In a recent episode of popular CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a main character voiced concerns about leaving his home in California to attend business school. This character, a newcomer to Alcoholics Anonymous, told his sponsor that it would violate “the major decisions rule.” Up to this point, the show portrayed his sponsor as relatively strict. But in this case, the surly biker reassured his young protégé that he could uproot without jeopardizing his sobriety. As long as he kept attending meetings and working a solid program, he should feel free to pursue his dreams.
Those familiar with the cited rule might find this surprising. At least some viewers in recovery likely assumed that the writers got it wrong. After all, what are the odds that a writer living in Los Angeles would know anything about addiction? Well, the odds are actually pretty good. And while they were correct that many AA old-timers teach newcomers to avoid making any major decisions during the first year of their recovery, they were also correct that some find this rule to be arbitrary. It all comes down to the divide between those who put faith in the slogans and those who do not.
Some AA members believe that we should only follow the writings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Others believe that the slogans tend to exist for good reason. The secret lies in the realization that both sides make valid points. To some extent, the rule against major decisions is deeply flawed. Nonetheless, we should not entirely disregard it. Those who cite this rule often speak from grim experience. As such, we should examine both sides of the debate with equal care.
Sobriety Requires Major Decisions
When you discuss this issue with those who prefer sticking to the literature, it won’t be long before they direct you to the Twelve Steps. In the very first half of Step One, we find one of the most major decisions we will ever make in recovery. We must admit that we are powerless over our disease if we are to stand any chance of overcoming it. As we go down the list, we find yet more major decisions. Letting go of self-will in Step Three, making amends in Step Nine, etc. Does this oft-quoted slogan wish us to ignore the foundations of the program?
No, it doesn’t. But despite this misunderstanding, sobriety requires major decisions outside of the Twelve Steps as well. Finding a sponsor, for instance, is one of the first important things we do. For some people, going to their first meeting constitutes a major decision. Then, there are those who tell us that we should attend meetings daily for the first three months. When we spend every day going to meetings, calling our sponsors, and engaging in prayer or meditation, no one can tell us that we aren’t making important decisions. We must throw ourselves into these tasks whole-heartedly. That sort of commitment takes a great deal of effort at the beginning. Only with time does it begin to feel routine.
Then, we have those who go the treatment route. They must first pick a treatment center, then determine whether their chosen facility will accept their insurance. Those without insurance must then formulate a financial plan to get them through the doors. Even before this, they must make the monumental decision to attend treatment in the first place. With so much unnecessary stigma surrounding alcoholism and addiction, it takes courage to make this choice. Furthermore, those who attend treatment must then face the decision whether to pursue extended care through sober living. This means that out-of-state patients make the decision to leave their homes and set themselves up in an entirely new area for a few months, all for the sake of their recovery.
Looking at it this way, sobriety is practically nothing but a series of major decisions. Naturally, many feel that AA slogans like the one in question undermine the importance of these tasks. However, much like the Twelve Steps argument, this viewpoint somewhat undermines the traditional meaning of this suggestion. Those who support this rule define major decisions in a very different way.
Some Decisions Are Unnecessary
People who advocate against making major decisions sometimes word things much differently. Rather than suggesting we avoid major decisions, they suggest avoiding major changes. Now, one might argue that many of the actions listed above still constitute changes in the life of the addict or alcoholic. But the changes referred to here usually pertain to issues entirely outside of our sobriety. These might include changes to our career, our education, our living arrangements or our love lives. Do some of these things change when entering treatment? Of course. So we must break things down even further.
Moving to a sober living house or taking a leave of absence from work to attend treatment benefits our sobriety. And when it’s time to return home or to resume our jobs, we absolutely should. The rule against major decisions does not exist to keep you unemployed for a year. But if your boss asks you to return to work at the stock brokerage and you instead quit your job to pursue a medical degree, then your sponsor will tell you that you have made some pretty major decisions. And you made them pretty recklessly, to boot.
This isn’t to say that you can never go back to school and pursue a medical degree if you want. But you should probably wait at least a year while you adjust to sobriety. By then, your head should be a little more firmly on your shoulders. This enables you to process major decisions a bit more carefully rather than going in half-cocked. Our brain function tends to suffer from long-term drug or alcohol abuse. It takes time for us to fully regain our cognition. Sure, we might feel confident after a month or two. But in the end, there’s no harm in waiting. As long as we stay sober, there will be ample time to get our lives on track. Those major decisions can wait.
Another thought behind this rule is that, simply put, we should put our sobriety first. Even if our mindset seems sound, trying to fix every aspect of our lives at once may leave us overwhelmed. We should therefore practice patience, keeping just one foot in front of the other. Of course, this may leave us open to just a few major decisions. But if we decide to test this rule, we must approach the matter very, very carefully.
Always Proceed With Caution
Let’s take a moment to review the example we used at the beginning of this article. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Greg leaves home to attend business school. By anyone’s metric, this constitutes a major decision. But the show goes out of its way to establish that no other decision would make Greg happy. Even his sponsor agrees with this. Furthermore, Greg’s sponsor knows an AA member out of state who can become Greg’s temporary sponsor when he moves. In short, he not only discusses this matter with his sponsor but does so while formulating a recovery plan.
This is the only way in which we can get away with making major decisions in early recovery. First, we must run it by our sponsor. In fact, we should probably run it by a few people. Contact members of your support network whom you can trust. Some may have different views about various types of major decisions, so don’t expect the same answer from everyone. But definitely put some time into hearing what others think about your plans. Some people are afraid to do this, out of fear that they won’t receive the feedback they want. But people can surprise you, so you may as well put the time in.
Second, make sure you have a detailed plan for maintaining your recovery. You might want to go over this with your sponsor. When major decisions involve relocation to another area, research meetings near your destination. Ask your current sponsor if you can continue calling them until you find a new one. And when you get where you’re going, make sure that you find a new sponsor as soon as possible. Concerning major decisions involving jobs, ensure that your hours will still allow you to attend meetings. And concerning major decisions involving romance—well, there’s no perfect plan here. Just know that, especially in early recovery, you’d better not be searching for your paramour at an AA meeting. Because if it does hurt your recovery, you just might drag someone else down with you.
Major decisions are always subjective. What constitutes a major decision to one person might seem relatively minor to another. But your support network should know you well, and can help you keep things in perspective. You should still avoid most major life changes in your first year of recovery. Nonetheless, there are exceptions to every rule. Just make sure you aren’t defining those exceptions on a whim without consulting anyone else. Proceed with caution, and you minimize your chances of doing something you’ll regret.