My Life in a Few Pages

This is the preface and first chapter of the book: Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N.


Sometimes I feel like a spy. It can be very exciting, kind of thrilling. But sometimes I feel alone, isolated. Unseen. Unheard. I am a member of two sub-cultures within the broader American culture in which I have been born and raised. Unfortunately, these two sub-cultures within which I currently dwell tend to be in direct opposition. First and foremost, I am a recovering alcoholic. Like so many of my kind, I have found freedom from my addiction to alcohol and other drugs through the sub-culture we call Alcoholics Anonymous. This culture has strong roots in Christian tradition, and places a heavy emphasis upon religious belief. For decades I have worked very hard, with an emphasis on the latter half of the third step, to get comfortable with some form of religious or spiritual way of seeing things. Try as I might, I could not succeed. In the end, I have found great peace of mind and happiness through being true to myself and accepting that I am an atheist. That is, I do not believe in God, or gods, or anything supernatural, and avoid like the plague the usage of vague and meaningless terms like god, spirit, spiritual, or higher power. This places me in a second sub-culture altogether, that of the non-believer.

So I am like a double agent. For years now I have had to act like an interpreter. I take the religious ideas and language of AA and translate it into atheistic language, language to which I can relate and which means something to me. I am the atheist embedded. I am surrounded by people who speak a foreign language and who might be vaguely, if not overtly, hostile were they to know my true thoughts. But I also find I am often more tolerant of religious thinking than many of my atheistic brethren. For one, I have studied and tried to walk the ‘spiritual’ path and have some empathy for their struggles. For another, I am sensitive to the fact that many of the life saving principles embodied in the twelve step recovery programs are borrowed or developed from religious sources. I have a great deal of respect for that. I do not hate religion per se. I just think it is outdated. It is time for us to move on, grow up. It is a very exciting time to be alive. I say that as a lover of science and scientific discovery, as an atheist and a lover of truth, and as the fortunate recipient of all the community building which modern technology enables and encourages. Very exciting time indeed!

So, one day I set out to clarify for myself exactly what the religiously laden language spoken within the rooms of AA meant to me, to translate it into a-theistic, humanist terms. That is what this work is about. I sought primarily to clarify the core, operative principles which saved us all and kept us living, and to divorce them from the obfuscating religious language. Thus clarified, I could sit in meetings or read ‘approved’ literature without getting ticked off, sidetracked by confusion, irritated, frustrated or resentful. I could just calmly translate the spiritualese into humanese, and get on with my own recovery. Writing this work helped strengthen me in terms of my sobriety, and my atheism as well.

I figured to write in obscurity until the worms ate me. Much to my surprise, it appears I am bound for some degree of exposure whilst still upright and ambulatory. This is perfect. Having just read Coming Out Atheist, I have been convinced by its author, Greta Christina, that we Atheists have a moral obligation to come out of the closet. This is especially true for those of us within the twelve step sub-culture. I genuinely believe that lives depend upon it, and that we are practising the twelfth step when, as Atheists, we challenge the status quo and, if only slightly, widen the doors of AA to those who may feel excluded or put off by the religious emphasis, but who still suffer from active addiction and alcoholism. So, as frightening as going public may be, I do so enthusiastically, with the heartfelt hope that my thoughts might be helpful to fellow atheists and agnostics as they make their way along their own life-saving and awe-inspiring path of recovery.

My Life in a Few Pages

My name is Adam. I am an alcoholic and a drug addict. I opened mybook-pages first bar when I was 9 years old. It was constructed from Drambuie liqueur boxes and had “Adam’s Bar” colorfully spray painted across the front. With my parent’s blessings, a noteworthy hint of pride in fact, I mixed their Gin and Tonics, Rum and Cokes, Martini’s to order, the whole shebang. Eventually I earned underground notoriety as the only bar in the U.S. Virgin Islands open on Good Friday.

When I later took to my own serious drinking, I never looked back. I’d never felt so much freedom from fear, self consciousness, and anxiety. I had never felt so good about myself, never fit in so well. I became a full time consumer, an alcoholic mid-level drug dealing teen in New York City’s Central Park. Progression ensued, my dreams and ambitions and curiosity and motivation all washed away in an ever deepening sea of Jack Daniels, Rolling Rock and Heineken. The slide was greased with daily marijuana, occasional serious hallucinogens, and an on-again-off-again furious obsession with cocaine. I escaped New York City just as heroin started to become the fad amongst my peers, later to find that it cut a wide swath of death and destruction through my posse of friends and acquaintances.

I was shipped by my loving family off to the sunny left coast, where I was supposed to continue my schooling. There, unsurprisingly, unoriginally, I majored in sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. In these I excelled. Unfortunately, the University of California failed to recognize my genius in these fields as academically pertinent. The inevitable bottom approached and, with everything falling apart and a rapidly expanding emptiness inside me, I was ready for change. It was at this point that I began to become consciously aware of personal ‘powerlessness’ at its most devastating. Having seriously made up my mind to change, I found myself entirely unable to do so! Every attempt to stop or moderate failed miserably. I cried to my Mommy and Daddy. Within a week I was on a plane, drinking those two or three sad, pointless, ‘goodbye’ beers, on my way to the deep frozen tundra of December Minnesota to the adolescent treatment ward at Hazelden.

My sober life began there, a new and entirely different life, with Alcoholics Anonymous at its core. Everything started to change. The boy who had been unable to go hours without a drink or a drug was OK with being completely clean and sober for days, weeks, months, years. The unemployed and unemployable juvenile delinquent became an excellent employee, quickly rising to trusted positions in management. No longer was I a constant drain on friends and family, a source of worry, someone to be avoided. Instead I became a loved, welcomed, useful member of family and society. The woman who had dumped me now married me. The angry, grungy boy who had scowled and spit at staring children on the streets of New York City now stayed at home to nurture and love three of his own, chasing them giggling around playgrounds, teaching them how to garden, dancing and singing with purple dinosaurs on TV, curling up and reading them bedtime stories at night. Neighborhood mothers entrusted him with their own little angels. From academic probation to Highest Honors; from cheater and philanderer to stable, reliable husband; from untrustworthy drunkard to good, trustworthy man.

This is a true story. This amazing transformation was entirely true and real, and entirely the effect of Alcoholics Anonymous in my life. Even more remarkable is the fact that, in AA, these stories are not so much remarkable as fairly common place.

But after twenty years of this good life, I grew tired of AA. I grew restless, irritable, and malcontent. I heard nothing new, had heard it all before, and was totally over it. Meetings just felt like a waste of my valuable time. The slogans ceased to be wise aphorisms and morphed into moronic truisms. Long lingering reservations were allowed to blossom. AA felt more and more like a cult of the simple minded, shot through with an unspoken hive agreement to genially submit to mindless dogma, to willingly accept fairy tales as profound truths. I had struggled with and tolerated and attempted to translate the religious language into something I could relate to for half my adult life. But the distance grew and grew. Alcoholics Anonymous, with its god-this and spirit-that, came to feel more like an unnecessary burden than a life saving necessity. I ceased to relate, dissecting and critically analyzing my way right out of the life raft that had saved me from certain death.

At first, rationalizations worked fine. I was in service to others, caring for kids and family all day long. The teachings of AA were, in fact, deeply imbedded within me. I remained clean and sober for three years with no meetings, no sponsors, no Big Book, and no real work with other alcoholics. But slowly, imperceptibly, I began to change. Self pity, depression and anger and cynicism began to dominate my life. I was a sitting duck. With no defence against that first drink or drug, it was only a matter of time before something happened. And then something happened.

What followed was a torturous year and a half of active alcohol and narcotics addiction. Bad for me. Maybe even worse for my loving sister and family, for my wife, who had known only a sober husband for our entire marriage, and for our three teenage children, who had never known their father to take a single drink, much less be a stumbling, nodding, slurring, embarrassing drunkard. Newfound levels of despair and hopelessness coupled with the familiar misery of old. I dragged my embarrassed, prideful ass back into AA on numerous occasions. From respected old timer to pathetic newcomer – the shame was beyond description. But the disease was too strong. Once again I faced the reality of my own powerlessness. I could not stop. I’d stay sober days, weeks, even months, but eventually succumb to the lies screaming in my head, drowning out the ‘program’s’ teachings. The overwhelming demons could only be quieted by my concession to their destructive commands. Once again I’d enjoin the futile pursuit of chemical well being, chasing the happiness I imagined was only available in pill and powder, herb and bottle.

The experience was positively medieval. I could almost see the demons that owned me, each day growing stronger, louder, larger. Meanwhile the angels who had guided me for so long grew smaller, weaker, receded cowering into the shadows. Overpowering obsession coupled with an unending justificatory monologue in my head, literally forcing me to drink. I could not stop. I was powerless.

Finally, I surrendered myself to a local treatment facility, locked down for 30 days away from temptation, in order to break the cycle. There I re-awakened and began once again to employ the principles of recovery that had guided me for so much of my life. I reentered AA once again, deep into middle age, a newcomer yet an old timer, yet neither. I came back with the best attitude an arrogant, over-educated, self loathing narcissist could muster. Repetition was fine. Simple slogans were fine. Whatever you told me to do, I’d do. I worked the steps again, surrender and self reflection and confession and restitution.

But, while my two decades and more of sobriety had been filled with excellence and goodness, I believe I had held something in reserve all along. I am, when all is said and done, an atheist. Once again god, spirituality and religion were front and center in my life, screaming at me from every page in the Big Book. This time around I fully awakened to the fact that, in spite of decades of effort to change, I was, in my heart of hearts, a non-believer. This struggle to be something I was not was at the heart of my relapse. I mouthed the religious language of AA, I talked the talk. But at a very basic, core level, I was never able to buy it hook, line and sinker.

A second edition of Common Sense Recovery is available at Amazon.

8 Responses

  1. Jen F. says:

    I’ve just finished reading the whole PDF and find it wonderfully uplifting.
    You have clearly enunciated all the conclusions I have come to over 30 years in AA – but was not fully aware of until I saw them in your essay!
    Thank you for for your reflection and insight; and for the great amount of time and love you have spent sharing it.

  2. Brien says:

    Adam, great story first I must say I am not one for the written word there are so many great writers on this site.
    I relate to your story, sober longer than my kids have been alive now they are off to college.

    I threw myself into meetings this last year only to find myself climbing the walls in a meeting, people saying God hears and answers their prayers and without God and the 12 steps they would be dead.

    That may be true for some but I got sober in 91 in a 2 year outpatient program, so the steps and God had nothing to do with my being sober.

    I joined AA at 8 years sober, got a sponsor, worked the steps and then I felt I belonged, the next 7 to 8 years I played along never really buying into what I heard. The last 7 years I have told old timers I know I do not believe in the program I have shared at group level I am a atheist.

    My last meeting a few months ago I had a youngster with maybe a year sober really get in my face telling me to quote Dr. Bob he felt sorry for me and I should not be in AA if I do not believe in God, well believe it or not I agree with.

    AA does not need to change for me, now my recovery is in LifeRing meetings SMART Recovery and online forums.

  3. Russ H. says:

    This is a wonderful essay. It expresses my own point of view better than I have ever expressed it myself. I hope AdamN is planning to attending the WAFT-IAAC event in November. I would love to make his acquaintance.


  4. Jimmy L says:

    37 years clean and sober to arrive as non believer. “It’s spiritual not religious.” Not true, God, God, God, humbly asked Jim to remove….. Got down on my knees, sought through prayer, on and on. To say this is not a religious program is ludicrous.
    Here’s the part that works.
    Don’t pick up the first drink.
    Do that a day at a time.
    A big part of not drinking is not drinking.
    Stay away from people, places and things you associated with your drinking.
    As an recovering alcoholic keep in mind that nothing can happen in your world that picking up a drink will make better. Nothing!

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for this from one who struggles with the god language and the periodic clashes over the LP, I’ve been speaking my truth for a few years now but came perilously close to throwing it all in and going it alone as I am sometimes exhausted from mentally changing the language used at meetings (“Higher Power – hey – what’s wrong with calling him God?” “The twelve steps have enhanced my religious belief” “Yes, I was so depressed I went into therapy but it was God who showed me the way!” etc. etc.)

    AA meetings should be a respite and source of connection in recovery but often are downright alienating to this alcoholic.

    Thanks for this essay.

  6. Andy S says:

    Thankyou so much Adam N..
    A carbon copy of my own experience although different timescales..I had 7 years of sobriety, stopped going to meetings and eventually drank again..tried for the last 12 years to get sober and clean again..have been sober and clean and also nicotine free nearly 7 months now..I go to meetings on and off now but did a lot at first to help myself..I never felt right with myself in AA for the reasons you described..this site has been and is such a help to get identification..I am starting to feel better in meetings with my own understanding..

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