My journey into recovery deviated from traditional twelve step recovery and I eventually started using a more holistic approach and incorporating things such as exercise. After several years of this journey I realized that I had deviated from mainstream recovery and was now living an alternative approach.
Most people in recovery followed the 12 step program. I was on the road less taken.
As such, I want to better define what the alternative to traditional recovery actually is. This is somewhat challenging to do because it is obviously going to be a bit different for everyone (hence the “alternative” approach!).
Traditional recovery in our present day world (2012) can be defined as the twelve step program of AA or NA.
Why seek an alternative at all?
If you talk to people who are entrenched in traditional recovery, they will nearly always make this argument and say things like:
“Why seek an alternative to AA if it is clearly working for people?”
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. AA works for thousands of people around the world.”
“The program worked fifty years ago and it still works today. No need to change it or do anything different. You just need to develop a willingness to accept the program into your life.”
But for some reason, none of this logic was good enough for me. I was stubborn and I did sort of refused to blindly accept AA and NA as my solution.
I think this was based on the following reasons and logic:
* The program of AA felt so old and dated. The language in the literature was archaic.
* The steps were not direct enough for me. They did not emphasize physical abstinence, which was my number one priority. The first step of the 12 step program should have been “Do not use addictive drugs or alcohol today no matter what, period.” That would have made a much better first step. Instead the concept of surrender as step one really only works in retrospect. Yes of course they have surrendered because they are already trying to get sober!
I am serious about this point. I believe the 12 steps could have been written much more effectively and to the point. Emphasizing abstinence would have been a good start.
* The people who surrounded me in my early recovery were making a case against AA for me, via observation. Nearly everyone relapsed. During the first few years of my recovery, everyone that I knew in the program and went to meetings with eventually relapsed. There were only a few people who did not. This was just evidence for me that the program was not a magic bullet. I did not have to necessarily think about this or give it much thought…..I simply went to AA for the first 18 months, and observed how poorly it seemed to work for so many people. It was shocking to see such a dismal success rate, to be quite honest. My close friend who has stuck with AA notices this too, and all he can say is “they were not ready yet.” I don’t necessarily disagree with him on this. Another program may not have saved these people either. You have to be ready for change, regardless of what program you follow.
* Useless repetition. I was hearing the same things over and over again in AA meetings, and it got to be a waste of my time. I was not learning any more. Now I know what the proposed solution for that is: to bring your own positive message to the meeting, to create a better meeting, not to complain about it but to take action and change it for the better.
I did exactly that, though I took my “meeting” into a different venue by leaving the rooms and going online. I still carried a message, but I did it to thousands of people each day online rather than dozens of people each day in person.
* Opportunity cost of sitting in meetings. People used to tell me “just go to a meeting every day. Don’t complicate this. If it keeps you sober then it is well worth it.”
I call BS on this. It is not “well worth it” necessarily. Think for a moment here people.
Meetings are not a magic bullet, and they are a serious time investment, especially if you attend every single day like they suggest. An hour each day is a HUGE time investment.
So what am I doing instead of going to meetings?
You might think I am sitting around watching television and being generally non-productive. This is not the case, however. Instead I have built a life of creative recovery that involves positive action on a regular basis, and also includes connecting with other recovering addicts and alcoholics. I have explored online recovery and created a platform that reaches thousands of people per day with a message of hope about recovery.
The alternative to this is to sit in a meeting for an hour each day and listen to the same messages, over and over again.
I guess you have to decide what you really need for your recovery and then set yourself up to get it. I saw that the meetings were no longer serving me well so I moved on. But I did not just leave the meetings and expect to stay clean and sober without taking any action for my recovery. This is the fatal flaw that most people make when rejecting the 12 step program. Don’t just say “this 12 step stuff is not for me” and then walk away and go back to your drug of choice. If that is the case then you would certainly do better to stick around the 12 step program.
Ask yourself: “Is going to a 12 step meeting every day the best use of your time in recovery? Could you be finding positive growth experiences for yourself in other ways?” For me, the answer to that was “yes.”
Results were all that mattered to me
As I said, in early recovery I was exposed to a large community of people in AA and NA meetings in my area and I got to watch lots of them relapse. Some of course did manage to stay clean and sober but I realized that the pervasive lie that I kept being told “Meeting makers make it!” was just plain wrong.
Many people who attended meetings religiously frequently relapsed. And I was finding more and more examples of people who deviated from the traditional norm slightly, maybe went to less meetings or no meetings at all, and they were doing very well in their recovery.
I decided very early on that what mattered to me was results. I wanted to stay clean and sober at nearly any cost, regardless of what it took.
So at first, I was soaking up all the information I could, attending 12 step meetings every day, and I was following the suggestions perfectly. I was dedicated to meeting attendance.
Over time, I stopped listening so closely to what people were telling me, and I started watching what they were doing instead. This happened over the course of about 18 months to two years. I was slowly watching and observing and drawing my own conclusions about the 12 step program and how effective it was. The big talkers in AA meetings seemed to always relapse eventually. They could talk the talk alright, but not so good at actually walking the walk.
And I slowly realized something about the meetings and what people really used them for. People were not really using them the way that they were supposed to be used. They were not using them to talk about the solution and to carry a message of hope to the newcomer. Instead, people would use daily meetings to talk about their problems and use them as therapy. Then some of them would relapse and come back to the meetings and–unbelievably–would talk endlessly about how this program works, how this program is the solution, how you should never stop coming to these meetings, and so on.
And so I came to resent the meetings a bit, because here I was staying clean and sober, coming to meetings, and I had to keep listening to these folks who had relapsed and were telling me about the virtues of this wonderful program that had just failed them. It was not making sense and it did not add up.
I mean, I had nothing against the 12 steps if they could keep someone sober…..but for me to sit in these meetings every day and listen to people try to tell me how it works, over and over again? It just was not a good use of my time.
So I saw a need for an alternative. I saw a need to move on with my life and to work a more effective program of recovery, one that was based on my own desire to get the results that I wanted. I wanted to stay clean and sober and I also wanted to experience positive growth in my life.
I saw people in AA and NA as wanting to “talk the talk.” They wanted to share in meetings and so their recovery program seemed to be mostly about being verbal. Their recovery program depended on speaking. They had to talk to stay sober.
I wanted something different. I wanted to actually “walk the walk” and take the positive actions that would help me to stay sober for myself, regardless of others in the program. I did not want to have to rely on “sharing” in order to stay clean and sober. This felt like another form of dependency.
Leaving traditional recovery
I feel badly for anyone who attempts to leave AA or NA because the fear based response is just ridiculous.
What happens is that everyone who notices you drifting away from meetings tries to come to your rescue and convince you to “get plugged back in to the meetings.”
They really believe that you are doomed to relapse and die because you stop coming to 12 step meetings. Of course, in some cases they are correct, and people who stop attending meetings sometimes do relapse. This is a fear based response because they are trying to convince themselves that if THEY keep going to meetings that they are going to be just fine. If you actually propose this idea to them, however, they will give you a blank stare because they really believe they are just only trying to help YOU. They do not see their own underlying fear and how it drives them to try to “save” you from leaving the meetings.
As I have mentioned before a big part of the problem with this situation has to do with “self selecting bias.” The people in AA do not get a chance to see those like me who have left the program and have built a successful life in recovery. So the only people they see who leave AA are the ones who come back after a relapse. This just reinforces their idea that anyone who leaves AA will surely relapse. The problem is that people who leave and are successful never come back to tell them about it. So they only see the relapsers who return, not the success stories who make it on their own. Hence they have a self selecting bias that keeps them stuck in their false belief.
So in my own life I had been drifting away from the meetings and I finally decided “this is crazy. Why should I try to keep hitting the occasional meeting here and there just to keep people happy and off my back? I am going to stop going entirely.”
Knowing this, and reasoning through it took me a long time. It took me a long time to build the confidence to really leave AA. It took me a long time to build up the strength to tell people that I was going to be OK, and that their concern for me was nice but not necessary. I had to slowly forge my own confidence in what I was doing.
The nice thing is that results tend to speak for themselves. After a few years my associations from AA and NA got the idea that I was probably on the right path. The years of sobriety kept stacking up for me and many of the people who stayed in AA ended up relapsing. Many of these people who relapsed had warned me in the past that I was going to relapse if I stopped going to meetings. Here I was at over a decade of continuous sobriety and I had not been to meetings for over nine years, and yet they had relapsed on and off throughout all of this.
In the beginning, I had this enormous fear and self doubt about my decision to leave the 12 step program. I really thought that I might relapse and die and be humiliated for rejecting the 12 step program. I really was scared that I would fail. I believe this fear helped spur me into taking real action though, and that might have been the whole key to my success.
You have to actually DO something
I was so nervous about leaving the 12 step program because I knew that I had to take action if I was to remain sober, and I knew that I had to motivate myself. I could no longer rely on sitting in meetings and attempting to draw on the experience and motivation of others for my recovery. I had to produce my own results.
So I started to explore this idea of “holistic recovery.” I decided that if I was really going to leave AA and risk my life, that I was going to do everything in my power to stay clean and sober on my own. In fact, I really was not sure if I should believe all of the fear based messages in AA about how I was destined to relapse and die. I was nervous about it and had no idea if I could really stay clean on my own.
What could I do in order to work my own program of recovery? I decided to start by:
* Attending college and finishing up my degree.
* Exercising and running on a regular basis.
* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Connect with an online recovery community.
* Build a business for myself.
* Work in a drug rehab center with sick addicts and alcoholics.
* Create an online community based on my own recovery ideas.
So these are just some of the actions that I took when I left AA. I pushed myself hard, especially at first, because I was so nervous that I would relapse and prove everyone right. Now it is ten years later and I have proved them all wrong, because I managed to find my own successful path in recovery and make positive changes for myself.
Looking back on this success, I can see that the whole key to recovery is to take massive action. If you sit around and just wish that things will be different in recovery, you are going to fail.
Note that this truth overrides any programs that you may or may not be following. In other words, if you are in AA and NA, then guess what? You have to take massive action in order to recover. If you are NOT in AA and NA, then guess what? You still have to take massive action in order to recover.
There is no “secret sauce” in AA or NA that helps people to remain sober. Sure there is a clear path laid out, but it is all up to the individual, their level of surrender, and their willingness to change. Are they prepared to take massive action in their life, or not? This is why the failure rate is so high in ANY recovery program, be it AA or otherwise. Most people have not fully surrendered when they get to AA. Most people have to experience an intense amount of pain and chaos before they become willing to change their life.
Recovery programs are not magical and why most people fail
There is no secret sauce in AA that motivates people to stay sober.
There is no secret mechanism by which AA enables sobriety.
Rather, what AA and other recovery programs do is they provide a supportive framework for anyone who has ALREADY made the decision to become sober for good.
But this supportive framework and the 12 steps themselves and any other positive actions you might take to stay sober are not the secret ingredient. They do not hold magical powers and they are not mystical steps handed down from above to guide you to recovery. If you put that much belief into this “mystery” then you have been misled in my opinion.
This is not to say that the 12 step program cannot work for someone, as it most certainly can. But there is no magical shortcut in the 12 steps themselves. They still depend on:
* A commitment to abstinence.
* Taking massive action in your life.
* Making positive changes in an ongoing process.
The 12 step program is just window dressing for these ideas. You can just as easily decide on your own to make a commitment to total abstinence, and then start making positive changes in your life and taking massive action. You can do this in AA or outside of AA. The basic concepts and principles are the same (abstinence, massive action, positive changes).
Some people benefit a great deal from the social support and the fellowship that they get in AA or NA. If that is the case with you then I would urge you to keep pursuing a life of recovery in those programs. But if you are seeking an alternate path or you feel that AA and NA are not a good fit for you, then do not be discouraged. Continue to explore this website and know that you CAN be successful outside of traditional recovery programs. It is all about those core concepts and your commitment to abstinence.