Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
Few residents are in treatment because they choose to be. Most of us are “invited” by the courts, our employers, our family or friends. I arrived in treatment May 6, 1981 via an intervention that included family, friends and my boss.
We study the disease model: “addiction is a disease with biological, neurological, and environmental origins.” We learn about cross-addiction: “if a person is dependent on one substance, he is at high risk to develop dependence on any other addicting substance.” The counselors tell us it is important to get in touch with our feelings. We learn the symptoms of alcoholism. We watch videos, hear lectures and attend classes and twelve step meetings. They tell us that if we don’t change we will continue to suffer consequences: jails, institutions and death.
Lights out and final cigarettes are at midnight and we awaken early. Naps are not allowed. Neither are cassettes or cassette players. The residents share a pay phone and there is a ten minute limit on calls. We are responsible for our own laundry and women are expected to wear bras.
We stand in a cafeteria line three times a day, we do our own dishes and listen to people assigned to stand up and say things like: “My name is Peter, and I am a worthwhile person”. “My name is Sarah, and I love myself.” By night the cafeteria becomes an AA meeting or a screening room for videos starring Leo Buscaglia aka Dr. Love, or Father Martin on a tall, boxy TV set.
It doesn’t take long to let the routine and rules guide my days. I make friends, do my work and I am on time for all my meetings. For the most part I learn to fly under the radar, and make the best of my situation. I attend group and individual therapy and AA meetings. I am a model “prisoner”. We have in-house AA meetings, and, after several days, we are “allowed” to attend required AA meetings on the outside.
I try to embrace AA, but it is a struggle. When I look at the steps or hear them this is what I see/hear: one “spiritual awakening”, one “power greater than”, one “prayer and meditation”, one “His”, three “Him”s and four “God”s. That was all I saw. That was all I heard.
I ask a staff member how I am going to do this AA thing when I don’t believe in God. She explains that “in AA a higher power can be anything at all. Some people consider their higher power to be their twelve-step group.” I figure she is trying and I listen to what she has to say: “Your higher power can be anything. Your higher power can be a bar of soap.”
Soap? She stuns me with her response. Life-long atheist that I am, even I find this appalling. How can a person who purports to believe in God be disrespectful enough to suggest that a higher power could be a bar of soap? For the time being I give up on that question. I don’t want to hear that or anything like that ever again. I need a new approach to the whole God issue.
I know that there are AA meetings at the local Unitarian Universalist Church, the church of my childhood. I am convinced that if I attend a meeting there, everything will come clear to me. Unitarian Universalism is a faith tradition that encourages each individual to develop a personal faith. It draws from many different religions, in the belief that no one religion has all the answers and that most have something to teach us. I came to my atheist beliefs while growing up in the UU Church. It was a conscious decision and I was supported in my choice by my church family.
I deduce that if I can attend the AA meeting at the UU Church, I will find a whole roomful of like-minded people. I am sure that the meeting will be different and I will meet people who have successfully dealt with the questions I am asking about how to make AA work for me.
I am surprised to find this meeting is the same as every other AA meeting I have attended. Its location in the UU Church does not solve the issue of “God language”. The words they use are the same. People’s stories are the same. The lesson I learn here is that a twelve step meeting is a twelve step meeting is a twelve step meeting. It’s about the meeting, not about where it is held.
For all my struggles with AA, I do intend to stay sober. Or at least most of the time there is a good possibility that I will try to stay sober. Part of my brain is absorbing everything. I understand addiction. I understand the disease model. I understand cross-addiction. I see that the longer you drink, the more you can drink, until you can’t any more. I get that we were all trying to achieve those early highs, and no longer able to, we consume more, we consume something different, we fail, and we have no other solutions. I understand that sobriety is probably the only way out of the cycle of drug and alcohol use. I even believe that AA is my best bet for living a sober life.
When I graduate from treatment, I move to a halfway house for 90 days and then into a house with four other sober women. I attend four meetings a week. I learn to “translate” the “God language” into something more acceptable to me. This translation is more like censorship, but it works for me. I come to terms with the idea that I can say the prayers and read the steps, because, after all, I am just quoting.
I meet wonderful, generous people in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I aspire to be one of them, even as I struggle with speaking at meetings. When I do speak, I talk very rarely of my atheism. When I do, I am told with condescension that I “will find a higher power eventually.” I feel connected to people I meet in AA, but I always feel a distance from the words, and I always feel somewhat separate because of my understanding of the God piece, the spirituality piece, the higher power piece.
Over the years I become much more active in Alcoholics Anonymous. I work for three years as a psych tech in a treatment facility and often transport women from the house to meetings, which I often attend with them. I become more open in meetings about my atheism. I feel like I am offering the newcomer an opportunity to hear a woman who has long-term sobriety who didn’t have to change or compromise her spiritual and religious beliefs to do it. I become a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association Addictions Ministry Team. I lead AA meetings at UUA General Assembly, and am variously secretary and treasurer at some of the meetings I attend locally. I start to become one of those people I admired in my early years in the program. I speak about atheism on my sobriety birthday, and when I see another member of the fellowship struggling with the God language.
It is not until a beloved member of my own family is in treatment, struggling with the very things that I had struggled with when I was in treatment, that I try my hand at writing my own version of the 12 steps. I’m not sure if it is helpful to him, but it empowers me even further.
Hanje’s Version of the 12 Steps
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that we could be restored to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have all these defects of character removed.
- Humbly asked for our shortcomings to be removed.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people whenever 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 to find peace and serenity and to be the best people we could be.
- We tried to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
I attend the first We Agnostics, Atheists, and Freethinkers (WAAFT) AA convention in Santa Monica, California, in November, 2014. I find out that there are people all over the world that have been doing their own translations of the steps, have been hiding their own atheism, who have felt shamed, just like I did. I finally have a tribe. I stay in touch with these people on social media. I attend the Agnostics and Others Group of Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in my own community and I look forward to being reunited with my tribe when WAAFT meets in Austin, Texas, in 2016.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.