The Truth About Leaving AA or NA Programs and How to Overcome...

The Truth About Leaving AA or NA Programs and How to Overcome the Fear of Relapse


Traditional recovery from alcoholism and addiction is currently dominated by 12 step programs such as AA and NA. If you attempt to get clean and sober by attending treatment, going to therapy, attending a drug or alcohol rehab, and so on–you are almost inevitably going to be introduced to the 12 step program and encouraged to attend meetings. This is just the way it is and the 12 step fellowships sort of enjoy a natural monopoly right now.

There is one major alternative that we could label as “religious based recovery programs” but those are a very small portion compared to the 12 step based recovery programs.

One of the tricky things about the 12 step programs and the traditional recovery approach is that they preach the idea of open mindedness. They do this only insofar as to get the newcomer to accept the 12 step program as their recovery solution. But is this really open mindedness if it is such a one track goal, to get people to think and believe a certain way? As soon as someone in the 12 step program starts to question the program or decide to alter their path through the steps, traditional proponents of AA will quickly squash their ideas and tell them “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” People who attempt to think freely or deviate from the old model are corrected with the usual teachings and cliches. The going wisdom in the 12 step program is: “It has worked for thousands of other people, and it will work for you too if you just allow it to. So why try to change it?”

Thus the program is dated and locked into this obscurity mindset because the members are terrified of sabotaging their own program. If it worked for anyone then they believe that it can work for everyone, and the only question is whether or not the person is truly willing or not.

- Approved Treatment Center -


Therefore when people fail in 12 step programs we blame the individual. They were not willing enough, we say. They lacked surrender. If they had only surrendered fully and worked the program of AA, then they would still be sober, because the program works and it is perfect.

But if people succeed in a 12 step program, we tend to steal the credit from that person, saying something like “thank goodness for AA, this program is a Godsend and without it I would be drunk or dead. I was hopeless without AA and now I am healed, etc. etc.”

So in a way there is an unfair double standard at work here: we blame the individual for the bad and we give all the credit to AA for the good. Keeping people humble and making sure not to give them too large of a pat on the back helps to keep them from getting “too big of britches” and possibly venturing out on their own, etc. Some people go so far as to say that such ideas place AA and NA in the same league as cults, but I think this is a bit too strong. That said, there are some tendencies there that I believe manipulate people in a certain way….a way that belittles their achievements and attempts to shift the credit to “the program” instead.

Disclaimer: do what works for you!

Having said all of this, I want to make very clear a disclaimer at this point:

Do what works for you. Period.

If that means going to an AA or NA meeting every single day, then do it. Keep doing that if it keeps working for you.

The price you pay for sobriety can almost never be too high. Even if the program is downright awful, if it keeps you clean and sober, then keep doing it.

But I would also say this:

If you are unhappy in your recovery, and you are clean and sober and unhappy about your program or your meetings or your recovery, then you should challenge yourself to look deeper and figure out a practical solution for your situation.

Not everyone who attends daily meetings loves going to them. Some people come to resent the meetings or they tire of hearing the same old people speak at them.

If that is the case then you should definitely keep reading and seriously think about creating your own path in recovery.

On the other hand, if you are genuinely happy with a full schedule of 12 meetings and you get a lot out of going to them and you enjoy them, then do not stop for any reason. Use what works for you and keep running with it. No reason to stop on my account. The ideas here are for people who feel like they are wasting their time at AA meetings, people who are sick of listening to the same old people ramble on about their problems, and so on.

If going to meetings has become a chore then you need to take action and find another path. There is no need to keep torturing yourself just because the traditional AA wisdom says that you should keep showing up and keep “bringing your body until your mind follows” and so on.

A tricky concept to grasp: selection bias at AA meetings

The first thing that you should realize about AA meetings it that everyone at the meeting…..attends AA meetings.

Now that is a bit of a tricky concept so think carefully about this. Here is how this bias works, and how it plays out.

People in AA will say something like “I will never stop coming to these AA meetings, because I get a constant stream of evidence that says that this is the only thing that really works for staying sober. People who relapse go out there and they screw up and they drink again and then they come crawling back to these meetings, and they tell their story of how they quit going to meetings and ended up relapsing and it just don’t get no better out there. And every time someone comes crawling back after a relapse, they say the same thing, they say: I stopped going to my meetings and then I relapsed. So that there is all the proof that I need that these meetings are the answer and that we should never stop coming to them. Meeting makers make it.”

The person who clings to this belief and this mentality is stuck in trap called “selection bias.” They go to AA meetings and so they are basing all of their evidence on people who show up to meetings. But what they do not see are people like myself…..someone who leaves the meetings and is still clean and sober over a decade later, living a great life in recovery, and not going to 12 step meetings at all.

Think about it: Would I really return to an AA meeting and tell everyone there: “Hey, I quit going to meetings, and I’m doing fine! Just wanted to let you know!” No, I would not do that, and neither do other people who successfully leave the program either. We leave the program and we live our life in recovery and we have no need to go back to AA and talk about that. That is the whole point; we left AA to do our own thing. We are not going to go back and tell them about it. Because we do not go back and tell them at AA, the person who is in AA and sees only the people who come back after a relapse is suffering from selection bias. They do not realize that they are only seeing half of the story. They see people who relapse and come back to the meetings, yes….but do they see people who leave and are successful? No, they don’t. Thus, selection bias.

The reason that this is so important is because this selection bias is so prevalent in AA and NA. If you are aware of the concept and you go to a few meetings and watch what people say, you will realize that nearly everyone in the program has some degree of this going on. To some extent, nearly everyone believes that the 12 step program is the only workable solution, and that anyone who drifts away from it is doomed to failure.

So in order to break free from the meetings you must first realize that this type of thinking is flawed, and that people who suffer from selection bias are only focusing on the evidence that reinforces their fear based mindset. They are scared of relapse and they have found their solution in either AA or NA and so they want to dial that solution in and hold it close to their heart so that they never lose sight of it. They focus on the program and exalt it as the ultimate solution and block everything else out, eliminating all other possibilities. This is a fear based tunnel vision approach that sort of says “If I just focus on the program and work it to the best of my ability and block out other distractions then I will be fine.” So it would not be shocking if many traditionalists in AA or NA were to put their hands over their ears when people like myself suggest that meetings are a waste of time or that the 12 step program is dated, convoluted, and mostly unnecessary in the face of more straightforward alternatives. Ideas like mine are vilified in AA and NA because they are seen as dangerous and foolish. Again, they argue that: “Why mess with it if it works? Just adapt yourself to the program and get used to the meetings and your life will get so much better!”

For whatever reason, this was not good enough for me. I tried the program for a solid 18 months and the meetings never got any better for me, I still felt like I was wasting my time by sitting in them, and I was tired of hearing the same old things over and over again. This was in spite of living in a city that had over a hundred meetings per week with plenty of variety. I switched it up and I even chaired an H&I meeting each week at an institution for over a year. So it was not that I did not give the meetings or the program a fair shake. I endured them and I participated and I went to a wide variety of various meetings, both AA and NA, and I eventually decided:

“You know what? I do not need these meetings or this archaic program. The steps are very indirect and make no sense to me. I am slowly drifting away from the meetings and I either need to accept that, or I need to get disciplined and force myself to start attending the meetings again.”

Fear is a major factor of course because the naysayers and the selection bias are all working against you. “If you leave the meetings you will relapse and die” etc.

So this is the process in a nutshell:

1) You find stability in recovery but you decide that you do not like attending meetings, or the 12 step program for that matter.
2) You battle with yourself as to whether you should refocus on AA or just leave the program entirely.
3) You choose one or the other, commit to your decision, and pursue your recovery solution with strong commitment, dedication, and massive action.

If you choose to stick with AA or NA then you should dive back in and give it your best effort. At this point you may change your opinion about the program and start finding more value in it, and if so that is great. Remember, do what works.

On the other hand, you may redouble your efforts only to find that you still have issues with the meetings and with the program itself, and so this dilemma may arise again in the future. If so then you may yet choose to leave the meetings and the program.

So, how to do that successfully without relapsing?

How to quiet the naysayers: give it time

Self doubt was a huge part of the process for me. I think part of what I did in leaving the meetings was to just accept the doubt, and not feed into it and turn it into a massive fear. I knew it was there and I knew that I could not eliminate the massive doubts overnight. It was going to take time. So I decided to give it time.

The naysayers were my friends in the 12 step program who believed that anyone who drifted away from the meetings was doomed to relapse. So they tried to do the neighborly thing and warn me about my impending doom. The tragic thing of course is that nearly everyone who warned me about leaving AA ten years ago has since relapsed themselves. But at the time they really believed that they were helping me out and doing the right thing by warning me about my imminent relapse.

If you choose to leave AA then you are bound to deal with the same thing. You do what you can to deflect such issues but ultimately it is going to take time. Notice that I said that most of the naysayers in my life ended up relapsing. In some cases this took weeks or months and in other cases it took years. And of course some of the naysayers have not relapsed but I can assure you that they have respect for my chosen path in recovery, as it has taken me to over 11 plus years of continuous sobriety.

And that is the answer right there: time. Just give it time. In time, the naysayers will see many, many people relapse in the recovery community, nearly all of them in the program of AA and NA. If you remain sober then they will slowly come around to the point where they give you credit for what you are doing with your recovery.

And the really important thing to remember is that you do not need their credit or approval. You are forging your own path in recovery and (unlike their path) you do not depend on other people for your recovery. Keep this in mind as they try to “save you” from your mistake. You do not need them to stay clean and sober. But in a way, they need you, because their program depends on fellowship.

You do not have to belittle the naysayers or get nasty with them. Just do your own thing, and let them do theirs. Live and let live, and then let results speak for themselves. If you do relapse, then you can go crawling back to the meetings and admit your defeat. If you remain sober (as I have for the last 11 years), they will stay stuck in their selection bias and believe that you are either:

1) Risking your life by not staying in AA or NA.
2) Not a “real” addict or alcoholic, because you are recovering without the 12 steps and meetings.

Let the naysayers believe whatever they like. You do not need them or their approval to have an awesome life in recovery.

Setting yourself up for success

The way to succeed by working your own program of recovery is to follow these ideas:

* Kick yourself into high gear when you quit going to meetings. You are removing your “safety net” and now you must rely on yourself for your sobriety. Push harder than you think is necessary to stay sober. Take lots of positive action, every day.

* Consider transitioning away from AA meetings by using online recovery. Find a forum (such as the one on SpiritualRiver) and participate there. This can help smooth the transition away from meetings and towards an individualized recovery plan.

* Pursue greater health for yourself, with great enthusiasm. This is the “holistic” approach to recovery. Seek greater health in every area of your life, from exercise to nutrition to emotional balance to social connections, and so on. Your health is the ultimate form of currency. Work hard to enhance your health and protect it. This should be one of your greatest priorities in life and in recovery.

* Seek spiritual growth to any extent you desire. Hint: you have to define “spiritual” for yourself. Don’t meditate, exercise. It works better (and does much the same thing!)

* Take positive action every single day. This is how to accumulate success in recovery. It builds on itself if you are disciplined enough to keep pushing yourself. Do not let up for a long time after you quit going to meetings. Picture those who go to daily meetings….they are almost asleep, just coasting through recovery, relying on their daily meeting to give them sobriety. You have no such luxury, you must create your own success without the daily meeting now. So push hard and take positive action every single day. This is powerful relapse prevention in action. You protect yourself from relapse when you create positive changes in your life. Build something positive in your life through your daily actions. Create success. Push hard. This is your only shot at it, and if you fail, you relapse. Then you get to crawl back to the meetings. This is how I pictured it in my mind eleven years ago when I quit going to meetings.

Living the dream and successful relapse prevention both in and outside of 12 step programs

If you follow these suggestions then at one point you will look back and realize that you are living your dream: You will be clean and sober, free from the grind of daily meetings, and your life will be an exciting adventure that is filled with challenges. This is recovery based on personal growth, rather than dependence on meetings.

Again, the disclaimer: do what works for you! I personally did not enjoy 12 step meetings, so I created an alternative. If you benefit greatly from the 12 step program then by all means, keep doing it! Your sobriety is the standard by which you should measure things.


- Approved Treatment Center -call-to-learn-about