Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I showed signs of what I think of as “spiritual malady” from as far back as I can remember.
As a child, I was absorbed in fantasy. I was the God of my own fantasies, creating worlds at will. In those worlds I was whatever I fancied: a great warrior, or footballer, or rock guitarist. Often I was a superhero. I fantasized because I was not happy to be who I really was in the world as it really was.
The ambient world was actually very good to me. My family was well off and we lived in a leafy, desirable part of London. My parents were loving and kind and very liberal. But they did not let just anything go and taught me right from wrong. I have two much older brothers. One was nice enough, though a bit distant. The other was loving. They were (and still are) extremely successful at pretty much whatever they do: top of the class, head of school, best at sports and so on. The loving brother often played games with me. He always won. My mother from time to time voiced the view that, in this way or that, I would never be as good as them. I felt very inadequate. For some reason, when I was six, I was sent to a psychoanalyst who told me that I wanted to kill my brothers and my parents. I think that as a result of this, I felt that I was horrible inside. I was the worst of possible beings. I carried a terrible secret.
Growing up (or rather failing to do so) in the 1960s, the hippy-drug culture was all around. At about seven, the idea of taking drugs took root. Drugs represented an escape from reality, and an alternative lifestyle that appealed greatly. I went into denial even then. There was plenty of publicity that I saw and heard, saying: “Drugs are dangerous. They can ruin your life or kill you. You could become an “addict”. “Don’t do them!” This had no effect on my thinking. I had no fear. I began inhaling solvents at about ten. Then, aged fourteen, I started smoking marijuana. I quickly became a daily user and a true addict, with craving and obsession. I took whatever drugs I could find and afford.
I left home at sixteen, went to live in a squat and pursue the hippy lifestyle. I remember one time I took some LSD and went to a park. I tried hard to be at one with the beautiful flowers.
I got bored with drugs and with the hippy life and lucked my way into a good university. I received scholarships for a Master’s and then a PhD. I excelled. My confidence grew along with my self-esteem. But however much I received, it was not enough. Inside I was always inadequate.
I coped with some of my inner violence by training hard at Kung Fu. I enjoyed the aesthetic qualities, the endorphin high, the fighting and smashing things. I became skilled, tough and physically confident. Inside I remained inadequate.
I had always liked drinking and, as soon as I stopped the drugs, I began to drink more. I drank nearly every day for about thirty years. A lot. I liked drinking. I am sociable and always found heavy drinkers or alcoholics to drink with. I also had a great fondness for fine wines, gins and whisky.
When I was thirty three, I met a great woman. She was intellectual, cultured, charismatic and a good pool player. She was also very beautiful. We fell in love, more or less at first sight. After two years, we married. The passion wore off and after seven years we divorced. My part in the failure of the marriage was not, I think, the drinking in itself. It was the fact that alcohol was much more important to me than she was. Alcohol was my true lover. I did not have much emotional space for any mere human.
It became clear to those close to me that I was an alcoholic. They told me this and provided excellent evidence. It meant nothing to me. Eventually, my doctor sent me to a counsellor who tried to teach me controlled drinking. After six months of therapy, I learned to control my drinking. Every waking hour that I spent not drinking, I spent planning those fifty units a week. The control didn’t last long!
I began to drink in the mornings and throughout the day. I did not seek out sordid places. Instead I turned my nice apartment into one, as a more-or-less open house for the local street drunks and druggies. I enjoyed the company and liked the people. But it was chaos. The police were constantly called. I ceased to be popular with my neighbours. Of my fellow bohemians from that period, three are now dead (two ODs and one liver failure), and one, having landed on his head one time while drunk, has lost the ability to speak and lives in a care home.
While I was still clinging to a job, my psychiatrist sent me to rehab. There I was introduced to AA. Brought up as a devout atheist, and knowing science and philosophy, I knew I was never going to believe in any God. It was not a question of willingness to believe. My mind works in terms of evidence and argument. It doesn’t do faith. The “God” talk in AA put me off. But I could see a lot of drunks getting sober. I found meetings difficult, boring, formulaic, and full of religion. I tried to listen to the similarities, not the differences, but I failed. I was too self-absorbed to listen to anything much, or to feel the emotional support in the rooms. And I did not relish the prospect of sobriety. I thought life would be dull and joyless at best.
After I left rehab I relapsed immediately. I went back in, came out, and relapsed immediately again. I lost my job. I ended up living a nightmare, terrified for my physical and mental health and my future, hardly able to feed myself, unable to do anything but drink. If I drank enough, I could experience brief periods of escape: a sort of serenity through anaesthesia. But also, when drunk enough, I would do dangerous things. Once I collapsed and my head collided with the corner of a large TV. I knew nothing of this until I woke up with a bloodied dent in my head and a TV on the floor. Another time, in a fury, I deliberately put my fist through a stained-glass window. I left a stream of blood on the floor as I staggered to my sofa and passed out.
I knew drink was destroying me. I was its slave. Without realising it, I took Steps One, Two and Three. That meant going back to rehab and for once doing everything that I was told (other than pray) without question or argument. My therapist gave me an atheist version of the Steps. I found an atheist sponsor. For Step Three, I elected a sort of advisory board: my sponsor, some people in AA, some outside. I turned all important decision-making over to them: I sought their advice and took it. This was a great experience for me: finally to stop running on self-will, to let go and go with the flow. I also learned to open my mind and my ears and listen at meetings. I have learned far more about myself from listening to other alcoholics than I did from many years of therapy. I like meetings now and I hear the similarities, not the differences. I know I am among people like me.
I did the Steps quickly and ended up in a decent psychological (“spiritual”) place. But I had not listened or read well enough and I did not keep up the Step work, only going to two meetings a week and doing nothing else.
I declined very quickly. I feared financial insecurity. I would need a drink. I would deserve one. For three days I planned that drink. Not once did it cross my mind that there was any risk. It was as if half my mind had gone on holiday. I looked at my bank accounts, had the drink, then drank pure spirits non-stop for eleven days. A neighbour came and rescued me and got me a home detox. Two days into the detox, and feeling good, I lost the use of my legs for twelve hours. That scared me. A lot.
Then I had an idea! Work on the Steps every day. That worked like a miracle. I’ve had no troubling desire to drink since that moment. These have been the happiest three years of my life. I am mostly retired now, though I still pursue my research. I have returned to some activities of my youth: writing poetry, working with clay, going to concerts (mostly rock, mostly heavy metal, punk and hippy music). With my ears open and my attention directed outward, I enjoy music more than I ever did before.
And I work for AA in various administrative and public information roles. I enjoy that too, genuinely glad to be of service. I feel it is an honour and a privilege.
I am free of the discontent from which I suffered for fifty-odd years. I try to live in the real world now, rather than fantasy worlds of my own creation. The world is my higher power and I am content being who I really am, in it as it really is. Through meditation I can be at one with the flowers and I can find serenity without anaesthesia.
Since I don’t believe in miracles, I turned my mind to studying how the Steps work. From my academic point of view, the answer is simple, evident on a psychological reading of the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve (in my view, some of the finest psychological writing in existence), and largely vindicated by contemporary neuroscience. What causes relapse is emotional turbulence, which is caused by anger, resentment, fear, guilt, wounded pride, low self-esteem, envy, unsatisfied wants, existential angst and the like or by excessive elation. These cause a release of a specific hormone (corticotropin-releasing factor) that sends the dopamine system into overdrive, causing a strong desire to drink and at the same time impairing thought and memory. (That’s my theory, anyway!).
Through inventory, sharing, making amends, meditation, helping others and trying to do the right thing, let go and leave the rest up to nature, I have learned how to calm my emotions, to accept others and feel accepted by them, to feel connected to the world and the sentient, feeling beings in it, to feel worthy of my place in the universe.
Emotional turbulence (the cause of stress and relapse) is caused by unmanaged, misdirected, over-active instincts. And what keeps instincts at bay are humility and spirituality, as I understand it: the opposite of self-will, self-seeking and self-absorption. As the result of the Steps, I have had a spiritual awakening.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.