Am I Still in AA If I'm Not Going to Meetings?

Am I Still in AA If I'm Not Going to Meetings?

By Helaina Hovitz 04/09/19

After years in recovery, certain aspects of the program may no longer be useful while others are. That doesn’t mean you have to completely shut the door.

Image: 
Woman with finger at head, confused, ambivalent about 12-step program participation, AA meetings
The groupthink can be intimidating, but you may not even have to make the decision to stay or go. ID 99081806 © Innovatedcaptures | Dreamstime.com

Hi, I’m Helaina, my sobriety date is November 12th, 2011, and right now, I’m in the grey when it comes to “the program.”

Here’s what that means.

A lot is being written lately about leaving 12-step programs. The alternative, of course, being staying in 12-step programs. For some people, the decision likely is clear. Maybe you’ve realized you do need more meetings, sponsorship, step-work, and fellowship for your own betterment. Great! Do it. Or you definitely need to leave everything you associate with AA behind, because it really is just not for you, and it’s not helpful. Great! Do it.

If you have some solid recovery time, you may be somewhere in the middle, in a place where certain aspects of the program are likely no longer useful or necessary, while others are. If you’re not giving the program the same all-or-nothing you always have before, you may be feeling pressure to stay and change your behavior, get back to your former state of enthusiasm and action. Others may be giving you subtle or not-so-subtle suggestions to leave, especially if you can’t fake it til you make it anymore and you’re clearly over it.

Finding the Grey Area in 12-Step Programs

The groupthink can be intimidating, but you may not even have to make the decision to stay or go.

Ironically, we spend a lot of time un-learning that kind of black and white thinking in recovery, opting instead to find peace of mind by living in the grey.

In the grey, we can recognize that what we need and what works for us within the 12-step models can change, and that’s normal. As humans, we’re in a constant state of evolution, which is why we don’t spend our entire lives in Kindergarten (hopefully).

For me, part of becoming a sober woman in recovery has been learning to trust that I know what’s right for me, and what works for me, while blocking out the opinions of everyone else; namely, the scare tactics, the fear of judgment, and the people who think they know what’s best for everyone. That isn’t easy.

For a while, I kept going to meetings because I was afraid that I’d disappoint someone, maybe a sponsor, if I didn’t. I went because I didn’t want people to think I was a “bad AA.” Or I worried that people would think that I must have relapsed if I stopped going. There is a confusing contradiction in the program about how one size doesn’t fit all and everything is just a suggestion, but also that you’re headed for a miserable death if you reduce or stop going to meetings. So meetings weren’t really a useful part of my toolkit anymore, but I still carried them around until they almost became a burden instead of a cushion. But without the meetings—or with only occasional meetings—am I still in AA?

Over time, as they say, we find a bridge back to life, and thinking in black and white is the very thing that can freeze you up while trying to walk across your bridge. So, I walk across my bridge “in the grey.”

In the grey, you don’t have to pressure yourself to make a decision or overthink whether you’re “really” doing well. If you feel like you’re doing well, you’re probably doing well. It’s not a trap. If you haven’t spoken to your sponsor in a few months, or if you don’t have one, or if you don’t go to meetings…have you “left” AA? More grey matter coming up: you don’t have to decide to cut off everything and everyone, or do all or nothing when it comes to the program.

Healing and Trusting Myself

I’ve done a ton of hard work—including 12-step work —that has changed my life and allowed me to remedy what drove me to drink in the first place. I have this great life because of those early years of incredibly hard work, diligence, taking all of those suggestions as seriously as possible and doing step work over and over again, and therapy, and all the good things we do to create meaningful change in our lives.

I finally trust that I know what’s best for myself, and I know that I always get to change my mind. It’s taken me almost half a decade to feel comfortable knowing that I don’t need to drag myself to meetings just to be a “good AA.” I don’t need the same level of therapy for PTSD with the same frequency as I did ten years ago. What I need to stay sober, physically and emotionally, has also changed over time.

Deep down, I think that if we’re honest with ourselves at any stage in our recovery, we all know what we need to do in order to not drink—and furthermore, to be good people, kind people, honest people, considerate, thoughtful, loyal.

Whatever your values are, identify what you need to do to keep them close and act accordingly.

Going to a certain number of meetings, making coffee, talking to a sponsor every day is not necessarily the answer for everyone, even if it is the answer for many. I respect that the same way I hope people will respect the rest of us walking our own path with the tools we need.

As the book says, what we learn becomes a natural working part of the mind, and so what we did during our first three years may not be what we need to do after six years, and we can trust our own thinking again. When I feel that maybe my thinking is murky here and there, I usually know to reach out to bounce those thoughts off someone else.

But the idea of knowing yourself well enough to change your program-related behavior is not preached nearly as often warnings against it.

Sweeping Generalizations as Scare Tactics in AA

"I thought, ‘I got this’ and then I relapsed.”

Or “I stopped going to meetings, and I relapsed.”

Of course, there’s also the F word: “I forgot that I was an alcoholic and couldn’t drink normally. “

It is important to honor people’s experiences, but it becomes dangerous when we assume that all alcoholics everywhere need to do the same thing or they risk the same fate. Using that kind of sweeping generalization as a scare tactic can be enough to cause someone to want to reject the program altogether and leave or keep doing something that just isn’t right for them anymore and stay against their better judgement.

Relapse is not part of my story (common belief is that if I don’t say “yet” I’m also doing something dangerous, so I’m sticking that word in the grey area of these parenthesis), but I’d be willing to bet that folks who have relapsed didn’t “forget” anything. They probably didn’t forget that their drinking had serious consequences the way that one forgets to turn the light off in the kitchen or take out the trash before leaving for vacation.

They likely made conscious choices to engage in some unhealthy behaviors again, despite knowing what they knew about themselves; what they forgot was to put into practice all the things they’d learned in the program along the way.

For me, forgetting my inner struggles would be like forgetting that I’m a woman, or that I’m a human, or that I need to eat and sleep. I’m well aware. I'm also not walking around saying, “Darn, I’m an alcoholic!” or “I am a womannnn!” every day.

To an extent, there is actually a level of “forgetting” that feels great. I rarely think about drinking or smoking weed. I don’t think every day about how I can’t drink. I just don’t drink anymore.

I know that if I become complacent, I may not get to keep it all, so it’s up to me to do what I need to do in order not to get to that place. Doing something to keep up the new life we’ve created is a great idea, but for me that something isn’t to keep me from forgetting that I’m an alcoholic, but rather to keep me from forgetting what I’ve learned, how far I’ve come, and what I did to get to where I am now.

Social support in some form is such a crucial part of any kind of recovery, but you can decide what that looks like. I’ve made amazing friends in sobriety and as sober women, we understand each other and connect on a deep level that creates a special bond and provides a unique support system. And when you have just one alcoholic talking to another, as they say, you have a meeting.

Self-Empowerment in Recovery

We have to give ourselves permission to feel confident that after a certain period of time, having put in the years of work, we can start to know what’s best for ourselves. That breathing room is nice. Enjoy it.

I also know that in a year, or in five years, something in me might change again, and it may feel right to go to meetings again. I’m not digging my heels in. I’ll be grateful they’re there, because despite all of the personalities and the disappointments and frustrations that we don’t like finding “in the rooms,” it’s still a beautiful place that is home to a program that works for a lot of people. It’s something we can always count on.

Luckily, the world of wellness has opened up. Principles and concepts that were once exclusive to 12-step are now everywhere, in books, on podcasts, on Instagram and elsewhere. Reminders to keep our side of the street clean, take things one day at a time, think about our personal boundaries, speak (and text, and email) kindly and honestly, pause before acting, meditate, forgive, practice self-care, volunteer, focus on putting good into the world and not just taking from it, are everywhere.

We learn that to keep it, we have to give it away and for me, that’s still true. Ironically, I spent years raising my hand to offer myself as a sponsor in meetings, I gave out my number, I spoke to newcomers, and I even served as “sponsorship chair.” Yet, I never had a sponsee. Instead, I’ve carried the message through personal interactions and to people who message me after reading something I wrote. I tried carrying the message and helping other alcoholics “the traditional” way for years, and didn’t get the chance to do it that way, so I figured out the ways in which I can.

If you don’t know where you stand around that line in the sand that separates “leaving” or “staying” then lay your blanket down, sprawl out across it, and forget about the line altogether.


How has your 12-step participation changed over time? Do you believe people can reduce their involvement and still be okay? Sound off in the comments.

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Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or HelainaHovitz.com.

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