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Finding Your Own Community in Recovery

The cost of leaving 12-step fellowships was losing my in-person community.

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In this article

Without 12-step groups, can you find friends and fellowship in recovery? Olivia Pennelle tells her story. (The short answer: YES.)

“It takes a village to heal the wounded—and we have all been wounded; healing and wholeness require resources and relationships beyond the self and beyond closed social silos. Personal survival hinges on a greater social unity and common purpose … We can achieve together what we have been unable to achieve alone.”

— Bill White

Moving to Portland last year coincided with leaving 12-step fellowships. After 5 years in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, I’d grown out of listening to the same sad stories. I no longer viewed myself as defective. The only way to truly reclaim my power was to leave. And it was the second-best decision I’ve made since getting sober! (The first was moving to Portland.) In spite of the sense of freedom I experienced, I found myself feeling a great sense of loneliness.

The cost of leaving 12-step fellowships was losing my in-person community.

Leaving the 12-step community is not the end.

Of all my friends from 12-step communities—the ones I ugly-cried with—I am only in touch with two. Sure, I chose to move to the US, and with that comes a loss of friendship. But there is something greater at play here. Those who leave are considered to be a risk; someone who might lead you to returning to your old ways. Few can comprehend that you may grow out of 12-steps, or that you need something different in your recovery.

I have not returned to using—far from it. I’ve never felt so empowered. My life is fulfilling enough today that I don’t need to drink away my pain.

Knowing I could weather the storm of leaving, I knew that I could rebuild my community. It wasn’t easy, but neither was packing up my life and moving 3000 miles for a new life, or setting up a business at the same time. But I knew social unity was crucial. As Bill White says, my personal survival depended upon it. And I knew I couldn’t recover alone. I needed to find a sense of community outside 12-step groups.

“I knew social unity was crucial. And I knew I couldn’t recover alone. ”

Finding a place to connect.

The first few months, I expanded my online community—with the SHE RECOVERS movement, with fellow writers, and with people who had also left 12-step communities. That support was invaluable, both because I was lonely and because I received a lot of rejections in finding a new group of friends.

At 39-years-old, many people my age already have established friendship groups and have their own families. We lead such busy lives that not many have time for a new person. Especially in Portland, where newcomers are not always welcome. That didn’t stop me from trying: I attended Portland Insight Meditation Community, Refuge Recovery, Groups at The Alano Club. I told people I was new, which wasn’t hard to determine with my English accent! Over time, I started to develop friendships, some of which haven’t lasted, and others which have deepened to a special bond.

Creating the community I need.

Knowing the lonely and sometimes frightening place of life post-AA, I also set up a Facebook group for people who have left 12-step fellowships, or were considering leaving. That community has grown to over 150 members. We are able to talk about our fears of leaving, debunk the myths we were told, and encourage and support others who are frightened.

“Knowing the lonely and sometimes frightening place of life post-AA, I also set up a Facebook group for people who have left 12-step fellowships, or were considering leaving.”

I didn’t stop there, either. Feeling like there was a lack of social activity outside of my recovery groups, I teamed up with a friend and set up a social community for female-identified people and those who travel on the gender spectrum here in Portland. We’ve held a couple of potluck evenings, and have some great events planned for the rest of the year and new year. The idea is to get together and have fun in a supportive and alcohol-free environment.

I’m excited to announce that we will now be a SHE RECOVERS Foundation meetup group. This is an organization that share the heart of our values as women and people in recovery. It gives us the opportunity to reach a far greater audience of people recovering from a broad range of life challenges, including substance use disorders. We believe that we are so much stronger by recovering together.

It has taken time, but I wholeheartedly believe that even when the odds are against us, we can find our community.


Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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