All the Days at a Time: Why AA Needs Disbelievers Like Me

All the Days at a TimeOne day at a time. I hate that dogma. When I needed to get sober, the idea of thinking about it each day – making a daily commitment not to drink – felt like a form of imprisonment. I wanted to make a permanent lifestyle choice and move on. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t underestimating the gravity of the decision. I tried and failed to quit drinking enough times that I understood how impactful and significant the decision was. I equated it with the decision to get married or have kids. I wanted to make a decision that once done, could not be undone (at least not without major effort and negative consequences).


On the other hand, I understand how important those five words are to millions of people. One day at a time means you don’t have to make a permanent life decision. You just have to decide not to drink today. For some people in early sobriety, the one-day-at-a-time approach can lift a huge burden of foreverness, and put the commitment easily within reach. One day at a time can be a lifesaver.


I have heard from thousands of people, however, who can’t live one day at a time. The idea of attending a meeting daily and renewing their resolve daily feels empty and leaves them vulnerable to making a bad decision any one day that could impact the rest of their lives. For them, like me, the comfort is in the permanence. The mental gymnastics involved in weighing the pros and cons on a daily basis – that is where the terror and insecurity lives. The finality of decisions like bringing children into the world and reshaping our future in an irrevocable way, that brings a sense of peace and direction for the future.


But here’s the key – making the decision privately is not enough. It is not enough when made daily, and it is not enough when made permanently. The one-day-at-a-time folks, they need to attend meetings and stay close to their sponsors in order to find accountability in the daily decision. Likewise, we permanent quitters need accountability, too. The accountability I’ve found is in recovering out loud. A permanent decision announced to everyone we know takes on an air of, “final answer, no take-backs,” doesn’t it?


The divorce rate in America is about 50%. Just like recovering out loud in permanent sobriety, marriage is something we announce to the world and plan to stick with all the way to our graves. If we can, and often do, go back on that commitment, we can change our minds about permanent sobriety, too. I get it. But a component of an alcoholism recovery plan with a 50% success rate is a lot better than the single digit success rates assigned to traditional twelve step recovery methods. You know, the one-day-at-a-time approach. Just like in marriage, the commitment is not enough. Couples need to communicate, have patience, learn and grow through the years, care for each other and adapt to changes. In permanent sobriety, we have to connect with others, wait patiently for our sobriety muscles to grow, learn about brain chemistry and pro-recovery nutrition, give attention to our sleep needs and overall health and fight the stigma associated with alcoholism.


No one has ever said recovery is easy – not through traditional methods, and not with any of the new and innovative approaches being explored in the recovery community. I have a great deal of respect for Alcoholics Anonymous and the millions of lives the organization has saved since the big book was written about 80 years ago. I communicate daily with people who are devout in their twelve step practice, and announce proudly that AA works if you work it. I love that. For those people, many of whom I consider very close friends, I am so glad they have found the solution to their addiction and a life free from the massive struggles of alcohol.


Alcoholics Anonymous has become the Kleenex of alcoholism recovery. Nobody asks for a tissue to blow their nose. We ask for a Kleenex. It’s like that with alcoholism recovery, too. When I was contemplating sobriety, and I had failed to quit on my own several times, the debate in my head was between attending AA meetings and continuing to drink. I knew of no other alternatives for sobriety.


Got a booger? Grab a Kleenex. Got alcoholism? Get to AA. The decision is that linear in our society.


And many AA folks keep the myth alive that the only path to recovery is through Alcoholics Anonymous. I have been told a dozen times that my writing about alternative methods of recovery is going to kill people because AA is the only way. Now, I also know lots of supporters of AA who understand that recovery is not one size fits all, and successful alternatives do exist, but the narrow minded in any crowd are often the loudest, or at least the most impossible to unhear. When someone tells me my beliefs will kill people, that’s not a message I’ll soon forget.


I have also heard horror stories from AA meetings too often to forget them. I currently work with a dozen or so women who could not find freedom in AA because they were repeatedly hit on in meetings. I get it. It is hard to be single and sober. If you can’t go to bars to meet new people, where do you go? But the idea of preying on women in such a vulnerable state is just as repulsive as trying to take home the drunkest woman at the bar. And stories like this, that I’ve heard time and time again, give AA a reputation problem.


I also have dozens of friends who have left AA – not to start drinking again, and not because they don’t believe in the mission or the steps – but because the meetings are just too damned depressing. When all the shares are about how bad it was when in active alcoholism, or how the struggle continues in sobriety, the environment gets toxic. I used to go to lunch with the same three coworkers everyday and bitch about how much we hated our jobs. It might have been true, but it was depressing. I started eating a bologna sandwich at my desk. I’m not a fan of the rainbows and unicorns approach to recovery on social media, but a constantly negative environment can really make your flowers wilt.


Alcoholics Anonymous has a PR problem, and no resources to address it. AA scares people into thinking that sobriety is reconsidered on the daily even though all the long-termers I know don’t think about drinking one day at a time anymore. Many, including lots of twelve steppers, believe AA is the only way at the considerable dismissiveness of innovative recovery warriors who incorporate scientific discoveries in our approaches. AA has a reputation among many woman of being unsafe or uncomfortable. Despite the use of the term “higher power,” many reject AA on a religious basis. And of course, the popular perception of a bunch of sad-sacks sitting on cold folding chairs in damp church basements drinking bad coffee from styrofoam cups and chain-smoking cigarettes while whining to each other persists. That’s the perception that kept me drinking for years past the time I should have gotten sober.


And despite all of these negatives, I want to celebrate the glories of Alcoholics Anonymous. No organization has saved a fraction of the lives saved by the wonderful people of AA over the years. The fact that an organization can stay alive without major funding or a quest for corporate profit is nothing short of amazing in our society today. AA lives on the backs of the people who believe, and it serves those who need it the most. It is truly an amazing story of love and compassion, and AA defines the concept of paying it forward.


And AA works. For some percentage of the population, the twelve steps are a perfect fit. The percentage is low, but the pool of potential participants is massive (over 15 million alcoholics in the U.S.). So some small percent times 15 million times 80 years means Alcoholics Anonymous is nothing short of a national treasure worthy of our praise and admiration.


But as I said above, AA has a PR problem. They need people like me – people for whom AA did not work – to sing their praises far more than they need to poke me in the eye and call me a naive murderer. Stop pretending the steps work if you work them. The steps work if they stir your soul AND you work them. Recovery is not one size fits all. We all know how low the success rate is. Rather than criticize the recovery warriors who are working on a better mousetrap, AA people should be happy for the help in battling the epidemic. If you were trapped on your rooftop after a hurricane, would you really care which organization sent the lifeboat?


I’m going to keep acknowledging how important the ministry of AA has been and continues to be for our society. But I’m also going to continue to point out the parts of AA that don’t work for me, and the parts of AA that leave the organization stigmatized and repulsive to so many. I encourage the believers – the people for whom AA is a lifesaver – to give testimony to the glory and work on the PR problem without cutting down the innovators and mousetrap makers.


I am often asked why I don’t stop my maverick approach and join Alcoholics Anonymous. The answer is simple. I don’t believe in AA. I’m a far better ambassador of AA as an open-minded disbeliever than I would be as an active alcoholic who rejected the twelve steps and gloomy meetings.


You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. That’s why we have square holes and round pegs.


If you are ready to get serious about your sobriety, and Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t a good fit for you – either because the program doesn’t feel right or because of the stigma that clings relentlessly to the organization – I invite you to enroll in SHOUT Sobriety. We offer a different approach to navigating early recovery. It is an approach that saved my life. Maybe it could work for you. For more information, to enroll or to make a donation, please click the button below.

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  • Reply
    AA Anon
    October 11, 2019 at 10:57 am

    I went to AA meetings for 20 years, but haven’t been for the last 5. And no, I still don’t drink. I just have an issue with the little groups that ostracize others. The overly-friendly men are much easier to deal with than the little cliques of women. The meetings that live in the problem, rather than discussing the solutions. The toxic negativity that permeates the rooms in small towns. I liked AA much better in large cities – they have energy and enthusiasm that small meetings kill.
    I agree with you – coming to terms with quitting forever is much simpler for me that revisiting it daily. Yes, I still keep my habit of reading spiritual messages every morning, but I don’t think you need to be alcoholic to know that a good spiritual base helps humans get through the day!
    I think that any method that works should be hailed as a victory and listed as options for all. I’m pretty sure the Big Book mentions that too, but it tends to get overlooked by the overzealous.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      October 11, 2019 at 11:09 am

      My favorite part of your comment is your commitment to your daily spiritual practice. Yes! Spirituality is good for our soul, alcoholic or not. Deep thinking, praying, meditating – these practices help us manage the human condition regardless of addiction. Thanks sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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