Login

  • Lost your password?
  • Or, login with:
  • New User? Sign up here!

Retrieve Password


Substance.com

Get involved in the conversation.

John Gordon John Gordon

I Loved AA. Here’s Why I Left.


Nine months ago I had my first drink after nine years of sobriety. Although the program taught me a lot, I don't regret my choice.

20 Substance
Score


 

An AA medallion emblazoned with the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

An AA medallion emblazoned with the Serenity Prayer Photo via

“Welcome to the mixed bag that is life after AA.”

That’s the text I received from my friend Chris after I’d sent him one saying that I’d had my first drink in nine years. Chris is a friend I’d met early on in sobriety. We’ve remained relatively close even after he left the program a few years ago.

His sentiment was well-intentioned and honest, but it bummed me out. I wanted news of primrose and smooth sailing. I wanted to be sure my decision was the right one. Chris’s text didn’t put any of my misgivings to rest.

My decision to leave AA was conscious and deliberate, probably not best described as a relapse. I had essentially stopped going to meetings a few months earlier and in mid-August of 2013 I had a single beer while visiting my brother and his wife in Chicago. It was delicious—a grapefruit-infused concoction that had been invented in my decade away from drinking.

In my early days, I was a bit of an AA poster-child. I went to a meeting every day for a couple of years, had a sponsor and service commitments, blazed through the steps and was all too eager to reach out to others who needed help.

But over time, I grew aware of an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific undercurrent to the program. It began to lose its appeal.

Ultimately, though, the reason I left AA was that I became convinced I didn’t need it anymore.  When I first got sober, it was a different story. I needed help.

When I was about six years sober, I remember reading an article in Wired attempting to explain some of the neuroscience behind the “spiritual experience” central to 12-step recovery. It mentioned certain drugs that might induce a change in consciousness that would make alcoholics more amenable to seeking help. For those familiar with the 12 Steps, this would be like a Third Step—”Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”—in pill-form.

When I excitedly shared the news with my AA friends, most reacted with disinterest, anger, or even open contempt. More than one person even suggested that I was headed for a relapse for entertaining such notions.

I was floored by this kind of dogmatic thinking. How could a recovering alcoholic whose stated primary purpose was to help others to recover from alcoholism not be thrilled at the idea of a scientific solution that could help improve recovery rates? It seemed like some people in AA were less interested in alcoholism recovery than preserving the traditions of the program.

I also began to feel that some of the principles practiced in AA might not be a great fit for a personality like mine. The AA steps and literature encourage members to practice humility, take responsibility for their actions, and check their egos. Though I do see the value in these principles, they also exacerbated my natural tendency towards self-deprecation. I tend to feel guilty and take blame for most things on my own.

Ultimately, though, the reason I left AA was that I became convinced I didn’t need it anymore. When I first got sober, it was a different story. I needed help. I was never a daily drinker, but my life had become an exhausting series of lost weekends followed by increasingly demoralizing hangovers. When I added cocaine and meth into the mix, the hangovers got worse. I wanted to clean up for a bit and get off some of the harder drugs. So I decided to give AA a try—only intending to stay for a few months.

Most people in AA seemed to have a deeply volatile relationship with alcohol. I related on some level, but not entirely. When I quit, I didn’t experience withdrawal and cravings. I remember realizing I had half a six-pack in my fridge a month after I got sober and wondering why I wasn’t tempted by it. My main challenge in early sobriety was figuring out what to do with my time and how to have fun. Until that point, I’d gotten wasted virtually every weekend of my adult life.

The fellowship of AA taught me how to socialize and fill my time without booze and drugs. I loved the people I met and the kind of self-discovery they were engaged in. I may not have identified with some of the specifics of alcoholic pathology, but many of the feelings and experiences I heard about struck me as universally human.

Neuroscientist and humanist Sam Harris defines spirituality as the efforts some people make to overcome feelings of separateness. I had been incredibly lonely and the fellowship of AA made me feel connected in a way I’d never experienced before.

So I stayed. For nine years.

Now that I’m gone, I miss the fellowship the most. There’s nothing like being able to walk into a room at pretty much any hour of the day and find a group of people you share a common purpose with, and who are generally happy to see you.

These days I have to work much harder to seek out that kind of connection. But now that I know how important it is to my well-being, I put in more effort to remedy my loneliness.

After leaving AA, I tried to be as direct as possible with my friends. The first few admissions were terrifying and reminded me of my Ninth Step (making amends). My biggest fear was that I would lose these friendships—which incidentally was the same fear I had when I got sober. In both instances my fears were unfounded.

Just as my non-alcoholic friends had supported my decision to quit drinking, my AA friends supported my decision to start drinking again.

It isn’t my intention at all to tempt anyone away from AA. This is simply my experience. And while I didn’t leave AA in a vacuum of influence, I left of my own accord and after a great deal of reflection.

There were a few awkward moments, of course. I was served drinks by bartenders I knew from AA meetings, and ran into an old AA friend for the first time in a year while holding a beer in my hand. But over time these situations got easier. Eventually I stopped having to notify people of the change—the social network of AA, with some help from social media, did most of the work for me.

Some people did express concern—mainly that I might be in denial about my drinking. But most seemed to trust my decision. And nearly everyone let me know that they would be there if I needed help. I’m grateful for that.

I guess the big question now is: How’s the drinking?

It was all a little strange at first. I took my time easing back into it, testing the waters. It was about a month before I drank enough to get drunk. At first, I felt a little sheepish about the fact that things weren’t going horribly awry—an odd form of survivor’s guilt.

Since then I’ve had a few rough mornings and even taken a couple of breaks from drinking. If I’m to go by the DSM-5, I’d say I’m somewhere on the spectrum of addictive disorders—and thinking of alcohol problems in terms of a spectrum, rather than a black-or-white question, has come to make sense to me. In my case, moderation seems to work. People in AA often talk about an extreme physiological reaction that makes it impossible for them to stop drinking once they start. But I haven’t experienced that. Also, I don’t obsess over alcohol when I’m not drinking.

When you’re in AA you rarely hear from people who’ve left. It’s a widely held belief in the program that once you’re an alcoholic you’ll never be able to drink safely again. I’m sure that’s true for many and I respect the purpose and power of holding to that idea, but my own experience—and that of a few fellow moderate-drinking ex-pats I know—offers evidence to the contrary.

It isn’t my intention at all to tempt anyone away from AA. This is simply my experience. And while I didn’t leave AA in a vacuum of influence, I left of my own accord and after a great deal of reflection.

My history in AA still helps me today. I was able to quit smoking, which I don’t believe I could have done without a significant period of abstinence. I learned how to have fun without getting fucked up. And in nine years sober, my priorities were reordered. A decade ago, my list of favorite things included whiskey, cigarettes and good jukeboxes. These days I’m a marathon runner and a full-time student. I invest a lot of time, energy and finances in my health and personal growth. I see a talented mental health counselor and try to stay in the middle of my life instead of the edges. I still struggle with things like depression and anxiety and have days where I’m plagued with negative thoughts, but I see these as symptoms of being human.

I respect and admire those who choose AA as their path. But I’m happily for now on the other side. Life after AA is indeed a mixed bag and I cannot handle it alone—but I have learned how to find my own kind of fellowship.

John Gordon is an undergraduate student at Portland State University where he’s this close to a BS in Psychology. He lives in the lovely North Portland neighborhood of St. Johns with his dog Senator Edward Kennedy.