Positive Attitude Changes Everything

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Chapter 22:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

Helen L.

My name is Helen and I am an alcoholic. That simply means that I cannot safely drink. I have been introducing myself at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that way for 30 years.

I came into the rooms at age 23 having been kicked out of college for failing to maintain grades. I had been an honors student and I was devastated by my repeated failures semester after semester. A psychiatrist in recovery introduced me to my first AA meeting. He told me before we walked in: take what you need and leave the rest. I have never forgotten that advice. He also wrote in a Big Book for me: Positive Attitude Changes Everything.

Although I recognized that my life was unmanageable, I did not know if I was really an alcoholic. There were always more notorious drinkers around me to prove otherwise. I was in the early stages of the disease: periodic embarrassing binges, punctuated by occasions where I could manage to have just one. However, I couldn’t predict when that would be. And those controlled drinking occasions were becoming less and less frequent over time. I was less and less reliable at school, procrastinating with my own to-do lists, missing classes, not meeting my own potential. My religion of origin had given me plenty of beliefs about God, but by the time I had been kicked out of college, I had lost faith in myself.

I kept coming back to meetings because I wanted what the people in AA clearly had: they had turned their lives around from failure to success, they were no longer ashamed of themselves, they were happy. I was willing to abstain – temporarily – from alcohol while I learned their secret to achieving serenity.

They did not kick me out for not knowing whether or not I was one of them.

Eventually I heard other women tell my story. I read on page 23 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions these words granting us early stage alcoholics admission into the fellowship:

(We) were joined by young people who were scarcely more than potential alcoholics. They were spared that last ten or fifteen years of literal hell the rest of us had gone through… How could people such as these take this step (one)?

By going back over our drinking histories, we could show that years before we realized it we were out of control, that our drinking even then was no mere habit, that it was indeed the beginning of a fatal progression…

Alcoholism was progressive! I went over my own relatively shorter drinking history and found that it indeed had been getting worse over time. That night was my first time identifying in as an alcoholic.

There were in the rooms holy roller Big Book thumpers whose angry zealotry was unattractive to me. But the majority of AA members welcoming me in 1985 were extremely accepting of people not like them. They practiced live and let live and unconditional love. This is the most important modeling AA has ever given me. We were diverse in terms of gender, races, classes, ages, abilities, diagnoses, politics, beliefs, sexual orientations. None of that mattered. Our recovery together came first.

I was still very sensitive to criticism. Being judged, for any reason, would have chased me back out those doors. I was lucky to have stumbled into the one place of acceptance and unconditional love that would eventually heal not only my alcoholism but also my own self-judgment, projection and shame issues.

Because I was attracted to the remarkable serenity in AA, I embarked on the steps – and attempted to use the conception of god that I had been taught in my youth. I did my best but did not feel any lightning bolts of closeness to a higher power as claimed by some of our religious members. I attributed this disappointment to some fault of my own. Nevertheless, I stayed sober and kept coming back. I placed myself into the middle of the boat, and my social life included mostly people in recovery.

My initial sponsor was a mother figure to me. But when the time came to take my 4th & 5th steps, well, there are some things one cannot tell one’s mother. So I asked another woman whom I had heard joyfully leading a 10th step meeting if she would help me start my 4th step. I wanted the joy she had experienced in practicing self examination. “I am happy to help you! Your 5th step is with me next week.” This was not what I expected to hear, but the immediate 5th step deadline was exactly what I needed to focus and complete step four. I learned to look wherever pride and fear could trip me up. Her own nonjudgement and her guidance away from self-judgement was such a revelation to me. I had been swimming in a soup of perfectionistic judgmentalism all my life. Free of self-judgment, I was then free to become more understanding of myself and of others.

Through my trust in the principles of program, my connection to others who were working the steps, and my willingness to apply these principles in my own life, I have become more able to “live life on life’s terms”, to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and to overcome other issues besides alcohol.

My work on letting go of attempting to control the disturbing behaviors of other people brought me into other fellowships. So I also learned “inner child” lessons about myself and detachment issues about life from Alanon and Adult Children of Alcoholics.

I learned boundaries: for instance, not to tolerate intolerable behavior from others. I learned I could just acknowledge how I was feeling and ask for what I needed rather than telling bad actors exactly what I thought of them. If they weren’t willing to improve their relationship with me, I was free to focus on better relationships elsewhere. I accept that some relationships teach us valuable lessons, and that we can sometimes outgrow people. I have learned to “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated (or denigrated)”.

I was also able to turn my life around into successful living in more tangible ways.

Early on, I returned to complete my college degree and later I went on to obtain a Masters Degree in Social Work and had a successful career as an employee assistance counselor and clinical social worker. And, years later, after I married, I also became a Master Gardener, a beekeeper, and a Permaculture Designer.

I have raised a lovely daughter who is now starting college. She has always known me as a sober mother, and along with her father, also sober, we provided a stable home. During her high school years, I was hired to teach college courses in Horticulture. I had come full circle from being expelled from college in my 20’s to becoming a college associate professor in my fifties. I was meeting my potential and becoming my own best self.

As our literature promises, more has been revealed. My longtime immersion in a loving, accepting and sober atmosphere eventually resulted in a change in my conception of a power greater than myself. I now view this greater power not as a divine personage but as a human inter-connective flow of love and service between all of us.

I’ve been a newbie atheist for almost five years. I went through a dark night of the soul to get here. To transition from believer to nonbeliever is a frightening process. Abandonment issues needed to be resolved first.

I do acknowledge a power “greater than myself”: Lovingkindness is very powerful. It encompasses all of us and includes me. I strive to be non-hierarchic in all things. I still practice the steps to maintain honesty, open-mindedness and willingness and I appreciate the self-examination wisdom in them.

For myself, I translate the word God wherever it appears in the literature to the word Lovingkindness.  In step 3, I dedicate myself to practicing the principle of Lovingkindness. Although I can still speak fluently the language of Christian philosophy, I identify today as an atheist in the rooms. I accept graciously that others are not there yet. It took me two decades to graduate up to atheism, who am I to judge anyone for where they are now in their 2nd step journey? Besides, I know from personal experience that this program works either way, both with belief in a deity and without. So our beliefs do not really matter. It is faith in the loving power at work among people in these rooms that matters. As the literature still reminds me, “This is the way to a faith that works”.

As Ebby T. suggested to Bill Wilson long ago, we are free within Alcoholics Anonymous to choose our own conceptions of a power greater than ourselves. We can live our beliefs and let others live theirs. Our common welfare in recovery comes first. Lovingkindness: This is the way to a faith that works. Positive Attitude Changes Everything.


Do Tell! [Front Cover]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 AmazonIt is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom. If you live in the UK or Europe, please purchase the book from your local Amazon. The result is better shipping rates and quicker delivery.

It can be purchased online in all eBook formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook and as an iBook for Macs and iPads.


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Positive Attitude Changes Everything — 11 Comments

  1. Love this! I’d be lost without this website. I still find that believers treat me like I’ve got an illness which can be cured and tell me to go and read ‘We Agnostics’.

    • “We Agnostics” deserves a thorough thrashing, review, concordance of its own, and fearless book study group shares.

      I just became aware the “origins” of the word agnostic, coined by T.H. Huxley, grandpa to several famous kids and vigorous apologist for Darwin’s evolution theory. Proud origins indeed.

  2. Indeed, such a lovely example of a newbie atheist, who respects the evolutionary process of the 12 steps and is deeply imbued in our code of love and tolerance for believers. Thank you, Helen.

  3. One of my favorites in Do Tell, since it was a long process for me to go from “fundamentalist preacher” to a non-theist secular Buddhist with Lakota tendencies :-). In my first decade or so of recovery, it was important for me to keep it simple and not get into the theological shibboleths that keep people apart and me in angst. However, recovery is progressive, if we continue to uncover, discover, and discard … and over the last couple of decades, my understanding and practice have evolved considerably from what it was like when first i came into the rooms. Thanx for the good read!

  4. I share a lot of this story’s plot. I got sober before procreation so my adult kids have never known me as someone who drank (or using other mind-altering substances). They’ve seen some obsessiveness, they’ve witnessed my compulsiveness. I’ve heard enough about the shame parents feel when they get sober to know I dodged a bullet by not being a drinking dad.

    I think it’s normal for a seeker to review our beliefs and challenge ourselves over time. Apostates are not unusual in AA because regular self-evaluation is part of our (12-Step) suggested training.

    This is such a good story for others going through doubt in long-term sobriety. In my case, I wondered if, when I became more candid about my beliefs (or lack of – according to some AAs I suppose), if friends would be lost and I would be as welcome. It turns out that believing and belonging are not hand-in-hand.

    I’m still active in mainstream AA (more service than meetings) and I’m just a rank-and-file member to most people.

    It was nice to read this story again, Helen.

  5. What a clear, hopeful and outstanding contribution to the recovery literature. “The joy of good living is the theme of AA’s Twelfth Step.” This story witnesses to the power of the Program and the Fellowship together, something like the old idea that “Love and marriage go together like the horse and carriage…” That is perhaps one old idea we can hold onto if we are willing to identify and let go of destructive and self-limiting old ideas, quickly or slowly. Thanks, Roger, for posting this!

  6. I think it fascinating how people wind up becoming atheists in AA, I have now met quite a few. Funny that AA is a place where people came to un-believe.

    Maybe it’s that Bill Wilson tried so hard to convince us by “logical argument” to believe, and the arguments obviously didn’t hold water. As compared to the bible which doesn’t try to convince anyone, it just presumes to be the truth.

    In the beginning god created the heaven and the earth. “Doesn’t go into detail”, as Ricky Gervais slyly remarks.

    I guess Christianity doesn’t require rigorous honesty like AA does either, guess that’s where the god of AA carries the seed of its own undoing.

    The thing that still puzzles me though is how many people who profess to be unbelievers in an interventionist deity per se, still buy into the concept of a higher power. Hey, whatever works, but it is a concept which I cannot see the need for. And whether they call it lovingkindness (which admittedly is as benign, positive and life affirmative as it gets) or their unsuspected inner resource (how can something bigger than me be contained within me?), or whatever, – it is good with loving kindness, it is good with an unsuspected resource, or my higher self, or whatever, that’s not the point, what my issue with it is, is that it gets framed in the concept Bill Wilson designed, and that therefore the distinction between the god of his understanding, and these benign spiritual concepts get muddled. We don’t need a power “greater” or “higher” than ourselves, we just need to start living our lives in a more mindful way, respectful of life around us, and of ourselves, and, yes, with love and kindness.

    Nothing higher about that in the sense of a vertical dualism though.

    Hey anyone can go ahead and believe whatever they want, I’m just saying the higher power concept only muddles our thinking. It’s one thing where Bill WEilson’s ill logic still seems to hold a grip in many.

    • I agree with you, life-j. I admit I was powerless over alcohol. I couldn’t quit drinking on my own. But it’s a big jump from that to needing a higher power or to adopt a substitute for the Higher Power. I just needed help and I found it in AA. I found a lot of help outside of AA too.

      I think a lot of us come up with a substitute word or phrase because it’s the only way to sit through a traditional meeting and make it palatable to ourselves, so that we can still feel like we are part of the group. This can be a good thing, because when I’m in a meeting and feel like an outsider, it’s a pretty miserable experience. I want what these people have (minus the religion) and I need to feel like I belong.

      So, while I completely reject Bill’s framing of the issue – alcoholic death or God – I acknowledge that I need to adapt to the environment for my own survival. I really love agnostic meetings where there’s no need to do that.

    • I think that relying on something other than ourselves — in other words, that we can’t do it alone — is important, but I agree that slotting any of what we rely on into the deity spot doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is one of many reasons why I don’t work the steps.

      Considering that text led me to conclude that a deity or any other “higher power” was irrelevant to my recovery, and that conclusion helped me to clarify my beliefs as atheist (I’d previously identified as agnostic). Count me in as another atheist made in the rooms of AA. 🙂

  7. I loved this essay. I, too, am a late blooming atheist. I discovered that I was an atheist two years ago at age 47… after 47 years entrenched in heavy duty Christianity. I now feel free. Thank you for sharing your experience. It reflects my own.