By Kevin Doyle, EdD
Anyone who has been around addiction recovery at all — whether as a professional, a family member or an individual with a substance use issue — will recognize the phrase, “Go to a meeting,” as referring to attendance at a Twelve Step meeting or something similar. Recently, it seems it has become fashionable to dismiss the value of Twelve Step meetings, particularly in academic circles. But, for me, attending meetings has proven enormously valuable to my work as a clinician, academic and supervisor. The truth is, I have learned more about the recovery process in those meetings than in any academic classroom, and that’s why I think it’s important for everyone who works with people who have substance use disorders to get to a meeting, or many meetings, themselves.
As a newly minted counselor a few decades ago, one of my job responsibilities when working weekend shifts included driving the van to and from local meetings. The program where I was working wanted to expose patients to the richness of the recovery community in that area. Listening to the lived experience “in the rooms,” as well as the conversation in the van on the way back was eye-opening to say the least. Suffice it to say that, with no disrespect to the excellent graduate programs I had the good fortune to attend, those experiences provided an education I just couldn’t get in the classroom. The real-life, deeply honest “shares” from people with varying amounts of recovery time — from hours to years — informed my understanding of addiction and recovery in ways that continue to influence how I approach my work today.
It is for that reason I recommend that any individual who is not personally in recovery — as part of their training — spend time in the rooms of recovery (not necessarily or solely Twelve Step meetings but also Women for Sobriety, Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery and/or any of the dozens of options out there). What may not be well known is that many of these groups welcome outsiders, friends, family members and professionals. There may even be affectionate names given to such attendees, such as “earth people,” “normies,” or (my favorite) “muggles.” It is important to check what the group norms are, of course, before attending to ensure it is not a private, or in Twelve Step parlance, “closed” meeting.
My own experiences led me to include attendance at a few meetings as a requirement in the addiction counseling course I later taught in graduate counselor education programs. Most students had never attended such a meeting, and the anxiety and trepidation they felt about doing so was instructive, helping them empathize with what it might be like for clients or patients preparing to attend their first meeting. Many times, students would comment that the experience, similar to my own, was one of the best learning activities of their academic careers.
I do recall one student, many years ago, who objected to the assignment, stating that he felt his presence would be disruptive to those in attendance — a reaction I had never encountered. When I consulted with a colleague about this concern, I will never forget his response, which was something along the lines of: “he needs to get over himself!”
At the end of the day, for all of us engaged in the critical work of trying to help those with substance use disorders, it is important to meet people where they are. And one of the most common places they are, quite literally, is in the rooms of recovery found in nearly every community, and now on the Internet. If you work with these folks, find a few open meetings to attend — you will not regret it, I promise you.