Long time readers of this website know that I have a mixed opinion of AA and similar 12 step programs. I feel that there are some good points and also some bad points to directing people towards that particular program as a solution for recovery.
Out of the last 12 years of my sobriety, less than 10 percent of it was spent in AA. But this is not a decision that I came to lightly, and I continue to weigh the benefits and the drawbacks of being in (or out of) a 12 step program.
In other words, I do not take an extreme position or get emotional or defensive when it comes to this issue. I try to remain open and balanced even though many people can get very upset when others are talking badly of their recovery solution. It is a tricky subject and I have found that it is best handled with care. On the other hand, the success rate of AA and our current treatment system is certainly nothing to write home about, and this is my main criticism of the program–I think we can do better. Or at least I hope that we can. Current success rates are not inspiring or hopeful.
That said, I want to explain the full role that AA had in my own recovery journey, so that you get a better idea of where I am coming from with some of my criticism.
At first I was terrified of AA
In the beginning I was terrified of AA due to anxiety. I did not like the idea of speaking in front of other people.
I could not understand why other people did not have a problem with this, or why they believed it to be a non-issue. They would suggest things to me like “Well, just don’t speak at the meeting then if it makes you nervous.” In my opinion this is a very short sighted suggestion to make. One, if you are going to AA meetings every day for the rest of your life, you don’t really get much out of it if you just listen. True, you can absorb a little bit of the good stuff through osmosis, but if you are not sharing then you are definitely missing out on the therapeutic benefits of the meeting.
Second of all, if I am terrified of speaking in a meeting, don’t you think I will be terrified when it comes time for me to speak and I have to make an excuse or keep quiet? I don’t want that attention on me, period. That is the whole point of anxiety. I don’t want to speak in front of others and that includes telling them that I don’t want to make a speech! That probably sounds a little bit ridiculous but it is the absolute truth. If you are nervous of speaking in front of others then that will include having attention shifted to you when they ask “would you like to share anything today?” I have sat in hundreds of AA meetings so I know that this happens every time. They don’t want anyone to be left out (bless their hearts) so they always ask you if you want to share. Very helpful, but not a good thing for someone with social anxiety. I don’t want the attention, period.
So this level of anxiety is where I was coming from when it came to AA. It would have been far easier for me to just continue to self medicate than it would have been to go to rehab.
I can remember when I was starting to come around to the idea that I should possibly stop drinking. I asked the therapists and the counselors: “OK, what can I do other than AA in order to stop drinking?” And they just shook their heads and basically said “That is it, go to AA or just go drink. You have no other option.”
This is my main frustration and criticism of our current treatment model. It is essentially 12 step based with no other options. It is AA or the highway. Kudos to those treatment centers that at least offer a religious based recovery option as an alternative, as this is better than having no alternative at all.
This is a major part of what frustrates me, because I really wanted to find a way to get help at that time, and I felt like my fear and social anxiety was holding me back. Just because a fear is irrational does not mean that you can explain it away using logic and expect a person to behave differently. Some people have a fear of public speaking that is actually greater than their fear of death. This is much the same when it comes to social anxiety or being afraid of speaking in an AA meeting. And obviously this is not a rational fear, because clearly death is a fate worse than speaking in front of others, right?
But the logical explanation does not change the fear. It doesn’t lessen the fear or make it go away.
So where did that leave me, with my social anxiety, and the drug counselors basically telling me “Just get over it and go to AA already, they are like pretty much your only option if you want help.”
It did not leave me with a lot of options. Basically what I did at this point was to go back to drinking for a few more years, because I was too afraid to face my fears and start going to meetings. I am not sure how many years this fear of AA kept me drunk but it was several.
Eventually though I got miserable enough that I became willing to face my fear anyway, with complete abandon. I got to a point where I no longer cared what happened to me, because I was so thoroughly miserable from my drinking and drug use. So I became willing to go back to treatment even though I knew that it would mean going to AA meetings.
I accepted AA as my solution for a time, but still never fully immersed myself in it
I had already been to treatment twice before and had been exposed to AA meetings during that time. I never went to meetings outside of treatment up until this point, but that was about to change.
I became so miserable that I surrendered fully and went to live in long term treatment. While living in long term treatment I was required to attend a variety of outside AA and NA meetings on a regular basis. So for the first 90 days I went to a meeting every day. For the first year or so I went to meetings at least 3 times per week. And through it all I also chaired an NA meeting once per week inside of the treatment center for the folks in detox.
How did I react to all of this sudden exposure to AA? Well in spite of my irrational fear, the meetings did not kill me. But on the other hand it never got any easier to speak in them, either. This was in spite of the fact that I forced myself to share at each meeting, every day, for a long time. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” OK, fine. I was going to meetings and I was forcing myself to share. Now when does it get easier? I never experienced that part so eventually I sort of gave up on the strategy and drifted away from the meetings.
I think it is important to think carefully about this. Is that a complete failure on my part? Should I have kept pushing myself to share in the meetings until it finally became easier for me?
Maybe I should have kept going with it and maybe I should not have. But I can tell you what I did instead:
I left the meetings and forced myself to define what really kept me clean and sober. I pushed myself to find new ways to grow in recovery and I also started documenting this “alternative journey” online (this website you are reading now). For better or worse, I eventually left the meetings to find another path.
To be honest I never really gave AA what I would call a “full chance.” I was never fully immersed in the meetings, in the sub-culture…I was never fully part of the group. Because I struggled to speak in front of others I was always something of an outsider. This was my own fault based on my own fears and anxieties and I think that I probably could have overcome it eventually if I had pushed myself. But I am also not sure that would have been the right path, or the right solution for every person. Should we be forcing square pegs into round holes, just because AA seems to be the default solution in our society? I say “no.”
Coming to resent the daily meetings and questioning their value
During my first year of recovery I was attending AA meetings on a regular basis, simply as a requirement for being in long term treatment. I attended a variety of meetings outside of the treatment center, and also hit some in-house meetings as well. A lot of people pushed the idea of going to a variety of different meetings, so that is what I did.
Unfortunately I still came to the resent the meetings, and I look back on this and see it strictly as a function of personality type. I don’t fit in well to the structure of meetings. Why not?
Mostly because I am not a social blabbermouth, which quite honestly is the best personality type to thrive in AA. I am introverted. When I say something, it is because I have planned what I wanted to say and refined it to the point where it is concise.
This is now how sharing happens in an AA meeting. What happens in an AA meeting is that people are talking for a full 60 minutes with nearly zero down time. This is not a criticism of AA, that is just how the meetings are structured. People are talking non stop for 60 full minutes. So when it is your turn to share you are supposed to just talk freely, you are supposed to “share from the heart,” you are not supposed to plan what you want to say. This is how it is supposed to work.
The problem with this is that my brain is very analytic. I am analyzing every little thing that is said. I am listening very intently during each meeting. I give my full attention to each speaker. I expect and imagine that the same happens when I am speaking.
But this is not reality. Most people don’t hyper analyze every little thing that is said in a meeting (like I do). They are not judging each sentence like I am. This is just part of my personality though, I cannot help it. This is how I am wired. If you sit me in an AA meeting I am going to listen to every word spoken, and make a judgement as to how useful each piece of information is to me.
This last bit is critical:
When you sit in an AA meeting you have to judge what information is useful to you and what is not. Otherwise, what are you doing there? You are there to learn. But some of what is said is completely useless. So you must filter. You must judge and weigh what is said out loud.
I do this very quickly and intensely. I never stop doing it if I am in an AA meeting. I think if you want to make it in AA in the long run then you cannot have the type of analytic personality that I have. You have to somehow learn how not to judge what is said, and still be able to justify sitting in the meeting.
After a while I questioned what I was doing, sitting in these meetings each day. They were no longer helping me. Not because I had a bad attitude, but because I am a good learner and I actually listen to everything that is uttered in every meeting I have ever been to. I also remember things well and do not need to hear the same thing over and over again. So you can start to see why sitting in AA meetings every day for the rest of my life might be a waste of time.
Now pile on top of this the fact that I tend not to share, not to speak. Thus the meetings have very little value to me unless I want to push past my fear and become comfortable with making little speeches in front of other people. But is that really an important goal to have? What does making little speeches in meetings have to do with living a good live and being sober?
These are the sort of questions that eventually drove me away from the meetings, to find my own path in recovery.
Designing a new path in recovery that could sustain my sobriety
Essentially what happened is after a full year of doing both full and part time AA meetings, I drifted away from them and realized that I was sort of floating in no-man’s land. According to legend I was headed for certain relapse unless I went back and “plugged myself into AA” again. What to do?
I had already drifted away from the meetings almost entirely and I felt like I would be betraying myself if I simply forced myself to return to the meetings. It felt wrong to me to say “Oh no, I have drifted away from the meetings and I should go back and cling to them as my solution and depend on them forever to keep my sober.”
So I looked at the alternative, which was to accept the fact that AA was not for me, and that I needed to find my own path in recovery.
This was not a decision that I made lightly. I almost never made this decision at all, because there were so many forces pushing me in the other direction. The whole world screams out for us to accept the 12 step program as our solution, to depend on it, to succumb to it.
My friends and peers in recovery thought that I was screwing up. They believed that I was heading for relapse by abandoning AA. I don’t blame them for thinking this because from a statistical standpoint they would have been correct. Nearly everyone who leaves AA does relapse. (But think about this: those who do leave AA do not come back and tell you when they are successful….you only see them come back after a relapse. This makes it seem like AA is more effective than it really is due to selection bias).
So my decision to leave AA was really a decision to find a new path in recovery. Really it was a decision to figure out what works for me in recovery and what does not. I had to get honest with myself, brutally honest. I had to explore new strategies for staying clean and sober (such as exercise, meditation, higher education, etc.). I had to push myself to improve my relationships without doing so based on the 12 steps. I had to push myself to pursue personal growth without having the structure of a program. I found that these things were not difficult at all, I just had to do them deliberately and willingly. I had to take action.
I found that positive action was the key to success in recovery. I actually debated with my peers in AA about this while I was going through the “breakup with AA.” My argument was that positive action and personal growth was the foundation of recovery, and that you could achieve this both in or out of a structured program. They would argue back that the secret of recovery was the spiritual transformation that could only be achieved by going through 12 specific steps. In the end I guess we agreed to disagree, and I went on my own way to pursue what I now call “creative recovery.”
Is dependency on a group healthy for recovery?
Now that I am living a life outside of structured recovery programs such as AA, I look back and I wonder if it is healthy to be in a recovery program and have a dependency on that program.
We are taught in early recovery that going to meetings on a routine basis and calling our sponsor were good things. But now that I have experience the freedom of creative recovery I wonder that these might be forms of dependencies.
Think about it like this:
I used to hear people in the AA meetings say that if they stopped coming to meetings every day that they would relapse. If that is true, then this clearly a dependency. They depend on the meetings to keep them sober.
In my opinion this is not an optimal solution. If you are depending on the meetings then doesn’t this expose a serious weakness in your recovery?
My thought is that if you are truly working a strong program of recovery that you should not have to depend on daily meetings to keep you sober.
On the other hand, I would not want to discourage anyone from attending AA if it is truly helping them. This is why you eventually have to get honest with yourself and figure out what is really helping you to maintain sobriety. If AA works for you then that is great, keep on with it by all means. But some of us will choose to seek an alternative path, and my message to those people is simply that there is hope in creative recovery. You can create your own path in recovery, without depending on programs.