Independent Recovery: Can You Get Sober Alone?

By Jessica Taylor 08/16/16

What does it mean that I've never gone to rehab, AA, or any other formalized sobriety program? If no one has witnessed me and I've gone through no steps, am I really recovered?

Independent Recovery: Can You Get Sober Alone?
Going it alone.

"Hello. My name is Jessica and I'm an alcoholic." I've never shared these words aloud in any ring of anonymous comrades or congregation of addicts. If I had, I imagine I’d have been holding a styrofoam cup filled with a jiggling meniscus of coffee. Yet, I've said this in many other ways and in myriad contexts.

At first, it came out as a meek "I don't drink." For a short time, I uncomfortably told people, "I'm an alcoholic." Years later, I pronounce to friends, family, and strangers my evolved mantra: "I'm a recovered alcoholic." I've never been anonymous about it.

Now a semi-recovered workaholic—the addiction that replaced the alcohol—I practice emergency medicine as a physician assistant. Sometimes, I share my truth with my patients who come in after a relapse. While I buzz around their exam bed in a blur of green scrubs, deciding which diagnostic imaging and blood work needs to done, it's apparent the ones who need emotional support. 

"I've been sober four years now." That's all I have to say and they perk up, become interested. 

"Oh?" They respond, their eyes wider and their backs straighter. "What program did you do?"

I tell them the truth: none.

The question of what program I have done—which rehab, which set of steps—haunts me of late. I've always wondered about the validity of my independent recovery. The issue became more acute about a year ago, when my former spouse and I began to separate. Approximately half of our relationship was spent together as addicts. He had recovered first, years before the end of our married relationship, and had done an intensive outpatient therapy program. 

Even years after we'd both quit, the alcoholism still influenced our relationship. Unsettled injustices and grievances persisted between us. To have been abandoned by one another so many times, it's hard to forget those things. While we were separating last summer, he told me, "I wish I had taken your hand and shared the recovery process with you." But he hadn't invited me, and I hadn't asked to go with him. 

Eight months ago, after my divorce, I moved into a new house. I'm 36, and it's the first time I've lived alone. Sometimes it's hard, all that empty space around me where another human used to be. My loud laughs echo through the house, unheard. My books collect in piles with no one to trip but me. My hounds are my sole bedmates.

There were a few particularly low moments, full of emotion and overwhelm, when I wanted to drink again. I thought about the momentary peace of the first sip of a fancy cocktail: Hendrick's Gin and tonic, a Dark and Stormy, an Old Fashioned. That dopaminergic blast of approval that would happen in my body at the first sip of liquor, it called to me like an old lover numerous times.

When my former spouse came to visit, he noticed at the end of my street the peeling sign of which I'm acutely aware: a black encircled triangle stamped with the letters AA. An AA chapter is located directly behind my new house. From my backyard, I hear them chanting their serenity prayer together, a unified invention of a different "om." Out my front windows, I see the people walking down the street to enter its refuge. They're easy to identify: shining with a gleam of sweat, uncomfortable looking in their skin and pulling at their shirt collars. Mostly they're men. 

That sign spooked me when I first saw it on my walks to work. I would walk by it and twist at my arm skin, look around guiltily. Partly because I feel like a failure for never having gone. Partly because I wonder about the consequences of never having attended. What does it mean that I've never gone to rehab, AA, or any other formalized sobriety program? If no one has witnessed me and I've gone through no steps, am I really recovered? 

According to some, my methods are flawed. Dr. Drew Pinsky, the celebrity addiction specialist, is frequently quoted as saying, "In my 20 years of treating addicts, I've never seen anything else that comes close to the 12 steps. In my world, if someone says they don't want to do the 12 steps, I know they aren't going to get better." Furthermore, though there is a discrepancy in the research findings, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported, "[M]ost addicted individuals need at least three months in treatment to significantly reduce or stop their drug [and alcohol] use and that the best outcomes occur with longer durations of treatment." 

There are two close friends and my former spouse with whom I discuss my past addiction and my recovery. All three are recovered alcoholics. Of the four of us, two continue involvement with AA. Two went to formal rehab. I'm the lone recovered one who struck out on my own. 

Of our cohort, only one has relapsed for a short time over five years ago. One even has a ten-year chip. From my minuscule statistical sample, I'm doing fine. Yet people are consistently surprised—and maybe skeptical—when I tell them I've never gone to AA or formal recovery. Two of my four peers have even expressed concern that I recover alone.

I wonder if it is the witnessing of one another—admitting to your addictive behaviors and assessing what that behavior emotionally compensates for within you—that is key to AA and other rehab programs. As Brendan Koerner wrote about AA in Wired, "Publicly revealing one's deepest flaws and hearing others do likewise forces a person to confront the terrible consequences of their alcoholism—something that is very difficult to do all alone."

Perhaps it has been the deep conversations with my friends that allows me to proceed in my recovery alone. Everything terrible that I’ve done as an alcoholic has been disclosed to at least one of them. I was known amongst my friends as a drunk with a vicious tongue. The deeply insensitive, truly disturbing things I said to others have been confessed. Most of my close friends (addict and non-addict alike) know about the time that I drunkenly told a friend after she had a miscarriage, "Why would you have told our friends you were pregnant before the second trimester? Everyone miscarries. Now you have to tell everyone that you miscarried." 

While reading John Gordon's essay, "I loved AA. Here's Why I Left," I felt vindicated by his experience: "The AA steps and literature encourage members to practice humility, take responsibility for their actions, and check their egos. Though I do see the value in these principles, they also exacerbated my natural tendency towards self-deprecation. I tend to feel guilty and take blame for most things on my own."

Taking the blame and owning my errors even occurred for me while I was still an alcoholic. In the later years of my drinking, I would even wake up after a blackout and announce to the people around, "Okay. Who do I need to apologize to?" Hands would go up one by one. 

A close friend of mine, Amy, was a tobacco smoker in high school and through her twenties. I've told her story countless times to other smokers as both inspiration and counsel: "When my best friend Amy quit smoking, she knew she needed to do something with her hands and her mouth whenever she had the urge to smoke. So she took up knitting and chewed licorice root."

I always took her advice to heart. Whenever the urge to drink came up, I replaced it with meditation, yoga, martial arts, or horseback riding. People talk about the money they save when they quit smoking, how they save it all and buy a vacation or a new Chanel handbag. I harvested all that time spent being hungover and depressed with guilt over the drinking.

It still sticks in my mind though, this lack of formal recovery. Perhaps it's similar to my drive for a formal education. The smartest people I know have not gone to college and don't have a degree. That isn't how it worked for me though. I'm obsessed with degrees. So there's a component of guilt there with recovery, of chastising myself for not having done things the "right way." But is there really a best practice for recovery? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 35% of alcoholics will recover. To my surprise, of those that recover, only 25% receive treatment. 

Four years out from my drinking days, I have no plans for formalized recovery. I'm going to Los Angeles to visit one of my dear recovered friends this weekend. Maybe we will pop into an AA. Who knows? I noticed the other day that they've built another sign for the AA on my street. The sign is huge and glossy and fresh. The paint is pure white. It catches my eye but I'm calmer, more confident, walking past.

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