I Left AA, But I Can Still Learn From It

I Left AA, But I Can Still Learn From It



This post was originally published on July 1, 2016

Yes, I’ve left Alcoholics Anonymous. It may be permanent, or it may be a phase. If you’re interested as to why I left and my conflict with the program, you can read various assessments that I’ve written for this site.

Regardless of my many philosophical objections to most of the program, I do believe there are some tools and philosophies that are practiced within AA that I don’t need to throw out with the bathwater. Just like with church, where I was very active as a kid and adolescent, there are plenty of wise teachings that I can hold onto.

I must confess that this type of thinking is new to me. I’ve always been more or less a black-and-white thinker and I only recently recognized that this is fairly immature and unevolved. Nothing, I now see, is black-and-white in the end, at least according to my 37 years of experience on this planet. Shortly after this epiphany, I sort of woke up and realized, “Yes! There are pieces of wisdom I can hold onto from both AA and church, things that will keep me grounded and allow me to be healthier moving forward.”

As far as AA goes, I reject the idea that I am an “alcoholic” or that I have a “disease” or that I am inherently “selfish and self-centered” (I’d rather believe it’s the opposite, that I’m full of limitless potential and goodness). Though I absolutely am committed to my sobriety, instead of calling myself an alcoholic, I simply say, “My experience has proven that pouring alcohol onto my brain and body is a recipe for misery, and I therefore don’t want to drink it…today.” Yep, that’s how I define my relationship with booze.

Still, there are golden nuggets that I hold onto from the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, things I’ve learned that I think are brilliant.

The first and most important involves resentments. AA teaches that holding onto these allows nothing but poison into our spirits, sucking our focus from the good things in life back into past pains and hurts and trauma. Well, as any spiritual teaching or philosophy—including Buddhism and Taoism—will affirm, yes, resentments are noxious to the soul.

Having done a lot of work in AA, I recognize the problem with hanging onto all this garbage, if nothing else because it harms me. But now that I’ve gotten a bit more active in meditation and participated in some classes at the Buddhist center near my house, it’s become clear that the pathway to true liberation is an attitude of loving-kindness, one that doesn’t judge, one that accepts, and one that has endless compassion.

The language of AA is problematic for me. I have a hard time with the tough talk of Bill Wilson in the Big Book and in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book. Regardless, the underlying philosophy of ditching those resentments is a good one. At this point, I don’t really think about how it might get me drunk so much as why it’ll just make my life miserable.

Another important message in AA, also common to any spiritual tradition, is helping others. Being of service is emphasized over and over in the program, specifically toward other alcoholics. I find that to some degree this is taken to an extreme—people call each other non-stop, sponsors or friends will “always pick up the phone”—and I have a real problem with the codependence this sometimes engenders. To me, any spiritual path should lead us to independence and self-sufficiency. We shouldn’t have to depend on others completely to solve our problems—it puts way too much pressure on people and keeps us emotionally underdeveloped.

I also disagree that my focus on being of service should be limited only to “alcoholics”—it makes my life extremely small. Regardless, helping others is a great way to feel whole and balanced in this world, and there are so many opportunities to do this.

American culture is rooted in individualism—we are all striving to create our own American dream. This philosophy dates back to the transcendentalist philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson and the writings of John Stuart Mill. I won’t say there’s anything inherently wrong with marching to the beat of your own drummer, as Thoreau implores, and ultimately these thinkers did concern themselves with the welfare of society as a whole. Still, a community-mindset seems to be of great importance.

In fact, it’s this mindset that governs socialized countries like those in Scandinavia. These governments put citizens’ happiness and well-being first and foremost. The societies are not as concerned with “me” but rather with “we.” Most of us have read that Denmark, not Disneyland, is considered the happiest place on earth.

Concerning myself with “we” is something that was drilled into my head when I was active in the program. I learned good habits, whether it’s returning the shopping cart to its proper place in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, tidying up around the house to be respectful of my roommate, not clacking on my finger cymbals at 7 am, even though I’m up and ready to practice my belly dancing, or just taking a deep breath when a mother or father carting three kids is in front of me in the grocery store along with 102 items. The fact is that considering the needs of others shoots my vibrational field up tenfold and bring me great peace while also spreading harmony and love into the world.

Lastly, “making amends” is a really important concept. Admitting I’m wrong and taking the time to express that to someone—anyone—whether it’s a customer service worker I blew up on or my own mother, is definitely a great habit to practice. Not only does it enrich my personal relationships but it empowers me to own my own shit and then make changes that will better both my soul and my interpersonal relations as I move on.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how some people absolutely refuse to admit fault, period. This always strikes me as more sad than infuriating. The people in my life who are the most balanced and the most whole, including my ex-boyfriend, always had the courage and the humility to say, “Hey. I was wrong. I fucked up. I was selfish and immature.”

I don’t know about you, but when someone has the balls to say something like this, my heart really opens up and I’m eager to receive their apology and shower them with forgiveness. This is most likely a testament not to my magnanimity but to the fact that I have fucked up so many times I know exactly where they’re coming from.

So yes, those of us who have left AA, or left any spiritual or religious group, can in fact hang onto the teachings we relate to and the principles that we believe have value. I recognize the importance of coming together in pursuit of something positive, and whether I like the religious aspects of the program or not, I know that religion used to anchor our society, to some degree, with a dedication toward building values and virtue. These days, with our own interests running amok, we are atomized, fighting for money and romance and sex and status and accomplishments and fresh thrills. As this grasping governs our every waking thoughts, we’ve become immature and childish.

At least I have.

This is how I lived my life for years, even in recovery. So though I’ve left AA and pursued other methods to wholeness and sobriety, I’ll take whatever I can get. Even if that means ripping off a step or two.


About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.