First, I want to clearly state that I am not anti-AA or any other twelve-step program. I got sober in the rooms of AA and NA, and am deeply grateful for the opportunities offered. Among many other things, I learned to build healthy relationships, look deeply at my own behavior, and be accountable. As I reflect, I really believe I grew up in twelve-step. Leaving AA was not out of hatred, believing it doesn’t work, or that it is a cult.
However, I do not go to twelve-step meetings anymore and haven’t gone regularly for years. When somebody I know is struggling, I still recommend checking out twelve-step meetings. I go with newcomers to support them, I show up to give cakes when a friend has a sober anniversary, and I speak when someone asks me to. So again, I am not a person who believes twelve step programs are all bad.
The simple intention here is to share my personal experience. I know there are other people who go through similar experiences, and it can be lonely. If you at all relate, know that you are not alone. You can stay sober, you can live a healthy life, and you can find a path that works for you, whether or not that means participating in twelve-step groups.
My Time In AA
I got sober when I was nineteen years old after some years of polysubstance abuse. I went from a jail cell to a treatment center, with the support of my boundary-setting parents. When I went to treatment, I did not have a deep desire to be sober. Going to meetings, I met a man who I eventually asked to sponsor me. I truly believe I found the best sponsor for me in that moment. He was supportive, loving, and firm with me, which is just what I needed.
I worked the steps, doing my fourth step inventory, making amends, and beginning to take others through the steps. I took commitments at meetings, volunteered for a Hospitals and Institutions panel that I handled for a year, and answered phones at Central Office.
Over the course of a couple of years, I met some amazing people. From the powerful speakers to the healthy friends, I really valued the community and support of twelve-step groups. However, I continually felt like something was missing. I was sober, my behavior was improving, and I was doing everything I could. No matter what I did, there was this underlying feeling that something just wasn’t clicking for me personally.
When I was a couple months sober, I began going to a meditation-based twelve-step meeting at Against the Stream. The first time I went, they were reading from some book that a teacher at the center had written. The passage read, “This is an approach to recovery that understands that all beings have the power and potential to free themselves from suffering.”
This group later morphed into the program of Refuge Recovery, and this line made it into the first edition of the book. When I heard the line, I was drawn to it immediately. I don’t consider myself a complete atheist, but I liked this approach of taking my recovery into my own hands. I couldn’t really get behind the idea that it was only because of a higher power that we stay sober.
Why I Left AA
I remember sitting in an AA meeting in the Pacific Palisades in Southern California once. A man was taking a cake, as they do in the area, for a sobriety birthday. He started by saying, “It is only because of God that I am sober today.” No, I thought, you are sober today because you have taken action. If part of that action is believing in a higher power, that’s great. However, I just don’t believe that if you pray to God to stay sober and stick a needle in your arm, a higher power will somehow jam the rig every time.
As I began really getting to know myself, it became clear that I didn’t truly believe what was being said in twelve-step meetings. Leaving AA certainly didn’t seem like an option as I was the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. However, I began to really understand that I was taking bits and pieces and leaving the rest.
I consider myself apatheistic, which is the attitude that the existence or non-existence of a god doesn’t really matter to me in my life. I continue to take action to be healthy and at ease, and it doesn’t make a difference to me whether or not there is a higher power. I shared about this in a meeting, talking about how we can take action, work the steps, and participate in AA without believing in a higher power and was told to keep coming back until I got it, that I shouldn’t be sharing things like that because it hurts newcomers, and that I probably need to go back and work my steps.
That was the last regular AA meeting I went to. I was admittedly resentful at the time to the response received. I also got a sponsee at that meeting who deeply connected with my share, and we are still close friends years later. It was that meeting and through receiving that response that deeply brought to my attention that my beliefs were not in line with the beliefs of the community as a whole.
To be fair, this was the straw the broke the camels back. Leaving AA wasn’t solely based on this experience. I decided to leave AA for many reasons. The chapter We Agnostics in the Big Book definitely didn’t make me feel welcome. But I also didn’t agree with identifying so strongly in every meeting as an “alcoholic.” That’s one part of me. Yes, it’s helpful to remember, but was I building a healthy sense of identity identifying every single day as an alcoholic? It felt like I was putting myself in a box.
I tried branching out and going to different meetings. I went to young people meetings, the Pacific Group, old-timers meetings where nobody with under ten years could share, etc. I just couldn’t find a true home and was always searching. I remember having to take prescription painkillers in recovery due to kidney stones. My sponsor held the pills and I had two pills outside of the hospital, spaced appropriately apart from each other. The rest were turned in to a local drop site. Someone in an AA meeting told me this was a relapse and I should start my date over.
Now, I realize many of these issues are personalities and not principles of the greater group. However, the higher power issue was an institutional issue. My approach to recovery was that I was in charge of my own actions, not a higher power. I really could not reconcile this.
Leaving AA and Staying Sober
When I left AA, I started going to Refuge Recovery meetings regularly, took commitments, investigated yoga, went to meditation groups, exercised, and tried to fill my time taking care of myself. I actually ended up beginning my journey to losing sixty pounds during this time and feeling much better physically and mentally, which was just a by-product of me desperately seeking ways to take care of myself without the comfort of twelve-step.
My sponsor, who was about 85 years old and 40 years sober at the time was completely supportive. Although he was an old-school, book-thumping type, he stood by me every step of the way. When I told him I had stopped going to meetings, he asked me if I still had a healthy community, a way to grow, and something to word toward. When I told him about the other recovery groups and meditation classes, he said he thought that sounded great for me.
It was definitely difficult at first. I worked in a sober living home at the time, and all of the residents went to twelve-step. I had many friends who were super active in local meetings and community. It definitely created some friction, and I certainly wasn’t sure of my decision from the start.
However, as the months and years passed, I realized that I had made the right decision for myself. I found a recovery program that fit my personal beliefs better. I no longer sat in meetings and found that I didn’t believe what others were saying to be true for me. When I sat in meetings I related, felt seen, and connected on a deeper level.
Life After AA
Years have gone by since I decided to leave AA. I do sometimes miss the strong stressing of community that twelve-step meetings have. However, I also have found this sense of community in other groups and ways. Whether it’s rock climbing, Refuge Recovery, or the meditation community, I continue to find ways to connect with like-minded individuals.
I have a “spiritual” practice that suits me. With daily meditation, a relationship with a mentor, and a community, I really have a healthy system in my life. I was asked to write this post by someone who recently went through something similar, and I’m grateful to be able to share honestly about my experience rather than trying to make it work like I did for years without success.
I had an interesting conversation this week with someone who is also sober. I shared that I don’t really identify any longer as a recovering addict. Instead, I find that I choose not to take any recreational drugs or substances because it flat-out isn’t healthy for me. I want to take care of myself. I remember the suffering caused by my addiction (on myself and all those around me), but I don’t hold onto that as who I am. The fact that I was addicted to drugs and alcohol is certainly part of my story, but it isn’t the entire story.
Leaving AA wasn’t easy. I saw people around town who encouraged me to come back, spoke in a very condescending tone to me, and told me that they hoped I would “get it” some day. If you’re active in twelve-step and it’s working for you, beautiful! I like to think that it wasn’t AA that was the problem, and it wasn’t me that was the problem. Instead, it was the relationship. My beliefs did not match the organization’s beliefs.
It is important to know that there are alternatives to AA. There are other support groups, and people get sober without support groups. I know a few people who have recovered from individual therapy and come to our meditation center. This doesn’t make you a “problem drinker” and not an alcoholic as some people in AA may suggest. It doesn’t make you an alcoholic either. We can let go of the labels, and just be happy that people are taking care of themselves!