I left AA when I reached five years sober. It didn’t make sense to me to stay, given the other expansive changes I had made in my life. I had just recently relocated to the U.S. to pursue a writing career. While leaving AA wasn’t the easiest decision I’ve made for my recovery, it was certainly the best.
What made leaving so difficult is that the act itself challenged the belief system I had built my recovery on, and I was terrified of what that meant for my recovery and my friendships. Three and a half years later, however, I’ve never felt more empowered and secure in my recovery.
It is entirely possible to be able to share what didn’t work for us in AA and still support it as a valid pathway of recovery. Leaving AA isn’t synonymous with being an AA basher.
There are a couple of important points I’d like to make before I share my experience of leaving 12-step fellowships (and helping support hundreds of other people through the process). First, I am not anti-AA. That’s the biggest misconception about my activism. I believe that it is vitally important to share our individual journeys of recovery, however modern or non-traditional they are. I’m pretty sure that every single person reading this article has identified with someone’s story of recovery. To the criticism that I am anti-AA by simply sharing my story of leaving AA, I say this: It is entirely possible to be able to share what didn’t work for us in AA and still support it as a valid pathway of recovery. Leaving AA isn’t synonymous with being an AA basher.
Second, it is critically important that anyone considering leaving has a carefully thought-out plan before they stop going to meetings. When I left AA, I felt alone. I knew of people who have left but I didn’t find a lot of support. So I started a support group for people leaving 12-step recovery. What I’ve learned in that space is that there is a commonality to the process of leaving. We experience a similar set of emotions before, during, and after leaving. We come up against the same objections. We also share similar thought processes about what steps to take next, such as how to tell sponsors, sponsees, friends, and family members. And we learn about the importance of autonomy and agency in our recovery.
I asked people in the group for their top tips when leaving 12-step fellowships. This is our collective experience*.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Leaving AA
It’s rare that you just stop going to a 12-step meeting without first engaging in some kind of thought process about leaving. You may be experiencing emotions such as anger and frustration at parts of the program or people within it, you might feel that you’re not meeting your needs, and you may even be struggling to maintain a period of recovery. It is critical that you first consider a few questions before leaving, though. Russ has this advice:
“My one tip is this: Prior to telling anyone you’re leaving, have answers to the following questions prepared. Why are you leaving? What wasn’t working for you? What will you do now?”
This is a really helpful process that brings clarity to our feelings. That can do wonders for anxiety. Russ explained that asking these questions helped quell his anxiety. He also set himself some helpful reminders. “I also had a few positive reminders that it’s okay to do something different; it doesn’t mean I’m going to die.”
How to Handle Telling Your Loved Ones That You’re Leaving AA
One of the most common questions that people ask about leaving AA is how they are going to tell the people who have been an important part of their recovery: Sponsors, sponsees, and friends in the rooms. There is no question that it is difficult to bring up this subject. But when you break it down, the main reason we’re fearful about telling people is that we’ve built our recovery based on an external authority and on what other people think. Think about it: We ask our sponsors and higher power for guidance and we check in with our friends before making any important decisions because we’ve been told, repeatedly, that we cannot trust ourselves.
No one in the rooms has the power to make decisions about what is best for us. That is part of being an adult.
Despite this belief system, it is my view — and one shared by many of my peers — that there is no external authority. No one in the rooms has the power to make decisions about what is best for us. That is part of being an adult. Understanding this is critical to enable you to detach from others’ thoughts about leaving and leads to the understanding that we don’t need anyone’s permission to take a different direction in our recovery.
That said, some of us choose to tell sponsors, sponsees, and friends that we’re leaving. This can be as simple as explaining that you’ve decided to stop attending 12-step meetings and you ask that they respect your decision. You don’t need to explain yourself further. Leaving room for discussion shows others that you are open to a negotiation or having your reasoning challenged. At this stage, it’s important to stick with your gut. If you want to leave, then leave.
Find Support and Resources Before You Leave AA
I’ve found that a critical part of leaving 12-step meetings is to spend some time evaluating what aspects of the program were helpful for you and supported your recovery. For me, that was community, time to process, help processing and working through trauma, mindfulness and meditation, and friends in recovery. I found that support through Facebook groups like SHE RECOVERS, creating my own group, and making friends with other sober people.
Therapy and somatic experiences underpin the foundation of my recovery today, and I have gained such healing from experts in this field. While that’s not accessible to everyone, there are many therapists, teachers, and recovery activists you can follow on social media who provide nuggets of helpful information, such as the Holistic Psychologist, Lalah Delia, the Sober Señorita, Served Up Sober, Nedra Glover Tawab, and Sam Dylan Finch.
“Essentially, I followed my intuition and trusted my instinct at the time, free of the need to adhere to a rigid schedule. It’s felt incredibly empowering and freeing at the same time.”
Eddie shares his top tip about how he supported himself through the process: “One of the best bits of advice I was given upon leaving 12-step fellowships was to not run around looking for ways to fill the time and space that this naturally created. Sitting in a meeting four or five times a week, making ‘outreach’ calls, and sponsoring all take up a lot of time, so there was a void at first and that can feel unnerving, particularly when it has been drummed into us that recovery is something that needs to be worked at.”
That can be challenging to do when we are so used to structuring our time around the tenets of the program. Eddie shared how he implemented not filling up space: “I tried to evolve naturally into the space (sometimes against my instinct), became curious and gave myself the permission to just ‘be.’ I have spent nights lying on my sofa listening to music as the sun goes down, read a lot of books, listened to podcasts and on occasion had my own rave listening to some live sets a friend has played! Essentially, I followed my intuition and trusted my instinct at the time, free of the need to adhere to a rigid schedule. It’s felt incredibly empowering and freeing at the same time.”
In closing, it’s helpful to be reminded that leaving AA doesn’t have to be a permanent step. It’s entirely possible to take a break, see how you do, and then return if you feel it would be supportive for you. The key is listening to your gut and doing what is right for you.
*Writer’s note: I am sharing our experiences in general without revealing confidences. Where I have quoted someone directly, I have their express permission to do so.