When you hear someone is living life in recovery, what does that make you think? It sounds kind of heavy, doesn’t it? I think about it as someone who had a serious issue with alcohol addiction and who was able to find sobriety through programs such as AA, rehab, or other addiction support programs. While I am by no means undermining any of these methods to overcome addiction, I will share with you firsthand my experience with AA, why it didn’t work for me and why I ended up leaving the program after just two and a half months. AA and other life-saving programs available to those who struggle with alcohol and addiction have saved millions of lives, but why do they work for some and not others?
When I first quit drinking in September 2016, I felt completely lost and alone. While I didn’t have family and friends hounding me to quit drinking, I knew deep down that some were very worried about my drinking behavior. Between how I was feeling mentally and physically, and the fact that I knew my loved ones were worried, I couldn’t take the guilt and shame I held so deep inside anymore. I woke up the day after Labor Day and decided to quit cold turkey, with no idea how I would approach even the next day with my new identity of being alcohol-free. I didn’t label myself an alcoholic because I wasn’t drinking every day and didn’t need it to function, but I knew how I was abusing alcohol was not healthy.
My first thought was that I needed some support to help me stay alcohol-free, and at the time, the only place I knew to go was AA meetings. Even years before I quit, I knew someday I would end up at an AA meeting. I would sometimes research online when and where meetings were being held in my local area, thinking “Maybe this is what I need to make the change I am so scared to make.”
But aren’t the people who go to these meetings the ones who are in really bad situations? The ones who can’t stop drinking on their own and who have hit “rock bottom?” That wasn’t me. I never hit rock bottom. I wasn’t physically dependent on alcohol. I knew I couldn’t control my regular binge drinking and that my behavior was not healthy or normal, and feeling exhausted and depressed every day was degrading my spirit more every day that went by. But in 2016, where else did you go for support? There weren’t all of these amazing alternatives that are available in person or online like you find today.
A good friend took me to my first AA meeting a couple of towns away from my town. I didn’t feel comfortable going to one in the town where I live, having the fear I would see someone I knew. My first experience with AA was beyond terrible. The meeting was in a room with over 50 people, most of them former hard-core drug addicts to whom I couldn’t relate. I felt extremely uncomfortable and like I didn’t fit in. The atmosphere of the meeting felt extremely depressing. My friend who brought me there even agreed it wasn’t the right place for me. I was about ready to give up after that first meeting, but my friend encouraged me to try a different meeting to see if it would be a better fit. I half-heartedly agreed, and by this point, I figured I might as well try one in my town. I thought about how it would be nice to only a 3 – 5 minute drive, and realized that if I saw someone I knew, then they were there for the same reason as I was, so where’s the shame in that?
I found three different meetings in my town that I settled into, regularly attending each week. At first, I was optimistic, and I met some nice people in the groups who were working hard at staying sober. Then I quickly realized how the meetings were making me feel. When I was home during the day, I was doing well and was barely thinking about alcohol. When I went to the meetings, they made me think about alcohol more, and it was a bit depressing listening to others stories and shares, and that would make me think “I’m not as bad as they are, do I really need this?” I was having a hard time connecting with the “higher power” religious concept and believing that I was defective and had an allergy, and that’s why I couldn’t handle alcohol. There was a lot of labeling, assumptions, and rules that weren’t scientifically based that I questioned and didn’t resonate with me.
The other thing I noticed about AA was that many of the people in the meetings have been sober for 5, 10, 20, 30 years, and they are STILL going to meetings! I thought about how I didn’t want to feel like I had to do AA for the rest of my life and go to regular meetings. It was daunting to think that, and in my mind didn’t make any sense. It seemed like a lot of work and effort necessary to put in daily to curb my desire to ever pick up another drink again. At that point, I didn’t feel I was ever going to experience any relief or freedom from my relationship with alcohol, and the depression set in even more.
After about a month in the program, I connected with a woman who had been sober for 28 years by using AA, and she came highly recommended to be a wonderful sponsor for me. She agreed to take on the very generous responsibility, and I was initially excited about forming a close relationship with her and having her lead me down my path to “recovery”.
About a month into our relationship, things started to turn sour. My sponsor wouldn’t let me even check the first of the 12 steps off my list, and I thought I had accomplished that one the minute I walked through the door to my first AA meeting. Then I shared with her that I wanted to start taking a yoga class in the evenings because I was trying to work on my overall wellness, and I felt yoga would be supportive in my road to recovery. My sponsor lectured me about how my sobriety comes first, before everything else, and that I should be attending a meeting every day, not a yoga class. I found her very judgmental and controlling, which added to the realization that AA was not for me.
What happened after that? I was able to stay alcohol-free for about five months after I left AA, and then the FOMO started to creep in, and I ended up going back to drinking, thinking I would moderate, which didn’t work. What I realized after the fact is that the seven months I quit back in 2016/2017, were purely based on using willpower. And what happens with willpower? It eventually runs out. I went back to heavy drinking for another 18 months until I quit for good in September 2018.
What was the difference between the first time I quit and the last time? The first time was purely based on not getting the support that was right for me, and only using willpower to change my behavior. When I stopped the last time, I educated myself on alcohol’s effects on the brain and body and found This Naked Mind, which led me to make an incredible mindset shift that occurred once I dug down deep about my beliefs and thoughts I had about alcohol. It was a much more positive, lighter, uplifting approach, and I was so blessed to have found it.
I don’t consider myself in recovery because I don’t think about alcohol like I did when I was a drinker and I don’t ever have to work on it like it’s my second job. The only time I think about alcohol is when I coach others by helping them shift to an alcohol-free lifestyle. It is a complete non-issue for me and I do not need to expend any mental energy to keep me stable in my alcohol-free life because that is just what it is – I am living my life! I am living it in alignment with my values, enjoying it, and continuing to grow as a person because of it.
Many would look at my situation and think “Oh, it must have been so hard, and I feel so bad for you that you had to endure that, and you can no longer drink alcohol.” I look at it in the complete opposite view – that I am THANKFUL I no longer have to drink alcohol. I am also grateful I had the experience because it led me to my true purpose in life, which is supporting others who desire to live an alcohol-free lifestyle and are excited and curious to undergo their future potential.