Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I’m an urban Aboriginal woman who was raised by a single mother of European descent.
Although I did beadwork and occasionally went to powwows, I didn’t subscribe to – and was never really exposed to – any traditional Anishinaabe cultural practices or spiritual beliefs. Now that I’m sober, I consider myself to be a spiritual person, and an agnostic.
The only spiritual connection I felt when I was drinking was worshipping my next bottle of wine. Before getting sober, I drank heavily for over 20 years, and drank daily for the last 10. I was high-functioning for someone with extremely low expectations. For a long time, I knew that I was an alcoholic, but I didn’t care.
I grew up without religion in my home, and although I was very curious to find a religion that I could adopt, none ever felt right to me. In my quest to belong, I went to several different church services, read the bible, went to Sunday school and joined a church group. I read books on Taoism and Buddhism. I really wanted to believe in something greater than myself, and belong to a community that shared those beliefs, but I couldn’t do it while being honest with myself. So I eventually stopped searching for religion.
There are alcoholics on both sides of my family, and I grew up in a house where drinking, drug use and abuse were part of the family dynamic. I suppose I’d been searching for religion or something similar, in order to find an escape from the traumatic events I faced at home on a daily basis. The escape I found was alcohol.
From what I’ve been told, I started drinking when I was a baby. I was told that my dad put beer in my bottle so that I would go to sleep. I remember my interest in alcohol began in my early teens. When I drank, I felt an instant relief and escape from my home life. When I went drinking with my friends, I felt like I finally belonged to something. I was kicked out of the house when I was 16, and to support myself, I worked as a waitress. I eventually became a full-time bartender, and worked in bars and restaurants for over 20 years. Looking back, I built my life around being able to drink. I could drink at work, I didn’t have to wake up early in the morning, and I never learned to drive a car. I had a job with low expectations, and I spent my free time drinking.
I remember being very aware that I was at risk to become an alcoholic. I knew that my family history of addiction and trauma put me at a high risk for alcoholism, and that I should be careful. None of the statistics taught me how to avoid being an alcoholic. I knew the risks, but that didn’t stop me from consuming alcohol at an ever-increasing rate. It wasn’t until I wanted something more for my life that I realized I was an alcoholic. It was probably another five years after that realization that I decided to do something about it.
When I finally sought treatment, I was drinking almost constantly from the time I woke up, to the time I passed out at night. I had tried to stop repeatedly, but I couldn’t, and that scared the hell out of me.
I started treatment on a part-time, outpatient basis, and began attending agnostic AA meetings. After three years of attending meetings, I can honestly say that I feel like I finally found somewhere that I belong. I’m very grateful that these meetings exist, because at the time I was convinced that AA was a religious cult, which had always been my excuse for not seeking help in the past. The treatment centre I went to used a harm reduction model, which I initially hoped would work for me. I was overwhelmed by the idea that I could never drink again for the rest of my life. I was afraid that the people in AA were going to judge my choice, but I was offered support as I attempted to maintain moderate drinking. So, with the aid of medication, individual counselling and group therapy sessions, I worked diligently to adhere to safe drinking guidelines. Looking back, the amount of time, money and effort I put into trying to drink non-alcoholically was ridiculous, but now I know that harm reduction doesn’t work for me. I found this out the hard way on a long weekend in July of 2011, when I really hit bottom.
Canada Day weekend of 2011, most of my friends were out of town, including my boyfriend and roommate. I had to work all weekend, but for some reason I decided that I could abandon my controlled drinking plan for the weekend and no one would know. After the first day home alone with several bottles of wine, I knew I was in trouble. The next day I could barely make it to work, and when I got there, they sent me home. By the final day of the long weekend, I was calling everyone I knew for help, because I couldn’t stop drinking. My sister finally came to my rescue. She called my work and told them I wouldn’t be coming in, instructed me to take a shower and took me out to dinner. When she left my apartment with all of my liquor bottles in the trunk of her car, I had a new plan to live a sober life. It was a month later that I stopped drinking for good. One day I didn’t drink, and then I didn’t drink the next day. I’ve now been sober for over three years. As for my fear of never drinking again for the rest of my life, I took a friend’s advice. She said: “Give sobriety a try, and if you don’t like it, you can always go back to drinking.”
Every year on my AA birthday I reflect on whether I want to continue living a sober life, and every year so far I’ve made the decision to continue on my sober path. I know the AA motto is “one day at a time,” and there are no guarantees that I won’t relapse, but it’s good for me to reflect on all the positive changes that have happened in my life as a result of sobriety. I know that I’m powerless over alcohol if I take a drink, but sobriety has given me a choice that I didn’t have before. I’m no longer a slave to alcohol, and that is powerful.
Early sobriety wasn’t easy. I felt lost without my connection to alcohol. Alcohol was my constant companion and best friend, even though it was slowly killing me. I had abandoned my friends, family and myself in order to keep drinking. When I faced the world in sobriety, I felt empty and alone. As a result, I had to learn how to connect with people and myself all over again – or perhaps for the first time. My motto in early sobriety was: “Just do the next right thing”. That mantra motivated me to do the things that are part of a normal daily routine. It took a lot of energy just to take a shower in the morning, to eat and to go to bed at night. I didn’t know how to do anything sober, so I talked to people at meetings, listened to their stories and just kept coming back.
In my quest to find out who I am as a sober person, I started gardening, took yoga, joined a meditation group and enrolled in a peer support training program. Even though I was meeting new people and doing things that I enjoyed, I still felt empty and like I didn’t fit in. In order to stay sober, I needed to find a healthy way to manage my feelings of low self esteem and disconnection. I needed to find a spiritual connection to something outside of myself, or I was at risk for relapse. I first found this spiritual connection on a camping trip. I started taking photos of a chipmunk I’d befriended, and I was so lost in joy that I didn’t feel the craving to drink.
Through Alcoholics Anonymous, I learned how to expand this connection I felt with animals to include a community of people who share my struggles with alcoholism. I’ve made some good friends and learned how to be a good friend in return. I learned how to listen, share and to be of service. I even learned how to pick up the phone and call someone before I take a drink. One thing I didn’t know about AA meetings was that we laugh a lot, if I had known that it was fun to attend meetings, I might have gotten sober sooner.
I also went back to university. The first class I took was an introduction to Indigenous studies. I learned about Indigenous beliefs of living in concert with nature, and how everything is interconnected. I learned about ceremony and resilience. I went to a powwow, where I just cried for all the trauma that my ancestors had endured. However, I also felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t know anything about the dances, the regalia or the protocols, so I decided to learn more. I continued going to community events. I asked Indigenous Elders for guidance on becoming more involved. Mostly, I just hung around, observed ceremonies, and copied what other people were doing. The first time I smudged, I felt a connection to something I can’t fully understand. When I was surrounded by the smoke from the burning medicines, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. It felt like going home to a place I’d never been before. I can’t explain it – I just felt better.
I learned the medicine wheel – another powerful tool that helps me maintain my sobriety. One interpretation of the medicine wheel is that it represents the four aspects of a person’s well-being: spiritual, mental, physical and emotional. It can be used to find and maintain balance in one’s life. AA meetings work on all of these aspects as well. For example, I physically have to leave the house to go to a meeting where I can share my emotions, learn from other’s experiences and be part of a community.
Continuing on my journey to reconnect with my culture, I went to see a traditional Aboriginal counsellor. It was right before I left on a camping trip. After my counselling session, I had the most intensely spiritual moment of my life. Arriving at the campground as the sun was setting, I climbed a hill near the lake to make an offering and say a prayer. I said a prayer to the Great Spirit (a prayer on a flyer that I had picked up in lobby after meeting my counsellor). The prayer asked for strength and intelligence – not to conquer my enemies, but to fight the enemy within. I’d never seriously prayed before, and I’m still not sure that I believe in the Great Spirit, but the message was one that I could relate to.
I left an offering of berries by a tree stump and walked down a granite slab to the water’s edge. I was alone, overlooking a quiet beach. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to meditate. When I opened them and looked across the water, a deer came out of the woods and stared right at me. I instantly felt a happiness that I had not felt in years. I was in awe, and crying tears of joy. Then another deer came out of the woods! I couldn’t believe I was the only one there to see this. The deer were drinking from the lake, and one of them was playing with a frog. They were peaceful and carefree – two qualities that had been missing from my life since I quit drinking. It’s difficult to describe, but those few minutes felt magical and life changing. I don’t know if it was the result of the offering and prayer or just a coincidence, but I do know it was the most spiritual experience of my life. I also know that it never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sober. I had to become fully present in my life in order to experience that connection with nature, myself and my community.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.
The paperback version of Do Tell! is available at Recovery 101 and at Amazon. It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom. If you live in the UK or Europe, please purchase the book your local Amazon. The result is much better shipping rates and a quicker delivery.