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Beyond 12-Step Recovery: A Journey to Personal Liberation and Healing

Updated: Apr 25



In the realm of addiction recovery, 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have long been regarded as the gold standard. In fact, these programs alone are often court mandated for alcohol and drug related crimes despite several other options available for recovery support. For many, these programs have been lifesaving, providing structure, support, and a sense of community on the road to sobriety. However, what happens when you begin to outgrow the very system that once served as your lifeline? What if the principles that once brought comfort and guidance now feel confining and limiting?


This is the journey that many individuals find themselves on, a journey of questioning, self-discovery, and ultimately, liberation. I want to share my personal story of navigating beyond the confines of 12-step recovery and finding a path that truly resonates with my spirit.


What if…


  • What if I told you that staying in 12-step recovery groups may actually hinder your growth and are often harmful mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

  • What if I told you that these groups and programs may be retraumatizing you through a fear-based ideology?

  • What if I told you that it’s possible to go beyond these groups and even thrive without them?

  • What if I told you that you aren’t an “alcoholic” or “diseased”, but the core of your addiction issues originate from unresolved trauma.

  • What if you could resolve and heal the trauma keeping you in dependency cycles so that you no longer need to stay stuck in recovery meetings that are no longer helping you grow?


I want to disclaim before going any further, that if you continue to find peace, healing, and solace in 12 step recovery groups then this message may not be for you. I am grateful for the supportive people that I met during my time in 12-step groups and it was what I needed at the time to get out of addiction.


I am writing this as a testament to my personal experience and perhaps to bring hope and support to others who may be looking further beyond 12-Step recovery to find a path that truly aligns to them. I've realized that there isn't a lot of support out there for individuals who have hit a wall in 12-step groups and realize that they need more.


From the start of my sober journey, I had always felt like I just didn’t quite fit into the groups I attended and that calling myself an alcoholic or addict always just felt like a mask I wore to blend in with the group. I didn’t want to feel any more different at that point in my life, so I bought into the program completely. I took on the programming of AA as if it were the ultimate truth. And well, it really was all I could rely on at that time of my life. I had played out my cycle of addiction and alcohol dependency for over a decade at that point in my life and I just couldn’t see another way out. I had some experience in AA before and had gone to treatment centers before, but I couldn't get a grip on resolving this issue.

At that point in my life, I was desperate, vulnerable, and willing to do whatever it took to stop living my life dependent on alcohol and drugs. In a moment,  I made a decision to be completely done with my addiction issues so I went right back to AA and was “ALL IN’. Since that deciding moment, I never had any cravings for substances or alcohol.


My experience of AA and the 12 steps was really life changing in a lot of ways. It was what I needed at that time, and I had a good group that I attended. Many of the sponsors I worked with were genuinely very good people and I generally had positive interactions. My life got better as a result of staying sober and learning to do the next right thing, which is what the group was teaching me. I found safety and security from my self-inflicted abuse with alcohol and drugs. All the while AA kept reinforcing that I was a sick & hopeless alcoholic and if I ever chose to stop going to meetings or doing the step work that I would end up drunk and dead eventually. I was also taught that I could only find true peace and happiness if I worked the program and went to meetings for the rest of my life. I completely bought all of the fear mongering that is pushed in the program without batting an eye. I thought I was doomed without the help of 12 step recovery, so I tried to make the best of my time there.


I never really made any true friendships from the meetings with the exception of maybe 2 people during the entire 7 years I took part in the program. Most people I encountered wanted nothing to do with me, were judgmental, or just pretended to like me because I was part of the group. I had multiple experiences with individuals who would lend condescending remarks to me that the self-improvement work I did outside of the program was inadequate compared to the 12 Steps and AA. I also received a good bit of verbal abuse from other members because of my coaching business. These experiences made me feel small and invalidated to a group that I believed was home for a long time. 


During my time in the program, my life continued to change and improve in some ways, but I felt stuck in a lot of other ways and didn’t understand why. I thought that if I kept doing what everyone says to do that, I would stay sober and live a good life. I began to become disillusioned by the whole thing and found myself only participating as a way to regulate my nervous system whenever I felt anxious or out of sorts. I only worked with a few sponsee's the entire time I was in AA and going to the meetings all the time felt like I was living in groundhogs' day. I continued to push harder into the program hoping that this was my dilemma because that was what I had been taught - “if something is not working in your life, you need to do the program”. After a while, it eventually stopped working for me. Little did I know at the time, but it became the thing that was holding me back from even more healing and spiritual progress. 


I couldn’t believe it, was I actually outgrowing the 12-Step recovery? The very thing that saved me.


Soon after, I began trauma therapy and found the support I needed while navigating how to move on from AA. I began to use other modalities of healing along with my therapist which helped me to start moving through the debris that had been built up. One of the modalities I found especially helpful to process trauma and supported my therapeutic process was the microdosing of psilocybin. Wait, I am using a mind-altering substance and still claiming to be sober? Well, it depends on who you ask. It took some time to come to terms with this new part of my recovery and healing process. In all honesty, I learned that a good portion of folks who still claim sobriety and are actively part of the program do use psychedelics. As a matter of fact there are many people in 12 step programs who use a variety of other mind altering substances. What an interesting contradiction to my previous ideas of what “sobriety” was. Apparently it seems that sobriety is really just defined by the individual. “To Thine Own Self Be True” is what came to mind, which also happens to be the phrase etched into the medallions handed out to celebrate a sober anniversary.


I started to question more of the things I had been taught in the program:


  • “What if my restlessness, irritability, and discontent wasn’t because I needed to do step work or go to a meeting? What if I could look deeper into the core of these feelings and stop intellectualizing them?

  • “What if I could stay sober because I want to and not because I have to give my power to a program to keep me sober?”

  • “What if I have been using the program as a replacement to my addictive behavior and there was more for me to uncover and heal?

  • “What if I deserve joy and serenity no matter if I stay in AA or not?”

  • “What if my success in life was a result of the better choices I was making and not because of the program itself?”


I began to see more and more of how I was being lied to by a system I had put all of my faith into. A sense of betrayal arose within me.


I was done. I was committed to moving forward with my life.


So much fear began to creep in once I affirmed to myself that I was ready to leave and find a path that will move me forward in life. I was faced with all of the fear based beliefs that I took on during my time in AA such as “if you leave the program you will die or get drunk” and “you’ll never truly be happy without the program”.  I was terrified that somehow I was unconsciously going to run to the store, buy a 12-pack, and be hammered by the end of the night. I was afraid that if I told anyone about my decision I would be laughed at and called out. I was afraid that I would never be happy again. I was afraid that without AA, I would amount to nothing.


None of these things have happened.


What I learned is that SO many people move on from 12-Step recovery and live amazing fulfilling lives. It’s just that no one tells you that because well, maybe it would defeat the purpose of the group itself and no longer would perpetuate its fear-based ideology. Honestly, there are many aspects of the 12 step programs fear mongering that are kind of culty.

One big issue I faced was that there was no exit strategy for leaving 12 step programs. Venturing into that alone was a huge challenge for me because of the shame and guilt built into my system from the program. I found a couple of online groups and resources to help move on from the program, but most of the process was up to me.


After working through some traumas that were being exacerbated by the AA programming, it became abundantly clear that I was addicted to using the meetings and using the program as a crutch. It became a crutch that I no longer needed support from.


I realized that my dependency on the 12-step program was, in many ways, a form of avoidance, a way to numb deeper pain rather than confront it head-on.


More and more clarity arose about the fear-based belief systems that had kept me trapped and feeling helpless from moving on. I realized that I wanted to go deeper into my own healing. One thing about these programs is that there really is a great deal of religious type shame and guilt that is steeped into their ideology. For myself, this was retraumatizing to unhealed shame patterns and religious trauma from my upbringing. Even more fallacies became evident to me as I kept my distance from the groups. I recognized that I no longer wanted to be dependent on any outside sources to provide me with a sense of safety and feel attached to regulating my nervous system in ways that don’t serve me. I was on a new journey into the unknown to seek spiritual autonomy.


I reached out to the recent sponsor I had been talking with and received so much love and support in my decision. I didn’t have to defend myself. I did have an old sponsor who I hadn’t spoken to in over 6 months ask me to join him for a meeting to which I politely declined and responded that I was stepping away from the program and focusing on my healing journey through therapy. I got no response. As a matter of fact, to this day, I still have not heard from anyone that I was acquainted with in the program. Once you're out it seems you are easily forgotten. Again, kind of culty.


The deprogramming and deconditioning process has been one of the toughest emotional and spiritual experiences I have gone through in my life. It has been a dark night of the soul which has led me into even greater spiritual and personal revelations! At this point, I have truly never felt better and more connected to who I truly am on the deepest level.


Now, I didn’t just leave 12-Step Recovery and completely stopped working on myself. I continue to use the tools I’ve learned throughout my time getting sober as well as the modalities of healing that have supported me all along. Reiki, Meditation, Somatic Work, Massage, Trauma Therapy, Coaching, Yoga, Nature, and just living my life my own way has been what supports me. I am no longer reliant on an outdated and limiting system that is meant to be used temporarily for getting out of addiction patterns. I feel like I have freed up so much space to refocus on myself and evolve the way that I was meant to as an individual. I feel much more at peace that I am not always trying to plan my life around making meetings, thinking about my part in every little thing, and fearing the worst will happen to me if I don’t go with the program. I am able to just be more of who I am, knowing that I have my own foundation that I needed to build through my experience with leaving12-step recovery and that I am ready to expand into more of what this beautiful life has to offer.


I have grown in so many ways since I left AA and the 12-step recovery mindset behind. Going through this process has been a catalyst for me to release even more beliefs and structures that aren’t working for me anymore. The very things that kept me in addiction and dependency cycles no longer have the same power over me because I have done the work to resolve them on a deeper level.  I have been able to heal shame and guilt trauma from my past which was made worse by being in the program. I feel a much greater sense of liberation because I have more choice in my life to create something that comes from my own inner truth instead of based around some program. I choose to abstain from alcohol and recreational drugs to this day because I believe that life is just better for me that way, but from what I understand, there are others that have gone beyond recovery who can safely moderate their use.


It has taken a great deal of time and effort (and pain) to grow out of the limitations of 12-step recovery programming, but the journey has been worth it. I have tried to go back to meetings as a way to connect with others since leaving, but it has never felt the same after my experience. I feel more of an aversion to the program these days now that I have moved on. Maybe that will change, but I doubt it at this point.


There is life beyond “addiction recovery” and you don’t have to live the rest of your days being stuck in 12-step programs. There is so much empowerment to be discovered in your healing and spiritual journeys, but you have to be willing to continue to face discomfort and uncertainty while building deeper trust in yourself. Life is full of choices and learning to choose what is really best for you at any moment can be the most liberating experience you will ever have.


My story is a testament to this claim, and I share my experience in hopes to guide others who have found themselves in a similar position.


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Hi Jesse

Thank you so much for writing your experience about leaving AA. It has really helped me in my journey leaving. I have felt or experienced many of the same things you have. It’s really comforting to know that other people have gone on and thrived without the AA program.

Thanks again

Dawna

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