Out of the Closet
An atheist shares about her long sober journey in Alcoholics Anonymous
Published online by the AA Grapevine in March 2015. Copyright © AA Grapevine.
It’s 8:35 p.m. on Saturday and the speaker has just suggested the topic “How God works in your life.” I settle back in my seat, preparing myself to be open to receiving the message of recovery. I’ve become very good at listening and finding a message. It’s rare that I walk away from an AA meeting without taking home a little hope.
I’ve been coming to this particular meeting for 10 years. In November, I celebrated 27 years of continuous sobriety in the same county, and the speaker knows this. But I won’t be called on tonight; in fact, I’m rarely called on at all in Alcoholics Anonymous these days. You see, I’m an atheist. I’m not resentful of my standing in AA, at least not often. And because I strive to stay a part of AA, most of the time I feel a kinship in the rooms. But there are nights that I wonder; there are nights that I feel separate.
I came into AA one month shy of 21 and, amazingly, it stuck. This means that if I stick around these rooms and don’t have a drink, in a few years I’ll be 50 years old and have 30 years of recovery, never having had a legal drink of alcohol. I came to these rooms without having lost a lot because, in truth, I had not gained anything in my short life, except for an obsession to drink. When I got here I was seething with hate, rage, pain and attitude, a common combination I’ve come to witness over the years. These emotions were all I had except for a small voice in me that didn’t want to be in pain or die, and that voice was enough to keep me coming back.
I had been raised in my parents’ religious beliefs and had rejected the idea of God at an early age. I remember questioning their beliefs and the concept of God, as early as 8 years old. Actually, by the time I found my first love, alcohol, I had rebelled against the whole idea of God. Alcohol had dragged me down by the age of 12, so it’s no wonder I felt hopeless by age 20.
The first years of my recovery were spent trying to live without alcohol. I worked the Steps with a sponsor and tried to follow directions. If you measure success by whether one drinks or not, then I was successful. However, I did learn some valuable lessons in the first 15 years of my recovery. I did service, worked the Steps and continued to go to meetings, but there was a deep unrest inside me. I had copied what other people had done and pretended to believe the way that they did. I learned the song and dance that was most acceptable to AAs in my community. I could parrot the Big Book and say all the things that people wanted to hear, and yet there was something missing. I wanted people to like me, to tell me I was OK, and they did for those first 15 years.
Then there was a point in my recovery when things began to change: situations happened in my life that pulled the rug out from under me and I was forced to change my life and how I was in the world. I was forced to open my eyes, and the changes began. They were gradual and subtle at first. I started seeking, not God, but something that I could believe in, something that made sense to me. It started with returning to school and becoming interested in the world outside of AA. Now, I’ve heard horror stories about people who stop making AA the center of their lives. I know many people who only socialize in AA — and that’s what works for them. I did not leave AA, but I took the principles that I learned in the rooms and went out into the world. I learned to listen to that healthy inner voice that we all have, if we have stayed on this path for any amount of time. I found interests and hobbies outside of the rooms and frequently pulled my friends in AA out with me to experience opera and theater. I began, for the first time in my life, to really thrive.
I came to the knowledge that I was an atheist more than five years ago, but it took some time for me to get up the nerve to step out of the closet with the general AA public. I did it while speaking at an Easter Sunday morning meeting over three years ago. At least 3 people got up and left. Truth is that I hadn’t planned it that way. Simply put, I just said what I believed and felt I needed to say out loud. I had been silent in meetings for over two years prior to that Easter Sunday. I had been listening for my truth, and it finally spoke up.
I have heard it all since then. I’ve been told that I’m really a Buddhist, a Native American and, of course, that I will get drunk if I don’t mend my ways. There are those who ignore me and those who don’t understand me, yet I strive to be polite to all of them, regardless.
Most important are those who don’t care what I believe in because they love me and leave me to my beliefs, although we do have great conversations over coffee about our differences.
I’ve often been asked what I do each day to stay sober without a God. I do the same things that any believer does—minus the reliance on a God. I get up each morning and focus on what needs to be done. I strive to be the best person I can be, to carry understanding, love and tolerance in my dealings with my fellow human beings. I turn things over, not to a God, but to the knowledge that I live in a world that I cannot control. I take responsibility for what’s happening in my life and endeavor to be proactive on those things that I can take action on. I’m not perfect, not by a long shot, but I’m not worse at the practicing of these principles than anyone who believes in God. I find peace in the journey of life and living in this day. I still work the Steps and yes, I don’t work them with the word God in them. I have a sponsor, sponsor other women and do service. I believe strongly in doing service outside of AA as well, and believe that finding balance in all I do is the key to a strong recovery and love of life.
There have always been atheists in the history of humankind. Sometimes they have been ignored and sometimes persecuted, but they’ve always been present. There are atheists in AA. I have met some of us and we are productive members of AA as well as of our communities. The Big Book was written to include more than just a small slice of humanity, and there is room for us atheists. The Twelve Traditions were written to insure the openness of AA to all those who have a desire to stop drinking. I’m grateful to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have found a way of life here that first answered my drinking problem and then gave me solutions to my living problems.