2019 has been a year of a lot of changes, progress, and growth in my life. I’ve been abstinent from alcohol for over 2 years, I’ve lost 63 pounds, and I’ve significantly improved my meditation and mindfulness practice. The catalyst for all of these changes was my experience getting involved in Alcoholics Anonymous. However, through a series of events, I’ve decided that it is no longer the best way for me to continually evolve and grow.
I am going to write, what I hope is a fair and objective series of 10 blogs about my experience in AA, in the hopes that anyone looking to solve their own problems with addiction and compulsive behavior can hear a perspective that you will never get in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I will update the sidebar on this page as the blogs are written.
This is one man’s opinion on Alcoholics Anonymous. If you are suffering from addiction and getting help from a 12 Step Program, continue doing what works for you. This is in no way meant to encourage anyone else to discontinue their own program if it’s working. I simply got to a point where it was no longer working for me.
What Is AA
Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.
All over the world there are autonomous 12 Step Recovery groups. They exist for any kind ailment you can think of, from alcohol, to drugs, to gambling, to sex addiction. But the most well known (and the original) is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA evolved from a fundamentalist Christian self-help group called The Oxford Group which was popular in the US in the 1920s. As such, AA is a spiritual program that draws heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Why I Went To AA
I’ve struggled my whole life with compulsive behavior, most notably when it comes to eating, but this extended to alcohol toward the end of college. Despite subtle and not-so-subtle warnings, I continued to drink until it became a pretty serious problem. The catalyst for me to make a change was my 10 year high school reunion in October 2017. During the reunion proper, I held it together but then continued to drink throughout the night, ultimately embarrassing myself and deciding that I didn’t want to live like that anymore.
A good friend of mine (Danny) was a member of AA and invited me to a meeting. While I knew very little about it - and certainly didn’t know what I was getting myself into - I was drawn to Danny’s relationships. He seemed to have a solid core group of friends that were always doing fun stuff together, without alcohol. And that is something I had always wanted and never really had.
So I kept coming back. (Keep coming back is a popular AA slogan)
How It Was
I stopped drinking the day after my high school reunion and maintained 2 years and 2 months of abstinence from alcohol. In AA language, I had a relapse because I had one sip of alcohol a couple months into sobriety, but for the sake of these blogs we are going to say 2 years of abstinence (Oct 15, 2017 to Nov 16, 2019).
Being away from alcohol, things immediately got better. They also got awkward. Alcohol had always been a social crutch for me - it helped me loosen up and not care so much what people thought - so I had to learn how to socialize and have fun all over again, without alcohol.
I found a pretty solid Monday night mens AA meeting. My friend Danny was the facilitator of the meeting and most of his friends went to the meeting also. They welcomed me into their social group pretty quickly, with a few exceptions, and they were always doing fun stuff. Most notably, we usually all went to dinner together immediately after the meeting.
I got a sponsor, started working the 12 steps, and felt like I had the group of friends that I had always craved. Everything was good. Until it wasn’t.
About 9 months in, there was some kind of battle of egos between Danny’s sponsor and this old timer (AA talk for people with many years of sobriety) at our Monday meeting, so half of the room (around 30 people) broke off and started a new meeting out of the living room of Danny’s sponsor. Those meetings were stuffy, cramped, and ultimately not for me. So I continued going to my previous meeting, despite not knowing most of the people that remained.
But I slowly got to know people and felt comfortable again.
One of the biggest indirect benefits of AA was working Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with a group of mostly AA people. This manifested a new business for me and helped me to deal with a lot of baggage and self-limiting beliefs, not directly related to alcohol.
But as life got better, I started going to fewer AA meetings, as I no longer thought about drinking or not drinking. Unfortunately, unless you are going to a meeting every time the door is open, most of the other AA people begin to lose interest in you. So most of the new relationships I formed dried up.
This, more than anything else, made it less appealing to go, because the social aspect was the main selling point for me. (And, as I will explain in future blogs, the fellowship component of AA is its most effective part.)
A little over a year in, my first sponsor Alex got a new girlfriend and stopped going to meetings or having any active role in my recovery. This was a let down, because he is someone I greatly admired and wanted to be in touch with. After a couple months of this, I got a new sponsor, Joe, who I had met at a meditation retreat. He was a better fit for me because we have the same spiritual philosophy, so he was able to help me in more ways than Alex.
Upon asking Joe to work with me, I re-committed to going to meetings and got a sponsee of my own, John. I worked with John for a couple of months and through his relapse. I felt like we were really making progress, until he started flaking on me. He also stopped replying to me. Finally, we had the talk and he told me that he no longer wanted to go to AA. His reasons, most of which I couldn’t argue with, were things which I had at the back of my mind about AA also. Namely -
- He was an atheist. He believed in self-empowerment and wasn’t able to buy into the higher power concept, which is the basis of the whole program.
- He didn’t have the time or see the value in going to tons of meetings because he was a full time student, full time worker and had a marriage to dedicate time to.
- His rock bottom wasn’t that far down, so he had a hard time relating to most of the other people in AA.
I encouraged him to do something, anything if he goes back to binge drinking, but wished him the best. I agreed with everything he said. I felt the same way, but because of the dogma of AA, or the fear of rejection, or something else, I wasn’t yet willing to say it out loud.
Down The Rabbit Hole
The final nail in the coffin of 12 step recovery, for me, was watching an interview with Dr. Lance Dodes on a morning news show. He wrote a book called The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry which sheds light on pseudoscience of 12 step recovery. Namely, that there is no evidence that it actually works, and is even evidence that it makes people worse off that don’t fit into its paradigm.
Unusual for non-fiction, I devoured this book in a couple of days. And it blew my mind.
AA does a really good job of tooting its own horn and keeping you scared of ever leaving. The conventional wisdom of AA is that, if you leave, you will relapse, and probably die. You also never hear from people who left. You only hear from those who stayed. People, many of them old timers, who buy into the dogma. So it was refreshing to hear the accounts of many people who left and went on to live perfectly happy, normal lives. Sometimes they maintained abstinence from alcohol, other times they were even able to return to moderate drinking.
After finishing the book, I read blogs from people who left AA and I decided to follow course.
Here are some notable blogs I read:
- 3 Years After Leaving AA: Not Dead, Still Sober
- Leaving the Cult of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – Part 1
- Leaving AA and Finding a New Freedom
- Deprogramming From AA—When a Fellowship Resembles a Cult
I’m sure there are thousands more out there. What is important is telling the stories of people who have left.
Breaking Up With AA
Once I made the decision to leave, I talked it over with a couple of friends, including one who struggled with alcohol, but quit on her own and never went to any kind of formal treatment. She encouraged me to try moderate drinking.
My Mom, who is also my best friend, and is generally very risk adverse, supported my decision to try something new.
And ultimately, my psychiatrist supported my decision.
It took me a couple of days to get up the courage to call and break up with my sponsor Joe, for lack of a better word. He is someone who I greatly admire and I didn’t want to let him down. But one of the things I’ve gained from the 12 step inventory process is being true to myself and not people-pleasing. He wasn’t happy about my decision, but he respected it.
As is the nature of any dogmatic organization (I won’t call AA a cult outright), it is very likely that I will lose the friends I made in the program by leaving. But if that happens, so be it. AA’s own motto is to thy own self be true and that is what I am doing.
My goal is to attempt moderate, social drinking. I don’t want to ever go back to how I drank before, I don’t want to binge drink, and I don’t want to do things that are focused on drinking, like I used to. I have learned how to socialize and have fun without alcohol, so there is no need to have a liquid crutch in social situations anymore.
Initially, I am setting my limit of no more than 2 standard drinks per day and no more than 6 standard drinks total per week. I am going to limit drinking to being out either at a restaurant or a brewery and not do it at home.
It is possible that I will not be able to drink moderately and I may have to stick to complete abstinence from alcohol, but if that is ultimately the case, I won’t need AA to abstain. I have the tools I need, without the time commitment or cognitive dissonance associated with paying lip service to a dogma that I never truly believed.
More To Come
The next 9 blogs in this series will focus on specific details of what happened and what changed. This one was just meant to be a (not so) brief overview.