Defining Recovery in AA in the 21st Century

By Dave W.

My goodness we are an efficient bunch in AA. Got it all nailed down. Nothing new under the sun. Our omnipotent Big Book laid it all out for us in 1939. What a blessing. We do not have to over complicate our recovery and our lives with the foolish notion that new knowledge about alcoholism and addiction may have occurred over the past eighty plus years.

I am shaking my head at the absurdity of the above paragraph largely because there seems to be a sizable number of our fellowship that actually subscribes to that belief. For myself, I gave up the idea early in my struggles that I could fit the causes and effects of my alcoholism into the neat little package that is the suggested AA program of recovery.

I am not suggesting that working through the twelve steps is a fruitless endeavour. A huge part of recovery is admitting powerlessness over an addictive toxic poison that damages and destroys our bodies, brains, and spirits. In the early stages of abstinence, most of us are left with having to undo the harm to our lives and relationships that our drinking caused. The steps provide a roadmap for cleaning up our messes and safeguarding against falling back into old destructive patterns.

The foundational base of the AA triangle is labeled “recovery”. As a starting point, that makes complete sense to me. Without recovery from alcohol addiction, we are of little use to others in the fellowship and in our personal lives. What I would challenge however is the AA twelve step model as being a one size fits everyone stand-alone method of recovery.

AA identifies the twelve steps as its core program. The Big Book states people who fail do so because they either cannot or will not give themselves over to this “simple program”. The “A Newcomer Asks” pamphlet recommends to those new to begin the steps and study the Big Book. At many meetings, newcomers are encouraged and even pressured to find a sponsor and begin step work ASAP.

Sponsorship seems to go hand in hand with step work. I have cringed sitting in meetings watching would be sponsors stand up at meetings to offer their guidance and wisdom to a person they have never met before and know nothing about. The visual has a very intimidating look to it. Not to mention the fact that the true motivation of the prospective sponsor may have more to do with the sponsors needs than that of the person they are offering to help.

Strangers sponsoring strangers to any meaningful level of depth makes about as much sense to me as having a medical problem and approaching someone on the street for help hoping they have suffered from the same malady at some point in their life. We would not be asked to give other areas of our health or welfare over to a total stranger who although may understand their own reasons for drinking, may be completely lost in understanding our own unique core problems. It is perilous to give that power to an individual simply because they have accumulated X number of sober days.

The power exchange that can occur in sponsorship has always made me uncomfortable. Like the steps, it is promoted as a must in some meetings. There are individuals in AA who have no business taking on the role of sponsor. Many lack the basic skills and mental health required to assist another in what can be a harrowing and painful journey of self discovery. I have heard stories of sponsors “firing” the people they sponsor over ludicrous reasons such as unwillingness to pray a certain way, a disbelief in god, an unwillingness to call in every day, or a rejected demand that the newly sober person also become a sponsor. At its worst, sponsorship has the potential danger of being a violation of a person’s boundaries, safety and freedom of choice. Although I have heard of many positive outcomes of sponsorship, I am convinced in some cases the relationship represents an opportunity to have power and control over another person.

To reiterate, I am not opposed to either step work or sponsorship and I am not advocating we put an end to either. I do however challenge the narrowness of relying on these tools as our primary means of recovery. They seem to occupy the lions share of attention in AA. Traditional meetings revolve around the steps and you really feel out of place in many meetings if you are choosing a different path for your recovery. At times I have felt like I am doing something wrong if I do not have a sponsor or have not worked the steps.

In traditional meetings members learn to talk in AA speak, a jargon unique to the fellowship. I find people will often parrot what they have heard from other members and what they have read in the literature. AA is overflowing with cliches and slogans. People’s shares frequently sound robotic and have a people pleasing quality to them. What gets lost in the mix is individual spontaneity and a feeling that is it not advisable to go off script if your own experiences are too contrary to the prescribed program.

Another sacred cow in AA is a requirement to identify and have a higher power. It appears to be such an essential component of recovery that even a doorknob can suffice. The original intent seems to have been to allow non-believers some latitude in selecting a non deity as a higher power under the assumption they will eventually come to know and love god. I have sat in secular meetings and heard sober alcoholics reject the need to embrace both god and a higher power. I have personally never seen the need to cling to this construct, I do not understand the benefit of going through the deliberate exercise of identifying one. Like much in recovery, if it develops organically, it can be useful, but we do not have to hit people over the head with the idea of identifying their own personal saviour.

My personal time in secular AA is night and day to what I experience in traditional meetings. In secular meetings we are breaking down the barriers of what is appropriate discussion. Many people struggle with cross addictions. I find it impossible to separate my alcoholism from other addictive impulses. I am convinced the same neuro pathways in my brain that led to my drinking I have used in other destructive behaviours. I find it very therapeutic and healing to share my daily battles with non-alcoholic addictions and obsessions. Speaking of them in meetings helps keep me sober.  I have never had to struggle with the horrors of heroin or cocaine addiction on top of alcoholism. Yet I am not about to tell someone “this is AA, we don’t talk about that here.”

In the secular rooms we are not afraid to go off convention and introduce non-conference approved readings in our meetings. There is an amazing amount of wisdom in our gatherings. Stale repetitive readings are hardly an efficient means to tap into this knowledge. When people feel safe to express themselves without fear of ridicule or harassment they give freely of their personal experiences. No one is going to be damaged or their sobriety lost if they hear ideas that are not GSO approved.

Despite how far we may stray from the traditional meeting format that seems to dominate AA, we never forget why it is we are meeting. We are collectively struggling with a life-threatening adversary. That reality always seems to bring us back to our main purpose.

More and more I conclude that the definition of recovery is unique to the individual. I believe recovery to be an individualized path of self discovery. Mine is a life-long journey and it has become as much of my uniqueness as any other area of my life. I could not follow someone else’s path any more than they could follow mine. I have my own unique set of challenges and life experiences. We can draw wisdom and insights into our own journeys from others experiences but we will never duplicate their lives. I find people in AA to be incredibly creative in overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges and I have learned so much from them. The goal for me is to fit their wisdom and discoveries into my own life.

David is an agnostic alcoholic whose drinking career began late in life after growing up with an alcoholic father. After twelve years of daily drinking, he came to believe that a substance greater than himself trapped him in the same addictive cycle that had trapped various members of his family on both sides. Desperate for outside help, he found secular AA on-line and was able to avoid the conflict with religion and a mandatory belief in god that traditional AA insists on imposing on members. His home group is Beyond Belief Toronto.


27 Responses

  1. Michael D. says:

    When I was Chair of our Area, I closed an Area meeting with the Responsibility Pledge instead of the Lord’s Prayer. Quite a ruckus followed! I resigned as Chair and resolved not to do any more A.A. service work until I see more positive changes. I still attend “regular” A.A. meetings from time to time but I’m now doing more online meetings of secular groups and seem to fit better in that setting.

  2. Wallace K. says:

    David nailed it!

  3. Shelly H. says:

    I agree with you on many counts. One, however, I disagree with adamantly; the issue of sponsorship. I’ve been around for six years. During that time I’ve shared with many groups Rehab’s as individuals just coming into the program. I have heard countless times that disengagement with AA was due to understanding the program and having absolutely no guidance. Finding a sponsor, I believe, is essential to the program. As a potential sponsor, I make it clear that I require a lot of time from the sponsee; a phone call every day, a study session once a week, attendance at meetings, I make it clear our relationship is not a marriage with no divorce. I strongly believe that you must shop around for a sponsor and a home group that fits you, where you feel in your gut that you are comfortable and would want to hang out with these people. AA requires work, but you can have a hell of a good time!

    • David W says:

      If sponsorship works for some people, I’m happy for them. I don’t see it as an absolute requirement, nor do I see step work as the one path to recovery. I just passed two years sobriety after drinking almost everyday for twelve years. I have never had a sponsor, have not formally worked the steps, and the construct of a “higher power” is one I find irrelevant to my recovery. My story is not unique in AA, I have heard people in the rooms take vastly different paths to a successful recovery program.

      • Shelly H. says:

        Dave, thank you so much for responding to my comment. It’s the first time that I’ve submitted one; perhaps I’ll have the guts to do so in the future. And I’m so sorry I didn’t edit it but I think you’ve got the picture. Wanted to clarify that for me it doesn’t matter how you “do the program,” as long as it works for you. One thing I cannot compromise on is God and prayer. “A god of your understanding” presupposes you have a god, which unquestionably I don’t!

        Last comment: in a Zoom meeting of my home group this morning I saw a newcomer also refrain from saying the Lord’s Prayer – I’m not the only one! And it feels good…

        • David W says:

          Hi Shelly,
          Thanks for your feedback. I believe the god issue is the biggest impediment for many to overcome in making AA work for them. It’s unfortunate the early literature was written the way it is. I applaud anyone who speaks out at meetings and refuses to participate in prayer if it doesn’t feel right for them. Listening to people share their struggles with the issue in secular meetings tells me there’s many people in traditional AA that struggle with the problem.

          • Shelly H. says:

            I have never said the Lords prayer. As well, when people say the serenity prayer, I join them after the word god. It took me years to tune out any reference to god in print. I even edited the big book. When it’s time to read “We Agnostics” my stomach won’t let me even hear it. And…stomach doesn’t lie.

  4. Neal M. says:

    Thanks David. Everything you said. I must say I am surprised at some of the dogma I have heard in some of the secular meetings by those in long term recovery. I came here to get away from that, but hey that’s just me. This is far better than what’s available to me in my area. My involvement in AA had all but disappeared before I found the secular community and I am pretty happy about that.

  5. Russel S says:

    Thank you Dave W for your thought provoking share.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that a sponsor needs to be a relationship entered into with due care.

    I have heard of many circumstances where sponsors are dogmatic and authoritarian decreeing “my way or the highway” with a draconian attitude. I have personally heard, amongst many other high-risk utterings, sponsors order their sponsees to stop taking anti-depressants because they are “mood and mind altering”. Frankly, I think that is reckless and dangerous. So, it is incredibly important that if you wish to have a sponsor, one should choose very wisely. Of course, when new to recovery if you are anything like I was, you are impressionable, vulnerable and confused and making good choices was not really to hand.

    Sponsorship, to me, is a mutually beneficial relationship. There is no specified hierarchy and sober time is not a reflection of wisdom. AA is not an army with rankings and commands. I was very fortunate to have a “meeting of the minds” with another alcoholic we learned from each other as we traveled the journey of recovery together.

    I am certain that most of the program is suggestions only. In 1957, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill Wilson wrote: “The A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership.”

    For me, there is no “one size fits all” solution. I needed to take ownership of my recovery and do MY program not THE program. My journey and experience is my own and has worked for me thus far.

  6. Diane I says:

    I can totally relate to this article. I only attend secular meetings now. I think some sponsors can be dangerous because of power trips. I actually don’t really know how to be a sponsor even though I have been one. I always feel that I’m not doing it “right”. Basically I just try to give support and be a friend. I also tell them that if they are not happy with me, to find another and that I will be fine with that. I have another major addiction that I have recovered from and it’s not drugs. I don’t really have a higher power, unless you count sharing with others, which is my main source of support. Sharing with others reduces shame and makes me feel understood, not alone and not judged. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas!

    • David W says:

      Thanks for sharing Diane. Luckily sponsorship is not the only way to help a fellow alcoholic. Getting a sponsor and becoming one seems to be mandated in some groups and looks to be an outgrowth of pressuring people into step work as soon as they walk in the door. One thing I’ve learned from my own alcohol recovery and trauma healing is an individual engages in change and personal growth processes when they’re ready to do so, rather than when it’s being forced on them.

  7. Juff V says:

    Thirty percent of sponsorship is a phenomenon that has become known as the “Stockholm Syndrome”, capture bonding, or trauma-bonding. Conceited Narcissists armed with the big book take control of the traumatised stressed victims at rock bottom.

    The perpetrator may variously use behavior control, thought control, emotional control, economic control or information control – or all these forms of control. The perpetrator is the source of the pain and terror, but he is also the source of relief from that pain. He is the source of threat but he is also the source of hope.

    There are whole meeting of these backslapping creeps boasting how God saved them and they have been ordained to save others. Smugly threatening… Lack of belief in God will cause… Collect your misery back at the door… Or endless other platitudes. Cliches too… Take the cotton wool out of your mouth and stick it in your ears, etc. Thump, thump…

    Well that’s was all there was 90 years ago including no antibiotics, internet MRI’s, satellites, addiction Psychiatrists… etc. Thank science for zoom, this HTML script and secular sobriety.

  8. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the essay. My recovery is based on AA and little bits and pieces stolen from other programs and science, medicine and psychology. AA is what you make of it in my opinion and also in my opinion most people seem to be able to make use of it. Most people seem to give lip service to the idea that we each have to have our own program but this general sensibility seems to be overturned by the fanatics, godbuggers, “book thumpers” and “traditionalists” who claim to be “right” in their rigid interpretation of our religion in denial. It took me a long time to realise that I can live a long and healthy life in AA without having to deal with these who I consider to be demented or even worse “The Recovered”.

    I admit to being actually frightened by those people I have run into who claim to be “fully recovered”. Most of them seem to be insane on some level but then all hard line people I generally find off putting. I am thankful to have this venue where I can read the ideas of people who think a lot like I do. It allows me to forget the people who insist the world is the same place it was in 1939.

    • David W says:

      “Fully recovered” comes across to me as a claim to have climbed the mountain and there’s nothing new to learn. I would interpret it as fully intrenched in my comfort zone. I tend to want to run away from people who think they’re omnipotent.

  9. Bill G. says:

    Thanks for all your sharing. I agree with most of the shares here. I attended almost all traditional AA meetings. First I identify myself as a drug addict cross addicted to the drug alcohol. Then as of late I identify as an agnostic. AA has taught me Honesty, Open Mindedness and Willingness. Honestly I just want to stay sober. I have no more insight to the God question than when I came in over 42 years ago.

    My perspective on sponsorship is mixed. Over the years I’ve witnessed good and awful results. I had two sponsors in the beginning that had several character defects. I wouldn’t advise following their leads on marriage, economics or temperament. But both were dead serious about not picking up that first drink. Thus stayed sober one close to 40 years and the other still alive and sober 45 years. Saying that I think of sponsorship like a high risk stock with great returns but also a chance of big losses. I prefer the group: it’s much more like a mutual fund and safer.

    Thanks Bill G. Traverse City Mich West End Group – a very open minded tolerant Group.

    • David W says:

      Thanks Bill. I love your stock analogy. Collective wisdom certainly has a greater chance of keeping one safe and on track than over reliance of one individual.

  10. Bob K says:

    I’ve heard the inimitable Joe C. say several times that although he is sober 40+ years, has lived and done AA in 3 major cities, and goes to AA meetings when he travels, he reckons he has been to FAR less than 1% of AA groups. Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t McDonald’s where if you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Groups are different. What’s said in groups is different. What is said by the various individuals is different. As a result, making sweeping statements about AA can be a fool’s errand.

    Oldtimers in some cases, like to blab about “AA in the OLD days.” Their palaver is largely mythology. When the totality of AA consisted of only 3 groups in the world, the groups in New York, Akron, and Cleveland operated quite differently.

    Regarding the 1939 book, the terms “sponsorship,” “sponsee,” and sponsee are nowhere to be found. The concept of helping others is there and is presented as a critical factor. One-on-one sponsorship evolved over time. Pro-sponsorship people tend to describe it in glowing terms; anti-sponsorship folks make it sound horrendous as they describe worst-case scenarios.

    AA has always been and continues to be a mutual aid group, one person helping the next. Of course, most of us arrive preferring to do it our own way. It seems intuitive that the more I reject about any organization, the less it it likely to help me. No?

    Secular AA also is no franchise. There’s a tremendous variety in AA’s groups and its group members. Zoom has taught me that there are more atheist-agnostic step meetings than I expected. I’m encountering Jeffery Munn’s book all over the world.

    AA is tremendously democratic and the majority is opposed to change. I think we have to accept that, if not respect it. People preferring secular meetings over traditional should attend secular, as much as possible. Many folks in conventional AA are sponsorless and have made no organized effort to go through the steps. I think it’s the recognition that quitting drinking doesn’t fix us is what drives up to the steps, therapy, Refuge Recovery, or other processes that promise transformation.

    I think AA can’t be all things to all people. Pizza Pizza doesn’t serve burgers. People rejecting the 12-Steps, including the secular versions, have to ask themselves if they might be better off seeking elsewhere for their recovery, or the parts not found in AA.

    • Dan L says:

      Hi Bob. Pizza Pizza doesn’t serve burgers but they will sell you a pizza made with everything that goes into a hamburger.

      • Bob K says:

        Good point. A pizza with mustard and pickles is a bit scary. Is there a sesame seed bun? 🙂

    • Cathy B. says:

      For the record, traditional AA groups are not “different”. Many, if not all, share the original 12 steps, with “God” or “Him”, etc. in six of the steps. Often on placards at the front of the room. Many, if not all, start the meetings with “How it Works” with those awful Godly steps and which typically ends with “God could and would if He were sought”. Many, if not all, only have “Conference-approved” literature, which is shamefully pathetic and is dominated by an eight decade old Big Book. And many, if not all, end with the Lord’s Prayer.

      Traditional AA “groups are different”? Ha ha.

    • David W says:

      Thanks for your observations Bob. One thing I would question regarding the idea that the majority of members are opposed to change is how free and safe people feel about speaking up against the status quo that exists in the program. Are there significant numbers of people who would advocate change but are too intimidated by those who fear if we effect change and evolution in AA, we may destroy the fellowship?

      The other thing I wonder about is how nimble and malleable are AA service structures in reflecting and supporting change that happens at the group level. I’ve witnessed workshops at area assemblies where people seem to be more concerned with people pleasing and doing “safe” presentations than they are with openly inviting dialogue for change. The workshops that do discuss uncomfortable issues like diversity, inclusion, and safety tend to stick out like a sore thumb.

  11. Dave J says:

    I had only one sponsor, who quickly became a good friend, until his death 40 years ago. Thirty five years older than me, Jim was a pragmatic, non judgemental, Chrysler engineer, who had no time for fools and consequently was not allied with the local AA crazies. I was lucky – the only “suggestion” he ever made was not to pick up a drink.

    Today have no argument with anyone’s allegiance to the Big Book or the Steps. It would appear that somewhere in the intervening years fundamentalists have risen within the ranks who actually believe this stuff but I personally find it oppressive and at best silly. The only advice I give is the same as I was given – Think for yourself.

  12. Larry g says:

    Neat article. Thx for sharing.

    In 7+ years of recovery I’ve watched way more new comers come and go than those that stick. The rank and file then condemn these individuals as not ready or unwilling to completely give themselves to our most glorious and wondrous program. Pure self deluding nonsense. I often feel embarrassed and nervous for new souls as they get love bombed by the rank and file. This whole pattern looks exactly like every religion/spiritual group I have ever experience. I love speaking up at mtgs and pointing out this phenomenon and then suggest that AA might start growing again if we were a little less pushy with our doctrines and zealous assault in new comers. As time has gone on I find many of the big book thumpers give me a wide berth. Mission accomplished!!!

  13. Doc says:

    While sponsorship can be helpful, I hear lots of ridiculous ideas about sponsorship expressed. Of particular concern is the idea that there is only one way to sponsor, one way to stay sober–this is an idea which is dangerous and even deadly. In the more than 50 years that I have been sober, I haven’t “worked” all of the steps as many of them are irrelevant to who I am. I do get some negative response when I mention this in meetings.

  14. Mike O says:

    A vitally important factor for me in recovery was divorcing the “spiritual” aspect of recovery drilled into me during countless hours of mainstream AA meetings. Despite the constant narratives hammered into me I found through my own many years of experience that alcoholism was in fact an addictive BEHAVIOR, not a “spiritual condition”.

    I recovered and got better over years of practice when I behaved better, practiced patience during stressful times, paid bills on time and budgeted and lived within my means, followed the law (not that I didn’t almost always before), stayed faithful to my relationship, ate better, exercised regularly, kept my emotions and responses balanced and proportional, sought out and developed professional and personal opportunities when they became available, worked on hobbies and passions that gave meaning and purpose to my life, stayed connected and committed to dear friends and family, got plenty of sleep and rest, let things go that I didn’t have control over anyway, etc. It’s really just about growing up, living better and forming better habits and attitudes to guide you through life.

    In good groups with healthy mature, well adjusted members you can find that in AA or even learn how to find it in readings in the Big Book or other AA literature (especially “Living Sober”) but there’s nothing intrinsic to spiritualism or the program itself that makes or keeps people sober. If there was the percentage of success would be far higher than it is. PEOPLE make the program work NOT the other way around. If you can find a healthy corner of mainstream AA to practice “sobriety” that’s great. However, in the real world there are many corners of AA littered with charlatans, criminals, blowhards, BSers, sociopaths and abusive or self-destructive personalities, just like the bars many of us used to go to. It’s Buyers Beware and sometimes the most charismatic characters in the rooms, the natural (and sometimes self-appointed) leaders are the most dangerous. You may find kindly souls who help you towards your goals, you may find bullies with loads of baggage and issues of their own, but most likely the people you’ll come upon will be some combination of the two.

    The most important thing for me in the midst of all the various chaos and drama and people coming and going is that I’ve continued to want to stay sober no matter what. The better behavior and habits I’ve developed are a consequence of that desire, spiritual growth or not, sponsor or not, 12 Steps or not. At the end of the day I define my own story and my own sobriety. It’s probably the biggest gift I’ve gotten out of the going on 10 years of sobriety I’ve been building on. It can be done, with spiritualism or without.

  15. Ray says:

    Thank you. I share many of your thoughts and apprehensions regarding sponsorship and step work. It is satisfying to know others have similar beliefs, yet remain committed to sobriety for their own sake.

  16. Glenn L. says:

    It took me about four years in AA to start to get sober after I stopped drinking. I’m not a spiritual person and I don’t know how this iPad works but I use it every day. Take what you need and leave the rest. Some people contribute by being bad examples. Lots of diseases can be treated but not cured. Alcoholism is one of them. Active participation in AA for 33 years has helped me become a happier, more tolerant person, a giver, not a taker.

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