My early recovery depended heavily on twelve step programs, and yet I have not really been a part of them for about ten years now. I want to go through my story carefully here and outline exactly what role 12 step programs played in my recovery.
Some people will probably see this as being a negative article but I will try to hard to present it as honestly as possible, without injecting too many opinions. Of course I do have my opinions about the twelve step program and so I have my own personal bias but I will try to present things honestly and fairly.
My personal belief is that successful addiction recovery is all about growth. You have to learn a new way to live and you have to start doing something different. Relapse prevention is all about training yourself to use new solutions, rather than just to revert to your old tricks which was to always self medicate. Some addicts and alcoholics can get what they need from a 12 step program and others will want to find another path to sobriety.
My initial fear of AA
I have to admit that I was terrified of AA meetings right from the outset. The first 12 step meeting that I went to set the stage for this and made me realize just how much I hated being put on the spot and having to speak in front of other people.
Now when I complained of this, people tried to reassure me that I would not be put on the spot, and that I did not really have to “make a speech” at every meeting if I did not choose to do so. But these people who argued this failed to realize that this was not the problem. The problem was when they would go around in a circle, sharing one at a time, and then it fell on me finally. I don’t care if I could just pass and not share. I STILL HAD TO SPEAK. I still had to say something and pass. This was horribly awkward for me regardless. Speech or no speech. It did not matter. I hated the attention and the spotlight. Because even if you choose to pass and not share that day, everyone in the room is still looking at you and listening to you for a brief moment. And it is awkward to say that you do not want to share.
So that is what my fear of AA was based on and even years later after I forced myself to attend lots of meetings and even chair some of them and run them and was forced to speak and to share something significant at them, this fear never really went away and I always hated this anxiety. It never got any easier even though I was facing the fear head on and chairing a regular meeting every week in which I had to speak at length. I did this for about two years straight in an effort to make progress with my anxiety. Perhaps I did make some growth there but to me it was ultimately not worth it as there were easier ways for me to work a recovery program rather than to share in meetings every day.
But before I could even try to get clean and sober I had to deal with this fear of AA. I told people that I would rather drink myself to death rather than to go back to AA. So this was a serious block to my recovery when I was still stuck in my addiction.
Surrendering enough to not care about the fear
The way that I finally got past my intense fear of AA meetings was to simply stop caring. I had to become miserable enough in my disease that I no longer really cared much about my anxiety with meetings.
And so this eventually happened. I became miserable enough due to excessive drinking that I agreed to go back to rehab, knowing full well that it would entail group therapy, knowing full well that they would have me going to 12 step meetings while I was in treatment. The point is that I just did not care. Even though I had firmly stated that I would rather die before I went back to AA, I had got to a point of misery and despair in my addiction that I just did not care any more. Honestly it just took too much energy to get riled up about AA any more and I was just so beat down from the misery and chaos of addiction that I had lost the will to care about it. This was real surrender. I was ready to accept any solution.
So I went back to rehab for the third time in my life and I sat in AA meetings at this treatment center and I started to soak it all up again. I learned to deal with the anxiety and I learned to manage the anxiety but I still sort of resent the fact that it never really went away, that even though I faced this fear head on and went to hundreds of meetings in the first two years it just never really got easy. Other people seemed to share so freely in meetings and they would talk at length and in some cases you would think that they would never stop talking. But for me it was always an effort, I was always nervous to speak, and it never got to the point where it was easy and carefree. The anxiety was always there for me.
Getting help and support from lots of meetings
So I attended AA and NA meetings for the first 18 months of my recovery. After that I stopped going entirely and now it has been over eleven years total clean time in recovery. But during those first 18 months I was attending meetings pretty much every day.
Did they help me in my recovery? Well, yes and no.
For starters, I did not have a choice. I was living in long term rehab and part of the requirements for living there was to attend meetings every day. So I had to attend meetings in order to keep living in long term rehab.
Second of all I was making this transition into a new life, and a huge part of that was about people and relationships. My old life was filled with people who I used drugs and alcohol with. This new life had to somehow replace all of those people with those who would be clean and sober. So part of this was about fellowship and community and finding people who were clean and sober. But to be fair, the meetings did not really do this so much as the long term rehab did this for me. In other words, I got more benefit from the friends I made in rehab than I did from the friends that I met at the meetings. In fact I am still friends with several of the people from the long term rehab, but I do not associate with any of the people today that I met in meetings eleven years ago. Maybe that would be different if I still attended meetings? I don’t know. The bottom line here is that I built a new network of friends based on long term rehab and the people I met there, rather than from the people I met in meetings.
Now the next question is, did the meetings help me from a therapeutic standpoint? Again, this is a mixed bag, but I would tend to say that mostly “no,” the meetings did not necessarily help me all that much. Now I do not want to mislead here and be negative, so allow me to clarify.
I have a unique personality and because of my aversion to speaking in front of people and because I tend to learn quickly and tire of hearing the same things repeated over and over again, the typical format of daily meetings may not be the best match for me personally. But this does not mean that they cannot help me or that they did not help me. They just were not the best choice in recovery for me or the best use of my time. What I mean by this is that I COULD get a lot of benefit out of AA meetings if that were my goal, and if I chose to dedicate my recovery efforts to getting benefit out of meetings. I believe that anyone who is serious about recovery and really wants for it to work can probably make daily AA meetings work for them if they so choose.
However that does not make them the best solution for my recovery necessarily. It is all about what you do to recover and how you spend your time and what you do in order to build your new life in recovery. For some people this may mean that they go to meeting every day and share deeply and honestly at them and build a network of friends there. But for other people in recovery they may find another path, one that is much more beneficial to them.
I am not saying that AA meetings had no therapeutic value for me at all. What I am saying is that they did not really have enough value to justify the use of my time. I could be doing other things in my recovery that would give me more benefit. Sure, I could go to meetings. Heck, if I wanted to, I could go to 3 meetings every single day of my life. Should I? Well that is a question of time management. Would I stay sober if I did that? You bet I would. But is that really the right path for me in recovery? I say “no.”
What I noticed over time was that I had these cravings and urges in my recovery. They were not huge urges or anything but I would notice that here and there throughout my day I might think about doing drugs or drinking alcohol. When this happened it was no big deal and I was not in any danger of relapsing, but what would happen is that I would romanticize the idea of getting high and then realize that I was in recovery now, and this would depress me. It made me feel bad.
What meetings did for me was to block this tendency to romanticize drug and alcohol use. What I mean by this is that IF I went to a 12 step meeting that day, it would likely be at least 24 hours thereafter in which I would be naturally “protected” from drifting into one of these romanticizing fantasies about drug or alcohol use. So I would not become miserable by reminiscing about getting drunk and high. Going to a meeting protected me from that, because it put me in the right “mindset” to avoid thinking about drugs and alcohol in that old way.
This was the only tangible benefit that I was getting from meeting attendance in those first 18 months.
At some point I realized that I was depending on the meetings to help keep my mindset away from glorifying drug and alcohol use.
In the old days when I used drugs I glorified their use and I practically worshiped the idea of getting high. I had to shift this attitude in recovery and it took over a year to really do so. Going to the meetings was a way to “patch” this thinking and keep me in line. But I wanted to be free of this dependence on meetings to get my thinking straight.
So I started to watch my mind. I attempted to step back and watch my brain objectively. I attempted to raise my consciousness by recognizing when I was glorifying drug or alcohol use, when I was romanticizing drug or alcohol use, or when I was thinking back to “the good times” when I used to get drunk or high. I fully realized that these brief moments were what was keeping me dependent on meetings.
So I recognized this and I shut it down. I put a full stop to it. Whenever I would notice my mind starting to romanticize drug or alcohol use, I simply stopped it dead in its tracks and made myself shift to something else. I no longer GAVE MYSELF PERMISSION to fantasize about getting drunk or high. That was over. Any slight inkling in that direction and I simply shut it down mentally. This became my “zero tolerance policy.”
After doing this for several months it became second nature. I had made a decision to change my mindset and my attitude. I simply had to raise my consciousness a tiny bit in order to realize when my brain was trying to remember “the good times.” Then I simply made a pact with myself that when I noticed this happening I would shut it down instantly.
Thus, no more misery from remembering the good times. No more fantasizing about how nice it would be to get high just one more time. I put an end to all of that by making a decision to do so.
Thus I was now doing for myself what the daily 12 step meetings used to do for me. I was no longer dependent on a daily meeting in order to keep thoughts of using and random triggers at bay. I could now effectively deal with them myself.
Working with sponsors and working the steps
I worked with two different sponsors in recovery and to some extent I am still working with one. We do not really get active with discussing or working the steps any more but we still do talk occasionally.
I do not necessarily believe in sponsorship as being a critical component of recovery. Rather, I believe it can be a more informal relationship where someone simply helps the newcomer in recovery. I do not think that the formal sponsor/sponsee relationships that we have today are really necessary. I did not put a lot of energy into my relationships with sponsors and I so I did not get a ton of benefit out of it.
It is just like with the meetings….someone who throws themselves heavily into a sponsorship relationship is more likely to get massive benefit out of it. So it is not that I am declaring sponsorship to be useless or anything. If that is where you put your energy then it will probably work out well for you (provided you pick an excellent sponsor!). Rather it is all a matter of priorities and how you want to spend your time and energy in recovery. If you use a sponsor as your major lifeline in recovery then you are probably going to rave about the benefits of sponsorship. If you don’t really rely on a sponsor to help keep you clean and sober then you will probably not see them as being integral to a recovery journey (like myself).
It also might be hard for me to really judge the importance of sponsorship and meetings in early recovery because I was ALSO living in long term rehab for the first 20 months of my recovery. That is a very intensive environment and I was living with 11 other guys who were all in recovery and we talked, a lot. We had a “smoke room” and we would all hang out in this room at all hours of the day (when we were home) and we would talk about anything and everything. Some of the best recovery discussions I ever had were in that smoke room, outside of meetings.
I realize now that most people who recover probably are not living in rehab like I was. They don’t have a “smoke room” like I had where they could talk recovery on an informal basis every single day.
So on the one hand, I tend to discount things like sponsorship, AA, the fellowship, and so on. I perhaps do not give them the full credit that they deserve, because I had this other major advantage in my early recovery. I lived in rehab for the first 20 months. This was “cheating” in a way. I had the advantage of “smoke room therapy.”
After leaving the long term rehab at 20 months sober, I basically left meetings, sponsorship trailed off sharply, and I started seeking my own path in recovery. I focused on personal growth and making positive changes in my life, and I have remained clean and sober over the last eleven years.
So for the first 20 months I had this very intense recovery program. It consisted of sponsorship, daily 12 step meetings, living in rehab, talking about recovery almost all the time, and so on. But then for the last 9 years of my recovery I have left all of that behind and I have done my own thing. I have pushed myself to exercise, to go back to school, to build a business, and so on. I have found other ways to grow as a person outside of traditional recovery programs (including AA meetings, sponsorship, the fellowship, etc.).
I tell you all this in the interest of accuracy. I relied heavily on AA and meetings and sponsorship for the first 20 months of my journey, because that is what I was told to do. For the last 9 years, however, I have done something else entirely–something that works for ME, not necessarily for everyone else.
How do you spend your time in recovery?
When I first stopped attending AA meetings every day (like everyone else I knew at the time in recovery was doing), they all tended to ask me:
“Why have you stopped going to meetings?”
“Aren’t you going to relapse now?”
“Why don’t you just go to a meeting each day so that you make sure you don’t relapse?”
My answer to this is:
“Sure, I could go to a meeting every day. I could actually work it out so that I could go to two meetings every day if I had to.”
But the point is this:
How do I spend my time in recovery? How do I spend my time living my new life of recovery?
I take positive action every day. I carry my message of recovery in my own way, outside of meetings. Do what works for you.
I have watched many people relapse while still attending meetings. I have found another path, and it is working for me. And it has been working now for over a decade.
So, I spend my time in recovery doing the things that work for me.
How do you spend your time in recovery? And is it working out for you?