Follow the rules, or change your thinking?

This morning, on our way home from a meeting, my husband and I were talking about a woman that we know in the program.  She has been sober for a long time, over 30 years, I think, so she is obviously doing something right.  But to hear her in meetings, you would think she was a newcomer.  A very angry, contrary, newcomer.  Whenever she shares, her words are full of anger, and she almost always points out just how different she is from all of the rest of us.  If someone shares about things they used to lie about in the past, she has to comment that she’s always been honest.  If someone mentions that they have found peace and serenity in sobriety, she has to comment that she finds sobriety as shitty as any other way of life.  But she stays sober.  I have been told, over and over again, to look for the similarities, not the differences when I am in the rooms.  And that has really served me well.  I feel at home with other alcoholics, because I think that, even though our stories may be different, deep down we are all the same.  We’re addicts.  We are all reaching for the same things:  sobriety, happiness, a new way to live.

As our conversation went on, my husband said something that really made me think.  He said that some people in the program need to be told what to do to stay sober, and some people need to be told how to think to stay sober.  When I really thought about that, I found it to be true.  When I have heard AA members tell their stories, there are some that say that their sponsor gave them very specific instructions on what to do and when to do it.  As long as they followed those instructions, they stayed sober.  It was essentially a behavioral thing.  They needed someone to make their decisions for them and when they did, they had a favorable outcome.  I think that the angry woman we were talking about fits into this category.  She did what she was told and she has stayed sober….for a really long time.


On the other hand, I have heard other members say that even when they “thoroughly followed” the path that their sponsors and other oldtimers laid down for them, they still couldn’t get sober until they learned to think differently.  They had to have a heart change in the way that they thought about themselves, their lives, and the world around them.  Until that happened, even following all of the instructions, they couldn’t stay sober.  I definitely think that I am a part of this group.  Being told what to do really didn’t do much for me.  My first sponsor (who, incidentally, was a lot like my mother. Ugh.) gave me a lot of instruction – call everyday, go to a meeting everyday, avoid triggers, read the big book, talk to other women in the program, be honest, work the steps, the list goes on.  Those are all really good things to do, and when I get to the point where I have sponsees myself, I will ask them to do the same.  But just doing all of those things didn’t keep me sober.  I had to be trained to think differently.  I had to learn to shut down the thoughts in my head that I was so used to listening to.  The ones that told me I was a horrible person, that I would never be well, that I was destined to die drunk.  Then I had to learn to replace them with the truth – I am not a horrible person, I can be well, and I don’t have to keep drinking.  Really telling myself the truth, thinking differently, is what is keeping me sober today.  And both my current sponsor and my husband played significant parts in helping me change the way I thought.


So, which way is right?  Neither, and both, I guess.  I can’t imagine maintaining sobriety without having a real heart change (maybe that’s my sprirtual awakening?).  But I have seen sobriety work for people that have just followed the rules too.  Whatever works for us is the right thing to seek out, and when we find it, we can have sobriety, happiness and a new way to live.

2 thoughts on “Follow the rules, or change your thinking?

  1. I have someone close to me who has stayed sober for 17 years without any outside help (AA, therapy, books, etc.). She simply stopped drinking and I’m grateful she did. It never amazed me until I got sober myself. Like you said, whatever works!

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