Are there Flaws with Traditional Alcohol Recovery Approaches?

Are there Flaws with Traditional Alcohol Recovery Approaches?


No system of recovery is perfect, but it is my belief that “mainstream” recovery has some flaws. This is just my opinion of course and the ideas presented here are only to reflect what has worked well for me and what has not. The idea is not so much to tear down existing systems but to introduce an alternate way of problem solving. In order to do that at times you have to figure out what is not working so well for you.

This is exactly what I had to explore when I was in early recovery and I was exposed to the “traditional path” of daily AA meetings, sponsorship, and so on. It was working on one level but I did not see it working out for me in the long run. I said to myself “this is nice, and it has helped me in some ways, but I don’t see myself still doing this in ten years. I need to find a new path.”

And so I set out to find a new path. At the time this was a huge risk for me because everyone in traditional recovery told me that I was headed for relapse. They genuinely cared about me and they did not want to see me stumble and relapse. I later learned that those people who warned me about relapse were really reacting to their own fears about safety and security in recovery. They were projecting their fear of relapse onto me. Some of them were also subconsciously threatened by the idea that someone might walk away from traditional recovery (AA program) and be able to make it work on their own. No one admits to this threat consciously, it is more of a subconscious fear that you don’t even realize. I uncovered that fear in my own life and started to question it, asking myself over and over again: “What is really keeping me sober today? Is it this AA meeting that I am sitting through? What is the secret to my sobriety right now?”

I had to dig to find the answers to those questions. And I found the answers–you can read about those answers all over this website: Personal growth, holistic health, the daily practice, positive action. These are the major themes that I have explored and they are my solution for long term sobriety. They are the answer to complacency. But I had to discover those answers slowly over time as I began to question the wisdom behind traditional recovery programs.

Again, I am not pointing out flaws in order to bash any particular program. I only do so because this was part of the thinking process that led me to my own revelations in my recovery journey. This is what I had to learn in order to achieve long term sobriety. Traditional recovery was not a good fit for me; these flaws listed below are the reason why. Maybe they are not so much flaws in the program as they are points that I differ on–they are not compatible with my personality. But if that is the case then I am sure there are other alcoholics and drug addicts who can relate.

Flaw number one: Emphasizing spirituality over holistic strategies

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There is a strong push in traditional recovery on the idea that spirituality is the solution. It is not just part of the solution, it is the entire solution. “If they solution isn’t spiritual, then it isn’t practical,” as it says in the Big Book of AA. The program is about cultivating a spiritual experience through prayer, meditation, and other means.

In my opinion this is a major flaw in the program. The focus on spirituality comes at the expense of other forms of personal growth.

Let me break it down for you as I have done so many times before:

You can grow in recovery in (at least) the following five ways:

1) Spiritually.
2) Physically.
3) Mentally.
4) Emotionally.
5) Socially.

There are also derivatives of these ideas and ways to combine them. But to focus entirely on spiritual growth at the expense of all others is a mistake.

I started to figure this out slowly as I was entering my second year of sobriety. It was like a smack in the face because I was surrounded by lots of peers in recovery who were on the same journey I was on, and many of them were getting sick. Physically sick. Diseases and illnesses and injuries.

And I noticed something important: these illnesses and diseases often led to relapse. Or even worse, they led to death. This was happening over and over again in my world. I was noticing peers in recovery who were–I thought–far more spiritual than I was, yet they were being tripped up in their sobriety due to physical health issues.

This was a wake up call for me. Here I was, believing that the solution was entirely spiritual, and there was all of this evidence piling up in which (perhaps my higher power?) was trying to teach me that this isn’t the case. Don’t prioritize spiritual growth at the expense of all else, it wasn’t working. I watched too many people fail this way.

And so this gave birth to the idea that….hey wait a minute! The solution is holistic. It is not just spiritual. The real solution in recovery is personal growth, in all of its forms.

Yes, spiritual growth is a part of that process. But it is not the whole thing.

And therein lies the flaw:

In traditional recovery (AA), the entire process focuses on spiritual growth.

That’s the whole program. It’s a spiritual program focusing on spiritual growth.

But recovery is not spiritual. It is holistic. And it took me a few years of struggling through my own recovery journey to really see that truth.

I had to watch some people die. I had close friends in recovery, some very close friends in fact, who passed away far too young.

I had some other close peers in early recovery who relapsed, drifted away, went back to the chaos and the misery.

And so I was slowly observing all of this and piecing together my own ideas about what really works in recovery.

And that was how the evolution of my own personal recovery philosophy unfolded. I watched my peers, I watched others in recovery, and I saw what wasn’t working.

I also looked “to the winners” in recovery to see what was working. And often times it was so much more than just spiritual growth.

I have a sponsor in recovery that always used to mystify me. I used to think to myself “I don’t know what to make of this guy, he doesn’t seem to be really huge on the spiritual stuff, but he has everything else going for him in life, and he makes total sense.” So I worked with him for several years (technically he is still my sponsor, talk with him every once in a while), and he was showing me–not telling me this, but showing it to me–that the solution really is holistic.

I couldn’t see that when I was working side by side with him. I couldn’t see that when he was telling me to go back to college and finish up my degree, when I thought I should be worried about spirituality instead. I couldn’t see it back then, but I can look back and see the lessons now. The solution is holistic, not spiritual.

Keep in mind, too, that the holistic approach to recovery includes spiritual growth. It simply expands on that and also includes other forms of personal growth as well.

Flaw number two: Teaching group dependence rather than empowering individuals

Again, not so much a flaw as it is a personality preference.

I never liked sharing in AA meetings, though I forced myself to do it hundreds of times. I even chaired a meeting in a treatment center for about two years straight, once per week. That was challenging for me and it did get a little bit easier to talk in front of others, but only a little bit.

Ultimately I prefer other ways to connect to people in recovery. And I have found many ways to do so outside of the traditional format: Go to meetings every day, get a sponsor, etc.

I have heard people say in AA meetings before:

“These daily AA meetings are like my medicine. If I don’t get them, eventually I get sick again. So I have to keep coming back.”

And I used to hear that and think to myself: “Something is a bit off in that logic.” I could not put my finger on it for a long time, because everyone around me was “drinking the kool aid, so to speak.” In other words, all of my peers were on the same bandwagon, believing that daily AA meeting attendance was part of the solution. They simply accepted it.

Later on as I evolved in my own journey I figured out what was putting me off about that statement.

I did not like the dependency that was inherent in that idea. The idea that you have to keep going to AA meetings every day or face the threat of relapse.

That was not right. I knew there was a flaw there.

Read the book! Read the big book of AA. Read through that entire book and read the stories and see what they say about daily meeting attendance.

Back when the big book of AA was written, they generally did not have AA meetings every night of the week. They were lucky to meet two days out of a full week in most cities and towns. They were not as ubiquitous as they are today.

So what was different? What was the success rate back then in the early days of AA? Depending on who you ask and what data you are looking at, the success rate was arguably a lot higher back then. And yet they only had access to maybe one or two meetings each week in most towns.

So what was different? They were doing the work, for one thing. Many times they would take a newcomer through all of the steps in a single afternoon. Then they would get that newcomer helping others in recovery right away. Service work. Action. Not just sitting in AA meetings every day.

To me, this indicates a flaw in modern day AA. People rely on the meetings to get them through each 24 hour period. If they skip a meeting one day then they get all antsy and the notice it. They notice more cravings.

This is not good. If you are depending on daily meetings for your sobriety then you are not very stable in recovery. I wanted more than that for myself.

I noticed this when I was still living in long term treatment, and we were given the option (after 90 days) of going to only 3 AA meetings each week. So I started to go every other day, and I noticed that I felt different on the days that I did not attend. I felt more cravings, more thoughts of drinking. And I realized that they were right, that the daily meetings helped.

But I did not accept this. And I wanted to change it.

So I did.

I started to explore my recovery, I started to develop a new theory of what was actually keeping me clean and sober, and I started to take care of myself in new ways.

This was a process and a journey. Within a few months, I was not attending any AA meetings and I no longer felt those cravings. I no longer depended on the meetings for my sobriety. I no longer depended on the daily meetings to keep my thinking straight.

But I had to take massive action in order to achieve that goal.

I can distinctly remember thinking to myself: “OK, how am I going to do this? How am I going to leave the daily meetings but take enough positive action in my life that it won’t matter and it won’t cause me to relapse?”

I was not going to accept a lifetime of dependency on daily meetings as my solution for sobriety.

So I forced myself to figure it out.

This is also about the time that I started to engage in daily exercise, by the way. I believe that was one piece of the puzzle that had a major impact, though that is just one part of the holistic approach.

Flaw number three: Outdated literature and a refusal to innovate

I am nitpicking a bit here. Don’t mind me. If AA and traditional recovery works for you, by all means, keep doing it. Do not let me talk you out of sobriety. I am only listing these “flaws” because they were part of what led me to success on my own journey. There might be similar people out there and I want to share my thought process with them.

I am big into literature. I am a voracious reader. I pay attention when I read. I remember stuff. I comprehend.

So when I read the big book of AA and the chapter titled: “To Wives” I was a bit put off to say the least. I happen to be male but I do not consider myself to be a sexist person.

That chapter is outrageous. I cannot believe that they refuse to update it and remove the sexism. It is actually written for the wives of alcoholic husbands, as if no woman would ever need to come to AA to get help. Ridiculous.

Since I was introduced to AA 13 years ago, they have updated and revised the big book to include more modern personal stories. But they stubbornly refused to update that ridiculously sexist chapter.

I suppose I am nitpicking. When I question people in AA about, even the women, they all seem to make excuses for AA and they forgive the blatant sexism. Women of AA have said to me things like “I still get something out of this chapter even though it is out of date.”

I just don’t get it. They update the book but they refuse to modernize.

Why the refusal to modernize, to innovate? That scares me on several different levels.

What happens as we learn more and more about addiction and recovery, how addiction is a disease of the brain, and we uncover more and more knowledge about it, yet AA refuses to update their literature because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” To me that is just a huge red flag and a serious cause for concern. The organization just seems to be stuck in the fifties in some ways.

Again, I know I am nitpicking, but this is just another thing to throw on the pile in terms of me venturing out to find my own path in recovery. Because essentially I said “OK, I don’t think AA is for me in the long run,” and then I had to figure out what really helped me to stay sober.

I believe that process of figuring out what really keeps you sober is vitally important. Much more important than sitting in the same meetings every day and becoming dependent on them for your sobriety.

All of this is just my opinion, do what works for you!

Final disclaimer:

Do what works for you. For some people that will be AA and traditional recovery programs. If that is the case for you them my hat is off to you. Bravo for making it work out, bravo for finding peace and serenity in your life.

I just know that there are others out there who are like me. That did not feel like they quite fit in well with traditional recovery.

And I wanted to let you all know that there are options, that there is still hope.

Because quite honestly, there was no hope for me when I was struggling to get clean and sober, other than AA or religious based recovery.

My therapist at the time told me that it was either:

1) Stay drunk and miserable.
2) Go do the AA thing.
3) Go do the religious based recovery thing.

And I just couldn’t accept that, because I was so turned off by all of the options. I was stuck and I was too afraid to face the meetings. I did not want to speak in front of others or even sit in meetings with people. I had too much fear, too much anxiety.

And the therapist laid it out like that, told me that those were the only real options. And I suppose I don’t blame him for that. But today I know that there are other options, that there is a holistic approach, and that there are ways to find support in recovery without sitting in AA meetings every single day. For example, there is the recovery forum here at Spiritual River where we help to support each other in our journey to sobriety.

So just know that you have options today, you don’t have to go through traditional recovery programs if you don’t want to. There are other paths to sobriety. Of course you still have to surrender, commit to change, and put in a ton of hard work in order to make it happen. But that is going to be true no matter what you do and regardless of what program you may or may not follow.

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