After fully exploring 12 step recovery and what it could offer me, I eventually drifted away from traditional recovery programs to find my own path.
Credit where it is due
If you read my previous article you will see that I give 12 step recovery plenty of credit for helping me. It just was not the best long term solution for me personally. This may or may not be true for other people and my intention is not to convince people to leave AA or NA necessarily. Rather, I would challenge people to see if they are really growing in their recovery as a result of any such recovery program, and whether or not they are creating dependencies in their life based on daily meetings. For example, if they stop going to meetings suddenly do they end up relapsing? If so, then that is a pretty serious dependency in my book and one that I personally wanted to avoid.
So for what it is worth, I do want to give credit to the 12 step program in that it definitely played a major role in my first 18 months of sobriety. I was living in long term treatment, I was attending an AA or an NA meeting pretty much daily, and I did this for the first few months religiously. After that I dropped back to about three meetings per week and eventually I was only going to one meeting per week. By the second year of my recovery I had pretty much stopped going to meetings entirely. Right now I have over eleven years of continuous sobriety and I am probably getting close to the point where I will be ten years solid with no meetings at all.
So obviously I was involved with traditional recovery in the early days, but really I did not have much choice in the matter. I needed help, I had no idea what would work for my own recovery, and so I was at the mercy of those who would direct me. They told me to go to AA and NA so I went. Later on, I decided that I could design a superior recovery program for myself that made more efficient use of my time. This was indeed a bold declaration and many people in AA and NA cautioned me (and the rest of the world) that deviating from the 12 step program was a sure path to relapse and eventually death. Luckily they were wrong and I could not be happier with my life today.
Let me start at the beginning though and explain how I came to break away from traditional 12 step recovery. It was not an easy process because there were so many negative messages about leaving AA that made it so difficult for me to get the confidence up to do it.
Noticing a problem with 12 step recovery in my own life
I am going to be perfectly honest here even though it may sound like I am being a bit whiny about things. I want to give an accurate portrayal of how and why I drifted away from AA in order that I might actually help people.
To be honest the meetings themselves started to drive me nuts. I had been attending AA and NA meetings for about 18 months. I live in a city in which we describe ourselves as being “rich in meetings.” We have a lot of options and a lot of variety for the size we are. There are meetings every single day and usually you could go to about a dozen different meetings at least on any given day. If you are willing to hop back and forth from AA to NA meetings (and if you are not then I believe you are missing the point and the main benefit of the meetings) then you can draw from an even greater variety of meetings and be exposed to a wide variety of people in recovery.
So my problem was not a lack of meetings or a lack of variety or anything.
What I noticed though was that the meetings were really a waste of my time. Now I realize that this is typically the complaint of someone who is not yet ready to get clean and sober, someone who is not ready for recovery, someone who is bored and just wants to go get drunk or high. But keep in mind that this was not my motive and after I left meetings I have since stayed clean and sober for about a decade. So this obviously was not the thrust of my complaint and I was not just being a brat so that I could go get high.
My sponsor told me that it had to do with my attitude. He said “if you go into the meeting not thinking that you are going to get anything out of it, then you won’t. Simple as that. If you go into it with an open mind and try to learn something, then you will probably get some benefit.”
I had to admit that he was right, at least in the fact that I still COULD learn something from each meeting if I really tried. I was not debating this.
But what I realized was that it was still a question of time management.
Sure, I could learn something from a random meeting. Did that mean that I should go to four AA meetings every single day? Of course not. You have to draw the line somewhere based on the benefit that you receive versus how much time and effort you put into something. Does going to one AA meeting every single day make sense for someone? Depends on the person.
Now for me, I was noticing myself watching my watch in meetings and being pretty discouraged with the fact that I was not learning much any more. I was hearing the same people talk about the same problems, over and over again.
So my sponsor suggested something else: “Go to different meetings. Switch it up. Get some variety.”
So I did that, and I even broadened my horizons out and started going to both AA and NA meetings, since the crowds were generally different. But even this solution was just a temporary patch to the problem, and eventually I noticed the same thing happening again: I was sitting in meetings, wasting my time, wondering what I was really doing there.
I noticed another problem that is probably going to make me sound like a pompous jerk, but I have to be honest here. I was listening to people share in many of these meetings, and I was frequently thinking to myself “I solved the problem that this person is sharing about several years ago. I know the solution that they need. Why do I have to hear about it over and over again?” Sure, I could share my experience with them and get some benefit from doing so, but I could do that in other venues as well (online).
So the meetings just started to grind on me. I talked about this with my sponsor, he offered solutions, and I implemented those solutions. It did not matter. Meetings were still a waste of my time, I found them to be very predictable and boring, and I started to resent them.
Furthermore, I noticed a very annoying trend about the meetings. Some of the most vocal people in meetings, the people who soaked up the most of the time talking at length about their own life and their own recovery, they were the ones who tended to relapse. The biggest talkers had the most worthless contribution, taking up the time when the actual voices of experience and success should have been allowed to speak. I feel terrible for doing so, but I came to resent some of the people who would talk for so long and monopolize the meetings, especially when they were the ones who continuously relapsed. I felt like saying to them “why are you talking so much when you have so little to offer to me? We already know your story and how you relapsed, stop telling it and start listening to others who have figured this thing out!”
So I felt bad about my opinions, I felt bad for resenting the talkers, and I felt bad for glancing at my watch all the time. I was not getting anything out of the meetings, and they were, according to me, a waste of my time. So I started drifting away from them, going less and less, and realized that at some point I was going to either:
a) Stop going entirely.
b) Go back to daily meetings and figure out how to like them.
I tried to do the second option and give AA a fair chance. I tried to find a way to get back into the meetings, because I was terrified that I was going to relapse if I stopped going entirely. But in the end I could not justify sitting in meetings on a regular basis as a good use of my time. It was a waste, and I could do better. So I stopped going entirely at some point, right around the two year mark in my recovery journey.
Dealing with guilt and overcoming “lock-in” thinking
What do I mean by “lock-in” thinking? Some people have described AA and other 12 step programs as being like a cult. This is way to strong a word for it in my experience, I do not really think the term “cult” should be applied to AA, though there is a tendency for the people in AA to warn others excessively about leaving.
This is the main thing that I had to overcome in making my transition out of AA. People who would speak in the meetings had a tendency to talk about this quite frequently, that anyone who left the program would surely drink and end up dying. They said this because they were trying to reassure themselves that if they stuck with AA and stayed in it and kept coming to meetings then they would be just fine. It was a fear based message that people used to try to reassure themselves.
Now such people would never admit to this, because they do not like to examine their own fear. They would argue that they were warning others not to leave AA, because they are just trying to be helpful. In fact this is a cover for the fact that they are trying to convince themselves that if they stick with AA they will remain sober forever.
There is a self selecting bias in AA that has to be smashed in order for such people to really “see the light.” The self selecting bias is this:
When people leave AA and find success with some other method of recovery, they do NOT come back to AA and tell people about it.
Think about that very carefully for a moment.
People who talk about “leaving AA being the sure path to relapse and then death” are ignoring this fact. They just flat out miss it. And if you tell them this fact, they will not even believe you. They are far too scared to believe you. Their fear is too great.
In other words, people in meetings are always sharing and saying things like:
“Everyone who has gone out there and relapsed and then come back tells us the same thing here in AA, that they never should have left the meetings, that this was their downfall that they stopped coming to meetings, and that this is why they relapsed. So don’t ever stop coming to these meetings, and you should be OK.”
People who argue this are ignoring the self selecting bias that they are experiencing by being in AA. They do not take people like ME into account: someone who left AA, found a successful life in recovery outside of AA, and never came back to tell them about it.
This self selecting bias is so powerful that this type of “lock in thinking” is very prevalent in almost every meeting I have ever been to. Many people really believe that the 12 step program is the only hope for real recovery. They do not see the possibility that people can stay clean and sober by other means, and the self selecting bias only serves to reinforce this thinking.
But the really dangerous part of all this is the fear based mindset that spreads this message. People want to reassure themselves that they have found the solution, that they are going to be OK so long as they keep going to meetings, and so they declare AA to be the only solution and the only sensible path to sobriety. This “lock-in” thinking is fueled by fear, not by hope for a better life or anything positive like that.
Motivating yourself to get results outside of the 12 step program
One of the things I noticed when I was still attending meetings was this:
Many people who attended meetings religiously actually relapsed.
I was being told one thing while witnessing another. I was told that “if you just keep coming to these meetings, you are gonna be OK, and if you stop coming to these meetings you are gonna relapse.”
But then what I was seeing was that many of the people who continued to come to the meetings kept relapsing. I knew this because the people would talk about their relapse, over and over again.
So I quickly realized that it was all about results. The process itself was besides the point (attending daily meetings) even though I was being sold the idea of the process as being the ultimate solution for recovery. Instead, the real truth was much more simple, and it was not being given much credit in AA circles:
Successful sobriety was about taking positive action and getting real results, not religious meeting attendance that supposedly kept someone “safe.”
So my mindset shifted towards getting results and making positive growth, regardless of what kind of program I was following.
I made a conscious decision that if I was going to drift away from the 12 step meetings, that I had better make a serious effort at pursuing positive growth on my own. If I did not, surely I would relapse, proving all of the fear-mongers in AA correct.
So that is what I did. I left AA almost ten years ago, and I deliberately tried to pursue positive growth in my life so that I could prove AA wrong. I pushed myself to have growth experiences in my life and to make real progress in my own personal recovery.
Measuring my own success against the 12 step model
The problem in measuring my own approach to recovery (I call it the creative theory of recovery) is that my sample size is so small. I only have my own success to measure against the more traditional recovery approach of attending AA.
But for me, that is enough. I have been doing my own thing in recovery for almost a full decade now, and during that time, I only have two friends in the 12 step program that I know of who have made a successful decade of sobriety along with me.
Imagine that, out of the dozens or even hundreds of people that I knew in AA, only two of them that I know of are still clean and sober today, without having relapsed at all over the last ten years.
Now I am sure there are plenty of people who have stayed clean and sober in AA through the past decade, and I am not trying to say that the program does not work. But based on what I see in my life, I have to believe that what I am doing is working just as good as AA. The bonus for me is that I now pursue positive growth on my own time, without having to sit in meetings all the time and resent the people who are speaking at length about stuff that I have already learned.
Maybe the meetings make more sense in early recovery, when we need a constant reminder of what our addiction is and how threatening a relapse can be. But after a few years of recovery and a non-stop onslaught of daily meetings, I just got so sick of it all and was hearing the same messages and lessons repeated over and over again. My brain is much more efficient than that and I can absorb pretty much everything the first time around, thank you very much. I don’t need to keep learning about surrender over and over again for the rest of my life. I did it once and now I have moved on. I am seeking further growth experiences, new ways to make positive changes, and so on. Going to meetings every single day seemed to just keep me stuck among the same old problems, whose solutions I had already found and was implementing successfully.
I like to think that I evolved out of AA. Maybe this is an egoist viewpoint, but I cannot help but imagine that going back to the meetings would be a waste of my time and a step backwards. The lessons that I can learn from meetings are things that I learned ten years ago. Why would I go back to try to relearn what I already know? I am trying to move forward, to seek new positive changes in my life, to challenge myself in other ways that can help me to learn and to grow.
So I went back to college, I finished a degree, I got in shape and ran a marathon, I am learning about health and nutrition and diet, and so on. These are things that all positively impact my life and my recovery. And they are not things that I can learn about or experience in daily AA meetings.
So to some extent, I had to choose. Do I want to keep relearning what AA has to offer? Or did I want to move on and start learning the positive life lessons that “the real world” has to teach me?
Sure, I could go to a meeting every day. But I’ve already heard that message enough, and I learned what I had to learn there. I have since moved on, and have been moved on for the last ten years. My recovery and my lessons learned continue to evolve…..