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Surviving the 12 Steps: Advice for Newcomers and Not-So-Newcomers to AA and NA

12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are excellent ways to supplement drug rehab. Though these programs do not provide addiction treatment, they offer support to those who are new to sobriety and those who have years invested in abstinent living.

For people seeking recovery from addiction, twelve-step programs can provide a holding environment that gives shelter from the heavy weather of life, especially in early recovery. There are often ups and downs to the 12-Step experience. Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of the program.

The First 24 Hours

The first 24 hours of sobriety is often difficult, but it is recommended to touch base with a 12-Step meeting if you intend to make it a part of your recovery. For those in an inpatient drug rehab program, 12-Step meetings may be incorporated into the treatment program. For those in outpatient treatment, you may take part in a 12-Step meeting at your program, or you may opt to go to one – or more – out in the community.

The First 30 Days

Some individuals in recovery recommend that newcomers to sobriety do “30 in 30.” This means the individual attends one meeting a day every day for 30 days. This approach helps the newcomer to establish the habit of going to a meeting regularly and developing positive patterns to replace the negative patterns of drug use and drinking.


There are a variety of 12-Step meetings, so it is helpful to take a moment to familiarize yourself with the ones available in your area. Some differences include:

  • Different lengths of time. Some meetings are an hour, 90 minutes, and in some cases, brief 30- or 45-minute meetings may be available at different times of day and night.
  • Population-specific. There are meetings just for women, meetings for men, meetings for teens, meetings for lesbians, meetings for gay men, meetings for parents, meetings for smokers, and meetings for people with chronic illnesses.
  • Type of meetingSome meetings are speaker/share meetings, some are speaker only meetings, some are share only meetings, other meetings focus on studying the Big Book, and some meetings delve into the 12 traditions or the 12 Steps one at a time.
  • Open or closed. Some meetings are open to the public (e.g., friends and family of those in recovery are welcome) and others are just for those who identify as addicts or alcoholics.

After you attend several meetings, you can figure out the right combination that works for you. For example, you can find a 30-minute breakfast meeting just for women near your work before you go to the office. Maybe you are a night owl, and you would like to attend a midnight meeting if you feel tempted to use.

Over time, you will find a home group that feels comfortable to you and that you can regularly attend to make strong connections with other participants.

Work the Steps

Counseling group hugThere are the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions. While these traditions offer advice to members so that everyone is respected in meetings, the 12 Steps are a personal journey of exploration into the nature of active addiction. You are invited to work these steps with a sponsor. This is someone who is mature in their recovery who can talk you through the process and help you in times of need.

Additionally, those who have time in recovery often opt to work the steps periodically, or to work a step around a specific difficulty that they are having that threatens their ability to avoid relapse.

Sober Birthdays

You may find motivation and encouragement in celebrating when you achieve a landmark in your sobriety: the first 24 hours, a week, a month, every month up to a year, and then every year after that. Some meetings are “chip meetings,” which offer you the opportunity to pick up a chip near your sober birthday. Some people keep it in their pockets, and others just enjoy celebrating the significance of the day with others at the meeting.

Phone Numbers

Some group members may offer their phone number to be of assistance to you if you feel like relapsing or are having a hard time. Similarly, you are invited to offer your phone number to others to give them that same support.

Romantic Attachments

In the first year of recovery, romantic relationships are not recommended. Your focus should be solely on your growth in recovery and your ability to avoid relapse. While romantic relationships feel good and can be supportive in the beginning, they can quickly trigger strong emotions and stress. These feelings can lead to relapse.

Sharing at Meetings

Most individuals find it very helpful to speak up at 12-Step meetings. When you share your experience or ask for help,you can connect with others. These steps enable you to take an active role in your recovery. A few tips for sharing:

  • Tailor your share to the topic of the meeting, if applicable.
  • Don’t glorify past drug use.
  • You don’t always have to talk about stressful events. You can discuss what you’re grateful for in recovery.
  • Don’t cross talk (Speak to someone else who just shared or reference someone else’s share).
  • Don’t bad mouth anyone by name.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.


You are invited to connect with a temporary sponsor to assist you as you navigate the 12 Steps and offer you advice or support as needed. Whether you stay with that sponsor for a week or years, they will always be your temporary sponsor because neither person is required to maintain the connection for any predetermined period.

Giving Back

Group support is important in reinforcing new behavior because the emotions triggered by changes are very powerful and can retard and even halt recovery. When you are ready, you are invited to offer to become someone else’s sponsor. Or you can give back by volunteering to speak at share meetings or clean up after meetings or bring snacks. Giving back strengthens your connection to the sober community as well as your connection to your recovery and helps you to get more out of the 12-Step process.

Wherever you are today, know help is available. If you are thinking of attending a 12-Step meeting, know you have nothing to lose. You can attend, and no one will judge you. You are not going to be forced to share. You can always go to an open meeting and just observe. Take the step to move forward in your recovery today.