“Hello, my name is Michael and I’m an alcoholic.”
I tend not to say that very often these days, as I left AA after about 18 months of attendance. But I have remained abstinent for the last eight years and have managed my recovery using a wide variety of methods and support groups over the past few years. A friend says “AA” stands for “Absolute Abstinence” rather than Alcoholics Anonymous, and I like that.
I was asked to write a blog on Addiction.com about alternatives to 12-step methods after the staff read my blog, Recoveringfromrecovery.com. It is fair to say that I am not a fan of certain parts of the AA program, which I view as out-of-date, but I am not simply an AA basher. I realize that many do well in AA, if being in that type of group motivates them, but I also know that AA does not help everyone and many people will respond better to alternative solutions.
My Start with AA
Beating an addiction is hard and I respect anyone who tries to fight their own demons. I had had many attempts at stopping drinking and was only successful when I gave up attempting to do everything by myself and joined a peer support group, which in my case was AA. That was a really important thing for me to do, as it brought me into contact with other people who were dealing with similar issues. I had not experienced this before and thought that many of my overwhelming feelings were unique, but I quickly learned from the stories of others that they were not. I was not alone and this was comforting.
Companionship and support from the community of AA were good for me in the beginning , especially as I traveled a lot and found it helpful to go to meetings wherever I was, to help break my drinking habits. There are AA meetings in most towns and I made use of them. Initially, I was not aware of any alternatives to AA and, like many in my position, I did not research many solutions, I just went to the group that everyone has heard of.
I did not see it as a complete solution, though, and was skeptical about the Steps from the start. The talk and readings about God in AA were a turn-off for me, although I could see evidence of AA working for some people in the meeting. In fact, I was the only one there that looked like the stereotypical alcoholic! Others looked fit and well and seemed happy, and I was none of these things. Despite observing this, my first “share,” in my first meeting, was to ask a question: “Are there any alternative solutions to this?” I was not given any and I feel this is a failing of the 12-step world, as many people could be helped by alternative methods if they are not attracted to AA. I know of several people who have walked away from recovery after being told that it was AA or die. I believed this myself at one time, until I discussed it with a therapist.
Creating My Own Recovery Solution
There are those in online recovery circles who try to make a “them” and “us” situation, between AA and other support methods. I think this simply divides the recovery community and puts some people off looking at solutions that may help them. I would really advise people who are starting in recovery to throw themselves into it, make recovery a priority and read as much good-quality information as possible on the subject. My own recovery solution has evolved with time and experience. Sometimes I learned by success and other times I realized that things could be better and that I needed some help, or a new approach.
Opening up to others and sharing things was something that helped me from AA. This was not something that I was used to or prepared to do until I had experienced others doing it. I had experienced some CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)-based treatment 10 years before I finally gave up drink and went through a period of stopping and starting and ups and downs for the next decade. I am not knocking CBT at all; it certainly helped when I experienced depression at around the 18-month period into my current recovery. The difference this time was that I was now open with the therapists and would take their advice, but prior to being in a recovery support group I could not do this; I felt inhibited. and scared.
At the very start of the last eight-year period of abstinence going to AA helped, as it took me away from my drinking environment, gave me a sober community and provided some support. I was not capable of doing too much in those early days and a lot of the methods that I use today would probably not have made sense to me. Dragging myself to a meeting and sitting on a chair with a cup of tea was about my limit at the start.
Once I had got some time under my belt, it was a different story. I began to see many people in AA were quite neurotic and sick. I started to feel depressed myself and was given help by my doctor, who sent me to therapy. After using medication and counseling I managed to get my emotions a bit more under control and learned methods of dealing with depression. This process also brought me into conflict with my AA sponsor, who was not a fan of medication and who refused to work the Steps with me while I was taking it.
I began to view parts of the AA program as faith healing and felt some of the advice I was given was not helping. I had issues with trust, too, as there was a lot of gossip in some of the meetings I went to and I got bored hearing the same old thing over and over again.
I decided to take what I wanted from the program — for example, I feel step 10 has a lot of value — but I rejected the Higher Power concept. Ideas such as the one that I was powerless over alcohol were helpful in the early days, when I was full of cravings, but as these passed away I wanted a more self-empowering path. I wanted to beat alcoholism, not be powerless over it.
The CBT solution was making sense now and I felt motivated to continue down this path and fix my issues with many areas of my life. I felt I gained far more insight into my problems through therapy than I would have done by simply continuing with the AA program. For a while, AA had motivated me in recovery, but this was no longer the case and I felt it was actually holding me back. Leaving your support group is not a decision to be taken lightly in recovery, but I had the support of my therapist, who had gently guided me into formulating a plan which I felt would help me and was in line with my general values. There was no conflict between us, and I was given a lot of material to read and allowed to come to my own conclusions. She also managed to curb some of my not-so-good ideas!
In future posts on the blog I hope to highlight in more detail some of the methods I have used to improve my life and beat addiction. I also wish to mention some of the solutions that friends of mine use that are different from my approach. There is certainly not simply one way to do recovery and that is an important message to spread.
I also feel it is important to be willing to ask for help outside your recovery support group, such as AA, rather than simply rely on prayer and a sponsor with no mental health training (my sponsors were a music lawyer and a cab driver!). I have seen many people have problems in later recovery after they have put all their faith in one program and the results have been quite disastrous. I suppose the bottom line is, stick with something when it is working for you, but be prepared to take a step back and look at modifying your approach when depression strikes or life becomes too difficult. Recovery is an ongoing process and it is important to stay on top of situations and reach out to others as soon as things are not going so well.