Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
Nothing could have brought me to Alcoholics Anonymous other than utter desperation and the lack of any viable alternative. I started drinking when I was twelve years old, despite growing up in a supportive family where no one really drank. We were not religious. We were not alcoholics. Nothing about AA fit our profile. By October 15th 2007, the last time I took a drink, AA had become my last resort. Two stints in rehab had helped me learn a lot of things about addiction and about myself, but didn’t keep me sober for long. The problem with rehab was maintenance. In order for me to get my first consecutive three months of sobriety, I really had to do “90 meetings in 90 days” and the only place I knew to get that was in AA. What AA gave me was access almost anytime, anywhere to other alcoholics who had come to believe that getting sober was worth doing anything to get, that getting and staying sober is – anyone new and struggling may find hard to believe – entirely possible and, as I learned, actually much easier than drinking.
If it weren’t for the overt religious aspects of AA, I might have been spared years of suffering.
I was deeply alienated by AA’s reputation for religiosity and it really kept me away. When I started going to meetings, I was more embarrassed someone would see me outside a church than an AA meeting. Time and again I met sponsors who wouldn’t let me get past step two because I could not in honesty say I was willing to “give my life over to God”. The slogan that goes with that step is “Let Go and Let God”. Ironically, it’s the first part of that slogan, “letting go”, that helped me find a way to be in AA. All I had to do was let go of the second part, the “let God” part, to “take what I needed and leave the rest”.
Finally I could sit in meetings and not get hung up every time God became the central topic. I could use those times to meditate, and read the Big Book for the parts that worked for me. After all, the only goal was to stay sober. Getting angry, feeling chased out of meetings because of my lack of religious beliefs, these things would get in the way of sobriety, so I had to let them go. What I learned about letting go in meetings, I could apply to my life outside of meetings. I’m not the first to say that meetings are a kind of microcosm where you can experience and work through feelings and reactions that will help you outside meetings. The advantage in meetings is that you can try out new emotions without professional or social repercussions. But being sober also has given me choices, and today I choose to attend meetings where there is less God talk and more sober talk. In fact, in most countries where I attend meetings, there is a much more secular approach to AA.
For decades, there was not a day I wasn’t either drunk or hung over. Drinking that much is like living life with a ball and chain that you have tied around your own ankle. Thinking back, it’s astonishing I accomplished what I did. It’s astonishing I did not get myself killed. Nearly every terrible thing that happened to me happened when I was drunk. There is a whole category of “sex with strangers” stories I could tell, but they are so standard and tawdry that they don’t need telling. Every drunk I know has similar stories.
I thought that alcohol was freedom, my constant companion, my friend in foreign places, my antidote to loneliness. But alcohol was the lousiest kind of friend: it was jealous and possessive and stripped me of who I could be. It belittled me, shamed me, hurt me. If alcohol was my lover, I was alcohol’s battered spouse.
After my six years at university (something of a respite from the worst of my drinking) I got a job in the film industry, where, at least at that time, and at least in the department I worked in, drinking was a big part of the lifestyle. Sometimes when a shoot ended in the morning, we were rewarded with beer. I was in heaven. It’s worth saying that I never had any trouble keeping up with “the boys”. We worked hard and partied hard and that excused us for everything.
It was around that time I went to my first AA meeting. I’d come home with a guy I’d picked up in a booze can (an all night illegal drinking club). He had a cell phone, which was still a new thing. I used his cell phone to leave myself a phone message that said, “You need help”. I was still too drunk that morning to find AA in the phone book, but the next day I made it to a meeting. I didn’t make it my second AA until two years later.
In the meantime, I moved to Cambodia to kick-start a career as a photojournalist and, I thought, to get away from my boozy life in Toronto. I’d left home at 16 so I wasn’t new to the concept of a “geographic”: where you think that moving to another city will help you escape demons that, as it turns out, you carry with you everywhere you go. Working in conflict zones, as a war correspondent, was another career that pretty much gave me impunity over drinking alcoholically. But it also made me feel guilty knowing I was dishonoring the work and the people whose stories I was meant to be telling. Moreover, the crippling, soul-shattering hangovers I suffered meant I was rarely on my best game. I would not have admitted it then, but being hung-over didn’t just put my life in danger, but also the lives of my colleagues and everyone around me.
Cambodia was an incredible experience, and it did set me on a new career path. But this path was rife with roadblocks and potholes created by my drinking. I rediscovered uppers. Now I learned how to combine cocktails of uppers with booze that enabled me to prolong my drinking and somehow manage to get to my job teaching English as a Second Language the next morning at 6 am. Then I’d hop on my motorcycle and cover the day’s news, before going back to the bar at night and starting the cycle all over again. Many nights after all the other customers had gone, the only souls left at the bar were me and the hookers. Increasingly, I was doing more drinking than working. I had motorcycle accidents, lost job opportunities, hung out with junkies and prostitutes. I earned the nickname “Calamity Jane”. On the outside it was still a big party, a wild adventure, but on the inside I was dying. It was unsustainable.
One day I met a guy about my age who became a quick drinking buddy and friend. “Jack” had once been sober for a whole year. My eyes were wide with amazement: “How did you do that?” I wanted to know. He told me he’d been in rehab in New York, and that that year sober was the best year of his life.
I’d never forgotten what Jack had told me. He’d put the idea in my head that it was possible to stop drinking – something I desperately needed to believe. Sitting at a lake-side bar drunk, at 10 o’clock in the morning, I scrawled a note in my journal admitting that I had a problem and that I could no longer deny the selfishness and insanity that was preventing me from doing something more worthwhile with my life. A few weeks later I flew back to Toronto and checked into my first rehab. I then planned on moving to New York and, among other things, reconnecting with my friend Jack. I wanted to tell him about rehab, about how he’d helped me get there. But before I made it to New York, Jack died of a heroin overdose.
I went to my first rehab in 1999. In between that time and my second rehab I still wanted to believe I wasn’t really an alcoholic. My second stint in rehab was in 2005 after I’d spent two years covering the war in Iraq and had fully relapsed. I did not last 12 hours sober that time. All it took was my boyfriend dumping me the night I got back from rehab and I was off on a two-day bender with a stranger I met at a bar. It took me two more years to get back into AA after that.
AA advises us to avoid “emotional entanglements” in our first year of sobriety. Truth be told, I still have to be careful about emotional entanglements. That also means avoiding people who are “toxic” to me. When I got honest about it, I was able to see which relationships were healthy and which relationships were feeding my addictions. I’ve cleaned house massively and now surround myself only with people around whom I feel I am my best self or am inspired to be my best self – someone I can like when I look in the mirror because I know she is trying to do the best she can.
How often I realized I’d totally screwed up my day! I would be left in a drunken fog between being awake and being asleep. My mind was too far gone to think but not tired enough to sleep. Today when I “remember when” it’s those times I remember as the worst. You are imprisoned in a mind you cannot stand being inside anymore and there is nowhere to go because you can’t escape yourself. In was an unbearable place to be and I despised myself for letting it happen. And yet I repeated it over and over again.
Drinking didn’t make anything better. Grey days were exponentially greyer. Cold days were interminably colder. Extremely hot days were insufferably hotter. Nothing ever felt right. Discomfort was the standard and everything I tried to do to drink myself out of discomfort stopped working. I don’t know if it ever worked. Back when I was a teenager in Toronto, one of my best friends called me up to take me for beers across the street. It was a school night, but he insisted. We drank Amsterdam beer, which was a bit fancy back then. The next day he killed himself by jumping off the Millwood Bridge. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what role alcohol played in his inability to see past his problems. His death was a big turning point for me too: I now used it as an excuse to get obliterated whenever I felt like it. I don’t know if the horrible feeling I got in my gut the moment I heard what had happened left me until I was well into my first year of sobriety. Every shitty thing that happened thereafter just added to it. That is what happens when you drink your troubles away: every bad feeling is added to the previous bad feeling. You can no longer distinguish the cause of one bad feeling from the next.
When my feelings started coming back to me after some time in sobriety and AA, it was almost unbearable at first. I sat in meetings for months just crying. If I hadn’t had AA meetings to go to every day and someone to talk to every day, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I read the AA literature with gusto, looking for ways to proceed, ways to cope with my feelings, ways to make the unbearable bearable, ways to feel less alone and less ashamed. I would say the slogans over and over again: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference; one day at a time; this too shall pass; do the next right thing and let go of the outcome. I would wish for serenity and joy for anyone I had any resentment or anger toward. When I wished for it hard enough, I realized I really did want them to be happy. That was a revelation that went a long way to work out my own pent up anger.
I was forced to deal with my emotions and look at my part in things that had hurt me or the hurt I had caused others. Somehow, recognizing the choices I’d made and taking accountability helped me hate less. One morning I woke up and for the first time in memory, since my friend’s suicide, I did not have a horrible feeling of dread in my stomach. Since then, I continue to do whatever I can to keep that feeling away. After a while, something really amazing started to happen: Whenever that bad feeling came back, I was able to identify it as a sign that something was wrong. For the first time I understood the expression, “to have a gut feeling”. Now, when I “have a bad feeling about something”, I listen to myself. I assess the situation, I do my research, and more often than not I am able to avert a problem or danger because of that feeling. Our emotions are a compass for living. Even the bad ones are worth having and listening to!
Even when I was drinking, I could see that the artists and writers who really were at the top of their game (with very few exceptions) did not abuse alcohol. They were too busy being engaged in their work. My own creative output has gained a clarity and depth that would have been impossible when I was drinking (not to mention that it is unlikely I would still be alive if I hadn’t stopped drinking).
I still have bad days occasionally, but they are few and far between. Bad days used to drag into years. Now I have what is sometimes called “an emotional relapse”, where my emotions become overwhelming and I allow myself to give in to either an episode of rage or grief. Or I’ll pick a fight with someone. It’s usually connected with being hungry, angry, lonely or tired. The difference is that I am able to stop, to walk away, to figure out what to do next. It’s not like a drink, where once you start you cannot stop. When I drank, there were times I believed I would not be able to survive the bad feelings I had. Drinking was the only way to survive, until drinking didn’t work anymore.
Today, no matter how terrible I may feel, I know that I’ll get past it. I do this by start with “do the next right thing”, which is what I had written on my first year medallion. Sometimes that means: stop arguing, or just leave, or take a break. My ability to love and forgive others seems to be inextricably tied to my ability to love myself. A good night’s sleep can turn things around. What a concept! Rest and heal your mind rather than go out and beat the crap out of yourself with poison so that the next day you will wake up feeling even more horrible and hostile.
The very important second part of “do the next right thing” is to “let go of the outcome”. That frees me up to move on to doing “the next right thing” again, and on and on, like that. I used to be able to turn a single rejection into months of grieving and self-hatred and resentment where I excused myself from trying to do anything else. Looking back, I feel sad for that young woman I put through so much pain. I had no idea that it was totally unnecessary to live that way. The most amazing thing is that most of the time, when I get through one of these episodes, I come out feeling better on the other side. This kind of emotional growth, that is almost all but impossible for the practicing alcoholic, makes life an adventure worth living that never in my wildest imagination when I was imprisoned in the drinking life, could I have believed was possible. And all I had to do to set this change in motion was to stop drinking, one day at a time.
I’ve been to AA meetings all over the world – in Cambodia, France, Belgium, England, Wales, in the Arctic, in bomb shelters in Israel, in the Navajo Nation, on military bases in Kabul, all over the United States and Canada. Instead of finding “companions” in bars, I meet sober alcoholics in meetings. We don’t have to explain to each other why we don’t drink, or why want to stop drinking. We know why. We only want to know how – because we’ve all been in the same place, we’ve all experienced the profound, painful, insatiable and horrific psychic and physical emptiness of alcoholism. No one who has escaped it wants to go back. The great solution that rehab and AA presented to me was that there was one other thing that could relieve my craving: talking about it with other alcoholics who shared my desire to stop drinking.
Today, I can’t imagine wanting a drink anymore than I used to not be able to imagine not wanting a drink. The foundation of my recovery, my happiness, and everything and everyone that matters to me is built on what I was given in rehab and AA: mutual understanding and support.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.