It is sort of a strange question to ask of someone in recovery:
“Could your daily AA meetings be threatening your long term sobriety?”
Normally we do not think of AA meetings as being a bad thing for us in recovery. We generally think of them as being one of the supportive tools that we use in order to maintain sobriety.
They couldn’t be bad for us, could they?
In the most general sense, AA meetings are normally a good thing. They offer support and they allow us to relate to other people who are going through the same struggle that we are facing. Especially when it comes to the newcomer in recovery, meetings are generally a good thing. They are one of the most powerful recovery resources available to us, at least at first.
But there is also the threat of complacency in long term sobriety, and in fact, this is one of the biggest threats we will ever face.
Therefore it makes sense for us to address this threat, and to give it proper consideration.
What exactly is complacency?
In the journey of the recovering alcoholic, I would say that there are at least 3 major threats that every one of us will have to face at some point:
1) The threat of never surrendering to our disease, of staying stuck in our denial and in our addiction forever. Never sobering up.
2) The threat of relapse in early recovery. Lack of momentum, lack of willingness, lack of commitment. These things can threaten your sobriety before you even really get started.
3) The threat of complacency in long term sobriety. You have already been sober for many months (or years), but you become lazy in your approach to recovery and thus end up relapsing anyway.
This third threat is the one we are worried about here, the threat of complacency.
Many people in recovery fall into a dangerous pattern. They start going to AA meetings and this helps them to stay sober. All is fine, for a while.
But then they don’t take it any further than that. They fail to push themselves to attain any sort of real growth outside of the meetings.
The program of AA actually tries to address this. That is why there are 12 steps. If you actually take action and work the steps as intended then complacency will not be a problem for you.
But the problem is that many people in AA do not do this. Instead they take the lazy approach. They show up to daily meetings and they vent and talk about their frustrations and they fail to take much action in the real world. Such a person is a prime candidate for problems down the road because they are setting themselves up to become complacent. (Here are a few case studies of people who have achieved successful sobriety and overcome complacency).
How to use meetings the right way
The way to use meetings correctly is to hit them hard when you first get sober, then start implementing the ideas that they are discussing in the meetings. But when you implement these ideas you don’t just sit in the meetings all day with your feet propped up, talking and listening. You get out there in the real world and you apply what you have learned.
Furthermore, if you are determined to take the AA route in your recovery (strictly optional by the way), then you really should be working on step twelve much sooner than most people realize. A lot of modern day AA people will argue that twelve step work (helping others) should come much later in your recovery, after you have “built your foundation” and so on. But this is not really true–it is important that you start giving back and helping others as soon as possible. In the good old days, when success rates were quite a bit higher, newly recovering alcoholics worked through the twelve steps much quicker, and as a result they started helping others and doing step 12 work almost immediately.
Meetings should not be your place to go every single day in order to vent your frustrations. Many, many people in the program use the daily meetings in this way. They were never intended to be used like this. In the beginning, AA was too small to even have meetings every day. They were lucky to have one or two meetings over the course of a week. So people back then could not even rely on them every day like we are used to now.
The world has changed, but is it really for the better? Today you could attend several meetings every day in a decent sized city if you wanted to, but is that really helping you? The problem is that most people figured that “yes, it would be helpful.” But it turns out that it is really more of a distraction to go to multiple AA meetings every single day. Sure, it is helpful from one angle in the sense that you are getting lots of extra support. But then from the standpoint of complacency, going to multiple AA meetings every day is a disaster.
Why is it a disaster?
Because if you are going to one AA meeting every single day (or more), then you are training yourself to use those meetings in order to manage your recovery. You are teaching yourself dependency on the meetings. Just think back to when AA first started, and there was only one meeting each WEEK in most cities. In that case what would you have done?
I will tell you what you would have done. You would have worked the steps, dove head first into the literature, and started reaching out and working with other struggling alcoholics. These are the true building blocks of a successful recovery that get neglected today in favor of daily meetings. If you look at the average newcomer in AA today and ask them what they think the solution is, they will probably tell you “I need to come to these meetings every day, these meetings are like my medicine for recovery!” We are teaching people to depend on the meetings in order to stay sober, and yet look at the success rates that this is producing for us overall (the data is difficult to pin down, but by all indications it is not very good).
I am not arguing that AA meetings are bad….far from it. What I am saying is that having a dependency on AA meetings is bad.
If you get clean and sober and you fall into this routine where you just go to meetings every single day, then that is one thing. Perhaps this is what you need to do in order to stay sober at first. But the key is that you need to branch out eventually and start making real growth out in the real world. You know, in your life outside of meetings. That life still exists and if you ever relapse, that is where it is going to happen. Out there. Outside of the meetings. You cannot live the rest of your life inside of AA meetings, you have to get out there and live, and in order to become stronger you are going to have to push yourself to make some serious growth.
It is easy to sit in AA meetings and listen and then give a little speech and feel like you are growing in your recovery. But are you really making progress? Are you really growing stronger in your recovery as a result of the discussions you are having?
Certainly in early recovery you need to do some of this sort of thing because you need new information. You don’t yet know how to live sober, so it helps to have other people explain it to you. Meetings are useful for this.
But let’s say that you have 3 years sober, or 7 years sober, or 10 years. Are you still sitting in an AA meeting every day at those points? What for? Are there other ways that you might “give back” and work with other alcoholics in recovery? There definitely are, and you can have a much stronger recovery if you seek out that sort of personal growth for yourself.
Judging your recovery strength by your dependency on meetings
At one point I was living in long term rehab and I had just sobered up recently. I was at the start of my recovery journey.
I was attending AA meetings every day at that time because it was a requirement for me to do so. And I did not have a problem with it…..yet.
But I heard a theme while I was attending meetings, and the theme was essentially people saying things like:
“I know that I gotta keep coming to these meetings forever or else I could relapse.”
“These daily meetings are like my medicine.”
“If I stop going to meetings for a few days then I start thinking about drinking and I become unhappy.”
So I heard people say these things in the meetings, and I thought to myself at the time:
“Something is not right here. They are talking about these meetings like they are a real dependency. Yet the literature does not talk about a dependency on the meetings, nor does it really suggest daily meetings” (in the Big Book of AA, it does NOT suggest going to AA meetings every day for the rest of your life).
Something felt wrong about this situation. And I wanted to explore what it was.
Also, I felt like I was wasting much of my time by sitting in the meetings every day. I was getting very little out of being there. It was not a total loss, as I got some benefit from it, but it seemed to me that I could get more benefit for my recovery if I was doing other things (working with recovering alcoholics directly, reading recovery literature, writing about my recovery, etc.).
Therefore when I had about 18 months sober I started to taper off of my daily meetings in order to explore the idea that they were not critical for sobriety.
To hear the wisdom of the masses tell it, this was a recipe for disaster and instant relapse. If I stopped attending meetings then I was doomed to relapse.
But I did not really believe that, so I tried it anyway.
What to do if you want to reduce your dependency on daily meetings
I wanted to stop going to so many meetings. I did not understand why a dependency on daily AA meetings was seen as a good thing. To me it just seemed like an unnecessary hurdle in recovery, and something that had “grown” into modern day AA. From what I could tell of the history of AA, it wasn’t always like that, and people recovered just fine in the past (without going to meetings every single day).
Therefore I created a little plan in my head. I would simply stop attending so many meetings.
I knew that there would be a backlash from my peers and my friends in AA. I had already watched this happen many times with other people in the program. As soon as they stopped attending meetings, their peers would go to them and ask them if they were “OK.” The assumption was that they were headed for certain relapse because they had abandoned the meetings.
It turned out that they were mostly correct in this. When someone stopped attending meetings, it almost always meant that they were about to relapse (or that they had already). In that sense, people were using the daily AA meetings “like medicine.” Once they figured out that they wanted to say “screw it” and go drink, they stopped going to meetings.
But in my case, I did not want to go drink. I was not on the brink of relapse. I just wanted to find a path in recovery that did not depend on sitting through daily AA meetings.
I did not realize it at the time, but what I started to do at that point in my life was to “deconstruct” successful sobriety.
What does that mean?
It means that I started to look at people in sobriety who were successful, and then I was deconstructing what they were actually doing in order to maintain sobriety.
Many of these people were using principles and concepts from AA. Well, what were those principles and concepts? Not the steps, not the meetings, but the ideas and the concepts that lay underneath of all that…..that is what I started to explore.
And in doing this, I realized that the meetings were, in fact, optional. I even talked with some people who had over a decade of sobriety and found out that they attended very few AA meetings any more (like one or two per week usually). And in doing research online I found many people in recovery who did not attend meetings at all.
But I wanted to be cautious. I did not want to just stop going to meetings and then relapse, which is what everyone warned me would happen. This is what my peers in recovery were used to seeing, so I could not blame them for believing that I was headed for relapse if I drifted away from the daily meetings.
So I came up with a plan.
My plan was this:
In order to leave the daily meetings, I had to be taking positive action. I had to be pursuing personal growth every day. I had to be pushing myself to become a better person and to constantly improve my life. My plan was to leave AA, but to take massive action in my life.
So I started doing those things on a daily basis. It was important that I did them every single day, that way there was no way for me to lose focus in my efforts. If you do something every single day then there is no way to drift away from your goal. There is no decision to make, such as “should I work hard on my recovery today or be lazy?” There is no question. You have already made the commitment to daily growth.
So I started to do things to improve my life and my health. I did these things outside of AA. Things like exercise. Things like writing about recovery online. Things like connecting with others in recovery outside of AA. Things like working on improving my physical health. And so on.
So I started on a path of personal growth, one that was entirely self motivated. I knew that I had to make this effort in order to remain sober. Once you leave the daily meetings, all of the motivation has to come from within. You can no longer count on others to push you towards action. You can no longer sit in the daily meeting and listen to people tell you how you should be working the steps, or reading the literature, or working with others in recovery. Instead of going to a meeting every day in order to be told to do these things, just start doing them. Avoid the meetings altogether and find your own internal motivation to go “do the work.”
Yes, you still have to “do the work.” But no, you do not have to sit in an AA meeting every single day of your life for an hour in order to be told what to do, or in order to maintain sobriety. That is just an assumption made by modern day recovery. If you choose to reject that assumption, you can still recover. But you still have to do the work.
Personal growth is the process that keeps people sober
What does it mean to “do the work” in recovery?
It means that you have to take positive action every single day in order to pursue personal growth.
If you are moving towards personal growth by taking positive action then, by definition, you are moving further and further away from relapse.
The converse of this is true as well:
If you are NOT taking positive action every day, then by definition, you are moving closer and closer to relapse.
Does that sound unfair or harsh?
It is the truth. Don’t bother to test it, because many alcoholics in traditional recovery test this out every day.
That is why if you go to AA meetings you will hear people say this now-infamous line:
“You are either working on recovery or you are working on a relapse.”
This is repeated often because many people find it to be true. Take it for the wisdom that it is. Use the concept. Apply it in your own life.
This is why complacency kills people. You stop “doing the work” in recovery and you will eventually relapse.
On the other hand, if you are taking positive action every day and you are pursuing personal growth (inside or outside of the AA program), then you are protecting yourself from the threat of relapse.
So you have to look at the concept of personal growth and measure if you are really doing that or not in your day to day life.
If you are maintaining a lot of positive growth in your daily living because you are attending AA meetings every day, then by all means, keep attending meetings.
But if you are relying on the meetings for your sobriety and you really have stopped pushing yourself to make growth and positive changes outside of the meetings, then you might have a problem. And that problem is defined as “complacency.”
In order to get past complacency, you don’t necessarily have to go to meetings, or not go to meetings. What you have to do is to find a way to start growing again, to take positive action, to get excited about making positive changes in your life.
If going to AA meetings every single day is preventing you from finding that new spark of personal growth, then you might want to change up your routine for a while.
It certainly worked for me.
What has worked for you in your recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!