How I Stayed Sober When I Felt Unwelcome in 12-Step Meetings

By Olivia Pennelle 06/04/17

I felt uncomfortable and alone in meetings in my new country. Here are 8 ways I supported my recovery.

young worried woman at group meeting
If a new meeting isn't up to your standards, it may be best to apply different plans of action to aid your recovery

I relocated to the US just a few months ago. This was a huge move for me; not only was I moving to a new country, I was moving continents! I thought I could count on the comfort and support of the same [12-step] fellowship that I had spent the last few years attending—that helped me to get sober. Yet, I have found fellowship in the US to be a very different experience from the UK. I have come away from meetings feeling like I don’t fit in. As I approached five years sober in a new country, I needed fellowship support more than ever. However, my experience here has led me to challenging what I get from meetings. I have had to find my own way to keep my recovery strong.

As I landed, the enormity of relocation hit me: I was in a new country, without any firm work, where I knew no one—in a place I hadn’t even visited before! To say I was emotional and frightened was an understatement. It was ingrained in me that when I found myself in a new area, I should attend a local meeting—it would serve to ground me.

I walked into my first meeting crying, but with faith that I would be supported—held almost—and comforted. I was wrong.

Despite being a global fellowship, with the same steps and traditions, my experience in the US contrasts considerably with the UK. I have had several negative experiences: women have walked away from me when I introduced myself; women observed my crying but ignored me; despite being new, phone numbers were not automatically given; members have been cliquey and kept conversations to their group. The formats vary too; most commonly the chairperson calls on their friends to share, leaving little time for newcomers or those from out of town. This is not an exhaustive list. I have felt excluded, unwelcome, and completely on my own. At times, it has felt like I am the unpopular new girl back at school.

This is in stark contrast with my experience of fellowship in the UK. There, if we see a new person that we haven’t seen before, we introduce ourselves and we make them a cup of tea. We circulate numbers automatically and we are inclusive in our interactions. For all we know, they could be new and frightened about their first meeting—I know that I was. I always try and offer the hand of fellowship, with warmth, empathy, and compassion. I would be especially supportive if I saw a woman crying—offering the opportunity to talk if she so wanted.

Flummoxed by the responses and interactions I’d experienced, I spoke to friends in the UK who encouraged me to keep trying different meetings and to offer the same support that I had expected. They reminded me that the onus was upon me and told me to put myself out there. I did. But got much the same cold reception. It was only with persistence and being introduced to women who were from out of town that I struck up friendships. They empathized with my experiences.

In the weeks leading up to those new friendships, I knew that feelings of isolation had the potential to threaten my recovery. So, I came up with an action plan and called on several resources and practices that have served me well throughout my recovery:

1.    I maintained friendships with people in recovery in the UK. I scheduled regular calls and have spoken to, or texted, a friend every day.

2.    I wrote in a journal frequently and expressed my thoughts, feelings, emotions, and frustrations. I have also reflected on my achievements. It is no mean feat moving continents on your own!

3.    I tried attending AA instead of NA, in which I have found more like-minded and friendlier members.

4.    I researched alternative modalities of recovery: SMART Recovery, LifeRing and other sober communities. I reached out to those groups to find out more.

5.    I reached out in the online recovery community, sharing my thoughts and speaking to friends. I blogged about my experiences.

6.    I exercised every day ensuring I looked after my physical health.

7.    I made eating well a priority, ensuring I looked after my mental and physical health.

8.    I practiced yoga and meditation which cared for my spiritual self.

I have spent several years wondering what it is that I get from meetings. What I have learned is that my recovery is incumbent upon several components being fulfilled: collective empathy and understanding of how others cope with life and its challenges; and a quiet space to reflect and to sit still in an otherwise busy and challenging life. However, I can attain those components in my interaction with friends in recovery and through meditation. In looking after my physical and mental health, I ensure that I have a holistic approach to recovery—which I have found to best meet my needs.

I know there isn’t a rule that states we should offer a shoulder to cry on, or involve people in discussions, or even make someone feel welcome, but there is an understanding that a meeting is an inclusive space—one where we can feel safe and supported. Ultimately though, I can only manage how I treat and respond to others, trying to offer a hand of fellowship and a compassionate welcome.

I am not suggesting that if you feel unwelcome in meetings you should stop attending; rather, that there are plenty of alternative practices that you can undertake to ensure that you keep your recovery strong.

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