How to Achieve Meaningful Recovery without Programs, Meetings, or Medication

How to Achieve Meaningful Recovery without Programs, Meetings, or Medication


Some people just don’t want to go to meetings. I was once one of those people and I eventually forced myself to attend the meetings because I felt that I had no other choice. After attending them for about a year I finally stopped going and have never gone back. That was over ten years ago, and I have been clean and sober ever since.

Some people have asked me if the meetings were vital to my success in early recovery, even though I did not continue with them indefinitely. In my particular situation, living in long term rehab was much more important to my early recovery than the daily meetings were.

I am not so sure that I would have fared well in early recovery without this intense amount of disruption. I suppose there are several different ways that an addict or alcoholic can attempt to disrupt their disease: they can relocate (I’ve been told this does not work, but have not tested it myself), they can find religion, they can join a 12 step program, they can get counseling or therapy, or they can go to rehab. Those seem to be most of the choices for disrupting your life.

What I have learned throughout my recovery journey is that, while disruption is an important element in the recovery process, it does not necessarily have to “traditional.” I know people who have overcome addiction through nothing be rigorous exercise. I suppose we could label that as a “program” but if you don’t show up to meetings every day or study literature then I would think that such an approach is really an individual thing rather than a group effort/social solution such as AA.

In other words, the key to recovery can be summarized with the following three words:

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* Surrender.
* Commitment.
* Action.

There is your entire recovery “program” right there, in just three little words. Nothing else is really required in order to successfully overcome an addiction. I know this first hand because I have lived the last ten years program, meeting, and medication free. I don’t follow a formal program of any sort, but I have made an intense commitment to personal sobriety, and I have also made a commitment to taking positive action. This has to do with personal philosophy. My goal is to maintain sobriety via personal growth. Because I have experienced much success with this philosophy, I have tried to share it with others (the Creative Theory of Recovery) and so therefore I suppose it is in danger of “becoming a program” if anyone chooses to follow the ideas and take it seriously.

But really I do not think that this stuff is revolutionary enough to even call it a “program” unto itself. It is just a theory of mine, so I called it the “creative theory of recovery” because I seemed to be able to create positive change in my own life when I put forth the effort to do so.

This theory grew out of my search for the ultimate truth in recovery. I am what you would label as an INTJ (personality type). I am not one to be spoon fed information and then just follow it blindly without understanding the reasoning and the logic behind it. This presented a huge problem to me when I first was introduced to the 12 step program because they essentially ask you to take the program on faith that it works, if you are willing to work it. They say things like “bring your heart but leave your mind behind if you want to do well in AA” or something like that. Follow your heart but not your mind. They attempt to downplay your own logical abilities by telling you “your best thinking got you in trouble.” The message is clear enough: stop trying to figure things out and just do what we tell you to do.

For a while I was able to do that, believe it or not. I was beaten down so badly from my addiction and I was so thoroughly whipped that I was able to blindly follow advice without questioning it. This worked for a while but eventually I realized that I was not going to be content with blind faith in the AA program as my recovery solution.

Part of my problem is that I actually listen and I process what information I am given and I am constantly analyzing and weighing things. This is a total nightmare if you are sitting in an AA meeting every single day of your life, because you get to listen to an endless stream of babbling and people who love to hear themselves talk. My analytic mind knows that I can learn something from anyone, but I also know that some lessons are not worth learning over and over again. Just give me the expert advice once and I can take it from there, thank you. I don’t need to hear ten examples of how NOT to work your recovery in every single meeting that I go to.

So while I was new in recovery and I was attending meetings every day I was searching for this ultimate truth of recovery. I knew that this was important for me to figure out because my analysis was not producing a conclusive answer right off the bat. In other words, if you go to ten AA meetings and write down ten pieces of advice from each of those meetings, you will actually get stuff that is all over the map. There will be conflicting information. Some of it will be outright contradictory. (Example: Your addiction is a disease and not a moral failing. But, in order to get better, please do a moral inventory and confess your sins to another human!)

In other areas of my life I have usually been able to boil something down, analyze it, and get to the heart of it. Get to the truth of the matter. This did not seem to be happening with recovery and I could not zero in on one critical element that would make or break a person’s recovery.

Why did some people relapse, while others stayed sober?

Why could I never predict (successfully) who was going to stay sober in the long run, and who was going to relapse? Turns out this is very difficult to do! I lived in long term rehab for 20 months so I had ample opportunity to make such predictions, and what I learned is that you cannot really predict it based on observable data. All that matters in predicting success in recovery is INTERNAL. It is the commitment that matters and the resulting follow through by taking action. This is all the matters. Nothing else matters.

Now go to ten AA meetings and in each one ask “what really matters for staying clean and sober?” Listen to everyone’s response and see how close they get to this ultimate truth (commitment to abstinence). I would be that if you go to ten meetings you might never hear anyone talk about “the individual’s strong commitment to abstinence.” Or their “commitment to sobriety.” It might get mentioned once or twice as being the most important thing in recovery.

The reason that this is the case is because there is so much additional advice. If you really go to an AA meeting and ask them what the most important thing in their recovery is, you know what you are going to hear?

“My higher power.”

“The 12 steps.”


“These meetings.”

And so on. If you go to ten different AA meetings and ask each meeting what the most important thing is, I bet you will hear at least twenty different answers in total.

But the truth is that (that I discovered anyway) is that none of this stuff is as important as your own personal commitment to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

That is number one.

And I have a label for this, I call it my “zero tolerance policy.”

It is a deal that I make with myself, either on a permanent basis or on a day to day basis (depending on how you like to arrange it in your mind).

The deal is simply this:

“I will not use addictive drugs or alcohol, no matter what.”

That’s it. Simple as can be. And incredibly powerful.

This is the commitment that your recovery hinges on.

This is the most important thing in your life. This one single commitment to yourself.

That is what I struggled for months to boil it all down to. I cannot believe how complicated traditional recovery has tried to make this.

If you go to enough AA meetings you will eventually hear someone say “This is a simple program for simple people”!

What? Seriously? You have no fewer than TWELVE steps!

When I first tried to get sober I could not remember a list of 4 things to get at the grocery store! And they have 12 steps? This is outrageous. Really, it is.

I am serious. Think about how complicated they have made the idea of simple abstinence. Somehow they have blown it up into 12 steps.

I have boiled it down into 2 steps if you are already clean and sober, and 4 steps if you need to get sober (and are still stuck in addiction).

Let’s take a look at a much simpler 4 step process. Note that this is not just my fancy idea about what should work or what ought to work, but this is in fact how the process has played out in my own life up to this point (after 11+ years of continuous sobriety).

The 4 steps are:

1) Surrender.
2) Disrupt your addiction/life.
3) Zero tolerance policy.
4) Personal growth/action.

Note that if you are already sober and somewhat stable, you only need steps 3 and 4. You can skip step one and two if you already detoxed and at least relatively stable in early recovery.

So let’s take a closer look at how to boil 12 steps down to just four or so.

Step one: make a decision to change and surrender

Surrender is not something that is unique to twelve step programs. It is a universal principle that has to happen any time that someone wants to break through their denial. This is true whether we are talking about drug and alcohol addiction but also if we are talking about other stuff like compulsive overeating, gambling problems, etc.

Surrender is the moment when the addict or alcoholic decides that they are not longer going to try to control their drug or alcohol intake. It is the moment when they become open to the idea that maybe total abstinence is a better path forward for them.

There is no secret formula for how to achieve this any quicker. No one can just force another person to surrender at will. This has to be earned via pain and suffering. Any addict or alcoholic who is still enjoying themselves in their addiction is not about to surrender. In fact such a person is probably a long ways off from when they will eventually surrender.

The fact is that we all have a different threshold for when we will say “enough is enough, I cannot live like this any more.” Some addicts and alcoholics will just keep banging their heads into the wall, piling more misery on top of more misery, and they will never surrender and their disease will kill them. Other addicts and alcoholics may reach the point of surrender much sooner.

The point of surrender usually involves asking for help. If the person is not asking for help then it is likely that they have not really surrendered yet. If they have not broke through their denial and surrendered then they will just try to use their own ideas about how to control and limit their addiction, rather than to abstain entirely.

Step one is always surrender, no matter if you are working a formal recovery program or not. Recovery cannot happen unless you agree to stop fighting the disease.

The only way to beat the addiction entirely is to stop fighting it and completely side-step it. That is what you do when you abstain entirely from addictive drugs and alcohol. You remove their power over you because you no longer give them a chance to control you.

In order to get to this point (where you are no longer under control of your addiction) you need two things:

One is the decision to stop putting drugs and booze into your body.

Two is the disruption itself, where you actually stop putting the chemicals into your body and transition to a “normal life.”

Step one, surrender. Step two, disruption.

Step two: disrupt your life and your addiction

When I say “disrupt” what I generally think of is “inpatient rehab.” That would include a medical detox.

This is just what I generally think of, and your level of disruption that you require may differ from this.

Actually, I went to detox, then short term rehab for two weeks, then long term rehab for 20 months. That was my level of disruption that I needed at the time. Quite a bit of disruption, really! But I had tried before using less disruption and it had never worked for me.

In other words, I had to find the right amount of “disruption” in order to break free from addiction. I was trapped in a lifestyle of my own design, but I could not find a way out of this just be deciding to stop using drugs and alcohol. I needed more disruption than that in order to break free.

Going to counseling and therapy was not enough for me. I also tried going to some short term rehabs, and perhaps I was “just not ready” to get clean and sober yet. But when I did finally surrender I definitely needed the disruption in my life. This turned out to be long term rehab. Of course not every person will need long term treatment as their solution, but we all probably need at least some amount of disruption (even if that is just attending meetings or seeing a counselor).

It takes what it takes to get clean and sober. If you fail then chances are good that you either 1) did not surrender fully, or 2) you did not have enough disruption. I am also suspicious that the two of these concepts will always be found in tandem; you would never have one without the other in case of a failed early recovery. In other words, if someone fails to fully surrender, then it also means that they were not willing to “go to any length” (lack of disruption). Had they been fully surrendered to their disease, they would have been more likely to “go to any length” to fully disrupt their life (and thus get the full amount of help that they really need).

There is also the idea that we may not be able to know, in advance, just how much help we need. Our ego prevents us from admitting we are a total train wreck, and therefore most people will naturally try to save face and not admit to needing large amounts of help. I am guilty of this myself. After going to short term rehabs twice and failing, I realized that I needed more than that the third time around.

Step three: don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what

The first two steps were to break free from addiction.

Now that you are stable you need a plan to keep you clean and sober. This is where the 2 step program comes into play (now that you have established a baseline of sobriety).

The zero tolerance policy is simple, and I suppose it is implied in AA, though they never come right out and say it.

Your most important part of recovery is:

* Do not use addictive drugs or alcohol, no matter what.

The reason I call it a zero tolerance policy is because you need to get this idea mentally straight in your own mind. In other words, your mind should recoil in horror at the idea of taking a drink or a drug. You have to be that vigilant against the idea of relapse. If you ever find yourself romanticizing the idea of using drugs or alcohol, you must learn how to shut these thoughts down immediately, or they will make you miserable. If you romanticize the idea of drugs or alcohol and you do not act on it, then the fantasies will just depress you.

You cannot stop the inital thought of using, but once you become AWARE of the thought, you have the choice to shut it down, to distract yourself, to move on to other things. You do not have to just sit there and daydream about your drug of choice (and if you do, it will make you miserable).

So really there are two parts to this step. One is that you do not use addictive drugs or alcohol, period. Two is that you do not allow yourself to fantasize about doing so. If you have a drinking or using dream, shake it off and move on. But if you are fully conscious then you have the choice to redirect your thoughts.

Step four: pursue personal growth by taking positive action every day

This step is necessary so that you can live with your decision for total abstinence.

The 12 step program uses a whole lot of steps in order to push people towards positive actions. In my opinion the 12 steps do not even touch on some of the most important areas of potential growth.

Spiritual growth can be one key to recovery, but it is not the only key. Traditional recovery programs all seem to assume that it is the only key.

I have had more than one friend in recovery pass away who was on a spiritual path, but lacked any sort of positive growth in terms of physical health, fitness, and nutrition. Why are these things seen as secondary when it comes to recovery from addiction? Is not the physical body and the chemicals the source of the problem? Sure it is mental disease, a thinking disease when it comes to denial and surrender, but once you crawl out of that whole you have to learn how to live again. Focusing on heatlh and exercise is one such way to do this.

Of course it should not stop with physical health and growth in that area alone. There are many other avenues of growth to explore beyond just the spiritual realm. All of them benefit you in your recovery journey, and help protect you from relapse.

After you have sobered up it boils down to 2 simple steps, with no magical thinking involved:

1) Zero tolerance policy (don’t use/drink no matter what).
2) Take positive action every day in pursuit of personal growth.

It works if you work it. (It really does!)


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