06/02/2014 05:14 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

I Loved AA: Here's Why I Left


"Welcome to the mixed bag that is life after AA."

That's the text I received from my friend Chris after I'd sent him one saying that I'd had my first drink in nine years. Chris is a friend I'd met early on in sobriety. We've remained relatively close even after he left the program a few years ago.

His sentiment was well-intentioned and honest, but it bummed me out. I wanted news of primrose and smooth sailing. I wanted to be sure my decision was the right one. Chris's text didn't put any of my misgivings to rest.

My decision to leave AA was conscious and deliberate, probably not best described as a relapse. I had essentially stopped going to meetings a few months earlier and in mid-August of 2013 I had a single beer while visiting my brother and his wife in Chicago. It was delicious--a grapefruit-infused concoction that had been invented in my decade away from drinking.

In my early days, I was a bit of an AA poster-child. I went to a meeting every day for a couple of years, had a sponsor and service commitments, blazed through the steps and was all too eager to reach out to others who needed help.

But over time, I grew aware of an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific undercurrent to the program. It began to lose its appeal.

When I was about six years sober, I remember reading an article in Wired attempting to explain some of the neuroscience behind the "spiritual experience" central to 12-step recovery. It mentioned certain drugs that might induce a change in consciousness that would make alcoholics more amenable to seeking help. For those familiar with the 12 steps, this would be like a Third Step, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him," in pill form.

When I excitedly shared the news with my AA friends, most reacted with disinterest, anger or even open contempt. More than one person even suggested that I was headed for a relapse for entertaining such notions.

I was floored by this kind of dogmatic thinking. It seemed like some people in AA were less interested in alcoholism recovery than preserving the traditions of the program.

Ultimately, the reason I left AA was that I became convinced I didn't need it anymore. When I first got sober, it was a different story. I needed help. I was never a daily drinker, but my life had become an exhausting series of lost weekends followed by increasingly demoralizing hangovers. When I added cocaine and meth into the mix, the hangovers got worse. I wanted to clean up for a bit and get off some of the harder drugs. So I decided to give AA a try -- only intending to stay for a few months.

Most people in AA seemed to have a deeply volatile relationship with alcohol. I related on some level, but not entirely. When I quit, I didn't experience withdrawal and cravings. My main challenge in early sobriety was figuring out what to do with my time. Until that point, I'd gotten wasted virtually every weekend of my adult life.

The fellowship of AA taught me how to socialize and fill my time without booze and drugs. I loved the people I met and the kind of self-discovery they were engaged in. I had been incredibly lonely and the fellowship of AA made me feel connected in a way I'd never experienced before.

So I stayed. For nine years.

Now that I'm gone, I miss the fellowship the most. There's nothing like being able to walk into a room at pretty much any hour of the day and find a group of people you share a common purpose with, and who are generally happy to see you.

After leaving AA, I tried to be as direct as possible with my friends. The first few admissions were terrifying and reminded me of my Ninth Step (making amends). My biggest fear was that I would lose these friendships -- which incidentally was the same fear I had when I got sober. Just as my non-alcoholic friends had supported my decision to quit drinking, my AA friends supported my decision to start drinking again.

Some people did express concern -- mainly that I might be in denial about my drinking. But most seemed to trust my decision. And nearly everyone let me know that they would be there if I needed help. I'm grateful for that.

I guess the big question now is: How's the drinking?

It was all a little strange at first. I took my time easing back into it, testing the waters. It was about a month before I drank enough to get drunk. At first, I felt a little sheepish about the fact that things weren't going horribly awry -- an odd form of survivor's guilt.

Since then I've had a few rough mornings and even taken a couple of breaks from drinking. People in AA often talk about an extreme physiological reaction that makes it impossible for them to stop drinking once they start. But I haven't experienced that. Also, I don't obsess over alcohol when I'm not drinking.

When you're in AA you rarely hear from people who've left. It's a widely held belief in the program that once you're an alcoholic you'll never be able to drink safely again. I'm sure that's true for many and I respect the purpose and power of holding to that idea, but my own experience -- and that of a few fellow moderate-drinking ex-pats I know -- offers evidence to the contrary.

My history in AA still helps me today. I was able to quit smoking, which I don't believe I could have done without a significant period of abstinence. I learned how to have fun without getting fucked up. And in nine years sober, my priorities were reordered. A decade ago, my list of favorite things included whiskey, cigarettes and good jukeboxes. These days I'm a marathon runner and a full-time student. I invest a lot of time, energy and finances in my health and personal growth.

I respect and admire those who choose AA as their path. But I'm happily, for now, on the other side. Life after AA is indeed a mixed bag and I cannot handle it alone -- but I have learned how to find my own kind of fellowship.

John Gordon is an undergraduate student at Portland State University where he's this close to a BS in Psychology. He lives in the lovely North Portland neighborhood of St. Johns with his dog Senator Edward Kennedy.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.