Is There Life After AA?…From The Fix
By Olivia Pennelle
It became clear that even though I wanted to stay sober, my life in 12-step fellowships wasn’t a life I wanted.
When I walked into my first AA meeting, I felt like I was broken into a million pieces. My bloated body housed a mosaic of a woman whose sense of self was shattered. I had zero self-confidence, and my self-esteem was so fragile that if you poked me, I’d erupt into a blubbering mess. My life seemed like a blur. I had no comprehension of where most of my twenties had gone—they seemed to have been washed away by a tsunami of wine and drugs. I’m not sure what I expected when I stepped foot through that door, but I distinctly remember feeling utterly defeated, completely lost, with no idea what to do next. I knew I had to stop and this is where I was told to go.
I quickly adjusted to life in AA; they welcomed me, guided me through building social supports, and gave me a framework to live by. Initially, it stuck, and I stayed sober. The 12 steps seemed to be a very simple way to live my life as a sober person. At that time my life was simple: it consisted of endless meetings and a shitty job. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. It was like I was wearing someone else’s hand-me-downs: every time I looked down I was acutely aware of my long limbs being two or three inches too long—they were functional, but they weren’t the right fit and I felt constricted.
Those feelings would resurface every time someone in the rooms gave me a suggestion, or made a remark, that seemed overly-controlling or dogmatic. Some of the highlights include one sponsor screaming down the phone at me for 30 minutes until I was in tears because I wasn’t doing what she wanted me to do. Another memory is of her sponsor insisting I call on a daily basis to “check out my thinking” and report my plan for the day. Then there were the messages that those who leave the program were destined for one of two fates: returning to alcohol/drug use, or death. Certified Recovery Specialist and MSW Adam Sledd, recounts: “The biggest lie of all was the one that said I couldn’t manage my own recovery. This myth singlehandedly disenfranchises millions of people.” Another damaging myth that keeps people from exploring other potential methods of recovery is that if you are able to get sober somehow without 12-step programs, you must not have been a “real” alcoholic to begin with.
While I do not discount that AA contributed to my development as a woman in recovery—I stayed sober and I built social supports—I reached a point that it hindered the development of my sense of self. I had no life outside of AA and I felt like my core values of integrity, justice, and equality were reframed as character defects.
In retrospect, I can see that having other people in recovery guiding you through the twelve steps leaves a wide margin of error. They are not trained therapists and they are not trauma-informed, leaving the risk of misinterpretation and potential harm. Through intensive therapy, I now see that my core values weren’t character flaws—they are a fundamental aspect of who I am. I also discovered that I suffer with complex PTSD, so being conditioned to believe I was powerless and had these presumably fatal character flaws wasn’t helpful—it was harmful. I needed to empower myself, not diminish vital parts of my identity.
Even though I rigorously applied the steps, I found myself increasingly numbing out feelings of doubt with food and cigarettes. It became clear that even though I wanted to stay sober, my life in 12-step fellowships wasn’t a life I wanted. I was depressed and didn’t want my life to revolve around sitting in church basements telling sad stories and disempowering myself by identifying as the same broken woman who walked through that door two years earlier. I was no longer that woman, and I was sick of suppressing the new person I had become. I was fed up with the fear-based conditioning of being told that if I left, I wouldn’t stay sober, and I was tired of the constant message that my future would be determined by some mystic higher power.
In writing my blog and interviewing people around the world about what recovery looked like for them, it became startlingly clear that there were endless ways to recover—dispelling all of the myths and dogmatic conditioning we hear in the rooms. I began to see through the lived experience of others that the parts of me that I’d considered to be broken were actually the making of me. No longer was I defined by my past and instead I could embrace my core values and personality traits. That experience led to the realization that I had not been thinking big enough. I was shrinking myself to fit into a program that didn’t work for me, and I was too frightened to leave.
Moving to America gave me the impetus to cut ties to 12-step fellowships in favor of trying something new and expanding my life. It was difficult at first. When you build a recovery founded upon the belief that you have to rely upon others to survive, it is inevitable that you will wobble once you remove those supports. But once you realize that you are in charge of your recovery, everything changes.
I started to break free of those dogmatic beliefs that were simply untrue for me. I saw the evidence that many people just like me were thriving without a 12-step recovery. Gone was the conditioning of looking at myself as broken. Instead, I realized that I am no longer that woman who walked through the doors of AA six years ago. I no longer have to shrink myself or berate my character for being out of line with the core beliefs of a program that doesn’t work for me. I see much more value in looking at what is right about me, what I have endured and overcome, and rising to the challenge of helping others to see their strengths and striving to have a fulfilling, self-directed life.
That experience stills saddens me today. The fear-based conditioning is still occurring in 12-step fellowships and in online forums in spite of a body of evidence demonstrating that there is more than one way to recover. In my work as a writer, I challenge perspectives on recovery by pointing out this evidence on a near daily basis. I passionately believe in showing others that they can find and succeed in recovery another way if the 12 steps do not work for them.
To that end, I set up a Facebook Group, Life After 12-Step Recovery. The purpose of the group is to provide hope, tools, and resources for people who leave AA, NA—or any other A—because it wasn’t the right fit for them. I wanted to provide the real-life experiences of people thriving once they have left these fellowships and taken control of managing their own recovery.
In setting up the group, I asked people on Facebook who had left 12-step groups about their experiences. I was inundated with examples of people leading fulfilling, empowered, and self-directed lives. And there was one person who said: “I know lots of people who have left 12-step recovery. They are all drunk or dead.” I think this illustrates not only the need for this group, but the need for articles like these to dispel such untruths.
While I equally respect and consider the views of people who find the 12 steps do work for them, the reality is that we all have choices in our recovery, and we have the power to decide what works for us.