By Sher G.
Any time I talked with my sponsor, her responses seemed overwhelmingly to miss the mark. She used AA expressions to minimize or dismiss my struggles. I found myself getting increasingly defensive and offering up ever more dramatic accounts to express how hard things really were; but everything I said prompted yet another convenient phrase.
Why couldn’t she hear my pain? Why couldn’t she respond in a way that might resonate with me? Or if she was at a loss, why couldn’t she just express her compassion?
She insisted that without a belief in a Higher Power, I would drink again; that my own will power would not be enough to resist my cravings. Her insistence that I cultivate a belief struck me as odd; can a person even construct a belief in a Higher Power? How can someone decide to believe something they don’t believe?
She said until I developed that belief, perhaps I could think of the fellowship, or Group of Drunks, as my Higher Power. But step 3 kept tripping me up: “turn my life and my will over to a Higher Power.” This group of drunks was made up of people, fallible, flawed, like me.
I felt misunderstood and mishandled under her guidance. Still long before embracing my atheism, I started to realize that I did not feel safe with her. She clearly did not know me, how could she know what was best for me?
When she sensed my heightened resistance she pushed, asking, “Are you willing to do anything to stay sober?” I realized with sudden clarity that my answer was, “no.”
No, I was not willing to put my care and wellbeing into the hands of other flawed and imperfect humans. No, I was not willing to do whatever I was told to do by someone who discredited and minimized my struggles. No, I was not willing to put someone else’s recipe for sobriety ahead of my emotional well-being, of feeling safe and valued and understood.
That marked the end of my relationship with my sponsor, and soon after I did return to drinking. But half a year later I returned to AA with a new conviction of my allergy to alcohol.
I found a new sponsor; a woman I hoped would understand me better, to better guide me through the steps. We started the steps at the beginning, and again I got stuck on step 3. She insisted that I not proceed until I was really solid with step 3. She said, “I know you find solace in nature. Can you think of that as your Higher Power?” It is true that I find time in nature uplifting and enriching. And during times of struggle I do look to nature for perspective and for healing. But nature is not a Higher Power in the sense AA implies: a benevolent being that will act in my personal best interest. Nature is indifferent to suffering. A windstorm takes down hundred year old trees; lions catch and eat antelopes; the tar pits captured unwary dinosaurs in search of water. Nature is not going to intervene when I falter, and nature is not going to keep me sober.
It was her gentle queries that prompted me to take a hard look at my spiritual beliefs, something I had resisted doing since the time that my spiritual understanding of life did not stand up to the test of one horrific traumatic event. When I looked deep inside, I knew that I no longer believed in any benevolent force in the universe; that I hadn’t believed it in many years.
When I finally faced my Atheism and shared that with my sponsor, she gently and kindly told me that she could no longer sponsor me. She cared for me and wished me well, but her understanding of the steps and sobriety centered completely on a belief in a higher power, and she would not know how to guide me without that.
That’s when my searching led me to AA Agnostica: a beacon of hope for a wayward atheist alcoholic. I perused alternative steps, and this alternative Step 3 just about knocked my socks off: “We made a decision to let go of control, assume a spirit of goodwill, seek the wisdom of responsible others, and discover our true ‘voice within’.” (from The Twelve Step Journal, reprinted in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps by Roger C.) Discover our true voice within? This sounds like trusting a part of ourselves. This is definitely not what I had been taught, about how my best thinking had gotten me into this horrible place.
In the months since “discovering” my atheism I have done some research outside of AA literature. I’ve been reading Charlotte Kasl’s Many Roads One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps. She describes how women in our culture are raised to give our trust to others (not make them earn it), not question authority, be peace makers, and sacrifice ourselves for others. For these reasons, the AA edict of not trusting ourselves and giving up control is not the best in our evolution towards becoming self-confident, capable women (and in cases where there has been abuse, turning one’s life and will over to another can be disastrous).
Over these past months I have remembered that in fact I do have an innate wisdom that I can learn to tap into, and that I can trust. Can my addiction still be sneaky and conniving? Yes, but I find it isn’t hard to distinguish between the voice of inner wisdom and the voice of addiction.
So from here, where? For me the single most compelling offering of AA is the meetings: places I can go, as often as I need, where I can be among others who understand my struggle with alcohol; where I can be as candid and vulnerable as I want, without fear of being judged; and when my addiction starts tempting me the stories I hear from others pull me back to the reality that “one drink” is never harmless.
I find it extraordinarily hard to attend traditional meetings on those occasions where everyone is “talking God,” or where if I offer a non-higher-power perspective, afterwards I am besieged with well-meaning God-pushers. I feel left out, different, unwelcomed. And that is a sore feeling for someone who has already stepped out of the entire human population and into this subset of people called alcoholics.
So I find myself stuck, needing the support of AA, but needing a welcoming acceptance that is largely lacking. Even so I wouldn’t go back. For a long time, I felt embarrassed; I would start my share by excusing myself: “I’m one of those who can’t figure out the Higher Power,” or, “I can’t seem to get past step 3.” I no longer feel embarrassed. In fact I have found a peace that comes with accepting my deepest truths. What I need is to find a way to stay sober that is congruent with my deepest inner truths, and to find others who support me in that.
Sher G. moved around the U.S. growing up, then raised her son in Northern California. When he came of age she moved to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a park ranger. After a series of horrific and traumatizing job-related events she turned to alcohol to cope. She has since left park rangering and is focusing on recovery. Writing, time in nature, and her pets are sources of joy and comfort. As an avenue for healing deep emotional wounds, she has created a blog, The Ranger Chronicles, where she writes about the impacts of the trauma and retells the events that led to it. She looks forward to contributing to AA Agnostica as well, where she can freely express the impacts of her alcoholism.