Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I crawled into AA as a sick drug addict. At that time 12 step programs for my drug of choice did not exist in my area. It took me a number of years of sitting in the back of AA meetings and wondering if I belonged, to understand that I was indeed an alcoholic. I had the same disease that was being talked about in the literature and from the podium, I just happened to use other drugs as well as alcohol.
When I got to AA, I was emaciated and sick of body and heart. My use of alcohol and other drugs had rendered my 34 year old body into a knot of pain and tension that was held together by anger and resentment. I wore a black leather jacket and I had an attitude and a vocabulary to match; all meant to keep the world at bay. The reality was, I was terrified. My life up until that point had been full of abuse. Abused as a child, physically, sexually and mentally, I then become a mark for future abuse. To my mind the phrase “he hit me because he loves me”, made sense. Before recovery I used any substance I could to numb the pain: alcohol, other drugs, men, food. It took years of step work and therapy to unravel all of this.
I first hit bottom during one of my many attempts to go university. Two of my classmates were in recovery in AA. Although I was drinking and using, I had a sense that we were kindred spirits. These two women listened to my horror stories of drinking and fights, and drug sickness. They came to the hospital when I had been beaten up by my ex-husband. One day, as I was going on about what a bastard my ex was, one of these women very gently said: “Do you think maybe you are the one with the problem?“ I can still hear her voice. I started to attend AA meetings but was not convinced that I had a problem. I went to meetings drunk and high. I went to find a way to get HIM sober.
And then I had a moment of clarity. A street clinic doctor told me that I would soon die if I did not stop my destructive lifestyle. Lying on that hospital gurney and wanting nothing more than to get back to the drug that I had just overdosed on, the word powerless came to mind and I knew it was true. I admitted I was an alcoholic/addict. There was nothing divine about that occurrence. I had obviously heard what I needed to hear at the meetings I had attended even though I was under the influence.
Looking back at that young woman I was in early recovery I feel such empathy and respect for her. It was a struggle to understand life and to try to learn to accept my past and to believe that I could have a future in which I did not get beat up, I was not drug sick or hung over. Early on in my recovery, I accepted that I was an alcoholic/drug addict and that I could not safely use any mind altering substance.
However, I was tormented by pain, anger, shame and guilt for how I had lived my life, and I had yet to learn other ways to deal with these feelings. As a result, I didn’t stay clean and sober right away. I had a number of one day relapses. However, I was taught to learn from those relapses. I was told to figure out if I was doing something that I shouldn’t be, something that jeopardized my sobriety: an unhealthy relationship perhaps? I had to figure out what had caused me to relapse. Was I not dealing with the feelings that were surfacing now that I had stopped anesthetizing myself? Was I being honest? Going to meetings? Seeking the help and support I needed inside and outside AA? Was I trying to be of service? I had to grapple with these questions and figure out what I needed to do to stay clean and sober. There was no other entity earthbound or otherwise that was going to figure this out for me.
I was also grappling with the whole concept of god.
I am an atheist. I do not believe in god and yet I have remained sober in AA since Nov 9, 1986. Sober and attending a program that suggested that I could not get sober without a god.
I am one of those individuals who were told to “fake it till you make it” and I did that because I didn’t want to die. I did try to find a god of my understanding. I prayed, even so far as to get on my knees to do so. But I could not believe in a god that would grant me sobriety if I asked in the right way. When I was nine months clean and sober, I returned to school to study Addictions and Mental Health and there were two nuns in my class. I would have long conversations with them about the nature of spirituality and religion.
It didn’t help… I still did not believe.
However I continued to attend meetings of AA and other 12 step programs and I am very thankful for the support that I received there. I read the Big Book and took some very good guidance from what I read. I did however change my copy so that “He” was taken out of the text. Later the term “God” was taken out. I used a paper clip to contain parts of the book such as the chapter “To Wives” because I found it to be sexist and codependent. I figured it was my book, it was my sobriety and I would do what I needed to stay sober and fairly sane.
It is only in the last 10 years that I have come out as an atheist in AA. At first, I began to speak tentatively of my non-belief. I wanted to tell the truth and I thought there may be others who needed to hear that I do not believe in any god, but I was nervous. And rightly so. I did get flak from some quarters. It was even suggest by one person that perhaps I am not an alcoholic after all, if I could remain sober without god.
However I also got encouragement and even thanks for sharing my non beliefs and the fact that I had remained clean/sober for 20 + years without god.
About five years ago, I was told that an Agnostic, Atheists and Free Thinkers group had been started in my area. At first, I was reluctant to attend. Even after many years of sobriety, I remembered what my life was like before I found the 12 step fellowships and I remembered the struggle to gain and maintain sobriety and I did not want to jeopardize my sobriety. Even though I did not believe in god and I did question much of the dogma of the program, mainstream AA and other 12 step programs had been my reed and I was afraid to let go. However, curiosity got the best of me and I finally went to a meeting of Beyond Belief.
Far from jeopardizing my sobriety, attending Agnostic, Atheists and Free Thinkers meetings has deepened and enhanced my sobriety. I found acceptance for the non-believer that I was. No one was going to try to convert me or, worse, question my sobriety because I did not believe in god. In the Agnostic, Atheist and Free Thinkers meetings I didn’t have to pretend to believe in something I did not. I did not have to deny that I believe that I am solely responsibility for my sobriety. It is up to me to figure out what to do to remain sober and then do it. Of course I am not doing this alone. I have had and continue to have great teachers and support in the fellowship.
And it has worked so far. Using the tools that I had picked up in 12 step programs, I have remained sober through the deaths of both of my parents. Relationships and jobs have come and gone. There have been financial and health difficulties but still have had not had to drink or do drugs.
My life is far from perfect but it is so much more than I ever believed I could have. I deal with depression and PTSD every day. When I was nine years clean I was suicidal and so I finally took the advice of my doctor and started to take medication. Her words “it will give you an opportunity to get a foot hold on life”. Many years of therapy and 12 step work later, I am now not on medication. However, I would have no qualms about going on a medication with the consultation of my doctors if I felt it necessary.
Although I still have these “issues” in my life, today I have a rich full life. I finally finished university. I have a good job that I enjoy. I am not wealthy but the bills are paid. I found my creativity. I found my love of nature and the joy in being outside. I am a tree hugger. The biggest payoff for me in staying clean and sober is the respect I have for myself today. I can look in the mirror and know that I have not deliberately harmed another person today. Although the wording of the original 12 steps is archaic and Christian-based, digging down, I found the essence of each step, the principle it is based on. These are my creed for living.
In Twelve and Twelve it states, “Of course, we were glad that good home and religious training had given us certain values”. Coming from an abusive and dysfunctional family I did not have that kind of education. The only values I learnt as a child were the value of a “26er” and the value of a good lie to keep from being beaten or abused. My religious education consisted of me being sent to stand outside the classroom because I would not accept some nonsense the nuns were trying to feed me.
I do not mean to sound bitter, so forgive me if I do. I am not. I honestly believe in what the late, great John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night”. I am happy for believers and wish them well. I hope there is room for all of us in Alcoholics Anonymous, believers and non-believers alike.
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.