I have never given an AA Speaker meeting before, the kind where a person just stands up and talks in front of a group of AA people for an hour or so, but if I did this is what I would say.
I would talk about how I started out in AA but then slowly drifted away from it after about 18 months. I would not do this to try to challenge people or to try to annoy them. Instead, I would do this to try to get them to think a little bit more about how they are living in their own recovery, and if they are depending on things that they should not in order to stay sober.
When I was in AA, I wanted to know how it all worked. I wanted to know what actually kept people clean and sober. But this was not discussed in the typical AA meeting that I attended. In fact, most people discourage the idea of figuring out how it all worked. They told me to just do as was suggested to me, and not to question how sobriety actually worked.
This was not good enough for me. I wanted to know the details of how sobriety actually functioned. I wanted to know what separated the people who relapsed from the people who stayed clean and sober for years and years on end.
And so I slowly started drifting away from AA even though I was terrified that this might cause me to relapse. Everyone in the program cautioned me that I would relapse if I did not continue to attend meetings for the rest of my life. This was unacceptable to me, and it did not really make sense to me either. I mean, if you are working a program of recovery, why should you have this lifetime dependency on daily AA meetings? It just never made sense to me. If you are going to attend meetings every day for the rest of your life then it seems that you would not have to also make an effort to build any sort of recovery or take action with the steps. Why do both?
So what I did at about the 18 month mark is to stop going to AA meetings every day. But because I was so terrified of what would happen to me if I was not going to meetings, I made sure to take plenty of positive action in my life, and to keep making positive changes. In part, I was taking this positive action just so that I would have a defense against my peers in AA who were cautioning me against relapse. I wanted to have an answer for those who were concerned for me.
So what I did was to branch out in my recovery efforts to try to find new positive actions that I could take. For example, I started to exercise on a regular basis. Little did I know that this would become one of the pillars of my sobriety in the future. In addition to exercise, I started exploring the world of online recovery, and I started to reach out to people through that venue. There were chat rooms, forums, and other online meeting places, but I also started to create my own place online where I could help other people. These efforts made a bigger impact on my sobriety than I had expected them to. I slowly came to realize that recovering addicts and alcoholics do not necessarily have to depend on attending daily meetings for their sobriety.
Since leaving the AA meetings, a couple of months went by and I continued to see my peers in AA who would ask me how I was doing. I continued to assure them that I was doing well in spite of not attending AA meetings everyday. But then a funny thing happened, and I noticed that some of the people who were concerned for me actually ended up relapsing themselves. After that happened, those people stopped giving me a hard time about not attending meetings. In fact, some of them said to me that they wondered what my secret was. I did not really know how to answer that, other than to say that my secret is personal growth. After realizing the truth of this, I started to put together a more coherent philosophy of recovery. I also started writing about that and documenting it online. I called my philosophy the creative theory of recovery, because it was my opinion that you had to create a new life for yourself in recovery in order to replace the old life that you had in active addiction.
When I first got clean and sober, I was a little bit depressed because I really did not have much of a life. My old life consisted of using drugs and alcohol on a daily basis with a small group of friends who also abused drugs and alcohol. That was my entire life for at least a decade, and here I was, clean and sober, and basically had no direction at all. The only thing I knew for sure is that I did not want to be stuck in addiction anymore.
What I am saying is that when I first got clean and sober I was not immediately happy with my life. Early recovery was not much fun because I no longer knew how to have fun while I was sober. I had to relearn how to have fun in recovery, and this was not an instant process. I would say that it took at least 3 to 6 months before I was able to enjoy myself to the point where I could forget about my addiction for an entire day at a time. When that happened to me for the first time, I realized that it was a miracle; that I had gone through an entire day without a single urge or craving for drugs or alcohol.
But getting to this point was not easy, nor did it happen automatically. It took a lot of work, and quite honestly, a lot of tears to get to the point where I was enjoying life again without self medicating.
What is the alternative path to recovery?
An alternative path to recovery is one in which you do not follow the mainstream ideas about how to stay clean and sober (more on what that is below).
There are many of these paths. For example, there is a group of people who stay clean and sober by running marathons and triathlons. They have made a decision to dedicate their life to fitness to the extent that it can “cure” them of addiction. Does it work? It works for some people. Obviously it does not work for all. And that is exactly my point.
There are other alternatives. For example, there is a whole big chunk of people in recovery who do so based on religious belief. They go to Christian based rehabs. They follow the bible or some other religious text. They get support from a church or from a religious community. They stay clean and sober based on their belief and their devotion to religion.
Then there is the “holistic” path. This is essentially what I have done in my own life. It sounds a little flimsy but obviously it has worked out well for me. I have over 12 years clean and sober. No slips, dips, or weekend trips (as they say). Clean as a whistle for over 12 years, and I basically left “mainstream recovery” around the 18 month point. It has been a long and awesome journey.
To me the “holistic path” is based on personal growth.
Traditional recovery tends to focus on spiritual growth. This is limiting. Why focus on only spiritual growth, when there are so many other helpful ways in which you can learn and grow?
Seriously. Think about that for a moment. Think about it a lot because it is essentially the whole point of this website. Personal growth in recovery is what keeps people clean and sober, and spirituality is but one small fraction of that. Yet mainstream recovery would have you believe that the solution is 100 percent spiritual. This is the core of what I try to teach people here on Spiritual River (ironic choice of website name, right? Here I am cautioning you against a 100 percent dependence on spiritual growth!).
I am not saying that spiritual growth is not important. What I am saying is that it is only one part of the holistic path. And in my experience the holistic path is superior to “mainstream recovery,” which is definitely not holistic. It does not try to be holistic, it just tries to keep people sober through “spiritual conversion,” if you will.
The alternative path to recovery is based on positive action. It is based on personal growth. And by definition, it basically means any path in recovery that is not the mainstream and traditional path. So we had better define that as well.
Is the alternative path in recovery better or worse than the traditional path? What exactly is the traditional path?
First of all:
The traditional and mainstream path in recovery is based on the 12 step model.
Go to rehab. Be exposed to AA and NA. Follow up your rehab with daily AA meetings. Do 90 meetings in the next 90 days and get a sponsor. Work the 12 steps.
This is traditional recovery defined.
The alternative ideas that I have outlined above are not necessarily better or worse than AA. I think the “holistic approach” is better than AA for me, but that might not be true for you.
If you believe that you need help then there is a 90 percent chance or greater that someone will steer you towards AA. It is the default solution. It is what most rehabs are based on these days. So if you bounce around in recovery for a while (and relapse a few times) then you are bound to run into AA as the solution.
What I am suggesting is that AA is definitely not for everyone. It definitely was not well suited to me.
So there is an alternative to AA, and in fact there are many alternatives.
The one that makes most sense to me is a personal program of recovery based on:
1) Positive action.
3) Support from healthy people.
4) Holistic health.
5) Personal growth.
6) Improving your life.
7) Improving your life situation.
8) Reaching out, helping others, making a difference.
Some of these concepts overlap with AA principles. But none of them depend on AA. They can all exist outside of the 12 step program.
And in some cases, these ideas go beyond what you will find in AA.
For example, the idea of “holistic health” had me quit cigarettes and also take up regular exercise.
Those two things, together, have made such a tremendous impact on my life that it is unbelievable. I am so grateful for those two changes. This is HUGE.
And yet in AA, I was surrounded by smokers and people who did not think that exercise made any difference at all in recovery. Maybe one or two people in a meeting would exercise, but they gave that exercise absolutely zero credit in terms of their sobriety. They did not make the connection that their holistic health was part of their sobriety solution. Unbelievable.
If AA is working for you and keeping you sober then that is great. But a close friend of mine passed away in AA and he was overweight and also a smoker. His doctor told him to quit smoking and lose weight and he could not do it fast enough. He died.
My point is actually one step further than this though:
If you quit smoking and start exercising and embrace holistic health in general, then your recovery will get stronger as a result. Your sobriety will become more protected. It is win-win. This is why I believe that holistic health is such a big part of sobriety. Not because you are healthier and live longer and have a higher quality of life (although all of that stuff is great, no?). But because you also help to prevent relapse.
If you are making positive changes and feeling good then you are not going to pick up a drink. Period.
Positive action yields positive results. Get lazy and you just might relapse.
Personal growth is the key. This is true whether you go to AA or not.
Ultimately AA is just a framework for growth. You still have to do the work. You still have to take action.
You can do this without AA as your framework. There is no magic formula in the 12 steps. They are based mostly on the condition of abstinence.
Alternatives do work. Of course, you have to want them to work for you, and be willing to put in a lot of serious effort.
How can I start working towards this alternative path if I am already stuck in AA?
Start exploring what really keeps you clean and sober.
This is what I did when I was still in AA.
I started exercising, and realized that it really, really helped me to stay sober.
But this was not the first thing I tried.
In fact, my sponsor suggested that I try meditation first.
So I did that for a few months. It fizzled out though because it was not really working for me. It helped, but the return on effort was not high enough.
With distance running, the return on effort was HUGE. It was far more beneficial to me than meditating was.
That’s just how I am wired.
You have to figure out how you are wired, too.
What keeps you sober?
What really helps you to prevent relapse?
Don’t say “I don’t know.” That is not an answer. Start exploring it. Start journaling, and measuring. How do you feel when you skip a meeting? How do you feel when you talk to your sponsor every day? How do you feel when you write about your feelings each day? And so on. Start logging this stuff. Figure out what is helpful. Measure your progress based on cravings or thoughts of drinking. Obviously you want to eliminate those.
If you are stuck in AA then your job is to build a new life and find the habits that keep you learning and growing.
I exercise every day of my life. Without question. It is part of my ritual, my daily practice.
I also write every day. Every single day. Without fail. It has value for me.
I could go on, but you get the idea. I have certain things that I do on a regular basis. And those things help me to stay sober.
I had to experiment to find out what those things were. I had to take suggestions. I had to test things. Discard ideas that did not work for me (meditation). And so on.
If you want an alternative to AA then here is my suggestion:
1) Get sober and stable by any means necessary. Go to rehab. Go to AA. Give it time.
2) Figure out what is really helping you to stay sober. Explore. Get feedback. Try new things.
3) Build a new life. Find your “daily practice.” Slowly filter out the AA meetings as you incorporate more and more positive action (outside of AA).
This is how you build real freedom in recovery.
If AA is working for you (and you are continuously growing and not stuck) then by all means, keep doing it.
If you are stuck in AA or you don’t like it, then build an alternative path. Carve it out yourself.
It is your responsibility to do so. No one else can do it for you (unless you just want to be dictated to with yet another recovery program!).