Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA shares the “experience, strength and hope” of 15 women and 15 men in recovery in AA, none of whom “came to believe” that an interventionist deity was responsible for their sobriety. Today we are featuring the Foreword and the Table of Contents. On Sunday we will post the Introduction.
By Marya Hornbacher
Author, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power
My first impression in the rooms of AA: This is really weird.
For starters, I was not drunk — this in itself was a little surreal, and lent the basement room in which I sat an extra-sickly neon cast. Also, I did not entirely know where I was. The people around me looked beatific, glowing through the fog of smoke. There was a suspicious general happiness. Someone offered me a cup of coffee, someone else handed me a banana, the reasons for which remain unclear. I looked around myself in a panic, trying to sort out how I had wandered into what was, I now realized, a church.
A hum of chatter, then a reverent hush — and then a woman bounced up to the podium and shouted gleefully, “Hi! My name is Connie, and I’m a drunk!”
A drunk! I nearly collapsed with relief. I could relate to drunks! Some of my best friends were drunks! I myself was, in fact, a drunk, a fact that hit me in the gut — not for the first time, but perhaps with the greatest force — at that moment. Nothing could have been clearer, and never had it been so clear: I was, as the person next to me whispered reassuringly, “in the right place.”
I nodded, my attention now drawn to the large signs that flanked Connie at the podium. They appeared to be lists. I assumed they were the rules for sobering up.
Hopeful, I read them top to bottom, several times.
They made absolutely no sense.
Devastated — if there were rules to this game of sobriety, I wanted to know what they were, and would have done damn near anything I was instructed to do, if it might finally yank me out of the bottle in which I’d been soaking for years — I sat reading the lists, again and again. And all I could really grasp, through my thick-brained haze, were these snippets: Came to believe, God, God, Him, Higher Power, prayer, Power, spiritual awakening.
That is, I’ll admit, a highly selective reading of the Twelve Steps. There are lots of other words, and underneath even the clutter of words are the principles upon which this program rests. Those principles have, in the years since that day in 1989, proven themselves vital, elemental, in my own messy pursuit of an ethical life. But all I got from that first reading of the Steps — and I know I am not alone in this — was exactly what I didn’t want. Standing between me and Connie, me and the toxic coffee, me and the drunks in the room where I knew I belonged, was the idea of God.
Do Tell!, this diverse and richly textured collection of recovery stories by non-believers, is a book that would certainly have made a difference in the early days of my stumble toward sobriety and the Twelve Steps. But it is also making a difference in my sobriety today. My evolving understanding of a non-theistic AA has been deepened and changed by this encounter with the stories of people who, like me, “came to believe” that the ethical structure — some call it the spiritual program — that underlies the Twelve Steps could help them rebuild their lives.
The people whose stories are gathered here have come by sobriety honestly, and I suspect some people might say we came by it the hard way. If that’s true, the hard way seems to be a perfectly effective way of getting sober. Speaking for myself, taking the easy way kept me frustrated, resentful, and drunk. Trying to find sobriety by swallowing the Steps and the program as they were practiced by other people — rather than as I understood them myself — was as effective as walking around in someone else’s ill-fitting skin. This isn’t to say I required special steps for my own special sobriety to shore up my fantastically sorry self; it is to say that in order to feel sobriety more deeply, in order to live a sober life at a more than doctrinal level, I needed to grapple with the steps on my own terms.
That is what you will find in these stories: not a recitation of truisms, not a common narrative, not quick or easy answers to life’s questions; rather, you will find an engagement with the Steps and the program of AA that is honest, conscious, and hard-won, and perhaps all the more vital for that. These stories tell of people questioning, investigating, identifying, disputing, and challenging not only the traditional interpretations of AA, but also of themselves, always seeking a richer, more intimate understanding of a program that, by hook or by crook, helps keep them on the path of sobriety — a path that isn’t laid out for us in advance, but one we need to forge.
But even as I say that, I am quite certain there are people whose sobriety—their valuable, vital, life-saving sobriety — depends on a highly traditional and literal reading of the literature, the principles, and the Steps. The purpose of this book is not to derail, disparage, or disdain people whose understanding of a higher power is theistic or deistic in nature, or whose means of sobriety might be considered religious. The goal is simply to bring other stories to light — those of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, nonbelievers of all kinds — and these stories help flesh out the idea of what sobriety looks like, how it can be understood and practiced, and what it can ultimately be.
“I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there.” This, the AA Responsibility Statement, shows our fellowship in its finest light: all-inclusive, open to all comers, unrestricted, and there for the taking should anyone ask. This statement is an invitation to any and all. Whether individual meetings live up to this ideal — whether the conference approved literature resonates with us or seems by turns didactic, uplifting, and absurd — whether the people we meet welcome or resist us — isn’t of nearly as much consequence as our own willingness to accept the invitation. These stories invite the reader in where some stories have seemed to turn them out.
Do we want sobriety? These stories are testament to the fact that AA can be a critical tool in navigating the waters we traverse as we make our way through our lives. Are we willing to go to any lengths to get sober and live according to ethical principles, or spiritual ones, whichever we prefer? These stories show us that the language of the Steps is not enough to keep us out if we want in. Underneath the black and white of the print on the page, the principles exist — dynamic, subject to interpretation, always in flux, and not listed anywhere in the traditional literature, so far as I can find. The principles are left, whether purposely or not, open-ended and undefined. The principles are not learned and recited by rote; they are encountered, wrestled with, understood, re-understood, and lived out in our own lives.
The stories in this book present not a singular vision of sobriety but a prismatic one; they present not a singular ethic, but a means by which a reader can examine ethics from multiple angles and in multiple lights. There is no attempt to define atheism, agnosticism, or freethinking, no attempt to offer an “alternative” spirituality that might neatly fit into the “God-sized hole” I have heard tell exists in everyone’s heart. There are people in this book who were raised atheists, people who left religions, people who avidly sought but did not find a higher power to understand, people who find and practice a method of prayer.
I don’t tend to believe any of us are struck sober by mysterious forces, any more than we are struck drunk. We learn sobriety. We learn from people around us at meetings, and from the stories they tell; I learned , and continue to learn, from people both like and unlike me, with stories both similar to and drastically dissimilar from my own. One of my fellow AAs, Lyle, introduces himself each week with enormous cheer, and says that by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ, he is here today. He beams with each introduction that follows; he beams at me, knowing full well we disagree mightily, share not a single demographic feature, not a single article of faith, but have found ourselves in the same church basement at the same time for many years, and have — in those years — seen many other people come and go, some having found a door to sobriety that opens for them, and some not.
I believe this book acts as the open door. The stories gathered here demonstrate that even the most unlikely people have found their way to sobriety through the door to AA. I know that had I found this door while feeling around in the dark for a way out of my alcoholism, I would have heard the principles that underlie the steps more clearly, and sooner. This book — and I venture to say the program — acts as an invitation. See if the principles resonate with you. See if there is an ethical structure here on which you can hang your hat. Find your way to the people in the fellowship with whom you can connect, the people who have the serenity and sobriety you seek. You may find in this program a place in which you can finally settle comfortably into your seat, into your skin, and inhabit the place in the program that is, and always will be, yours.
Table of Contents
- Carrying the Message to the Nonbeliever – Nell Z.
- A Magnificient Game Changer – Doris A.
- I Lost My Faith and Happily So – John S.
- Returning to My Spiritual Roots in Sobriety – Julie B.
- Atheist in a Foxhole – Russ H.
- Once a Sick Drug Addict – Patricia K.
- The Beginning – Brent P.
- A Programme of Honesty? – Suzanne M.
- A Friend of Jim B. – Alex M.
- My Name is Joan – Joan C.
- Spirituality As I Understand It – Gabe S.
- God Problems – Betsy M.
- Another Apostate in Sobriety – Kit G.
- My Diluted Emotions – Deirdre S.
- A New Man – David B.
- Take Three Degrees. Add Alcohol. – Martine R.
- My Path in AA – life j.
- Ann’s Story – Ann M.
- My Journey – Neil F.
- AA Atheist – Hanje R.
- My Name is Marnin – Marnin M.
- Positive Attitude Changes Everything – Helen L.
- The Power is in the Process – John C.
- Utter Desperation – Alice B.
- An Activist in Sobriety – John L.
- A Holy Terror of an Alcoholic – Cheryl K.
- My Alcohol-Addicted Agnostic-Atheist Recovery Story – Thomas B.
- Embracing Our Pain Together – Alyssa S.
- Take What You Need and Leave the Rest – Chuck K.
- Life on Life’s Terms – Frank M.
The paperback version of Do Tell! is available at Amazon USA.