First AA Meetings

Horizon of Hope

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.

25 Responses

  1. Siddhartha S. says:

    Really loved reading your article! Recharged me! 🙂 Thanks.

  2. Thomas B. says:

    In my opinion, you demonstrate the essence of what Bill’s message was concerning the governance of AA from the group level to the General Service Board. Perhaps, it is also effectively summarized in one of our ubiquitous slogans, “Live and Let Live.” To my mind, it also resides in our 12th Tradition, where we imperfectly strive to follow “principles before personalities.”

    Thank you, Lech — you have helped me with this observation. I’m somewhat a slow learner, being more apt to sally forth once more into the breach of arrogant defiance against those I judge to be small minded and bigots. Your position is much more within the principled ideal of “love and tolerance is our code.”

  3. Lech L. says:

    There is a wide variety of practice among AA groups.
    I don’t like what goes on in many of them – e.g. AA groups that call themselves AA when most of the attendees are drug addicts and 90% of the discussion focusses on drugs.
    But many of our fellowship would disapprove of how I trudge the road to happy destiny.
    So rather than belabouring Central Office about delisting some group, I prefer to eschew their meetings and let them run things however they like.

  4. Roger says:

    Of course, “Ed” here is the name Bill used to refer to the most famous early atheist in AA, Jim Burwell.

  5. John O says:

    Oops, the Ed The Atheist story in Tradition 3, not Step 3, of the 12X12 (p. 143-144). Where he ranted about the “God nonsense” again and again. And where they were about to kick him out, when he pointed to Tradition 3 – then in draft form – “The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking”.
    “So Ed stayed.”

  6. John O says:

    I haven’t been thrilled with the 12 X 12 either. Sure there is a lot of tolerance in e.g. Step 3, the Ed The Atheist story. But I’ve found quite a bit of derogation of agnostics, e.g. “prideful balloons”.

    One book (Conference Approved Literature), “Living Sober” is well worth a mention — almost no God or supernaturalism. No mental gymnastics.

    Good for you to have the courage to actually step away from the prayer circle. Almost always I just stay silent, only a few times have I not joined the prayer circle (but then I don’t go to many meetings because all of the God talk — I feel like the program doesn’t fit me at all and wonder more and more what I’m doing there. That’s just me — I used to get a lot out of it and was able to blow off the God stuff, but now that’s about all I hear).

  7. Thomas B. says:

    MIMI — yes, I thought when Peter’s wife mentioned you, that you were you, if that makes any sense! So glad to be reconnected! I don’t know the protocol about publishing my email addy here, but Roger you have my permission to forward it to Mimi.

    Thanks for your kind words. I remember you well from both places, especially the last. Please give my regards to any folks you’re still in contact with.

    What part of Ohio? I graduated from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1965. I do hope after all these years we can reconnect.

  8. Mimi A. says:

    Peter’s wife forwarded this to me. I remember you. You worked at two places where I also worked after getting my degree. I always know how old I am by looking at the age of AA in meetings. I came from Ohio and magically believe they were
    paving the way for me. You’re very inspirational and a great representative for recovery!

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Tim — yes, the collaborative tension that has kept our fellowship all-inclusive has been with AA since it’s earliest beginnings. Next Monday is the celebration of AA’s 78th Founders’ Day — hopefully, we shall continue to be all-inclusive indefinitely.

  10. Tim C says:

    Great story. Thanks Tom. There was a day when even Bill W himself thought the OG groups talked to much about religion and God:

    In the early days she (Henrietta Seiberling) recalled, Bill (Wilson) said to me “Henrietta, I don’t think we should talk so much about religion or God.” (Dr. Bob and Good Oldtimers, p. 159)

  11. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Phil. I’ve used Good Orderly Direction as well. Of late I add “group of drunk/druggies” and often identify myself as primarily addicted to the liquid, legal drug ETOH. I’ve always been perplexed why many in AA are so prejudiced against those who abuse and are addicted to other drugs besides alcohol, when even in the Big Book, for example, on page 22, other drugs are prominently mentioned as part of the progressive deterioration of the disease for some of us.

    Even in the 4th edition of the Big Book, Dr. Paul’s story was changed from “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict” to “Acceptance Was the Answer” How come? I may write a post about this conundrum some time.

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Tom, in my early years I used to go to the Butterfield group that used to meet on East 72nd Street between 1st and 2nd, if I recall correctly. I always enjoy immensely, most of the time, the meetings I attend while traveling. I’m too tired tonight, but tomorrow night I look forward to finding a meeting in Louisville.

    The other day, one of the BigBook Thumpers in my group suggested as a topic to discuss the slogan we relied on the most when we first got sober, I piped up that the slogan I used most both when I first came around and as well the one I rely on most today, is DDGTMs — Don’t Drink; Go To Meetings. He wasn’t amused, but many were, and, of course, I cracked myself up . . . 😉

  13. Thomas B. says:

    You know, John, I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten recovery in New York City. There, though there were certainly Big Book meetings, in which we read and discussed it, there wasn’t the emphasis to study it religiously like I experience here in Coos Bay. Most of my recovery I’ve been oblivious to much of the “God-only stuff,” just as in my early weeks I was oblivious to the fact that there were many more meetings in New York City than the one I attended.

    It’s only been of late since coming to Coos Bay that I’ve been aware of just how unAgnostic “We Agnostics” really is, as you so amply notate. Also, I’ve depended much more on the 12 & 12 and Bill’s later writing, especially his Grapevine articles and the wealth of correspondence of which to date only a small percentage has been published, rather than the Big Book.

    See my comment to Charlie’s post regarding “The Lord’s Prayer.” I’m quite grateful that even in the Bible/Big Book-centric meetings of my home group in Coos Bay, only occasionally is it ended with the Lord’s Prayer. When it is, I just gently step outside the prayer circle.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    Ha, lovely story, Laurie — I hadn’t heard it before. But it reminds me of the old adage that all you need to start a new meeting is a resentment and a coffee pot.

    I’m so indebted to Ernie for the definitive work he did in detailing AA’s history — I was most privileged to meet and talk with him on several occasions, when we both were teaching at the Rutgers Summer Institute of Addictions in the late 80s and early 90s.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    Yeah, Charlie, most of my recovery I’ve been in much larger metropolitan areas than the one where I presently reside in Coos Bay, so I had the choice of avoiding meetings that rubbed me the wrong way.

    Once while visiting Orlando, FL in the 80s, I went to a meeting, which was tolerable until the ending, where not only did they pray the Lord’s Prayer holding hands, but they knelt down while praying it as well. I respectfully demurred by stepping outside the prayer circle, but I don’t think I’ll ever visit Orlando again . . . 😉

  16. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Dave,

    At the time, I called the West Central Intergroup of Maryland and also wrote them an email detailing my understanding of how the meeting as listed was in violation of our Traditions, but apparently to no avail. The meeting is still listed as a Big Book meeting. I opined that it would be fine if it were listed as a Christian Recovery Special Interest group, but that it was most disconcerting for a visiting member of AA or a beginner, who would be offended by the proselytizing .

    I salute you for your willingness to engage in civil discourse with such folks. I’m not that spiritually recovered as yet. My Scotch-Irish temper as an adult child of the rebellious 60s most likely would get the best of me, and I would be a most negative power of example of recovery . . . 😉

    In general, I endeavor to practice “principles over personalities” in the spirit of “love and tolerance,” but I also have a realistic appraisal of my limitations and the progress I yet have to achieve.

  17. Phil E. says:

    “Group of Drunks”. Pretty good, that. “Good Orderly Direction” was suggested to me.

  18. Tom G says:

    Thomas: Thanks for sharing your experience. I often wonder what would have become of our program if things stayed the same back in 1935. In 1939 we only had 100 members at that rate of growth we would have 1,950 today. I have only walked out of two meetings in 37 years. One because it was on step 8 and the other because the smoke was killing me. I primarily attend open speaker meetings but will attend other types of meetings. Sometimes it’s the meetings I don’t normaly attend I get the most out of. Several years ago I was going to Sloan Kettering in NYC and would go to meetings on 72nd Street.

  19. John O says:

    It would help if A.A. people would quit recommending that we read Chapter 4, “We Agnostics” where they spend page after page dumping on agnostics, calling them, “Handicapped By Obstinacy” (p. 48), “prejudiced” and “unreasoning prejudice” (p. 48) “Rather Vain” (p. 49), “No Reasonable Conception Whatever” (p. 49), “Biased And Unreasonable” (p. 51), “Prey To Misery And Depression” (p. 52), “Couldn’t Make A Living” (p. 52), “Full of Fear” (p. 52), “Our Ideas Did Not Work” (p. 52), “We Couldn’t Quite Step Ashore” (p. 53), “Leaning Too Heavily On Reason” (p. 53), “Abjectly Faithful To The God Of Reason” (p. 54), “Whirling On To A Destiny Of Nothingness” (p. 54), “Fooling Ourselves” (p. 55), and on and on.

    And suggesting we read the rest of the Big Book too where God is presented as a deity (I’ll give you several dozens of quotes if that’s what you are looking for), and where mere human power is denigrated:

    …we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God.
    Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust in God and clean house. (BB, p. 98)

    “The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.” (BB, p. 43)

    This Power has in each case accomplished the miraculous, the humanly impossible. (BB, p. 50)

    (b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism
    (c) That God could and would if He were sought” (BB, p. 60)

    Finally, it would also help if meetings were not closed with the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 11).

  20. Roger says:

    Lovely and wonderful quote from Ernie.

  21. Laurie A says:

    Thanks for your 41 years, terrific example. And re: June – it’s also AA’s anniverary on the 10th. Ernie Kurtz wrote:

    Alcoholics Anonymous shall survive so long as its message remains that of the not-God-ness of the wholeness of accepted limitation; and this itself shall endure so long as AA’s spiritualisers and its liberals – its “right” and its “left” – maintain in mutual respect the creative tension that arises from their willingness to participate even with others of so different assumptions in shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged.

    Maybe you know the story of the AA member cast away alone on a desert island. Years later a passing ship spots him and a boat is sent to pick him up. One of the sailors notices that the castaway has built a hut at each end of the island. “What are they?” he asks. The AA member replied, “One is my home group, the other one is the meeting I never go.”

  22. Charlie M. says:

    A few years ago I attended a meeting in the northern area of Philadelphia where the pope and “virgin” Mary’s pictures were prominently displayed on the wall along with the American flag. After the meeting, while saying the lord’s prayer, many of those attending crossed themselves like any “good” catholic. I didn’t return to that meeting.

  23. David H. says:

    Thanks, Thomas. Great story.
    Makes me wonder about that Oxford Group based group, if they ever faced threats of de-listing? My niece and I went to a similar meeting in Oceanside, CA, based on the 10 commandments, that we found listed in the Intergroup meeting list. We did the same as you, just left.
    Faced with the same situation today I think I would be inclined to engage in some discussion, or maybe stay and share my misgivings, in a general way, as part of my experience, strength and hope.
    Thanks again.

  24. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed it does, Boyd. I’ll have to check out the “No Rules” group in Eugene.

    BTW, my intention is to respond to all comments and will love to engage in dialogue here with anyone. A slight fly in the ointment is that in 15 minutes I’m embarking on one of my favorite pastimes, a road trip.

    I’ll respond to comments, but it will be in Internet time, not real time.

  25. Boyd P. says:

    Glad you have found neutral ground in AA, in Oregon. I have as well. Was particularly pleased to find a morning meeting in Eugene called “No Rules.”
    Fellowship works. Boyd.

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