When I first became clean and sober I had no idea what I was doing.
I was desperate for change in my life. I honestly did not know what the answer was, I just knew that it had to be something other than what I had been experiencing.
This was because I was completely miserable in my alcoholism. And I had come to the conclusion that I had been miserable for a very long time. My denial had kept me from seeing this. I would not allow myself to believe that I was so miserable. Instead I covered that up by making excuses and blaming others for my unhappiness. And I continued to drink and to believe that I was truly happy only when I was drunk. This was how my denial worked.
When I finally got sick and tired of lying to myself about my lack of happiness, I became willing to change. This willingness was based on the fact that I was finally willing to face my fears. My fear was of being sober of course. My mind told me that if I became sober that I would be even more miserable. But luckily I reached a point of desperation where I realized that this was no longer a huge risk. So what if I was more miserable in sobriety? I was already completely miserable while drinking every single day. It couldn’t get much worse, could it? That was the logic that allowed me to take a stab at real sobriety.
So I became willing to change. Yet I had no idea how to go about doing so. In a clumsy way I asked for help. The people who wanted me to change were ready to send me to alcoholism treatment. I was willing to go. I had been twice before at this point but at those times I was not willing to change. I had not been willing to embrace the message. Any message. I was not willing to take action in the past.
But now I was ready. I was ready because I was so miserable with my addiction, and I finally was able to see that, and admit it to myself.
So I surrendered and went to rehab. And when I did so they introduced me to a recovery program called Alcoholics Anonymous.
Individual preference for recovery programs
Believe it or not, there is more than one way to get sober. Ultimately that is the entire point of what I am telling you here today: That you can get sober in AA, or you can get sober outside of AA if you desire. That is the real message here.
But that message is often refuted in traditional recovery based on fear. People in recovery programs have fear for their own sobriety. They hear the scary statistics regarding relapse and they don’t want to be one of those failed numbers. They don’t want to be one of the many people who relapse and go back to drinking.
So people have different ways of dealing with this fear. They try to do everything that they can to put this fear of relapse into a neat little box. And when they do that they often project that fear onto others. They do this in order to make themselves feel better. They do this so that they feel stronger in their recovery. They are simply trying to reassure themselves of their own sobriety.
So the way this comes out is typically at AA meetings. People will tell you that AA works, and that it is the best way to recover, and that if you leave the program that you will surely relapse. I have been to hundreds of AA meetings so I have heard these sort of warnings from different people. Some of them say that AA is the only possible recovery program that could work for anyone in this world. Some of them simply say you will relapse if you stop coming to the meetings. And so on.
It is all based on fear. They are trying to reassure themselves that they can stay sober as long as they “stick to their program” and keep coming to daily meetings. Their warning is a message that is completely rooted in fear. They are not concerned for the newcomer so much as they are concerned for themselves. Sure, they would like to see the newcomer stay sober as well, and this is their excuse as to why they give such strict warnings. But their warnings about relapse are actually to themselves.
I could not help but notice this tendency when I first got to AA and was exposed to the meetings. I started to wonder if maybe some people really did find alternative paths in recovery. I started to wonder if it was possible for someone to stop going to meetings every single day and to remain sober. What percentage of people in AA relapsed anyway? And what percentage of people relapsed if they were using an alternative path in recovery? These are the questions I was asking myself.
So I started to pay attention. I started to do a little bit of research. I started to ask some questions. I found some interesting ideas that did not necessarily match up with the fear based warnings that I heard in AA meetings all the time.
For example, my “grand sponsor” in AA (awesome guy by the way, still talk to him every once in while to this day) was this epic old timer in AA. Very nice guy, very helpful to people. Sponsored a lot of people. Everyone really seemed to look up to him and he had an incredible story of recovery. Well, come to find out, this guy was only going to one meeting per week, sometimes less! And that was a real shock to me at the time, because I was still very fresh in my recovery and I was under the impression that a lifetime of AA meeting attendance was mandatory for continuous sobriety. After all, that was really the message that I was hearing in early recovery. “Meeting makers make it,” right? Or so I believed.
Later on I did more research online and I found that many people in recovery do not necessarily use the 12 step program, nor do they attend meetings every day. I found that this was much more common than what I had been led to believe. By listening to people in AA, I had come to believe that AA was really pretty much the only way to sobriety in the world. This is one of the problems of a self selecting group though—they tend to reinforce their own beliefs without getting any experiences outside of AA.
The classic example of this has to do with someone who relapses and then comes back to AA meetings. They leave the meetings for a while because they are drinking again. Then they come back one day and they tell their story of how things went wrong, they relapsed, and now they are back. So people in AA use this as fuel for their beliefs, saying “See? Anyone who leaves the meetings relapses. They are lucky to make it back to AA!” What they do not see are people like myself, who left the meetings over a decade ago and have found a different (but successful) path in sobriety using a holistic approach. Not better, just different.
So I do not think that it is fair to say that AA is better than anything else, or vice versa. I think it is more important to find the method that is going to work best for the individual and then use that to your advantage in recovery. You want to find the set of actions in recovery that allows you to reinvent yourself and build a new life. If that is AA then by all means, go to AA.
Your recovery may evolve over time
Your recovery may evolve over time, and this is certainly not a bad thing.
The problem is that if you evolve away from a traditional recovery program then you are going to scare your peers into believing that you are on a path to relapse.
And the problem is also that there is no way to know for sure, even for yourself.
For example, let’s say that you are in AA (as I once was) and that you decide you want to leave the meetings and use more of a holistic approach.
How can you do this without alarming your peers that you are headed for certain relapse?
The bottom line is that you can’t. Your peers are going to react with that fear based response and some of them are also going to show genuine concern. So really there are two things going on: Some peers are genuinely concerned about your sobriety, and some of them are just projecting their own fear of relapse onto you. Most people will actually be doing a bit of both even though they will never admit to the fear projecting thing. They will say that it is all out of concern for you, which is not accurate. They are afraid for their own sobriety.
In some ways it is a threat to the person in AA if someone leaves the group and stays sober. Again, this is not something that most people in AA would acknowledge or admit to. But if someone in AA leaves and does well in their sobriety then it does not exactly fit into most of your peers worldviews. They want to believe that AA works, that it is the only way, and that they are safe so long as they keep doing what they are doing. They want their recovery in that neat little box. They don’t want to hear about loose ends, like people who manage to build a great life in sobriety without going to AA meetings all the time.
My recovery evolved because I got sick of sitting in AA meetings. At the time I had already mixed it up and I was going to different meetings around the area. One of the problems though was that you still tended to run into the same crowds at these specific meetings. I am sure if you lived in a huge city you could probably mix it up even more but the area that I am in actually has quite a few meetings each week (several hundred to choose from). But for whatever reason I got sick of sitting in them. My sponsor told me that I had a bad attitude, that I should bring value to the meeting myself.
But what was happening was that I had value to give, just not in that format. It was the wrong medium for me. I had value to give but I wanted to give that value in a different medium. So I discovered online recovery and I started participating in that instead. And I found that to be a better fit for my personal tastes.
When it came time for me to “make the leap” away from AA meetings I was very nervous that I might relapse. This was mostly due to the fear-based message from my peers in recovery. They told me that I would probably relapse if I completely walked away from all the meetings.
So I had to come up with a plan. My plan involved research. I learned what other people did in order to stay sober, people who did not rely on AA for their sobriety. And what I was finding was a variety of personal growth. I came to label this stuff as the “holistic approach” because it went beyond spirituality to involve the “whole person.”
In other words, AA tended to focus only on spiritual growth. I found in my journey that there were other ways to grow in recovery, not just spiritual. For example, exercise became a huge part of my recovery program, and I could not believe how little mention that it got in AA or in traditional rehab centers. Why was this not a thing? I wondered. Once you are exercising every day it has a huge impact on your recovery. It just made it so much easier for me to maintain sobriety and it really did a lot to strengthen my recovery. I could not believe that traditional recovery programs (such as the 12 step program) ignores physical exercise entirely.
So this is how I discovered the holistic approach for myself: Slowly over time rather than all at once. I sort of evolved into it. And at some point I realized that my efforts at personal growth could probably replace the daily meetings in terms of helping me to stay sober.
In other words, I had been relying on a daily AA meeting for my sobriety. Over time, I pushed myself to make positive changes in my life to the point where I figured I no longer needed to sit in that meeting each day in order to remain sober. And I had been right. Or at least, I have been “right” for over a decade now.
But it all comes down to personal preference in the end. I equate sitting in a daily AA meeting with watching television in order to be entertained. If you want recovery then there is a shortcut: Simply go sit in AA meetings every day and pay attention. Participate. Make an effort. This is like flipping on the television. You don’t have to think too much. It is like a shortcut.
On the other hand, you can walk away from the television set, which in this analogy means that you are leaving the AA meetings. Now you have to think on your feet a bit. Now you have to push yourself to learn and to grow and to motivate yourself. You can no longer rely on the daily meetings to propel you through recovery. Now you are on your own. It is like flipping off the TV for a kid who is glued to it. Now they have to think. Now they have to go do something, to find some way to entertain themselves. They flip their brain back on when the television goes off.
Perhaps that is a strange analogy but I remember what it was like to be going to AA meetings every single day (I did this for about the first year, maybe the first 18 months or so). It was like “automatic recovery.” Just show up to the meetings every day and you could probably stay sober without too much additional effort. Sure, you could still relapse, and I know many people who did. But if you wanted to remain sober then this was one of the shortcuts. And it worked for a lot of people. I know plenty of people in recovery with over 10 years sober who still go to meetings every single day. It is working for them. And my intention is not to take anything away from that. But it as not the right path for me, and it was not leading me to “active living.” It felt far too passive. Maybe that was my own fault, for not taking enough action in AA.
Longer term sobriety benefits more and more from a holistic approach
The longer you are in sobriety, the more you will benefit from a holistic approach.
This is because you learn the basics in early recovery, and then you pretty much have two choices from there:
1) Stay stuck in the basics of recovery.
2) Evolve and find new ways to grow in life.
Obviously the second choice sounds a bit better, right?
Recovery is about personal growth. If you can push yourself to go beyond merely staying abstinent then you can build an awesome new life for yourself in recovery.
There are basically 3 things that can happen to someone who is in recovery and living sober:
1) You can relapse and go back to drinking.
2) You can stay sober but not really be making much progress.
3) You can stay sober and your life will get better and better with each passing day.
Option number 3 is amazing. Everyone who has struggled with alcoholism should really push themselves to achieve that third option, where life gets better and better every day.
Now if you happen to be sober right now and your life is NOT actually getting better and better every day, then you could stand to take some corrective action.
The key word here being “action.”
If you want to reinvent yourself in recovery (and this should always be your goal in my opinion, even after years sober) then you need to take action. You need to push yourself. You need to say to yourself “how can I achieve personal growth today?” or maybe: “What should I be working towards in my life?”
Everyone should give AA a chance in early recovery, even if it is not right for them in the end
I don’t want to push a specific recovery program on anyone.
On the other hand, I want to help people to find their path in recovery.
It is not a huge mistake to seek recovery outside of the traditional programs necessarily. Some people even point out that because the success rate of AA is similar to the rate of spontaneous remission, you cannot do much worse than the existing traditional recovery programs that are out there today. In other words, don’t give in to the fear-based message that you will relapse if you leave traditional recovery programs. The holistic approach is real and if you want to explore it then all you need to do is motivate yourself to take action and pursue personal growth. There is no single path to recovery that works for everyone.
Have you found the holistic path to work for you in recovery? Or is AA working well for you instead? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!