Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

What Are We “Allowed” to Do in Recovery Groups?

A friend of mine I met years ago through the ether admitted she was dealing with some ambivalence about AA. She said:

It seems like you’re not allowed to just “take a break” from AA if you can’t figure out what its function is in your life. I owe every single thing I have to the steps and AA. I would have no good things if recovery hadn’t been at the core and the forefront of my life. And I know this, and that’s what I struggle with. How does recovery change for us? Where should it go?

Since starting this blog I’ve encountered this question a bunch of times in different ways. Another reader talked about the question of how to find new ways of growing after spending a long time in recovery:

to me it is strange how addiction science and medical science in general knows all about the phenomenon of tolerance—wherein treatments (or dosages) lose effectiveness over time. yet when it comes to the exploding population of addicts with long-term sobriety, there is often little effort to reach beyond the obvious—go to more meetings, work the steps harder—for possible new paths to growth or survival. i have seen old timers drink, briefly, just to recapture that hope they had as newcomers.

I’m tempted here to mention how much “time” these people have, whether or not they’ve “gone out and come back” or whether they’ve had a huge amount of continuous sobriety—some of those seemingly indelible marks, like brands burned into us, that in 12-step groups for addictions people often use to track others’ credibility.

(Are you wondering these things? Would it change your view of what these people said if you knew how much “time” they have, or whether they’ve “gone out” at some point?)

My Unofficial Home Group

I go to a meeting at a university that isn’t an official meeting. It isn’t in the meeting list. We don’t take up a collection, we don’t contribute to the local, regional or world-services offices, we don’t have a group representative and don’t participate in the running of the local office. But there’s “real” recovery going on at this meeting, and I consider it one of my home groups.

“I love this meeting,” people say, and they bring other people to it the next week.

More and more people are hearing about this meeting (this is what happens with healthy meetings where there’s recovery that’s alive) and we’re growing out of the little tiny space. We might have to hold a group conscience to figure out what to do about it.

Are we “allowed” to go to this group? Are we “allowed” to think of it as a home group?

Are we “allowed” to have more than one home group?

The principles say no, but I do anyway; are we “wrong”? Are we hurting the fellowship?

(Am I being a “taker”?)

I know a number of people who go out and come back, go out and come back. Is it a possibility that some people might be able to abstain for a long time, while other people will wind up going out and coming back?

Are we “allowed” to keep going out, coming back, going out, coming back?

Are we “allowed” to take breaks away from meetings?

When have you felt censored or judged in meetings? How do you respond to that?


  1. They are but guidelines. AA is a fellowship that helps us keep eachother accountable. It is not the end all. It is a spirtual program that supports us so we can live sobriety. We still have relationships, work, life to live. Being an AA member does not mean you are enlightened or spiritual or wise. Some are, some arent same as when we go to church. So I take what I can and leave the rest. Thx for this blog

  2. I struggle with many of these questions as well. I don’t know…lately, I keep feeling like I would like to take a bit of a break from AA and devote my time to other types of fellowship. I also wonder whether there is an opportunity for growth over the longer term. I don’t have a sponsor at the moment and right now that feels like the right thing for me. I resist the dichotomy between what we are and what our higher power is – are we really simply empty shells with no good sense?

    Thanks for writing this!

  3. Just got off the phone with an Ironman triathlete who runs a recovery treatment center that takes a “holistic” view of recovery. He asks his clients to work out and pay attention to the rest of their lives, not just go to meetings. Of course, fellowships’ meetings are different in different parts of the country, and this guy’s experience was that in 12-step meetings he was asked just to talk about what/how/when he used/drank. Which is not my experience (at least, not in the fellowship I go to). But increasingly, I’m looking for balance in my life. I’m looking to let go of obsessions.

  4. I am looking at the Traditions. The long form. Thrid sentence down in 3. *Nor ought A.A. membership ever depend on money or conformity.* Lots of people will tell you that their brand of A.A. is “the way.” But there are no hard and fast rules. There are no rules. “Love and tolerance is our code.”
    It’s not technically written in there but the idea of still going to meetings with decades of sobriety is not only about the person with long term sobriety and what they get out of it but about what they can give. Sometimes just by being there. Oh, look. It really does work.
    One of my sponsors, sober over 30 years at the time, told me of a woman in New York who came to meetings all the time, had been the first or among the first (I can’t remember) to get sober in New York and she never put together any continuous sobriety. I think if we are really honest with ourselves and look into A.A. around the world we KNOW that just going to meetings does not keep one sober. People got and stayed sober with nary a meeting. It is the steps that keep us sober. And what they mean as we change with the years changes too. “What got you sober won’t keep you sober.” Because we are not the same people once we get sober.
    I’m organizing this badly but I hope the spirit comes through. Even Bill Wilson said we don’t have all the answers. We have one. It works for me. I hope it works for you. That’s why we share “what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.” Cause now I’m alive to make mistakes, do stupid stuff, fingerpaint, sing in the shower, you get the picture.

  5. There’s a lot that the traditions don’t cover, nor should they. Nowhere (that I know of) do the traditions say I can’t have more than one home group, more than one sponsor (or any sponsor at all), etc. Nowhere does it say that I can, or can’t, take a break, or relapse repeatedly and come back. The third tradition says that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. I don’t even have to be an alcoholic to be a full-blown member! Furthermore, there’s no problem (that I know of) with a meeting just deciding to be a meeting rather than becoming a group. Really, the requirements of membership in AA are much less stringent than we sometimes think.

    As for time — some of the craziest loons in the rooms are people with a ton of sobriety. I say this as an old-timer; I celebrated 30+ years in August. I was bat-shit crazy for a number of years in there where I put a relationship above my recovery. Certainly if someone isn’t able to stay sober, I may not want to follow in their footsteps, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say to me. And with all my years, sometimes the best I’m able to offer is as a cautionary tale.

    And as for taking a break: that’s up to each individual member. I know people who haven’t been to meetings in years and are doing perfectly fine. And there are others, like me, who need to stay close to the rooms.

    “Take what you want and leave the rest.”

  6. AA Most imortant Tradition covers this completely and unanbiguosly: “Each group is autonomous, except in matters that affect other groups or AA as a whole.”
    That means that a group can do anything it wants: it doesn’t have to register, it doesn’t have to announce its existence, and it doesn’t have to use AA literature.

    It just needs to have no outside affiliations (as in autonomous).

    Most people are afraid of so much freedom, that they start making up restrictiosns; but there are none.

  7. Over the past 4 1/2 years of sobriety and attending AA, I have become somewhat shocked at how little curiosity there is among members to reach either further and deeper into AA literature and history or outside of AA to explore the wealth of material that relates to physical addiction and emotional sobriety. (I do recognize, however, that I might be defining “curiosity” too narrowly and that recovering alcoholics might be curious in other ways than reading and studying.)

    Be that as it may, about 10 of us from various AA home groups decided to form a monthly get-together to share material and ideas that one would not normally share at typical AA meetings. We all strongly felt that we were not being fully nourished by the AA fellowship alone. Bill W. himself has acknowledged that AA is “spiritual kindergarten” implying that further discovery is necessary in other contexts than strictly attending AA meetings.

    As some on this post have noted, more is needed and this website is one of many ways of providing this.

    I just wanted to share with you some of the things our group gets together to discuss. Not everything is addiction specific but everything is seen through the prism of the 12 Steps. We call ourselves “Widening the Lens” which is a title we stole from Gabor Mate’s series of four talks which my wife, Dianne, and I attended in Toronto on May 9, 2011.

    “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” Gabor Mate, and various Mate on-line videos.
    “The Brain That Changes Itself,” Norman Doidge’s spectacular book about brain plasticity. Also his CBC feature on various brain disorders and how the mind can change:
    Charlie Rose, Brain Series, Episode 7 on addiction.
    “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purposes,” Eckhart Tolle
    “Lucky Man: A Memoir,” Michael J. Fox. His struggle with alcoholism and Parkinson’s disease.
    And Hazelden After-Care Director, Fred Holmquist’s very fine lecture on “Living in the Solution and Living in the Problem,”

    So these are some of the things that keep the program of recovery fresh and exciting for us. Hope some of you will also find renewal in them. –John M.

  8. I have been ‘taking a break’ from AA. I was screwed over by a few members and I know I need to be more careful with who I trust but how do you know? I am coming up on 8 years of sobriety and know that I need meetings but so angry listening to people who say they have so much sobriety and yet their lives are so messed up. They are allowed to talk on and on well beyond their time and to talk about stupid stuff that they should be saving for their sponsors. I have been blasted for saying I was having a hard time with things in my life ( the person compared my problems with burned children and said mine weren’t as bad).
    Even though people talked to me after and said the guy was an arse I was still hurt and felt dumb. I am tired of the religious connotations in the meetings. It steers people away. in Maine we say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of meetings instead of the Serenity Prayer. People talk about Christianity often. I know I need to go back but dont know how.

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