Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I drank for twenty years. Too many times I drank past my tolerance level and woke up shivering on some bathroom floor. When I picked up my first beer of the night, I rarely knew how or where I’d end up. In the mornings, I often felt like someone had slipped me poison. Of course that mysterious “someone” was me.
My last and final drunk wasn’t my last and final drink. After a terrible night, wasted, stumbling, and trying to find my way home only five short blocks from my apartment, I knew I couldn’t go one more round with alcohol. Stopping completely seemed too final. I decided that I needed to lay off for a few months. I drank a couple of beers here and there while I contemplated the right time to begin my R and R (resisting and rehydration). Finally an acquaintance suggested acupuncture. Initially this worked; I went ten days without a drink, for me a long interval. But I found, underneath all the drinking, that I had a lot of un-dealt-with emotions I’d been diluting.
A sober friend urged me to go to an AA meeting. During the twenty years that I’d been drinking I had come in contact with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each time I read them the word God loomed high. I’ve been an atheist since I was twelve. I never had the need or desire to have a divine being in my life. When I said to my sober friend that I couldn’t go to AA she said that she was also an atheist, but found what she needed to stay sober were meetings and the fellowship.
At my first meeting I stayed quiet. During a discussion about Step One a big Irish guy, former bartender, said that the step had nothing to do with God. He boiled down the program to: Don’t drink; Go to meetings; and Help another alcoholic. Keep it simple he said. Relief swept over me. I could take what I heard in meetings, identify with the stories, and stay sober.
However, I still needed something more to maintain long-term sobriety. I needed the fellowship and the experience, strength, and hope of others. I needed to find a meeting where I could let those emotions I’d been drowning come out and be aired.
About six months into my sobriety, I found a meeting that catered to agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers as well as anyone else who needed a giant dose of AA. In that meeting I found people who had decades of sobriety who never prayed a day in their lives. I met people who tried all the suggestions of well-meaning AAs, but they still found that praying did not feel like rigorous honesty – no matter how hard they tried. When they surrendered to the idea that they couldn’t drink safely, they accepted their powerlessness over alcohol. These sober people were members of AA, no better or worse than people who believed in God.
Everyone, it seems, has their own definition of spirituality and that confuses me. But after I stopped the intake of the depressant alcohol, I felt better. I got my “joy of life” back. That’s as close as I come to having a spiritual experience and I’m thrilled to discover that the booze-induced cloud of lousy feelings vanished. Even the streets of New York City looked brighter. My grumpy attitude transformed and my co-workers saw the difference in the clearness of my eyes.
I look to my fellows every time I get an urge to drink. If I find myself in a situation where I can’t call one of them for support, I imagine their healthy sober faces. I learned that I can leave parties and other social situations if I feel uncomfortable about the drinking. I shared lots of coffee with people I met at these meetings. Slowly they became my friends. I found a sponsor and did the steps with her. Some parts of AA literature we liked, other parts we couldn’t identify with. But we’ve both found what we needed for long-term sobriety in meetings and fellowship.
I’ve been sober for eighteen years now. I’m happy with the profound changes I made. My life is bigger than I ever imagined. I’m glad the hand of AA was there for me when I needed it. I’m also glad that I found a home meeting where people have accepted me as I am, encouraged me to grow, and demanded that I remain true to my better self.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.