Is AA really the only way that someone might get sober these days?
If you followed traditional recovery then you might believe that the answer is “yes, AA really is the only solution for real recovery.”
This is because there is a great deal of selection bias among people who have recovered in the 12 step program. There is also the idea of “survivorship bias” because they tried various ways to quit drinking and then finally AA is what worked for them. So had they tried something else instead (such as Christian based recovery for example) then they would be going around telling everyone that this is the real solution and nothing else can possibly work for you.
Ultimately I believe that there are several different paths to recovery. I think we have a lot of learning to do about alcoholism and overcoming addiction. We are still quite young in our overall knowledge of how recovery really works. We have been at it for only a series of decades rather than centuries. Most medical fields have been developing for thousands of years, but this is not really true of alcoholism and recovery. It is quite a young field still, and we have much to learn.
That said, AA still has a lot of advantages going for it. Most rehabs are based on the AA program and so if you just walk into a random rehab then it is very likely that you will be exposed to AA or NA. So before we think about some alternatives, let’s consider the default solution of simply accepting AA as your solution.
Advantages of going to an AA rehab center
If you do choose to go to a rehab that supports the AA program (like 90 percent of all rehabs or even a little higher) then you will be exposed to an AA meeting every day that you are there. This has the advantage of setting you up for a decent aftercare plan when you leave rehab.
The idea is pretty simple: You go to AA meetings while you are in treatment, you learn about recovery, and then once you leave rehab you start going to AA meetings on the outside immediately. This gives you a “safety net” so that you don’t just leave treatment and relapse. If you can start going to AA meetings right away when you leave rehab then you have some instant support.
This is actually not a bad plan. There are worse things that could happen. For example, the vast majority of people who leave treatment fail to follow through with these suggestions. They don’t go to meetings every day and therefore they relapse. (A key distinction here is that they relapse because they do not take positive action, not because they don’t attend meetings. But attending AA meetings would certainly be better than nothing, which is exactly what most people end up doing….nothing. Thus they relapse).
So while going to AA meetings every single day as your aftercare plan is not necessarily the only path in recovery, it is at the very least one path. And it is a valid path. As they say in the program, “it works if you work it.” I am definitely not denying that here. In fact, I am agreeing with that particular slogan one hundred percent. It actually does work if you put in the effort. And this is true of nearly any recovery solution out there, whether it is 12 step based or not. Do the work and you will get results. It is your willingness and effort that produce success in recovery, NOT the particular program itself.
This is an important point that most people in recovery completely miss out on. They think that there is some sort of magic in the AA program or in the 12 steps. This is really the whole point of my argument here. That there is no magic formula for recovery beyond a few basic fundamental principles. And what are those principles? I have painstakingly discovered them for myself over the years while comparing my own recovery to that of successful people in AA. The concepts are:
* Personal growth.
* Positive habits/daily practice.
These are the core concepts that fuel anyone’s recovery. If you look at the actual stuff that works underneath any recovery program, this is the structure that you will find.
So if you take someone in AA who is doing well and has achieved several years of recovery, you could piece through their journey and you could find these core ideas that I listed above. They are fundamental ideas. This means that you cannot really find successful recovery without them. So for example, if someone is in recovery and they refuse to learn anything new about themselves then they will eventually relapse. Or at the very least they will become unhappy and they will not have a very successful life in recovery.
So if you go to a rehab center that is 12 step based you are not necessarily going to be taught all of those core principles. To be honest there is not enough time in 28 days or less to really explore all of those ideas and implement them into your life. What most rehabs focus on are surrender and support. They teach you how to find the support you need and that is mostly by involvement in the AA program, going to meetings, sponsorship, and so on.
There is nothing wrong with that path if it works for you. And it does work quite well for some people.
The advantage of going this path is that it is the default solution in our society. So the world is set up to handle this type of recovery. There are AA meetings everywhere. So if this is your support system then you have chosen something that has plenty of support in various locations.
Is the 12 step program really the only solution?
AA is not the only path in recovery. There are other ways to sustain long term sobriety.
One obvious alternative has to do with religion. There are many Christian based treatment centers around the world. Not as many as the 12 step based rehabs but there are still plenty of them.
This alone should tell you a great deal. It should make you realize that AA is the not the only way. If it were then these other types of rehabs would not exist at all. And yet the exist in large quantities.
If you dig a little deeper there are even a few treatment centers out there that are not Christian or 12 step based. Many of those are based on some sort of cognitive or behavioral approach to recovery. While these rehabs are few and far between, it is simply more evidence for you that there is no single path that works in recovery. There are alternatives.
There is even a recovery program that is based on fitness and endurance racing for sobriety. There is a whole group of people who stay clean and sober through fitness and marathon training and such. This is obviously not for everyone but it does help to illustrate just how varied the approaches can be to addiction and recovery.
There is even a philosophy of recovery from alcoholism that is based on creative arts.
So there is a whole world of options out there to explore and really I feel like we have not even scratched the surface yet. In our current world we have a default solution where we basically take 90 percent of struggling alcoholics and we shove them into this default solution that essentially says “find God and surrender to him!” I don’t know if this is really the best approach but I have a feeling that in 100 years our approach to alcoholism will be very different than it is today. The idea of pushing someone into this forced spirituality seems wrong, especially when there is some evidence that it may not even be necessary.
With that said, I think it is important that we continue to push the envelope in terms of what we know about addiction and recovery, and that we continue to explore alternatives to 12 step based recovery. Our success rate for helping alcoholics cannot get much worse by doing this in my experience (rates are already quite low). There is hope in learning and exploring new recovery models.
Long term recovery is a flexible path, short term recovery is more demanding though
One of the reasons that I still advocate for people going to mainstream and traditional recovery centers (based on AA) is that it matters very little in the short run.
We can think about recovery from alcoholism in two phases: Short term and long term recovery.
Think of short term recovery as the first month of your recovery and to a lessor extent the entire first two years or so.
Think of long term recovery as being sober for about five years or more and the entire rest of your sober life. Think decades rather than years.
So these two periods of time (short and long term recovery) are not the same thing. Should they be treated the same way?
Traditional recovery actually says that they should be. People in AA say this all the time, and argue that people who have been in AA for years and years may need to just “get back to the basics” and hit daily meetings and surrender, just like they did when they had 7 days sober.
I think this is a huge mistake.
Short term sobriety and long term recovery are very, very different. To try to simplify things and say that they are the same is wrong. And I think it leads to dangerous outcomes in recovery.
Therefore I believe that we should treat these two phases differently.
Short term recovery is about disrupting your pattern of addiction.
Short term recovery is about finding support while you are finding your footing in sobriety.
Long term recovery is about personal growth.
Long term recovery is about establishing a daily practice and the positive habits that will sustain your sobriety.
Therefore we should not confuse these two phases of recovery and treat them the same. They are different and they call for different approaches.
Some people complain that the solutions in short term recovery are not a good fit for them. I used to do this myself because I was in denial and I was scared.
The truth is that the short term stuff is pretty simple, and it doesn’t matter as much as you think. In other words, just go to rehab and allow yourself to go with the flow. Stop resisting everything.
For example, I did not want to go to AA meetings when I was first getting sober. I wanted a solution in recovery that did not involve AA, because I was anxious and I was afraid to be in meetings. So I resisted this and it was my big excuse so that I could keep drinking. Deep down I knew that there should be paths in recovery that did not involve meetings but I could not find any at the time.
In the end I surrendered and went to rehab and I faced the meetings. I started going to them every single day just as I was told to do. This is the default solution in recovery and I finally accepted it. Notice that later on in long term recovery I eventually rejected this path and found my own success in recovery.
And that is the difference between short term recovery and long term recovery. In the long run you are much more flexible and you can eventually do your own thing. But in early recovery it doesn’t matter. Just do what you are told. Stop sweating the details. Fussing over every little detail in early recovery is a great way to trip yourself up and stay stuck in addiction.
No, in early recovery your task is simple. Surrender, shut up, and do what you are told to do. If you try to engineer your own recovery then you are going to fail. Later on when you are established in sobriety you can engineer your own program just as I have done. It’s easy to do once you have some stability in your life and you can determine what actually works and what does not. But in early recovery you don’t have that advantage. You have no perspective and no knowledge of sobriety. So you are forced to go with the flow, to defer to the teachers, to do as you are told. This may sound like a bad thing but it is really a gift. Simply surrender and let others tell you how to live your life for a while. You can take control back later, I promise. But in early recovery it is best to simply do as you are told.
How you should approach the issue of personal growth in recovery
If you are in AA then you are working the steps, going to meetings, involved with sponsorship, and so on.
This is fine if the path works for you. It is probably going to be your beginning path in recovery at any rate, as it is the default solution. I don’t have a problem with AA in early recovery but I start to take issue with the path in long term sobriety.
It is not about “does AA work or not.” Of course it works. The question is, can you make it work for you in the long run?
I have no doubt that it can work for nearly anyone in the short run. Go to detox, start going to meetings every day, and get yourself stable in early recovery. This is not rocket science. If you surrender and go with the flow for a while then you should at least be able to get a foothold in sobriety.
The question is: Can you stay sober by sitting in AA meetings every day for the next 20 years straight?
For me the answer was “no.”
I needed something else in the long run.
This all comes back to the fundamental concepts of recovery.
If you are able to find a way to keep learning and growing as a person in AA, then you are doing great. No need to find a new solution. Enjoy your life and keep conquering new challenges in AA.
But if you find that you are not really pushing yourself to achieve personal growth, then you have a problem. Many people who were initially successful in AA find that they get complacent at some point. This is not a problem with AA per se, this is a problem with personal growth. They have stopped learning and stopped growing. Don’t blame AA, blame the lack of personal growth. The fundamental concept that leads them to relapse has to do with a lack of growth.
That said, your continued success in recovery is based on personal growth. You need to keep growing or you run the risk of relapsing at some point.
So some people really get involved with AA and they get involved with sponsorship and those things help them to keep growing. If this is the case then I don’t think you need to find any sort of alternative solution. In other words, if AA works for you then that is great! But just realize that it is the underlying recovery principle of “personal growth” that determines whether or not you remain sober.
This begs the question: How can we push ourselves to keep achieving personal growth in recovery?
The personal habits that lead you to a daily practice that works
Recovery happens every single day. It is a daily thing. You can’t just flip a switch and turn it off for a week or two while you relax, then concentrate again on your sobriety in the future. You either work at it every single day, or you don’t.
What happens to a lot of people in recovery from alcoholism is self-sabotage.
Things start to go good for the person. They get stable in their recovery. Things are looking up again. And then somehow it all comes unraveled, and things go south rather quickly. Their whole world seems to crumble and they inevitably drink. They find themselves drunk and they don’t even know what could have gone wrong.
And, this can happen over and over again. The same alcoholic can go through a series of relapses where they do not seem to learn anything new. They just keep stumbling and finding themselves drunk again, over and over. What are they doing wrong?
What is wrong is that they are not being consistent. In order to be consistent you have to establish a daily practice. That means every single day you need to take positive action.
The way to do this is to establish positive habits. Habits that recur every single day.
Deceptively simple, right?
This is how you accumulate good results in sobriety. Start by looking at the various areas of your health (physical, emotional, spiritual, social, etc.).
Are you health in each of those areas? If the answer is “yes” then you are working a great recovery! If the answer is “not really” then you have work to do.
And I have a special insight here:
There is always more work to do. You can always improve your life or your life situation. There is always another level of greater health for you to explore.
This is the daily practice. This is what you must establish for yourself in order to not “keep slipping” in your quest for long term sobriety.
Your alcoholism affected all of those areas of your health, right? So your recovery solution must do the same thing. Hence, holistic recovery. It must address the whole person, not just the spiritual aspect.