Recovery is not synonymous with Alcoholics Anonymous. While it is one of the most widely accessible and free pathways of recovery — and most commonly known by people who are not part of the recovery community — it is not representative of the entire recovery landscape.

Several recovery paths exist. These may include holistic pathways, clinical interventions, or support groups alternative to AA. Some individuals have no formal recovery support at all and still successfully resolve an alcohol or drug problem.

In fact, a leading study showed that just over half of those who recover do so with the help of mutual-aid recovery programs like AA, followed by treatment, recovery support services, and medication-assisted treatments (some using more than one type of service). This means that just under 50% of those who recover do so in a self-managed way, without the help of meetings or medications.

Our needs change, so our need for various support systems and interventions evolve as well.

What is important to remember here is that recovery is fluid. Our needs change, so our need for various support systems and interventions evolve as well. We don’t have to be rigid in our pathway to recovery. For those who are able to maintain one pathway to foster their recovery, that’s great. But recovery isn’t one-size-fits-all. We need to support our individual right to a self-directed recovery, and no one should shame you into taking a pathway that no longer works for you.

How my recovery evolved

I attended AA (and Narcotics Anonymous) for five years. I did so because I began my recovery journey in the northwest of England, where very little else in terms of mutual-aid recovery exists. Eight years later, there is now a sprinkling of SMART, Refuge Recovery, and Recovery Dharma meetings, but back then my choices were a 12-step meeting or a treatment center. Even the treatment centers insisted on attendance at some form of AA or NA meeting, so there was no getting away from the dominant 12-step culture. 

That was all I knew: 12-step recovery. And it was helpful, initially. AA provided an immediate community of people who had roughly the same goals of sobriety, a safe space to come and be sober, a network of support, and a program to follow. 

For at least a couple of years, especially in the early days, I found great comfort in knowing that I could find that level of support all around the city I lived in, any time of the day. My initial assumption about AA was that it was some kind of spiritual refuge: a safe place where people cared for me and my well-being. A place I could feel supported and held. 

However, over the next three to five years my perspective changed significantly. I had a number of painful experiences that led to many realizations:

  • Just because people attended AA did not mean that they held the same values I did.
  • Everyone had different goals in recovery: some wanted to process their experiences of substance use disorders, while others wanted to stop drinking and not work through the 12 steps. There’s no judgment here, rather a recognition that we all have different objectives from attending meetings.
  • Attendees can have substance use disorders and mental disorders, some of which remain untreated.
  • There exists a strong correlation between substance use disorders and the experience of trauma-related disorders.
  • The 12 steps are not an appropriate framework for all of our experiences, especially the treatment of trauma.
  • 12-step meetings are not a place to seek or receive any medical advice, especially when it pertains to medication.
  • Sponsors are not spiritual guides, counselors, life-coaches, or therapists. They exist to take you through the program of recovery. Period. 
  • You cannot make the assumption that someone’s advice has your best interests at heart. Any “advice” you obtain in a meeting/12-step encounter is no more than a person sharing their experiences, strengths, and hope.
  • Suggestions are not rules, laws, or a rite of passage toward spiritual enlightenment. It is for you to determine if you want to take the program’s suggestions and to consider how they might impact your life.
  • The 12 steps were only ever intended to be a bridge to normal living — they do not exist to make the fellowship your entire existence.

Ultimately, I learned that, for me, meetings are not necessarily a safe space. While it appears there are people with the same recovery objective, we are recovering in a space with a lot of different types of people in various stages of Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and mental illness. One might argue this is where people go to get well, and that means there may be some people who are unwell. In short: I learned to apply caution in this particular recovery space. 

Ultimately, my realizations led me to leave 12-step fellowships. That was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my recovery. I was conditioned to believe that this was the first step of relapse and that I may never get the opportunity to find recovery again. 

Last week, though, I celebrated eight years of continuous sobriety — three years after leaving AA.

Others’ experience of leaving AA

I know of hundreds of people who have successfully left AA and continued in their recovery. They are not just surviving — they are thriving. 

One former AA member named David believes that AA provided structure long after he stopped attending. 

“We’re all looking for a framework to live. AA provides a framework around one aspect of life that can be translated as a broader set of principles, but that’s not the nature of the program. When this became clear to me, I was awakened to a host of other practices and frameworks. What has never subsided, despite no longer actively participating in AA, is a profound sense of respect for those I met, those who helped me, those I was grateful to help, and the principles that continue to serve every day.”

One common thread throughout all of their experiences is a sense of guilt and fear when they leave. 

If someone wants to continue in recovery, they will find a way to do so. Equally, if someone wants to return to use, they can do so in the rooms or outside of them.

The second biggest misconception about recovery is that leaving AA is synonymous with relapse. This simply isn’t true. If someone wants to continue in recovery, they will find a way to do so. Equally, if someone wants to return to use, they can do so in the rooms or outside of them. That is their choice. And we should not shame or ridicule either of those choices. Kelly believes this journey of recovery needs to be more widely accepted. 

“I think attending AA for an amount of time and then leaving needs to be a more accepted and encouraged pathway. I went for around three years, then stopped. I got a lot out of it, but I was ready to move on and explore other types of resources and frameworks.”

Adam fully supports individualized recovery and the need to support that concept. “No one thing is right for everyone. For some, AA is a good idea and supports their recovery. For others, it’s a bad idea and endangers recovery. Gaslighting of those who leave needs to stop.”

Whatever your path is, know this: your recovery will evolve and your needs will change. It is absolutely okay to leave AA.  That is your right as a person in recovery, and no one has the right to direct you otherwise. 

It’s important to remember that there are innumerable approaches to recovery, and whatever you choose to help you, you’re not alone.