How I Outgrew AA

How I Outgrew AA


How I Outgrew AA

This post was originally published on February 16, 2015.

Here’s something you might not hear at a 12-step meeting: recovery plans change. I know mine has, and it continues to. The first year I got sober, 12-step recovery— and meetings, specifically—were my foundation. I had a home group and other meetings I attended regularly, and would often run to random meetings, sometimes more than one a day, desperately seeking relief.

Today, life doesn’t feel so desperate—and that’s the gift of recovery. Thanks to a sponsor and working the steps, I’ve grown up—and out of the 12 steps.

This is not an anti-AA rant—I don’t believe anti-AA rants are worth writing. While I don’t think that 12-step or any one thing works for everyone, attending meetings definitely worked for me—in the beginning. I attended AA meetings regularly for at least six years. Over those years, I recognized various ways my addictive nature manifests, and dropped in and out of other fellowships too, to address various behaviors. I was slow to fellowship but by my second or third year I had a supportive group of “program people” that I could count on, and that could count on me. I became someone that people could count on. I learned to count on myself.

One of the most helpful aspects of 12-step recovery was being embraced by a group of caring, nonjudgmental individuals dealing with the same issues. Being a member of the group gave me a feeling of security. Just knowing that the fellowship was out there, and that I was a part of it, made me feel less alone and at ease. But as time went by, meetings became less important to my recovery. I continued working with a sponsor and practicing the tools I’d picked up—including a daily practice that involves journaling, prayer and meditation (a version of which I continue to this day)—but my attendance at meetings became less about me and more about my giving back to the group. At the same time, being of service took on new meaning in my life outside of the rooms.

In 2010, I started this neat service that works with under-heard writers, teaching memoir and creating safe spaces for people to share their stories. It was just as I’d learned to do in AA, but with “writer” being the coalescing identity, not “drunk.” The more people I’ve had the privilege to work with, the more I’ve learned the universality of our struggle. When I look over my past, I don’t doubt that alcohol played a major part, but I’ve recognized that other labels besides alcoholic might, in my case, have some validity, too. In other words, I’ve stopped identifying a lot of my problems as “alcoholic” problems, as we’re taught to do in 12-step, and have begun accepting the things that challenge me as part of everyday life.

This is probably not a useful attitude for someone new to recovery, but is one of the reasons, this past summer, I stopped attending meetings altogether. At a certain point I wasn’t getting anything out of them—and what I had to give was, I felt, extremely limited and somewhat at odds with what most people in 12-step recovery need. People in recovery, especially newcomers, need it hammered home that alcohol is the problem and that not drinking is the solution—because it is, and it is. If I hadn’t quit drinking, I most definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. But these days, alcohol is not my problem, not even a little bit. I feel zero compulsion to drink. Drinking, I realize today, wasn’t my main addiction anyway—sex and intimacy was more my problem. These days, compulsive sex is not a problem, either. Life’s gotten bigger. My problems are normal people’s problems and I’m learning to deal with them like normal people do.

How do normal people deal with problems? They acknowledge their feelings, and talk to their friends (for me, there’s a subtle difference between talking to friends and “checking in” with your “fellows”). Normal people feel their feelings, and those feelings pass. Seeing that I spent a good 10 years of my life wasted, I have less practice at this than the average 35-year-old, sure. Still, at a certain point, it became time to take off the training wheels.

Of course, my story is not without precedent. There are message boards and forums devoted to people who left AA. Weed through the dry drunks spouting off their resentments, and you’ll find plenty of people just like me. “Don’t get me wrong,” one guy posted. “[AA] has helped and may help in the future. But for now I am at a happy medium doing what I am doing to maintain sobriety.” He went on to talk about how he’s replaced the need to drink with activities such as scuba diving, and mentions that he’s begun earning a degree part time. “Both of these take up a lot of my time,” he says, “whereas I see a lot of people in AA stuck in the same old routine of meeting attendance and that’s it.”

One thing you will hear in meetings is that recovery is supposed to be a bridge back to life, and I’ve heard people caution that we not get stuck on the bridge. Experts in recovery acknowledge that what works for you in year one might not work for you in year six, and while it’s recommended that people not stray too far or make decisions too hastily, I think it’s good to be flexible. In my case, when I made the decision to stop attending meetings, I definitely kept people in the loop, including my sponsor. She and I are still in touch via Facebook and text, if ever I should want that—and I still have friends from the program. I also have friends that aren’t 12-steppers. This wasn’t so true in the early years. As I’ve phased meetings out, I’ve replaced them with other healthy activities—including work, which may not seem healthy but, as an under-earner, attending to my responsibilities is a lot healthier than spending hour after hour at meetings, in meditation or at the gym. Spending the whole weekend engaged in 12-step recovery is something I might have done in the early years—and maybe that was necessary then, but today I know that it’s definitely not.

Even though I do it differently, I still say I’m in recovery. I still, and may always, need help. And meetings are still available to me, if I need them. These days, a big part of my recovery is my participation in a spiritual community. Specifically, I’m a member of a sangha, which is a fancy word for community and using it just now makes me feel like Madonna so, okay, even more specifically, I’m a member of an alternative secular Buddhist community called Dharma Punx (there are tons of different sanghas in NYC). I attend dharma talks on the regular and listen to podcasts the way some people in AA listen to speaker tapes. In other words, I’ve replaced one modality for others—because, while I’ve gotten a lot better, I know I’m not “all better” and that’s okay.

Funnily enough, mentioning the name of the sangha I attend makes me feel weird, like I’m going to get in trouble, as if I’m violating a tradition—which reminds me of another reason it’s better now that I’m not in AA: so long as I attended meetings, I did feel some responsibility to the group to follow the tradition of anonymity. As a result, I couldn’t talk as openly about that aspect of my recovery as I would have liked to. Today, now that I’m no longer a member of the group, I feel like I’m able to help people a lot more and promote the good that the 12-step philosophy brought to my life.

Will I end up, someday, back at an AA meeting? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably, if only to escort a newcomer. Have I needed a meeting in the last year? No, definitely not.



  1. The last drink I took was in June of 1985….and I remain an active member of AA because I know the last drink I took doesn’t mean that’ll be the last alcoholic drink I’ll ever take. I get a daily reprieve out of AA and I realize that my years of sobrieity is no protection. I’m a conceited alcoholic with or without the drink, and I chose to remain a member of AA because it works whether I like it or not. An old member once told me that recovery is like our faces: that we all do it difference and that we’re not to be critical of a persons’ method of staying sober. We have loads of cliches in AA and old ome I like is: “that folks who don’t got to meetings, don’t get to hear about about folks who don’t go to meetings”

  2. I’m Big Book 12 Steps everyday. No not The Reverend Stepsherpa or Professor..Dr. Stepsherpa. Not an privileged white daddy’s home authority either. Not a stigma slinger. Nope…I’m a guy who was hopeless. Meaning what it says, no hope. Spiritless and well, a drunk. If not for the Big Book and the format offered to recover I would never have stayed around AA. I was using up people way too fast to stay anywhere be it AA or not for very long. Especially a stocked pond like AA. Meet my needs people? Great. Not meeting my needs? I got to move on. It took a while yes but eventually I saw myself for who I really was. A Spiritless empty void of existence addicted to people. Alcohol? that was a symptom. My real problem was deeper that the booze…..

    So.. Although the fellowship is great for many. The camaraderie? Talk therapy? Even simple interaction with others helps many also. Comfort around people, acceptance around people. People like me and I like people now ,super! I love AA. The problem with me was I used people so AA could easily become a stocked pond where I could sit on my ass all day and fish and get my empty hole replenished with esteem. An acceptable level of emotional security. Simply put? I go to AA to get my needs met. Many stop there. I’m not even saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just speaking for myself here. For me? I had to stop drinking people. This was not easy. Everything I was in life, every thought was based around people. What I thought they thought would determine who I was to be or become. Me and my arrangements. As many have written? This people worshipping stops working just like the booze or drugs stopped working, then what?? I’m in AA and I thought it was where I belonged sometimes for years?…..

    Most who don’t just leave and self destruct find security in the further development of their chosen Spiritual principles and leave that way. Unfortunately finding their leap of faith a scary display of bumbling around in the dark. Again following others expecting the same result. Where are all the others who have left AA so I can relate to them and feel better about myself. Same as it ever was…..

    This is what I’ve found. What I believe. The Spiritual realm of life is not theory. The Big Book suggested this sure but it was quite a while before I was ready to see it. Today? I am willing. This willingness is my Spiritual strength. My courage. I am willing to give. I try to give everywhere. I give food I give emotional support. I basically give whatever I got as if I am the other person. Or what’s good for me is good for them. My life is not lived in an AA hall. But this attitude is offered there as well as anywhere be it home or work, whatever or wherever. The Spiritual realm is wide and also portable. I bring it with me through my willingness wherever I go, whatever I think…..

    I still sponsor guys. I speak around the Big Book Step study groups. But as far as going to AA to get my needs met? When I’m doing that I’ve got bigger fish to fry and usually find out quick that it’s me. I’m the problem. My willingness isn’t there. I’m again relying on people to fix me, make me happy, Take my pain away. Like putting a band aid on an gunshot wound in the foot.

    Anyway. Good post..Thanks for the thoughts this am.

  3. Hi..Thanks for writing this piece..I have been a very active member of AA for exactly 15 years,I have worked tirelessly in all 3 legacys of the AA triangle.meaning I have reworked the 12 steps over and over again from the basic text the big book.i have worked with hundreds of alcoholics and helped them in to permanent recovery.I have worked the detoxes and prisons and spoke from the podium all over the world,been an active home group member and been sponsored myself the whole 15years..I have been more disciplined with all of AA than most people I know and that’s a lot of people.just 4 years ago my Kundalini activated and turned my world upside down in a split second.I don’t want to go into that experience at this time but to make it a short story it was pretty horrific at times.Thank God for being grounded in AA and having the support I got in there,it kept me alive and I don’t believe any other fellowship or group of people on the planet could have given me that love and support.However I couldn’t find any of my answers in there,people including my very experienced sponsor didn’t get what was happening to me,and why would they.I am at a point were I am actually leaving AA,truth be told my Soul left AA 3 years ago but the body is only following now.I stopped needing AA roughly 3 years ago but still went to help people and also because of fear,we are programmed that if we leave we will drink and die,that’s a cultish mentality.People need to know that you can outgrow 12 steps but the reality is that most people never even grow into the 12 steps let alone transcend for most people to leave is probably a bad idea.I don’t resonate with AA or its teachings anymore,it’s like the marrying or relationship that over and no matter what you put into it won’t salvage it.that were I’m at,the Kundalini decommissioned my AA program bit by bit,not my doing,totally out of my hands.this is blasphemy in the circles I used to run in AA,by most people I would be called a delusional alcoholic and I can see why that would be said.AA is a great organization and it saved my life,but it is so easy to get stuck and not grow,I see people use the tools in AA like drugs to stay asleep,meaning excessive 12th step work and service just to treat the underlying anxiety that most of them never let come to the surface to heal..A new beginning for me which excites me,I’m window shopping to connect with some like minded people,would love to meet some people in Satsang (Sangha)in NYC…

  4. Very well written and balanced. Probably the Buddhism. Anyway I’m leaving after 30 years. Problem is getting to know new people. But this is necessary. AA helped for a long time but clearly the things I hear in meetings are not speaking to my condition. Therapy for the last four years has helped me get more insight than the 12 steps ever did. Like the author I find spirituality helpful. In my case the Episcopal Church but it’s all good.

  5. Hi David & Tracy, Thanks for reading! It took me awhile to hold the perspective I do. Like you described, David, I also felt odd at first, and had mixed feelings of guilt, doubt, etc. Thankfully, AA philosophy and great sponsorship has taught me what to do with feelings like that!

  6. I’m in AA, but I think this is such a well-written and thoughtful piece with a balanced and positive perspective. These are the articles we need to address options other than AA–those ranting anti-AA posts aren’t helpful to anyone, at least I don’t think so. It’s true recovery changes, plans change. At any rate, congrats!

  7. Hi, Melissa – Great piece, very good to hear someone else talk about these things. I too “dropped out” of AA after 3 years for a number of reasons. Like you, I found strength and support and the “tools” I need in a sangha (which I continue to attend, along with my daily dharma practice). I did, however, spend at least 2 years feeling very odd about dropping AA, lots of mixed feelings of guilt, doubt, etc. I’ve only recently begun to let go of those. Still, AA remained kind of a “raw” topic for me; that’s why it’s so good to read something as balanced and at-peace as your post.

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.