As I mentioned in a previous article I had a pretty hefty fear of AA meetings due to social anxiety.
Keep in mind that this was not severe anxiety by any means, it was actually very slight, very mild…..I just did not want to speak in front of other people, or be put on the spot to do so. And this happens in AA meetings from time to time. If you go every day then it is inevitable, at some point you will be put on the spot. This may not seem like a big deal to people who do not have social anxiety, but it was a pretty big deal to me, to the point that I desperately wanted to find an alternative to a lifetime of daily meetings.
So I found one, very carefully.
Early recovery and accepting any solution
In the beginning I did not have a lot of choice in the matter when it came to my recovery solution. I was terrified of AA meetings but I was also pretty scared of dying due to my addiction and my alcoholism. The writing was on the wall and I knew that I had to change soon or face some very heavy consequences. So when it came time for me to surrender, I was not in a position to design my own recovery program.
Understand too that there is a bit of a trap built into this process. When you surrender to your disease, you do not get to call all the shots and tell people what is going to happen. If you try to do that and take control of the situation you are just going to screw it up and relapse. This is known as denial. You are attempting to fix your own problem and in the early stages of recovery you are not in a position to be able to do that.
Why not? Because you are too close to your own problem, to the addiction itself, to the disease. You are stuck in it. You are stuck in denial and the only way to get out is to let someone guide you out. This is just the reality of early recovery.
Now keep in mind that when you have some clean time under your belt you will be more stable and better able to design your own path in recovery. That time is coming but in order to get to that wonderful freedom you have to suck it up and take direction and advice from day one.
On the first day of your recovery you have to be extremely humble and take nearly any help or advice that is offered to you. If you try to pick and choose then you are simply orchestrating your own relapse.
For example, if you decide that you have finally had enough with your addiction and you want to change your life, you might ask a friend or a family member to find help for you. They make some calls and find a rehab center. That treatment facility is almost certainly either going to be 12 step based or religious based. If neither of these options are acceptable to you and you make a big stink about it and take a stand and refuse to get help from either of them, then where does that leave you? You are not going to find recovery at all.
I used to do this myself. I knew that I needed help and I knew that I was out of control and that I needed a way to somehow quit drinking and using drugs. But I was not willing to attend AA meetings and I did not want to go live in a rehab for months on end. I was stubborn and I was not willing to accept the solution. I had an idea in my mind that someone out there should be able to create a recovery program that was not based on the 12 step program and daily meetings. I was in fact furious that no one seemed to be able to offer me a good solution for recovery that did not involve sharing in front of other people in 12 step meetings.
I would like to be able to say that I figured out an alternative at this point, but that is NOT the case. This is a very important point to understand. I did not find this alternative path to recovery until I had already been clean and sober for about 18 months to 24 months.
In fact what happened is far less impressive: I simply got miserable enough in my addiction that I became willing to accept any solution. I simply threw up my hands and said “someone please help me, take me somewhere, I don’t care where.” So I had to become willing to go to AA meetings, and I did so for the first 18 months of my recovery while I was living in long term rehab. I forced myself to go sit in the meetings every day and I faced the fear and the anxiety of being in meetings. And I even was put on the spot and had to say a few words here and there, which never really got any easier for me even though at one point I forced myself to speak at every single meeting.
So what I am suggesting here is not that you try to bypass traditional recovery entirely. I do not recommend that and that is not what I experienced. What I did was to embrace traditional recovery for the first year, because that is what help was offered to me. I really feel like I had no choice, and if I had to do it over again I would probably do about the same. I would take the help and support of recovery even though it is a 12 step world out there right now. If you seek help that is what you are going to find: 12 step programs and possibly religious based programs as well.
If these programs are not to your liking, my suggestion is that you embrace them anyway. Do what I did, buck up and accept them as your solution and just go with the flow. Stop resisting. Because in the end, you actually CAN design your own recovery program….you just cannot do it on day one. You cannot make up your own rules when you have two weeks sober because you have no idea what rules will and will not work for staying clean and sober.
It is my opinion that you have to get humble and take direction and advice for a while in early recovery BEFORE you can branch out on your own and find your own path. If you do not get humble and take direction at first then you are not laying the foundation that will lead to long term success in recovery.
That said, you can still be totally free in recovery, and not have to depend on programs, meetings, or fellowships to keep you clean and sober. You will get there eventually. Start out slow, be humble, take whatever direction you are given in early recovery and then start slowly building your new life from there.
Deductive logic: what is really keeping people clean and sober?
If you hang around with your local AA or 12 step community for a year or two you will get a chance to see all kinds of drama. This is only natural and it matters very little what your location is or what AA group you choose. You will see plenty of people drift into the program and some will “stick and stay” and most of the others will drift away at some point.
Likewise, if you work in a drug or alcohol treatment center for several years you will really get a nice picture of how early recovery works. This is similar to being in AA but you generally get to see a much larger slice of the recovery population as they come into detox, go through residential treatment, get introduced to AA and the 12 step program, and then go back out into the real world to succeed or fail in recovery. I did this for over five years, working in a rehab center and getting the chance to watch this cycle happen over and over again.
Before I worked in the rehab for those five years I also lived in that same rehab for 20 months continuous. While living there I watched many people who were attempting to live in long term recovery end up relapsing. A few of them stayed clean and sober like I did but the vast majority ended up relapsing.
While I was working in the detox unit it was amazing to see how many people would leave treatment, only to show up again a month later, 3 months later, 6 months later, or whenever. Many, many people who left treatment ended up coming back at a later date. This was shocking to see and it also started to paint a picture for me of what attitude worked and what did not.
I was very interested in finding out what “the secret” was to successful recovery. So I made observations and watched all of this activity with a very critical eye. In some ways I felt like a jerk for doing so, because I was taught by many “spiritual people” in recovery not to judge others. But I wanted to know what the secret to recovery was so I was actually VERY judgmental when it came to relapse and recovery. If someone was staying clean and sober for multiple years then I wanted to know all about them and how they worked their program. Likewise, when someone relapsed, I thought carefully about how they worked their program and what all I had heard them say in AA meetings and then I promptly filtered their suggestions out entirely.
This may sound terrible but why would I want to take advice from people who relapse in recovery? They did not get the results that I wanted and therefore I did not want to hear their advice about how to stay clean and sober. Amazingly enough, the meetings that I attended seemed to be set up to allow them to share at length, even right after they had relapsed. While this may have been therapeutic for them it was not very useful to the group in terms of showing us what really worked.
So over time I came to judge people in recovery, I was judging them in my own mind and the people who stayed clean and sober for years and years had my full attention. They had what I wanted and so I attempted to pick apart the commonalities in their approaches. (By the way, in the program they call such people “the winners,” people who are doing well in recovery and who have what you want in life). Like I said it is a little bit judgmental but who can blame you for trying to emulate the winners and ignore those who relapse over and over again? If you want to relapse then pay attention to the chronic relapsers. If you want to stay clean and sober then pay attention to the “winners.” Simple as that.
So in paying attention to the winners I started to figure out that not all of them depended on daily meetings in order to stay clean and sober. In fact, many of them had reduced their meeting attendance to maybe once or twice a week. (Special note: the “winners” who had reduced their meeting attendance to zero still exist, but you will not observe them at meetings! But that does not mean that they are not out there, living a successful life in recovery!)
When I listened to the collective mind of AA, it would seem that meeting attendance is absolutely critical. For one thing, everyone who relapses and then comes back preaches on and on about meeting attendance is critical. They don’t know any better of course, and they keep relapsing regardless of what they seem to do. I do not mean to be harsh or judgmental but the chronic relapser cannot be trusted for information (unless you want what they have!). When they come back to a meeting and say “I just relapsed, I never should have stopped coming to these meetings, that is what keeps people sober and so you should never stray from these daily AA meetings” they are not to be trusted with this information. They are trying to illustrate the example of what happens if anyone should stray from AA meetings. What they are really proving instead is that they do not know how to stay clean and sober, period…..meetings or no meetings.
In contrast to these people who constantly preached that meetings were the solution, I observed a few “winners” in my AA community who had reduced their meeting attendance to once or twice a week at the most. These were people who had multiple years sober, some of them had over a decade of sobriety. One of them sponsored people in AA and the others did not, they just sort of did their own thing and helped people in other ways.
The point here is that I was observing a disconnect. I was sitting in AA meetings and I was listening to chronic relapsers tell me how daily meetings are critical, and yet I was looking up to a few of these winners in recovery (people who had the sobriety that I wanted for myself) and they were only going to one or two meetings per week.
Later on I would find other winners in recovery who had decades of sobriety that attended no meetings at all. I had to find them via other avenues because….guess what? They don’t attend meetings! But they did exist, and they still had meaningful recoveries and a full life, and I learned that their example is not impossible to emulate.
Commitment to personal growth out of sheer fear
When I finally decided to leave the meetings and carve my own path in recovery, I decided that I had better be proactive about it. This decision was based on fear, not on wisdom. I was scared of relapse. I just knew that I did not want to keep going to meetings, taking the good with the bad, and wasting time every day that could have been put to better use.
Everyone in AA meetings is stuck in the mentality that if you leave you will relapse and surely die. So they warn you about it, over and over again. Heaven forbid you tell someone that you are leaving the meetings, they will treat you like you are contemplating suicide or something.
Because of all of this hoopla, I was scared and nervous about leaving the meetings, and so I pushed myself to engage in what actually works for recovery:
I made darn sure that if I was going to walk away from the meetings, I had better prove to myself and others that I was willing to push hard to make personal growth even without the crutch of a daily whining session.
So I did exactly that. I got myself some goals, and I pushed myself really hard to achieve them.
At first I felt like “I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I am staying clean and sober without daily meetings!” But I was still nervous and constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was still terrified of relapse and of my life spiraling out of control.
Looking over my shoulder for years
This lasted for months, maybe even for a year or two. I hung on to the fear that I might be taking the wrong path in recovery, that I was possibly being a fool just like everyone in AA said, and that I was headed for relapse and disaster.
I second guessed myself for a long time.
Eventually this shifted though. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years.
Another peculiar phenomenon was happening around me: people were relapsing. This is normal in traditional recovery, of course, especially if you work or live in the recovery community and have exposure to hundreds of recovering addicts and alcoholics. You will see and witness people relapse all the time.
But this was different, because now it was just people that I knew personally in recovery, friends, acquaintances, and so on. And they were relapsing all around me, dropping like flies as the months ticked by.
My confidence slowly grew as I continued to witness these frequent relapses happening around me. I was staying clean and sober doing my own thing, pursuing personal growth and holistic health on my own terms, and yet others in “the program” were failing. In fact, over the next decade of my life while I stayed clean and sober, nearly everyone that I knew would relapse.
At some point, I developed the confidence to be able to say “OK, I have been clean and sober now doing my own thing for X amount of years (over a decade now) and no longer have to be afraid that relapse is right around the corner, about to kill me simply because I left the meetings.”
I know today that I could still relapse (any addict or alcoholic could) but that it would not be fair to blame it on a lack of AA meetings. If I fail today, I know it is due to complacency and a lack of personal growth. (This should also give you all the information that you need in order to design your own program of recovery without AA!)
Accessing total freedom in recovery
I still stand by the concept of surrender. I could not have found this total freedom during my first week of recovery. I had to take direction for a while and do what other people told me to do. That was a necessary foundation for being able to find what worked for me in staying sober. It was only after taking that direction and learning discipline that I was able to discard that which was no longer serving me.
This is how to find your own path and your own freedom in recovery.