meeting, a person will meet all kinds of others that are in different places.

Some people in a meeting might have just a few weeks themselves, while others in a meeting might have 30 years of recovery.  Having varying degrees of recovery and lengths of time in recovery gives each person there a chance to have someone else who’s in a similar boat.

Sometimes that could be that someone else is starting out in their recovery and you wanna have someone to talk to who also understands what’s going on. It can be really hard if you are in week one of recovery and everyone around you has been recovering for decades.

Recovery groups are good for a number of things, like recognizing that other people have had and are having similar experiences to them. As you listen to recovery stories, you will hear people talk about when they heard their story coming from someone else. We often, I believe, think that our experiences are our own in the sense that nobody else could understand. The truth is, is that in spaces where people have been struggling with substance use and addiction, the stories are very similar.

It is rare that I hear a story or have heard a story that didn’t remind me of someone else,  or the first time I had heard of something, oftentimes the stories tend to take the same path. That is one of the very first things that people will say has been comforting to them, is that they learned that they weren’t alone. 

Sometimes it can be that they didn’t realize that the behavior they were doing was gonna be a problem, or that they didn’t even realize that they had an addiction. But hearing it on someone else made it easier for them to be able to notice that. Recovery groups are also good for learning how to cope with daily challenges. 

Each day in recovery can be challenging because of a variety of things.  In aa, one of the common phrases is One Day at a Time. While it might seem cliche, and perhaps it sometimes is one day at a time, it is about focusing on today, just today. You don’t have to think about not drinking or using for the rest of your life. You only have to stay sober today. You only have to worry about enough to keep your brain in the moment. This was mindfulness before we really had a name for.

Focusing on the current moment rather than future tripping as a client of mine calls it and getting too far ahead of yourself. In na, rather than saying the phrase one day at a time they use just for today. For some reason. I always liked that better, that I’m just gonna do this just for today. I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow, but just for today, I can do this. 

One of the main purposes of recovery meetings is to hear others’ stories of experience, strength, and hope. To be able to know that there is life after addiction and after problematic substance use that is happy and fulfilling and where eventually you won’t miss it. 

When you’re in early recovery, the idea that there will be a day where you don’t miss it is fucking outrageous. I remember that myself. I remember thinking that there would never be a day that I didn’t want to just totally get blown and that I would just have to deal with not. I expected to just white knuckle it, so to speak.  The idea of white knuckling is that you’re just hanging on, not enjoying it necessarily. Hanging on so tightly that your knuckles turn white. 

However, I have found, and those in recovery with any length of time have found that it goes away. You stop missing. There are parts of you that might wish that you could be “normal” and that you could drink every now and again and not lose your mind. And that’s indeed how some people end up relapsing, they figure it’s been long enough and they’re gonna try, or they’re gonna celebrate using that substance. 

Which sounds funny, but it so occurs to us to celebrate doing just the thing that was looking to destroy. Last week as we listened to  Brian’s story about his gambling addiction, he talked about celebrating that he hadn’t gambled by gambling. And it sparked a very serious relapse for him. 

One of the other main benefits of a recovery group is to meet new friends who also want to focus on recovery. Getting into recovery when you have been using substances problematically or when you have been in full-blown addiction is lonely. Because at that point the people around you also have been using those ways. You have more friends and acquaintances who were using at the same level or doing the behavior at the same level then you have friends that don’t. 

Very often when someone is further along in addiction, they have no sober friends. They’ve either burned bridges or they stopped talking to people. It is very difficult for them to figure out who to hang out with. It feels weird to be calling friends that aren’t involved in the substance use  that they were involved in and asking them to hang out. 

It’s also super vital. it is not advisable, and I would say not possible for people to get into recovery that is solid and stay there while still being around people who are actively using.  In the rooms of AA, you’ll hear people refer to, if you sit in a hair salon long enough, you’re gonna get a haircut.

The idea is that even if you’re around and you’re just spectating, eventually you’ll get there too. And I thought about that when I first heard it. When I first heard it, someone used the phrase barbershop, remembering that AA was founded by men, and that that would be their experience. But if you’ve ever gone to a barbershop or a hair salon with a friend and you’re sitting and waiting, how long is it till you start thinking about your own hair?

Looking at those magazines where they have hairstyles or seeing yourself in the mirror and kind of looking at your own hair to see, do I need a haircut? Where you might even be thinking, maybe I’ll see if they have an opening. Marketing and advertisers know that very, very.  And so when they’re marketing to folks, even in the place where you are going to get a service, they’re aware that they’re trying to get you to spend more money by suggestion.

In the same way, hanging out with folks who are using or doing a behavior that you can’t do is a suggestion. It’s a trigger. And I know that the word trigger has become very popularized and has come to mean a number of things. But there was a time when the word trigger was really separated to the recovery community because we talk about triggers all the time.

Triggers that end up pushing someone towards relapse, hanging out with friends who are using, or other people who are using, even if they’re not your.  is one of the greatest triggers for relapse. So having a recovery community is important. If you have ever been a part of a group exercise class or martial arts, you find that you start to know who’s there and when you’re not there, people wanna know where you were.

You miss a couple weeks and people are like, Hey, I was wondering about you. I was worried about you. In a recovery setting that happens too. Additionally, in recovery rooms. We’re often encouraged to reach out to each other. 

There have been phone lists at pretty much every recovery meeting I’ve ever attended in person where people can get someone else’s phone number and it’s just available, and you could call anyone on the list, A total stranger and tell them that you also were at the meeting or you’re part of that group and you’re struggling and that person will talk to you. 

There aren’t a lot of places where you can have that, especially in our increasingly isolated lives from each other. 

Oftentimes recovery groups will plan outings together, could be they wanna go to a sports event, or they wanna go sing karaoke and do it in a way that doesn’t involve alcohol. It is a place where you don’t have to ask people to not have alcohol or not have substances available. They just know that the expectation is that they’re not gonna be there. It is a place of safety from those sorts of triggers. 

So let’s talk about the different types of support groups. These are all support groups that are peer led, and no cost with a low or no barrier for.

The one that people know the most about would be 12 step groups. And 12 step groups are Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and those are based on a 12 step model coming from AA. The 12 step model is based upon the 12 steps and the 12 traditions of AA.

Of the 12 steps is modified to include whatever the substance or behavior is that people are using the steps to overcome.  The suggestion is that you work through the steps in order the first time coming back to them as.

The 12 traditions are the guidelines for the relationships between group members and the society at large.  The founders put together the 12 traditions to try to guide behavior. There are things that pop up in every recovery group I’ve ever been in because of the different types of people and personalities that are there. . One of the criticisms of 12 step groups is that there is a spiritual  or some would say religious component to membership, and to the groups.

And this is true. Although people in the 12 step communities will tell you that your higher power could be anything that you want it to. It just has to be something that has greater power than you. 

In response to this, there have been a number of secular organizations that have popped up which I think has given a good dimensionality to the recovery space. So some examples of those things might be Smart Recovery. Smart Recovery seeks to use scientifically proven methods for focusing on building motivation to change, coping with urges, learning how to manage Struggles without addiction. 

There’s women for sobriety. There’s Lifering. Those are all examples of secular organizations meaning non-religious or spiritually based. Certainly the folks who are in those groups might have their own spirituality, but it is not something that people talk about. And so the gist of the groups are different. 

Taking the spirituality or religious component of aa a step further,  there’s a group called Celebrate Recovery. Celebrate Recovery uses some 12 step principles and calls it a Christ-centered approach to addiction support for help with any form of addiction that they are seeking to recover from.

Celebrate Recovery , Comes out of the desire for those folks to have more of a connection to the church than 12 step groups. Over the years, 12 step groups, I think, have largely tried to separated themselves from organized religion in order to provide a space where people can come without having to subscribe to traditional Christian ideology.

So basically we have 12 step groups, secular recovery groups, and then Celebrate Recovery. Underneath the secular organizations , is a whole variety of different recovery organizations. For instance, I am part of She Recovers, which is an online recovery community that would be under this as well because it is not 12 Step and it is not religious in nature, so therefore it falls under that category.

What happens at these meetings is pretty similar across the board. It changes a little bit based on the group, depending on the type of group, it can be helpful for people to know what’s gonna happen when they come in. 

So I think it’s helpful to think about it in terms of a church or religious group meeting, because what happens in those meetings is similar across many different churches, denominations, types of religion  or religions themselves. 

What happens when you go into a Catholic church is the same when you’re in a Catholic church in America as when you’re in a Catholic church in Australia or in Japan. There might be some slight nuance to it but it’s generally the same flow. That’s a comforting aspect for a lot of folks that they can drop into it anywhere they are in the world and have some idea of what’s happening.  In liturgical religious settings where they’re following a calendar with specific readings, you could even follow along, even if you’re not speaking the same language.

I’m gonna talk about what happens in a 12 step meeting, and cross reference that a little bit with a couple other groups that I have experience with.  Typically you get into a 12 step meeting people are gonna be mingling, sitting at a table, getting coffee. 

It used to be that practically everybody was smoking cigarettes. But now that’s not something that people do in meetings. So they’re sitting and waiting and then whoever’s gonna lead the meeting, remember it’s peer led and volunteer led  they’re gonna call the meeting to order.

There’s a flow that happens and so there’ll be statements that are. In the case of aa,  someone’s gonna read an opening statement about the group, about it being anonymous, about the purpose of the group membership in the group , and the anonymity of the group.

Next, somebody will read the 12 steps. Typically someone else volunteers to read through the steps, and next somebody reads through the 12 traditions. Then the type of meeting that it is will determine what happens next. Sometimes that’s what we call a, a single speaker meeting where the chairperson introduces a speaker who will share.

Their story is 30 to 45 minutes and the meeting  will conclude with handing out chips for sober birthdays. There are these small medallions they’re larger than a silver dollar that someone can get for 24 hours, one month, three months, that kind of thing. Then the meeting, and then the meeting will conclude.

The most common type of group, which is just basically a topic group. It could be that somebody’s reading from the Big Book, which is the main text for Aa, or that they have another topic or another reading that they wanna bring. Sometimes it might be from a daily reflection book, or it could be something else that they’re reading that they feel would be helpful for the group. 

The speaker shares whatever it is that they’re gonna be talking about that day, and then opens it up for sharing. Sometimes it’ll go in a circle, and if you don’t wanna share, you just say,  and if you do wanna share, you can. Nobody is expected to speak ever, and in my experience, people won’t get called on. It is something that I think everyone understands that they also have been to a meeting the first time, and most people don’t want to share the first time they’re at a meeting.

So when somebody says pass, they just move right along and it’s perfectly acceptable to say pass every time. Sometimes in groups, they won’t do this sort of thing and just wait for people to pop up. When they’re getting close to the end of the meeting.  The chairperson will close the meeting.

Different meetings are closed in different ways. Sometimes it could be the Serenity prayer, which is that God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, et cetera. Or it could be a different prayer or it could be a statement like, keep coming back. It works.  It also depends on the group, but it’s generally gonna be the same thing , or perhaps one of three different things they might say to close the meeting.

It just sort of depends on the culture of the group and how it develops. I haven’t been a part of a group that was just starting, but I know that what the group closes with has typically been there and part of the culture of it for a long time. 

This sometimes can be uncomfortable if it’s a prayer that somebody closes with and it’s everyone bowing their heads and somebody’s going to pray and they’re gonna say whatever they’re gonna say cuz it’s not going to necessarily be a standardized memorized prayer. This is the part where non-religious folks can sometimes get uncomfortable.  

For me, I think it’s more useful and I prefer when they close with a statement or something that is religious so that folks aren’t being asked to pray, who aren’t comfortable with it. And that’s just my personal opinion, on 12 step meetings. 

Anywhere you go in the world, you’re walking into a 12 step group meeting and it’s gonna have a similar format. Things might be reversed or there might be a couple different things. But generally it’s gonna look like meetings last an hour. They usually don’t go long unless it’s a speaker meeting.   Folks are always welcome to step out whenever they need to. No one’s gonna question you or say anything to you.  

In non 12 step meetings there’s a similar format, which isn’t surprising based on the fact that those who are creating  the secular meetings probably came from the rooms of a 12 step meeting at some point. Most people have had some experience stepping into a 12 step meeting at least once. Not everyone, but a lot of folks. 

So in the She Recovers world, we’re doing an online group, and so there’s a little bit of a different flavor to it because we don’t have the 12 Traditions, which is meant to guide the principles of how we interact with each other. And so for She Recovers, we have statements that we read that are covering the guiding principles of She Recovers. 

They talk about membership, how we interact with each other, what the format is, how long people can share, how they’re gonna get called on. And it’s the same thing we read every week, whether it’s me or another. She Recovers Coach. It’s the same statement.

Once the statement is read a She Recovers Coach introduces herself where she is in the world and what she’s in recovery from. Then she introduces the topic that she wants to cover for today and shares maybe five minutes on that, and then opens the floor for people to share.

They are welcome to share about the topic or about anything else that they wish. There’s a co-chair who helps watch the timer. The coach then calls on each person who’s raised their hand and unmutes them so that we don’t have people jumping in and talking over each other.

The person leading the meeting is the one who’s calling on people, and then when they’re done then she will respond to  the group member about what she said in a reflective manner like we would in therapy and move along to the next person. One thing about 12 step groups and other recovery groups I’ve been in, is that it is not a place to give advice.

This isn’t people asking for others to weigh in. This isn’t a place to have people share their stories to someone else in the room. This is hearing what someone has to say and then moving along. In online groups people will comment in the chat, maybe say something supportive or offer a resource like, Hey, I read this article about that it was really cool, or something similar. 

But it isn’t a lot of advice-giving, and that’s something that I think might be surprising to some. But I think for us as therapists, we probably understand that pretty well. It can be invalidating to have somebody tell you what to do when you really just wanted to share. 

If somebody wants advice, sometimes they might say, please share ideas. I have no idea what to do about this. And then folks will share in the chat in person. They’d probably share after the meeting rather than sharing in the middle. This way keeps it from getting hijacked. People are sharing to give as many people a chance to share as they would like. 

The online meeting space is far bigger than an in-person group. Most 12 step meetings I’ve been in have been anywhere from four people to, I think 15 to 20, depending on the size of the group. Online meetings that I’ve been in are routinely 35 people. That’s a lot of folks, and not everybody’s gonna get a chance to share in an hour. 

If somebody shares something really heavy. Folks are encouraged to reach out to whoever the leaders are in this case, and She Recovers. There are She Recovers coaches  that have gone through the She Recovers training and been approved.

In other places with other groups. They don’t necessarily have those sorts of designations, but there are still people who have decided that they will  host a meeting, and that’s the person who would say,  please reach out for help and give them a venue to do so.

Many meetings have rules about if you are under the influence of substances that you do not share at the meeting. You are welcome to stay and welcome to attend, but that you don’t share.

In addition to what happens during the meeting, there’s a designation of open or closed meetings. Open meetings are open to anyone, open to the public, open to people who are not in recovery and don’t need to be in recovery and those are typically going to be speaker meetings or other events. 

You should assume that meetings are closed in the sense that they are for people who are interested in recovery or in recovery. So not for a spectator so if you do show up at a meeting, no one is going to be checking whether or not you belong. In the Statement for LifeRing meetings. They ask that if you are not in recovery, but want to attend the meeting, that you identify yourself and tell the group why you’re there. 

This is a challenge when, in a number of classes I’ve heard of and been a part of when it comes to substance use. People are asked to go to a meeting. While I think it’s a great experience for folks to attend a meeting and to understand what happens at a meeting that can be challenging. Showing up at a meeting where others assume that you are also in the same boat, and them finding out that you’re not can feel a bit like betrayal.

These groups are places where people share some very personal things. Part of the space is feeling as though the others there will understand you. So if you want to understand what a meeting is like for yourself, I would recommend that you’re attending, first of all, an online meeting because they are quite large and that you read their statements about what is happening at the meeting and the general rules, so to speak. 

I would suggest that you look at the types of meetings and sometimes it’ll list as open or closed, but if you wanna attend, you simply let them know that you work with clients  that have substance issues and that you want to just see what a meeting is like. , or you could say nothing. Keep your video off, not talk at all. 

Each group is going to standards that they’ve set to try to keep a loose hold on what’s happening in the meetings.   They are necessary because we’re relying on peer crowd control to keep people generally providing a good and safe space. So if it’s not appropriate to say out loud then it’s probably not appropriate to put in the chat.

The main things I want you to take away from today’s podcast is that recovery meetings are not treatment. They are not going to walk someone through the process of getting sober.  At any given moment when somebody pops into a recovery meeting, they’re stepping into a moving river. 

That might be talking about late recovery, might be talking about something specific like finances or relationships. It could be talking about very early recovery stuff. It just completely depends on the type of meeting it is and the person who’s chair.

So it is there as an adjunct to what someone’s doing in their recovery, but it is not meant to be treatment. 

The people there are not going to be professionals in the field. There may be some of course, but that is not their role. They go as participants. In the area where I live, there are places where professionals in the recovery space, Who are therapists and substance use counselors may show up at meetings and see clients there. It’s just part of managing dual relationships  in a smaller rural community. Because meetings are open to anyone who wants to come.

Recovery groups should not be relied on to do any kind of crisis management. This is a place for support, whether it’s a mental health support group or a substance use support group, whatever kind of recovery group. This is like a group of friends coming together and someone in crisis needs a professional, not a recovery group. The folks in the recovery group might know some resources and might refer somebody, but it’s not a replacement for professional help. 

These groups should be free unless someone has joined a recovery community that is a paid recovery community, such as Recovery 2.0. But that’s something that they know upfront. But otherwise, recovery group meetings are free. They are non exclusionary for the most part, although there are some that are gender. Such as Women for Sobriety or She Recovers. I’m not familiar with any specifically just men’s groups. If anybody knows of any, please let me know.

I have looked for them because I do think that sometimes these gender-based groups can be very helpful in providing a safe space. I know when She Recovers that it is open. All people who identify as female and non-binary folks who identify with women’s issues. 

I encourage all folks who have struggled with substances to attend a recovery group meeting. Doing so in person is excellent. It’s also kind of scary. I think it’s a good experience. I have been to numerous meetings in person myself. There is something really cool about it. 

However, the online space has provided so much more opportunity for folks to be able to attend meetings. Being able to have your camera off and be muted and just listen and watch what’s happening is a very safe way for folks to do it. I have not met a recovery meeting yet where people are forced to share or that anyone’s gonna call out anyone else for not. 

Encourage your clients to attend these meetings, even if they’re sober curious, even if they’re not committed and they’re not sure. Sometimes attending a meeting is just the way to go.

I have known people who have attended meetings for years as being sober curious because there’s something about it that draws them, but they’re struggling to know whether that’s what they need.

There will be a structure and a flow to each meeting. The group members will model the behavior that is acceptable, and so your clients, or you or whomever is attending the meeting will catch on pretty quickly to how things go. It is a really neat experience in a place to feel supported. It doesn’t cost anything, and I think that it can be a huge help. 

So I will have links in the show notes  to recovery meetings so that you can take a look at them or provide them to your clients. And I am hopeful that this information will be useful for you and that maybe you learned a thing or two that you didn’t know about recovery meetings.

Thanks so much for choosing to spend your time with me  and I hope to see you on the next podcast. Until then, have a great week.

This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regards to the subject matter covered. It is given with the understanding that neither the host, the publisher or the guests are rendering legal, clinical or any other professional information.

Helpful Links 

https://sherecovers.org/ She Recovers (you can access the Facebook group here)

https://womenforsobriety.org/ Women for Sobriety

https://www.smartrecovery.org/ SMART Recovery

https://r20.com/ Recovery 2.0

https://lifering.org/ LifeRing Secular (non-religious) Recovery

https://www.aa.org/find-aa Find an AA meeting

https://www.na.org/meetingsearch/ Find an NA meeting

https://www.gamblersanonymous.org/ga/locations Find a GA meeting