Must one attend meetings forever?
By Zarina Macha
When we come into AA, we are broken; emotionally, physically, spiritually. Suddenly, these doors open, filled with possibilities, and people welcome you with open arms. Things you once suspected about yourself but never addressed are thrust to the surface. We will do anything to change how we are, and there is much love, humility, and openness in the rooms.
With this foundation, it’s difficult to stand up and speak out against things you dislike within the institution of AA. At its core, the twelve-step-program is a wonderful gift to humanity. It brings people together and has helped millions recover from assorted addictions.
And yet, as time goes on, attendance feels like a chore; something I do out of personal obligation. Even a few meetings per month feels like too much. I think to myself when do I say enough is enough? Does it ever cross anyone’s mind, that one day, we may be well enough to get on with our lives, and not depend so much on the meetings anymore? Surely if one feels well enough to no longer frequent meetings, that should be viewed as positive progression.
My alcoholic drinking lasted about sixteen months, and it wasn’t even a straight sixteen months – I tried to stop multiple times by myself. Where drinking was horrific, and sobriety is wonderful, similar feelings have arisen. Tentativeness, uncertainty; unsure if I should be doing this or if this is right for me. Many who come into AA were drinking excessively for years, and never once stopped to question it. Hence upon entering AA, that attitude flips and AA becomes the positive alternative to drinking.
Now that my two years of sobriety have surpassed my drinking, it seems logical that I no longer need meetings as much as I did. The philosophy of AA and all its teachings will never leave me, but AA as an institution can feel overbearing. The intensity of the meetings has caused me great anxiety and distress for some time. But due to the love and care within the rooms, I feel a sad guilt over admitting this like I’m letting down people who have aided me.
Like a religious group, AA is warm and welcoming, but it also presents itself as the enveloping solution to addiction. Ironically, the Big Book states that AA doesn’t have a monopoly on recovery, and yet many in AA view the twelve steps as the solution to much of life’s problems.
When struggling with a severe depressive episode earlier this year, I was advised to attend more meetings, even though frequenting them was making me unhappy. (Shortly after, I chose to only attend secular and SMART meetings.) Hearing the same dialogues repeated in the rooms has become tiresome and no longer beneficial to me. These include constant identification with forms of ‘madness’ and bringing everything back to having an ‘alcoholic mind.’
Praying, writing gratitude lists and talking to newcomers are positive actions, but they’re not the solution to everything and certainly not a way to solve depression (I believe that when someone is struggling with mental illness, telling them to ‘pray’ is harmful advice). I found external activities (e.g. joining a board game social group) that are fun to do, along with increasing my medication and decreasing my meeting attendance.
For some, AA can hold an influence akin to born-again Christianity. The danger with this is that it clouds alternative thinking. Alternative literature other than the Big Book; alternative support groups like SMART Recovery and LifeRing, alternative ways of finding joy rather than going to more meetings and viewing the steps as the utmost solution to happiness and freedom. Some AA’s welcome and encourage this; others see it as getting in the way of the twelve-step philosophy.
The steps are a tool. AA is a tool. For many, it becomes their lifeline and that is fine. In fact, that is wonderful. But the minute one pushes their life philosophy onto someone else and chides them for thinking differently, the entire point of recovery is missed.
If someone decides that they are happy to attend meetings for a few months or years and then stops, what’s wrong with that? Maybe that is healthy for them. If one feels like they’re no longer benefiting from meetings and happy to stop going, why not let them be?
When I first started AA, I made it clear to my sponsor that I didn’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life. Luckily, my sponsor is wonderful and has always appreciated my honesty. The principles of the program and the love will never leave me. But frequenting meetings is now causing me great emotional damage and anxiety.
There is a lot of fear in the rooms. Everybody fears relapse, and with good reason. Addiction is not a joke. This illness kills people. And those who have been in far longer than me have seen people leave, never to return sober, and they don’t want the same thing to happen to me.
But consider this; people who attend AA for a few years, get sober, and then go back out and drink, do so out of choice. They drink again because they want to drink again. If you wanted to stay sober (assuming you had a solid foundation in the steps and had been sober for some time), you would. You would take the necessary actions that come when feeling the desire to drink. And most crucially, you would make sure that you were not in a position where drinking felt like an option.
Getting sober isn’t simply about not drinking, it’s about taking care of ourselves and our lives. If you are surrounded by people who love you; have a good doctor, exercise often and eat well, and do things that you enjoy, then it is far less likely you will return to drink. But if you stop taking care of yourself, falling to self-destructive habits feels easier. (And let’s not forget how boring, pointless and depressing alcoholic drinking is; there’s no joy or value to it. I’m far happier and more relaxed without the booze, not to mention better company.)
Thus, I wonder if frequent attendance after lengthy sobriety is insisted out of fear rather than self-care. While support groups are a much healthier alternative to drinking, I don’t want to be overly dependent on anything; not AA, alcohol, relationships or chocolate. I want balance and moderation in every aspect of my life because that is the antithesis to my addictive behaviours. I don’t want to replace one addiction with another, even if the latter is ‘healthier.’
When you’re bombarded with repeated messages about how important it is to do something, how integral, and it has done you a world of good, taking a step back and seeing the negative parts is tough. This doesn’t mean I’ll never set foot in a meeting again, it’s just where I’m at right now. I shouldn’t feel guilty or like I’m ‘betraying’ the fellowship just because I want to move away from meetings.
If people in the fellowship make you feel like you’re not doing recovery ‘right’ because you don’t go to meetings, don’t pray and don’t believe in a Higher Power, the best thing is to create distance from them and find people who will accept you as you are. But it’s tough, especially in the beginning, because we need this to get well.
And remember; going to lots of meetings initially gives one the choice of no longer having to go to meetings later. If you do it right at first, after that may you choose whether to continue. But please don’t suffer in silence; no one should have to feel alone in recovery or say and do things out of fear rather than want.
Zarina Macha is a musician, author and blogger from London. She started attending AA at the age of nineteen in late 2016, after worrying that drinking would ruin her musical and literary aspirations. She studied Songwriting and Creative Artistry at university in Guildford while embarking on the journey of the twelve-step recovery program. She currently lives in London and occasionally attends secular AA meetings.
She identifies as an agnostic atheist, or secular humanist, and supports the addition of more literature aimed at non-believers to be brought into AA, especially to help young people struggling with the patriarchal and theological aspects of the Big Book.
She has published four books; two poetry volumes and two books of contemporary young-adult fiction that deal with mental illness, domestic abuse and teenage struggles. More information about her can be found on her website (https://www.zarinamacha.co.uk/) and her blog (https://www.zarinamachablog.co.uk).