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Kicking the 12 Step Habit, II

Aug 18, 2007
It is common for people who have completed alcohol rehab, and remained sober for a year or two, to begin to wonder why they are continuing to attend various groups and meetings. It's a good question. While some people may need, or prefer, to continue their participation, others can safely occupy themselves with other activities. The question is, which are you?

The answer is easy, though the change process may not be. Generally, those who can Kick the 12 Step Habit are those who have something other than alcohol to build their lives around. As obvious as that may sound to many of you, it isn't a given.

There are good reasons why 12 Step programs work for a small minority of alcoholics. The primary one is that they insist that you maintain your alcohol focused life. This allows you to stop drinking without upsetting the balance in your life and the lives of those around you. Roles may shift - bartenders become transformed into sponsors, for example, and drinking buddies into AA pals - but you, and alcohol, remain the designated "problem" and you can still escape other problems through your continuing focus on "working your program". Family members and employers may no longer complain about your absences and you, along with the rest of us, are safer on the roads and highways, but little else has changed in your life in any fundamental way.

That brings us back to the question of you giving up your 12 Step affiliation. Is it possible? Is it desirable? Is it smart?

You will, of course, have to make that decision for yourself. The risks of giving up your routine are that you will slip back into your old drinking habits. The problem with any change is that we tend to create vacuums when we fail to replace old habits with better ones. Your 12 Step habit is less destructive than your drinking behaviors and the key to ending your 12 Step dependence is to replace it with even more productive and rewarding activities. If you do that then there is little risk of you relapsing to either drinking or endless recovery.

Successful change is a product of consideration, research, planning, and action. You probably found that moving from a "drinking focused life" to a "talking about drinking focused life" was not as big a change as you expected. But removing the alcohol entirely as your central focus will be a considerably bigger adjustment. This shift will create a major void which you would be well advised to fill gradually as you wean yourself away from the routines which have gotten you through the past months or years. This is not a time for abrupt departures from current habits.

As you begin to move towards other activities you can expect to encounter opposition. Family members who had an investment in your drinking and later in your recovery may resist yet another change - especially one that threatens the status quo that 12 Step recovery generally supports. Your meeting buddies will, if they notice at all, feel threatened by a possibility - that you needn't be recovering forever - they have been comfortable ignoring or rejecting.
You can minimize these reactions by moving gradually. Instead of going to three meetings a week, try substituting a visit to the gym for one. You're easing out, not dropping out, and you are substituting one healthy activity for another. As you become more comfortable with your new involvements so will those around you. This is real change, not merely the substitution of one alcohol based activity for another. Give yourself, and those around you, time to adjust.

Real recovery means extinguishing a set of behaviors and developing a more rewarding life. It's the best insurance you can get against a return to the bad old days. Yes, you will be tempted occasionally, but having a life which has no room for alcohol is the best way to keep it locked out.
About the Author
Dr. Edward Wilson has been developing and providing alternative alcohol counseling including moderation, since 1990. He is co-founder and Clinical Director of Your Empowering Solutions, Inc. located in suburban Los Angeles. You can learn more about Dr. Wilson's innovative work in 12 step alternatives for alcohol problems by visiting his website.
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