How can you safely stop attending AA or NA meetings without relasping? And should you even try to do so? What is the advantage of not going to meetings every day?
I had many of these same questions myself about eleven years ago after I had spent about 6 to 12 months going to meetings every day. But the problem was that I really had no one that I could talk to about it at the time. Bringing up such concerns in an AA or NA meeting was frowned upon in a big way. At that time I sought discussion forums and chat rooms online where people in recovery had more unique ideas about how to remain sober. It was then that I started to learn that not everyone who stays sober forever does it using a 12 step program.
I ended up meeting lots of different people who had found alternative paths in recovery. I also started paying closer attention to the people that I met in the face to face world (not online) and realized that there were a handful of people who were in recovery but not depending on daily meetings for their sobriety.
For a number of reasons I started to resent the idea of the daily AA meeting. At first I stopped attending them so much and maybe went to one or two each week. But even then I still found myself resenting the fact that I was there, listening to people talk and not getting much out of it.
I did voice this concern with my sponsor and he suggested that I had a bad attitude about the situation. He said that if I was not getting anything out of an AA meeting that this was my own fault. Furthermore, my sponsor turned it around on me a bit and said “well, if the meeting is so terrible, what is it that you can bring to that meeting to improve it? How can you make a contribution? Are you not responsible to bring something positive to each meeting that you attend?”
So there was this factor of guilt when it came to leaving the meetings. But it was more than just that, because there was a great deal of fear as well.
If you have ever attended AA meetings then you know that the mantra is to “keep coming back.” The idea is that there is strength in the program and that if you stop attending the meetings then you are in danger of relapsing. So most everyone in AA and NA have this group mentality in which they find strength in the group and they do not want anyone to leave. If you look closely at this idea of someone leaving the meetings you will find three sources of fear:
1) First is that your peers in AA are worried that you will relapse. They have genuine concern for you.
2) Second is that your peers are afraid that if you leave AA it makes them weaker. This is partially true but is not an immediate threat to anyone (as there are plenty of people in 12 step programs).
3) Third is perhaps the most important and least admitted fear: that someone will leave AA and find a great life in sobriety without “a program.”
If you confront people with these ideas in AA or NA they will always disregard or deny the third fear. They will not want to admit this fear or even be able to realize that it is real. Nearly everyone denies it but they all feel it to some extent. They want for AA or NA to be the one true path, because that is the path that they have chosen to commit to. No one wants to admit that there may be another way (or perhaps even a better way) when they are already heavily invested into a solution.
Ask yourself: Should you stop attending meetings? Why?
This is not a light decision to make and you should never take it as being trivial. I thought long and hard for at least a full year before I finally drifted away from the daily meetings.
There are many advantages to going to daily meetings if this is what works for you. On the other hand there are many drawbacks to attending daily meetings as well. Each individual is going to have to find out if attending daily meetings is really the best strategy for their recovery.
This depends quite a bit on personality type. If you happen to be an extrovert then attending AA meetings every day is probably right up your alley. On the other hand if you are an introvert (like myself) then you may find yourself resenting the meetings, especially if you attend them every single day.
But the real question you need to ask yourself is: “How much are the meetings helping me to grow in my recovery?”
Many people who attend daily meetings do not use them in the proper way. They are not meant to be daily therapy or a venting session to help you get through to tomorrow without taking a drink. This is not the intention of AA meetings or what they were started for. Unfortunately this is really what they have come to these days due to their ubiquity.
The true intention of 12 step meetings is so that people can share their experience and others can learn how to live in recovery. Unfortunately most people use it as a therapy session instead. The problem in doing this is that it sort of works, and can be used as a tactic for remaining clean and sober.
“So what is the problem with that?” you ask. The problem is that it can create dependency on meetings. This comes with its own set of problems, not the least of which are:
1) Being dependent on meetings can mean that you might relapse if you suddenly miss a few (probably likely over a period of years or decades…will happen sooner or later).
2) Being dependent on meetings means that you are missing out on personal growth. (This is because in order to stay sober without a program, you must push yourself to create your own growth and success in life, rather than just venting about your problems each day).
Note that some people who attend AA are actually getting “the best of both worlds,” and they are not abusing the meetings but instead benefiting from them. My point is that this is not necessary, you can push yourself towards personal growth both in and out of AA meetings. You don’t necessarily need a 12 step program in order to make growth.
Safely determining the strength of your recovery without meetings
Fear was holding me back from leaving the meetings for a long time. During that time I experimented with going to less and less meetings.
To be honest, when I first started doing this (cutting back on meetings) I noticed that I felt different. I noticed that I was a bit off. I had more thoughts of using drugs and alcohol. I had more cravings, in other words. And I believe that I was usually in a worse mood when I had not attended meetings for a day or two.
Having noticed this, but also resenting the meetings, I vowed to figure out what was really going on. At first I just wanted to deny that I felt worse without going to meetings, but I quickly realized that such an approach would eventually get me into trouble, and probably just lead to relapse. I knew above all that I did not want to relapse.
Therefore I started to experiment with my recovery in terms of personal growth. My goal was to find out if I could replace the meetings and still feel good about myself. I looked ahead to a lifetime of daily meetings and thought to myself “there has to be a better way.”
So one of the things that I did at this point was to take a suggestion from a therapist I had and start exercising. This made a huge difference in my recovery and it turned out to be one of the pillars of my sobriety.
But it was more than just trading daily meetings for daily exercise. This is not the “trick” that allowed me to walk away from daily AA meetings without relapsing. Instead, regular exercise was just one part of the “trick” that led to my long term success without meetings.
Essentially what I did when I left the AA meetings was to isolate the changes and growth that people were making who were actively participating in AA. They were successful in staying sober, but why? I knew deep down that the 12 steps were not really a magical path of recovery or anything. I could clearly see that most people who stayed sober in AA were doing so based on the social support or their own personal growth efforts rather than on a magical path through the 12 steps.
Therefore I focused in on the idea that personal growth was the key to success in recovery. I could see that this was the truth, even if someone was devoted to the AA program they were still maintaining their sobriety based on personal growth and positive action. I started to believe that the 12 steps were rather arbitrary. In fact, I knew that they were somewhat arbitrary, I just could not put my finger on exactly how or why this was the case. But deep down I knew it to be true. And I knew that I could stay clean and sober if I pushed myself to make personal growth.
So my plan was to stop going to the AA meetings entirely. I had already cut back on them and was only attending maybe 2 or so each week, rather than to go every day. But I found myself staring at the clock even in those 2 meetings each week, and I did not like being put on the spot to “share” in these meetings every once in a while. I wanted to stop going entirely, and use my time to recover in my own way.
The problem was that I had a huge amount of fear based on the things that people were telling me in the meetings. They all told me that anyone who left the meetings would relapse and die. This was the message that I heard over and over again. So naturally I was quite cautious in wanting to leave the meetings. I had learned at least this much: When nearly everyone is telling you the same thing consistently, they are all usually right. Of course it turned out in this case they were all wrong, but I had to discover that for myself, and I had to do so very carefully.
So the way that I did it was to “check myself” as I went along. I was not just going to stop going to the meetings and then not pay any attention to myself, my progress, or my life situation. This would lead to directly to relapse. So instead, I became hyper-aware of my own recovery, and of the quality of my personal growth.
And in one way I sort of cheated a bit. Here is what I did:
I knew a young guy who was very confident and fairly smart, but he was always questioning me about why I did not go to more AA meetings. He was always cautioning me that I might relapse. Now he only had about six months sober and I had over three years, and he was also very dedicated to the AA program. He was in a very “hard core” sponsorship line and so he was very expressive about his opinions.
I saw this guy on a regular basis (just in passing) but we would chat a bit due to having a mutual friend. And we would argue about sobriety, about recovery, about what it really takes to stay clean and sober. It was these discussions that allowed me to refine my thoughts on this. At the time, I was about to leave the meetings entirely, and I had already cut back to almost nothing. And this guy was challenging me, saying that I was bound to relapse unless I returned to the meetings.
So I started to work hard on my personal growth, so that I had some ammunition for my talks with this guy. This was why I say that I “cheated.” It was not that I was cheating, it was that I was pushing myself to take more positive action just so that I could tell this guy that I was confident in my own recovery, even without AA meetings! I was motivated to take action just so I would have a good defense against the naysayers. This was what motivated me for a short time.
While I was doing this, I discovered the secret to sobriety. I started jogging on a regular basis, I quit smoking cigarettes, I went back to college, and I started a small business on the side. I was taking positive action every single day, and my life was starting to get really, really good. And so I sort of stumbled on the “secret”—that you can build an awesome life in recovery without AA, without a structured program. But in order to do so you have to take positive action every single day. You don’t get to be lazy and kick your feet up and get good results.
And I believe that many people who flock to AA are of the type that they will not push themselves to take lots of positive action. They need someone else to push them. This is why they go to AA and need a sponsor. They lack the motivation to push themselves into positive action, into successful recovery.
Finding alternatives for support and networking in sobriety
Check the links at the top of Spiritual River and you will find one that leads to a recovery forum. There you can find a small community that his helping each other to stay clean and sober. The amazing thing is that there is real value in this, just as there can be real value in a face to face AA meeting.
I know that there is value in recovery discussion forums because when I was in my second year of recovery I started attending them and contributing. I noticed that it helped my recovery in the same way that a face to face meeting might help other people. I found a community of people recovering online and I became friends with them. You can do the same if you think it might help your recovery effort. Even if you are not sure if it will help, it might be worth a try.
If you are thinking of leaving AA or NA meetings then you might use this tactic. Discover an online recovery forum, get involved with it, and then use it as your “safety net” while you make the transition to a meeting-free life.
Online recovery forums certainly helped me in this regard.
Exchanging personal growth for outside support
One the key concepts in leaving the meetings for good is in exchanging one tactic for another.
When you attend AA meetings every single day, you are using them in order to try to stay clean and sober. How does this work? There is more than one benefit of attending meetings each day, but one way is that you simply get support from the group as you talk about your problems. We might call this tactic “talk therapy.” Now whether or not that is the intended use of the meetings is besides the point, this is what they have essentially become. People who go to AA meetings every single day of their lives start to depend on them to help them stay sober on a daily basis. If they had only attended once per week right from the start of their recovery, then the nature of this “meeting dependency” would be much less. But because they go every single day, the dependency on meetings is formed because of the daily habit.
The strategy that you want to embrace is to exchange that dependency for the concept of personal growth. Instead of relying on a daily meeting to keep you sober, you want to depend on daily positive action. In other words, you need to motivate yourself each day in order to take positive action.
Some people go to an AA meeting each day, pat themselves on the back, and feel good about their recovery.
You want to switch that to:
I took positive action towards my personal growth today. I am moving forward and making progress in my recovery without meetings. I feel good about my recovery.
Now obviously you do not want to delude yourself. You do not want to lie to yourself that you feel good about your recovery even when you may be struggling. That is not the point. The point is that you want to be highly motivated to take positive action every day. When someone in AA confronts you and says: “Hey there, I am concerned about your sobriety because you are not going to meetings any more” you want to be able to respond with:
Yes, I am no longer attending meetings, but instead I am taking positive action in my life by:
* Working with other addicts and alcoholics in an online forum.
* Exercising on a regular basis.
* Pushing myself to take positive action every day.
* Helping others and working with those who may be struggling.
And so on. You want to have plenty of “ammo” when you answer their concerns. In fact, you want to be taking more positive action in your life than most people are in AA.
This was my approach anyway. Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest reason on my part, but it led to an important discovery for my own journey: that I needed to take positive action and I had to motivate myself to do so.
If you want to safely stop attending meetings then you need to take a pro-active strategy in doing so. Try to overcompensate in terms of taking positive action and motivating yourself to make personal growth. Go overboard in terms of pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life. Don’t let the AA fear mongering crowd be right about you leaving the meetings.