In 1976 Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS) began publishing a 37 page pamphlet entitled “Do You Think You’re Different?” AAWS has printed and distributed this pamphlet year after year and it is now available online here. The pamphlet focuses on stories written by AA members who do not fit the stereotypical AA profile that developed from the early years of AA: white, male, heterosexual, Christian. The pamphlet provides 13 stories and amongst them are two stories that highlight how our membership includes the diversity of the non-religious. One of these stories is written by Jan, an agnostic and the other by Ed, an atheist. We are pleased to provide our readers with Jan’s story.
My name is Jan, And I’m an alcoholic (agnostic)
My parents gave me a faith that in later years I lost. No, it was not a religious faith, though I was exposed to the teachings of two sects.
Neither was forced upon me; I simply drifted away through boredom, and my fragile, superficial belief in God vanished as soon as I tried thinking about it. It was a faith in people that my parents gave me – both by loving me and by respecting me as an individual, entitled to make my own choices.
Out in the world on my own, I still had a feeling of being under benevolent protection. My immediate bosses (of both sexes) seemed to regard me as kindly schoolteachers had. Oddly, my good fortune sometimes annoyed me. “What is this?” I asked myself. “Do I arouse the parental impulse?” For there was inside me an element at war with my faith in people. It was a furious, stiff-necked pride, an urge for total independence. With my contemporaries, I was always painfully shy, and even then I interpreted this handicap correctly as a symptom of egotism – a fear that others would not agree with my own high valuation of myself.
That valuation certainly did not include a picture of myself as a drunk. Often, I suspect that pride kills as many alcoholics as liquor does. As for help? What an idea! The day came when my pride was squashed flat (temporarily), and I did call for help. I called on people – strangers. But my pride, expanding as health returned, blocked my first two approaches to AA. After one more failure to regain my skill as a social drinker, I was convinced, and I began my AA membership in earnest.
Fortunately, I joined a group that devotes its closed meeting to Step discussions. Most of the members had their own concepts of a personal God; the atmosphere of faith surrounding me was so marked that I though at times I was on the point of joining in it. I never did. And yet I found each discussion revealing new depths of meaning in the Twelve Steps.
In Step Two, the “Power greater than ourselves” meant AA, but not just the members I knew. It meant all of us, everywhere, sharing a concern for one another and thereby creating a spiritual resource stronger than any one of us could provide.
At first, Step Three was simply the way I felt on non-hangover mornings of early sobriety, sitting by my window on days that always seemed sunny, having no immediate prospect of employment, and feeling perfectly happy and confident anyhow. Then the Step became a cheerful acceptance of my place in the world: “I have no idea Who or What is running the show, but I know I’m not!” And I could also see Step Three as a good attitude, an effective approach to life: “If I am swimming in salt water and I panic and start thrashing aound and fighting it, it will drown me. But if I relax and have faith in it, it will hold me afloat.”
Though Step Four does not mention a Higher Power, to me the word “moral” carried an implication of sin, which in my book translates as an offense against God. So I regarded the inventory instead as an attempt at an honest description of my character; on the red side went qualities that tended to hurt people.
I am not sure that I was consciously working the Steps, but they were surely working on me. In about the fourth year of sobriety, a trivial incident suddenly made me realize that my old bugaboo of shyness had disappeared. “I feel at home in the world!” I sait to myself in astonishment. Now, some 18 years later, I still do. In the whole measure of life, the benefits of the AA experience have far outweighed the damages of active alcoholism.
What was it that overcame my pride (for the moment) and made me reachable? The best answer I can find is what my father used to call “the life force.” (He was an old-fashioned family doctor, and he had seen that force springing up or failing many times.) It is in all of us, I believe; it animates all living things; it keeps the galaxies wheeling. The salt-water metaphor applied to Step Three was not chosen by accident, for to me the ocean is a symbol of this force; I came closest to Step Eleven when I can contemplate an unbroken horizon from the deck of a ship. I am cut down to size; I feel serenely that I am a small part of something vast and unknowable.
But isn’t the ocean rather a cold symbol?
Yes. Do I think that its eye is on the minnow, that it is concerned about any individual’s fate? Would I talk to it? No. Once, near the end of my drinking, I did address three words to Something non-human. In the darkness before morning, I got out of bed, knelt, folded my hands, and said, “Please help me.” Then I shrugged and said, “Who’m I talking to?” and got back into bed.
When I related that incident to one of my sponsors, she said, “But He did answer your prayer.”
That may be. But I do not feel it. I didn’t argue with her, nor do I attack the mystery with pure logic now. If you could prove to me logically that there is a personal God – and I don’t think you can – I still would not be inclined to talk to a presence I couldn’t feel. If I could prove to you logically that there is no God and I know I can’t – your true faith would not be shaken. In other words, matters of faith lie entirely outside the realm of reason. Is there anything beyond the realm of human reason? Yes, I believe there is. Something.
In the meantime, here we all are together – I mean all of us people, not just alcoholics. We need each other.
Copyright © by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
The painting at the top of this post is called “Grief” and was done by Cynthia Angeles. You can see more of her work here: Paintings by Cynthia.
AA World Services also provides a discussion at the end of the pamphlet to help the newcomer understand the diversity of AA meetings. Here is what AA World Services says about these types of meetings:
In some large cities, you’ll find some special AA meetings – for police officers, gay men and lesbians, members of the clergy, young people, doctors, Spanish-speaking people, AA beginners, or women only. Going to some of these when we are new in AA may ease the recovery path at first, but the happiest, healthiest recoveries seem to come to people who go to all kinds of AA meetings, not only the special ones.
We have found it unwise to limit our AA circle to folks exactly like ourselves. Segregation gives our “uniqueness” an unhealthy emphasis. We find it more enjoyable, and more healing, to get into the mainstream of AA life and mingle with everybody else, not just “different” people.
Here we are. We are all different. We are all pretty special people. But we are also all alcoholics and all sober in AA together. In this, we are more like each other than different. Here in AA, we find the shared humanity that enables us to live out our widely differing lives and pursue our separate and individual destinies.
(Do You Think You’re Different?, p. 35)