How Not to Preach Recovery

By Nic Sheff 06/06/12

So many people seem to want to convince people that they got sober the right way. But I say do it however you want—and let everyone else do the same.

My way or the highway! Or, er, your way. Photo via

My step-dad and I have had a complicated relationship over the years. In fact, we barely even speak anymore. But when I was first getting sober, we ended up spending a lot of time together, mostly because I was new to LA, flat broke, and relying on my mom’s house for meals—and a place to watch movies where I didn’t have to compete with the six guys in my Sober Living who were obsessed with watching Old School over and over again. My mom’s house was like a sanctuary for me then. 

That is, except for my step-dad, who, more often than not, was part of the bargain. 

Like they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. 

There was a price I had to pay if I wanted to eat my mom’s cooking or watch the Academy screeners she used to get from her work, and that was sitting through my step-dad’s endless lectures about sobriety. He’d been sober, himself—over 15 years at the time—so I guess he figured that qualified him as an addiction expert. After all, if it worked for him, it would obviously work for me. At least, that was his logic.

So he’d tell me all the things I was doing wrong and all the things I should be doing and blah, blah, blah. Really, it was pretty damn frustrating. It was like he didn’t understand the concept that different people are different and that we don’t all need, or not need, the same things. 

I even ended up relapsing because I was so depressed at how AA, and particularly the fourth step, hadn’t worked for me.

And it wasn’t just in terms of sobriety. He’d always wanted to go to Harvard and play baseball and so, to him, that should naturally be what I always wanted, too. The fact that I was this artsy kid with long hair and a skinny little body didn’t make any difference. I should want to go to Harvard on a baseball scholarship. Seriously, he never forgave me for not wanting that. 

Similarly, my step-dad refuses to keep alcohol in the house and he doesn’t allow my mom to drink and he won’t eat any food that his been cooked in alcohol, even when he’s been assured that it will “cook off.” 

But I am different. 

I’m not better or worse—I’m different. I buy bottles of wine for my wife at the grocery store and I don’t think twice about it. That’s just me. That’s the way sobriety works for me. Just as I am more of an artist type than an athletic, professional sport playing type.

But it would be a huge mistake to think that because something worked for me, it should therefore work for someone else. And because of my experience with my step-dad, I try as best I can to shy away from telling people how to live their lives. My experience is just that—my experience. 

At the same time, there have been times when I’ve listened to someone else share their experience in a way that has made me feel less alone—less crazy. People’s experiences have given me hope and insight into my own life. But there has to be a balance between telling someone how to live their life and simply sharing how something did or did not work for you, with no expectations whatsoever about whether the other person is going to relate or agree or whatever.

Just about the only thing that I know to be true about recovering from addiction is that there is no “one way” that works for everyone. And, truly, the only reason I want to share my own experiences with sobriety, or relationships, or medication, or anything else really, is in the off chance that someone else out there has had a similar experience and can relate and not feel so isolated or messed up. 

I remember how isolated not knowing about people who had different experiences from mine felt when I was in early sobriety. I was going to a ton of meetings and working with a sponsor and doing the steps and I wanted so, so badly to get well. I wanted what the AA “Promises” promised me, I wanted to live “happy, joyous, and free.” I wanted to learn how to love myself and love my life—and I believed the AA program would give that to me because in every rehab and Sober Living and detox center and halfway house I went to, AA was touted as the only answer. 

Most AA people would talk specifically about how the fourth step was really the huge turning point in their lives. They’d describe the feelings of intense release and relief that came at the end of the fourth and fifth steps. Seriously, people in AA talk about those steps as if they have magic powers that can change one’s life. I’m not doubting them—I’m sure the fourth step was incredibly powerful for them—but, for whatever reason, it meant absolutely nothing to me.

Believe me, I wanted it to work. I gave it all I had and I did it a number of different times, with different sponsors, but I never felt anything after it.

Now, of course, in AA, what they told me was that I hadn’t done it right. They told me that the only reason it didn’t work was that I’d held something back or wasn’t being honest enough. And that’s what I thought, too. I thought I must’ve done it wrong. Actually, eventually I think I wanted it to work so badly that I just started pretending that it had. So I kept going forward with the steps, trying to convince myself that the fourth step had been more meaningful than it really had.

But, deep down, it really fucked me up. Because it hadn’t made me feel better—and none of the steps really had—I started to think maybe I was doomed to never get sober, or at least to never be happy sober.

Truthfully, I can say that I even ended up relapsing because I was so depressed at how AA, and particularly the fourth step, hadn’t worked for me.

Again, I’m not saying this to tell anyone that the steps don’t work. I’m saying this because maybe there is someone like me out there reading this who might be thinking, “Fuck, those steps didn’t make me feel any better at all—I’m totally screwed so I might as well get high.”

But, for me, that wasn’t the end.

I’ve been sober now for almost five years and I’m married and I love my life for the most part, even if that fucking fourth step didn’t do a damn thing for me.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
nic sheff.jpg

Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.