Why I Left AA After 12 Years—UPDATED

By Louise Wareham Leonard 03/17/13

I needed to recover from 12-step recovery. Years after leaving the rooms, I'm grateful for a life of serenity and moderate drinking.

Goodbye to all that! Tony Millionaire

Leaving Alcoholics Anonymous, after 12 years, was one of the best things I have ever done. I didn’t leave consciously or with direct intent—not at first—but once I could look back on happy weeks and months without 12-step orthodoxy, I realized I would never go back.

The process began on January 1, 2000, when I began a residence at an arts colony in Vermont. I was 35 years old; I had grown up mostly in Manhattan and had been in AA since the age of 23. When I moved to Vermont on the first day of the millennium, with over 12 years of daily 12-step meeting attendance, I didn't so much plan to stop going to meetings as never quite got around to looking for any.

Instead I got busy with the new people around me—all of them what 12-step people refer to as "civilians." And what happened in those first interactions was a surprise. It took a while to notice, but I began to realize that nobody was getting angry with me, there were no sudden, out-of-the-blue explosions. People did not take offense over tiny or imagined slights. There were no attacks on my character; nobody derided me. All of a sudden I felt less of a need to be incredibly careful around other people. I had a sudden sense of freedom, a freedom from the long-term fear that I might unintentionally hurt someone's tender feelings, or incite a terrible anger.

The fact that I had not been a heavy drinker didn’t bother anyone in AA, because “The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.”

This was most apparent with my new boyfriend, my first civilian romance in a dozen years. He did not become enraged that I didn't notice his new haircut. Likewise, my newest close friend did not fly—unlike my past 12-step friend—into an unprovoked rage one summer's day, ripping the picnic blanket out from under me in a crowded park and storming off screaming, "Get some help!" Instead, people were kind, low-key and friendly. I didn't have to tread quite so gently.

As a 12-stepper, I had come into program after developing some pretty common symptoms of child sexual abuse. At 33, I had also been badly beaten on the street by a stranger. The result of trauma can be a hyper-vigilance and a guardedness. Someone once asked my housemate, “What is it with Louise?”—meaning why was I so edgy and easily rattled. My very sweet housemate, Kim, told the inquirer: “You know how some people are nice on the outside but not on the inside? Louise is the opposite.”

In the beginning, recovery was exhilarating; meetings left me elated. Before coming to meetings, I had struggled alone for years with abuse issues. In meetings I finally heard others who had also struggled. The difference between them and me was that they talked about their despair and substance abuse in the past tense. Now, they said, they had new, better lives full of gratitude. It was the first hope I had had in a long time. During my 12-step period, I always had a sponsor, I went through all 12 steps and I acknowledged a higher power. I also got off heavy medications and I went to more than a meeting a day. Over the years, I went to many kinds of meetings, including sexual abuse recovery groups and Alanon; I sometimes wonder whether that wasn’t the place I should have been all along, having grown up with addiction in my family.

Today, I question the way I was herded into AA as a 23-year-old. I had been in a hospital for an eating disorder and four months of life-threatening drug abuse with the man who had abused me as a child (yes, you read that right). I was immediately mandated to attend AA meetings on the hospital campus and off. I was told that getting sober—no drinking, no drugs, no “acting out” of any kind—was necessary for me to heal from my past.

It was largely a matter of timing: If it had been the '70s, I would have been sent to EST; if it had been earlier in the '80s (and if I'd happened to be immensely wealthy) it would have been daily Freudian therapy. But I was hospitalized in the late 1980s, when hospitals, rehabs and doctors began to channel people with all kinds of issues into “sobriety” and the basically free 12-step world. At one point before my supposed "bottom" I actually went to a therapist I found in the Yellow Pages. I told him I had an eating disorder and that evening, on his own time, he took me to an AA meeting, introducing me in a highly emotional tone to the group as someone he realized God had called on him to help. The fact that I had not been a heavy drinker never seemed to bother any doctor or social worker. It didn’t bother anyone in AA either, because “The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.”

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Louise Wareham Leonard is a journalist, editor and the author of two novels, Since You Ask and Miss Me A Lot Of. She has also been published in GargoylePoetry and HotelAmerika and is a reader for Tin House. Find her on Linkedin and Twitter.