Startling Truth: I had to Create My Own Path in Recovery to...

Startling Truth: I had to Create My Own Path in Recovery to Remain Sober


I never really realized that I was going to have to create my own path in recovery until I had already been clean and sober for several months. And even then, I did not readily accept the idea. The problem was that traditional recovery had me convinced (for a very long time) that AA and NA were the only true path to success in overcoming an addiction.

This actually started for me before I ever got clean and sober. When I was still struggling with my addiction, I would go see a counselor who was trying to convince me to get the help that I needed, and the message that I was getting from the therapists and counselors was consistent: I needed traditional rehab with traditional AA and NA meetings at them. They told me (even before I tried to get clean and sober) that this was the core of the program, that statistically speaking, no one really overcame addiction without using those traditional recovery programs. It was AA or the highway. This is what I had been told.

The reason that they told me this was because I had been to an AA meeting and I did not like it. I was terrified of the meetings due to some amount of social anxiety. So I was desperately looking for another solution. But I was told by more than one therapist that the only real solution and my only real chance at recovery was to suck it up and go with AA or NA. Those are the established solutions, and that is where all the support is at, so just do it. That was the message that I was getting.

Now to be honest, I ultimately took their advice, and I surrendered to the disease, and I went to rehab where they used AA and NA meetings as the foundation of their recovery. And for about a year’s time I attended the meetings as I lived in a long term rehab–one that was based on the 12 step philosophy.

But this did not turn out to be my ultimate solution after all. There was still something missing, something was not adding up for me. I realized that I could not make it work in AA in the long run. Something had to change.

Why traditional recovery was not working well for me

- Approved Treatment Center -


When I used to go to AA meetings I would pay close attention in them. I listened carefully to every word that was spoke. Over time this created a problem for me because I was just hearing the same things over and over again. When I voiced this concern (with a sponsor) I was told that I had the wrong perspective–that you could get something valuable out of any AA meeting, so long as you looked hard for it. You might just learn what you don’t want to be like, and so on.

But this logic did not make any sense to me. It was a poor use of my time to go to a meeting and then have to create the value in that meeting for myself. If the meeting was truly keeping me sober, then why did I have to provide the value? Shouldn’t the meeting have value on its own?

Perhaps I just had a bad attitude. So I stuck it out and continued to attend the meetings, but deep down I knew that I was wasting my time. I had other things that were part of my recovery that I could have been doing instead. For example:

* Working with others in recovery outside of meetings.
* Connecting with people in online recovery.
* Exercising.
* Education (finishing my degree).

And so on.

So the meetings just felt like a total waste of my time at some point, and I could not justify attending them any more. They were not the key to my sobriety.

The message that you hear from the die hard AA folks is basically the same: The meetings are not what keep you sober. For them, it is the spiritual transformation through the 12 steps that keep you sober. Not the daily meeting attendance.

Think about it like this: If you absolutely have to go to a meeting in order to stay sober, then your sobriety needs a lot of work. It is not strong enough. You are not taking the proper actions in order to maintain sobriety. You should not be dependent on meetings for your sobriety. If you are, then something else is lacking.

So when I got sick of the daily meetings I started to search for that “something else” that was lacking from my life. And the way that I discovered it was sort of interesting, because I was so afraid to leave AA. And it was that fear of leaving the program that led me to the solution.

Barriers to exit from AA and NA

There is only one real barrier to exit from a program like AA, and it is social pressure. The message that you hear consistently in AA and NA is that “if you leave the meetings then you will surely relapse.” And unfortunately it is a fear based message because everyone is so scared of the relapse boogeyman themselves. They have already decided that the 12 step program is their solution, so they are scared (themselves) of leaving the meetings–because they have been told that this will cause them to relapse. So then if people in AA hear of someone who is thinking about leaving, they project their fear onto others, believing that they must rescue you from leaving the meetings so that you do not relapse and die.

This is the only main barrier to exit–social pressure from your peers.

And it was this pressure that caused me to search hard for a solution, for an alternative to AA that would keep me sober.

Because I had to have an answer.

I had to have something to say to these people, these peers of mine in AA who were so worried that I was suddenly not coming to the meetings any more. I had to have an answer for these people, because they were so terrified that I was going to relapse.

And so I tried to develop a plan. I tried to develop a strategy that would make sense, so that I could say to these people “hey look, I am taking lots of positive action in my life, and I don’t need AA or NA in order to do that. I have these projects going on in my life, I am taking positive action on this, this, and that, and I don’t need AA to do it. So stop worrying about me!”

This was what my thinking and my mindset was. I was playing defense against my peers in AA who were afraid that I was leaving the meetings. And in doing so, I discovered the truth about recovery. That you don’t need the “framework” that AA provides in order to remain sober–you just need to take positive action.

The tricky thing was that as I was going through this transition, I did not know this for sure. I was winging it. I was guessing. I had no idea if it would really work or not. There was a small part of my brain that was cautioning me that AA might really be the only way to stay sober.

So it was truly a leap of faith. I was leaving AA and doing my own thing, and my own thing was personal growth and positive action. I was pushing myself to make positive changes in my life, every single day, as a recovery strategy. I had no idea if it would ever work or not.

Proving to myself that I was on the right path

Even after a few months of doing this new recovery strategy (personal growth rather than AA meetings) I was still not convinced that I was on the right path. I believe it probably took at least a year or so before I really got confident in my new found recovery strategy.

I have to admit that–right or wrong–I was comparing myself to my peers in AA in order to build this confidence. Perhaps this was wrong of me, but I could not help myself. What I was doing is watching my peers in AA who had cautioned me against leaving the program. Over the next year or two, many of those peers relapsed. Forgive me for being honest here, but this gave me more confidence in what I was doing. I feel bad about that, but maybe I shouldn’t. Because these were the people in AA who thought I was so foolish to walk away from AA, and yet they themselves ended up relapsing, while still in AA. So this gave me confidence that I was on the right path.

At the same time I could not help but realize that my life was, in fact, getting better by leaps and bounds. The daily action that I had been taking all along was starting to compound and really add up to serious results. I finished my college degree. I quit smoking cigarettes. I became a distance runner and ran a few marathons. I started a successful business and was able to quit my day job. I was connecting with more and more people in recovery through online communities. And so on.

And at some point it just all added up to a point where I was confident in the path that I was on. It took several months or even a year since I left the meetings to get to this point, because I had so much fear baked into me from the constant message you hear in AA about leaving the meetings.

Realizing that other people may not click with traditional recovery solutions either

So in the end it was all worthwhile, and I was very glad that I made the transition (from AA meetings to self motivated personal growth). And as I continued to explore online recovery, I slowly realized that there were lots of other people out there who had similar experiences (and feelings).

In fact, I found many people online who did not follow the 12 step program at all, and never had. Or they had been briefly exposed to it and then found another path.

For example, there was an entire group of people that I found (Racing for Recovery is the organization) where their primary method of staying clean and sober is to exercise. Now in the past I probably would have turned up my nose at such an idea, but having discovered the power of regular exercise in my own life I can see how their alternative program has real value. What they are doing is working for them….and isn’t that enough?

I found other people online who were simply “doing their own thing” in recovery, just as I was. And so I realized that there was this huge group of people out there who were not going to settle for the default option in recovery (12 step programs) and that they wanted a unique solution. This is what really gave rise to the Spiritual River website. It is an attempt to look one level deeper at how recovery really works. Sure, the 12 steps may work for someone and keep them sober, but why? How? If we can deconstruct successful recovery, then we can improve upon it. If you ask “why” and “how” in AA, they give you hard answers like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” They are stuck in this mentality of: Why would you want to change something that works, so long as you follow it blindly and unquestioningly? Just work the AA program and you will be sober, etc. They don’t want to understand or deconstruct what is actually keeping them sober.

Figuring out what actually keeps me clean and sober

When I first left the AA meetings I was hyper-aware of how I felt each day in terms of possible relapse. I was on guard. I was paying very, very close attention.

Because of this, I was able to see what was helping me and what was really not doing much for me in terms of relapse prevention. If I had thoughts of using or drinking then obviously I was not taking the right actions. If I was repulsed by the idea of relapse then I was on the right track. In order to do this though you have to be brutally honest with yourself in terms of how you are actually feeling each day.

So I discovered in doing this that exercise was a huge weapon against relapse. It was so much more powerful than I ever imagined, and the strange thing was that I had never heard mention of it in traditional recovery. Nobody ever said to me in an AA meeting: “You should really try to exercise every day, it helps a lot!” But they should have, because the impact that it has had on me is tremendous.

My approach to recovery goes deeper than just exercise, however. It is the incremental personal growth that really keeps me sober. Not just that I started exercising and continue to improve my health and fitness, but that I am trying to improve myself and my life in other ways as well. The bottom line for me is this: If you are not growing, then you are moving closer to relapse. There is no in-between there. You are either making positive progress or you are headed for relapse.

When I was in very early recovery I went to a rehab and they had a class about holistic health in recovery. At the time, I have to admit that I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world. The reason I believed this was because I thought that I needed to focus in early recovery, not branch out and try to grow in all of these different areas.

In other words, I thought that in early recovery I should just focus exclusively on staying sober, and doing what I needed to do in order to remain clean. This holistic recovery stuff was basically saying NOT to focus, and instead to try to fix all sorts of things in your life, such as:

* Eating healthy and nutrition.
* Exercise.
* Meditation, prayer, spirituality.
* Connecting with others and relationships.
* Education, learning.
* Emotional health and balance.

And so on. But this was overwhelming, and I could clearly see that–for example–improving my nutrition and diet was NOT going to make a bit of difference for me in terms of my sobriety. Not at one week sober.

And so this is what I slowly discovered:

In early recovery, you need extreme focus. Forget about the holistic stuff for a while, and just stay sober. Do whatever it takes. Focus. If AA works for you, then go to AA all day, every day.

But in long term sobriety, the holistic approach becomes much more important. Now it makes sense to branch out and grow in other areas of your life. In fact, you have to do so if you want to live a long and healthy life.

I have at least two or three peers in recovery who failed to adopt a holistic approach. They were overweight, continued to smoke, and remained inactive. This did not work out well for them.

So it is an issue of timing. In early recovery, you need extreme focus (on abstinence). As you progress in recovery, you need to branch out and adopt a more holistic approach.

Attempting to instruct other people to live a creative life of positive growth

It is not easy to instruct other people on how to live and create a life of positive growth without the framework of AA. But this is what this website has attempted to do.

If you are interested in achieving this sort of “self made sobriety program” for yourself, then keep the following in mind:

* It is possible to recover without programs, but you still have to put in a lot of work and effort!
* You should probably push yourself harder to make positive changes than what your peers in AA are doing. This is what fueled my success in leaving the meetings. I was comparing myself to others, and thus pushed myself to do more.
* You can still benefit from the input of others without being in a recovery program. Seek feedback from people you look up to and admire. Take their advice and act on it. This is still a powerful strategy for living. You will miss out on growth if you fail to seek input and feedback.
* Timing is important. In early recovery, focus exclusively on staying sober for one more day. In long term sobriety that will not work, and you need to pursue a more holistic approach. That means seeking growth and positive changes in ALL areas of your life.

Part of the problem with trying to teach others in living this particular recovery strategy is that so much of it is self-discovered. For example, not everyone is going to find that exercise is helpful to their recovery like it is for me. But that does not mean that something else may not be just as helpful to them, such as meditation (for example).

Ultimately you have to decide if AA is the right path for you, and if it is helping you to grow. If it is then I would not urge you to leave the meetings. On the other hand you may be stuck and not really pushing yourself as much as you could be. There is a whole world of growth out there waiting for you if you are willing to pursue it!

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