Everything You Need to Know About AA, NA, and Al-Anon

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As you’re reading this, somewhere in the world there’s an AA, NA or Al-Anon meeting taking place. In church basements, hospital meeting rooms, prisons, internet cafes and anywhere a few people can gather, recovery meetings based on the 12-step principles outlined almost 100 years ago are helping people deal with the effects of drugs, alcohol or other addictions.

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An estimated 23.5 million people are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both in the United States. If the people in that group have at least two people who love them, that’s an additional 47 million people impacted by their behavior. Taken together, that’s a large number of people who can benefit from AA, NA, or Al-Anon.

If you’ve wondered what goes on “in the rooms,” this guide to what to know about AA, NA and Al-Anon meetings should answer the question. Of course, the best way to learn what happens at a recovery meeting is to attend one. But before you go, learn the basics, what to expect, and how you can get the most from time spent at a meeting.

What Are AA, NA and Al-Anon?

These initials all stand for different groups within the 12-step or recovery movement. All reflect free, self-supporting groups based on the 12-step principles outlined in the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous,” a workbook put together in the 1930s by recovering alcoholics who wanted to take their message of hope and healing to the world. Here’s a breakdown of the groups:

  • AA stands for Alcoholics Anonymous. Founded in the 1930s by Bill W., a so-called “hopeless” alcoholic who gained sobriety by applying the methods in the book, AA became the genesis for numerous other “A’s,” or anonymous groups dedicated to recovery.
  • NA stands for Narcotics Anonymous. It’s for anyone addicted to drugs, whether they’re having trouble with street drugs, prescription drugs or both.
  • Al-Anon/Alateen are the names for groups that apply the 12-step principles to help attendees deal with a family member’s drinking. Growing up or living with an alcoholic or person with any kind of addiction leaves emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical scars. Al-Anon and Alateen help people learn how to cope with their loved ones suffering from addiction and recover from the aftermath of addiction in the family.

All “A” recovery groups — AA, NA, Al-Anon — are self supporting, apolitical and non-discriminatory. They do not accept endorsements from outside groups or monetary donations from interested parties.

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Addiction doesn’t distinguish between gender, race, religious affiliation or sexual orientation, so neither do meetings. You’ll find a welcome at any AA, NA or Al-Anon meeting, no matter who you are. If you have an addiction, or you love someone who is addicted, a meeting is open to you.

Everything You Need to Know About AA

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is founded on the principle that alcoholism is a disease. Bill W., founder of AA, learned about a so-called “spiritual” program of recovery from a good friend who seemed cured of alcoholism. Bill was desperate to recover, so he tried the program and found it worked.

The AA program of recovery is based on the 12 steps, a sequence of guidelines that, if applied to your life, can help you overcome an addiction. The basic premise of the 12 steps is you can’t recover on your own from addiction. You need a power greater than yourself to help. For people who believe in God, their higher power is God. For atheists and agnostics, the power may be the group, which holds more experience and wisdom than the person suffering from addiction.

The program emphasizes changing your behavior and attitudes by conducting a thorough character study and then making amends, to anyone you’ve hurt in the past as long as it doesn’t hurt them or hurt others. This means you work through your own personal inventory of character flaws and make a list of folks who have been harmed by them. You then spend time talking to them and offering your apology without making excuses. This “house cleaning” helps people gain a new perspective on life.

After you’ve worked through the steps and regained sobriety, the program emphasizes sharing the recovery message with others. It’s only by sharing it that you keep it, as an old saying goes, which means sharing your program of recovery with others keeps it fresh in your mind and helps you stay on your own course of recovery.

What’s an AA Meeting Like?

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AA meetings are advertised in newspapers, online and on the AA website. When you look for a meeting, you may see designations such as “open” or “closed” after them. An open meeting is open to anyone interested in attending. Closed meetings are only for AA group members.

Meetings are also designated around a topic. Newcomer meetings offer more information to help people new to the recovery program learn the ropes. If there’s a newcomer meeting in your area and this is your first time attending a 12-step meeting, it’s a great place to get started.

Other meeting types include “Big Book” study groups that focus on reading and reflecting on chapters in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous;” “step study” groups that study and work on specific steps in the 12-step program; men-only groups; women-only groups; LGBT groups and more. You don’t have to attend a meeting based on your gender or another identity, but if such a group concept appeals to you, feel free to attend one. Here’s how the meeting will start:

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  • When you enter an AA meeting room, you’ll usually see tables and chairs set up in a circle. There’s a meeting leader, but that person isn’t an official leader. Leadership tasks usually rotate on a monthly basis, with volunteers taking turns leading meetings and various committees.
  • The meeting is called to order, and the leader may read a welcome message.
  • Next, most meetings welcome newcomers and celebrate anniversaries, such as one year sober, two years, etc. The Serenity Prayer may be read and a moment of silence held for people who are still addicted to alcohol.
  • After this, the 12 steps are read, followed by the 12 traditions. The traditions remind members of how the group should be governed. Anonymity, which is the “anonymous” part of Alcoholics Anonymous, is an example of a tradition. It means you keep private what is said during meetings and never repeat it to anyone else. Most members go by their first names only but may share their full names or contact information with other members so they can get in touch after the meeting.

Equality and Anonymity at Alcoholics Anonymous

Anonymity is an important concept for AA, NA, Al-Anon and all 12-step groups. When you keep your anonymity and the anonymity of others, you give them the freedom to share what they need during meetings for their recovery. It opens up a sense of acceptance toward others.

Everyone is equal at 12-step meetings. There are no superstars, no official spokespeople, no teachers. Everyone is both leader and servant. It’s a hard concept to get used to, especially for people who are used to a more hierarchical society, such as those you find in a classroom or at work.

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AA Meetings: Speakers and Sharing

After the steps and traditions are read, the meeting format may vary. Some meetings feature a speaker. The speaker will share their story of recovery and speak for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. After the speaker shares their story, the floor may be opened for others to share.

During sharing, there is no advice giving or cross-talk. Advice-giving is self explanatory. Cross-talk means you don’t make an aside or comment to anyone else during the meeting on what was just said.

Sharing is timed so that nobody hogs all the time left in the meeting. A time keeper is chosen before sharing to keep track of the time. They will use a stopwatch or timer to give each person an equal amount of time to speak, usually two to three minutes. During sharing, you have a choice:

  • You can talk about what you’ve just heard during the speaker’s talk or share on anything you need to share about your recovery.

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  • Or you don’t have to share if you don’t want to. When it’s your turn, if you don’t feel like sharing, you can pass to someone else. At the end of sharing if you still want to speak, the leader may invite anyone who hasn’t spoken to share, and you can raise your hand or let them know you’d like to share now.

Donations and Invitations During Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings

After the sharing is complete, someone will pass around a basket or container for donations. There is no fee for AA attendance and no dues. Nobody keeps track of who pays and who doesn’t. You simply drop your donation into the basket and pass it to the next person. The money is used for things such as:

  • Renting the meeting space
  • Paying for coffee or refreshments
  • Buying newcomer literature packets to hand out to people at their first meeting

Some meetings include an invitation for sponsors and phone calls. What this means is people who are available to sponsor will raise their hand and quickly introduce themselves to the group. Some groups pass around a list of sponsors. You can find a sponsor by attending several meetings and finding someone you click with, someone who has a solid program of recovery and who seems like they have what you want to have in terms of recovery.

You may also see a telephone list passed around. One of the tools of 12-step recovery is the telephone, or sometimes telephone and emails. It’s a way to reach out to people in recovery when you’re having a rough day or simply to connect so you don’t feel alone. You can take down phone numbers and call people to talk during the week.

Most meetings conclude with a prayer of some kind and a reminder to protect the anonymity of those at your meeting. You may be invited to stay in the room and share refreshments such as coffee and cake with others. You can help by putting chairs away if you are asked, or help clean up the coffee cups and refreshments at the end of the meeting.

In between meetings, members work on their program of recovery by doing journal work, reading program literature, working with sponsors, and using the tools of recovery.

Everything You Need to Know About Narcotics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings follow an almost identical format. The main difference is instead of alcohol, you’ll hear people talking about drug addiction. The underlying disease of addiction and its treatment using abstinence and the 12 steps remains the same.

Narcotics Anonymous meetings also offer speaker-based meetings, newcomer meetings, step-study meetings and other focused meetings. You can choose which one you want to attend. If you are new to the program, try speaker-based and newcomer meetings first to get a broad overview of the program.

Everything You Need to Know About Al-Anon and Alateen

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Al-Anon and Alateen are slightly different from AA and NA because the people attending the meetings are not struggling with addiction themselves. Instead, these groups gather to help people struggling with a loved one’s addiction.

The 12 steps from AA can be applied to many problems in life, and that includes living with someone with an addiction. While AA and NA members start by admitting their powerlessness over substance abuse, Al-Anon and Alateen members reflect on being powerless over the effects of those substances. It’s a subtle difference but one that has helped many Al-Anon members find peace again after struggling with someone in their lives who’s addicted.

People who attend Al-Anon and Alateen are also asked to remain anonymous. The same steps, traditions and format for meetings are followed. Alateen is specially designated for teens and young adults.

Telephone and Online Meetings

AA, NA and Al-Anon also offer telephone-based and online meetings. These meetings are free, but if you are calling long distance, your phone carrier may charge long distance rates.

Phone meetings are essentially conference calls or group calls with a moderator who leads the meeting. Members mute their phones so extraneous noises don’t bother the group, then unmute their phones to share.

Online meetings use a chat room format for the recovery meeting. Members type their messages to each other and signify they’d like to share by typing *. A moderator keeps the group focused and calls the meeting to order and end.

Since phone and web-based meetings cannot “pass the hat,” the moderator may invite people on the call or chat to visit the AA, NA or Al-Anon websites to donate a “7th tradition” offering. Seventh tradition refers to the tradition listed among the 12 step traditions that all groups are to be self-supporting. It’s a request for donations to pay for things such as web hosting and any other expenses needed to keep group meetings going.

What About All the “God Talk?”

Sometimes people feel uncomfortable at meetings because they hear a lot of talk about a higher power. Higher power, sometimes call “HP” as if they are an old friend, can mean God or it can mean the group consciousness.

There is absolutely NO requirement that you believe in God or follow a particular spiritual tradition to belong to AA, NA, Al-Anon or any other 12-step group. If you are agnostic or atheist, you can find your own higher power. Most atheists simply believe it is the power of many people sharing a common problem and solution coming together that helps them.

Whatever or however you define God, higher power or HP, you’ll find love and acceptance at a meeting. The program may mention the word God, but God can be the God of your understanding, whatever that means to you.

Other Recovery Tools

In addition to recovery meetings in person, by phone and online, there are recovery websites where people gather to share their stories. Email lists and recovery groups on Yahoo! and other sites offer those in recovery yet another place to gather.

You can also download free podcasts, step-study workbooks and recovery literature from AA, NA and Al-Anon, as well as purchase literature such as your own copy of the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.” There are conferences, retreats and more catering to the recovery community.

Why Go to Meetings?

As you consider everything you need to know about NA meetings, AA meetings and more, you may wonder what’s so important about meetings that they’re emphasized throughout the recovery world.

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Abstinence, or not using the substance you’re addicted to, is always first in recovery. Without abstinence, all the step work in the world won’t help that much. The tools of recovery include meetings, sponsorship, the steps and more. Each of these tools are intended to help you stay abstinent and to grow as a person and in recovery.

Addiction is a lonely disease, and addiction is often called a self-centered disease. It makes people turn inward until everything is about their needs, their comfort, their fix.

Meetings and 12-step recovery work reverse this looking-inward to serving-outward. Instead of everything being about you, you’re asked to give to others. That giving may be:

  • Showing up at meetings to listen to someone who really needs to talk
  • Offering sponsorship
  • Putting chairs away
  • Giving a newcomer a literature packet

Alcoholism, drug addiction and other addictions are diseases of spirit and psyche as well as of the body. Those suffering from these diseases often have trouble forming healthy relationships with others.

Many suffering from addiction think they’re the only person in the world with their particular set of troubles or problems. When you attend 12-step meetings, you learn very quickly you have it neither better nor worse than anyone else in the room. You start to learn how to relate to others.

For some people, the unconditional love and acceptance that’s so abundant at any 12-step meeting may be new. It’s healing. It’s amazing. For the first time in your life, when someone says they’ll call you … they actually do. When someone says they’re there for you … they are. That’s what recovery can be like.

The higher power everyone talks about during meetings is any concept you can think of that is greater than yourself. You may be amazed at the times when someone shares exactly what you need to hear at a meeting, but it happens more often than you’d think. That’s your higher power speaking, either through group consciousness or through members of the group, and it comes just when you need it.

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Meetings reinforce all the healthy things you’ve learned about yourself in recovery. They help you grow, both in sobriety and as a person. They help you connect with others suffering from addiction and share what you know, too. It’s through these connections you heal, and you inspire others, too.

Can You Go to Only Phone or Online Meetings?

Some people want to attend just phone or online meetings. It may be hard to get to a face-to-face, or f2f, meeting, but it’s important to go at least on a regular basis.
You do lose something when you’re not physically present with others during a meeting. Phone and online meetings can be useful when you can’t get to a meeting or in between your regular meetings, but for most people they cannot substitute all the time for f2f meetings.

Sober or Not, Go to a Meeting

You’ll find newly sober, relapsed and long-time sober people at meetings. No matter where you are in your program of recovery, you belong at a meeting.

Just keep in mind newcomers shouldn’t sponsor anyone until a recommended time period has elapsed in the program. For most programs, that’s about 90 days or more sober. People who have relapsed should also wait for about that long until they are ready to sponsor again.

Getting Started in AA, NA or Al-Anon

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The 12-step fellowships around the world are a great place to learn more about recovery. You can find meeting times, dates and locations on the websites of each fellowship. There are meetings around the world and in multiple languages, so you can find one that meets your needs.

You don’t need to call ahead to attend a meeting, although some groups may recommend you do. Some groups will put up a small, unobtrusive sign to point the way to the meeting room if the location isn’t obvious. Meetings aren’t affiliated with the place that hosts them, so meeting places can and do change if circumstances change. Calling the number listed next to the meeting on the group’s website can help you confirm the meeting details.

Expect a recovery meeting to last anywhere from one to two hours. After the meeting, some groups include additional social time. You may be invited out for coffee or you may want to sit and talk with someone about sponsoring. It’s all part of making recovery friends and reconnecting with others who share a common problem and solution.

Recovery Begins at 12 Keys

12 Keys offers a program of recovery at our center located along Florida’s waterfront. It’s a great setting to recover from drug or alcohol abuse and get the treatment you need.

When you call us, we’ll answer your questions and take down some basic information. We’ll help you arrange for transportation to and from 12 Keys so you can get here easily.

Once you arrive, you’ll meet with our staff and a doctor, who will assess your problems and help you through the withdrawal and detox portion of recovery. We’ll help make sure you stay healthy and safe during withdrawal, and keep you as comfortable as we can.

After you’ve completed detox, you’ll start on your recovery program. We take the approach that everyone is a unique individual and create a program just for you. Your recovery program may include individual and group counseling, 12-step meetings, outdoor activities and more.

There’s down time, too, and staying along Florida’s waterfront has its advantages. We take clients fishing, swimming, horseback riding and more so you can learn a new skill, get outside and start enjoying life again.

If you’d like to talk to us about your program of recovery, please call today. We’re here 24/7 to help you treat your addiction. Contact 12 Keys today.

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