My Name is Joan
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
My name is Joan and I am an alcoholic. I am an agnostic and my home group is “We Agnostics” on the island of Maui. I recently celebrated 46 years of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I was born 81 years ago in St. Louis, Missouri. I like to say that I was born and raised a freethinker but that only applies to the first ten years of my life. My father was a very intelligent man – and an atheist. I once asked him about churches and he explained that there were many different churches with many different ideas and that if I ever found one whose beliefs I agreed with I should join – otherwise I probably wouldn’t want to belong to something I didn’t believe in.
Everything changed when I was 10 years old. My father died of spinal meningitis. My mother’s mother came swooping in from California and convinced my mother that that was god’s punishment for not raising us as Catholics. We moved to California and I was sent to St Mary’s Academy, a private girl’s school, where I was a fish out of water. I tried to fit in – I tried to believe. I even erected an altar in my bedroom and said the Rosary over and over but I had many doubts.
Looking back I realize that I was a very disturbed child. I hated California and wanted my father to come back.
I acted out by refusing to do homework, breaking every rule that I could and spent a lot of time in Sister Josephine’s office.
In the 10th grade I was expelled. And I gave up any idea of being a Catholic. My doubts won.
I discovered alcohol when I was 13 or 14. I was introduced to Tom Collins by a woman for whom I babysat. I liked the feeling it gave me from the start – I was kind of out of myself. I remember the first glass or two and then my next memory is of my head in the toilet – very, very sick.
For the next few teenage years I attended public school – when I felt like attending – and did a lot of drinking. My poor mother had no control over me.
I quit school in the eleventh grade and I managed to get a job as a telephone operator. I worked and partied and lived at home for a year or two until I became pregnant and married my first husband. He had been drafted into the army and eventually was sent to Korea for a short stint and I went back to Los Angeles to stay with his parents. I was pregnant with our second child – the daughters were one year and three days apart. I was to go on to have four children – the fourth was born a few days before my 24th birthday. I decided I would like to have 12 children.
While staying with my in-laws I was introduced to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. My father in law was an alcoholic – died of alcoholism – and at one point had called AA. He said that two men called on him and left the book. Being a compulsive reader I read it and even as a teenager there was parts I could relate to.
I realize now that I never was a social drinker. I never wanted one drink. Even as a teenage I would turn down drinks if there wasn’t going to be enough to get drunk.
My husband returned from Korea. As time went on our marriage, not too sound to begin with, really began to fall apart. He started staying out all night – “drinking with the boys” – and denied having other women. I was becoming more and more distressed and depressed. And then I found I was pregnant again.
I knew that mentally there was no way that I could go through another pregnancy with the marriage being the way it was. I called a mutual friend and begged him to tell me the truth and he said that yes, there definitely was another woman. When I confronted my husband with this fact, he informed me that he didn’t want a divorce but was going to continue seeing her. What he said to me was, “you’re pregnant and you have four children – there’s nothing you can do about it”. I knew then that it was over. I was thirty years old with four children and even if I had to take the children and go sleep in the park it was over.
I forged his name on a check made out to him and cashed it and started making phone calls. Abortions were illegal then but I finally found a woman from East Los Angeles who was willing to perform it. She came to the house with a coat hanger and a catheter and tried to abort me. It was not successful and she had to return a second time. She didn’t even wash her hands – nothing was sterilized – and I developed a terrible infection. Several months later – I hadn’t aborted the fetus – I started to hemorrhage and was taken to the hospital. Eventually they took me to the operating room and did a D&C. A year later I had my uterus removed.
I was now a single woman in my thirties. I drank a lot. I also had a pill problem. Amphetamines were readily available in the 50s and 60s. All you had to do was call the doctor, tell him you wanted to lose a few pounds and he would call in the prescription to the local pharmacy.
I didn’t drink much at home – I was a bar drinker. As my drinking increased I would be away from home several days at a time. I had a friend who would stop in with groceries and to check on the children. It was just a matter of time before child welfare would appear on the scene and put the children in foster homes.
I woke up one morning terribly sick – bed wet – hands shaking – looked in the mirror and saw what a mess I was. I was so very depressed. I knew that I was an alcoholic and had to stop drinking but I didn’t know how I could live without alcohol. My life seemed a hopeless, unbearable mess and I wanted to die. I knew that if I committed suicide that the children would end up in foster homes. I rationalized in my sick mind that if I could live another five years they would be older and better able to get along on their own. I was 35 years old and planned to wait until I was 40 – and I would do it then.
I went to my first AA meeting on October 5, 1968 and my whole world changed.
I knew that AA helped alcoholics stop drinking but I was very concerned when I attended my first meeting. There was something about turning your life over to god and a lot of other god words in “How it works”. If this was some kind of a religion I knew it wasn’t going to work for me. When the meeting was over a couple of people came over to me and I expressed my concerns about the god thing. I was told that I should just ignore that. The old “take what you can use and leave the rest”.
I didn’t want to find God – I wanted to find out how to live in this miserable world without drinking. I knew I was an alcoholic and I knew I had to quit drinking. I was uncomfortable with the praying and the hand holding – it was something that made me feel apart from the other members. It was the same feeling I had in St. Mary’s Academy. I was told the old “fake it til you make it” but for me it just didn’t take.
However, time went by and indeed things did get better. I got my high school diploma by passing a GED test and that was enough to get me into the nursing program and to become a Licensed Vocational Nurse.
I attended many meetings in the beginning years – the first year I went every day. I was very active in Twelfth Step work, answered phones in Central Office, took my turn as Secretary of different meetings and – yes – washed ash trays and coffee cups. When I came in, where I came in, there wasn’t all that much talk of god and miracles. Most people credited a god with their sobriety but in the discussions the talk was more of sober living.
Gradually over the years there were changes in the meetings. More and more the talk was of miracles from above and less of one’s own efforts to cope with life’s problems.
The only problem I had was that I was still an agnostic.
I met my second husband toward the end of my first year of sobriety. We dated for a few years and finally married. He and I were both 42 years of age when he had a heart attack and died.
When I had been sober ten years, I met my last husband, Bill, who had twenty years of sobriety. Bill and I dated and a few years later were married. He bought a condo on Maui as an investment. We both loved Maui and when he retired we sold the condo, bought a house and moved over here. We were married 25 years. Bill passed away in 2004.
After 30 some years of sobriety I just gave up meetings.
I got so I was only attending on special days and I did make a point of attending once a year on my birthday. We have a pretty large meeting on Maui called “Kihei Morning Serenity” – KMS for short and they gave chips. So for some years I would attend that meeting to accept my chip. When I gave my little talk I would tell them that I was an unbeliever. I would encourage anyone who was a believer to pray and do whatever it took to stay sober but that if they were atheists or agnostics to know that the program would work for them. I was very concerned about the number of people who were turned off by all the god talk and weren’t coming back to the meetings. So often I heard them say that they were told that they couldn’t stay sober if they didn’t find god. I would say that if anyone tried to tell them that you can’t stay sober without god, ask them, “What about Joan?” By then I had probably more years of sobriety than anyone else on the island. Usually, when the meeting was over, several people would come up to me and whisper that they were non-believers too. I think of them as closet atheists.
For some years I have been the AA liaison for the prison – Maui Community Correctional Center. About nine years ago I discovered that no one was taking meetings into the women’s prison. I went in to the prison for a week or two to set up meetings and realized I was going in by myself. Looking back I am surprised I got away with it – you are supposed to be certified to go in – background check, etc. Eventually I rounded up enough volunteers so that the meetings were held on on a regular basis. I am happy to say that we are going on the 10th year and haven’t missed a single Wednesday night.
I told an AA friend, “If you ever come across anyone who is having trouble with the religious aspects of the program, let me know and I will talk to him or her”. One day he called to tell me about a newcomer – Rich – who was an atheist. He invited me over to dinner and that is when I met Rich.
We became friends and talked about starting a meeting for nonbelievers. Rich discovered that there were “We Agnostics” meetings on the mainland that were recognized in New York and we were on our way.
We started out being listed as “We Agnostics – non religious format” – but there were howls of protest from the AA community – “This is not a religious program!” So Rich changed it to read “We Agnostics – no prayers” and that worked. Our first meeting was on July 27, 2006. As time went on more and more people were coming to the meetings.
When some vandals burned down the Bridge Club where our meetings were held, we moved outside to the adjacent park. There is a beautiful Flower Tree and we all bring folding chairs and have our meeting under this beautiful tree. It was pictured on the front page of the Grapevine a year or so ago.
We now have three “We Agnostics” meetings a week and have anywhere from ten or fifteen people to thirty per meeting. We plan to start a fourth meeting when the Bridge Club is rebuilt.
I left AA because I am a non-believer and became more and more uncomfortable in the meetings with all the god talk and talk of leaving everything in god’s hands – frankly superstitious gobbledygook. I am back because we now have meetings – We Agnostic meetings – where I finally feel like I belong.
Today I have a wonderful life. I have always been active in volunteer work in and out of AA. I have friends. I play Bridge. My health is good. Sometimes I look around and wonder, “How did you get from there to here?” In all my years of sobriety I have never felt as close and as much a part of Alcoholics Anonymous as I do since we have We Agnostics meetings.
New We Agnostic AA meetings are springing up all over the world. We are in the midst of great changes and now have a wonderful opportunity to offer help to all suffering alcoholics, including agnostics, atheists and all other nonbelievers.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.