Hollywood has a way of taking reality and changing it up for creative purposes and for good reason. The more dramatic, the more the viewer buys in. But this has really done a disservice to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), as my first meeting was not like the ones I saw on When a Man Loves a Woman or 28 Days. It was a lot less intimidating, I was not singled out, and I did not have to speak if I didn’t want to. For an introvert like me, if I had been called out, I would have run for the hills. Instead, I still go back each week and have for many years. My intent here is not to debate the harm or good that AA has done. It is not to promote AA. It is not to bash ANY method or lifestyle that helps one lead a happy and productive life. You can find plenty of that on the internet these days. My hope is just to provide a glimpse into what meetings are like and what you can expect to experience as a newcomer. For that, I’ll go back to my first meeting.

My First AA Meeting

It’s ironic that I was nervous, full of shame, fear, and trepidation as I pulled into the parking lot of the huge church alone. After all, these were supposed to be “my people.” What in the world was I nervous about? When I walked in, I felt like I had “newbie” tattooed on my forehead, but everyone smiled and said “Welcome,” which was nice. I did not, however, want to exchange any pleasantries lest they think I was going to stick around for any length of time. I was just there because my treatment center told me I should attend AA if I wanted to stay sober. I did not ever want to go back to my former life, so I was going to the meeting whether I liked it or not.

Introductions and Readings

After I walked in, I was greeted by several men and women who seemed genuinely happy to see me. I grabbed a cup of thick black coffee and took a seat. There is always a chairperson who starts the meeting and then asks several volunteers to read the AA literature called The Twelve Traditions, The Twelve Steps, and then The Promises. Before each person spoke, they would say their name and that they were an alcoholic. Again, you don’t have to say this, but most people do.

After the readings, the chairperson asked if there were any newcomers or visitors that would like to be recognized by their first name. I timidly raised my hand and announced my name, that I was an alcoholic, and that I was new to the group. The chairperson then asked if I would like a list of ladies’ names and phone numbers in case I wanted to reach out to someone. I said yes. They passed a list around, and I received lots of names and numbers. They encouraged me to call any one of the numbers if I had the urge to drink alcohol.

Discussion and Chips

With the formalities out of the way, the chairperson then asked if there were any topics we would like to discuss. When addressing the group, each person says “I am [their name], and I am an alcoholic.” The group responds, “Hey, [[their name]].” I’ll admit this was a little off putting and unnatural at first, so I kept quiet.

When someone shared, it was mainly about how they were having trouble with some aspect of their life. I was surprised at the range of topics thrown around as I thought it would just be about alcohol and wanting to drink. It was much deeper than that. It was more of a conversation about how life’s curve balls can make us unsteady in our sobriety. In response, the group would share their experience with said difficulties and how they made it through. I became comfortable with the rhythm of the back and forth and was in awe of how vulnerability they were in a room of strangers. Everyone seemed to have thoughts and feelings similar to my own.

Before I knew it, the chairperson was asking if there was a “burning desire.” I would learn this is when you speak up if your issue was still not resolved or if you had something you needed to get off your chest. No one spoke up, so the chairperson then asked someone to hand out the chips.

The chip system is something AA uses to mark one’s time in the program. AA always offers the white chip first. If you want pick one up, it signifies you are ready to try the program. After the first white chip, they have different colors and are in time increments of 30 days, 90 days, 6 months, 9 months, and one year or multiple years. I picked up a white chip my first meeting, and it was like being a celebrity. Everyone hugged me after the meeting and told me to keep coming back. I have continued to do so for many years.

Options for AA Meetings

Not all AA meetings are run this way. They can differ according to location, but this has been my experience with discussion meetings. They also have speaker meetings, closed meetings, open meetings, men- and women-only meetings, and so on. Again, I am not here to push AA as I believe in any pathway that leads you to your best life! I just want people to know that they are not scary. While there is some formality with the readings and how we address one another, it is more or less a group of your peers on a never-ending journey to a happy and healthy life without alcohol.

If you are nervous about going to a meeting alone, you can always take a good supportive friend or relative to an open meeting where anyone is welcome. This is your journey. Own it and do what feels right. AA is just one of many ways people find a healthier way of life.

For more on substance use disorder, please visit our Substance Misuse resource page. If you’re a Youturn Health member, log in to your account to watch the Youturn 101 and/or Individual Support courses to learn more about substance use disorder.

Elizabeth McKissick, Director of Communications, Youturn HealthElizabeth McKissick is the Director of Communications at Youturn Health. She has been in recovery for substance use disorder for 17 years. Elizabeth is a strong advocate for sharing her story in the hopes of helping others struggling with dependency and misuse.