Don’t Tell Me When the Next AA Meeting Is

By Keri Blakinger 04/20/15

Don’t assume that, without the 12 steps, my sobriety must be on its last legs. It’s just plain rude.


It happens to me with some regularity. I’ll be talking to someone who is in a 12-step recovery program like AA or NA and it will come up in conversation that I am clean but choose not to be involved in any 12-step program. Next thing I know, they’re telling me where the nearest meeting is—as if I’m a soul in need of urgent and immediate salvation.

The thing is, if we are sober, then we are all on the winning side of the same battle. 

Don’t do this. Don’t tell me when the next meeting is. Don’t assume that, without the 12 steps, my sobriety must be on its last legs. Don’t warn me that, without the rooms, I won’t stay sober through tough times. Don’t tell me attending meetings is the only way to true sobriety or the only path to a meaningful life in recovery. Why? It’s just plain rude. The implication is that my sobriety isn’t good enough.  

If I were to tell someone I was Jewish, they wouldn’t point me to the nearest mosque. The average person would recognize that is rude. That’s just an example, though; as it is, I am not Jewish. I am an atheist and I have literally never shared that information with someone and then immediately been directed to the nearest church, mosque, or synagogue. We understand that it is not okay to do that with religion, so why do we think it’s okay to do it with recovery?

Recovery, like religion, underpins a way of life and suggesting that my recovery doesn’t “work” is like saying that my life isn’t working. That sort of judgmental attitude doesn’t help anyone’s sobriety—neither mine nor theirs.

However, as many in the recovery community are aware, this attitude isn’t particularly uncommon. It isn’t just one or two people who view AA/NA-based sobriety as the only valid form of recovery. I certainly wouldn’t call it a majority, but it’s a sizable number. In fact, it kind of keeps with some of the popular phrases and sayings that circulate in 12-step groups.

In the rooms, there’s a saying, “If you try it for 90 days and don’t like it, we’ll gladly refund your misery”—as if not attending meetings is a guarantee of misery. It’s not. I don’t attend meetings and I’m not miserable.

To be clear, I’m not saying 12-step programs are bad. I think that AA and NA are wonderful, but they just happen not to be programs that played a large role in my sobriety. However, I do have some experience with the steps. About 13 years ago, I tried to get sober and it didn’t stick. At that time, I went to a 12 step-based rehab at age 17 and practiced 12 step-based recovery for a time. But, at that point, I just wasn’t ready and there was no program—12 step or otherwise—that would have kept me sober. Although I relapsed after about a year and a half, I know the program wasn’t the reason I relapsed.

I finally got clean again after a drug arrest in 2010. While attending Cornell University, I’d been arrested with nearly six ounces of heroin. I was using and selling and had become a person I didn’t recognize anymore. What’s more, I could have been facing life in prison. Fortunately, thanks to New York State’s 2009 repeal of the notoriously draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, I received a sentence of 2.5 years instead of the 15-to-life that I would have been eligible for under the old sentencing structure. Feeling as if I’d dodged a bullet, I decided to stay sober. This time, though, I chose to try a different path.

At first, I attended the weekly AA meetings offered at the county jail, but when I was transferred to state prison I stopped attending. Although certain aspects of the program spoke to me, I found that there were also many parts that didn’t. I wanted something different. At first, I was nervous; I’d been forewarned that not attending meetings could be the first sign of an impending relapse. I knew that there must be people who maintained long-term sobriety without the rooms, but I wasn’t sure if I knew any—until I met Mr. Sardegna.

Mr. Sardegna was one of the drug counselors in the prison's six-month drug treatment program that I was placed in. An Italian from New York City, he was loud, brash, and sarcastic. He was also 13 years sober—and he didn’t use the 12 steps. He was passionate about staying clean and had made a life out of helping people get clean, too. We didn’t always agree, but he was a huge inspiration. Meeting someone who had so successfully maintained sobriety without using the rooms helped give me confidence that I, too, could achieve long-term sobriety without the 12 steps.

Of course, that’s not to say that I haven’t gained anything from my exposure to AA and NA over the years. There are parts of the program that I have utilized in my own recovery. The 12 Promises are inspiring and magical. What’s more, for me they’ve come true —despite the fact that I don’t go to meetings.

For me, it wasn’t meetings but passion that made sobriety a reality. A key part of my recovery has been finding something to be passionate about in the way that I was once passionate about my heroin use. That approach may not work for everyone, but for me it’s been wonderful. I’m a journalist and I love what I do; I’m passionate about writing. Since my release from prison, I’ve been passionate about prison reform. Between those two things, I’ve carved out a meaningful life for myself.

It wasn’t just finding healthier passions that helped me stay clean; other changes have played a role as well. For instance, learning to let go of things was huge for me. During my addiction, I was quick to anger—and slow to let go of it. I allowed myself to nurture the sort of negativity that drove my drug use. In early sobriety, I faced a number of difficult situations, situations in which my anger might have been well-justified. As I began to sit and stew, I realized that I was allowing others to make me miserable—but by letting go, I could take control of my happiness.

Sometimes, the ability to just let go of negativity comes more easily as we mature. At 17, I don’t think I was ready to learn the lessons I needed to stay sober. Today, I know what mindsets to avoid—and if I feel myself getting into that unhealthy, resentful mindset, I go running. I do mud runs, color runs, and obstacles races. I have fun.

This is what has worked for me. It may not be what works for the next person, and I realize that. I’m not saying that I have a solution that’s better than AA or NA. I’m just saying that non-AA solutions should not be discounted. Those of us who are not in AA or NA can also have valid forms of sobriety—and it would be nice if this were more widely accepted. 

The thing is, if we are sober, then we are all on the winning side of the same battle. We shouldn’t be tearing each other down and passing judgment on other forms of sobriety. It doesn’t need to be Team 12 Steps vs. Team Other-Form-of-Sobriety. It can just be Team Sober vs. Team Addiction.

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living in upstate New York. A staff writer for The Ithaca Times, she has also been published in The Washington Post and Quartz. She last busted 10 drug myths.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.