The Worst Advice I’ve Ever Gotten In Recovery
Take what you need and leave the rest; AA is full of suggestions that are asinine at best, harmful at worst.
In my recovery, I am still often amazed at the kindness and generosity of people who, were it not for our shared affliction of addiction, would otherwise be complete strangers. In building a sober community for myself, I encountered people who cheered on my fledgling sobriety, invited me out to coffee, and shared with me their struggles and solutions. Thanks to them, my experience with 12-step programs has been largely nurturing and positive.
When I first stepped foot in the rooms, I had no trouble admitting I was powerless over drugs and alcohol. So when presented with the idea “Your best thinking got you drunk," I understood it was time to ask for help and start listening to others who had walked the path before me. Most of what was passed on was simple and worked. Don’t drink and go to meetings. Call your sponsor. No big changes the first year. The very core of 12-step programs is ultimately one fill-in-the-blank working with another fill-in-the-blank. Yet, whatever we identify ourselves as, we’re still human, and totally fallible. The members of 12-step programs are incredibly diverse, and so is the wreckage we bring with us. In that generous sharing of experience and solution, I found that not all of it was for me. Finding my way in recovery has been as much about the “solutions” that are wrong for me as much as it is about the suggestions that are right.
Once I had accepted the powerlessness of my fight with drugs and alcohol, I found I regained quite a bit of power in other parts of my life. Intuitively knowing what was right for me had been wiped away by pills and drinking; once I stopped, that little inner voice of reason started talking a little louder. It gave me the power of discernment, to understand that, while the solutions of others may be well-intentioned, they weren’t - and still aren’t- always going to be the right choices for me.
“You Should Move Back in With Your Parents.”
I came in through an institution, a 28 day program. I was 25; sending myself there was one the first acts of independence I had ever taken from a controlling, abusive, and co-dependent relationship with my parents. Sundays were visiting days at the rehab. My family would drive fours hours to check on me during my stay there; once again, I was in trouble and they felt compelled to do what they could to “fix” my life. Who knows what was said during the visitor group therapy sessions, but at some point, the counselor leading the family meetings urged me to move from my home in New York City and live in suburban Massachusetts with them. “Wouldn’t it be nice to just stay with Mom and Dad in a big house for awhile? Be around trees and just relax?” He seemed to think this would be some sort of early sobriety. . . vacation? Obviously he had no idea there would be nothing nice or relaxing about this kind of set up, that I would be moving into a situation where I would not be able to work, my every move would be policed, my privacy non-existent, my sobriety constantly questioned. He had no idea going to live with my parents would not alleviate any outside obstacles to getting better, it would become its own obstacle. This was one of the first times that long-dead voice of reason piped up and said, “This is a really bad idea. Do not listen.” Substance abuse counselors mean well, but a CASAC certificate doesn’t mean they always have the right answer for your sobriety.
“You Shouldn’t Need to Go to a Meeting Everyday.”
Whether or not that decision to listen to myself actually kept me from an early relapse, I nonetheless stayed abstinent for another three years. By then, I was enjoying some of the positive byproducts of sobriety, like a job I had always wanted. But it came with a lot of travel, trips filled with 14 hour days and mandatory socializing, leaving little time to sneak out to meetings. Upon returning home from one these assignments, I confessed to another program member my need for more frequent meeting attendance.
“How much time do you have?” he asked me. After replying I had three years, he declared, “Three years?! You should not need a meeting every day by now. You should be be able to function on just two or three meetings a week!”
This struck me as completely counter to everything I had ever heard from the long-term sober, and exactly the habit to take up from every relapse story I’d ever been told.
The voice inserted itself again. “Great if he can get by on 2-3 meetings a week, but that’s not for you.” I needed meetings just the same way I needed the drugs I abused - every single day. So, I didn’t listen, and I’m still sober.
“You Don’t Need to Take Medication for That.”
At four years, it became clear that what had been working for me before was no longer working for me. I was faced with the fact that it took two hours to leave the house sometimes. Why? I was doing things I knew had no real purpose, some which were downright weird. Sniffing my sheets. Changing my clothes over and over again, because they didn’t feel “right." Feeling an unspecified anxiety trying to just get out the door, or trying to switch tasks. At this point I had also been fired from the dream job. Why? I’m sure the mental drama and physical exhaustion of trying to will these behaviors into submission began to affect my performance.
For years I had sworn off medications after previous negative experiences with psychiatrists, psychopharmacologists, neurologists. But it was clear: I could no longer deny previous diagnoses of Tourette Syndrome, OCD, ADD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Once again, I had to cede powerlessness over my brain, and with a new neurologist I trusted, began pharmacological treatment for these “outside issues." Discussing my reluctant surrender to medication with a fellow program member was met with the completely earnest counsel to quit the medication, and turn to the 12-steps to “cure” my neurological disorders. He said, “You should apply the steps to your OCD and stuff. You should do the steps again. . . this time harder!”
Yikes. I had already, and very thoroughly, completed all 12 steps with a sponsor, and I truly made an effort to practice them in my life. And those steps I believed gave me an effective method to manage my addictions. But the “OCD and stuff”? After a few years of nothing stronger than diet soda in my body, I knew the steps weren’t the answer to my brain disorders. Prayer and meditation and surrender and belief in a Higher Power led me to find a doctor I could work with and to accept my situation. It did nothing to stop the brink-of-insanity sensations I felt every time I had to leave my apartment. I am thankful the steps helped me not pick up over the pain and frustration caused by living with a host of neurological dysfunctions, but I am also thankful I knew this person’s advice was not my “next right step.”
“Don’t Even Bother to Go to a Meeting if You Can’t Be on Time.”
Years after the choice to medicate my laundry list of comorbid disorders, the symptoms haven’t all gone away. The chemistry of my brain is still the right setup for somewhat handicapped “executive functioning” - like keeping myself organized and getting to places on time. Years of hangover-free living has still not made me a master of time management, and arriving to meetings on time is still a regular struggle. It’s not something I enjoy. Really, who wants to be that person making the scraping chair noises as the speaker qualifies? It’s not fun, and I say this from the perspective of being that person.
I stayed silent in secret shame as a man in my sober social circle complained about latecomers and advised to all listening, “If you can’t be on time for a meeting, don’t even bother to go.” Being late is not ideal, but had I taken the words of Mr. Punctuality to heart, I would probably attend 10 meetings a year, not enough for this addict/alcoholic to stay stopped. I told myself not to file this one away as an excuse for the days I don’t want to support my recovery.
One of my favorite lines from recovery literature is “One school would allow men no flavor for his fare, and the other would have us on a straight pepper diet.” We all come in damaged in different ways, and getting better is much the same. Sorting out what to bring with me and what to leave behind has become more instinctive and natural as I grow in my 12-step program. The inner voice becomes more mature and asserts its presence more with each day that I refuse to mute it with drinking and drugs. And I would say that’s one of the great gifts of recovery - getting to know yourself best.
Jenny Chu is a pseudonym.