Ensure Success in Recovery Without Devoting Your Life to Programs

Ensure Success in Recovery Without Devoting Your Life to Programs

Sugarcane path

When I first made the decision to get clean and sober, I thought that the path was clear enough for me: All I had to do was dedicate my life to the 12 step program in order to be clean and sober and happy. At least, that is the message that I was getting from the recovery community at the time. Devote your life to AA or NA and things will go well. This seemed to be the message that I was getting from treatment.

But as I continued on in my recovery, I slowly realized that this was not necessarily the case. I watched far too many people relapse who seemed to be much more “into” the program than I was, and this made me extremely nervous. If I was going to ensure my success in recovery then I was probably going to have to try even harder than these people that I was comparing myself too. So it disturbed me greatly when such peers of mine would relapse.

A few times my confidence was shattered completely when someone would relapse who I really looked up to and admired. I had been comparing myself to that person and to their program, thinking that they were doing so much better than I was. This was due to their level of dedication to the 12 step program. So when such people relapsed I had to rethink my stance on what successful recovery was really all about.

It was like I was being told one thing in traditional recovery programs (go to meetings every day and don’t drink/use drugs) but I was witnessing something else (many people who attended meetings and were devoted to the program still relapsed). This inconsistency kept mounting up with more and more examples, making it much more difficult to ignore. My ideas about what was really important in recovery started to change based on what I was observing (rather than being founded only on what I was being told instead).

I became obsessed with figuring out what was truly important in addiction recovery. I did not want to relapse, plain and simple. I also did not want to waste a lot of time doing things for my recovery that were not going to be effective. If people who devoted their lives to the 12 step program and attended meetings every single day were relapsing, I wanted to understand why so that I did not make the same mistake. Furthermore, I did not want to just keep blindly following a program and devoting my entire life to it if it was not going to produce the results that I wanted. Therefore I was on a mission to understand exactly what was keeping people clean and sober, and why some people relapsed even as they were following a recovery program. I wanted to get to the heart of the matter.

- Approved Treatment Center -


So I set out to learn this by actively watching people in recovery. At the time I was still attending meetings so I watched the people who were in the meetings with me. I was also living in a long term treatment center and so I was living with eleven other recovering addicts and a surprising number of them relapsed. Later on I worked in a detox and short term inpatient rehab for a little over five years and so I got to watch thousands of people try to get clean and sober. So on the whole I paid attention to a lot of different struggling alcoholics and addicts and therefore I collected a ton of data. I was watching hundreds of people in recovery over several years in order to try to learn “the real secret” of recovery.

So what did I learn? I learned that there is no real secret, only hard work and commitment. On the fringes of these traditional recovery programs (AA and NA) you can find all sorts of unique case studies that are people who are not following the more traditional path (the traditional path being–go to meetings every day, get a sponsor, work the steps). I also found many people online who were not following a traditional path of recovery either.

Now to be fair, there were people from both camps who relapsed, and also people from both camps who succeeded in recovery. For example I know someone in the traditional AA program who is doing very well in their recovery and is now at over 12 years sober. AA and 12 step programs certainly can work for some people. But obviously I learned that they do not work for ALL people.

What frustrated me so much in my search for “truth” was that there was no magic lever, no consistency. I could find one person in AA who seemed to be doing everything right, and things were working out well for that person. But then at the same time I could find a dozen other examples in AA who were doing the same things, maybe even more dedicated than the first example, and they end up relapsing. The same was true when I looked at people who were not following a traditional recovery program–some of them seemed to do really well, while others relapsed for no apparent reason.

This was frustrating because I was trying to boil recovery down to the bare essentials. I was trying to find the central truth that would reveal what was truly important in staying clean and sober. I wanted to be able to find that magic lever and then press it over and over again so that I was sure to never relapse. The suggestions that I received in traditional recovery were far too vague, and it was a mish mash of sometimes conflicting advice. To be perfectly honest, 12 steps seems a bit overwhelming to me, and the amount of advice that you can get from a single AA meeting is astounding. My goal was to simplify recovery in some way, boil it down to the essentials, figure out what really kept people clean and sober.

In order to learn that I had to embark on my own journey, and at some point this meant that I had to leave the 12 step meetings. Doing so was not easy. But at the time, staying in the meetings was not easy either.

What is like to remove the safety net of traditional recovery programs

I had gotten to a point in AA and NA meetings where I was sitting in the meetings and resenting the fact that I was there. How was this helping my recovery? I was listening to people drone on about various things, but it seemed like I had heard it all before. I looked around the tables of AA and realized that I probably listened more intently than most people. I was actually paying attention to each person who spoke, but I was not really learning anything. I had heard it all before, having gone to several hundred meetings already.

Some people suggested to me that this was simply a bad attitude, and that it was my own fault if I was not learning anything at the meetings. At the very least, I was told, at least if you were at a boring or worthless meeting you should learn some patience. I found this suggestion to be ridiculous. If I was sitting through a one hour meeting every day and not getting much out of it (except for learning patience) then clearly I was wasting my time. This could not be the secret of successful sobriety. There had to be something more important that led to success in recovery.

I did a little research at this point and realized that people in AA were telling me some interesting things. For one thing they told me that the success rate of AA in the good old days was much higher. Interestingly, however, in the good old days they did not go to 7 meetings each week. They did not HAVE 7 meetings each week when AA first started. In fact they usually only had one meeting per week or so. The rest was all about working the steps, living the principles, and helping other alcoholics (12 step work). Now keep in mind that I was being told that this old method worked better and had a higher success rate than our modern day recovery existence (90 meetings in 90 days, etc.).

With that in mind I had a clue as to the true nature of successful sobriety. It was not about meeting attendance, because in the early days of AA they did not have daily meetings. They were lucky to meet once or twice each week.

So I decided to do an experiment and stop going to meetings. I had been attending for about 18 months or so and I slowly stopped attending. Of course everyone in the AA meetings said that if a person was to do this that they would surely relapse. So of course I was nervous that I was screwing up my recovery. But at the same time I realized that the meetings were not helping me, and I resented having to sit through them. I was not “running away from recovery” I was only rejecting the model of “sit in meetings every day for the rest of your life in order to stay sober.” I wanted to find a better way.

I sort of hemmed and hawed for a long time in trying to figure out how to do this without taking a risk. I did not really want to stop going to meetings until I knew that I would be successful. Of course I quickly figured out that this was impossible; the only way I was going to know if it worked would be to actually stop going to meetings and then see if I stayed sober or not.

So I basically just stopped going at one point. When I did this I continued to run into people from the meetings who always expressed deep concern for me, thinking that I was on the brink of relapse. I had to assure them that I was doing well and that I was active in other recovery venues (partially true, I was dabbling in online recovery forums but nothing major). It was a little unnerving to think that everyone in AA thought I was going to relapse and die because I stopped coming to meetings.

My own fear was that these people were correct. My mindset became one of saying “I must prove them wrong. I must not relapse. I must find a way to stay clean and sober.”

In order to do this I started to take action. What kind of action? Positive action. I guess that just means that I judged each potential action as to whether it would help me to stay sober or not. So exercising and distance running was judged as being “good” for my sobriety. Writing about recovery online was also labeled as “good” for my recovery. So I started to find other actions that I could take that would help me to stay clean and sober. Not all of these actions were directly related to sobriety, but then again, neither are the actions that are suggested in AA (a moral inventory is not directly related to abstaining from alcohol, for example).

I quickly figured out that this was probably the answer that I was looking for all along–positive action. I really only needed two things in order to make sobriety work. Those things were:

1) A decision to not use drugs or alcohol.
2) A way to deal with life so that I did not revert to my old solution (relapse prevention).

I had studied the 12 steps in great deal and even worked through them to the best of my ability, and now I was attempting to extract the important elements from that experience. I had already dismissed the idea that faith was the magic lever in recovery, because I had already watched far too many people relapse who had much stronger faith than my own. So what was the secret sauce in the 12 step program that led people to successful recovery?

I decided that it was “personal growth.” Taking positive action led to positive results. Improving your life in different areas made you stronger in terms of relapse prevention. Personal growth was really the best form of preventing relapse.

To me the first step in AA was the only one that really made sense. The rest of the 12 steps was just garbage as far as I was concerned. They were arbitrary. I realized that people who stayed clean and sober were embracing step one perfectly, then the rest of the 12 steps were somewhat arbitrary. They did not really matter.

Now keep in mind that I was also doing lots of searching and seeking at the “fringes” of traditional recovery (for example, in online recovery). I was discovering plenty of people who were finding success in recovery without simply going to meetings every day. And I was trying to figure out what made them tick and what led them to success. What I learned is that everyone who was successful in recovery was embracing this “first step” perfectly:

* Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.

That was always “step one” so to speak. That was always the foundation of their success. This was universal. If they did not have that mastered then they relapsed.

But after that, the remaining “steps” that led them to success always varied. For some people it was religious faith. For some people it was going to meetings every day. For some people it was personal growth. For some people it was vigorous exercise.

The only common thread was the commitment to sobriety. Don’t drink or use drugs no matter what. That is really the only critical step. After that there is no magic, per se. Only ideas and suggestions for what may or may not help someone.

I realized then that there is definitely no “magic” in the 12 steps of AA, as was suggested to my when I was in early recovery. The only magic is in the first step and in the commitment to total abstinence. That is the magic of recovery. The rest of it is just details, arbitrary stuff, window dressing.

Alcoholism recovery in 2 steps?

The first step is to make a commitment to not put addictive drugs or alcohol into your body any more.

The second step is to figure out how to deal with life so that you can maintain sobriety without going crazy. The traditional 12 step program is one suggested path for making that happen, but I personally did not find it to be very useful.

Therefore you may look into alternatives for that “second step” in your recovery journey. I would challenge you to realize that some addicts and alcoholics stay clean and sober through exercise alone (see “Racing for Recovery”). So it is ridiculous to me to sit in an AA meeting and hear someone say something like “No true alcoholic can stay sober without God and AA!” It is almost painful for me to sit through meetings and have to listen to such nonsense, when clearly I have observed and learned otherwise in my last 12+ years of sobriety.

I am not suggesting that finding God and embracing AA will not help you, because they certainly might. But many people in traditional recovery suggest that their way is the only way, and that people seeking alternatives are foolishly courting relapse and death. When I left AA over a decade ago I did not find relapse nor death….instead I found this awesome new life. And I also realized that the 12 steps themselves are rather arbitrary. They are not useless, but they are also not necessary.

A 2 step program of recovery can be just as effective as the 12 step program, if you know what the correct steps are.

The first step is always the same: You have to put physical abstinence first. No alcohol or addictive drugs, period. That is always the foundation of sobriety.

Step two can be worded in many ways, but none of these are necessarily less effective than the 12 step program. Select one of the following for your second step:

* Seek personal growth in your life.
* Take positive action every single day.
* Push yourself to become a better person and to help others to grow.

Any one of those may work for you in recovery so long as you never forget step one as well (total abstinence). If you want something more clearly defined then you are out of luck. The 12 step program may sound like it has a simple lever to push, but in reality it is 12 steps that are also rather arbitrary (and therefore of questionable usefulness). Remember that the only real “magic” in AA is in the commitment to physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol. The rest is arbitrary.

Step one is where the magic happens: “Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.” The rest is just details. If you commit fully to that first step then you will be fine in figuring out the rest (though it may be a lifelong journey in order to do so).

And yes, so long as you master that commitment to sobriety, then AA should be able to serve you just fine as well. But the magic is in your commitment, not in some mystical arrangement of steps or principles.

Devoting your life to personal growth

If you want to devote your life to something, I would suggest the following two things:

1) Physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
2) Personal growth.

If AA helps you to achieve those things, then by all means, embrace it. If not, realize that there is no magic in the 12 steps themselves. You can find growth on your own too, just as I have done.

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