In 2012, William White interviewed William Miller of Motivational Interviewing fame, and published most of the conversation in an abridged Q & A format. Miller expounds on a number of topics, one of which examines the influence of AA on recovery outcomes. Miller says in part:

There is a common belief that people who discontinue attending
AA are doomed to relapse, but our research says that isn’t necessarily so.
Some people seem to internalize the 12-Step program and continue to live it
even if they are not attending meetings regularly.

I posted this on my Facebook page with a link to the article, and the response was so vitriolic that I subsequently changed my online strategy altogether. (The entire thread can be found here) This, of course, got my attention. It set a record for comments on one of my posts (nearly 70 comments, but only 7 likes!) I believe in disruptive learning, and anything that was this disruptive to people in recovery must therefore be quite instructive. Upon reflection, I realized that some people internalize the steps and principles and stop going to meetings; some internalize them and still attend meetings; and others have no desire to achieve full internalization in the first place; preferring instead to draw regularly on the meetings.

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it. -The Matrix, 1999

Getting statistics from 12-step communities is notoriously difficult; getting numbers about those who leave is even harder. Those who do return after relapses inevitably blame attrition or complacency; but no one talks to the successful ones.  An ominous slogan in the meetings admonishes attendees: “People who stop coming to meetings don’t get to see what happens to people who stop coming to meetings”. People who move on successfully are often called “recovery thieves” who gain recovery in the meetings without returning what was “freely given”. The idea of “graduating” or “completing” the 12 steps is the subject of wistful humor. Growth is encouraged, it seems, unless it transcends the fellowship. Still, the fact remains that many people decrease meeting attendance or leave the 12-step fellowship while remaining in the recovery community; and this is not always explained or followed by complacency or relapse. As awareness of alternative methods increases, the phenonmenon that William White refers to as “dual citizenship” also increases.

In the end, the argument is settled by Bill Wilson himself, whose writings were more comprehensive than many realize. He seemed to have thought of everything; and this issue was no exception. William White writes:

When he testified before a Senate Subcommittee in 1969, Wilson also
alluded to the number of people who had achieved sobriety in AA,
disengaged from active AA participation, and sustained their recovery
without AA involvement.
“Besides the 285,000 [AA’s active membership in 1969] there are
hundreds of thousands—maybe 200,000, for all we know, 300,000
recovered AA’s on the sidelines who do not get caught up in the active
statistics, people who have remained for the greater part sober, who
are carrying AA attitudes and practices and philosophies into the
community life.” (Wilson, 1969, p. 3)

I still unlock the door of my home group every week, and share recovery with others in that forum as well as others; but when the time comes for me to leave, I will do so with the blessing of the man who started it all.


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