Most people in recovery from addiction and alcoholism have at least some exposure to 12 step meetings.
While there is nothing wrong with attending 12 step meetings as part of your recovery program, I would caution people at becoming too dependent on them as well. There are people who attend meetings for largely the wrong reasons, and therefore they are not necessarily getting stronger in their recovery. Instead, they are growing weaker because they depend on the daily meetings to keep them clean and sober.
Ask yourself these questions to see if you are depending on meetings and becoming complacent in your recovery, or if you are using them in a healthy way to help you to grow in your recovery:
Ask yourself: How long have I been clean and sober?
Length of sobriety is a factor. Many people in early recovery will try to tell you that this is not the case, but my own experience has taught me otherwise–both in my own example and in the example of others who I have observed who have significant amounts of clean time.
So what is the issue here? It’s that someone who has 22 years clean and sober in recovery does not necessarily need to (or should) attend seven 12 step meetings per week. The guy I am thinking of in particular used to go to one per day but now he tries to go to two meetings per week and usually ends up doing one per week. He feels guilty for only going to one per week but he also realizes that this is fine for balance in his recovery. After all he has over two solid decades of recovery under his belt.
Now sure, we can argue that he is only one drink or one drug away from a devastating relapse, and of course that is true as well. Does this mean that he should attend more meetings? In my opinion this is a flawed argument, and I do NOT believe he should be attending lots of meetings at this point (unless he wants to, or does so purely for 12 step work, etc.).
The reason it is a flawed argument is because you will grow stronger in your recovery and your life will become more balanced as you remain clean and sober for longer time periods. In the beginning, sure, it makes sense to go to meetings every single day. Sometimes even two per day, or you might even be living in a rehab center or a long term facility, and so on. Early recovery demands intensity. This is the transitional phase, and it required a concentrated and serious effort. If meetings are your thing, going to one per week is not going to work during your first few months of recovery. You need more than that. You need way more willingness, way more commitment, way more immersion into a new way of life. Early recovery requires intensity.
So when you first get clean and sober I believe that “overwhelming force” is a good principle to use in your recovery strategy. Going to multiple meetings per day or living in rehab may be the best approach. It certainly was for me, as I lived in rehab for 20 months.
But at some point, you have to ask yourself: “What is the point of my recovery, and what am I actually recovering?”
Life is not meant to be nothing but meetings and recovery. I was actually a bit upset to learn this in long term treatment when my counselor was pushing me to go back to college and to get a job at the same time. I was sort of like “but I want to work on my recovery!” The counselor was smart enough to realize that recovery is about life, not about meetings. He wanted me to achieve something and to get some progress and growth in my life.
You can reach out and help other people without being completely dependent on the 12 step fellowship. You can also make real growth and progress outside of recovery programs. As you stay clean and sober for longer periods of time, your life should naturally start to progress in other ways, and new opportunities for growth in your life should appear outside of 12 step recovery. Pursuing some of those avenues is important so that you can actually live your life and achieve some sort of balance in your recovery, instead of just becoming someone who depends on meetings, meetings, meetings in order to stay clean and sober.
Recovery is about living. It’s about balance. If you are clean and sober for ten years and you feel like you cannot go a few days without a meeting, I would question your overall growth and progress in recovery. You should be reducing dependency, not increasing it. Not that you can never attend meetings again–just that you should not depend on them.
Ask yourself: How am I using 12 meetings for my recovery?
Again this is a question of timing. If you are in your first year or two of recovery then you can “use” 12 step meetings however you see fit. Do what you have to do in order to remain clean and sober. Many people who try to get sober do not make it through the first year, so anything that you can do is worth doing.
But as you progress in recovery, you will want to take a step back and assess your life situation and your recovery strategy. Luckily, the 12 step program encourages this action indirectly by having you engage in self assessment in the various steps. People in meetings will also talk about recovery strategies at times, so the issue will come up and you will hopefully look at your life and carefully assess exactly how you are working your way through the recovery process.
If you look at the history of AA meetings, they were never intended to really be a daily thing. These days, especially in bigger cities, there are tons of meetings every single day, and you could easily go to multiple meetings per day if you wanted to. This was probably never the intention and the people who founded AA did not envision us attending meetings every single day, using them as a cheap form of therapy.
Unfortunately, this is what has happened to many people as they get used to the 12 step program. They show up to the same exact meeting every day and they use it as therapy for their life. Instead of talking about how to stop drinking and how to overcome addiction, they simply talk about how their day is going, how their week is going, what drama they have in their life, and how they are dealing with it all. It all sort of loosely relates to recovery because their drama threatens to make them relapse, right? So they talk about their problems and they talk about their issues and they sort of stray from the original idea of talking about not drinking.
Meetings can be a great reminder of where we have been and what we do not want to go back to. But if that is why you are using meetings then you certainly do not need one every day. The only reason that you need a daily meeting is if you are using such meetings for daily therapy. This was never the intended purpose of meetings and back when they first started they did not even have meetings every day to begin with. People stayed sober just fine without their daily therapy session.
My thought is that if you are depending on meetings in order to stay clean and sober then the rest of your recovery program is lacking in some way. People in 12 steps meeting will say “the solution is in the steps.” Some of them are just paying lip service to an idea, while others who say this have actually lived and therefore they mean what they are saying. They really do stay sober through 99% of their effort which comes from doing the actual footwork in recovery, the self assessment, the daily maintenance on their spiritual condition, and so on. They are not just staying sober based on the therapy aspect that they get from attending daily meetings. Instead, they are doing the work outside of the meetings and therefore they are pushing others to do the same.
There is sort of a fine line between using the meetings to help you stay sober, and depending on daily meetings too much in an unhealthy way. The tricky thing is that it depends a bit on where you are at in your recovery journey. It is understandable for someone in early recovery to depend on the meetings a bit more than someone who has been around for a few years. If you have multiple years in recovery and you are risking relapse when you go three days without a meeting, something is wrong in my opinion. You are not doing the work that is necessary to maintain your spiritual condition outside of the meetings. You are not putting in the footwork, you are not pursuing personal growth, you are not working the steps. If you were, then your recovery would not blow up when you take a week off from daily meetings. Dependency on meetings can become a crutch over time. In the early days it is fine, but later on, it shows a sign of weakness in your recovery effort.
This is ultimately because your long term sobriety does not depend on social support as much as it will depend on personal growth. Many people fall into the trap of believing that sustained recovery is based only on the fellowship aspect of AA or NA, and that they need to stay “plugged in” to the social element in order to remain clean and sober. This works well for a short time in very early recovery, but becomes more of a liability as you remain clean and sober in the long run. Depending on social connections to stay clean and sober is not ideal, and will eventually weaken your recovery program if it is holding you back from doing “the footwork.”
You will notice that I sort of lumped the idea of “working the steps” in with the idea of “personal growth and development.” There is also a third route which we might call “religious or faith based development” and ultimately I think all three of these paths converge to get the same basic results. There is no magic in the 12 steps, they do not have secret or mystical power, but they certainly do work if you put effort into them. Just as the other two methods will work great for you as well. Any of these three paths only work based on the hard work and effort that you put into them, not on any secret or mystical powers that they hold.
So if you are willing to follow a simple 2 step program rather than a 12 step program, it will still work out for you, provided you commit to it 100 percent. It’s quite simple:
1) Do not use drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Make positive changes in your life every single day. Push yourself for personal growth.
Now you could argue that this will never work well for the typical addict or alcoholic, but in fact it is sort of a summary of all of the three major methods discussed above. Even if you follow a religious program of recovery, you will still basically follow those two ideas in how you are living your new life in recovery.
Any system of recovery basically starts with abstinence as the baseline, then seeks to answer the question: “How can the addict or alcoholic deal with their every day life now that they are clean and sober?” One way is to make positive changes every day and keep making incremental progress. Another way is to work through the 12 steps of AA and incorporate them into your everyday life. Another way is to follow a religious program and start living by those principles and incorporating those into your life. But there is not necessarily a magic formula to any of these ideas, you simply commit to abstinence, then start taking action in order to learn how to live a sober life. Positive changes yield positive results. You can use a program, you can follow religion, you can follow the steps, or you can simply start taking positive action. So long as you commit 100 percent to abstinence and positive change, you will be successful. If you happen to break that commitment or stop taking positive action in your life, then you open yourself up to the possibility of relapse.
Did you relapse because the program failed you? Not really…..you failed yourself, because you broke your commitment to abstinence. All the program (or the steps, or religion) sought to do was to help you to deal with your life while sober. But it was not the program that failed you, it was the fact that you failed to maintain abstinence.
So if you still attend 12 step meetings, you have to ask yourself: “How am I really using these meetings in my life today? Am I using them to push me to grow and make positive changes? Or am I just showing up at them, talking about my day, using them as casual therapy, and not really making much personal growth in my life?”
If you are stagnant in your recovery then the trap of daily meetings can easily be a part of that complacency.
It is certainly possible to be making positive growth in your life while attending meetings. But many people do fall into a rut and just use them as a sort of “therapy maintenance,” and don’t really push themselves to grow in their recovery.
Ask yourself: Am I giving back to others in recovery?
Another question that you want to ask yourself, regardless of whether you attend meetings or not, is if you are giving back and helping other people in your recovery.
If you are not, then you are missing out on a key part of any recovery process, and you could certainly stand to take a look at this as an opportunity for you to grow and become stronger in your recovery.
I would say that, in the long run, this is one of the only real purposes of attending meetings–to give back to others and help them to find recovery. This is in stark contrast to the way that some people use meetings in the long run, as daily therapy.
At one point in my recovery I was chairing one meeting a week, and this was hugely beneficial to my recovery. At the time I was still fairly early and only had a few years in, but chairing that one meeting per week helped me to stay grounded.
Later on I shifted out of meetings and started getting into recovery online, both in attending meetings and in creating a recovery based website. But I still get emails every day from people who are seeking help with their recovery.
If you are attending daily meetings and you are not yet working with others in recovery, there is a serious imbalance there that you need to address. Stop using daily meetings as your “cure” for addiction, and start finding ways to work with other addicts and alcoholics in recovery who could benefit from your help. There is always someone coming through the doors who has less experience in recovery than you do. You can help that person. Doing so is going to be much more beneficial to you than sitting around in meetings all day and talking about your first world problems. Actually getting involved and working directly with others is going to be much more powerful for you than what daily meeting attendance will do.
People in the 12 step meetings generally have this part backwards. They believe that their salvation in meeting attendance, and they think that anyone who relapses is the person who “stopped coming to these meetings.” No, the person who relapses is the person who failed to do the work, to do the footwork, to work the steps, to seek spiritual growth, to seek personal growth, and so on. The meetings are not salvation, they are not the ultimate answer, we have simply made it out to seem that way.
Ask yourself: Am I pushing myself to make personal growth outside of meetings?
So ultimately you want to ask yourself the question, regardless of how many meetings you attend per week:
“Am I pushing myself to make personal growth and to take positive action in my life OUTSIDE of meetings?”
Because if you ARE doing that, if you are doing the footwork, if you are taking positive action or working the steps, then you have nothing to worry about when it comes to this so called “meeting dependency” stuff I am referring to. It is real, and some people ARE dependent on meetings for their sobriety. Trust me, there is a better way to live, and you do not want to stay stuck at that level of being dependent on meetings. If you are, it is certainly better than active addiction, don’t get me wrong, but it is nowhere near the ideal life of recovery that you could be living.
Real recovery is about personal growth, it is about challenging yourself to be a better person and to grow in such a way that you can help others, be an example to others, and live the best possible life that you can. Meetings can be a part of that, but they should not be the only focal point, and they certainly should not be the main pillar on which your recovery stands.
If they are, don’t fret! You can start taking positive action today that will lessen your dependency on meetings, even while you are still attending them. The prescription is to “start doing the work,” whatever that may be in your case. If you need suggestions, you could work with a sponsor, follow the steps, or use a holistic approach (which may involve exercise in your recovery). Or you could just start taking positive action every day.