The question for today is not whether you should go to AA at all, but whether you should actually depend on AA to keep you clean and sober.
Those are actually two different questions and a lot of people just combine them into one single idea. But there is separation there and I think it is an important separation. Or at least, it has been for me in my own recovery journey. This is explained in detail below.
My belief is that every person who is starting out in recovery should probably go to AA or NA meetings. There are several reasons for this and one of the most important reasons is that this is where all of the support is concentrated. So perhaps you take issue with the 12 steps or you disagree with the core philosophy….who cares? You are missing out on the support, on the social aspect of recovery. For better or worse, this is where the people in recovery are concentrated. They tend to go to the 12 step programs, because that is the dominant solution right now. In another decade, in another hundred years, in another thousand years–maybe there will be a different program that is dominant. If that is the case then I will recommend that you go to that program too. Not because it is the best solution or because they have the strongest philosophy of recovery, but because that is where the support is at. That is where all the people are. Go to where the help is. Simple as that.
If you are just getting clean and sober then you need new information in your life. You cannot change your whole world and start fresh with a new life unless you learn a great deal from others. How can you do that without making new connections? Recovery is about people, because that is how we learn.
Early recovery and the need for new information
Before I got clean and sober I was afraid of going to meetings and so I had this idea that maybe I could sober up just by reading books. Since I knew that I needed new information in order to overcome addiction, I could just get that information from reading, right? Or so I had hoped.
Obviously this did not work out. And part of the reason that it can never work is because of the kind of information that we need in early recovery. It is not just the actual mechanics of staying sober on a day to day basis that we need to find out about. We need more information than that. What we really need is to relate to other addicts and alcoholics. This is at least twice as important as the actual information of “Don’t go to the old corner bar where you used to hang out, and don’t even walk down that same street any more,” etc.
Most addicts and alcoholics do not even know that they need this idea of “relating to other people” when they are struggling to find sobriety. The reason that they need it is because of the “uniqueness factor” of addiction. Every addict feels like they are the first person in the whole world who has ever fallen in love with drugs or alcohol. Every struggling addict or alcoholic believes that it is they alone who struggles with addiction, that no one else in the world could possibly understand what they are going through, because they are trapped in their addiction and they love their drug of choice and just have to have it, and no one else understands. They feel unique. They feel like God has singled them out and is playing some sort of cruel joke on them by cursing them with addiction.
So one of the biggest parts of early recovery is that you have to find other people who have struggled with addiction and with alcoholism, and you need to hear them tell their story so that you can break through this “uniqueness factor” and realize that you are not actually crazy.
Now my question to you is this:
Knowing that you need to find other people to relate to in early recovery, where are you going to find such people who will tell you their stories, if not in AA or NA? Where are you going to get that connection with other struggling addicts and alcoholics in early sobriety, if not in AA?
Therefore I believe that it makes sense to go to AA or NA, at least in early recovery. I think it is important to go to treatment, and most treatment centers are going to expose you to AA and NA. I believe that your success in early recovery depends on relating to others who struggle with addiction, and I think that the 12 step program is a natural platform for that to happen. Therefore I believe that every newcomer should go to AA or NA and give it a chance.
Having made that suggestion, however, my ideas about long term sobriety are a bit different. I believe that exposure to the 12 step program in the short run is a good thing, but that dependency in the long run can be a problem.
The black cloud theory of AA
There are two sides to this argument and I am probably not going to convince anyone of anything, but I want to give my own opinion based on what I have observed in my own recovery journey.
I believe that AA and NA are useful for short term recovery. I think that the need to relate to others and identify with them is important so that you know early on that you are not crazy. I think AA is very useful for that.
What happened to me though is that I was in AA during my first year of recovery, and I was trying to figure out “the real solution to sobriety.” What I mean by that is that you do not really get a straight answer in AA to “how it works.” What you really get in AA is someone telling you “follow these steps, and your life will get better, and don’t worry so much about the “why” or the “how.” Just do it and enjoy the results. Isn’t that enough? That is how it works, etc.
To me this was not good enough. Perhaps this is based on my personality type (I believe it is INTJ last I tested). But I wanted to know more about how recovery really worked. I could not accept this “black box explanation” of recovery.
What exactly is a black box explanation? It is where a black box (or a black cloud) obscures the actual workings of something. So you have your inputs (meetings, sponsorship, 12 steps, etc.) and then you have your outputs (sobriety, relapse, complacency, etc.). Somewhere in the middle you have the block cloud. That is where all of the inputs interact in your life in order to produce the outputs.
When I was finishing up my first year in AA and I was starting to get more stable in my recovery, I wanted to know what was really going on in the black cloud. I wanted answers. Was sponsorship vital to the process? Where the 12 steps really the only way in the entire universe to recover? Was there a way to go to less meetings and remain sober? Was there a way to eliminate meetings and remain sober? These are the kinds of questions that attempt to probe into that black cloud, to figure out how recovery actually works.
But the people in AA and NA do not like these sort of questions. They are annoyed with them. Why? Because they have found a solution that works for them, and that is good enough. They don’t want to know how or why it works. They just know that it works so please quit asking questions!
And as I said, I wanted to know more.
So what I did was to experiment. I did an experiment with my own sobriety. I started by leaving sponsorship and then I left the daily meetings. I also stopped reading 12 step based literature. I wanted to prove to myself and to the world that AA was not the only way forward in recovery.
Part of this curiosity was driven by the fact that I saw the 12 step program fail for so many people. Many people who I had originally looked up to in my early recovery in AA had since relapsed. So I had less faith in the program as being “the ultimate solution for everyone” and I was slowly becoming more open to the idea that there might be a better path in sobriety. Or at least a different path, one that would work for me.
Why AA can become dangerous in long term sobriety
One thing that I noticed was that people actually did relapse after being in the 12 step program for many years. Why was this happening? How was this happening? They have ten years sober and then they relapse, how is this even possible? What the heck went wrong?
I could not really know the answer to this question until I had achieved some long term sobriety myself. Sure, people told me that addicts “got lazy or complacent,” but that did not really answer it for me. Instead, I had to experience long term sobriety for myself. I had to know what it felt like to be stable in my own recovery, before I could get perspective on what it might be like to relapse after having ten years sober.
So what I learned on this journey is that the single biggest threat in recovery is actually complacency. It is the threat of becoming lazy in long term sobriety so that your disease has a chance to sneak in the back door on you. I have watched this happen over and over again during my short time in AA. I was always shocked when I found out that someone relapsed who had more clean time than I did. It always scared me because I figured that more clean time equaled more stability in recovery. But the truth was that I watched a lot of people relapse who had significant amounts of clean time.
So really the only question you have to ask yourself is this:
“Does AA/NA help me to overcome complacency, or does it actually make me become complacent?”
That is not an easy question for anyone to answer if they are really honest with themselves.
Now you may be very active in AA and you may be involved with sponsorship and you may be always challenging yourself to learn and to grow within those structures. If that is the case then you are probably not becoming complacent.
But the reality is that most people in AA are just showing up to their daily meeting, talking about their problems, and then heading home for another day at the grind. They are not really pushing themselves to learn and to grow. They are not in the trenches working with newcomers and other alcoholics and addicts. And so they are in danger of becoming complacent.
So I want you to understand that this is not a knock against AA or NA at all. You can easily become complacent both in and out of those programs. The program does not even matter, it is the daily actions (or lack thereof) that make you complacent. So what I am really cautioning you about is the idea that many people in those programs do get lazy. They go to too many meetings and they come to depend on the meetings for their sobriety.
I have heard people in AA meetings say things like “These meetings are my medicine. I have to take my medicine or I will get sick again.”
To me that sounds like a dependency. To me that sounds like you would be in danger of relapse if you suddenly did not have access to the daily meetings (for whatever reason).
I wanted to be stronger in my recovery than that. I did not want to have to depend on daily meetings just to remain clean and sober. So I experimented with my recovery and I made a plan to leave the meetings in a way that would hopefully allow me to remain clean and sober. My plan basically amounted to “push myself to keep growing and learning outside of AA.” The plan worked, and I remain clean and sober more than ten years after leaving the program.
I don’t think it is bad to go to AA or NA. But I do think it is a problem if you are depending on those programs for your sobriety.
Can you give back to the world outside of AA?
One of the nice things about AA and NA is that it is easy to work with other struggling addicts and alcoholics. This is important for several reasons:
1) You feel better about yourself for helping others and your self esteem gets a big boost.
2) You reinforce the ideas that will help to keep you sober by teaching others to stay sober.
3) You identify with others who are addicted so that you get that constant reminder that you are not crazy, that you are not alone.
They call this “12 step work” in the program because the twelfth step calls for us to reach out and help others in recovery.
There is a lot of value in doing this, and so I suspected that this might be one of the keys to long term sobriety.
So when I was in the process of leaving the AA program, I asked myself “Is there a way to give back in recovery without doing so in the AA program?”
The answer turned out to be “yes.”
For starters I found online recovery, and in addition to participating in recovery forums, I also started a website about recovery to try to help others.
But I also started to associate with people who were in recovery outside of AA. All of my friends at this point where in recovery. And people were reaching out to me via email and through the website, looking for advice.
Today I try to help people in other ways as well. Not only in terms of recovery but also in other areas of life.
I have found that it is possible to give back to others without doing so in the 12 step program.
Why complacency is a bigger threat while being in a program
My belief today is that complacency is a bigger threat to anyone who is in a formal program of recovery.
The main reason for this is because they have some level of dependency on the program itself to keep them sober. They have fallen into a routine.
When I left the 12 step program I had to come up with my own plan of action. I had to push myself to make personal growth and I could not rely on a daily venting session in the meetings any more. Instead I had to be taking positive action in order to move forward in my recovery.
It was like I had removed the safety net (of daily AA meetings) so now I had to concentrate more on my actual technique. My recovery got stronger when I left AA because I could no longer depend on the daily meetings to save me. I had to actually take action and do the “footwork” as they say in the program.
Anyone can go sit in meetings every day, talk about their problems, and string some sobriety together. But is that really the same thing as personal growth? This is what was revealed to me when I tried to decipher the “black cloud” of recovery. It takes positive action to remain clean and sober, on a daily basis. You can slide by with daily meetings but you can also leave them behind if you are willing to make a more concentrated effort at personal growth.
Is dependency on personal growth still a real dependency?
Some would argue that my method is still a dependency–that I am depending on personal growth in order to stay sober.
That is a fair argument.
But I will take this disease of “personal growth” any day over sitting in meetings and becoming complacent.
So in the end it all boils down to what works for you. If daily meetings are working well for you then I see no need to change it. But if you sense that you are not actively engaged in personal growth any more, then you might want to challenge yourself to change things up a bit. You can stay in AA while you do this, or you can remove the “safety net” as I did over ten years ago and push yourself to take positive action. There is no right or wrong path. I wish you luck whichever you choose!