90 in 90: Bridge or Barrier to Your Recovery?

We Help Thousands of Addicts Quit. Who Answers?

“I just feel exhausted,” said the man next to me in the alternative recovery group I attend weekly. A condition of the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) that he had to attend in order to keep his job, was that he go to a recovery meeting every day. He worked full time, attended IOP sessions, and had almost no time left.

“I don’t have time spend with my wife,” he said, on the verge of tears.

“I want to reconnect with my son, but I can’t go to his games because I’m in a meeting every night. I have to get my slip signed and it’s humiliating. If I have to do this to keep my sobriety, I’ll do it, but I feel like I’m losing everything that matters in my life.”

My Views on 90 in 90

Many people in traditional 12 Step recovery groups would say that this man was just “in denial” about his problem and offer canned phrases such as, “You have to chase your recovery as hard as you chased a drink,” and “You had time to drink – you can make time to go to a meeting!” I always thought that these approaches ignored the reality of people’s lives, imposing a one-size-fits-all model onto people from vastly different circumstances.

As a person in long-term recovery and a leader of several alternative recovery groups, I have strongly opposed the concept of “90 in 90,” which is the idea that you should make 90 Twelve Step meetings in your first 90 days of sobriety. When I was in a traditional 12 Step rehab and fresh out, I actually read the original texts written by the founders. Nowhere did Bill Wilson or Dr. Bob Smith mention 90 in 90; it wouldn’t have been possible to attend 90 meetings when there weren’t even 90 meetings in the entire world yet!

However, these days you’d think that the “90 in 90” rule was inscribed on a stone tablet that Bill Wilson brought down from a mountain, handed to him directly by God (as he understood Him.) It is a condition of many return to work programs, sober living house arrangements, and even court ordered “agreements” whose alternative is jail.

Even when not quite so overtly coercive, the 90 in 90 rule can put up a serious barrier to inclusion in a 12 Step group. I remember being told by several women I approached to ask to sponsor me that they would only sponsor me if I was willing to do 90 in 90. No questions about my life, what I was going through, or even where I lived or how I might figure out transportation: just a simple yes or no question. Like far too many aspects of the traditional abstinence model, it was a barrier to getting help.

However, as time has gone on, I’ve come to see the value of this practice, for some.  The daily touchstone with fellow travelers, the accountability, filling the time when you get lonely and might be tempted to hit the bar or dial your dealer. The new routines to replace the old, rewriting the neurology of your brain to create new patterns of reward, and just meeting a lot of people whose lives no longer revolve around drinking can all be helpful.

Still, I agree with Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream, a history of the racist and anti-immigrant roots of the drug war –  the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. And with Stanton Peele, author of many books and articles on addiction and fellow Pro Talk author, that finding your life’s true meaning and purpose, usually through strong connection with others such as children and partners, is the true replacement for the false sense of relationship that a substance can provide.

One of the Lucky Ones

The man I met at my non-12 Step meeting was one of the lucky ones: he lived in a place where it is possible to find non 12 Step meetings that will satisfy the requirements of some (but not all) courts and employers that people attend meetings every day. There are few such places. San Diego, a hub of SMART Recovery, now has enough meetings to make 90 in 90 SMART meetings possible for some. This is great for the vast majority of people for whom AA’s religious roots and influence is anywhere on the scale from nonsensical to re-traumatizing.

In an era where more and more people are coming forward with their stories of abuse in the church, even the most hardcore of AA proponents should stop acting like anyone and everyone should be comfortable with the constant repetition of the word “God” and the recitation of prayers, usually including the explicitly Christian “Lord’s Prayer” at meetings.

Is 90 in 90 Even Necessary?

Even if non-12 Step alternatives were available, is 90 in 90 a necessary or even advisable practice for those in early recovery? When I was first out of rehab, I was fortunate enough to be living off savings and on summer break from my graduate program, so I did as I was told and did my 90 in 90. While I tried very hard to believe that this was good for me, I did it mostly to check the box, do what I had been told in the rehab that my parents sacrificed tremendously to send me to, and calm that fear that AA members reinforce that you will die if you don’t do everything they say. I had a little calendar and I ran around doing my meetings. Even without the demands of full time employment, a spouse or children to take care of, I was still exhausted as I ran around town filling out my 90 in 90 calendar.  I was relieved when it was over.

The aims of 90 in 90, however, are sound: create an alternative community, replace bad habits with good ones, maintain accountability, and hopefully build a support system. The very routine of it stands as a counterbalance to the chaos that most of us lived in while in active addiction. Creating routines and getting in the habit of doing things we may not feel like doing at the time, without the numbing of a drug or a drink, is essential to most who try to achieve abstinence from problematic substance use.

Extracting and Applying the 90 in 90 Concept

Long after I broke away from AA, I kept the concept of 90 in 90 – I decided to up my yoga game (and take advantage of a great student discount on unlimited memberships to my studio) by doing 90 yoga classes in 90 days! There are many traditions, spiritual, religious, health and otherwise, that advocate for repeating a certain practice every day for a period of time, even for the rest of your life. I still find it helpful to do something every day: these days it’s hiking, a yoga series of at least 12 Sun Salutations, and daily meditation and prayer. I even attend a lot of recovery fellowship meetings, especially Refuge Recovery and a weekly Christian recovery focused worship service.

I find meaning in fellowship with others who have been through the hell of active addiction, and in a variety of traditions that focus on freedom from bondage, release from guilt, and building a support system of people who are striving to live a better life. All of these things are life-enriching and affirm connection: my mother and I attend the recovery worship together, and enjoy making her Southern church supper deviled eggs for their fellowship dinners.

I fear that the good in 90 in 90 has been thrown out in the dogmatism of a once radical tradition that, like many a once radical movement, has turned what were good ideas for some, at some times, into laws. Building new relationships with people whose lives do not revolve around substance use, forming new habits, and finding something to do at those trigger times are all great ideas in early (and later) recovery. However, going to 12 Step meetings is not the only way to do this. Becoming more involved in the religion or spiritual practice of one’s own choice (I remember one sponsor telling me to give up my Zen meditation because it wasn’t AA) and taking up an exercise routine to rebuild the body and mind can all help build the foundation of a healthy new life.

Reconnecting with family, proving oneself as a good worker to regain credibility on the job, and even getting enough sleep are also essential to recovery. Our bodies are depleted, our relationships are usually wrecked, and our work situation is rarely good when we first make the decision to change a problematic relationship with substance. If we can’t address these issues because we’re too busy reporting to our sponsor, parole officer, family and boss that we went to yet another daily meeting, we aren’t really in recovery.

Recovery is a tapestry of threads that weave together differently for each person to form a healing blanket that protects us from falling back into the hell that brought us to this point. We need the freedom to choose our own threads and support from people who treat us as individuals, not just “alcoholics” or “addicts.”


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