Do You Need In-Person Meetings?

By April Wilson Smith, MPH

It seems like the first thing people say if they find out you are struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is, “Go to a meeting!”  Alcoholics Anonymous has so infiltrated our culture that some people think your only choice is to park yourself in a church basement with a cup of coffee, listening to people tell drunk stories.  How this practice became considered “treatment” for a medical condition is a long story for another place.  If you happen to enjoy 12-Step meetings, you may want to go.  But are they necessary?  Certainly not. 


Think about what you might get from an in-person meeting.  A place to go where there is no alcohol present.  A way to spend time that doesn’t involve drinking.  Social interaction with people who do not (or say they do not) drink alcohol.  Support from people who are on a similar journey.  Practical advice on how to change your relationship with alcohol.  Coffee.  Folding chairs.  


We all know there are downsides to in-person meetings.   


First, they are NOT anonymous.  “What you see here and what you hear here, let it stay here,” is a nice idea, but what if you see a coworker at a meeting?  Do you think it will really stay there?  What if someone at the meeting hears you share, mentions it to a friend or family member, and boom, you’re recognized from the story?  Unless you want to share the fact that you’re seeking help for AUD with anyone and everyone, an in-person meeting is unlikely to be safe.  


At a 12-Step meeting you will also find the following: 1) an insistence to acknowledge that you are powerless over the inanimate object alcohol, 2) the requirement that you find God or another “Higher Power,” 3) pressure to attend 90 meetings in 90 days, and 4) pressure to get a Sponsor, a person to whom you will be required to report and share your innermost secrets.  Not interested?  No problem!  


So how do you get the positive things you might get from an in-person meeting without the downsides? Let’s go one by one: 


 Support from other people who are on this journey. 


Step into NorthStar Care’s Virtual Reality Support Meeting Rooms.  Here you are truly anonymous because you can pick your own avatar and even change your voice.  You never have to use your real name or even share at all, but if you want support from fellow travelers, you’ll get plenty.  Our experienced Peer Guides who have lived-experience facilitate the sharing as people in treatment with NorthStar Care discuss what’s really going on… no drunkalog required! 


Spend time without drinking, in a place where alcohol is not present.  


This is one of the standard topics of our Virtual Reality Support Groups.  Looking for things to do other than drink, with people who aren’t slurring their words and telling the same story repeatedly, can be a challenge.  We work together to think of things to do with our newfound freedom from problematic drinking.  Here’s a short list of ideas we’ve had: 


  1. Volunteer at an animal shelter, local hospital or other place that interests you 
  1. Take up a sport  
  1. Check out a yoga class (we have those in VR too) 
  1. Go to a bricks and mortar bookstore 
  1. Check out meetup.com for local meet ups that fit your interests  
  1. Picket a non-union construction site 
  1. Go to a coffee shop  
  1. Look up book clubs and other public activities at your local public library 
  1. Take a class in something that’s always interested you, either online or in person 

The advantage to all of these is that you don’t have to talk about alcohol!  You’re just getting out to do regular things with regular people.  No need to call yourself by any stigmatized labels or talk about the worst parts of your past – just pet a cat, drink some coffee, or read a book.  


Getting practical advice from people who’ve done this before. 


This is where your NorthStar Care Peer Guides come in.  We’ve been there, and we’ve changed our own relationships with alcohol. At NorthStar Care, you will be assigned two Peer Guides who work with you.  In addition to your assigned Peers, you’ll meet other Peer Guides in Virtual Reality Support Group Meetings.  You’ll meet fellow patients in support meetings and exchange tips and tools in a non-judgmental, anonymous environment.  There will be no lack of support.  At NorthStar Care there is no fear of recognition or any of the pressure of a 12-Step meeting. 


 Coffee 


Please see number 2, item 7: Go to a coffee shop.   


Folding chairs.   


I don’t think anyone goes to AA meetings for the folding chairs, but if you happen to want folding chairs, I hear that IKEA has a good supply and variety.  I have eight in my house. 


There’s nothing magical about AA meetings, despite the stranglehold it seems to have on our culture.  In fact, a lot of the people in those meetings don’t even want to be there.  According to AA’s 2014 Membership Survey, 12% of attendees were “introduced to AA” by the judicial system, meaning they were court-ordered.  Instead of spending your time talking about the past and the wreckage of alcohol use, why not focus on the present and the future you’re building? 


Support for the journey is a wonderful thing, and you can get that support in VR groups and from people who have interests in common with you.  We encourage our patients to use the new time, energy, and clarity they get when they cut back or quit drinking to explore the things that pique their curiosity.  Living a life that revolves around not drinking is almost as depressing as being dependent on drinking.  You do not need in-person meetings to live the life you want!  


1 Dodes, Lance M. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014. 

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