Did AA Save My Life?
Article originally featured in Recovery.org.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a member of AA utter the words, “AA saved my life!” Although, for the first four years of my recovery, I believed it too. I completely relinquished my power to AA in the belief that this was the only answer to free me from my addiction. And it worked; I have been sober since March 2012.
However, ask me today if I believe that AA saved my life and I’ll tell you that’s no longer my view.
Why Question a Program That Works?
It may seem strange to question ask – and to some extent it is. Why question something that works for so many people? It’s important I clarify that my questioning of what may seem like semantics isn’t out of a desire to bash AA; I acknowledge that AA has worked for many people. My questioning of AA is to provide clarity and a balanced perspective of recovery and all possible avenues of support.
I want people to find what works for them – chosen not out of force and shame, but out of informed choice and an empowered state so that they have the best possible chance of success. That may be challenging initially, given our fragility in early recovery, but as we evolve in our journey, it is important that information is available so people can identify with their own experience. I no longer felt AA was for me and I was told I would relapse if I left. Yet that wasn’t true; there were many people before me who maintained sobriety and had blossomed when they left. I did too. This is the whole picture: seeing many journeys to the same destination. How we get there is irrelevant and is entirely a matter of personal choice.
In the recovery community, there seem to be some rather impassioned – and somewhat black and white – perspectives which give AA a bad reputation. Unfairly so, I think. Now, as with anything, humans tend to misinterpret and uphold false beliefs because they feel threatened in some way. It is only a natural instinct to protect something you hold sacred – and that is what AA is to many: a sacred place that they believe saved their lives.
Yet, any criticism of AA, even if it is constructive, rational, and/or backed in science, will almost always be met with confrontation – sometimes in a very threatening way that does not uphold the values of AA. I have been called less than favorable names for providing clarity to some very misunderstood concepts and traditions – such as anonymity. It is to this extent I speak of the need for clarity and accurate information, not of the many who attend AA and practice a simple program, don’t engage in online arguments, and certainly don’t purport that AA is the authority on recovery.
When I arrived in AA, I was destroyed. My body was ravaged by my daily consumption of four bottles of wine – my liver had scarring, I had gained significant weight, and had numerous health issues. Mentally, I’d had a breakdown. Emotionally, I was so numb that the only emotions I could identify were anger and relentless depression. I felt so fractured that I wondered if I would ever be whole again. I was completely lost.
AA gave me a home. For that I will be forever grateful. They gave me a place that felt safe. I met many like-minded people on a similar journey and with stories like mine. Those people gave me a sense of community and they accepted my (albeit perceived) brokenness. The only thing I needed to do was completely change my thinking, relinquish my will, and practice a program of recovery as laid out by the 12 steps. Simple.
Desperate to try anything – because anything else I’d tried had failed – I committed to do anything that was suggested. It worked: I stayed sober, I regained my health, and I relearned how to live.
Did AA save my life? To some extent, yes. AA gave me a program of recovery to follow. They gave me solutions to my problems and they provided an immediate community to hold and support me because I was lost on my own. The camaraderie and collective empathy gave me a sense of belonging – something I’d never felt before. I finally learned how to speak up, to grow up, and to find me. I became able to express myself and process my feelings.
In some ways, it gave me purpose and meaning: somewhere to be and service to do. However, I was the one who went to hundreds of meetings; I took on all the service positions; and I did my step work fastidiously. I believe that AA provided a refuge and the tools for me to save my own life.
Some might argue that it is intellectual pride, or even arrogance, to think that you have the power to save your own life with a disease that renders you powerless (should you believe the philosophy of AA). Because, after all, many of us tried on our own and couldn’t string together any kind of sustained recovery – many AA’ers often say things like “My best thinking got me here,” “My thinking cannot be trusted,” and “I needed a power greater than me to save me from myself.”
If that is what works for you, great. I fully support that. But for me, while I believe that I have a disease that required a radical intervention, there were too many complexities to my substance use disorder to credit my recovery to AA. I had to restore my sanity, uncover and process my trauma, and devise coping strategies for life. That required a multi-disciplinary approach including therapists, intense emotional recovery work, development of processing tools, physical recovery, and the 12 Steps. My journey through the 12 Steps awakened me enough to realize the need for extra work and help. But a large part of my emotional recovery was done outside of AA; I had to get professional therapy, learn the value of self-care, and find a program of recovery that looked after my whole being.
Give Yourself Some Credit
Now I am not saying that it is AA’s responsibility to deal with everyone’s trauma – and I acknowledge that everyone is different. Most people who suffer with substance use disorders have had some sort of trauma or life stressors that led to addiction. Therefore, various forms of external intervention are required to completely treat the addiction and find lasting recovery. Even AA acknowledges that outside help is sometimes required!
Others believe that the credit is due to a collaboration – of god/a higher power and the program – because they were utterly helpless alone. It was through this collaboration, attendance at meetings and the 12 Steps, that they believe to have remained abstinent. Again, I fully support this belief because it is what works for these people. What I do not support is to forcefully uphold the singular view that to take some of the credit yourself is intellectual pride and ego. If you believe that for yourself, that’s fine, but it is not the full picture to portray that as the absolute view. That is dogmatic, inaccurate, and givesAA a bad name.
Part of the reason I left AA was that I believed I needed to empower myself to develop self-esteem and ego by crediting my achievements and acknowledging how far I have come. I needed to move away from telling myself that I don’t know best, that my thinking cannot be trusted, that I am defective, and that I must remain humble and teachable to a program that I no longer believe in.
My self-esteem was in the gutter when I arrived in AA, I had no identity, and zero self-confidence. AA provided the community, empathy, support, and tools which enabled me to save my own life. They showed me what was possible and that gave me a thirst to empower myself enough to heal and emotionally recover, ultimately growing into the woman I am today. For that I am grateful. I am also immensely grateful for the love, care and compassion that has grown within me, allowing me to find – and maintain – recovery.