Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I’m an urban Aboriginal woman who was raised by a single mother of European descent.
Although I did beadwork and occasionally went to powwows, I didn’t subscribe to – and was never really exposed to – any traditional Anishinaabe cultural practices or spiritual beliefs. Now that I’m sober, I consider myself to be a spiritual person, and an agnostic.
The only spiritual connection I felt when I was drinking was worshipping my next bottle of wine. Before getting sober, I drank heavily for over 20 years, and drank daily for the last 10. I was high-functioning for someone with extremely low expectations. For a long time, I knew that I was an alcoholic, but I didn’t care.
I grew up without religion in my home, and although I was very curious to find a religion that I could adopt, none ever felt right to me. In my quest to belong, I went to several different church services, read the bible, went to Sunday school and joined a church group. I read books on Taoism and Buddhism. I really wanted to believe in something greater than myself, and belong to a community that shared those beliefs, but I couldn’t do it while being honest with myself. So I eventually stopped searching for religion.
There are alcoholics on both sides of my family, and I grew up in a house where drinking, drug use and abuse were part of the family dynamic. I suppose I’d been searching for religion or something similar, in order to find an escape from the traumatic events I faced at home on a daily basis. The escape I found was alcohol.
From what I’ve been told, I started drinking when I was a baby. I was told that my dad put beer in my bottle so that I would go to sleep. I remember my interest in alcohol began in my early teens. When I drank, I felt an instant relief and escape from my home life. When I went drinking with my friends, I felt like I finally belonged to something. I was kicked out of the house when I was 16, and to support myself, I worked as a waitress. I eventually became a full-time bartender, and worked in bars and restaurants for over 20 years. Looking back, I built my life around being able to drink. I could drink at work, I didn’t have to wake up early in the morning, and I never learned to drive a car. I had a job with low expectations, and I spent my free time drinking.
I remember being very aware that I was at risk to become an alcoholic. I knew that my family history of addiction and trauma put me at a high risk for alcoholism, and that I should be careful. None of the statistics taught me how to avoid being an alcoholic. I knew the risks, but that didn’t stop me from consuming alcohol at an ever-increasing rate. It wasn’t until I wanted something more for my life that I realized I was an alcoholic. It was probably another five years after that realization that I decided to do something about it.
When I finally sought treatment, I was drinking almost constantly from the time I woke up, to the time I passed out at night. I had tried to stop repeatedly, but I couldn’t, and that scared the hell out of me.
I started treatment on a part-time, outpatient basis, and began attending agnostic AA meetings. After three years of attending meetings, I can honestly say that I feel like I finally found somewhere that I belong. I’m very grateful that these meetings exist, because at the time I was convinced that AA was a religious cult, which had always been my excuse for not seeking help in the past. The treatment centre I went to used a harm reduction model, which I initially hoped would work for me. I was overwhelmed by the idea that I could never drink again for the rest of my life. I was afraid that the people in AA were going to judge my choice, but I was offered support as I attempted to maintain moderate drinking. So, with the aid of medication, individual counselling and group therapy sessions, I worked diligently to adhere to safe drinking guidelines. Looking back, the amount of time, money and effort I put into trying to drink non-alcoholically was ridiculous, but now I know that harm reduction doesn’t work for me. I found this out the hard way on a long weekend in July of 2011, when I really hit bottom.
Canada Day weekend of 2011, most of my friends were out of town, including my boyfriend and roommate. I had to work all weekend, but for some reason I decided that I could abandon my controlled drinking plan for the weekend and no one would know. After the first day home alone with several bottles of wine, I knew I was in trouble. The next day I could barely make it to work, and when I got there, they sent me home. By the final day of the long weekend, I was calling everyone I knew for help, because I couldn’t stop drinking. My sister finally came to my rescue. She called my work and told them I wouldn’t be coming in, instructed me to take a shower and took me out to dinner. When she left my apartment with all of my liquor bottles in the trunk of her car, I had a new plan to live a sober life. It was a month later that I stopped drinking for good. One day I didn’t drink, and then I didn’t drink the next day. I’ve now been sober for over three years. As for my fear of never drinking again for the rest of my life, I took a friend’s advice. She said: “Give sobriety a try, and if you don’t like it, you can always go back to drinking.”
Every year on my AA birthday I reflect on whether I want to continue living a sober life, and every year so far I’ve made the decision to continue on my sober path. I know the AA motto is “one day at a time,” and there are no guarantees that I won’t relapse, but it’s good for me to reflect on all the positive changes that have happened in my life as a result of sobriety. I know that I’m powerless over alcohol if I take a drink, but sobriety has given me a choice that I didn’t have before. I’m no longer a slave to alcohol, and that is powerful.
Early sobriety wasn’t easy. I felt lost without my connection to alcohol. Alcohol was my constant companion and best friend, even though it was slowly killing me. I had abandoned my friends, family and myself in order to keep drinking. When I faced the world in sobriety, I felt empty and alone. As a result, I had to learn how to connect with people and myself all over again – or perhaps for the first time. My motto in early sobriety was: “Just do the next right thing”. That mantra motivated me to do the things that are part of a normal daily routine. It took a lot of energy just to take a shower in the morning, to eat and to go to bed at night. I didn’t know how to do anything sober, so I talked to people at meetings, listened to their stories and just kept coming back.
In my quest to find out who I am as a sober person, I started gardening, took yoga, joined a meditation group and enrolled in a peer support training program. Even though I was meeting new people and doing things that I enjoyed, I still felt empty and like I didn’t fit in. In order to stay sober, I needed to find a healthy way to manage my feelings of low self esteem and disconnection. I needed to find a spiritual connection to something outside of myself, or I was at risk for relapse. I first found this spiritual connection on a camping trip. I started taking photos of a chipmunk I’d befriended, and I was so lost in joy that I didn’t feel the craving to drink.
Through Alcoholics Anonymous, I learned how to expand this connection I felt with animals to include a community of people who share my struggles with alcoholism. I’ve made some good friends and learned how to be a good friend in return. I learned how to listen, share and to be of service. I even learned how to pick up the phone and call someone before I take a drink. One thing I didn’t know about AA meetings was that we laugh a lot, if I had known that it was fun to attend meetings, I might have gotten sober sooner.
I also went back to university. The first class I took was an introduction to Indigenous studies. I learned about Indigenous beliefs of living in concert with nature, and how everything is interconnected. I learned about ceremony and resilience. I went to a powwow, where I just cried for all the trauma that my ancestors had endured. However, I also felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t know anything about the dances, the regalia or the protocols, so I decided to learn more. I continued going to community events. I asked Indigenous Elders for guidance on becoming more involved. Mostly, I just hung around, observed ceremonies, and copied what other people were doing. The first time I smudged, I felt a connection to something I can’t fully understand. When I was surrounded by the smoke from the burning medicines, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. It felt like going home to a place I’d never been before. I can’t explain it – I just felt better.
I learned the medicine wheel – another powerful tool that helps me maintain my sobriety. One interpretation of the medicine wheel is that it represents the four aspects of a person’s well-being: spiritual, mental, physical and emotional. It can be used to find and maintain balance in one’s life. AA meetings work on all of these aspects as well. For example, I physically have to leave the house to go to a meeting where I can share my emotions, learn from other’s experiences and be part of a community.
Continuing on my journey to reconnect with my culture, I went to see a traditional Aboriginal counsellor. It was right before I left on a camping trip. After my counselling session, I had the most intensely spiritual moment of my life. Arriving at the campground as the sun was setting, I climbed a hill near the lake to make an offering and say a prayer. I said a prayer to the Great Spirit (a prayer on a flyer that I had picked up in lobby after meeting my counsellor). The prayer asked for strength and intelligence – not to conquer my enemies, but to fight the enemy within. I’d never seriously prayed before, and I’m still not sure that I believe in the Great Spirit, but the message was one that I could relate to.
I left an offering of berries by a tree stump and walked down a granite slab to the water’s edge. I was alone, overlooking a quiet beach. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to meditate. When I opened them and looked across the water, a deer came out of the woods and stared right at me. I instantly felt a happiness that I had not felt in years. I was in awe, and crying tears of joy. Then another deer came out of the woods! I couldn’t believe I was the only one there to see this. The deer were drinking from the lake, and one of them was playing with a frog. They were peaceful and carefree – two qualities that had been missing from my life since I quit drinking. It’s difficult to describe, but those few minutes felt magical and life changing. I don’t know if it was the result of the offering and prayer or just a coincidence, but I do know it was the most spiritual experience of my life. I also know that it never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sober. I had to become fully present in my life in order to experience that connection with nature, myself and my community.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.