Smashing Misconceptions and One-Dimensional Thinking Regarding Traditional Recovery

Smashing Misconceptions and One-Dimensional Thinking Regarding Traditional Recovery


Yesterday we looked at how to avoid complacency using the cycle of growth and reflection. Today we want to smash some of the common misconceptions that are popular in mainstream recovery.

Traditional recovery is full of people with opinions, warnings, and conclusions about how recovery really works.

Everyone thinks they have the answers and their fear typically keeps them stuck in a one-dimensional mindset.

The truth is that a lot of the “truth” that you hear at the meetings is just plain wrong.

Let’s smash through some of the lies.

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“Meeting makers make it, and those who make it, make meetings.”

FALSE. I had to go to many meetings for a over a year straight before I realized that this was misleading. Many of the people who kept showing up to meetings DID periodically relapse, and to my dismay these were the folks who seemed most eager to speak up and hold the meeting hostage. How is this really helping anyone? Instead of being a therapy session for a chronic relapser, it would be nice if those who struggled actually listened at the meetings rather than using it as a platform for therapy.

The flip side of this equation also turned out to be true for some people–that those who avoid meetings are not necessarily doomed to relapse. This is the idea that they want you to believe in AA so that you “keep coming back.” But at some point you might have to question the use of your time.

I can remember that my sponsor in recovery used to argue with me when I was considering leaving the meetings, and he would say “Look here, a meeting is only an hour a day. Just one hour each day and you are helping to insure that you stay clean and sober.”

Two things, about that:

1) You are not any more insured to stay clean and sober, as I found out after watching dozens of people relapse while still attending meetings (and some others stay clean and sober without any meetings at all in some cases).

2) An hour each day is a lot!

Does that sound whiny and nit-picky? If you add in the travel time to and from the daily meeting, you are looking at a time investment of over one continuous month out of every year, sitting in meetings! Seriously, do the math. Two hours per day is over a month out of each year. That is an enormous time investment and unless you are getting a tremendous benefit from it then you are wasting your time.

Does that mean that everyone should leave AA? Not necessarily. But you have to look carefully at what is really working for you in your recovery, and how much you benefit from it. Do not just blindly accept the idea that a lifetime of daily meetings will keep you sober. Perhaps they will keep you sober but also miserable? Sometimes relapse can be a gift that kicks you back onto a better path, one in which you get excited about life again.

Let’s put this another way:

If you have to go to a meeting every single day to remain sober, then your sobriety needs a lot of work! It’s weak. You are dependent on meetings for your sobriety. Isn’t dependency something that we would like to have LESS of in recovery?

The alternative of course is to take action and push yourself to make personal growth, taking positive action every day. This does not necessarily have to be within the confines of a “program.” If you need the structure in order to get through early recovery, that is one thing. But if you still depend on your daily AA meeting after a few years, what kind of growth is that? I would call it a lack of growth. Recovery should make you stronger, not weaker.

Meetings are not the problem. But dependency on meetings is a sure sign of a problem. Meeting makers relapse, quite frequently. And those who avoid meetings can and do stay sober.

“I tried everything before coming to AA and nothing worked. AA is the only thing that works for me.”

FALSE. You tried many different things in your journey, and after you tried AA you settled for what seemed to be working for you.

After you find your solution, you don’t keep seeking a further solution, do you? So AA was simply the last thing that you tried. There are other alternatives that you probably never gave a chance too.

One of those alternatives is what I would call “creative recovery.” This is my own personal philosophy of recovery (and apparently it is not original, others have worked this out before I did) but the basic idea is that you can recover based on personal growth and creating the life you want, rather than the experience you had in active addiction.

Transitioning into Creative Recovery is not easy, and in my opinion requires a massive amount of disruption in your life. I had to go live in treatment for a while, and even after leaving long term rehab I was still seeking this path of “creative personal growth.”

You want an alternative to traditional recovery? I’ll give you an alternative in 2 simple steps:

1) Don’t use alcohol or addictive drugs NO MATTER WHAT.
2) Take positive action every day to improve your life and grow as a person.

When you were still stuck in addiction or alcoholism, did you give this simple two step program a fair chance? Of course not. You couldn’t, because you were trapped in the cycle of addiction. In order to climb out of that trap you have to get some help, and for me that help came in the form of rehab. I had to get my bearings and get stable in recovery before I could set out on a path of personal growth and development.

But make no mistake–I have stayed clean and sober over the last 11+ years based on my journey of personal growth. The AA program may be the framework that you use to make personal growth, but it is not the secret sauce that produces sobriety–that is up to the positive action you take and the changes that you make.

There is no secret formula or magic in recovery–long term sobriety becomes possible when you make positive changes and take action every day for a long period of time. This can occur both in and out of AA.

Take that simple two-step program and dedicate your life to it, and you’ll get the same quality of sobriety that you get from 12 step recovery.

“Alcoholism and addiction are diseases that require a spiritual experience/religious conversion to overcome.”

FALSE. The main problem here is that the words themselves are troublesome. “Spiritual experience” is not to be defined as falling down on your knees and having some blinding light speak voices at you.

We all have baggage when it comes to the word “spiritual.” We all have a past that forces us to have our own opinions and viewpoints when it comes to all things religious, spiritual, or mystical.

The main problem in recovery is that our “conventional ideas” and our preconceived notions about what is really “spiritual” is almost completely irrelevant to our recovery.

Recovery is about action and making positive changes in our life. Period. If you don’t make positive changes then you will end up going back to the old, the familiar, the comfortable. This will result in relapse. You either move forward and make positive changes or you sit idle and drift dangerously closer to a relapse.

“Spiritual condition” can be so broadly defined as to be almost completely useless. It doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means when they first get into recovery.

For example, a huge part of my own “spiritual condition” (if you want to call it that) has to do with running. I run six miles every other day and I do it outdoors and it takes about an hour. The day that I got clean and sober I would not have thought that this is “spiritual.” But in reality such activity gets me closer to my higher power than sitting in church does (by the way, many monks actually agree with this, and thus many of them exercise rather than meditate!).

But when you talk about such ideas with mainstream recovery, the people will not hear of it. They have their preconceived notion of what “spiritual” is and I am not about to change their minds.

So what is the answer? To some extent, the program has it right when it says “everyone is free to find their own higher power.” But on the other hand, we also have to define “prayer and meditation” in step eleven because 99 percent of AA believes this is either done on your knees or in the lotus position.

If you peel enough layers back you will find that having a spiritual experience is not vital to recovery, but rather it is the personality change that matters. This is harder to explain and definitely harder to instruct, however, but it is still closer to the truth. If you make positive changes in your life every day for a long time and fully commit to recovery, you will get the same (or better) results than spiritual/religious conversion. And in the end it may all come down to semantics anyway.

Bottom line: you don’t need religious conversion. What you need is a shift in personality. This can be accomplished without having a pseudo religion or “traditional spirituality” crammed down your throat.

“The 12 step program is the only hope for recovery.”

FALSE. There are many recovery programs out there, and thousands of people can and so recover without traditional 12 step programs. Just look at the massive abandonment rate that the AA Census figures provide: nearly 90 percent of everyone who attends an AA meeting leave within the first year and never come back. Ever. That is a whole lot of people out there, some of which find other ways to deal with their problem of addiction.

There are also other structured recovery programs outside of the 12 step philosophy, though none of these are anywhere near as popular. And sure, some of the people in those programs relapse too. But ultimately there are options. There are other ways to embrace recovery. One such way is to figure out what is working for you and design your own personal path in recovery. I call this “creative recovery.”

“You will relapse and die if you leave the 12 step program.”

FALSE. I left almost ten years ago and I have neither relapsed nor died yet. In fact I have enjoyed an amazing past decade and my life continues to get better and better. For the most part I have slipped into a comfortable cycle: I fluctuate between pushing myself towards a new goal, then I pause for a while and enjoy life and reflect on that goal. But I always have an idea in the back of my mind for what I want to accomplish next.

It took me at least 2 or 3 months after I had decided that I wanted to leave AA to actually do it. This is because of the intense fear-based mentality in AA that if anyone leaves the program they will surely relapse.

This has to do with selection bias. AA is a self selecting group. Think carefully for a moment about what this really means.

It means that when someone relapses in AA, then disappear for a while, then four months (or four years) later they come crawling back into the rooms, everyone in AA sees them come back in and they listen to the tale of relapse. Of course the person who came crawling back says “AA is the only thing that ever worked for me, and I was a fool to ever leave, and now I know better.”

Because AA is a self selecting group, they see this story play out over and over again. What they DON’T see are the people like me, who left AA almost ten years ago and are doing great with Creative Recovery. They never see the success stories, only the failures. Thus they have selection bias, and they are seriously misled when they say things like “everyone who leaves AA will eventually relapse, and some of them will die, and some will come crawling back to the rooms.”

Because they are self selecting, they leave out the other possibility: “Some will go on to create their own path in recovery and no longer be dependent on daily AA meetings.”

“The only way to maintain sobriety is to work with recovering addicts/alcoholics.”

FALSE. So called “12 step work” in working with others in recovery is but ONE way for a person to maintain sobriety. This is just the best way for AA to spread and propagate (which was obviously important in the early days of AA, but is not longer an issue now).

There are many ways to make personal growth in recovery. There are also many ways to help others and make a positive impact on the world without directly working with others in recovery.

We are not limited to 12 step work. There is meaning and purpose in other things as well.

“The fellowship of AA may not be perfect, but the 12 steps are.”

FALSE. Imagine a program of recovery that has the following two steps:

Step one: Don’t use alcohol or addictive drugs no matter what.
Step two: If you get a craving, stand on your head for 30 seconds.

Now, realize that this fictitious program of recovery works JUST AS WELL AS AA, so long as you follow it perfectly.

Anyone who relapses obviously did not follow these two steps perfectly, otherwise they would not have relapsed (reread step one if you are confused as to why this is true!).

This same logic is being used to try to convince you that the 12 steps have magical powers.

“The fellowship may fail you, but the 12 steps are magically perfect. If you follow them, you will never relapse!”

Well, duh. Of course not–not when total abstinence is implied in them from the start.

But this is neither magical nor mystical. And, it does not necessarily mean that the 12 steps are the optimal path to recovery.

“….acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.”

FALSE. Acceptance is one possible reaction to your problems today. Another possible reaction is to get off your tail and take serious action.

This is why my philosophy of “creative recovery” involves a cycle….it is a cycle between accepting life and enjoying it, and then pushing yourself to grow and make positive changes. Depending on where you are at in your journey you may need to do one or the other (growth or reflection/enjoyment).

I have seen one to many people in recovery use the idea of “acceptance” to justify their laziness. I avoided relapse because I worked hard and I pushed myself. But in every case where I pushed myself, I could have easily said “maybe I just need to take it easy, and practice some acceptance here.”

Everyone pays lip service to the Serenity prayer, but very few actually apply it in their lives (as in, find out what you really need to do, then go tackle it).

“Nobody can do it alone.”

FALSE. It may be true that no one can do it alone in the beginning. I had to seek help myself, quite a bit of it in fact. I got this help via rehab though, not through daily meetings.

As my recovery progressed I realized that all I had done was to shift my dependency from addiction to recovery meetings. What good was the formation of another dependency in my life? I thought I was trying to eliminate those.

That was when I realized that my recovery was only strong if I could create positive changes through my own actions and initiative, rather than relying on “group accountability” or a sponsor looking over my shoulder. Those things may help some people but in the long run they seemed like a liability to me, and I wanted to get to the core of what really helped people to stay clean and sober.

My observations led me to the idea that personal growth and personal commitment were the two ideas that would make or break a person’s recovery. The group support and the daily meetings and the accountability could help in the sort run, but in the long run people would still relapse if they were lacking either that personal commitment to sobriety OR the personal growth and the daily positive actions that were necessary to keep relapse at bay.

I discovered that real recovery was a result of change, commitment, and positive action.

They have a saying that “willpower is not enough to overcome addiction.” They are both right and wrong in this statement.

Willpower ALONE is not enough. If your idea is to not change anything about your life EXCEPT to remove the drugs and booze, then willpower is never going to be enough. That much is true.

But willpower is plenty if you are using your will to reshape your life in a positive way. Maybe you will need rehab at the start like I did, and maybe you will not. But in long term recovery you are going to have to have a certain amount of commitment and discipline (read: willpower) that will allow you to make the positive changes in life that you need to make.

By traditional recovery definitions, I am currently “doing it alone.” I don’t go to meetings or talk regularly with a sponsor or have outside dependencies. But I still take positive action on a regular basis and even seek feedback and advice from others at times.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

FALSE. Think back to the “stand on your head program of recovery.” That actually works perfectly, but does that mean it is the optimal solution? Of course not.

There is a better way in recovery, and that way has to do with seeking personal growth and making positive changes.

Disclaimer: If AA or NA is working great for you, then don’t change a thing. The ideas presented here are for people who resent the daily meetings and wonder if there is a better path in life. There is, and it is to create your own personal growth in recovery, without depending on meetings to do it.


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