Many people have asked me over the years how it is possible that I maintain sobriety without attending AA or NA meetings. In the past, I have struggled to explain my process for this fully and completely. It is true that I started by going to meetings every day and continued to do that for approximately the first year of my recovery. After that my meeting attendance declined significantly and by start of my third year I was no longer attending meetings at all.
Many of my peers in AA and NA want to know what my secret is. But the truth is I don’t really have a secret, and I worked very hard in order to maintain my sobriety. When I talk to people who are in AA, I get the idea that they are working very hard as well. It seems as if there is no free ride in recovery for anyone. It takes a lot of work to stay clean and sober. As such, the 12 steps may be one method, but they are certainly not a magic bullet. If you don’t put in the work you won’t get the results. This seems to hold true both in and out of AA.
I never really got into the hang of sharing at meetings. I would share a little bit when I first started going to AA but it made me nervous to talk in front of other people. For this reason, I wanted to see if I could stay sober without the meetings. My counselor and therapist at the time encouraged me to face my fear and speak at the meetings anyway. While I tried to do this for some time, it never seem to get any easier for me. So at some point I started drifting away from the meetings and I got scared that I was going to relapse if I didn’t do something. So I set out discover what the real mechanics of sobriety were.
I got the idea that recovery was based on personal growth by listening to different people and their own ideas. I also got the idea from listening to others that holistic health was an important part of long-term recovery. After one of my peers passed away fairly young from lifestyle diseases it sort of confirmed for me that this was true. I did not just want to stay sober, I also wanted to quit smoking. And I felt bad about myself that I was out of shape and was not exercising regularly. So I wanted to make some changes in my life and challenge myself to create more growth.
My peers in recovery did not necessarily see these ideas as being critical for sobriety. For them, it was all about spiritual growth and attending daily meetings. But at some point I wanted more for myself and I did not want to keep listening to the same old stories in the same old meetings. It was getting harder and harder to extract real value from the meetings that I was attending. So I started to see if I could use my time in a more positive way to better promote personal growth.
One of the things that I started doing was exercising. This was a really big deal for me, and it took several years for me to really embrace the idea. But after the idea finally took hold for me, it really made a huge difference. In fact, exercise is one of the biggest components of my sobriety today. This is not an idea that you will hear spoken about in AA meetings. Things like exercise are not really part of their solution and are really more of a distraction for people who are trying to focus on the 12 steps. But I found in my own experience that exercise could be part of a spiritual awakening of sorts. Perhaps part of the problem is how we tend to define spirituality to begin with.
After I left the meetings and started pursuing personal growth on my own, my peers reacted to me by showing concern for my sobriety. They said that they were worried that I was going to relapse. Interestingly, many of those who showed concern actually relapsed themselves. Over the years, this gave me renewed confidence in the path of personal growth that I was pursuing.
You see, for the first year or two after leaving AA, I was full of fear and was not confident that I was taking the right path. Now that it is over a decade later I can look back and I am extremely grateful that I carved out my own path of personal growth. But at the time when I left the AA meetings, I had no way to know the future. Everyone was warning me that I was headed for relapse. And so the only defense that I had against this fear was to take positive action in my life.
As I did this I started to develop my own theory of how recovery really works. As the years went by, it became clear to me that the 12 steps were but one path that might work for someone, but they were certainly not the only path. After experiencing 10+ years of personal growth outside of AA, I am convinced that recovery can be a unique experience based on the individual, and not on the programs that they may be forced into. If I had one message for the newcomer today, it would be that you can still have hope for recovery without having to depend on a twelve-step program for the rest of your life. How you achieve that recovery may vary a great deal depending on your own situation and background.
For example, I like to point out that there is a recovery program that depends entirely on exercise. This is amazing to me, because I was originally taught that no one could possibly recover without finding a higher power first. But here are hundreds of people who have recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction simply by dedicating their lives to exercise. If that is not proof that alternatives can work, I don’t know what is.
Ultimately what I want people to understand is that you have options in recovery today. You don’t necessarily have to dedicate your life to a twelve-step program in order to stay clean and sober. There is a tremendous amount of collective fear when you go to AA and NA meetings from the people who depend on those programs. They do not necessarily want to believe that there is another path that might work for someone. Such an idea is actually a threat to their own sobriety, even though they would probably never admit to this.
Most people who end up in treatment never realize that there is an alternative to the default solution of AA and NA. Most people don’t have a problem with twelve-step programs and they may actually get a lot of benefit out of them. But there is also a significantly large group of people who would do better with a more personalized program of recovery; one that is based on personal growth and holistic health.
How I maintain my own recovery
I am often inspired to take action. I want to improve my life.
I do this on two different levels, in two different ways.
First of all I try to improve my life. What this really means is that I focus on making internal changes that will help me to react to the world. Or rather, these are often things that will prevent me from reacting to the world. Instead of getting bent out of shape I look for ways to improve myself so that I do not fly off the handle. Or I look for ways that I can avoid self pity, which threatens to destroy my recovery at times. I have had to develop systems for recognizing these problems and fighting against them. These are internal problems.
This is why the 12 steps are such a revelation to some people. They are essentially doing the exact same thing when they work through the 12 steps. It involves self analysis. What are my bad points and how can I fix them? How do I react to others and in what ways is that hurting me or limiting my life? Can these things be fixed, changed, improved? Of course the answer is almost always “yes” but you have to have the courage to look at yourself honestly.
When most people take an honest look at themselves they do not like what they see. I had to take an honest look at myself in early recovery and I had to realize that self pity was going to destroy me. I had to get real about this little mental trick that my brain liked to play all the time. I could clearly see that if I continued to allow myself the “luxury” of self pity that eventually it would give me the excuse that I needed to go get drunk again some day. This was not what I wanted and therefore I had to make a decision.
That decision was this:
Do I want to allow myself the comfort of feeling sorry for myself? Or am I going to learn how to retrain my brain in order to avoid this destructive thought pattern?
Your thought pattern may be different than mine. It is probably not self pity. More likely it will be resentment. But whatever the case is, there is something in your brain, some sort of mental cycle that you engage in, and that cycle was fueling your addiction. You have to figure out what that mental cycle was and put a stop to it. You have to decide that you are going to fix it. In AA they call this a “character defect.”
So after I identified my self pity and realized that it was how my brain convinced me drink, what did I do about it?
Can you just snap your fingers magically and expect for your character defect (in my case, self pity) to just magically disappear?
Belief it or not, it can be almost that easy in some cases. It takes a little more effort than that but just having this awareness is at least half of the battle.
Here is the process that I used to eliminate this character defect of mine (yours may be resentment, self pity, obsessing over alcohol, etc.):
1) Recognize the problem and make a decision to confront it and fix it. You must commit to change.
2) Increase your awareness of the problem. You must learn to notice (very quickly) when your brain is running this mental cycle. So when I realized that my mind was slipping into “self pity mode” I had to really jump on it fast and recognize what was happening. Right away! This is an increase in your awareness. Instead of just living mindlessly you are now “watching the mind.” You become an observer of what your mind is doing. This is a leap forward in consciousness. An elevation. You can decide to do this consciously, just by deciding to watch for it. It is a decision you can make, if you choose to do so. Don’t say “I don’t know how to raise my awareness.” That’s just a lame excuse. Pay attention! This is your life, and you are trying to save it. Pay attention. Watch your mind. You are the new traffic cop in town. Your job is to watch your brain and police its activity.
3) Shut down the negative mental activity. That’s right, just shut it down. “How” you ask? By simply recognizing it and remembering your commitment that you are not allowing your mind to “go there” any more. Simply redirect yourself. If you cannot do that instantly then you need to reach out to others for support in those moments (call a sponsor, call a friend in recovery, go to a meeting, write in a journal, meditate, exercise, etc.).
Those are the 3 steps to maintaining a healthy mind in recovery.
It is all about eliminating the negatives, unfortunately. But it works.
You must identify the crap that your brain is doing to, all of that negative mental activity that your mind is capable of producing. Figure out what it is and why it is no good for you.
Then become aware of it. Heighten your awareness of it. This is a decision. You must choose to become more aware of this.
Then you must shut it down, consistently, every single time.
Do you know what the real miracle is?
This takes almost no time at all. You simply have to do it. Maybe for a week or two. And then POW! It is automatic. You have retrained your brain. Suddenly it is happening automatically, with almost no effort on your part. You have established a new habit of avoiding a bad habit.
But you do have to do it. You have to initiate. You have to decide, then commit. Then identify and raise your awareness. Then start shutting down the negative garbage.
It really is that easy.
But that does not mean that it is easy to pull it off. You still have to summon the courage to get honest with yourself and to follow through and to be vigilant for a few weeks until it becomes ingrained in you.
I have not had a problem with self pity for over ten years now. Seriously. It is a freaking miracle. And all I did was to put my brain in its place, and tell it “Hey you, look here now, I am not going to allow you to sit around and feel sorry for yourself. It is too destructive. You are going to have to look at the positive and figure out real solutions instead. So deal with it. Get over it. Move on. No more self pity for you.”
Really that is what it boiled down to.
And this is essentially how I maintain my sobriety from a mental perspective.
Of course there are other aspects to recovery as well, such as physical (exercise) and spiritual. But those are topics for another day.