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Can You OD on AA?

Going to meetings every day and sponsoring a bunch of newcomers is fantastic—until you realize you’ve overdone it.

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By Kristen McGuiness

08/20/12

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Though Bill was a successful lawyer with offices across the country bearing his name, he finally had to concede that there was something about his life that didn’t spell success: his drinking. At the age of 52, he came into the program of Alcoholics Anonymous and went after it with the same zeal he had applied to his business life. Not too long after, he began to feel burned out. 

As he explains, “I’m not saying this recovery thing isn’t for real—it’s a profound change in living—but I do feel that I’ve come to a love-hate affair with AA. In my first year, I did about a dozen meetings a week and after a while, I just began to feel like I was hearing the same things. I think a lot of that worked when AA started and was this low-bottom group of drunks but life has evolved and AA really hasn’t.”

This type of disillusionment can be common for people getting sober, in and out of the 12-step programs. As addiction psychologist and researcher Dr. Adi Jaffe explains, “Like with anything else in life, people can get burned out. Devout 12-step followers may disagree but going to so many meetings in a short period of time can lead to a certain leveling off in their commitment.” Jaffe adds that he had a client “who was going to multiple meetings every day and was relapsing but when she broadened what she was doing—incorporating therapy and other healthy behavioral choices—she seemed to have more positive outcomes and has remained sober since.” 

"Finding a job or getting help with therapy or some of my outside issues was hard. But AA was easy."

Despite his many meetings, Bill found that it was difficult to find a sponsor in the traditional sense so he asked his therapist to help him to balance out his initial over-commitment to AA. “I have a wonderful therapist, who has 12 years in recovery herself and works with those dealing with addictive disorders,” he explains. “We have worked through a program which would be like the steps but which spoke to my own circumstances. And in that, I began to see that I didn’t have to be defined by the group. I could do AA like a gentleman.”

Dr. Jaffe continues, “Alcoholics Anonymous loves to use the Einstein quote, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’ but the irony is that that same principle can be applied to AA.”

Bryan, a 42-year-old electrician with thick brown hair and hazel eyes, understands that—after having spent the first 10 years of his sobriety hanging out in AA and not doing much else. When his girlfriend got pregnant with their first child, he had to look at where he had become overdeveloped in AA and less developed in other areas of his life. As he explains, “I was out there drinking and using for almost 15 years so when I came into the rooms, I was just swept off my feet by the group. Finding a job or getting help with therapy or some of my outside issues was hard. But AA was easy.”

Los Angeles-based family and addiction therapist Melody Anderson has seen people focus on one aspect of their recovery when they are not willing to go to deeper. “And sometimes that’s okay,” she says. “Even when you come out of surgery, part of recovery is resting and taking it easy. But then after a while, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing more in AA than I’m doing in my own life or am I coming to a place where I am avoiding reaching beyond AA because I am not willing to do that self-examining work?’” 

When Bryan got to the point where there was a baby on the way and he felt like all he did was AA, he realized that he had to do a lot more. “Over a period of time, you start hearing yourself sharing about the same things over and over and you start watching yourself and realizing that a lot hasn’t changed that needs to change,” he says. “When I decided to focus on having a career instead of going to a meeting every day, I began to realize that I could still carry the message outside of the rooms. My recovery doesn’t have to stop at the door of AA.”

As Dr. Jaffe explains, “No matter what rut someone is stuck in, it might be time to shake things up. They need to look at the different treatment methods, whether they should be seeing a private therapist or whether they want to try another type of support group, either in 12-step or in any number of other places, such as SMART Recovery, Rational Recovery, SOS—which is a secular organization—or LifeRing. There’s outpatient treatment and medication. The only way you can fail at recovery is if you stop trying.” 

Melody Anderson agrees, offering, “You have to look at what other things you can be doing to bridge yourself back to living—like balancing the meetings with some other activities, like sports or listening to music or finding your passions.” 

Thirty-two year-old Maya’s burnout came about when she found herself saying yes to everyone who asked her to be her sponsor and suddenly became overwhelmed. As she reports, “I was single during that time and it seemed that every time I prayed for a boyfriend, I got a new sponsee. I prayed for a boyfriend a lot so I ended up with 12 of them, all within their first six months of sobriety. It didn’t take long before I felt like that was all I was doing. I felt like the woman with 12 cats.” 

Anderson explains that while service and a great deal of meeting attendance isn’t always a bad thing, it can sometimes be a substitute for living one’s own life. “People can have any number of sponsees,” she says. “And for those who aren’t working or are retired, it can help give them structure and meaning to their free time. But if you find that you’re not taking care of yourself, not exercising or being able to enjoy your free time, then you might want to look at whether you’re sponsoring addictively. Whenever you’re not taking care of yourself, you are doing something addictively.”

After a while, Maya began to realize that she wasn’t going to meet anyone if all of her free time was spent doing step work. “I think I came in and heard that service was the answer and I got kind of dogmatic about it,” she admits. “I thought, I’ll get a guy if I just show God how much service I can do. I was still doing everything intensely in my life and I had to see that it was really all about balance.”

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