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Roger Watts, Ph.D.Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.
A blog about alcohol and other drug addictions and how to obtain lifelong recovery.

Relapse Prevention in Recovery: AA or Solo?

Roger P. Watts, Ph.D. Updated: May 2nd 2013

Oftentimes you hear about people who have stopped drinking or taking mood or mind-altering drugs on their own without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or any other recovery program. These people are unusual, but their stories deserve some attention.

hand saying no to alcoholThere is such a thing as spontaneous remission in addictions. It seems that there is a very small percentage of people who were once pathologically addicted to alcohol or other drugs who stopped using one day on their own. These people defy the odds, but they have testified to the ability to use willpower to withstand the forces of cravings and urges to drink or take drugs again. One day, as if by a miracle, they woke up from the drug-induced denial they had been experiencing, and declared they would not use any more. These people exist and they are usually very anxious to tell the world how easy it was to stop what was once a compulsion to use.

But, the vast majority of people who stop using alcohol or other drugs on their own do so over time. They add up the threats or consequences that have come to them in the form of DWI's, eviction from the family, or loss of a job due to drinking or drug use, and they conclude it wasn't it worth it to use these chemicals. Many of these people found something in their life that was more important to them than drinking or drugging. Their family relationships, driver's license, job, or peace of mind gave them more pleasure than the chemicals. They were able to reason themselves to stopping the use of alcohol or other drugs, i.e., they added up the consequences, thought about how to make better decisions about their use, and concluded that they could resist using based on their application of willpower to the task.

Accomplishing abstinence through either spontaneous remission or rational recovery methods is incredibly hard to do. One of the reasons is that addiction is a disease of the brain that alters the way nerve cells in the brain communicate about such things as willpower and the freedom to choose the best solution. This disease is very powerful because our brains literally get re-wired by the alcohol or other drugs so that they perpetuate their use. The pressures that an addicted brain can put upon a person who decides to not use are considerable. We call them cravings and urges to use alcohol or other drugs and they can move people to do things they ordinarily do not want to do.

It's not to say that AA involvement makes it necessarily any easier to resist using alcohol or other drugs, but there is a feature to the AA program that makes it attractive to many people who seek recovery from addiction. When someone has tried everything else to stop using - psychiatry, counseling, medicines, religion, forced abstinence situations, or even willpower through rational thought - and still been unable to stop using, then AA tends to be a very attractive and useful answer to the problem. One of the reasons for this is that AA deals with the spiritual components of a person's life that most people don't like to think are involved with dealing with addictions.

They say in the AA meeting rooms that "Religion is for someone who is afraid to go to hell, but spirituality is for someone who has already been there." There is no typical member of AA. Yet, to the extent one can say anything about the people who practice recovery through AA, there is the common denominator of having a "God-shaped hole inside" that can't be filled by any other means. This means that there is some kind of spiritual void inside a person, some missing emotional piece of their being, which is absent in many people who have used alcohol or other drugs to cope for many years.

It is that missing spiritual aspect of recovery that AA addresses. Even many people who have had spontaneous remissions or developed the capacity to "just say no" to alcohol or other drugs will freely admit that their abstinent lives are not very happy. There is a tendency in life for all people to have people, places, things, or situations overwhelm them as they struggle to solve problems in these areas. For the person who has stopped using the psychologically soothing "medication" of alcohol or other drugs to cope with these problems, life can be hectic, confusing, and painful. AA tends to focus more on achieving not only abstinence, but also the peace of mind (serenity) that can come within a life that has been spiritually transformed. Dealing with life on life's terms becomes easier once there is the knowledge that there is a spiritual system that can help someone cope with problems.


Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.

Dr. Roger P. Watts, Ph.D., a psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, operates and currently provides substance abuse counseling to dozens of alcoholics and addicts. He has 23 years experience delivering health care to hundreds of patients through individual, group, and online counseling services. He has been in recovery himself for 24 years. He lives and works in Saint Paul MN, and can be reached at

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