Dealing With Toxic People in Recovery: 7 Survival Tips
When I first walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 10 years ago, I felt relief. Sure, I was utterly defeated, but when I listened to the stories told at my first meeting, I knew I was in the right recovery environment. Twenty people shared the depths that they’d sunk into their addiction. And their stories were my stories. It was like they were inside my brain. The experience was overall painful, but it was also affirming enough to start my recovery journey.
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Lessons in Early Recovery
While my first AA meeting was painful, it hit a nerve. Members’ brutal honesty gave me the clarity I needed to see the destructive role alcohol was playing in my life. Seeing that they had overcome the darkness of addiction was enough to keep me coming back. And thank God I did, because had I not kept going to meetings, I don’t think I’d been able to handle sobriety.
The recovery environment early AA experience felt foreign to me. More than a few people came up to me at the end of the meeting, gave me their number, and asked to meet for coffee. At that point in my addiction, my friends and family wanted nothing to do with me. All my relationships were shaky, so why did AA’ers want to help me? They didn’t know me. But being around other sober people felt like the right idea. And I think it was — at least initially.
Meeting for coffee or lunch, before or after a meeting, gave me insight into what a sober life could look like. I observed these folks laughing and enjoying themselves — their camaraderie was appealing. Even though I felt like death — and my depression was debilitating — they gave me hope that life could be more than drinking. I began to see regular places, like a coffee shop or a restaurant, as being a recovery environment conducive to sobriety.
Before I knew it, I was dragging my exhausted body to meetings once or twice a day ad often meeting up with people in AA outside of the meetings. After about a month, I started to feel better. A newfound sense of hope motivated me to stay sober and explore what AA really had to offer.
I did all the things they suggested:
- I went to 90 meetings in 90 days.
- I got a sponsor.
- I began working on the steps.
- I got service positions at three different meetings.
- I socialized with sober people every single day.
- I text or called other sober people.
- I began journaling and writing a gratitude list each day.
- I prayed. I asked to be relieved of my obsession to drink and for my character defects to be removed.
Looking back, I can see that those things helped me to stay sober, but I was also sometimes put in precarious situations. When I was 32, I got sober. I never once considered that I was vulnerable. Even though I had worked for over 15 years and held down various jobs, I didn’t realize how emotionally stunted I was.
Alcohol had prevented me from emotionally maturing, having healthy relationships, and knowing what boundaries were and why they were important. So, while I had gotten sober, I still had a lot of growing to do.
Add emotional immaturity to AA and you often have a recipe for disaster. Perhaps the greatest lesson in my recovery was gaining the ability to discern. Some folks already learned to flex that muscle, but for me (and many others) I was never taught how to be discerning.
I blindly trusted and accepted what others told me. After all, they appeared to know about the subject more than I did. I didn’t expect for a minute that there were toxic people in AA. A lack of good judgment landed me in trouble. Some things I didn’t understand included:
- I didn’t know the difference between the fellowship and the program. I was unable to navigate between what someone in AA told me and how that differed from the actual program of AA. For example:
- I relied too heavily on service positions. I thought taking several service positions was a good thing. But I ended up doing more than one role at every meeting, and others came to rely upon me showing up on time. They would show up late, and I’d end up sorting out coffee, putting out the literature, and setting up and clearing the room at the end of the meeting. I stopped prioritizing myself and my recovery.
- I couldn’t discern members’ motives: In short, I wasn’t able to figure out if someone meant well. Not all the people you meet necessarily put your sobriety first. Some folks want to control new members, massage their ego, or take advantage of your vulnerability.
- I assumed I was always safe. At first, I trusted that meetings and members of AA were always safe. That is not true. You are surrounded by people with a range of backgrounds, personalities, and mental health disorders. You cannot assume safety or trust. For example, I often got rides home with people I later found out had no insurance. I allowed men into my home. I assumed they only wanted to be friends. (But I was wrong).
- The sponsor God complex. Some sponsors in AA expand helpfulness and guidance into a position of authority. They do this in numerous ways:
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I have experienced first-hand how these practices have harmed, and even killed, members of AA. I had a friend who came from a long line of AA’ers that believed antidepressant medications were unnecessary. In essence, depression was seen and treated as a character defect.
My friend ended up taking her own life. I’ve also been told, at two weeks sober, by an old-timer that antidepressants prevent you from the spiritual experience of AA. The member also shared he would not sponsor anyone on psychiatric medication.
Over the years, I’ve been screamed at by my sponsor (not in any way constructively). Instead of support, they soon began to be more controlling and oppressive. They seemed to enjoy their position of power over me. AA quickly changed from a recovery environment to a stressful and sometimes triggering environment.
I wish I could tell you that my experiences were unique, but that sadly isn’t the case. I’ve met toxic people and I’ve heard unnerving stories about situations in the rooms of AA for over 10 years.800-483-2193(Who Answers?)
7 Survival Tips for Dealing with Toxic People in Recovery
Toxic people in recovery are not only harmful; they can prevent you from succeeding in your recovery. While they may mean well or think they’re practicing the program, it doesn’t mean they aren’t toxic.
- Learn how to discern. Be wary of people’s intentions, the guidance they give, any requests to do things outside of the program, and how you approach recovery. Practice the program how it is intended to be practiced.
- Don’t assume people have your best interest at heart. Practice caution and discernment when interacting with other AA members. If it’s helpful, you may want to run any suggestions or advice by people you respect before making any changes or decisions.
- Ensure trust is earned and practice safety. Do not assume that the rooms are safe. Be careful about how much personal information you share in meetings. Try to stick to talking in general terms about your feelings. Save your most vulnerable topics for your therapist or sponsor. Remember, though, unless your sponsor is a therapist, they are not qualified to advise you on anything other than the steps.
- Do not let people in recovery be the authority over your recovery. The greatest advice I was given about my recovery is this: “There is no external authority.” In other words, no one can tell you what to do. You also do not need anyone’s approval, regardless of what some members may say.
- Get a therapist. My recovery has largely succeeded because I’ve had the guidance of a trauma therapist. I wish I hadn’t waited 5 years because therapy has been the most transformative tool in my recovery. It was in therapy that I learned boundaries, self-acceptance, compassion, autonomy, and how to make decisions that were right for me.
- Remember, you’re in charge of your recovery experience and your recovery goals. Maybe abstinence isn’t for you. Maybe you’re in medication-assisted treatment. Perhaps, you’re more aligned with the principles of harm reduction. Whatever you choose, make sure it is your decision and no one else’s. Only you can decide what is right for you.
- Take all advice with a pinch of salt. As I mentioned, while people may mean well and maybe they’re sharing what’s worked for them, don’t assume it’ll work for you. I used to think that because someone was sober, or because they were my sponsor, it made them an expert. They are only an expert in their own life, as you are in yours.
Although the recovery environment of AA is by no means perfect, it’s a lot better than a room of people continuing in their active addiction. Also, remember that misery loves company. And some people — sober or not — tend to stay in their misery. They will continue to invite you to share their misery if you are not diligent.
If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-483-2193(Who Answers?) today to speak with a treatment specialist.