Addiction and alcoholism recovery has evolved, and it continues to do so. The art (or science) of getting clean and sober has gone through some changes over the years.
A few hundred years ago there was really no help for alcoholics or addicts. They were simply locked up and thrown into jails or institutions. No efforts were made to try to rehabilitate them or get them to try to live a new way of life. From a historical perspective, you have to give some credit to the AA program for changing all of that. Just the fact that they were able to treat the disease in any capacity was a revelation. No matter how low the success rate may be it is certainly better than nothing. The program offered hope where there had been no hope at all before. This was a significant change.
For a long time the 12 step program has been the default solution for recovery, and that may continue for the foreseeable future. I don’t know for sure that the recovery landscape is changing, but I sense that it might be based on some alternatives that we witness.
The old rules for addiction and alcoholism recovery were simple: You had to find God in order to straighten your life out. There were no alternatives presented to this. For most addicts and alcoholics who attempted to change their life, they were given a simple choice: Find God or relapse and die. These were the old rules of recovery.
There is great resistance to change when it comes to this existing treatment model, because:
1) People have a mentality of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The people who have successfully become clean and sober through the 12 step program see no need to change it. For the 90 percent who try AA and fail to remain sober, they argue that “they are not willing.” So they blame the individual rather than the program when most people relapse in AA. But when someone succeeds they do not give the credit to the individual, instead they give the credit to AA or their higher power. This is a double standard that deserves more careful consideration, especially if you are trying to determine the success rate of a recovery program. For example, you can easily measure AA has having double or even triple the success rate that it actually has, simply by screening out the people who are not fully surrendered yet, not really serious about recovery, etc. Anyone who relapsed “wasn’t serious and wasn’t working the program, so they don’t count.”
2) People who have gone through religious conversion or who have found God cannot imagine taking this option away from others. In other words, it is “sinful not to spread the good word” about their higher power, so the religious (or heavy spiritual) slant tends to remain.
This is old school recovery, in my opinion, and within a decade or two I imagine there will be more widespread recovery movements that do not rely on faith or religious conversion in order to succeed.
Now some people will object to these ideas and say that “AA is not religious, it is spiritual!” True enough, the option is left wide open, but in the end it is still a faith based solution, and that is what I am getting at here. My prediction is that a few hundred years from now, people will look back on AA and see it as being old fashioned and crude, simply because it forced people into faith as a solution for their medical condition. The modern rules of recovery (and the future rules of recovery) will recognize that this is no longer necessary.
What replaces a faith based program of recovery
The 12 step program is a hybrid approach, and it all felt wrong to me. It is a combination of a faith based program (find God) but it plays out in a social arena (go to meetings every day and talk about your recovery). Even though I had a growing faith in early recovery it felt totally wrong as a recovery solution. Why were we relying on this thing that was so intangible, so unique to each person, as the foundation of our sobriety? I watched the faith of my peers in early recovery and how their belief and their faith evolved over time. Nothing was consistent and none of it made much sense. In particular I had a close friend in early recovery who had a very strong faith. I talked with this person quite a bit and I learned a lot from him. I was awed by his faith and was shocked when he suddenly relapsed.
I thought more about his relapse than anyone else who had relapsed before him. In fact it sort of shook my entire foundation and understanding of recovery (I believe at the time I had around 6 months to a year of sobriety). I was still trying to figure things out and from what I was being taught in AA the answers were all about pursuing greater faith. So I was shocked and stunned when this friend of mine relapsed because his faith was so much greater than my own.
What was going on here? Why did he relapse? How could he have relapsed, if what I was being told in AA was really true?
If pushing myself to be more spiritual and have a greater connection with a higher power was just going to turn out like it did for my friend, then what was the point? I was questioning what it really took to stay clean and sober.
In short, I stopped trusting what I was being taught. I decided that it was no good to listen to what people were saying any more, because what they were saying did not seem to line up with what I was observing. They told me that going to meetings every day and finding God were the secrets to recovery, but I was seeing otherwise when I observed people around me.
At this point I decided to simply start observing people instead of listening to them. Don’t tell me, show me how it works. It is easy to talk a good game in recovery, but it is much more difficult to actually live out a successful life.
So I started watching my peers in recovery very carefully. I watched the people at meetings who had long term sobriety. I watched the people who relapsed and tried to figure out what they had been lacking. I listened closely to people who spoke at meetings after they had relapsed, to find out what they thought they did wrong.
And I stopped believing that AA had all of the answers. I lost faith in the program because it was not making sense to me, and what I observed in the real world was not adding up for me. People who were much more devoted to AA, much more involved in the step work, and who had much greater faith than me were still relapsing–and yet I remained sober. Something was missing here, and AA did not have the answers for it. I had to look to my own experience and my own observations in order to figure out what was really going on.
Positive action and personal growth
I was picking up clues from alternative programs of recovery. I learned about these alternatives through the Internet. For example, one alternative was a program called Racing for Recovery in which fitness was the primary method of staying clean and sober. I found this to be pretty “out there” but it also illustrated an important concept to me: there were people who were staying clean and sober without daily meetings and without focusing on faith based recovery.
I met other people in online forums who were staying clean and sober under their own power, without relying on programs either.
I wanted to find a common thread among all of these people who had found alternative means to recovery. In the end I believe it is fair to say that the common thread is simply “positive action.” If you map those positive actions over time and are consistent in making them then this leads to something we might call “personal growth.”
I was convinced that positive action was the key to success in recovery, and that it did not have to necessarily be social or faith based action. In other words, I was coming to believe that a person could stay clean and sober without going to meetings every day or by “finding God,” but instead as a result of the positive actions that they took in other areas of their life.
My testing ground for this happened when I made the firm decision to leave the 12 step meetings entirely, and to do my own thing in recovery. I was afraid of relapse but my theory was that if I pushed myself to keep taking positive action every day that I would not relapse. This proved to be true and eventually I stopped feeling guilty about having abandoned AA. It has now been over a decade since I left AA and I continue to push myself towards personal growth and positive action.
Personal growth as the new option for recovery
In terms of “modern day recovery” I believe that this will become the greatest change over time:
* The emphasis on personal growth instead of a faith based approach.
There are several problems with the faith based approach that make it less desirable than the alternative. For one thing it is highly personal, and thus it is wrong to force belief or faith on anyone. The 12 step program gets around this by not specifying a religion or faith to follow, but they still demand belief and spiritual growth in order to work the program. Second of all it is much harder to measure a faith based approach compared to one that is based on positive action. Taking positive action as a program of recovery is much easier to measure because you can see and observe the actions in the real world. With a faith based approach much of the “action” is concealed, masked, or hidden (such as prayer and meditation).
Faith based recovery does not seem to have an accurate measuring stick, other than relapse itself. For example, think back to my close friend in early recovery who seemed to be so much stronger in me in faith, but who still ended up relapsing. Was his faith accurate and pure? Obviously not. And therein lies the problem–he had everyone fooled, including himself. We all thought he was the most spiritual person among us, and yet he failed. But there was no way to predict this failure, and in fact it completely shocked us, because we all believed he had such a strong faith.
It is easy to measure faith in retrospect. This friend who I speak of who relapsed eventually came back, and admitted that he had been fooling himself (and everyone else). His faith had not really been that strong. Well, duh! Anyone can tell you that, it is obvious because you relapsed! But how useful is this to us? How useful is it that we can so easily fool ourselves into believing that we are on a path of spiritual growth, when in fact we are kidding ourselves and are really headed for relapse?
In other words, it is pretty darn easy to convince yourself that you are on a spiritual path–regardless of whether you really are or not.
But therein lies a problem. The same is essentially true for our alternative path of recovery, the “personal growth” route. If we are not careful, we can also convince ourselves that we are on a path of personal growth, when in fact we might be quite lazy.
But the personal growth approach is still a bit more transparent. It is a bit easier to measure than a faith based approach. You can see most of the results of a growth-based approach. Taking action is generally pretty visible.
It is easier to be held accountable with a growth-based approach as well. It is much harder to hold someone accountable in terms of spiritual growth. I.E., “Did you pray or meditate today?” You can see how even a three year old child can weasel through that one without any problem. But faking personal growth is a lot harder, because the results are more visible.
How personal growth works for recovery
It is pretty difficult to pin down the various reasons that a person might choose to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. Luckily we don’t really have to do so in order to benefit from recovery. We just have to take action and let the actions overcome our addiction.
This can work with faith based recovery but it also works with an approach based on personal growth.
If you go into an AA meeting and find the people who have 5 years+ of sobriety, ask them all what their approach to life and recovery is like. Ask them to give you an in depth answer and tell you exactly how their recovery really works. Ask them to tell you how recovery works for them when they are not in an AA meeting. In other words, how does their recovery work “in the real world?”
If you ask enough people then you will start to see a pattern in AA. There are “winners” at an AA meeting, and these are the people who are taking action. They are movers and shakers. They are not lazy and sitting around and expecting some magic cure in AA that comes without any work at all. Instead they are taking action and they are creating their own success through hard work. Without even knowing it, these are the people who would do just fine without a formal program of recovery.
And therein lies the secret sauce of success–it is not about a specific program of recovery. It is not about a magic sequence of steps that can bring about sobriety. That was a false path to begin with, it had you fooled right from the start (if you thought that the 12 steps were the one true path to recovery, that is).
Talk to the “winners” at any AA meeting and you will find that they all have a common thread–they are busting their tails in terms of personal growth outside of the meetings. The “winners” in recovery are defined by the fact that they are action takers. They take positive action every day. The fact that they are in AA is just a backdrop for this positive action. The 12 steps are not crucial to their success (though nearly all of them will believe that they are). It is their daily action and their continuous effort–their commitment to growth. This is what keeps them clean and sober. This is what defines their success.
So many people believe that the 12 steps have some sort of magic power, that they hold some secret to sobriety. In truth they are but one suggested path out of many. And from what I have seen in my 12 years of recovery experience, the emphasis on spiritual growth is nothing but a distraction from the other forms of growth that may serve you just as well (or better).
Recovery demands a holistic approach, and AA narrows this down to a faith based solution. This is a mistake. The people in AA who are the “winners” have figured out that they have to take positive action outside of the meetings in order to sustain recovery (and therefore personal growth).
The real work happens outside of the meetings, where you deal with real life every day. The real work happens when you are taking positive action and pursuing real growth and healthy changes in your life. AA is nothing more than a backdrop for these actions to occur.
The modern rules of recovery are just this: You need positive action and personal growth in order to sustain recovery. Specific programs or faith are simply a backdrop for taking positive action. The real key is the growth itself, not the programs that suggest growth.
There is an old Zen teaching about “the finger pointing at the moon” that I just love. A teacher points at the moon and says to the student “what’s that?” and the student replies “the moon.”
The teacher then corrects him, saying “no, that is a finger pointing at the moon.”
In other words, don’t mistake faith based recovery or AA for the real solution. Personal growth and positive action are the core of successful recovery. They are the moon. Programs like AA or faith based recovery are just fingers that point at the moon. They may inspire growth or action, but the are a second layer on top of the real secret of success.
Complacency – or why a lifetime of AA meetings might fail
Modern recovery should recognize that complacency can kill you–both in and out of AA or faith based programs.
What is complacency? It is illustrated by the old timer who relapses. I knew a guy who had 18 years in AA and he just drank all of a sudden. Stayed out for one weekend, then came back to the meetings. The universal consensus was that he had become complacent. Obviously he knew (at one time) what it took to stay clean and sober. He simply forgot this solution due to his laziness and complacency. He had stopped taking positive action and pushing himself towards genuine growth.
This can happen both in or outside of AA. The solution is always the same (whether you in a formal program of recovery or not) and that is that you need to develop a strategy of personal growth. You need to keep pushing yourself to make positive changes in order to avoid relapse. This idea is at the core of modern recovery. Positive action and growth are the key to long term sobriety.