A lot of people start to slowly ask themselves this question after being introduced to the traditional recovery path that almost always consists of “go to rehab, then attend these AA meetings for the rest of your life.”
The question is “What would happen if I left AA, and tried to stay sober on my own?”
It’s a fair question because there is a pretty obvious amount of overhead with the AA program.
To the credit of AA, if the program seems to work for you, I would definitely not change anything. If things are going well and you seem to get a lot of benefit out of AA meetings, then I am not suggesting that you make any changes at all. Keep doing what works well for you.
But having lived in recovery for over a decade now and having worked in the field of substance abuse for over five years, I know that there is a huge subset of people who are exposed to AA who believe it to be a less than ideal solution.
For a variety of reasons, not everyone likes AA, or sees it as a perfect solution for their recovery.
One of the most common objections that I heard while working in rehab for years was that it was far too social of a solution. Shy folks and introverted people did not do well with the meetings, and were not comfortable sharing their thoughts in them by speaking in front of others, and so on.
One of the things that is rather scary and worrisome is that that AA is typically presented as the only solution for recovery when someone goes to treatment. Typically in a 12 step based rehab no mention is even made of the one popular alternative, which is religious based recovery. But this is typically shunned and the general attitude is normally “if you quit coming to these meetings you will relapse and die.” That seems to be the normal mantra in AA and this is rather disturbing because the program is often presented as the only possible option. It is either attend AA for life, or go back to drinking and die.
This is not fair or healthy for people in recovery, in my opinion. If you want to invest in AA as your solution for recovery, that is one thing, but to tell thousands of people that there are no alternatives, and that if they leave the program they will drink and they will die–in my opinion there is something wrong with that. I like to think that there ARE workable solutions for recovery outside of AA, and that for certain people these alternative solutions may be the better path to choose.
I for one have been on an “alternative” path in recovery for over ten years and counting now, and my life is one continuous blessing.
Self selecting groups and AA
It is important to remember that AA is a self selecting group of people. This becomes apparent when the people in the AA meeting talk about those who relapse.
You will hear people in AA meetings say things like:
“I don’t ever want to leave these meetings, because so and so left the meetings and they relapsed, and now they have come back and they told us that it’s not getting any better out there, and that AA is the right path forward, and that this is the way to get sober.”
Or they might say something like:
“I have tried everything in this life to quit drinking, and nothing worked for me, I tried it all, and then I came to AA, and now I am sober, and so AA is the only thing that works.”
Or they might say:
“Everyone who comes in to an AA meeting and tells their story after a relapse says the same thing….they say that they had quit going to meetings, and that this is why they relapsed, so if you keep coming to these meetings then you should be alright in your recovery.”
Every single one of those statements hints at the problem of being in a self selecting group. The people in AA are basing all of their conclusions on people who show up to AA meetings! This is a very important point for you to understand because they are making some very powerful assumptions based on the fact that they are part of a self selecting group, yet they fail to realize this when they make such statements.
For example, many people (such as myself) have left the meetings and not ended up relapsing. In fact I found a much better path for myself in recovery as a result of leaving AA. But did I come back to AA and tell everyone about this? Of course not….which is why the people in AA do not count me or others like me in their observations. They cannot see us. They only see people who come back to AA, therefore they are a self selecting group.
People who try everything and then find a solution in AA are confusing the power of surrender with a “magical solution.” They are attributing their success in recovery to the magic and mystic power of the 12 steps of AA, when what really happened is that they finally surrendered to their addiction and became ready to accept a new solution in their life. This counter argument is evidenced by the idea that people who fully surrender to their disease and then go to a religious based program (not 12 step based) do equally well in recovery, simply because they had fully hit bottom and were ready to get clean. So it was not the magically solution or “the power of the 12 steps” that led to their success, it was the timing. The timing was finally right, and they were finally ready to surrender and actually do something about their addiction, and so nearly any solution that was abstinence based would have worked just fine for them.
People who are in AA and then relapse and come back to AA and tell everyone how much they depend on AA for sobriety, and how no one should ever leave AA–these people are lead others to fall into the self selecting group trap. What they do not see are people who leave AA successfully and remain sober. If they could see the success stories (like my own) then it would balance their view on things, and not lead to blanket statements such as: “AA is the only way that works and everyone who has left these meetings always relapses and then comes crawling back to us, or they die drunk.” Such statements are ignorant and downright dangerous in some ways, even while the person stating it is actually trying to be helpful to others (by keeping them locked into the AA program).
So those are just a few of the problems with the AA program and the way that people try to convince themselves that “AA is the only way that works.” There is a reason that they do this and we will look closer at this in a minute (hint: it’s all about fear).
An hour per day plus travel time for a year is how much?
When I was thinking about possibly leaving AA it was not because I hated the program or anything like that. I felt fairly neutral about AA and it had helped me in some ways and yet the program was not really a great fit for me personally.
One thing that I was considering at the time was how much of an investment it was for me to be in AA.
This needs to be compared directly with the alternatives that you are engaging in for your life. In other words, the things that you would be doing for your recovery if you are NOT going to AA meetings every day.
To me this is of the utmost importance because AA actually tries to be genuinely helpful. It is not like it is an evil organization or anything, the vast majority of people in AA are trying to help the newcomer to recover. So if you are considering leaving AA, it makes sense for you to carefully weigh the options here.
First of all, take a look at your investment into AA and what it is “costing” you. I am not talking about money here, I am talking about time and mental energy invested, which in some ways is more significant than monetary investment (AA is close to free anyway from a monetary perspective).
When I was going to meetings I was heavily encouraged to go to a meeting every day. The meeting lasted for an hour (unless it was an NA meeting, which was typically 90 minutes) and of course there was always some travel time involved going to and from the meeting. So really the daily time investment was more like 90 minutes to 2 hours rather than “just an hour.”
Multiply that out (up to 2 hours per day) and you will see that if you go to meetings every day, you are spending an entire month of time in meetings each year. A full month out of each year is spent sitting in meetings!
Now I am not saying that this is a poor time investment for everyone, but what I am saying is that you need to realize that this is a huge time commitment and is not trivial at all. If meetings are not serving you (extremely well) then you are wasting a huge amount of time and mental energy by attending them.
In particular, I would urge people to think carefully about this if they have become somewhat passive in their recovery, and they just keep showing up to meetings “because that is what works for them,” but they are not really involved in the program, they are not excited about the fellowship, and they are not really participating fully with real enthusiasm. If that is the case then why invest that huge amount of time (a full month!) out of each year?
Some people in that situation are just going to meetings because they have been led to believe that it is the only thing that works. But such a person may be uninspired by the meetings and is basically passive in the program. This is not a good place to be in recovery and it is not likely to lead to great long term results either.
The fact is that such a person who has become uninspired and passive in the AA path can turn things around and get excited about recovery again. One way to do this is to simply walk away from the meetings and start depending on yourself for your own success in recovery, rather than depending on AA for your success.
This will wake the passive person up quickly because now there is no safety net of daily AA meetings. When I left AA my recovery suddenly got excited again because now I was suddenly forced to think about it carefully each day, I was forced to take new actions every day that were positive and could move me toward success in recovery, and I had to really start thinking for myself again. This was exciting. I was alive in my recovery again, for the first time in a long time. For too long I had simply come to rely on my daily AA meeting to help keep my thinking in line, to help keep my thinking positive, and to help me to keep reminding myself that I was in recovery and that my goal was sobriety.
Walking away from the meetings changed all that, it shook things up and it made me focus on what was actually important in recovery. I looked carefully at the people who were successful that I had met in AA, and I thought to myself: “What is it that such people are doing that helps to keep them clean and sober? How are the living and what actions do the take each day that help to keep them clean and sober?” There were a few role models in particular that I thought carefully about, these were people who had over a decade of sobriety and they only went to a few meetings each week, some of them had even dropped to one meeting per week, and yet they were the grand sponsors of half of the community because they had done so well in their recovery. Obviously their success was not tied to how many meetings they could cram into their week, as some of these people only attended one or two meetings per week. This observation also led me to the idea that possibly some such people still existed and yet they had stopped coming to meetings entirely (the online recovery world helped to confirm that idea).
Why they don’t want you to leave
People in AA will of course warn you if you talk about leaving, or even if you stop showing up to your regular meetings for a week or two. They will warn you and show deep concern for your well being and try to convince you to get back into the habit of attending a daily AA meeting.
They do this based on the fear that you are going to relapse due to a lack of meetings. I cannot help but see the flaw in this logic; that they are preaching a dependency on meetings. If they really believe that anyone who misses too many meetings is doomed to relapse, then isn’t this just another form of dependency? How can this be a great recovery solution if it creates a new dependency in place of the old dependency? How is that healthy?
Their warning is almost always the same: “Don’t stop coming to these meetings or you will surely relapse as a result.”
Anyway, if you look deeply into their concern and their fear for you about relapse, you will see that it is really just a fear about their own sobriety.
It is also a fear that is based on conformity and groups and such. People want to feel secure in the idea that they are doing the right thing in terms of the group, that they are working the right recovery program and that they are on the right path to sobriety. They are threatened by the idea that someone could find success using a complete different path, one that flies in the face of everything that they have been taught. The group resents a successful non-conformist, because they feel threatened by him.
The underlying thinking and fear is this:
If someone can leave the group and find their own success in recovery (without jumping through all of the hoops in AA) then it makes people in the group feel foolish and threatened. When they say that they are fearful of your relapse after leaving AA, what they are really fearful of (at the core of it all) is their own possible relapse.
And ultimately, AA is a group solution that creates a dependency on other people. So when people leave the group, the group should naturally feel threatened on some level, because of their dependency on the program.
This is why people do not want you to leave AA.
The courage to do your own thing in recovery
If you believe that AA is a poor fit for you, or that it tends to lead you into passive living instead of an active path of recovery, then you might consider leaving the meetings.
I would not recommend this to anyone who is brand new to the AA program, even if they think that AA is not right for them. I would encourage newcomers to give it a fair chance, as it is still the most organized and helpful organization out there.
But of course it is not for everyone, and the problem comes in when people in AA insist that it is for everyone, and that it is the only solution that can prevent relapse and death. This is completely wrong even though the well-intentioned people in AA do not realize it. There are other paths in recovery and anyone who really wants to can shed the dependency on AA and on other people and do their own thing in recovery.
Going your own way in recovery takes courage, but it is probably not the courage that you are thinking of. It is not the courage to leave the group (although that is necessary as well). Rather, it is the courage needed to look deeply inside yourself, and honestly evaluate your life. Perhaps it is the courage to examine your life and grow, much in the same way that the twelve steps would have you do, only without the formality of the steps and the meetings and the sponsors and so on.
Recovery is personal growth. This is the central truth that I was focusing on when I made the decision to leave AA. I knew that the twelve steps were not a magic solution, but that they only pointed to personal growth, they pointed toward the correct path, but they were not the path itself.
This is similar to the Zen concept of “the finger pointing at the moon.” I am not saying the 12 steps are wrong, or useless. But they only point toward the solution, they are not the solution itself. One can achieve success by engaging in personal growth via other avenues, via other paths. Just the fact that religious and Christian based recovery exists should prove this much to anyone (that the 12 steps are not vital for success, they are but one possible path).
What happens if you leave AA is that you must then take an ACTIVE role in your own personal growth. This requires initiative and thinking on your part. If you are up for the challenge then I would encourage you to make the leap.