There is a saying that is often heard in the rooms of 12-step fellowships encouraging newcomers and others to take a certain path in their journey of recovery. “I stick with the winners,” someone might say when telling everyone in the room “how they did it” as they pick up a chip or medallion celebrating a recovery milestone. Usually, what the person in recovery means when they say this is that it is important to hang out with those who don’t relapse, who have found long-term, uninterrupted periods of sobriety.
This phrase has always bothered me. And it isn’t just because my journey of recovery has included many periods of relapse, thus excluding me from being considered a “winner.” And it isn’t because I don’t believe those who have achieved long periods of sobriety don’t have much to offer everyone, including the newcomer.
However, I do believe the phrase—and the idea behind it—is problematic for many reasons. First, it’s problematic for those who are considered the “winners.” If all they do is stick with those who like them keep “winning,” they miss the opportunity to be of service to those who aren’t, those who relapse, those who are coming to the program for the first time, and those whose program is off the rails a bit or a lot. The foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous and all of the 12-step fellowships that have followed is based on one alcoholic or addict helping another alcoholic or addict. And if you aren’t helping someone in the throes of the disease at least part of the time, you aren’t in touch with the reality of your own condition, which you are never cured of, no matter how long you’ve been in the circle of “winners.”
Further, for those in the “winners circle” of long-term recovery, relapse still happens. And for someone who has been in that circle for a long time, the shame of relapse can be intensified by falling out of the circle. For some, that shame is so great that they never return to the rooms, remaining in their disease until an end comes, whether that end is a jail cell or coffin.
The phrase—and the idea behind it—is also problematic for all those who keep trying to “win,” but continue to be held captive by the disease of addiction. The steps have worked for millions of people. However, for millions more, they haven’t worked right away. And the idea that there might be winners or losers, in other words, those who chose to win and those who choose to lose, is simply not fair or accurate or helpful. There is a myriad of reasons why someone might not find recovery right away. And the main reason for that has nothing to do with a choice, but a disease. A disease which we know to be cunning, baffling, and powerful.
I would encourage those of us in the rooms of recovery to stop using the phrase altogether. Each and every person who enters our rooms is a winner, no matter how long they have been sober, and no matter who they “stick with.” Something brought them to the rooms, and our focus should be on inclusion, not separating ourselves into groups of “winners” and “losers.”
Each and every one of us who chooses a meeting over a drink or a drug or acting out is a miracle. Especially those of us who keep coming back, picking up another 30, 90, six months, or a year, only to start over again. That drive to choose recovery over and over and over again is not only the sign of a true “winner,” it is an indication that the program works.
Let’s choose to “stick with” the program instead.