This post was originally published on October 14, 2015.
One of the most common complaints I hear from newcomers in my 12-step program is that they hate going to meetings.
“They just depress me, you know?”
Yes, I know. We all know. My guess is that most people in 12-step recovery have gone through a time when they didn’t want to go to meetings for a variety of reasons—they didn’t have time, they didn’t see the point, the people were annoying and weird but usually, all of the above. I have vomited the words, “I fucking hate this meeting!” more times than I could ever keep track of. Twelve-step meetings are a lot like exercise class, some people are into it but most of us would rather be home watching Netflix or clipping our toenails—anything but sitting in a florescent lit room drinking Folgers out of a styrofoam cup while listening to a bunch of strangers bitch about their lives.
But much like working out, no matter how much we might despise showing up and doing the work, we typically feel much better afterwards. Maybe it’s the rush from the endorphins or the pride of self-care having done something good for ourselves, something good for our bodies. This is how 12-step attendance should be addressed.
Many of us don’t see them this way. We view going to meetings like some kind of punishment for being defective or, at best, a wretched inconvenience (for being defective). It’s hard to understand the effect of going to a meeting because we don’t always leave feeling pumped up— the way we might feel when we leave the gym, with chemicals of hard work and achievement coursing through our veins. Though I often do feel much better after, I certainly have had my share of days when I said to my sponsor, “I just got out of a meeting and it made me want to drink.”
It’s true, this has happened to me more than once, more than a dozen times. Does that mean I should stop going? Well, let’s see, I have been sober for nearly 12 years so (doing the math) that means, on average, I have a bad meeting experience about once a year. So does leaving a 12-step meeting feeling frustrated and resentful—with the bitter after taste of crappy coffee on my breath—one out of 365 days seem like a reasonable ratio rather than search for another way to stay sober? I guess that depends. Would you drop out of college because you got a bad grade on one test a year?
Funny enough, I am sure there are people who have done that. I can assure you, these are not the troopers who end up in 12-step recovery (or anything for that matter) for the long haul. But if you aren’t the type to walk away from something when it gets hard or uncomfortable then you definitely have a chance to find peace and freedom through these programs. If that is what you want to do. I am in no way saying 12-step is the only way to stop drinking but it’s the only way I know how to stay spiritually fit and happy now that I am sober (and apparently super sensitive).
But here’s the thing—and there seems to be quite a lack of understanding about this among the masses—12-step recovery is not really a pick and choose kind of deal. It’s a three-fold program, which includes doing the steps, working with other alcoholics and yes, going to 12-step meetings. If you just do one or two of these things, you aren’t really working a 12-step program; you are working your own program. And the truth is, it seems few people actually work the program the way it’s intended for any extended period of time—myself included. Which is why I go through tough times, recommit myself to the program, get better and then fall off again. I am not talking about a physical relapse, but about the peace of mind I get when I am working a 12-step program the way it is intended.
In chapter five of the Big Book it says, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” Although this passage is read at most meetings in southern California, what the authors and forefathers of 12-step recovery are trying to convey seems to elude people: this program works if you work it, thoroughly. It doesn’t say that some people will see results if they do the work, it says that—while a small few may be immune to this method of recovery—you are all but guaranteed to recover if you follow the program.
No one likes to hear this, of course. And it is certainly logical to argue that just because some book says something doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, as someone who has a hard time understanding people who take the Bible literally, I wouldn’t blame anyone who wanted to call hogwash on what I am saying. But if I am going to call myself a member of a 12-step fellowship then it only makes sense that I would fully subscribe to the dogma they set forth.
So if you are an alcoholic or an addict and have decided to try going to meetings and working the 12-steps as a path towards sobriety, I feel confident you will see some results. But if you want to remain sober for a long time; find happiness, serenity and inner peace, you will probably need to commit to the full spectrum of the program if you really want to see the results everyone is talking about. If you find yourself bitching to your sponsor about how you know you should go to meetings but just don’t like them, understand that—while you definitely have that choice—you can’t blame anyone but yourself if you wind up irritable, restless, discontented, or worse, drunk.
If you hate going to meetings, welcome to the club. I hate them too—they are boring, the people are weird and they are totally inconvenient—but I go to them anyway because I have seen too often what happens to me when I don’t. I am an alcoholic and I will be for the rest of my life. I can’t stay sober and happy on my own so I need my 12-step program to hold me afloat. But as it turns out, it doesn’t really work unless I work it.
That reminds me, I really need to call my sponsor.