By Gabe S.
I first encountered Alcoholics Anonymous when I found myself in rehab in December 2010. I had, after many months of resistance, followed the advice of my psychiatrist and my good friends and turned myself in. I had not known that it was a Twelve-Step rehab. I had no idea what the Twelve Steps were. I thought I was in for the best, scientifically-valid treatment for addiction in the world.
I very quickly learnt a little bit about it. It seemed to involve a bunch of rather trite touchy-feely sorts of therapies, readings from an absurd little book of starry-eyed design-stance banalities and fabrications, called ‘The Promise Of A New Day,’ and readings from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. On the first day, when I met my therapist, I said to him: “I have to get out of here: it is the God squad!”
I attended for four weeks. I looked at the Big Book. But I didn’t like it. I was horrified by the chapter called “We Agnostics.” This chapter seemed designed to convert atheists and agnostics to believers in God. A refusal to consider the possibility of such a Being, it was indicated, was vain and illogical. Atheists and agnostics who do not yet believe can begin to work on the Twelve-Step program of recovery using the group as their higher power, but in order to recover fully, a belief in God would eventually be necessary. The Big Book as a whole seemed to be riddled with God talk. And this put me right off.
I emerged clean and sober. I attended a few AA meetings. I had a sponsor but I never called him. I was fine. I had no cravings, no obsession. I needed no help. Then one day I became stressed out. With no mental defense, I had a drink to calm me down… and I did not stop drinking for about a month. I went back to rehab for a week’s detox. At the end of the week I was fine. There was no more problem with my disease. Every one of my peers at the clinic said to me: ‘Don’t leave. You are not ready’. I didn’t listen.
On the way home I bought a bottle of vodka. And I continued to drink as before, all the time. I descended into that pit of despair: the more depressed and anxious I became, the more I needed to drink to try to escape from the inner horror. The worse the horror became, the more I needed to drink: a pit of swirling blackness from which there was no escape. A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.
A very good friend was looking after me. She would visit every day, for hours. Sometimes she would stay the night if I was afraid to be alone. She now reports that I resisted returning to the clinic mainly on the ‘God’ grounds. I was not going to participate in what seemed to me to be a faith-based program of recovery. I looked at the Steps. If I were to participate then my higher power would have to be other people. But that would not work. Other people would give inconsistent advice and I would end up having to make my own decisions anyway. Nothing, existent or non-existent, could be My higher power.
But my psychiatrist was in my ear. I was at serious risk of brain damage. I had to go back to rehab. By then my anxiety was crippling. I was delighted to be given a huge dose of Librium to get me out of the withdrawal-drink cycle. I was delighted to be in a comfortable place where I could not get at any bottles of gin or vodka.
My disease had beaten me all ends up. I could not face alcohol any more. I did not know it, but at that moment I took Step One. I was in rehab. Perhaps these people could help me. That was Step Two.
I had known that I was insane for some time, although realizing just how insane, took me a long time. I decided that I might as well really give this recovery malarkey a good go. I would do everything my therapists said – as long as it didn’t involve talking like a believer or acting like a believer. My atheism runs deep, as does my integrity. I do not believe in any God and I will not represent myself as a person who does. So I will not talk or act like a believer. Some tell me this is pride, resistance to authority. Perhaps there is some element of unhealthy pride involved. But, however that may be, my integrity does not allow me to present myself as something I am not. So, aside from saying ’God’ in a manner that would misrepresent my beliefs, I decided to do to my best ability everything that my therapists recommended. That was Step Three.
At that point, other people became my “higher power.” My love of language prevents me from calling them ‘God.’ I made a decision to turn my will and my life over the care of my higher power. And it worked. I am experiencing a new freedom and a new happiness.
My atheist therapist gave me a secular version of the Steps when I started out. Since then I have collected others. Now I enjoy working from my own version, which reconstructs my route to a psychic change and maintenance of psychic good health. (Editor’s note: Here is a link to AA Agnostica’s A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps which includes Gabe’s version and his atheist therapist’s version.)
My higher power is very important to me. I have a large group of very wise people who know me well. Most of them are fellowship, but not all. All my life I have been self-reliant because I am oh-so-clever. I always knew best. But in the end I could not manage my own life or my own mind at all. Now if I have to make any big decision, or just need help managing any aspect of my mind or my life, I just ask my higher power. In fact, the different components of my higher power very rarely disagree among themselves. And when they do, then it is ok for me to make the final call. My initial argument against the possibility of others being my higher power held no water at all. Now, when my higher power delivers a view, I follow its guidance without question. Collectively they are far wiser than I am. And turning over to them takes the load of stress and responsibility off of me.
The Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are part of my higher power too. All I had to do was remove all references to God and replace them, where this made sense, with references to a higher power. What remained was a wonderfully insightful description of the alcoholic mind, and a carefully crafted and targeted recipe for the development of good mental health.
Once God is removed, many aspects of AA’s program in the Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions can be seen to be focused on stress-management: building a realistic self-image, boosting self-esteem and avoiding guilt. The approach echoes that of the Stoics. AA makes much of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” It is often remarked that the prayer echoes a central theme in the work of such thinkers as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics are thought by some to have originated cognitive therapy. Both the Stoics and AA hold that problematic emotions can be dealt with, in part, by the application of intellectual analysis.
With anger-management, for example, AA bids a member to consider how he himself contributed to a situation in which he became angered, and what it is about himself that fuelled his angry reaction. Seneca bids us not to dwell on a perceived wrong that has been done to us, and not to focus on a justification for revenge (letter to Novatus). Seneca and AA differ in that AA accepts that in general a certain amount of emotion is natural, inevitable and a good thing, while the Stoics held that, with work, emotions could be entirely eliminated by intellectual means. Both note that in being angry, one allows another to disturb one’s serenity. Both want that particular emotion eliminated. In this context, Seneca writes: “human life is founded on kindness and concord, and is bound into an alliance for common help, not by terror, but by mutual love.” while AA writes (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions p. 48). “Courtesy, kindness, justice and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody.”
By following the advice of others and taking the Steps — understood from an atheist point of view — I found my higher power. With a higher power like that, who needs God?
Gabe S. lives in London, England.