Is it possible to get sober without the help of AA? The Fix tells a story of a famous Interventionist that said “If you didn’t get sober in AA, You must not be a real alcoholic.”
That’s a pretty bold statement–one that really defines the disease of alcoholism based on one of the possible solutions, that being Alcoholics Anonymous. What the person is contending is that if you are clean and sober then you must have gone to AA in order to achieve your sobriety, and if you did not go to AA, well then! You couldn’t possibly be a real alcoholic.
That is dangerous thinking in my opinion. Unfortunately, the die hard members of AA and NA will often fire right back at me, saying that my thinking is the dangerous stuff–telling people that there are solutions outside of AA or the 12 step philosophy. How dare I endanger the recovery of the newcomer, when there is such an obvious solution to anyone who is willing to do exactly what AA tells them to do?
It can get fairly heated up, this debate about addiction recovery and the potential solutions.
Where is the anger coming from? What is this anger covering up, and what is really going on?
I have thought about this question for many years now–over a decade in fact. I have discussed this topic with dozens of people, some of who have been in AA, others who have not. I have heard a lot of opinions and a lot of strong arguments. Here is where the truth is at for me personally.
I believe that AA and NA are a widespread program of recovery that probably deserve a chance for the typical alcoholic or drug addict. In other words, I strongly encourage people to give those programs a try, simply because there is so much value in identifying with others in recovery when you are starting your journey.
In other words, when you are first trying to get clean and sober, you need to know that you are not crazy. Because the person who is on the brink of surrender feels like they are insane. The second step in AA speaks to this, about being “restored to sanity.” Every true addict and alcoholic feels like they are going crazy at some point.
So when they get into recovery they need to know that they are not alone, that their struggle is not unique, that others are going through the same thing and that there is hope.
Even if AA and NA offered nothing other than this concept of identification, where the addict or alcoholic sits in a meeting and eventually nods their head in agreement and says to themselves “wow, that person is telling my story.” If that was the only thing you ever got out of the 12 step program, it would still be worth it.
Because outside of AA or NA, it is very, very difficult to find a setting in which the newcomer can experience that level of identification. And that is what gives you hope, at the precise moment when you have very little hope in your life.
I don’t think it is worth it to try to reinvent the wheel and find all sorts of other avenues of finding this identification and this hope. Sure, there are other programs popping up, and you might find some support group that is not AA or NA that you can identify with, but I really think it is too much hassle. Just go give the meetings a chance.
They are not perfect. There are corrupt people everywhere in this world, including at AA or NA. But you can overlook the bad parts and still get the hope that you need.
Having said that, I do not believe that a recovering alcoholic or drug addict needs to go to meetings for the rest of their life.
I certainly don’t. I went largely for the first year or so, and I haven’t really gone to any meetings since around 2003 or so. Yet I still work an active program of recovery, I still reach out and help other addicts and alcoholics, and I do so in many different ways. In essence, I work a fairly traditional recovery program without actually attending meetings.
And I think that this is very possible for anyone. The problem is that it all comes down to timing. If you have one week sober then you should really just go to meetings, like I did. Again, I attended for the first year, maybe the first 18 months or so. After that I started living: I got a job, I went back to college, I got a new job in a rehab, I started connecting with recovery online, I started exercising. And the meetings just fell away because I was prioritizing other things.
Key point: I had so many positive things happening in my life that the daily AA meeting got squeezed out. If you are going to quit going to meetings at any point in your recovery, I highly recommend that you do so for the right reason. That reason is: “I have so many positive things in my life today that I no longer have time to go to an AA meeting.” If you are sitting at home on the couch then you don’t really get to use that excuse. It has to be positive action and real activity filling up your life to the point that your priorities change naturally in a positive way.
So for me, the truth is in the middle, and the extremists on both sides are wrong.
The person advocating strongly for AA, saying that it is the only possible way that a true alcoholic will ever be sober, that is too extreme and I feel it is dead wrong.
Likewise, the person who hates on AA and the 12 step program, saying that it is completely awful and no one should ever use those programs–that person is dead wrong as well.
I believe that in certain rare cases, a person can get clean and sober and transition to a life of personal growth and positive action without ever using the 12 step program or the meetings. But again, that is rare, to the point that I do not really have first hand experience or knowledge with it. As I mentioned, I did a little over one year in AA before transitioning out of the meetings permanently, and that has been working great for me. You have to find your own path and your own truth in life, and that may be different for you.
A lot of people reach out and connect with newcomers in AA meetings, so even if they have decades of sobriety and they technically don’t need the daily meeting to maintain, they might still go anyway. And when they go they are getting a lot out of the experience, because they get to give back, and maybe the sponsor newcomers, and they generally enjoy the meetings and the people.
You may have a different path in recovery, and you may find other ways to connect with people in this positive manner. For example, maybe you will volunteer one day to go into a juvenile detention center and try to talk sense into kids who are getting messed up with drugs or alcohol. And maybe that will be your calling, the way that you connect and give back. Or maybe you will go through rehab and you will go back to the treatment center and give a lecture to a group on a weekly basis. You never know how you are going to connect with others and what your gift will be to give back to people until you start exploring. It might be through the program of AA or NA, or it might be something else entirely. Just try to be open to the possibilities so that you can thrive in recovery. Good luck