Is it possible to recover from drug or alcohol addiction without traditional recovery programs?
My answer to this is a very mixed and confusing “yes, you can.” Of course there are many qualifications with that answer and my own story is proof of that.
For starters, I attended a traditional recovery program myself for about the first 18 months of my journey into sobriety, but after that I drifted away from the program of AA. That was over a decade ago and I am still clean and sober today at over 13 years of continuous sobriety.
So in a sense I certainly benefited from a traditional recovery program in the early days. But that was not really my solution over the past decade and it is not what I really give credit to for my success over the past thirteen years.
Some people who attend a specific recovery program will blindly give all the credit to their sobriety to that specific program. They will do this forever until the day that they die (or relapse). Notice that once such a person relapses, it is suddenly not the program’s fault any more, but it becomes their fault. When they succeed in recovery they give all the credit to the recovery program and not to themselves, but then when they relapse it is suddenly their own personal failure. I don’t believe in this double standard and I do not think it is fair to people. If you are going to give credit to a program for keeping them sober then you should also fault that program for the subsequent relapse. Or on the contrary, you can give credit to the individual for staying sober, and also hold them accountable if and when they relapse. I think this makes much more sense. Traditional recovery points to sobriety, but it is not sobriety itself.
There is an old Zen parable that illustrates this perfectly about “The finger pointing at the moon.” (Google it if you are curious!). Don’t mistake the pointer for the object. Recovery programs are not sobriety. They only point towards sobriety. Don’t fall into this mistake and put a recovery program up on a pedestal that it doesn’t deserve. The real motivation for your own recovery has to come from within. Is it willpower? Not necessarily, as we all know that sheer willpower can rarely overcome an addiction. But you still need dedication and commitment if you are going to remain sober, regardless of whether you are following a traditional recovery program or not.
That dedication and that willpower are the “thing” that really creates success in sobriety. Don’t mistake a recovery program for that willingness. You don’t go to a recovery program and suddenly become magically willing to do whatever it takes to remain sober. These programs aren’t magical. They can’t control your motivation and willingness. You still have to provide that for yourself. This is why they say that you must hit bottom before being able to surrender and achieve success. No motivation, no willingness…..no success. The program is not magic.
Self motivated versus being told what to think and what to believe
There is a certain amount of accountability that comes from being in a group format when it comes to recovery.
Many people in traditional recovery programs show up to the same meetings every day in order to remain sober. This helps them to be held accountable.
A good experiment to put forth in the minds of the traditional recovering alcoholic is: “If you stopped going to meetings suddenly, would you eventually relapse?”
I was asking this question of myself a great deal during my first year or two of recovery. If I suddenly left AA meetings, would I relapse?
It’s a very good question.
And if you buy into the fear mongering that comes along with traditional recovery programs, then you know what the answer is supposed to be. You will know that everyone in AA believes that if they suddenly leave the program then they are in grave danger of relapse. This is the mentality that is preached in the meetings. The emotion that puts this into place is fear. People are afraid of relapse, and so they want everyone to “stick and stay” at the meetings so that no one drifts away and suddenly relapses. It is a fear based response to the threat of relapse.
And so when I was still attending the meetings every day I had to think about this question seriously, for myself. Would I relapse? And as I thought about that question and as I skipped a daily meeting here or there, I realized that I probably would.
Think about this for a moment. I realized that they were right, and that if I stopped the daily meetings cold turkey, it would lead me to relapse.
What did that really say about the quality of my sobriety? Why was I following this path in recovery where I was dependent on daily meetings to stay sober?
Was there another way that I could become stronger in my sobriety, without having to depend on daily meetings?
And was that a path worth pursuing anyway? As some would say in AA: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
But I could not help but explore this path of freedom once I started to think about it more and more.
So I started to look around the world, and see what others in recovery were doing.
Evidence of success outside of traditional recovery programs
One thing that I noticed in my research was that not everyone recovers using traditional recovery programs. There were alternatives out there.
And there were some people who were “independent” when it came to their recovery. They did not follow a formal program at all.
And I noticed that some of these people had organized into semi-formal programs themselves. So these were like alternatives to AA and traditional recovery. Some of them were based on various strategies and techniques for sobriety: Meditation, yoga, martial arts, exercise and fitness, nutrition, creative arts, and so on.
The bottom line was that I found people out there in the world who were recovering without traditional programs. And they were making it work. And some of them were even teaching others how to do it “their way,” or had published books about their journey, and so on.
This was evidence enough for me to realize that traditional recovery was not the only path to sobriety.
And this was a revelation of sorts. It was a revelation because I had been exposed to a completely different message in AA for the first year of my recovery. And that message was basically saying that “traditional recovery is the only way to stay sober, and anyone who leaves this program will relapse and die.”
But I was discovering that this message was false. It was rooted in fear and it was not accurate. There were alcoholics and drug addicts recovering outside of mainstream recovery programs, and they were doing just fine. It was possible.
And so I felt like I had not been told the whole story. There was this whole other world of recovery possibilities that had nothing to do with traditional programs. And that was exciting for me, because I never really felt like I “fit” into traditional recovery programs.
Harness the fear of failure and turn it into positive action
If you want to recovery without using a traditional recovery program such as AA, NA, or religious based recovery, then here is what you need to do:
First of all you need to harness the fear of failure and turn it into something positive.
How can you do that?
The way that I did it was this:
I was extremely nervous when I set out on my own in terms of recovery. I was nervous because everyone told me that it was very likely that I might relapse. And I did not want to prove everyone right in this and feel foolish and stupid. I wanted to strike out on my own and make it work and not be wrong.
So there was anxiety there. It was fear. I was afraid to fall on my face and fail in front of everyone. I was afraid and I wanted very badly to make my recovery work.
So this fear and anxiety that I had was turned into action. I decided that I was not just going to sit idle in my recovery and let bad things happen to me. Instead I was going to be proactive. I was going to start out on a path of personal growth.
I was rejecting traditional recovery. So I was saying “no” to daily meetings, to sponsorship, to group support. I was saying “no” to all of those things, which can be solutions in terms of staying sober or overcoming a craving. If you are on the brink of relapse then you need to have solutions. If you are not going to use daily meetings or a sponsor or a recovery community such as AA, then what are you going to use instead? How will you overcome cravings and say “no” to your drug of choice? Where will you gain the strength for this?
I had to figure that out. I had to find new solutions for myself because I was saying “no” to all of these traditional solutions.
I decided that the real secret of recovery was in the idea of personal growth. So I started to figure out how I could push myself to make some sort of growth each day. Some sort of progress. Some sort of positive action. I could not be idle and expect to recover.
So I started making lists, I started to brainstorm about different areas of my life. It was all about taking good care of myself and taking positive action. The driving question was always: “How can I take better care of myself today?” And I had to ask this question in terms of every area of my life. For example, my physical health and fitness were important, and so I wanted to make sure that I was not neglecting that part of my health. Because ultimately I discovered that this had a direct impact on my sobriety. Being physically unhealthy turned out to be an enormous trigger for all of the recovering alcoholics and addicts that I was surrounded by. I watched many people relapse and I could at least partially see how their poor physical health, poor fitness, unhealthy habits, or diseases they had–all played a major role in their relapse. It happened over and over again in the first two years of my sobriety and I watched many of my peers relapse.
So I started to slowly realize that the idea of “The solution is spiritual” was a bit flawed. I was not experiencing that, and my observations did not support that idea. If the solution truly was spiritual then why did so many of my peers relapse due to physical problems, illnesses, injuries, and so on? I watched several people relapse as their physical health became unraveled.
This is what started to prompt me to investigate the idea of a holistic approach.
There was more to staying sober then just staying connected spiritually. And this is the main premise on which I separated myself from traditional recovery programs.
The solution–I found–was holistic. Not spiritual.
Your daily checklist for success and creating a healthy daily practice
In the long run I had to start taking care of myself every day, in every sort of way.
That meant creating a daily practice for myself, one in which I was willing to take certain actions and make a commitment to myself to take better care of myself.
For example, I started to exercise every single day. This became part of my daily practice. I did it even if I did not feel like doing it.
If I felt lazy, or tired, or exhausted….it didn’t matter. I would exercise anyway. It was not up for negotiation. I had to do it because I made a commitment to myself, I made a prior decision that this was part of what was helping me to stay sober, and so I just followed through on this positive action without fail.
That is what I mean by the term “daily practice.” You commit to something, you commit to a positive action, and then you follow through on it. Every single day you take care of yourself in this way and you build consistency. This is how you create discipline.
In order to become strong enough in your recovery you are going to have to build up this “discipline muscle.” This is especially true if you are not following a traditional program of recovery.
So maybe you have been to the daily meetings and you want to leave them. Well, what are you going to replace that with? What are you going to do different in your life in order to remain sober?
“Just not drink” is not an answer. Alcoholics will always return to their drug of choice if they are not actively pursuing personal growth.
The solution is to work at it, to push yourself, to move towards positive action.
You can do this by following a recovery program, or you can do it by being self motivated and pushing yourself to achieve personal growth. But if you simply avoid AA or traditional recovery programs and you don’t do anything else to push yourself then you will likely fail.
Every day in your life is an opportunity. Every single day is another unit of your life, a slice of your recovery. Every day is a multiplier.
At the end of three years you will look back on what you have accomplished and you will either feel good about yourself or be disappointed. When you walk away from traditional recovery programs you have to find the self motivation so that you are not disappointed after three years of living. You have to push yourself, you have to take positive action, you have to establish the healthy habits that will lead you to a better life. If you don’t do these things naturally through your own self motivation then you will need to find another way to hold yourself accountable. You can either push yourself to make positive changes or you can find someone else to help push you.
If you fail on your own, why not give traditional recovery programs a chance?
Self motivated recovery is definitely not for everyone. But if you find yourself turned off by traditional recovery programs then you might investigate the possibilities.
It is important to be honest with yourself though. If you cannot make recovery work on your own then you need to ask for help. There is no shame in going to a traditional recovery program of any kind. If that is what you need to do to get sober then that is what you need to do.
If you want to forge your own path in recovery than that added freedom comes with a price. There is no one to hold your hand or tell you that you are on the “right” path, because there is nothing to compare that path to. All they can do is pat you on the back if you happen to get good results. This started happening to me when I was in my third and fourth year of sobriety, and my peers realized that I must be doing something right! Many of them were in traditional recovery programs and some of them had since relapsed. But I came to realize at that time that it was not about being in one program or being on a self determined path, but instead it was about your daily practice and your commitment to growth. This concept transcended AA and other recovery programs, including the lack of any program at all!
In other words, the recovering alcoholic was either on a path of personal growth, or they were not. Whether they were in a specific program of recovery was actually beside the point. Complacency knows no boundaries, and it can affect anyone who is lazy enough to let it sneak up on them.
The only long term solution for overcoming addiction and alcoholism is through personal growth. Continuous reinvention of the self. You can do this through self motivation, you can do this through the direction of a sponsor or a group, and you can do this through the guiding hand of your higher power. How you choose to pursue this personal growth is entirely up to you. Those who fail to push themselves for that next stage of personal reinvention are the people who will eventually relapse.
Yes, you can recover without a recovery program. But if you do this then you are the program. You must supply the direction and motivation in your own recovery, rather than trying to outsource those things to a group, a sponsor, or some other entity. With added freedom comes added responsibility.
Are you motivated enough to push yourself to take positive action every day? Or do you need the support of a group or program in order to spur you into action? There is no right or wrong answer to this, only the best path for you in your recovery journey…… Let us know what you think in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!