How I Outgrew AA

How I Outgrew AA

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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.

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About Author

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.