Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
My name is Helen and I am an alcoholic. That simply means that I cannot safely drink. I have been introducing myself at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that way for 30 years.
I came into the rooms at age 23 having been kicked out of college for failing to maintain grades. I had been an honors student and I was devastated by my repeated failures semester after semester. A psychiatrist in recovery introduced me to my first AA meeting. He told me before we walked in: take what you need and leave the rest. I have never forgotten that advice. He also wrote in a Big Book for me: Positive Attitude Changes Everything.
Although I recognized that my life was unmanageable, I did not know if I was really an alcoholic. There were always more notorious drinkers around me to prove otherwise. I was in the early stages of the disease: periodic embarrassing binges, punctuated by occasions where I could manage to have just one. However, I couldn’t predict when that would be. And those controlled drinking occasions were becoming less and less frequent over time. I was less and less reliable at school, procrastinating with my own to-do lists, missing classes, not meeting my own potential. My religion of origin had given me plenty of beliefs about God, but by the time I had been kicked out of college, I had lost faith in myself.
I kept coming back to meetings because I wanted what the people in AA clearly had: they had turned their lives around from failure to success, they were no longer ashamed of themselves, they were happy. I was willing to abstain – temporarily – from alcohol while I learned their secret to achieving serenity.
They did not kick me out for not knowing whether or not I was one of them.
Eventually I heard other women tell my story. I read on page 23 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions these words granting us early stage alcoholics admission into the fellowship:
(We) were joined by young people who were scarcely more than potential alcoholics. They were spared that last ten or fifteen years of literal hell the rest of us had gone through… How could people such as these take this step (one)?
By going back over our drinking histories, we could show that years before we realized it we were out of control, that our drinking even then was no mere habit, that it was indeed the beginning of a fatal progression…
Alcoholism was progressive! I went over my own relatively shorter drinking history and found that it indeed had been getting worse over time. That night was my first time identifying in as an alcoholic.
There were in the rooms holy roller Big Book thumpers whose angry zealotry was unattractive to me. But the majority of AA members welcoming me in 1985 were extremely accepting of people not like them. They practiced live and let live and unconditional love. This is the most important modeling AA has ever given me. We were diverse in terms of gender, races, classes, ages, abilities, diagnoses, politics, beliefs, sexual orientations. None of that mattered. Our recovery together came first.
I was still very sensitive to criticism. Being judged, for any reason, would have chased me back out those doors. I was lucky to have stumbled into the one place of acceptance and unconditional love that would eventually heal not only my alcoholism but also my own self-judgment, projection and shame issues.
Because I was attracted to the remarkable serenity in AA, I embarked on the steps – and attempted to use the conception of god that I had been taught in my youth. I did my best but did not feel any lightning bolts of closeness to a higher power as claimed by some of our religious members. I attributed this disappointment to some fault of my own. Nevertheless, I stayed sober and kept coming back. I placed myself into the middle of the boat, and my social life included mostly people in recovery.
My initial sponsor was a mother figure to me. But when the time came to take my 4th & 5th steps, well, there are some things one cannot tell one’s mother. So I asked another woman whom I had heard joyfully leading a 10th step meeting if she would help me start my 4th step. I wanted the joy she had experienced in practicing self examination. “I am happy to help you! Your 5th step is with me next week.” This was not what I expected to hear, but the immediate 5th step deadline was exactly what I needed to focus and complete step four. I learned to look wherever pride and fear could trip me up. Her own nonjudgement and her guidance away from self-judgement was such a revelation to me. I had been swimming in a soup of perfectionistic judgmentalism all my life. Free of self-judgment, I was then free to become more understanding of myself and of others.
Through my trust in the principles of program, my connection to others who were working the steps, and my willingness to apply these principles in my own life, I have become more able to “live life on life’s terms”, to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and to overcome other issues besides alcohol.
My work on letting go of attempting to control the disturbing behaviors of other people brought me into other fellowships. So I also learned “inner child” lessons about myself and detachment issues about life from Alanon and Adult Children of Alcoholics.
I learned boundaries: for instance, not to tolerate intolerable behavior from others. I learned I could just acknowledge how I was feeling and ask for what I needed rather than telling bad actors exactly what I thought of them. If they weren’t willing to improve their relationship with me, I was free to focus on better relationships elsewhere. I accept that some relationships teach us valuable lessons, and that we can sometimes outgrow people. I have learned to “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated (or denigrated)”.
I was also able to turn my life around into successful living in more tangible ways.
Early on, I returned to complete my college degree and later I went on to obtain a Masters Degree in Social Work and had a successful career as an employee assistance counselor and clinical social worker. And, years later, after I married, I also became a Master Gardener, a beekeeper, and a Permaculture Designer.
I have raised a lovely daughter who is now starting college. She has always known me as a sober mother, and along with her father, also sober, we provided a stable home. During her high school years, I was hired to teach college courses in Horticulture. I had come full circle from being expelled from college in my 20’s to becoming a college associate professor in my fifties. I was meeting my potential and becoming my own best self.
As our literature promises, more has been revealed. My longtime immersion in a loving, accepting and sober atmosphere eventually resulted in a change in my conception of a power greater than myself. I now view this greater power not as a divine personage but as a human inter-connective flow of love and service between all of us.
I’ve been a newbie atheist for almost five years. I went through a dark night of the soul to get here. To transition from believer to nonbeliever is a frightening process. Abandonment issues needed to be resolved first.
I do acknowledge a power “greater than myself”: Lovingkindness is very powerful. It encompasses all of us and includes me. I strive to be non-hierarchic in all things. I still practice the steps to maintain honesty, open-mindedness and willingness and I appreciate the self-examination wisdom in them.
For myself, I translate the word God wherever it appears in the literature to the word Lovingkindness. In step 3, I dedicate myself to practicing the principle of Lovingkindness. Although I can still speak fluently the language of Christian philosophy, I identify today as an atheist in the rooms. I accept graciously that others are not there yet. It took me two decades to graduate up to atheism, who am I to judge anyone for where they are now in their 2nd step journey? Besides, I know from personal experience that this program works either way, both with belief in a deity and without. So our beliefs do not really matter. It is faith in the loving power at work among people in these rooms that matters. As the literature still reminds me, “This is the way to a faith that works”.
As Ebby T. suggested to Bill Wilson long ago, we are free within Alcoholics Anonymous to choose our own conceptions of a power greater than ourselves. We can live our beliefs and let others live theirs. Our common welfare in recovery comes first. Lovingkindness: This is the way to a faith that works. Positive Attitude Changes Everything.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.