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A man from Minneapolis asked me the other day, “Can a person burn out on too many meetings?”
By “meetings,” he meant the 12-step kind, where addicts and alcoholics regularly congregate to keep at bay the illness that drove them into isolation in the first place. For millions of people, such meetings work — and keep working.
But I’ve heard that question posed by some people whose recovery does not include the 12 steps. “Church got me clean, and I am grateful. It’s just that I’m no longer enamored going every single Sunday morning and Wednesday night. I need a break. I’m tired,” lamented a woman who had her “spiritual awakening” a few years ago when her preacher laid his hands on her at the depths of her despair under the influence of crack cocaine.
I know a man who trains and “runs for recovery” — his own — with 10k races and half-marathons. He’s done scores of races since he committed to stop drinking, stop smoking cigarettes and lose 25 pounds a decade ago. “I’m tired of running,” he wrote me. “Don’t get me wrong; I have no interest in returning to my ‘old’ life. But there’s got to be more to life than running through recovery.”
And then there is my dear friend, a mother of two handsome boys. When she was about 20, she found sobriety in a 12-step meeting, and she has stayed that way for the past 30 years. I deeply admire her and respect her opinions, so I was taken aback when she spit this out the other day: “I’m tired of AA meetings. I’m tired of talking and working the steps. Isn’t there something else to talk about?”
All of these people are alike. They’re not alone, either.
What drives millions of us to stop using is when we realize the substances don’t work anymore. What keeps us free and clear is whatever fills that void — formal 12-step meetings, church, exercise, hobbies, our kids, volunteer work at a nonprofit, a different career or simply a move to another neighborhood.
The key is to stay balanced. Often addicts and alcoholics end up replacing the substances with too much of that good thing, at the expense of other priorities, ambitions or responsibilities, including our families. The day comes when we’re worn-out to the point that we wonder, “Is enough enough?”
It is a tricky question. The substances of our past are a subtle foe, often lying in wait for that moment — sometimes decades later — when complacency gets ambushed and suddenly it’s all about being stoned or drunk and not being able to stop. Of late, I’ve seen many people relapse precisely because they stopped doing whatever it was that worked for them.
I’ve gotten ambivalent lately, too. Not to the point of wanting to get high. Hardly; I love my recovery and owe my life to it. But I’m weary of the repetitive prescription I’m supposed to take every single day to stay sober, including my recovery meeting every Monday night. So on Sunday, I went to church, where I haven’t been for a while. In the light streaming through the stained-glass windows, the minister’s sermon to kick off the Lenten period, the soaring music and the fellowship of my congregants, I found what I needed, a healthy choice, a satisfying alternative.
It reminds me of the story about a man who, in the throes of his alcoholism, suddenly had a “white light” moment as he lay in a hospital. “What was that?” he asked his doctor. “I don’t know, but you’d better hang on to it,” the doctor replied. And the man did, for the next 35 years.
For now, I’m holding on to my Sunday in church.