One year, five years, 10-plus years into recovery, it is not unusual to hear of someone relapsing. What happens? There are endless possibilities but a common explanation is, “I quit going to meetings.” So why do people stop going to meetings (whether AA/NA, SMART Recovery, LifeRing or some other form of group support)? And are they destined for relapse as a result?
Here are some of the most common reasons people give up on meetings:
#1: I don’t need them anymore.
Complacency leads many recovering addicts off course. When the program starts working and the recovering addict begins to feel better, they think they got what they needed to get out of meetings. Rather than wanting more of a good thing, they stop working their recovery program.
#2: The people make me uncomfortable.
The varieties of complaints about meetings are endless. They’re boring, the room smells like cigarette smoke, the seats are hard, or the people are weird, self-consumed, or too depressed or too happy. Often, people make a quick judgment, “These people are far worse off than I am. They need to be here, not me.”
Indeed, recovery meetings attract all kinds of people – some who are better off, and some who have experienced unimaginable lows. This is no reason to stop attending. In fact, being around these seemingly dissimilar people creates opportunities to learn gratitude, patience, empathy and tolerance. A common suggestion is, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” If a problem is truly unbearable, try other meetings to see if there is a better fit.
#3: I’m too busy.
People often complain that between meetings, work and family, there’s little time for a “real life.” But this is necessary in the first year of recovery given the chronic, relapsing nature of the disease. Trying to do too much during this stage takes people in recovery away from their primary focus: getting well. When stress inevitably arises, those who have walked away from their support system may begin to see drugs and alcohol as the only way to find relief.
#4: I don’t have transportation.
A lack of transportation or access to conveniently located meetings may be a genuine obstacle for people in remote parts of the country. Others may not have a car or a driver’s license or money for gas, but they have access to public transportation or may be able to reach out to other meeting-goers for carpool opportunities. While transportation issues may make attendance more difficult, those who are committed give their recovery the same amount of time and effort they gave their addiction.
#5: I don’t believe in God.
People who do not subscribe to traditional religious beliefs may be turned off by the spiritual emphasis of 12-Step recovery. While the 12 Steps were adopted from Christian principles, the core concepts provide guidance for how to live a healthy, fulfilling life regardless of one’s religious beliefs. In addition, the Steps encourage a connection with any higher power. This does not have to be God, but could be anything that holds meaning for the recovering addict.
For those who feel uncomfortable with the verbiage of the Steps, the emphasis on spirituality or the occasional prayer that takes place at the end of a meeting, there are science-based, secular alternatives such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing, among others.
#6: I’m too embarrassed.
It can be intimidating to walk into a meeting for the first time. Fears range from not knowing anyone and being judged by others to the possibility of being recognized by someone. It takes courage to admit being an addict and needing help, and though the process may be unfamiliar at first, most people adapt quickly and are relieved to find that the groups are nonjudgmental and respectful of confidentiality.
#7: I don’t want to depend on meetings my whole life.
If meetings help promote long-term recovery, there’s no harm in attending as often as needed, for as long as needed. Many long-time attendees find that even if they don’t learn something new, they have something to offer those just getting started in their recovery or they enjoy the ongoing fellowship. Those who find that the benefits dwindle over time may want to cut down on the number of meetings they attend, change meetings or commit more time to other recovery-related activities.
The general recommendation is to attend 90 meetings in 90 days in early recovery. It’s a good idea to attend at least five meetings a week for the first year of recovery, and more frequently – even two or three a day – during stressful times.
After the first year, recovering addicts benefit from attending as many meetings as they can. As many people say, “You have to go to meetings until you want to go to meetings, then you don’t have to go to meetings anymore.” For some, that means going to one or two meetings per week and filling the rest of their time with outreach to others in recovery (e.g., speaking at meetings or volunteering). For others, it means going every day.
Are people doomed to relapse if they stop attending meetings? Not necessarily.
People’s needs change over time. What worked in year one might not make sense in year 10. Some people in recovery stop attending meetings without relapsing, in some cases because they’ve been going for many years and their needs have changed, or in other cases because they’ve found another outlet that adequately supports their recovery, such as involvement in community service or a religious organization. Those who stop going to meetings early on or without an equally effective support system in place put themselves at risk of relapse.
Changes to a recovery program can be made on an ongoing basis, as the need arises. After years in recovery, some people go back to attending every day. The threat of relapse never disappears entirely, and those who maintain their sobriety do so by staying in touch with their emotions, relapse triggers and changing needs.
As millions of recovering addicts will attest, meetings are an important part of recovery. Twelve-Step recovery may not be right for everyone, but there are many other options that provide recovering addicts with the support they need, particularly in the early stages of recovery. Those who give up too quickly or take their recovery for granted cannot say the program doesn’t work. As they say in AA, “It works if you work it.”
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversee a network of addiction treatment programs throughout the United States. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter.
Support group photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 2 May 2012