5 Myths About Leaving 12-Step Fellowships
By Olivia Pennelle

We have a responsibility to do whatever we can — even if that means pointing someone to an alternative (non-12-step) pathway of recovery.
girl spreading arms on top of mountain, okay after leaving a 12-step fellowship.
For some people, leaving their 12-step fellowships can be a better option for recovery. PC: © Sutiponmm | Dreamstime.com
I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people who are frightened to leave 12-step fellowships. They contact me because they heard that I left Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous over a year ago, and want to see if it’s true that I’m okay — that is, stayed sober.

It’s true: I left 12-step fellowships in March 2017, and not only have I stayed sober, but my resilience, independence, and emotional well-being have grown exponentially. I’d even say that my sobriety has evolved more over the last year than the five years I spent in AA.

What saddens me the most about these conversations — which echo my own fears of leaving — is that some members of 12-step groups believe sobriety is contingent upon their membership in AA or NA. So deep-rooted is this conditioning that they believe that if they stop attending meetings, they will return to using alcohol or drugs. Well-rehearsed 12-step myths say that without a program a person will become a “dry drunk,” or that they lack gratitude. Yet another surefire way of keeping people in the program is to tell them that leaving means they are unwilling to help newcomers.

My experience, along with that of many others who have left 12-step fellowships, is that these beliefs are dogmatic conditioning. I will never tire of debunking these myths.

Last month, a woman who spent over 20 years in a fellowship contacted me because she was tired of attending, fearful about leaving, and concerned that people mistakenly thought the length of her sobriety meant that she had the secret to long-term recovery. Such was her sense of responsibility that she blamed herself for the unfortunate fate of some people in the program. I’m saddened that someone in long-term recovery felt so confused and frightened about leaving.

Today, my recovery represents independence. I now understand recovery as a knowing of myself and reclaiming my instincts. After six years in recovery, I’d like to think that I can make decisions based on what is right for me, rather than on the judgments of others if if I go against the grain. But this isn’t the reality for many who attend 12-step groups and they believe they have no control over their own sobriety other than showing up at meetings and working the program.

These are just a few examples of the reasons many people have contacted me to discuss these very real fears and they’re always the same. Here is what I have to say about some of these common myths:

How will I help newcomers if I leave?
First off, newcomers don’t always show up in meetings. They need someone to tell them that a meeting exists before they know to walk through that door. Second, there are a million ways to share a message of recovery: writing about your journey; giving peer support at a recovery center; sharing your experience in a treatment center or prison; offering help to someone who is struggling; or telling your friends, family, and doctor that they can refer someone who needs help to you. By leading a fulfilling life in recovery, you’re providing a real example to others that healthy and happy recovery is possible. I’d argue that all of these examples of helping a newcomer are equally, if not more, powerful than sharing your story and your telephone number in a meeting.

If I leave, I’ll relapse..
This most pervasive myth of all has proven false for me and for hundreds of people I know who have left 12-step meetings. We feel a sense of freedom from breaking free of the dogmatic messaging and have taken back our power by choosing a pathway that is right for us.

If someone wants to use drugs, they will find a way to do so whether they attend meetings or not. I don’t use substances because I choose not to, and because I care enough about myself to stop harming my body and preventing my ability to lead a fulfilling life. I no longer believe that I have a monster living inside of me, or a disease doing pushups in the parking lot waiting for me to mess up. Those are simply myths designed to keep me surrendering my will to an illusory bearded man who lives in a church basement, listening to people’s sad stories.

AA is the only way to recover.
This statement is simply untrue. There are many effective pathways to recovery. In fact, a leading study shows that tens of millions of Americans have successfully resolved an alcohol or drug problem through a variety of traditional and nontraditional means. Specifically, 53.9 percent reported “assisted pathway use” that consisted of mutual-aid groups (45.1 percent), treatment (27.6 percent), and emerging recovery support services (21.8 percent). 95.8 percent of those who used mutual-aid groups attended 12-step mutual aid meetings. However, just under half of those who did not report using an assisted pathway recovered without the use of formal treatment and recovery supports.

Another study comparing 12-step groups to alternative mutual aid groups found that LifeRing, SMART, and Women for Sobriety were just as effective as 12-step groups. Study author Dr. Sarah Zenmore and her team reported that “findings for high levels of participation, satisfaction, and cohesion among members of the mutual help alternatives suggest promise for these groups in addressing addiction problems.”

If you don’t feel suited to a 12-step program, you’re incapable of being honest with yourself.
We’ve all heard of that paragraph in AA’s Big Book, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” Really?! What about atheists who feel uncomfortable at the idea of handing over their life to God? I’d argue that it is being honest with yourself to acknowledge that the 12-step program doesn’t align with your values and beliefs.

It is harmful to suggest that you are the problem if AA doesn’t work for you. If the 12 steps are so powerful, how come their success rate varies wildly from 20 percent to only 60 percent? Shaming isn’t the answer to long-term recovery — that only deepens an already desperately low self-esteem. Supporting someone as they find the right pathway is a far more compassionate, helpful approach. When so many people are dying from substance use disorder, there is no room for shame. We have a responsibility to do whatever we can — even if that means pointing someone to alternative pathways of recovery — so that we have a fighting chance at saving some lives.

My desire to leave is my disease talking.
You don’t have a monster with a different voice living inside you. Yes, our behavior changes when we use drugs, and yes, drugs override our ability to make rational choices. We also have a desire to avoid painful realities — that’s what got most of us in the habit of using drugs in the first place. But attributing your realization that something isn’t right for you to a walking, talking disease is utter nonsense. I decided to leave because I was sick and tired of entering church basements in a cloud of cigarette smoke to hang out with people eating candy, drinking tar-like coffee, talking through people’s shares, and listening to the same old story on repeat. There was a time that community was helpful, but a point came where I wanted to go out and live my life. After all, this program was designed to be a bridge to living normally.