In a couple of hours myself and my colleagues, Michelle Dunbar and Steven Slate will be performing a Facebook Live event on our Freedom Model page. We have these live shows every 2 weeks and we answer questions from our audience. (You can view all our FB Live Broadcasts on YouTube as well) As experts in the addiction-help world, we get questions that hit all over the map on addiction and recovery topics. But two questions get asked more than any others:

  1. Is moderation for “alcoholics” and “drug addicts” possible?
  2. When someone finally escapes the 12 step and/or recovery lifestyle, and becomes free, they sometimes feel a sense of loss and loneliness in the void left behind. How does someone break free and truly move on from 12 step membership without a sense of loss and loneliness?

Both are really great questions. We have addressed the moderation issue during several of our broadcasts in some detail already, so tonight (1/29/20) we will answer the second question about moving on from a 12 step meeting structure and what this change in life trajectory can look like.

If you are reading this you have probably left a 12 step group already or you are deciding to make the split and try your hand at abstinence or moderation on your own terms. Either way – bravo! With that said, while moving on is an exciting and liberating time and should be celebrated, for some, leaving their 12 step comrades behind can bring a feeling of uncertainty and some fear as well. They aren’t sure what a future looks like without the confining blanket of recovery being central to their lives. So how do you make this transition to a free existence without developing a feeling of loss or loneliness?

It’s About Your Self-Image

So much of how we behave is tied to our self-image – that is, who we think we are. As a person who also got caught in the 12 step recovery trap for many years, I had many ideas about “who” I was at the different stages of my evolution out of the cult. I saw myself in very distinct identities, some of which kept me trapped over the course of that time period. My personal evolution out of that trap was long and at times, quite painful. Most of this was because I did not have the benefit of what Steven, Michelle, and I developed – The Freedom Model. For those ready to leave the trap of recovery, their path can be much simpler, painless and extremely efficient because we codified in The Freedom Model exactly how to leave these self images of being weak, sick and bad behind you for good. Here is a brief list of my personal evolution out of the trap. You might be able to identify with one or more of them. I initially saw myself as:

  1. An addict and alcoholic.
  2. Then I evolved my self-image into a recovering addict/alcoholic after I stopped drinking and drugging and was attending AA and NA meetings.
  3. Then I further developed my identity as a recovered addict/alcoholic after some time had passed since my last episode with drugs and alcohol, and I began to realize I could choose not to “crave”.
  4. Further down the road of self change I developed my career as a human behavioral researcher who was going to “change AA to make it a better model.” This mission to be a fix-AA crusader became a big part of my self-image.
  5. As the years passed I realized through much effort, pain and much needed humility that there wasn’t a way to fix a cult like AA and/or NA, nor did this mission need to be mine. This was a crucial point in my ever-developing self-image because my desire to be free from the past versions of myself was gaining steam. And so…
  6. I finally came to the realization that I could let all of that go and be free from addiction, recovery and all that goes with both of these self-limiting constructs that once made up my self-image. I now saw myself as a fully empowered, free thinking chooser in life, and I let go of the entire powerlessness/disease narrative. I became free to move on. My entire self-image was transformed by my focus on the future, not what I did or who I saw myself as in the past.

Before I go on, it is vital that you understand that my path was a long, difficult trek out of the cult of 12 steps, but your path does not have to be so long and convoluted. For example, your path can skip right from person 1 to person 6 because we did all the heavy lifting for you when we wrote The Freedom Model for Addictions. All the information you need to remove the damaging information that might be infecting your current self-image is already written down for you. Navigating out of a powerlessness narrative can be stress free if you understand how to do it, and that path is laid out clearly in the book.

Now, with all that said, I wanted to present my path in the 6 point statement above to provide the reader examples of the various stages people might find themselves in when they make the decision to become free. I did this so at any stage in the spectrum you know that you can skip right to becoming a free person, and you do not have to crawl slowly and painfully out of the 12 step cult as I did.

It was that last identity (#6) where I made a clean break and no longer identified myself by my past problems. This new identity as a free thinking, empowered human was a personal revolution. I didn’t need meetings or recovery friends; I didn’t need therapy; I gave myself permission to move on from all the drama, abuse, trauma and neglect of my past. I cut the rope to my past, and my mental gaze shifted forward. I was done looking backward.

It’s important to realize that for some people this shift does come with a price, and that price can initially seem daunting. If you decide to fully break ties with a cult, there can be fear of loneliness, boredom, being judged, and facing life’s inevitable difficulties without the support system you’ve become accustomed to having, even if it was subpar. This is why cults are so initially alluring – they provide an illusion of protection from having to move on in life. They can be the ultimate distraction from life’s difficulties and pain. But like any illusion, eventually the glitter of its promises fades to a stark reality. All the nasty little challenges of life rear their ugly heads within AA no differently than they would outside the cult; only while you’re in the cult there are 100 eyes or more on you, judging your every move. When this reality sets in, the 12 step member usually begins the natural process of leaving AA or NA for good. And ultimately that is the point made in the question posed at the beginning of this article – how does one move on after they’ve cut ties with the powerlessness narrative and group think in the 12 step cult?

When I made the switch to a free person, unencumbered by any recovery ideas or self images, I quickly realized I had a massive amount of time and other personal resources at my disposal. With no recovery activities, recovery friends, or recovery obligations to hold me down, I was totally free to open myself to new possibilities, and frankly that time period was a bit unsettling. This was an enormous change for me, as my past was tied to “being an addict/alcoholic” and then “being a person in recovery” in some form or another for most of my life. I’d been immersed in treatment or recovery ideals since I was a young boy. Up to that point in my life (my mid thirties) I’d never known a life without these defining constraints, and yet there I was, free to move forward. It’s that moment where you become acutely aware of your complete autonomy.

A New Frontier

With no recovery ties left in my life and my AA “friends” gone, my time opened up and I was staring out into the unknown. Luckily, without realizing it, I’d already begun to develop myself during the previous years, and I just needed to recognize this trend. My split from AA and its cultish routines had occurred somewhat naturally as my research into how people solve their addictions shifted my self-image. It opened my eyes to the brainwashing I’d received in treatment and AA all those years. As my distaste for the cult grew I pushed myself to experience new activities which promoted self-growth instead of personal stagnation. Self-growth takes work, but I quickly learned with a little effort it was both energizing and exciting. With more effort expended my fears subsided, and my life unfolded in front of me like a blank canvas ready to be painted.

I recognized that drinking and drugging weren’t the incredibly wonderful, alluring experiences they are made out to be in AA, and that I thought they were. I accepted the possibility that there might be many other things that could potentially make me happier than a buzz or a drunken night offered. This little insight was huge to me. I’d put alcohol and drugs on a very high pedestal that washed out any other possibilities for happiness for many years. Once I opened my mind to the possibility that I could find other things that might make me happier, I began chasing these options. I took up drumming, went back to college, began hunting again, and took up boxing. All of these activities broadened my world and brought me in contact with people I probably would never have met had I not made conscious effort to diversify my life. My colleague and co-author Steven Slate puts it this way; “the opposite of addiction (the preoccupation with one option) is diversification.”

How right he is. In The Freedom Model we discuss the science behind what substances actually can do for us, and the list is actually quite small. Yet our society and entire culture builds them up with magical powers to soothe us and heal our ills, and we never take the time to challenge those perceived benefits. If we don’t see drugs for what they actually do, we will always find it difficult to let go of them. Remember, people always move in the direction of what they perceive will provide them the greatest happiness at the time they are making a decision. If substances are imbued with super powers, not much else will have room to compete. And without a competing option, diversifying our life never really gains traction. In essence we remain tied to one, very limiting option.

If you find yourself at that place, stuck seeing only one limited option for happiness, and it doesn’t seem to be making you happy anymore, it’s time to open your mind. Read The Freedom Model. There you will learn the truth and the science behind happiness driven lifestyle change. All you have to do is allow for the possibility that what you thought about substances may be all wrong — and that you just might be happier making a change. You can finally let yourself move on!

So in summary, what is the answer to the question of how to move on after leaving a 12 step cult? In one word – diversification. But remember, you cannot diversify if you still hang onto the myth that substances are the Alpha and the Omega of options. In order to remove this mythology, read The Freedom Model and gain the knowledge to break free. Then you can move on and live a life of opportunity and happier options.