Guilt after Leaving Alcoholics Anonymous

I decided to write this post after an email I got through the contact form. It is about guilt after leaving AA and I did respond, but I think this subject could be explored further. I am not a therapist and do not want to get into a situation where I am seen as some type of sponsor. These are just my thoughts….

Here is a section from the email:

I was in AA for 10 long years, I tolerated it,and did not believe I had a choice. I knew there was something odd about the place but I didn’t say anything. Then I said to myself “this is it” I am tired of the same stories and bible thumping bunk they were giving us. I left and immediately found “rational recovery” that was my salvation. But to this DAY, I still feel “guilt” about not being in AA and working the 12 steps. Why is that? Can you RECOMMEND anything that will shake the guilt..

My thoughts on guilt feelings after leaving AA…

I did not actually have a great deal of guilt feelings after leaving AA, which was good for me, but other people are often affected. My decision to leave, was taken at time, when I was seeing a therapist and we were looking at things which were holding me back. I think this helped me validate my reasons for turning my back, on the 12 step solution, which was causing me as many problems as it was solving. I will try and look at reasons the 12 step method can lead to feeling guilt and other negative emotions.

The only real way to succeed at recovery is to really throw yourself into it. No program or therapist will do it for you. The more work you put in, the higher the chance of a good result. If you do this in AA ,this will probably mean really working the steps and going to many meetings. To be accepted in the group requires this, and not many want to not have the endorsement of others. You will be starting a new way of life, with values that may be very different from those that you have formed through experience, from being a child, to growing up. Your opinions will be challenged, you will have to change to fit in. A dramatic change may help people in the short term, but I feel that relying on something like a higher power, long term, can have a detrimental effect. It can stunt your recovery, in the same way that many who have grown up with a strict religious background, will also be emotionally stunted, and reject any other point of view, without investigation. They will attack anyone who has alternative view because they feel their faith is under threat. They will try to make you feel ungrateful  and guilty to help their own self image.

I can see why people do have guilt. AA is a type of religion for many, which really affects how a member will deal with life. It asks you to live life by the 12 steps and allow recovery and the program to be the central thing in your life. This can take over somebody so much, that they start to view people, who are not living life by the steps, as different, in a way that they are not comfortable with.

AA meetings contain lots of readings ,such as Chapter 5 which are repeated over and over again. There are lots of phrases that are key to the beliefs, and the general group view is that the steps are the answer to everything. If you hear the same thing over and over again, most will start to believe it. It will get into your subconscious and intrudes into your daily life. Many AA members, speak in a certain type of way, using the phrases from the meetings continuously. They really believe it is the answer to life, and have complete faith in the program even though most evidence would point out that many do not succeed,in spite of the claims in the Big Book. It is never the fault of the program. If you question it, many will dismiss your views in quite a condescending fashion, and guilt can be a result.

The real problems occur after a while when you have got some sober time and you start to question what the group is saying. You have been guided by a sponsor who would have been a key figure in your life and you would have reinforced the group values. They have entered your subconscious, but now you question them. If you mention this in meetings, they will quite often mock you, and repeat more stock phrases. I was lucky, because I was in contact with people who had left and I was able to see, how much more emotionally mature these people were. They had worked hard in the early days of their recovery, used AA as a place to go and moved on. This is what I did, and I had the endorsement of a therapist. I felt a huge weight had been lifted from my life. I was able to dump the 12 step ideas that were not working for me and so, although I was no longer living in a 12 step fashion, I had no guilt about doing this as my subconscious had rejected AA.

Others stay for much longer, than is good for them. When they do leave, they feel like they have been in a cult and are furious. Certainly, some meetings are pretty cult like, but overall I would not class AA as a cult as many leave quite early on, and are free to do so. The few people that feel they have been in a cult, often tend to attempt to fight back and can become obsessed with bashing AA. It seems that AA still plays a major part in their lives, but they are now angry about it. Their subconscious keeps bringing the subject up, and they can end up reinforcing the cult values, by constantly repeating their views on forums with like minded individuals. I did this for a bit, but realised they were quite negative places full of conflict, and I was simply reinforcing my anger towards elements of AA rather than moving on. I was still under the influence of the 12 step world even though I had rejected it.

This was brought home to me by an incident, when I had a forum on this site, which I closed, because I felt that it was dangerous to have some people looking for a recovery solution mixing with people who simply wanted to argue about AA. This had turned in to a childish game for many, who again look a group to validate their views and end up becoming quite fanatical as a result. I did not want to see vulnerable people get dragged into these types of situations. Other people have the opposite view to me on this! I prefer to move on and show people that it is possible to move on.

Stress, guilt and steps was not what I wanted. I was more interested in emulating people who could manage their lives without all this unwanted negative feeling. I read lots of books on the subject, such as those by Stanton Peele. He validated a lot of the thoughts I was having, by questioning the 12 step world and it was great to see this. It helped me move on with techniques, to do with self esteem and I look forward to his new book which talks about mindfulness.

I have mentioned Mindfulness in other posts and will come back to it a lo,t as the site develops. I have made a category for it on the blog. Practising mindfulness has allowed me to take a step back from myself and look at my emotions and see how they are affecting me. It is not about suppressing feelings, but acknowledging them. After a while, you can form a different perspective on things. I can imagine looking at myself worrying about something from the past. This produces a different reaction for me than doing the worrying. It is much less harmful and I can see the futility of sitting around being engulfed by anger etc and simply do something about the problems, to solve them.

With time, I have become used to quickly taking a pause, to examine issues that are causing stress and as a result I respond in a different way. For instance, In the 12 step world you are told not to be angry. This is stupid, anger is a natural reaction in certain circumstances. It is much better when I feel my emotions boiling up, to take a step back and look at them. I can feel where they are in my body such as in my stomach or subconscious and acknowledge them, then move on. I am not crippled with emotion, and I do not have the constant reminder of certain things from my subconscious. I am able to move on.

AA is like a religion such as the Catholic faith, as it uses fear and confession. These can bring up powerful emotions that help some but crush others. Most people who grow up in a religion do not leave it, despite lots of evidence that many traditions are wrong. Few change religions when they are an adult, but in a sense, that is what you are being asked to do when you join AA. You are also very vulnerable when you do so, as most will not want to go to a 12 step group at the start, and so you may not question, some of the things you are asked to do. By repeating these things you will change your subconscious, in the same way that regular drinking will affect it, in that you develop a compulsion to reward yourself in some way. Changing your subconscious in such a dramatic way may be helpful at first,but things like the belief of powerlessness can hurt you if you relapse further down the line.

I don’t like  aspects of AA, so I left and have moved on. The fellowship was helpful but the spiritual side less so. AA ideas do not bother me any more, but I feel it is important that people do write down that they have left, and moved on, to help those who are still struggling, yet still being told it is the only solution. There are many other methods and you can find alternative points of view from the links section on this site and other places on the web.

Guilt is a powerful negative emotion, especially when it has come about and been reinforced by a group like AA. It can produce bad relapses. If you are feeling like that get some help. If you have moved on, but are still bothered from time to time, then perhaps try looking at ways of re framing problems and look at your reactions to situations to get things in perspective.

I found some of the self help books by people such as Paul Mckenna to be really useful. They have discs which are hypnotic, which can help ,but come with a warning for people suffering from mental issues, so if you have any doubt check with a Doctor. The discs are like a quick way to meditate, and are very relaxing. He talks a lot about solutions to problems and has some very practical advice. I have not gone deep into NLP which is part of his background but have taken on some of their ideas where I have found them helpful. I also found the NLP bunch to be rather self obsessed and it can attract crazy people but some of the ideas are good and are similar to CBT.

The subconscious can be a real problem for people in recovery. Trying to escape intrusive thoughts or issues is one of the reasons we drank. It them appears to amplify problems, when we put the drink down, as we can no longer self medicate and then it can stunt our development by bringing up old ideas from the 12 step world that we would rather discard.

I think developing a suitable response to our emotions is really important if we are to continue, to succeed. Otherwise you are left vulnerable and at the mercy of ideas that have become habitual over time, but in reality may be quite harmful.

I would be good to have a few responses about guilt here as it is an important issue, and you can comment at the bottom of this page. I hope to come back to this subject that has been brought up as the site develops.

I am no real authority on these matters, just somebody who put down the drink a few years ago and then who moved on from the 12 step world after finding it detrimental to himself. I went to AA with the impression that it provided a great solution, but I have seen otherwise and questioned it’s methods. Most people who are dissatisfied, simply walk away and get on with life,but others may need some help and I feel it is important to say that there is the possibility of a great life without an unwanted religion taking over every thought.

Here are some links to other related posts on leaving AA







Commenting area

  1. Rowland Cheatham January 28, 2014 at 11:20 pm · ·

    Guilt for leaving AA I have not felt. Anger at myself for not having listened to the higher part of me that after awhile was screaming for release from AA/NA and left sooner I am dealing with daily. Tolerating things people in “recovery” said to me because I believed I would relapse if I didn’t go to meetings. The steps nor sponsorship never resonated for me and the attempts I made at either were few and far between. The language of the steps, the big book and especially that HORRIBLE 12 and 12 always offended me, as I believe they should offend anyone with a heart and a brain. The way I saw newcomers or “chronic relapsers” spoken to was so so unacceptable. I am stunned even now that I sat and listened to the condescending “rarely have we seen a person fail” blah blah ad nauseum. “There are such unfortunates..they are not at fault. They seem to have been born that way.” Arrogant putdowns listened to day after week after month after year and everyone is so under the ether or the spell or whatever it is that’s captivating them they don’t notice. Every time one speaks they have to repeat “I am an alcoholic…I am an addict” even if they had already said it ten times earlier in the meeting. This is crazy. It is a practice of lunacy to think Bill Wilson had anything of value to offer. How the program caught on the way it did and remains to this day unchanged from the moronic quasi-pseudo religious mania is a testament to the desperation of those seeking help from the outside when at the end of the day it comes from within, I heard very little talk of self-love and probably none of empowerment all those thousands of meetings I attended.

    Breathing, exercise, drumming, writing…simply noticing my surroundings….the trick to staying clean and sober is to have a life that is far too compelling to allow oneself to fall into that trap. Learning how to not lay a trip on myself every other breath is difficult at best for me…but I do not accept that as a permanent condition. Change is not only possible it is PROBABLE when I simply let myself be and focus on my talents and the beautiful things in me, others and the world.

  2. A lot of people feel that they have been in some kind of cult when they leave AA. I felt a bit stupid that I was taken in by them, but was always comparing people in the rooms to those I had met who had left and were living much more fulfilling lives. A lot of people are too scared to leave, especially if they had a big drink problem and others are brought into the program when they are really young ands more likely to believe it.
    I also do the kinds of things you talk about and find that really helps. I do guitar rather than drums.

  3. I am in a post-relapse haze. I didn’t overdrink. But I felt so raw and horrible about myself after doing my Step 5 the other day, I felt the need to get a little altered – I’ve also had accumulated disappointment with other people in the program – in gay AA, there is a lot of social clique stuff and being 13th stepped. I was just so overwhelmed and wanted to leave and not feeling good after my fifth step sent me over the edge.

    Now I’m in a weird head space because I feel very scared about living life away from the security the program provided. Granted, it wasn’t my favorite place to be and I picked it apart a lot in my head. But it was nice to be connected to other people and to the higher power concept. Now I feel all fear and grief because I really won’t be able to stay friends with the indoctrinated people. I think AA is like a cult. That’s why I left – I was suffering from an acute fear of engulfment and not being able to relate to normal people any more. I don’t want to live a life that is so distinct from most people. That scares me. I also don’t think it’s a disease!

    One thing I realized after my relapse is that I really hate being hungover. It is a terrible feeling and made the next day really dysfunctional. I guess my goal for the future is to be mostly sober – whatever that means. I think I just want to be free to make my own choices.

    But I’m so scared that I’ve unplugged from God’s love and protection – that stepping away from AA is like stepping away from God. I can’t believe the power the program had to affect my thinking and feeling this way.

    • HI JJ. I was 13 stepped many years ago. I am making a Doc film exposing AA and the sexually predatory behavior that kills people. You can read many stories on my site especially the thread called I tell my own story there. Im really sorry to hear how you are feeling, but know this ..there are other ways. Have you looked into Smart Recovery, or SOS or Google alternatives to AA. There are other supportive groups that are not so predatory. Maybe you can find a good therapist as well. Hang in there. Listen to your gut, not the steppers!

  4. Well leaving AA is quite difficult, if you have thrown yourself into the program and it does sound like you have. AA gave me a space between the people I used to drink with and adjusting to normal life but I did not find it inspiring or all that healthy. I tend not to hang out with people in recovery that often in person, although I do chat on the net. I think it is important to spend a lot of time with normal people and learn from them. I did not stop working in recovery and found this really helped keep me balanced and in touch with the outside world, as AA can take over.

    I think step 5 can be lethal and is certainly a reason that many in AA go back to drinking which rather defeats the object! It can harm sensitive people.I certainly don’t like hangovers and am glad I have not had one for years. I choose to abstain but others choose moderation. I have just read a good book on recovery which is about self empowerment by Stanton Peele which you may find useful
    he is also interviwed here by Kenneth Andersen who has written about Harm reduction which is a moderation method there are links to his site there.

    There is also Smart recovery which helps many and is not based on the powerless concept. I am not reallly religious but I don’t think you are stepping away from God. I think AA has a strange take on God and seems to want to say it can predict what God will do as it seems to think God will do what an AA member asks in some of the steps. I am sure a member of your local church would be able to offer more guidence on that matter than me and some reassurance that nothing is wrong.

    I think the 13 stepping side can really damage people and there are sites on my links page that talk about this. Monica is making a film about it. I have heard some pretty bad stories about London gay meetings.

    There are a lot of people who choose to recover without AA and if that is what you feel is right then perhaps try it, or look at alternative methods. AA won’t be going away in the near future so you can always go back if you find the independent approach is not for you. I don’t think there is a “correct” way to do recovery. You have to look around a bit and find a method that you feel confortable with. This can mean having a few ups and downs.
    By the way have you looked at the soberistas site they are a really nice, friendly bunch and have a chatroom going the whole time.

    Good luck with everything and I hope you find a good solution. there are some good places for advice like Stanton Peele, or Steven Slate or Amy Lee Coy on the links page. Here is a link to the things I have written about leaving AA

  5. AA member October 8, 2014 at 7:18 pm · ·

    Hi thanks for this site and all the posts..I have spent 27 years on and off in AA and eventually am now on the way out..I agree with just about everything that has been said on here..I am going through a real mental detox from AA and all the accompanied emotions. I felt it was an unhealthy place from my first meeting and have been battling with it for many years, but like many people didn’t know of any other solutions and believed what I was told in AA..for the 7 years I remained sober in there I got involved in really unhealthy relationships and felt like I’d lost myself but didn’t understand at the time..I feel a lot of anger about wasted years and two really unhealthy marriages within the AA community which resulted in serious consequences. .I spent the last 12 years on a relapse pattern in AA going round in circles..I am now 5 months sober and nicotine free and glad to be away from AA although I do feel really despondent at times and have to now rebuild a normal life for myself again at 56 years old..although I do remind myself that I am lucky to be alive and have survived it all..I have had some nice friends in AA that died on relapses, I believe as a result of AA indoctrination. Something really should be done to give the problem of AA more public awareness. .I like what’s been said about mindfulness, I am finding this a great help..

    • Thanks, I’m glad you like the site and hope you come back, quite a few people are dropping by and saying similar things and I think many of us have similar experiences. Good luck in the future.

  6. Christoph April 9, 2015 at 10:50 pm · ·

    I am really happy to read all these comments. I’ve been having a hard time with the guilt of leaving AA after many many years. I used to party some as a teenager, and after taking LSD quite a few times, I had some sort of anxiety-ridden mental breakdown. A shrink directed me to a treatment center, which in turn directede to AA. Even though I was very rebellious growing up, I was very mentally vulnerable at the time, so I accepted what the old timers in AA said, even though I never really considered myself an alcoholic. Like I mentioned above, I stayed in AA for many years. Over time, as I grew, I seemed to get less and less out of it. I sponsored guys and all that. I’ve now not been going to meetings for a couple of years, but only in the last 6 months have been having a beer now and again. My long-time wife recently said she can’t see how I could be an alcoholic, since she’s never seen me drunk, or even drink more than a couple of beers at a time. One of you had mentioned how AA gets into your subconscious after a while – and it did with me. It seems so insidious. Those damn slogans and everything else seem to haunt me, and even though I truly don’t believe I’m an alcoholic, I feel the guilt, and my mind is telling me that maybe I’d be happier if I just went back. But I don’t want to go back. Any feedback anyone could offer would be awesome. Thanks!

  7. I think the AA steps contain a lot of moralising and this can lead to guilt. I found it better to move on from AA, although being in a sober community really helped at the start. Lance Dodes has written some great books on addiction including “The Sober Truth” which is well worth a read about AA and the treatment industry. He also has written good books on recovery solutions and these are mentioned along with others here

    There are also other support groups such as Smart recovery

  8. Thank you for posting this and thank you all who have shared your experiences with leaving aa. I recently left the program after about 6 months of attending meetings and working steps. I like many of you began to develop questions about aa and when I wasn’t finding answers within the meetings, talking to my sponsor and reading the big book I became very bitter toward the program. One thing most 12 steppers don’t like is when you start having questions about the program as it is something that you are supposed to throw yourself at and completely give yourself over to. Personally I have never gotten to a point where I feel as though I need to drink and would absolutely never be able to drink every day however I will admit to making poor choices in the past while I was under the influence. As I began questioning these things I began to wonder to myself whether i was an alcoholic or whether I simply needed to make different choices. I also never drank to avoid how I was feeling for me drinking was always a festive and social activity. When I brought all this to the attention of my sponsor I was immediately met with backlash. Both he and his roommate (also a 12 stepper) told me I belonged in rehab or an sle and essentially told me that the only alternative to meetings was relapse, jail institutions and death. I hated the idea of that grim outlook and felt like I wanted to have at least some control of managing my life. It was this incident that led me to walking out and notice that now that I’m gone that I think about alcohol and drugs a lot less. I am also able to not see myself as such a mistake anymore and realize that I have power over my choices. While I’ll now occasionally have a beer I have not been drunk even once since walking out and I don’t feel at all bad about it :).

  9. Thank you for this topic. I’ve been attending AA almost daily for 27 years . I was very young and vulnerable when I started, just out of the house and I believed everything I was taught and told . I have spent dozens and dozens of hours diligently working the steps and although I have grown emotionally and benefited from cleaning up the past I never got “the miracle”. I never made it to a year sober. I did however stop drinking abusively a long time ago. AA just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because of my ADHD maybe it’s because God wants me to fully use the brain he gave me through programs like Smart recovery. I haven’t drank any alcohol in Close to three months because I just got tired of it. But OMG I struggle every day in fear that out of the blue I’m going to spontaneously drink myself into real trouble. I’ve had many relationships and friendships with people in AA so there is a real void and empty space in my life now Since 12 steppers have rejected me because I seek an alternate solution. And i’ve lost that constant “friendship and support ” I find Smart recovery to be very challenging however I’ve also seeing the evidence that it actually leads to abstinence through effort, learning and putting the four points program into effect in my life . I may never get “over” AA . I need to but it has been such a huge part of my life for so long that it’s quite a hangup for me. And I sincerely miss it it however it never gave me the result I (quite desperately) went there for originally . Sobriety. I may never get “over” AA and I sincerely miss it. It became obvious to me AA and the 12 steps was simply not giving me the not giving me the result I needed and that it would never work for me . So I gave up on it. Is. I’m really glad that there are other programs that do work. AA never gave me the result I went there seeking originally… sobriety. I wonder if I’m going to be left believing what I was told by people in aa that call failed at long-term sobriety because I didn’t do the program correctly. I find the whole subject to be quite painful. Thank you for that part about moving on I’m going to work on that and any other suggestions that would be helpful.

    • Thanks Sefan, it must be very hard to leave after 27 years of attending a group. You could always combine Smart and AA and use AA for the social side if you want. There are other methods such as the Sinclair method which could help if you are still drinking. I went to non 12 step counselling and that helped me get things in perspective about AA and other issues in my life. I think recovery is all about finding a solution that motivated us as an individual. AA will help some but not others. I made use of a combination of approaches until I found something that worked for me.

  10. Hi. Interesting article and comments, thanks. I have recently left AA after 13 years. I have been sober the whole time. I am feeling a bit guilty about it, like a betrayal. The last four years were really difficult for me in AA. I hated the meetings, the cliched sharing, 12 step dogma etc but i was still dependent on it. I needed the fellowship. I started a couple of other 12 step fellowships too, based around money and debt issues, this was good for a while but now i just can’t stand it, i really can’t stand it. I was still going to AA meetings, like once a week, until a month ago. I attended the meetings but didn’t have a sponsor for years. In the money fellowship i joined i got a sponsor and did the 12 steps (yet again!). It was after completing step 12 (in the money fellowship) that i realised i had really had enough. I tried to explain this to my sponsor but she is so indoctrinated in the 12 steps that i just couldn’t communicate with her, she cannot see beyond the 12 steps. I decided to end it with her. I actually felt quite sorry for her, her whole life has been dominated by the 12 steps, attending meetings, service and sponsoring, but no real life outside of fellowships. I now find this quite disturbing. I always maintained friendships outside of AA and fellowships, this was really important for me and healthy choice i made, i now realise. So, it’s not like my whole life was AA but of course i feel a little on edge, like have i made the right decision etc. I do feel confused, angry and liberated – all at the same time! I am angry with AA, that i stuck around for so long in fear of leaving and myself. Is it normal to feel a bit edgy after leaving AA? Thanks

  11. p.s I am based in London, UK

    • Hi Bella, thanks for your comment. This is quite and old post on here and perhaps I should update it as it still seems to be read quite often. I am really glad that you have state sober all this time – well done. I saw many people jump from one 12 step group to another when I was in AA, as they think that the steps are a solution to everything, but I felt it was the fellowship that was important.
      It is an odd feeling to leave, especially as you get to mono quite a bit about people’s lives from the sharing. I made use of the fellowship but there cam a time when I wanted to be independent and stand on my own two feet and face the world. I did have counselling which really helped me as I took notice of it after being in AA.
      I don’t really feel guilt after leaving as there were plenty of people to take my place in AA.
      You may find the book “many roads one journey – moving beyond the 12 steps to be helpful’. It is by Charlotte Davis and talks about moving on from AA. I really must put it in the book section soon.
      I see you are London based like myself, we might have even gone to meetings together! Good luck in the future.
      I should do a podcast about leaving soon and the existing ones are found by the link at the top of the page.

Trackbacks for this post

    Comments are now closed for this article.