By Thomas B.
A couple of years ago, my wife Jill and I were visiting my daughters and grandkids in Frederick, Maryland. We found an open Big Book meeting listed on the Internet at a nearby Methodist church. Held in a classroom, neither the window shades for the 12 Steps or Traditions were in sight. No slogans either. A small book of Christian meditations, The Upper Room, was at each seat. Before the meeting started, I asked the chairperson if this was an AA Meeting.
Rather arrogantly he replied, “Absolutely, this is AA the way it was supposed to be.”
“Excuse me?” I queried.
“Yes, we follow the original format used by the Akron Oxford Group as developed by Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne.”
“What do you mean?” I further inquired.
“We all surrender on our knees in prayer to Jesus Christ. Then we read from our meditation book and seek guidance in quiet time for 15 minutes. We then share with each other the guidance we receive from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Jill and I were appalled. We quickly left the meeting.
This incident made me most grateful for my first AA meetings.
* * *
It was the dreary, drizzly evening of Thursday, October 19, 1972, when I went to my first meeting. It happened I took my last drink the previous Saturday. I didn’t go to AA to stop drinking – I went to get my second wife back. You see, one night I flew into a drunken rage sloppily carving the chicken I had cooked for Debbie and me to have for a romantic candlelight dinner after her first day at a new job. It kept burning my fingers! She insisted I had thrown it at her. I hadn’t. I had just screamed in frustration and thrown it into the faux fireplace beside our dining table. Nevertheless, she fled our Manhattan apartment in terror.
Unemployed, I drank, per usual, around the clock for several days, desperately seeking Debbie. I couldn’t find her, so I made several pitiful, drunken attempts to kill myself. My last attempt was an hour or so before my last drink while driving to my mother-in-law’s apartment in New Rochelle, NY. Driving along a parkway, I saw a wide expanse of curving concrete wall before me. I revved up my car, a dilapidated Opel Stationwagen, and aimed straight for the gray-white concrete rushing towards me. I could feel the bumps and rattles as I drove onto the shoulder, chugalugging a can of Colt .45.
I came to several minutes later, aimlessly driving around an upscale neighborhood. This was my moment of “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” I was a complete and utter failure – I couldn’t even properly kill myself! I drove to my mother-in-law’s hoping to find Debbie. She wasn’t there. Yelling obscenities, I slammed out the apartment. There were two unopened 16 oz. cans of Colt .45 on the front seat. My intention was to drink them, buy another case of 16 oz. cans, and continue to drink until I killed myself.
Just as I have no explanation why I ended up not smashing into the concrete wall, I have no explanation as to what happened when I got into the car. I did not open a can of beer. I drove in a fugue-like state through a blinding rainstorm back to Manhattan. I spent the first night in several years without drinking my self into a stupor. I tossed and turned, shaking horribly with night terrors, but I did not drink again.
I desperately wanted to get my wife back, and thought that maybe, if I stopped drinking and went to AA, she would come back. So, I called AA Intergroup. I had a hazy concept of AA being something about broken-down old men who were 60 or 70. I was 29 years old. My second wife had left me. I was an utter and total failure. I couldn’t even f—king kill myself.
I remember little about that first AA meeting, but incredibly, I didn’t drink and went to the same meeting the following week. The first speaker I could identify with was Stanley S. Stancage, who spoke at the third meeting. A chronic relapser, he usually got violent and ended up in an emergency room or jail. Stan was a huge man of Russian descent with hands the size of catcher’s mitts. A couple of years older than me, he was highly educated, quoting Marx, Camus and Nietzsche in his qualification. He waved his huge hands about, gesticulating like an Italian fishmonger, while spewing a plethora of F-bombs. I was riveted by his qualification and thought, “Shit, if this asshole can stop drinking, maybe I can too.” I heard he tragically alcohol-poisoned himself several years later chugalugging a quart of 100 proof vodka.
After that meeting someone approached me, asking if I had a meeting list.
“Meeting List?” I replied, “What’s that?”
“A listing of AA meetings in New York City.”
I was dumbfounded. “You mean this isn’t the only one?” I really was quite mocus when I first came around.
“Oh no,” he replied, reaching into his back pocket, “There’re some 500 meetings a week in the City. Here, take my list.”
I saw from the meeting list I could go to meetings practically around the clock. Since I was unemployed, that’s what I did. I didn’t drink, and I went to meetings. I had no difficulty identifying as an alcoholic. I accepted I was virulently addicted to the liquid, legal drug, Colt.45. What I did deny was the hope that I could recover – I could see that the program worked for others. I just wasn’t sure it would work for me. Nevertheless, I didn’t drink and went to meetings. That’s all that I did. I didn’t get a sponsor, I didn’t work the steps, I didn’t read any literature. I just joined the Fellowship of AA.
I wanted my wife back.
* * *
After being sober eight months, Debbie let me move into her apartment. Just as soon as I did, I darkly fantasized she had a lover. I became extremely jealous and suspicious. Every Tuesday evening she had a group meeting with her therapist. She would stay out until the wee hours the next morning. Her story was that the group lasted until about eleven o’clock, and then they would all go out for coffee afterwards. One rainy night I crouched behind some garbage cans across from her shrink’s office, waiting for her to leave with a lover. About eleven o’clock the group members came out and walked to a nearby coffee shop. I had to take a taxi home to get there before she did.
I continued not to drink and to go to meetings. I celebrated my first sober anniversary.
A couple of weeks later, I came home early from a midnight meeting and found Debbie in bed with Tom, a co-worker. After he left, we argued, while I hastily packed a suitcase. I was devastated, distraught, inconsolable. I didn’t know for certain what I was going to do. Nevertheless, sitting forlornly in Stuyvesant Square Park, as the rosy-fingered dawn brightened the New York City morning, I knew only one thing for certain. I did not want to drink! Debbie had taken me back, but she had betrayed me. However, because I had gone to lots of meetings and did not drink between meetings, I surprised myself – I did not want to drink!
* * *
A couple of weeks later, I met Peter, who became my sponsor, but mostly a dear friend, for the next 33 years. I chose him for a sponsor because when he discovered his second wife having an affair, he got drunk. I did not want to get drunk, so I began doing the steps with Peter. I had no problem with the first step. I knew alcohol made my life unmanageable. I had a bit of hesitation at the second step because no way could I accept any “power greater than myself” being some kind of distant god somewhere unknown. I did not, however, have a problem with being restored to sanity – I accepted I was sometimes crazy as a loon.
“So,” Peter queried me, “Can you stay sober by yourself?”
“Uh, probably not,” I hesitantly replied. “I know I need meetings.”
“So, there you have it,” Peter said.
“Huh,” I puzzled, “ Have what?”
“Your higher power is the group of drunks, g-o-d.”
Made sense to me! Peter also made the third step easy for me. He pointed out that I don’t turn my life and will over to some nebulous big daddy in a sky far, far away. He taught me that I turn my life and my will over to the care of a higher power, in my case the group of drunks. I could readily accept that I was cared for, certainly by Peter, as well as by other men and women in the rooms of AA.
In short order, I did a 4th and 5th step with him. Then, we just stopped doing the steps formally as sponsor and pigeon. There was no black and white decision to do this. We just morphed into peers, co-equals sharing recovery together. We related with each other. We meditated together. We talked about our experiences, what we were reading and thinking about. In other words, we shared our “experience, strength and hope” with each other. We also shared our anger, resentment, frustration, fear and despair! No matter what, though, we stayed sober. I experienced with Peter a level of trust and unconditional acceptance that is the essence of intimacy: into-me-see, and equally he let me see into him.
I threw myself into the fellowship of AA, getting active in service work. I co-chaired the first New York City Young Peoples Conference in 1978. I became a licensed professional in the field of addiction, from which I retired in 2006. I married for a third time – Sara birthed a son now 33, who shares recovery with me. I continued not to drink and to go to meetings. I’ve attended meetings all over the world, several in languages I didn’t understand, but felt deeply our shared language of the heart. I continued to help others whenever possible.
* * *
In full retirement, I now live on the coast of Oregon and am once more happily married. In my 41st year of recovery, I don’t consider myself “recovered.” I have known too many people with quality, long-term sobriety who relapsed. Several of them died miserably. I trust explicitly the dictum in the Big Book that “we experience a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” I remain dogmatically anti-religious, but continue to be a devout spiritual seeker. I deeply respect and learn from the wisdom traditions around the world.
I am ever so grateful my fate had me experience the gift of recovery in New York City. I don’t believe I could have gotten sober in a fundamentally Christian environment, such as Jill and I experienced in Frederick, MD. In our current Oregon small town home group, there are only topic meetings out of the Big Book. Any other AA literature is rarely mentioned. Some members proclaim Alcoholics Anonymous as a close second to their “biggest book”, the Bible. I believe that IF fundamentalist Christian influences in AA succeed in forging the principles of the 12-step recovery process into a ritualized, Bible-oriented dogma, then AA, like other recovery movements, shall wither on the vine of it’s own self-inflicted demise.
The dynamic between evangelical Christians and humanist, secular, freethinking members has been ongoing since AA’s earliest beginnings. The collaboration between Oxford Group Christians in Akron and several agnostic/atheist members in New York resulted in an organization, which for most of its 78 years has been all-inclusive.
But we all know that there is currently a regressive, fundamentalist trend within AA.
Nevertheless, I am greatly relieved by the growing movement of AA Agnostica and other freethinking, humanist, secular initiatives within 12-step recovery communities. Further, I am fascinated by advertisement for the documentary entitled “The Anonymous People” that I first noticed last week here on AA Agnostica. A day at a time, we shall continue to help each other stay sober in recovery.
I humbly accept I am powerless to change AA and the biased attitudes of many members in the rooms, but I am grateful I can choose to speak my truth of 41 years of continuous sobriety, a continuing and long-term recovery not based on the Christian religious beliefs I often hear about at AA meetings. I will continue to carry the message of spiritual recovery not based on Christianity or any other religion or “God:” just one sober drunk / clean drug addict talking to and working with another, one day at a time.
The painting at the top of this post is called “Horizon of Hope” and is gratefully used with permission. You can see more of the artist’s work at her website: Laura Harris.