Apparently, There’s More Than One Way to Be a Person in Recovery: AA, Dry January, and the Manyfold Path to Recovery
By Nicole Woodward
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was started nearly a hundred years ago by alcoholics who had stopped drinking and found hope. It is still a huge part of AA ethos to pay that hope forward to suffering alcoholics and addicts.
The only requirement for membership was a desire to stop drinking (and to identify yourself accordingly in meetings). Strict confidentiality requirements buttressed AA members from job termination and community ouster. It also gave its members a personal refuge and spiritual path that wasn’t directly tied to a religious institution.
But the binary nature of self-identification created a sense of alienation and otherness that the recovery community still wrestles with today; not all meeting-goers felt comfortable saying they were either alcoholic or not alcoholic (and many still don’t). It was both over-broad and too limiting.
As a millennial in long-term recovery – and a person whose parents met in AA 40+ years ago – I’ve tethered myself to AA dogma. It was considered best practices for sustainable recovery when I entered recovery and is still considered a massively popular pathway.
In fact, Dr. John Kelly, a substance use disorder expert of the MGH Recovery Research Institute and Harvard Medical School, has an entire body of work on the efficacy of AA and other 12-step recovery models in supporting recovery.
But my field covers so much outside of AA that is worth exploring and considering. So I decided to do some personal research.
Last week, for the first time, I went to a Recovery Dharma meeting (which uses Buddhist practices and principles as guides to recovery from addiction).
How a Non-12-Step Meeting Challenged My Conditioning
The Recovery Dharma meeting exuded calm energy and embraced a phenomenally diverse demographic.
Ahead of the sharing portion of the meeting, the leader said, “You are welcome to identify by first name only or first name and pronouns. Please refrain from sharing if you are currently under the influence, but you are invited to stay and share the space.”
I juxtapose that against an experience I had in Southern California AA years ago, when I brought a good friend to my women’s home group meeting.
I was so excited to bring her into my tribe, where I always felt welcomed and understood. But when she identified as an addict, rather than an alcoholic, someone pulled her aside.
“You have to have a desire to stop drinking to attend this meeting, sweetie. Are you an alcoholic?”
My friend shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “No. I don’t drink. But I did have an addiction to painkillers.”
“This is a closed meeting,” the old-timer informed her. “If you don’t identify as alcoholic, you’ll have to leave.”
That experience is not representative of AA as a whole, but an exercise in exclusion that, unfortunately, happens sometimes. My friend never went back to another 12-step meeting.
Back to Recovery Dharma:
After people spoke, the room quietly made prayer hands over their hearts. They were honoring and expressing gratitude for the sharer’s vulnerability. The energy was wonderful.
AA was, has been, and likely always will be a significant part of my program of recovery. That said, I got more out of that particular Dharma meeting than I’ve gotten out of many AA meetings. I think it was because it explicitly prioritized inclusion.
Dharma felt like a gentle way to honor my recovery – and others’.
Schools, Tools, and Other Additions to the Recovery Zeitgeist
I imagine my experience was a microcosm of a much wider-scale paradigm shift – particularly in the newest generation of recovering people.
All of these are now parts of mainstream conversation around recovery:
Zero-proof bars and spirits
(If you’re looking for more detailed information on any of these – or other – paths to recovery, we highly recommend giving Unity Recovery a look. They have fantastic resources.)
Why Dry January Made That List
If addiction isn’t something that routinely affects your life, Dry January might be the thing you recognized first on the enumerated list above.
Dry January, a month-long abstinence campaign, has become a widely-recognized cultural phenomenon. While participants routinely report benefits, the aftermath of February 1st varies.
Some resume regular drinking patterns. Some are surprised by Dry January’s difficulty and decide to give their relationship to alcohol a closer look. Others confront the possibility of a substance use disorder. Of those in the substance use disorder group, most will not end up going to rehab or find themselves an unlucky subject of Intervention.
Instead, their paths will wind in a million different ways depending on a million different things: life experiences, genetics, support, culture, environment, relationships, self-awareness, and preconceived notions about addiction, to name a few.
Oh, the Paths You Can Try
If structured recovery isn’t your jam, there are other options*:
If you’re a person who loves to socialize over an artfully crafted cocktail, but don’t drink alcohol anymore, no problem – there are restaurants for that. Latitude 44 in Rochester, Minnesota, for example, boasts a robust, internationally-curated selection of non-alcoholic beverages.
There are bars for that, too. Zero-Proof establishments like Austin, Texas’ Sans Bar serve exclusively non-alcoholic drinks.
There are also books for that. Julia Bainbridge’s oeuvre includes a book called Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason.
If you’re someone who likes to move and grow at your own pace, without external influences, there’s an organic path for that. It’s called natural recovery.
If you’re a person who opts to drink less or not at all simply as a lifestyle choice, there’s a cohort for that. It’s called being sober curious.
If you’re a person who uses drugs and wants to continue using, but in a safer or lesser way, there’s a school of thought for that. It’s called harm reduction.
*Disclaimer: this is far from a comprehensive list.
Harm Reduction: Making Compassion Concrete
Harm reduction is about as far down the continuum as you can get from 12-step recovery, and it’s worth explaining.
It frames some hard truths in pretty gentle ways, like this:
Drug use in all forms – legal or illegal – has no bearing on the user’s innate worth.
Some forms of drug use are inherently safer than others.
A disproportionate number of users are impoverished, non-white, resource-insecure, and isolated, leaving them particularly vulnerable to drug-related harm.
By swapping a punitive, moral-failing approach for an empowering one that makes their lives safer, we give People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) the dignity to be their own primary agents of change.
Here is a hypothetical scenario that really made the concept click for me:
PWUD 1 is addicted to heroin and buys street heroin from a known dealer. PWUD uses the heroin – which is cut with a lethal dose of Fentanyl – overdoses, and dies.
PWUD 2 is addicted to heroin and buys street heroin from a known dealer. PWUD goes to a safe consumption site and uses a Fentanyl test strip before using the heroin. The strip turns positive. The user discusses this result with a harm reduction professional before using. They do not overdose and die.
PWUD 2 may never be fully abstinent from heroin – but, unlike PWUD 1, they will live to have the chance. They’ll also have a safe place to go staffed by people who don’t judge them.
De-stigmatization is not a force we should underestimate.
Recovery Looks Different for Everyone, and That’s Okay
It took me a long time to understand what that meant, and longer to feel its truth deep in my bones.
Whether someone goes to 7 AA meetings in as many days or frequents a safe consumption site for clean needles and Narcan, recovery is what they make it.
It seems to me that, more than what kind of membership we claim or label we hold fast to, the most important things might be 1) whether we’ve found ways to lessen our addiction-related suffering, and 2) whether we’ve made enough room in our hearts to help people brave enough to join us.
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Marketing and Communications Manager
Nicole is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Faces and Voices of Recovery. She has a BA in psychology and a JD (law degree). She is in long-term recovery from multiple substance use disorders. She joins the team with ten years of professional experience in the recovery field and specializes in content strategy, copywriting and editing, and advocacy work.
Outside of work, Nicole is usually hanging out with her young kids, husband, and dog. She is drawn to water and loves creatures big and small. After living in Maryland, South Carolina, Florida, and California, she is now in Richmond, VA. She loves words and is always looking for ways to use language as as a force for destigmatization.