Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
By Doris A.
Like many, childhood was a fertile ground for becoming an alcoholic.
My mother had very serious problems with alcohol, binge drinking though her pregnancies and a good part of my childhood. While there were interesting and wonderful things about both of my parents, and childhood memories that still make me smile, there were serious problems in our home. Whether drunk or sober my mother, in the blink of an eye, became erratic and volatile, even violent at times. My dad was not as mercurial, but he was emotionally stunted; shame was his primary tool for parenting.
My mom got sober when I was 10; it was a gift to all of us, yet it did not bring peace and happiness to the family. Sobriety did not resolve my mother’s mental illness nor did it help her troubled marriage. Her enthusiasm for AA and her gift for “program talk” were often coupled with nutty behavior. It was confusing to say the least. By the time I left home I felt like I had gotten off the Titanic with a life raft full of holes.
The first time I drank I was twelve years old; I drank myself into a blackout. Surprisingly my drinking during high school was not all that dramatic. But once I left home to attend college I was off to races. I drank hard and I drank often. I felt liberated by alcohol; it was a psychic lubricant that provided a social ease I do not come by naturally.
But deep in a recess of my brain I knew I had a problem. My drinking had an edge and sloppiness to it, and my blackouts were frequent. I remember one morning in my third year of college waking up with a very severe hang-over. I had to be at school within an hour, so without missing a beat I poured a couple shots of vodka into my soda which I took on the bus to class. This was my “Houston we have a problem” moment; a thought I quickly tucked away in a mental file labeled “to be dealt with later”.
After graduation I had no idea what to do next. That year my parents had divorced. My father decided to move to another part of the country, with my younger sister in tow. My mom then literally packed everything she owned in her car, drove around the country aimlessly and then decided to live in a town not far from my father. I was accepted into graduate school but instead followed my family. It was a bit surreal.
Within a short time my mother was diagnosed with late stage cancer. I set aside thoughts of grad school or a professional job and instead worked in a tavern, drank with the bar flies and watched my mother die a horribly painful death. My drinking was rough that year, I was lost and confused, and then I felt orphaned.
Six months after my mother died I hit the reboot switch and moved to the coast. I settled in one of the nicest cities in the country and immediately it felt like home. I knew I could do better than working in a bar, and I wanted to slow down my drinking. Not ready to give it up, but I figured I could change the trajectory.
During the next several years I embedded myself in a social scene that was not about alcohol, hoping that through osmosis I would become a non-problem drinker. I found bright, interesting friends who preferred hiking or talking about books and politics over getting loaded. I met the man I would marry and spend 21 years with, and whom I loved dearly. I entered graduate school and started a career.
During this period I used smoke and mirrors to hide my problem. I was the one who went back to the kitchen for “more ice” and then poured a few more ounces of alcohol in my drink. I had half a bottle of wine before going out with people who rarely had more than a drink or two with dinner. I stopped in a bar for a drink on my way home from work or school. Garden variety alcoholic behavior.
My husband had no experience with alcoholics and was naive about all the tell-tale signs. But after we were married a year and bought our own home things changed. Within a matter of months I started drinking heavily, daily, and secretly. This went on for a year until one day I woke up, went to the phone book and called a drug and alcohol hotline. I was referred to a counselor who told me I needed to go into outpatient treatment and I needed to tell my husband. What followed were many years of trying to stay sober, not trying to stay sober, and everything in between. I never once denied being an alcoholic, but for reasons I don’t fully understand I could not totally surrender.
Shortly after the first call for help I started attending AA. A part of me, the part of me that is resilient and intuitive, knew from the beginning that I had no chance of success without the fellowship. But AA was full of land mines. The biggest problem at first was having to sit in a room hearing all the clichés and AA talk that I heard as a kid from my nutty mother. There was almost a PTSD quality to seeing all those “easy does it signs” on the wall and hearing people recite the Serenity Prayer.
Layered on this was the god talk in AA. By the time I entered the program I was an agnostic that wasn’t ready to be an atheist. The concept of spirituality seemed benign enough. But the idea of a god that would take an interest in relieving me of alcoholism while ignoring the unimaginable suffering of others seemed childish, and just plain wrong. I so badly needed other language to help me develop some type of road map, but it was hard to find. Being a non-believer in AA is not easy. However, I actually have more resentment toward treatment professionals who told me that if I didn’t get god and do the 12 steps as prescribed I would die. I am sure there are many reasons sobriety was so elusive, but being an atheist was not one of them.
Over the years I collected sober time, a few years here a few years there. Often it was a string of months. Some of the drinking periods were well hidden until there was some dramatic incident and the game was over for a while. I also added prescription drugs to the mix – painkillers and sedatives.
Although my sense of self became pretty fractured and compartmentalized, I still had the side of me that approximated normal. I was well-regarded professionally, I had many interests, and I had a stable seeming marriage as well as many personal relationships that mattered dearly to me. But my addiction had me by the throat and I acted in ways that still make me cringe to think about. I did crazy things in order to drink, was impaired at work, lied with the skill of a sociopath, acted out in a million other ways, and deeply hurt others.
By the time I hit my late 40s alcohol was taking a toll on all aspects of my life. Approximating normal was no longer easy. I was losing any margin of error. I was severely depressed and anxious and had no vision of being able to stop for good.
Around age 50 I was diagnosed with early stage cancer. Since watching my mother die from cancer in her fifties I had been scared of this for decades, but I was lucky that it was found in the nick of time. I elected to have chemotherapy and was provided with the best medical care imaginable. One would think that this would be the most obvious time to finally get sober. But it wasn’t. I drank a few times during the year of treatment. If chemotherapy hadn’t kicked my ass so hard I am sure I would have drank more.
About a month after being given a clean bill of health, I had one of those “fuck it” moments. Instead of going to work one morning I took a sedative and bought a bottle. I don’t remember much that day but later learned I had driven my car into the edge of a golf course, ran over a sprinkler system and then drove home.
For my husband this was the final straw. He asked me to leave the house or go to a 90 day treatment program. I didn’t know if I could survive another stay in treatment and reached out to family. My brother kindly offered to have me live with him and his wife to get myself sorted out. I packed a few bags and moved back across the country.
The year that followed was profoundly painful. I was demoralized beyond words, I was still a mess from chemotherapy and my heart was deeply broken. I did immerse myself in AA, got a sponsor, found a therapist and tried to cobble together a few friends. I drank a few times too. About a year after moving I went back to visit my husband to sort out our marriage. When I came back I shut myself in my room with large amounts of alcohol and drank for many days.
This was my bottom, but a divine intervention is not what saved me. What did were two people from the fellowship who showed up to help me get the professional care I needed. I had a circle of friends from AA who didn’t flinch. I had a compassionate and skilled therapist who was there with open arms to help. And I had some wee voice in my head that wanted to live.
It took a while for my life not to hurt so much. My husband asked for a divorce and then later remarried. It has taken a very long time to grieve all the losses that have resulted from my drinking. So much time was lost.
But today I can easily say that the gift of having real sobriety is broad and deep, and very tangible. I have gained emotional maturity and am sturdier inside. Life makes sense to me now and most days I feel engaged and content. When I am feeling or acting like a head case I know the things to do to get me back on track. I have better skills at managing my emotions and having honest relationship with others. I am still me, warts and all, but the dark passenger that lives inside of me has gotten very small. Self-destructive urges no longer have the keys to the car.
My alcoholism runs deep, and it is lethal. I am certain that I will always need to be an active member of AA. Having finally tapped into a small but real segment of AA that believes sobriety is possible without god has been a magnificent game changer. I am now more than ever inspired to do service work in the program, so that others like me can find a comfortable seat in the rooms of AA.
I have heard people say that they are grateful for being an alcoholic. I am not one of them. Next time around I would like to be more normal and also to be better at math. But alcohol and drug addiction were in the cards dealt to me. So like every other human being on the planet, all I can do is strive to make the most of my life, to be a half decent person and to love others. I am grateful for having a fellowship – my tribe – that offers me a solution, as we say, one day at a time.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.