Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
On the 12th of April 1986, I drove from Toronto to Montreal and spent the evening drinking with friends. The next day, I visited my son from my previous marriage and drove back to Toronto. During the drive, I broke into a cold sweat and started shaking. I felt I was losing control of my mind and body. I was filled with shame and fear and I concluded I could no longer stand the pain of living this way. Something had to change.
I remembered what my doctor had told me during a visit a few months before. I told him a bit about why I drank, when I drank and was semi-honest about how much I drank. He told me that if I ever thought about having another drink I should look into a program called Alcoholics Anonymous. At the time, I felt angry and humiliated. How insulting.
But here I was, just a few months later, in the same old pickle. Once again I had been drinking; once again I was paying the price. What was worse, my standby solution – quitting on my own – was once again a total failure. In a moment of desperation, I reached out for help; on April 21, 1986, I attended my first AA meeting. Thanks to the fellowship of AA and good inputs from other sources I have not had to pick up a drink since.
In retrospect, I had a problem with alcohol from the moment I had my first drink.
I was actually quite shy, did not feel like I fit in and wanted very much to be accepted. I was ashamed of who I was. While I was successful at almost every task I took on, I never felt competent and lived in fear of others figuring out that I was in over my head. Alcohol became my instant friend; it allowed me to relax, to be more outgoing, to be a part of life, and my fear could be put on hold. It was a key component of both my social and business life and I could not imagine being able to live a normal, successful life if I were not able to drink. It was this desire to fit in that always took me back to the first drink.
I was not a daily drinker. While there were occasions when I would drink several days in a row, it was more common that I would go several days without a drink. I was very focused on controlling myself and my life when I was not drinking but after taking a drink I lost all control of how much I would drink and what I might say or do.
I had quit several times on my own with success lasting up to several months. My downfall was always finding myself in a social situation where I convinced myself that to be accepted and to relax I had to take a drink. It seemed like all of my normal friends and business acquaintances drank. There was no one who shared my objective of not drinking.
AA offered a community of people that I could identify with and who shared the objective of not drinking and who in many cases had good long term sobriety. Not only were they sober, many of them were successful and they seemed to be happy. I wanted what they had. This community of like minded people, more than anything, was what was missing when I attempted to stop on my own.
But as an atheist, I really struggled with many of the 12 steps.
I do not see myself as being powerless over alcohol as in and of itself alcohol is just a chemical and has no real power to control me. It is my brain, not alcohol, that is the problem. I did not like life as it was and I found that at least in the beginning alcohol was a solution. Over time, alcohol became a habit; a solution to all problems. When I took a drink, I lost control but it was really my reaction to life and not alcohol that caused me to pick up that first drink.
When I came to AA, I suffered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body that always led me back to a drink. But, my experience since then has shown me that it was not a hopeless state; I could recover from this state and live a productive, meaningful life without alcohol.
The suggestion of using a Higher Power as an alternative to a god would have been fine except for the fact that when I read the Big Book it was quite clear that the expectation was that sooner or later I would come to my senses and accept the Christian God as my higher power. So, I don’t have a Higher Power in a Big Book or 12 Step sense. There are many things in the world more powerful than me, but there is no individual or group that I am willing to grant control over my life. I gain helpful input from many sources including AA members, AA groups, AA books and literature, Buddhist, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience texts but in the end I retain responsibility for what is a part of my recovery practice.
While I did not find a higher power, I did find hope that I could recover as I listened to the experience of other members and read the stories in the back of the Big Book.
In the beginning I tried very hard to pursue the coming to believe route; I went to church a few times, I read the bible, books by CS Lewis, the Koran, some Buddhist and Hindu Texts but it didn’t work. As well, the “Fake It Till You Make It” approach seemed to contradict the recommendation that I get honest with myself.
Several books on Buddhism provided helpful insights into how to approach and respond to life. While I reject what I’d call the “woo” associated with claims such as rebirth and karma from past lives, I do find help in the “Four Noble Truths”, the “Eight Fold Noble Path” and the “Ten Perfections” and meditation. To me, these teachings and practices outline an approach to understanding my dissatisfaction with life and a process to bring about changes that help me live a good, happy life today. They are not religious in nature nor are they about the supernatural. As a result, these teachings inform the way that I approach the twelve steps.
I do not use the word spiritual when I’m discussing my practice as I think that it is a word that carries too much baggage in AA. Many would conclude that I am talking about a religious experience or perhaps some new age experience so it’s a term I don’t use. Instead, by working my own version of the steps I am bringing about changes in the way that I approach and respond to life. In the past, I measured success in terms of money, power, position or prestige; today they are no longer high on my list. Today I am more concerned with my relationships with others. I want to avoid harming others while helping where I am able. I am no longer as selfish or self centred as I used to be. I’m a long way from becoming selfless but I have made improvements.
So how could an alcoholic who is an atheist, who does not admit to being powerless over alcohol, who does not recognize a higher power and who does not claim to have had a spiritual awakening get sober, stay sober and have good long term sobriety? First I did not want to die; I did not want to abandon my family and I was convinced that without change I would die. Second, I had the fellowship and the examples of recovering and recovered members that gave me hope. And third, when I could not accept the steps as written in the Big Book, I personalized them to create a process that I could follow and that has helped change me and reduced the likelihood of picking up that first drink.
My current personalized version of the steps is as follows:
- We admitted that we suffer from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.
- Came to believe that we could recover.
- Became open to changes in how we approach and respond to life.
- Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
- Reviewed our inventory with another human being.
- Became entirely open to change.
- Humbly affirmed our desire to change.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became ready to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through meditation to improve our understanding of ourselves, our practice and our progress.
- Having changed as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principals in all our affairs.
Due to my fear of not fitting in, of not being accepted in AA, I was not open about my atheism when speaking in AA until after I wrote an article “Personalizing the Twelve Steps” that was published on AA Agnostica in January of 2013. This article was really my full disclosure of my atheism, my becoming totally honest. Prior to this, when addressing a particular step in a meeting, I talked honestly about how I did the step but I did not disclose the fact that I am an atheist.
My disclosure caused some pain, one person called me a few names, and one person fired me as his sponsor, some rolled their eyes when I spoke, but others realized that I hadn’t changed and still accepted me.
Coming out allows me to be honest when discussing my program. I do not wish to convert of de-convert anyone but I think it is important that others understand and acknowledge that it is possible to become sober and have good long term sobriety in AA without believing in a god.
Just over a year ago, two other members and I started our “Beyond Belief” meeting. It is an open AA Meeting, does not include any prayer, and uses readings from the book “Beyond Belief” to stimulate discussion. It is a great meeting attracting a small number of atheists, agnostics and even a few theists. We focus on our recovery experience.
Today my life is far removed from that seemingly hopeless state I was in when I first came to AA.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.