Many people who come to this website want to know if they can stop drinking without AA or a 12 step recovery program.
The answer is “yes,” but there is more to it than just a simple “stop drinking on your own and everything will turn out fine!”
The reality is that most people need a lot of help in order to stop drinking. My belief is that even though you may need a tremendous amount of help in order to actually quit, living out the rest of your life sober should not create a massive dependency on a recovery program. That is my experience and I also believe that this concept should apply to everyone.
In other words, what I am saying is that if you want to get clean and sober then you are probably going to need serious help in order to do it. Early recovery is the time to get help and support. Long term sobriety is really about your freedom and by the time you have a year or two sober you probably should not be dependent on daily meetings in order to stay sober. If you are then you are doing something wrong in my opinion. Now that does not mean that you should not attend meetings, or that you are somehow weak if you attend daily meetings. It just means that you should not be dependent on those daily meetings in order to maintain sobriety. If this is the case then it points to a lack of progress in other areas of your recovery journey. In other words, you should be pursuing personal growth in such a way that you would not relapse immediately if you suddenly stopped going to AA meetings every day.
In the long run, I do not believe that anyone should be dependent on daily meetings to keep them sober. In the short term, I think that going to AA meetings is probably the easiest way to get the support that you need in early recovery.
Why you should give AA a chance in the first place
It’s all about timing.
When you first get clean and sober, you need help. You need information. How are you going to live a sober life? How are you going to make it through the day without drinking? These are the questions that you need help and support in order to deal with.
If not at AA, where are you going to get this help and support? This is a serious question. Think about it for a moment. Because without some help and support you are very likely to just relapse as recovery will quickly become overwhelming for you. The easy and quick solution is always to just go drink. It takes a lot of effort and energy to avoid that “easy solution.”
I don’t necessarily like AA or 12 step programs. I think they are a little bit clunky, very old fashioned, and I think they need serious updating. They are not a good fit for me in my own recovery. That said, I am still very grateful that those programs exist, and I attribute my success in early recovery with going to lots of AA meetings.
I have been sober for over 12 years now. During the first year I went to roughly 200 meetings or so. After that year I quit going entirely, and I have not been to a meeting for about 11 years. So that is my history with AA and 12 step programs. I definitely took advantage of the program during my first year of sobriety. On the other hand I decided that it was not the lifelong solution that I needed, and therefore I made an effort to break free from the daily meetings.
As I went to AA in those early days I noticed that many people were dependent on the meetings. This was not what the literature talked about, such as in the Big Book of AA. The book said one thing while the people in the meetings said another. The book said that the spiritual transformation from working the steps was what kept you sober. But at the meetings, you often heard people say that going to meetings every day was a critical part of “anyone’s” recovery. But did this really apply to everyone? I also noticed that many people relapsed who also attended meetings every single day, some of them went to more meetings than I did.
So my suggestion to everyone who is trying to get sober is to give AA meetings a chance. Start going to them with the idea that you don’t have to become dependent on them for life if you do not want to (although they will try to convince you that this is the best path in recovery).
The fact is that there are precious few alternatives for finding support in alcoholism recovery. AA is fairly widespread and is generally very accessible. It may not be perfect and you may not agree with their philosophy 100 percent but it is still the best form of support we have available. Therefore I believe that every alcoholic should give the meetings a chance, especially in early recovery.
What to do if they program is not a good fit for you personally (and what I actually did myself)
As I indicated, I started out my journey in recovery by going to AA meetings. Actually I was in treatment and I did not really have much of a choice, as the meetings were part of the treatment curriculum. Later on I was living in long term treatment, and they required me to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, which I did. After that I had to attend far less meetings, and eventually I quit going entirely.
But while I was living through this recovery process and still attending the daily meetings, I came to the decision that I no longer wanted to attend them. It took me a long time to get honest enough with myself to actually admit that I wanted to stop going to them. This is because there was so much guilt associated with quitting the meetings based on what people were saying to me. Pretty much everyone in recovery that I spoke with would parrot the idea that if you were to stop going to AA meetings then you would surely relapse and die. This was the message that was pounded into my head over and over again. Those who stop going to meetings always relapse.
So I heard this message and a part of me vowed to never stop going to meetings because I did not want to relapse. But another part of me was sitting in the meetings every day and realizing that I was wasting my time. I was hyper analyzing everything that was said in every meeting. This is not a good personality fit for going to daily meetings. In other words, if you actually listen and give full respect to each speaker in AA, then you will probably burn out eventually because the same things (and themes) are often repeated over and over again. After a solid year of attending AA frequently I was pretty much done.
Now on the one hand you have people who say “well, if the meetings aren’t any good then it is your responsibility to make the meeting better. What value can you yourself bring to the meeting?” But arguments like this did not affect me, because my personality is not exactly wired for public speaking. I have other ways to connect with people in recovery, and I would argue that I found and pursued those other ways online.
I came to a realization near the end of my first year of sobriety. I was being “lied” to. Not really intentionally lied to, but the people who preached that you need to go to meetings every day did not really know what they were talking about. Some of them relapsed. On the other hand, I watched certain “winners” in recovery who had significant clean time and they attended very few (if any) meetings. Something was not adding up.
So I eventually made the decision that I was going to ween off of the daily AA meetings completely.
My belief was that successful sobriety was based on something other than daily meeting attendance. I believed that it was based on positive action, healthy habits, and personal growth. Pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life. I tried to deconstruct AA in order to realize that it was really just a backdrop, or a framework, in which personal growth could happen. The thing that kept people sober was not AA itself, but the positive actions that they took as a result of AA.
This was the “finger pointing at the moon” revelation for me. AA is not recovery, it merely points to recovery. In a similar way, pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. It is just a finger pointing at the moon! I somehow intuitively realized this when I first was exposed to AA, probably because the program seemed so clunky and old fashioned to me. Deep down I knew that even if this AA stuff worked for people, it was not because the program itself was magical, but only that it pointed towards one possible path in recovery. Intuitively I knew that there must be other paths.
I was right. There are other paths. This is evidenced by the fact that alternative programs exist, and people stay clean and sober following these alternative programs. Not everyone gets sober through the 12 steps.
So here is what I did in my own journey:
I slowly started to ween myself off of the AA meetings. While I was doing this I made a deliberate effort to make sure I was pursuing personal growth in my life. Specifically, I made sure that I was exploring and following a daily practice, or trying to take good care of myself in as many ways as possible. Exercise, emotional balance, healthy relationships, etc. I made sure that I was pushing myself to take positive action every single day. If I was going to stop going to meetings and then relapse, it was not going to be due to a lack of effort. This is the attitude that I took when I stopped going to meetings. My attitude was: “I will show them!” My purpose was to prove to myself that personal growth was the key to sobriety, not the specific program laid out in AA, but just personal growth in general. I wanted to prove to myself that taking positive action every day was enough.
The results of my experiment have been fantastic. I have managed to remain clean and sober for over a decade after leaving the daily meetings, and I continue to push myself to make positive changes.
When I first left the meetings, there was a huge outcry from all of my peers in AA, as well as from some of my friends and family. This is only natural. They all believe that if you leave the meetings that you are setting yourself up for relapse. This is because most people who leave the meetings actually DO relapse. You can’t blame them for being worried. On the other hand, if you are pushing yourself to pursue personal growth outside of AA, then you are not necessarily going to become a statistic.
Now that I have been clean and sober for over 12 years (and left AA about 11 years ago), no one is panicking about my sobriety any more. In fact, many people have asked me “what my secret is” and how I remain sober without going to meetings. I simply tell them that AA is a good program, but it is only one path. AA points to the solution, but it is not the solution itself.
Here is the truth:
Whether you go to AA or not, recovery is a lot of hard work!
I think a lot of people secretly hope that the AA program has a magical quality to it that gives them a fast track to successful sobriety. It doesn’t work that way. AA is just a bunch of suggestions, but it is still up to the individual to implement those suggestions and take action.
Recovery is a lot of hard work. Being in AA gives you a tiny bit of direction, but 99 percent of your success is based on the daily practice, on pushing yourself to take positive action. In other words, it is all about implementation.
Recovery takes work.
Fundamental concepts of recovery. Or, why AA does not have the market cornered on recovery
Since over 90 percent of my sobriety journey has been without any formal recovery programs (such as AA), I have had a lot of time to think about what really keeps me sober.
I have come to the conclusion that there are fundamental principles in recovery from addiction.
These are concepts that existed before AA came along, and they are concepts that anyone will have to necessarily use in order to get sober.
In other words, these fundamental principles are not specific to any recovery program. They are simply part of sobriety.
I am still uncovering these principles as I go along in my journey, but some of the more obvious ones are:
1) Surrender. You have to surrender to your addiction if you are going to overcome it. Otherwise you stay stuck in denial and fight a losing battle for control. No one recovers without surrender.
2) Disruption. If you do not disrupt your pattern of abuse then it is very hard to break free. One way to disrupt your addiction is by going to rehab. Another way is to go to jail. Another way is to stop on your own and hang out in AA meetings all day. Obviously there is probably one form of disruption that you would prefer over the others, but this will vary from person to person.
3) Learning. You need new information in order to recover. Therefore you must learn.
4) Support. You need to relate to other alcoholics and drug addicts so that you know you are not crazy. This is one of the main benefits of AA meetings in early sobriety.
5) Personal growth. If you stop growing, you relapse eventually. Therefore you must keep moving forward in recovery. Continuous self improvement.
6) Holistic health. When they say that “relapse is sneaky” and “your disease is very patient” they are often referring to the fact that your recovery can be compromised in ways that you cannot necessarily predict. For example, getting an injury and being put on painkillers and then drinking as a result of this. This is why you need a holistic approach so that you can prevent relapse from sneaking in from unsuspected paths.
Judging how much help and support you need in a social sense
My opinion is that this is almost always an issue of timing.
In early recovery you probably need a lot of support. This is why I suggest that you give AA a chance in early recovery.
In long term sobriety you probably need far less support (as I found in my own journey).
The only way to know is to slowly cut back on how much support you are using. Of course while you are cutting back you need to be really honest with yourself as far as cravings go.
For example, if you are going to AA meetings every single day and you start skipping two of them each week, you need to closely monitor yourself and see how you feel. Try it for a month. If you start freaking out and having massive cravings for alcohol then go back to daily meetings without skipping any. This is is not rocket science!
On the other hand if you feel fine by skipping those two meetings and you are also pushing yourself to experience personal growth outside of AA, then you might slowly increase this taper.
This is what I did in my own recovery and I slowly cut myself down to one meeting each week, and then later no meetings at all. But the key is that I did this very slowly and I also made a deliberate effort to make sure I was taking positive action every day. In other words, I was hyper aware of the fact that I was decreasing my social support and I made sure I was aware if it was going to increase my cravings for alcohol.
Relapse prevention without daily meetings
The key to preventing relapse is personal growth.
If you are taking positive action every day in your life then it is not likely that you will relapse.
When we say “positive action” what we really mean is that you should be pursuing holistic health. You want to make sure that you are taking good care of yourself in every way possible. This means that you don’t neglect any problem areas in your life, and you take special measures to make sure you are pushing yourself towards greater health.
For example, you might exercise, meditate, explore healthy relationships, eliminate negative relationships, go back to school, learn a new skill, reach out to others in recovery, improve your life, improve your life situation, set new goals for yourself, and so on. And you might be doing all of these things within the same week, or even the same day.
Push yourself to learn and grow in recovery. Push yourself to take positive action on a daily basis. Your recovery should stand on its own based on the positive habits that you develop and follow on a daily basis.