One truth I have found in my seven years of sobriety is that recovery is not necessarily synonymous with the Twelve Steps. However, for those who do attend 12-step meetings, there’s a common misconception that when you leave Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, you’re headed in one direction: Relapse. Even worse, you’re told that you’ll probably die because to leave means you’re not choosing recovery.
“Unless each AA member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant. His drunkenness and dissolution are not penalties inflicted by people in authority; they result from his personal disobedience to spiritual principles.” — AA book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 174
“Relapse is a reality. It can and does happen. Experience shows that those who do not work our program of recovery on a daily basis may relapse. Relapses are often fatal. We have attended funerals of loved ones who died from a relapse. They died in various ways. Often we see relapsers lost for years, living in misery. Those who make it to jail or institutions may survive and perhaps have a reintroduction to NA.” — Narcotics Anonymous book The Basic Text, page 79
I know hundreds of people who have left 12 step fellowships and, not only have we maintained our recovery, we’re thriving.
These statements are taken to be dogma. But I know hundreds of people who have left 12 step fellowships and, not only have we maintained our recovery, we’re thriving. We’ve reclaimed autonomy and agency over our recovery and our lives, and we have gained a new sense of freedom.
But it wasn’t easy for us. In fact, given the dogmatic conditioning, it was a pretty terrifying prospect to leave for those of us who felt that the 12 steps were no longer serving our recovery (though it’s totally fine if it works for you— this is not meant to criticize anyone else’s method of recovery). It can be a long process to deprogram from the 12 steps, learn to trust and create a relationship with ourselves, and design a whole new recovery process that does work for us. However, it is possible, and it’s entirely worth it.
Preparing to Leave 12-Step Fellowships
I attended AA and NA for five years, and while I maintained recovery, I found it increasingly difficult to quash my doubts about the program. What were once nagging thoughts that were easy to ignore — often categorized by others as “stinking thinking” — I started to realize it was actually my instinct speaking up. It was telling me to leave and that this wasn’t the recovery that I wanted.
I was tired of people using the same terms, couched as “experience, strength, and hope,” but not spoken in their own words — instead, they were using phrases lifted directly out of the AA or NA literature. It felt almost religious at times, like members were reciting verses of the Bible. For a fellowship based on empathy and connection, if felt impossible to connect with real people. I felt like I was interacting with robots speaking program language.
Since I stopped going to 12-step meetings, hundreds of people have asked me about my experience of leaving AA and how I did it. The first thing I say is that whatever their reason for leaving is, it is valid and that they can trust themselves. We are the only people who can know what is right for us. And that can be a foreign concept when we’ve built a recovery based upon mistrusting ourselves and our thinking. Regaining trust in yourself is possible, though. You achieve it by putting to the side what you’ve been conditioned to believe about leaving AA, and instead lean into the possibility.
We are the only people who can know what is right for us.
Imagine a life outside of AA. How does your body feel when you imagine leaving? What emotions arise? I felt like my chest opened up and my shoulders broadened as a weight was lifted. The tightness from the knot in my stomach dissipated, too. I just knew it was time. I’d had enough.
If it feels right, the next step is to prepare for leaving. Know that even though it feels right now, you are likely to question yourself when you actually leave. That is a perfectly normal response — you’re frightened. Remember, you’ve been told that leaving represents the first step in returning to use. And yet, that doesn’t mean it’s true. If you wanted to return to use, you could do that while in AA as well as outside of AA. This is different: This is you deciding that you want a different pathway of recovery, and that is your right. So make sure you understand your true intention and motivation for leaving.
You don’t have to stop altogether at first. You can cut back meetings initially, and gradually phase them out. I gradually stopped attending and instead attended Refuge Recovery for a while and then stopped meetings altogether. I haven’t been to an AA or NA meeting since March 2017.
If you wanted to return to use, you could do that while in AA as well as outside of AA. This is different: This is you deciding that you want a different pathway of recovery, and that is your right.
The next step is to decide who you want to tell. Most people dread telling their sponsor. Even though the role of a sponsor is to take someone through the steps, this purpose has been expanded over the years. Unfortunately, many sponsor-sponsee relationships are built on a power dynamic, where the sponsee must constantly seek permission or input on their own decisions.
I’d like to remind you that you are an adult, and you do not have to explain your decision to leave to anyone. Remember that the purpose of a sponsor is to take you through the 12 steps only. If you want to explain to someone why you’re leaving, here are some suggestions and responses to potential reactions:
- I’m taking a break from meetings, and I’d appreciate it if you would respect my decision by not challenging me. I’d love to keep in touch — here is my cell phone number.
- AA isn’t working for me anymore and I’m taking a different route with my recovery.
- Thank you for your well-intended comments. I don’t want to explain myself but I know that this is the right decision for me.
It is highly likely that many will challenge your decision. That’s okay. Remember, it’s none of their business, and a projection of their fear because they fully believe that leaving will lead to returning to use. You know different.
Rebuilding a Support Network
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have support throughout this transition and beyond. I started regularly attending therapy, which became my main pathway to recovery. I have achieved more from two years of therapy than five years in NA and AA.
It’s also important to have community and social support. I tried my best to maintain friendships from the program, but this wasn’t entirely possible for me. I speak to only two people from meetings, and this is one of the common complaints of people who leave. Sadly, it’s a reality. While it may feel personal, it isn’t — their decision to stop contact is because of fear; fear for the security of their own recovery, and a lack of self-trust that associating with us represents a danger to their recovery.
I found it hard to find friends in recovery outside of meetings, especially once new people I met learned that I left AA. But I did find my community — I just had to get creative. I joined online communities, started my own Facebook group (Life After 12-Step Recovery), set up a local meetup for womxn in recovery, and attended my local Recovery Community Organization. I also made connections at my local Insight Meditation Community.
Reprogramming the 12-Step Thinking
There are going to be a lot of realizations and untruths in your new recovery. They almost become lightbulb moments.
I realized that I lacked so much autonomy and agency and had been completely dependent on AA for recovery support and decision-making. I shifted that reliance on myself and to my recovery supports. It felt great to choose what was right for me, not what was right for my sponsor. I also learned to befriend myself and not cordon off part of my brain out of fear.
What they don’t tell you in AA is that anyone who has experienced trauma — which is the majority of people in recovery — will have a desire to escape from their lives at times; that’s normal. We don’t have to fear ourselves, and we can play through those desires and meet them with helpful solutions, like yoga or meditation, instead of a blanket response to attend meetings or work the program harder.
Life outside of AA has become healthier and full of new adventures. Toward the end of my meeting attendance, I went to go for fast food after a meeting and was often surrounded by the same people, many of whom were smoking. I felt like I was stagnating. Life became dull.
Today, I spend my time doing something purposeful or fun. My social group has broadened to people who are more like me: Those who don’t confine themselves to a life in church basements and instead want life to be an adventure — that is what I chose recovery for!