This is a controversial topic but I do believe it is an important issue to take a look at.
This goes for people who firmly entrenched in recovery programs such as AA, as well as people who are “off doing their own thing” for recovery.
Everyone needs help in order to recover. The question is: How much help do you need, and are you in danger of becoming complacent based on the help that you get?
I was shocked to find that many people who were depending on recovery programs for their sobriety were actually hurting themselves in the long run.
For example, I used to hear people declare in AA meetings: “These daily meetings are my medicine. They are like the cure for my addiction. Without them I would surely relapse.”
And I heard that and I thought to myself: “Really?”
Just like that, if you stop going to meetings, you are sure that you will relapse?
That doesn’t sound like a strong recovery to me.
Now when I first started hearing that idea in AA meetings, I really did not know what to make of it. I was too early in recovery to have my own opinions about what worked and what did not. In the beginning, I assumed that such people were right on the money, and that everyone who was in AA should certainly keep going to meetings every day so that they could stay sober.
It did not really enter my mind that having a dependency on daily meetings could, in fact, be a hindrance…..until a few years later.
One of the things that “woke me up to this possibility” is that I watched several of my peers relapse. Many of these people were the same ones who were cautioning me that I should be going to more meetings. And yet they were going to meetings every single day and they still managed to somehow relapse. What was going on here?
At the same time, I spoke with my great sponsor in NA (the sponsor of my current sponsor) and he told me that he only made it to one, maybe two meetings per week these days. At the time he had 17 years clean and sober, which was amazing to me. And I remember thinking to myself: “Wait a minute….this guy is my great sponsor and he has a rock solid recovery and obviously the meetings are not critical to his sobriety. He attends them casually, maybe one per week. Hmmm…..”
And so I started to look much more closely at the social angle. I started to consider the idea that daily AA meeting attendance might not, in fact, be the solution.
Because it is a very common idea to hear, that if you start out in recovery and you go to treatment and you start going to AA, you are going to hear it pounded into your head that going to meetings every day is the solution.
Now there is a time and a place for everything. Perhaps this is all an issue of timing. In early recovery, meetings make much more sense.
Perhaps I am just trying to justify my laziness though? I basically quit attending daily meetings around the two year point in my sobriety. I am now at over 13 years of continuous sobriety. So my theory is that the social solution is much more important in early recovery, and much less important in long term sobriety.
Early recovery and the need for social support
In early recovery we all need lots of help.
I really believe that.
When I got clean and sober I lived in long term treatment for 20 months straight.
Seriously, I actually lived in rehab for almost two years! That is a really big deal and a huge commitment.
Going to AA meetings every day is actually pretty trivial in comparison to that.
But this was the whole key for me, this massive foundation that I was able to build in early recovery.
Yes, I was attending meetings every day. I even chaired a meeting each week for the first two years.
But I also did a lot of other things besides meetings. I was living in rehab. I went to group therapy twice a week (not the same thing as AA). I saw a counselor for a one on one session once a week. I had a sponsor and I met with this person and took advice from him. And so on.
After two years I quit going to meetings. I just drifted away from them. My peers in AA all warned me that I was going to relapse. That was over a decade ago and I am still clean and sober today.
Later on I worked in a treatment center for five plus years. My theory now is that the social support is much more important the earlier you are in your recovery journey.
There are some important reasons for this.
The first reason is because you need to identify with other people in early recovery.
Every alcoholic and drug addict suffers from this problem in that they believe that they are unique. They think they are the first person to ever fall in love with drugs or alcohol.
This is, of course, ridiculous. There have been many alcoholics and drug addicts who came before all of us. And they have become sober (some of them).
But we can’t see that! The alcoholic is stuck. They think they are unique.
In theory, they can understand that there have been others who have struggled with alcoholism and eventually overcome it.
But in reality, the alcoholic refuses to fully believe it. They think they are unique, they think that they must love alcohol more than all of these other people did, or whatever. Somehow the idea of sobriety and recovery just don’t apply to them, because they are unique and they love alcohol or drugs so, so much.
That is what this terminal uniqueness feels like. I know this because I experienced it for myself. My family wanted to see me stop drinking and be happier in my life, and I thought they were crazy and even evil for trying to take alcohol away from me. I could not see it from their perspective. I could not see that alcohol was causing my misery. I thought that alcohol was the only thing that made me happy.
So when you first get clean and sober, or even when you are still attempting to do so, there is this problem of uniqueness. You think that you are the only REAL alcoholic who has ever existed.
And so in order to get help you have to fight through that somehow.
How do you do this?
You must identify with others.
So you go to rehab, you go to AA, you reach out and listen to other alcoholics and you listen to their stories.
This is one of the most important functions of AA, in my opinion. It gives a platform for the new alcoholic to identify with others.
And this is how you get hope. This is how the newcomer to recovery can actually see that “yes, this is possible for me. I could do this.”
And the way it happens is that you have to hear your story.
So you go to AA meetings and you listen and eventually someone is talking and you realize that they are telling YOUR story.
You say to yourself as you listen to them “Oh my gosh, they have gone through the exact same stuff that I have, and they have had the same problems, and they are sober now.”
When you make this realization, when you make this comparison, you are identifying.
This is the power of identification. You relate to this other person. You realize that you are really no different than they are.
Your terminal uniqueness drops away. It is shattered. You are not so different. Here is this other person, and they are an alcoholic, and you are just like they are.
And you realize that they are sober. That they have clawed their way through early sobriety and they have someone managed to remain sober.
And they seem happy. And they haven’t had a drink for eight years. Or twelve years. Or 18 months. Or whatever. And they are happy!
This is the power of identification.
There are other reasons that the social solution is important in early recovery, but identification is the biggest one by far. It gives the most hope.
Another reason is for actual support. Like when you are climbing the walls and you want to go drink alcohol, but you call up your peers in recovery and they take you out for coffee instead. And they sit and talk with you all night long. So that you don’t drink.
That is real support and it is part of the social solution. And I believe that this can be really important for early recovery as well.
I happened to live in rehab for the first two years but the idea is the same. I sat and talked with my peers for many long hours out in the “smoke room” at our facility. This is real world sobriety. This is how I recovered. It took a lot of help and a lot of support and sometimes that is just being with sober people and talking it out. Through the good times and the bad times. If you don’t live in rehab like I did then you might need to find ways to tap into this social support (Meetings, coffee with others in recovery, etc.).
Complacency based on social dependence
I think there is a danger of complacency when it comes to the social solution to recovery.
If you go to enough AA meetings for a long enough time period you can start to see it. You can pick it out among people. You can watch it happen.
I am talking about dependency on the meetings. A kind of complacency.
Some people who attend AA meetings every day are “walking the walk.” They are doing the work. They are working the steps into their lives.
These people are not in trouble. They don’t have a problem. They come to AA meetings and they give back to help others. This is fantastic. I applaud such people.
But there are many people in recovery who are not at this level yet. And they may never get there. Instead, they depend on the daily meetings to keep them sober. Without the daily AA meetings they would fall into relapse.
Notice that the people who are “walking the walk” do not depend on the meetings. They might show up to them every single day, but they don’t need them. Their sobriety is not dependent on them.
So my message in all of this is:
Don’t be the person who is depending on the meetings for continued sobriety!
You can certainly go to AA meetings every day if that is your thing. Nothing wrong with that at all. AA meetings are great. Going every day is fine. Nothing wrong with that.
But if you are dependent on those for your sobriety itself then the rest of your recovery program is lacking.
Think about it:
Who has the stronger recovery? The person who will relapse when they stop going to AA meetings, or the person who remains sober and strong without the AA meetings?
And take it a step further now:
Which person will have the better message for others? Who will have better experiences to share in AA?
My belief is that it is the stronger one, the person who does not actually depend on AA.
Because their experience is broader. They are growing as a person in more ways, more unique ways, on several different levels.
If you are stuck in a tiny little AA bubble and you have not really passed beyond those boundaries, then your experience is limited. You can advise people: “Come to AA meetings every day. Try to get a sponsor. Work through the steps.”
But beyond that, can you really offer any real world advice on how to grow as a person in recovery?
Whereas I made a challenge to myself at one time (at about the two year point in my recovery) and said to myself:
“I need to figure out what really makes recovery work for me. It’s not sitting in meetings every day, it is more than that. And I have to go discover what that is. I need to experiment. I need to learn. I need to explore, to take positive action.”
And I was so afraid of relapse at that time, I was so afraid of failing and proving all my peers right (“You will relapse if you quit going to AA!”) that I pushed myself really hard.
And it worked. It worked out really well. I learned what was important for my recovery beyond just spiritual growth (as branded by AA meetings and the steps).
For example, I learned how important daily exercise was for me. This was a huge piece of the puzzle that somehow got missed in my first two years of attending meetings. Why was that not stressed? I’ll never know, because it really helped me, and people don’t seem to talk about it much. The Big Book of AA doesn’t seem to put any emphasis on the importance of daily exercise. And yet it transformed my life in recovery. It was a huge revelation.
And this continued to happen over and over again, more growth experiences that I had in recovery that went beyond the stuff discussed in the daily meetings.
I had to take a leap beyond traditional recovery in order to find these growth experiences.
And to some extent I transitioned into this. Long term recovery, for me, was about transitioning out of the social aspect of recovery (daily meetings) and into a recovery that was driven by personal growth instead.
So timing is important. In very early recovery, I feel that social support is much more important.
But as you continue to accumulate more and more clean time in sobriety, the social aspect is much less important. And in fact it can become a sort of hidden threat, a kind of complacency, if you are not careful.
How should we avoid becoming dependent on others in recovery, while still interacting with others and learning from them?
I like to think of recovery in terms of personal growth.
So when you are interacting with others in recovery, your goal is to learn something from them and then apply it to your own life.
This takes practice. It is not always obvious what the lesson is at first. And sometimes you have to really dig in order to find the lesson. But the saying in recovery is something like: “Everyone that you meet in recovery has a lesson to teach you, if only you are willing to learn it.”
And this is how you avoid dependency. Don’t depend on other people for all of your decisions necessarily, but do go around and get suggestions from various people.
And make sure that you talk to a variety of people. I did not get all of my breakthrough ideas in my own recovery from any one person. I got them from a variety of people. There is much to learn if you are willing to ask around, to be open to the lessons.
If you become dependent on people in recovery it is because you are falling into a pattern, you are relying on them every day in order to get you through sober. This can happen with daily meetings but it can also happen with a sponsor. If you depend too much on any one person (or on the meetings themselves) then that does not lead to a strong recovery.
The key for me was to find “the winners” in recovery and talk to them directly, usually after an AA meeting, and say: “What do you do on a day to day basis that really keeps you sober, other than AA meetings?”
That is a very good question to be asking people. Keep asking various people that question until you generate lots of ideas and suggestions from it. Then start testing those ideas out in your own life and see if they work for you. This is the path to a very strong recovery. This is how you “borrow wisdom.”
Becoming strong based on personal growth
My theory is that anyone who is truly strong in their recovery has made it to that point based on personal growth.
They may have had a tremendous amount of help along the way (social support) but ultimately it is the positive changes that they have made in their own life that is driving their success.
Recovery is nothing if not positive change. We label those positive changes as “personal growth.” This is the whole key to long term sobriety.
Many of us need help in order to achieve this. Many of us need help with motivation. Some of us need others to help hold us accountable.
All of this is fine in the early stages of sobriety. But as you maintain sobriety you should be getting stronger, not weaker and more dependent.
There is nothing wrong with social interaction in long term recovery. The problem comes in if you depend on that interaction to keep you sober.
The core of your sobriety should come from inner strength, which is like a muscle that you must develop over time. For many people this inner strength is spiritual. For others it is more about personal growth, personal achievement, and taking positive action.
So use a social support network in your recovery, by all means. But do not depend on that social support in the long run. Instead, find ways to strengthen your sobriety so that you are not depending on other people to help keep you sober in the long run.