By Sher G.
This story actually starts a bit before my final traditional AA meeting. The single most compelling thing for me when I started going to AA was when faces started to look familiar, and even more compelling was when some of those faces recognized mine and greeted me with a smile, a raised hand, or even a hello. That’s how I chose my home group, the place where that happened first.
And when I came back to the rooms of AA after going out for six months that was the meeting I returned to and was welcomed back to. They were mostly men; I would have preferred more of a balance, but it was the comfort of familiarity that was so important to me, and if it came with mostly men, so be it.
When I shared with those individuals that I had realized I was an atheist, their responses were mixed. I was touched by the reaction of Big Book thumping, God praising Catholic Ron who told me that sounded like a very good thing for me. He didn’t amend it with “for now,” or, “until you learn to believe,” just that: it sounded like a good thing for me.
When I gained more courage and started to announce a new Beyond Belief meeting I initially described it in code: “For folks like me who’ve struggled with the Higher Power thing, and just want to get on with working the steps anyway.” Met predominantly with blank stares, over time I gained the courage to cut to the chase: “This is an open meeting, but it has been designed for folks who are atheists, agnostics, freethinkers etc.” Regardless of my description I was met with looks of confusion, disinterest, disapproval, or the look an indulgent parent gives a clueless child. And if I stayed behind meetings to visit with the folks I usually visited with, they were quick to explain why they weren’t available to attend the next Beyond Belief meeting – even though I hadn’t asked.
After one such meeting a fellow I’d seen many times, Henry came up to me and shared that for five years he didn’t have a belief in a Higher Power. His expression was friendly and engaging. He said he managed to keep coming and worked the steps anyway, and that was fine for him. I felt encouraged. I was pretty sure he was hitting on me, but that wasn’t the reason I interrupted him to get the phone number from a woman about to leave whom I hoped to befriend. After exchanging phone numbers with her I turned back, but Henry by then was talking to someone else, and I headed home.
* * *
Several days later I decided to go to a different meeting on a different night at the same location. Many familiar folks attended, but this meeting was much bigger. I exchanged nods with the folks I knew, including Henry. Henry, as it turned out, was chairing this meeting. Without missing a beat he announced the topic: how without finding and turning one’s life and will over to a Higher Power, there was no true sobriety. Ahhh. He hadn’t been hitting on me, he had been warming me up with sympathy before explaining to me how in time I would find my higher power.
I was irritated by his sneakiness even while being relieved that I wouldn’t have to fend off his flirtations.
We all know that many things can influence the overall tone of a meeting: the topic, how that topic is conveyed by the chair, the more vocal members present, how much people dare to cross-talk, influences of peer pressure, a full moon, traffic, who knows all the variables.
I’d been to plenty of meetings where the overall tone was one of God-talk, where it seems most of those sharing express how they simply would not be sober if it weren’t for their relationship with their Higher Power; they would not have anything without their HP; they would be dead without their HP. But in this meeting, every single share was of this variety, without exception. People were being called on and at this point in my atheism-awareness I typically was honest about it while being as succinct as possible. But I started feeling more and more uneasy, scared even. This did not feel like a safe place to share my lack of belief. Not that I thought they’d chase me to my house with burning torches, but rather that they might turn to me with a collective look of disapproval or even malice. At a certain point I decided resolutely that if called on, I would pass – something I had never done in a meeting before.
Jack was called on. He and I had started attending about the same time. I was always surprised when folks called on Jack to share, because for months he shared exactly the same thing. “I go to a meeting every night, because I used to drink every night; and it hasn’t hurt me one bit. I recommend it to everyone, especially those new to sobriety.” This was classic Jack. He looked around the room. Gaining momentum and volume he added a relatively new bit (to him), “By the grace of God and the power of this program, I am sober tonight!” (thunderclap). Picking up on the thread of the necessity of God in sobriety, Jack spoke about the absolute necessity of God in finding and maintaining sobriety. To prove it, he ended with a quote from How it Works: “Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was NIL until we let go absolutely.” He practically glared at all of us.
I held my breath and looked at my lap. Please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me.
Henry called on Oscar. Oscar and I also started attending about the same time, though unlike me he’d been attending straight through. He was probably in his 30’s, and had spent a good amount of time prior to sobering up alone in his apartment with a growing pile of pizza boxes and empty beer bottles. He always showed up with disheveled hair and tennis shoes with holes in them, more I think due to lack of interest than lack of funds – he was working again.
Oscar I knew also hadn’t been visited by his Higher Power, though he didn’t typically share that in a group setting. Oscar was always earnest, if a bit dry and meandering.
Oscar looked at his hands. “When I first came to these rooms I didn’t understand all this God talk. I told this one guy that if everyone would just drop all that Higher Power stuff, AA would probably be accessible to more folks – why didn’t they just do that?” Oscar laughed and looked cautiously around the room. He was rewarded with gentle laughs and knowing nods. The indulgent, condescending nods of the parent whose child has finally stopped resisting.
“I think I’m beginning to have what could be called a spiritual awakening of sorts, you know, of a mystical sort, and that is pretty exciting.”
I wondered if Oscar really was going through a spiritual awakening. I didn’t think he was lying; but any of us who at some time have believed in any group form of religion or spirituality know the powerful sway of others’ convictions.
* * *
Did I stay for The Lord’s Prayer? I don’t remember. I truly don’t remember. The blood was rushing through my head so loudly I couldn’t really hear or think at that point.
The meeting ended and I grabbed my purse with sweaty palms, eyes cast downward, and practically ran out of the room, spurred on with fears of being pursued by Body Snatchers or the Stepford Wives. I got to my car and drove safely home without incident.
I had considered many of those who spoke friends, compassionate and welcoming. But that meeting at worst felt like a cult’s hard sell; at best it felt judgmental, dogmatic and unwelcoming.
I keep telling myself I should go to different AA meetings; that really it’s about the fellowship and the sharing of stories; that I can replace the words “God” and “Higher Power” with the new ones you all have taught me, like “Higher Purpose” or “Inner Wisdom.” But every time I plan to, my stomach tightens up and I feel queasy.
Maybe I’ll just read the latest article on AA Agnostica instead.
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. This is Sher’s second article on AA Agnostica as well, where she is able to freely express the impacts of her alcoholism and share her path to recovery.