Before we even get started here I think it is important to realize that everyone in recovery should keep doing what is working for them. This is the standard disclaimer but it applies very well here, if you are doing something in your recovery and it is working for you then KEEP DOING IT.
No one is telling you to stop going to AA. If you are attending AA on a regular basis and it is helping you to stay sober and live a better life then you should absolutely keep doing that.
I would never encourage anyone to jeopardize their recovery or their sobriety. If you are doing something and it is working well for you, then do not change it. Keep doing it until it stops working for you (then find another path).
The reason that this article exists is because at one time, I was attending Alcoholics Anonymous, and it stopped working for me. It was no longer doing what I wanted it to do and so I had to find another path in recovery. At the same time, I felt like I was somewhat dependent on AA for my sobriety and I feared that if I stopped attending meetings that I would surely relapse.
I think it is important to clarify what I mean when I say that “AA stopped working for me.” It had not really stopped in the sense that I was going to relapse or anything if I continued on in the program. It was not that the program had become ineffective for me or anything, that is not my complaint.
Instead, I was wasting an hour each day sitting in a meeting that was no longer serving me well. I knew that I was stuck in my recovery and wasting my time and I could not see a clear path to what I should be doing instead. As it turned out, I found another path in recovery and even my friends who know me from AA believe that I made very good choices with my life. They do not fault me for leaving AA or believe that I was stupid to do so (although all of them believed I was making a huge mistake initially!).
Attending an AA meeting each day or even a few times per week is a huge investment. I wanted to invest that time and that energy in a different venue, and so I moved my recovery in another direction, away from AA, and into things such as exercise, education, online recovery, building a business, and so on.
I did not just leave AA because I wanted to sit at home on the couch and watch television. If that is your motive then I believe you should probably stay in AA, as it will do you more good than the alternative.
And perhaps that is the great secret: you must define your alternative. If you are not going to attend AA and depend on it for your sobriety, then what are you going to do instead? How will you remain sober?
I have an answer to that question today and it is an answer that has kept me sober for over a decade now. I walked away from AA in order to do something different with my life, and the results have been fantastic. Most people who leave AA do it for the wrong reason. In fact, most people who leave AA are subconsciously doing so because their brain has planned out their next drink. They are already in the process of relapse and so leaving AA meetings is a natural part of this process for them.
Do not bother consulting those in AA
If you look at the numbers then this makes it really clear that you cannot even bother to consult your peers in AA about the idea of leaving. The problem is that 99 percent of those who leave AA do so in order to relapse and go drink. The tiny 1 percent who leave AA in order to find a new path in sobriety do not even bother to report back to the group that there is healthy recovery outside of AA. (This is known as selection bias, those who are in AA do not see or hear the success stories of people who leave AA…..they only see those who relapse and come crawling back. Think carefully about this if you believe AA is the only way to get sober. It’s not).
The problem with people in AA is that it is almost cult-like in their fear of leaving the group. This is not to say that AA is a cult (though some would argue that it is), but simply that people in AA have this extreme fear towards others leaving the group. To leave AA is to die in the minds of most in the program. The logic is typically as follows:
* To relapse is to die.
* Those who leave AA always relapse.
* Therefore, those who leave AA will surely die.
This fear based thinking is very prevalent in AA. The biggest cause of it is selection bias. Someone shows up at an AA meeting and says something like the following:
“I thought I could do it on my own. I was sick of coming to these meetings so one day I just quit coming and I thought I could stay sober on my own. I found out I was wrong. I relapsed and it nearly killed me. I never should have stopped coming to these AA meetings. Now I know better. If you quit going to meetings you will surely relapse. I need these meetings in order to stay sober.”
People who go to AA meetings every single day see this sort of thing all the time. They see people return from relapses constantly. And the story is always the same pretty much: they quit going to meetings and they relapsed. Therefore, if anyone quits going to meetings then they will relapse, right?
There are two problems with this:
1) One is that anyone who relapses in AA tends to quit going to meetings out of sheer guilt and shame. It is the nature of the disease. So it might be more accurate to say “people who relapse quit going to meetings.” Just because that always happens does not mean that a lack of meeting attendance causes all relapses.
2) People like myself (who quit going to meetings and live a successful life in sobriety) do not go back to AA meetings to tell them about it. This is why selection bias exists. Because successful examples like myself are not visible to those in AA. They see only the failures who come back to AA following a relapse. So this reinforces their belief that anyone who leaves AA will surely relapse (and possibly die).
So if you tell your friends or peers in AA that you are thinking about leaving the program, be prepared for a barrage of fear-based pleas to get you to stay. There is simply no way around this and nothing that you can do to prevent it. Therefore, I would advise you not to consult with anyone in AA about a decision to leave.
That said, I would also urge you to be very careful in the way that you leave AA, and protect your own sobriety first and foremost during the process. But this has nothing to do with the fear mongers in AA who believe that you will relapse and die if you stray from the AA path.
Take and accept full responsibility for your recovery
So first and foremost you need to take and accept full responsibility for your recovery. Realize that it is ultimately you alone who is responsible for your sobriety. You are the only one who can lift an alcoholic drink up to your lips and choose to pour the liquid down your throat. It is all up to you. You cannot push any of the responsibility for your sobriety onto AA, onto your sponsor, onto other people, onto your higher power even. It is entirely up to you as to whether or not you take a drink of alcohol today. Before you can think about leaving AA you have to get really honest with yourself about this fact and accept full responsibility for your actions.
Following this, you can then realize that your sobriety is entirely up to you, regardless of whether or not you are in AA. The 12 steps and the support of the meetings can be helpful, but they cannot keep you sober directly. Even if you believe that by working the steps you completely surrender self will to a higher power, we all know that anyone can “take back self will” and make mistakes in doing so. Just because you may rely on a higher power to keep you sober does not mean that you can never take back your own self will and make a foolish decision. The program of AA tries to guide you in this manner but ultimately people who are deeply dependent on AA or on a higher can still take back self will and relapse at times. It does happen.
So what I am suggesting if you are going to leave AA is to realize that you are ultimately in control of your own sobriety. Realize that your attempts in the past to shift your sobriety onto the program of AA or onto a higher power were really just distractions at best–it is still ultimately you who has to make the daily choice not to drink.
The idea of AA is that this burden is too overwhelming, and that it must be shared and reduced by dependency on others. Dependency on AA, on your peers, on a sponsor, and on a higher power. My suggestion if you are going to leave AA and do your own thing is to get really clear on the fact that you cannot shift your sobriety onto others. It all has to rest squarely on your own shoulders. No excuses. You must stay clean and sober by your own decision and through your own actions.
This can be very liberating if you face it squarely and make peace with it. Realize that it is all up to you, and that if you leave AA and relapse your peers will simply say “I told you so.” Do not give them the satisfaction of doing so. Instead, take full responsibility for your sobriety and be determined to make recovery work out for yourself.
Just like success in AA, the key to making your recovery work has to do with the strength of your commitment. This is why it makes sense to think about such things and consider the full depth of your true responsibility in recovery.
Some people in AA believe that the program itself has special qualities or magical powers that can override this need for a strong commitment. The program itself has no secret to success and the real secret is in the strength of your commitment.
In the past, the alcoholic may have tried to “white knuckle it” and just stop drinking on their own, without taking any positive action or making any real life changes. This is a failed approach and so when people discover AA they sometimes give too much credit to the program, even thinking of it as being mysterious and magical. The truth is that anyone who gets detoxed and then makes a strong commitment to take positive action every day will be able to dig their way out of the hole that is alcoholism. The program of AA is a framework, a backdrop around which this positive action may occur. But realize that it is the positive action and the commitment that make recovery possible, not the mysterious or magical properties of AA.
Taking positive action every day and keeping a strong commitment to recovery does not depend on AA or on any programs. You can do it yourself, as an individual, as I have done for the last ten years plus.
Figure out what is really helping you to stay sober beyond the framework of AA
While I was in AA I knew that certain things were helping me to stay clean and sober, but most people did not give much thought about what these things were.
Meanwhile, many of my peers in AA were relapsing. Because I lived in long term rehab for a while and later worked in a rehab for over five years, I got the chance to see a LOT of recovering alcoholics and follow their progress.
I noticed at some point that certain people in AA would talk a great game in the meetings, but they might still end up relapsing. Why was this happening? If they had such good things to say about recovery, why did their own program fall apart?
This helped to illustrate to me what was truly important in recovery. Strength of commitment and positive action were actually more important than meeting attendance and spirituality. In fact I had a close friend in recovery who was deeply spiritual and they ended up relapsing at one point. This shattered my current understanding of the recovery process because at one point I was convinced that it was all about spirituality rather than just the program of AA. It turned out that both of those things were wrong and it was really all about positive action and commitment.
I realized that my commitment to sobriety was the most important thing in my life, and that talking about it or trying to convince others about how serious I was in my recovery was useless. I watched many other people try to do this (talk a good game of recovery in the meetings, etc.) and most all of them relapsed. I also watched many people who were much more spiritual than I was who also tried to convince others that they knew the proper path to recovery. In the end most of them relapsed too. And so I slowly came to realize that my own internal commitment to sobriety was the only thing that mattered. And that was all up to me. Talking with others about that commitment was not important.
Make recovery your ultimate priority in life
So when you actually go to leave the AA program I have two suggestions for you in doing so:
1) Cut your meetings down slowly and become hyper aware of how this makes you feel. If you become less happy or less stable than increase your meetings again, do not just drive yourself to relapse needlessly. Go slowly and carefully. If you take away meetings from your routine and you feel bad, figure out what you are missing out on, and find another way to replace that in your life. For example, I still connect with others in regards to addiction through the online world. I am not sure I would have left AA if I did not have some involvement with recovery online.
2) Make your sobriety the ultimate priority in your life. Take positive action every day in anticipation of being without the AA program. Remember that your sobriety is entirely your responsibility now. Keep in the back of your mind that if you fail, it will just prove all of the fear mongers in AA right. Therefore, take positive action every single day, work harder on your recovery than your peers in AA are working on theirs. (Now you might say–if you have to work even harder outside of AA, then what is the point of leaving? The point is that you should work extra hard during your first solo year, because after that you will be truly free, no dependency on AA or any programs, and that is a wonderful place to be. I left AA over ten years ago and I would say that I only pushed myself super hard for the first six months or so of the transition. After that it became “life as normal” again, just without AA).
So when you first leave AA you should do it slowly, carefully, and all the while pushing yourself extra hard to excel in your “individual recovery effort.” I pushed myself to go back to school, to start exercising, to quit smoking, to build a business, to improve relationships, and so on. After a year or so of pushing myself intensely out of fear of relapse (from having left AA) my life started to feel normal and I realized that the relapse boogeyman was not going to get me just because I had abandon the AA program. I was taking enough positive action in my life to overcome the fact that I was not sitting in an AA meeting for an hour each day.
Positive action is the key. Daily positive action is critical.
Use a holistic approach where you take daily action for your recovery
Do not limit your recovery to just spiritual growth (as they tend to do in AA). I made huge gains in my life by pursuing exercise, something I never thought would have such a profound impact on me.
Remember that “holistic” just means “whole.” Push yourself to make growth in all areas of your life (not just spiritual growth). This has been an important part of my own path outside of AA.
Spiritual growth is emphasized in AA but many who pursue that path do not realize how broad and expansive “spirituality” really is. Many distance runners would agree that the meditative quality of running has had a profound impact on their emotional health and mental well being, but this is difficult to put into words and even tougher to convince a non-runner of. Thus you must explore and push yourself to make positive growth in your life so that you can discover the sorts of things that make you stronger in recovery.