An Activist in Sobriety


Chapter 25:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

John L.

Some alcoholics are born that way – periodic drunks, who can stay away from a drink for a long time, but for whom a first drink always means disaster. Others, daily drinkers, acquire alcoholism; they drink too much over time until they cross the invisible line.

I was a bit of both – but alcohol alone did not make me an alcoholic. Shame and self-hatred, from living as a gay man in a malevolent culture, took their toll. I didn’t just drink to relax inhibitions or to escape; I drank to kill myself.

My parents were social drinkers. My father believed that men became alcoholics because they didn’t know how to drink – implicitly, that they couldn’t drink like gentlemen. As a child I was occasionally allowed to taste wine if it was served with dinner.

I had my first drink when I was about eight. My father’s best friend (later to die from alcoholism) had a birthday party. Stuck into the birthday cake, instead of candles, were little glasses filled with creme de menthe. The other kids just tasted it and made faces, but I drank a whole glass.

I was born in a small town in the mid-west, a few years before World War II. My early childhood memories are dark, an atmosphere of imminent doom. My father and the fathers of most of my friends were overseas; we didn’t know if they would ever return, and some of them didn’t. There were rationing, blackout air raid drills, and omnipresent propaganda. There was always fear.

My adolescence was in the 1950s of the McCarthy era, which ushered in another kind of fear, the fear of being different. Nonconformity amounted to treason. As gay men were purged from employment, branded as traitors, vilified in the yellow press, and driven to suicide, my awakening sexuality was informed by terror. It was to be sealed off, neither discussed nor acted upon.

It could have been worse. I had good friends and teachers, was on the track and debate teams, and was active as a pianist. Without much effort, I always made the honor roll. In high school we had “beer blasts” – went out to the river in the country with cases of beer. I drank as much as anyone, but never became drunk, and I always drove home.

My National Merit and College Board scores put me in the top 0.1 percentile of college-bound seniors, so I was accepted by every college I applied to, as well as several I hadn’t. I chose Harvard. On the very first day, the proctor of my freshman dorm introduced himself and served us sherry, which greatly impressed me. Although legally underage, I had no trouble buying wine or beer, which I drank in moderation.

In my freshman year I was allowed to take advanced courses, which were usually open only to upperclassmen. This was difficult, but at the end of the year I had almost made the Dean’s List. Then disaster struck on the very last day: my first bender.

Two friends and I had been drinking, just a few beers. Then something happened which upset me. With a sure instinct I opened a fifth of scotch, intended for my father the next day, and I chug-a-lugged it.

I’m not sure “bender” is the right word, but I can’t think of a better one. I mean drinking almost to the point of death, with horrible physical aftereffects. Alcohol can kill in a hundred ways, and this is one. Every year, young men die in fraternity hazings, when they are forced to drink more than their bodies can handle.

That first bender was truly horrible. I had a splitting headache, shook violently, and had wet and dry heaves: I’d vomit thick, bitter, yellow stuff, and when no more came up, I’d have spasms. Then I’d drink water and more would come up. For weeks I couldn’t even think about alcohol without nausea. But in time I returned to the dog that bit me.

I did manage to graduate from college, but just barely. Alcohol bombed my academic prospects. After graduation I moved to New York City, where, after some false starts, I started a career in market research.

I drank alcoholically for ten years – from that first bender when I was 18 to my last drink when I was 28. I crossed the “invisible line” early on, in terms of blackouts, hangovers, and disasters in my personal life. But, like many alcoholics, I deluded myself.

Much of my drinking took place in gay bars, which were the only places where gay men could safely meet each other. Alcohol, which dissolved shame and inhibitions, became inseparable from sex and socializing.

For a decade I drank daily, mostly as a moderate to heavy social drinker. For long periods of time – for months or even a year once – I could drink like this. However, periodically, with no warning whatever, I would lose control, and then anything could happen. Some very bad things happened to me in this decade, and I did bad things myself, but I was by no means always drunk, and there were some beautiful moments also.

In the 1960s, the Lower East Side of New York City was the center of “The Movement” – counter culturists and radicals of all kinds. My friends and I were involved in underground publications, radical politics, art, and theater. I’m proud that from 1965 on I was part of the movement to stop the war in Vietnam. I was only a foot soldier, but I did what I could. Much of my drinking took place in Stanley’s bar on East 12th Street and Avenue B and in the Old Reliable bar on East 3rd Street. These bars were famous in the underground, and people from all over the world came to drink in them. What conversations we had! I wish I could remember a few. Many times I drank and talked until closing time at three or four in the morning. These were not gay bars, but if I wanted a bedfellow for the night, I usually found one.

Alcohol was my best friend and my deadliest enemy. My shyness went away when I drank. I made love to many guys (each time committing a felony by the laws of the time). But it got worse, and the enemy began to take over.

After one traumatic episode, hungover and suicidal, I found myself in a hospital emergency room. A young intern explained alcoholism to me and suggested I try AA. My immediate response was that I didn’t need religious nuts. He countered by saying that many AA members are not religious. I didn’t listen. Another couple of alcoholic years lay before me.

In the last year of so of my drinking I became isolated, drinking more and more by myself in my apartment on St. Mark’s Place. My tolerance fell, so that even a small amount of alcohol would upset me, at the same time that I could no longer get drunk. My health collapsed. I almost died in end-stage alcohol withdrawal: delirium tremens (DTs) and an alcoholic convulsion.

In my delirium I had an epiphany: the realisation that I was dying from hatred – hatred from within myself and hatred from outside – hatred caused by guilt and shame over being gay in a hateful culture. At the same time I felt a sudden and intense desire to live, a determination to defy the culture that hated me. These insights would inform the course of my recovery.

My friend Andy found me and saved my life. He explained AA and took me to my first meeting – Perry Street Workshop in early January of 1968. After a brief slip, I had my last drink in February of 1968. For several weeks I was still sick and close to death, but with treatment from Dr. Frank Seixas, a top alcoholism specialist, I made a good physical recovery.

I’ve told the story of my physical recovery and my early AA experiences in my book, A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous, so I’ll be brief here. I attended mostly Greenwich Village meetings or the Midnight meeting in Chelsea. After achieving a year of sobriety, I gave my first “qualification” (talk) and started speaking at meetings all over Manhattan. I spoke at a meeting in the Upper East Side, where, it was rumored, most of the members were in the Social Register. I spoke at Sober Sams on the Bowery, before about 200 homeless men in the Salvation Army shelter. I felt at home in both groups. I truly believe that AA in those days was more intense, and had less religiosity, than now. No matter how different the groups were, they all emphasised staying away from the First Drink a day at a time.

As a low-bottom drunk physically, I have never doubted that my life depends on total abstinence. For me, picking up the First Drink would be signing my death warrant. Although AA is only a small part of my life, my AA sobriety is first priority.

Much of my life has been devoted to causes of one kind or another. In June 1969, after I had been sober for a year and a half, the Stonewall Riots took place in Greenwich Village, a half mile from my apartment. This led to the birth of Gay Liberation, the movement I had always been waiting for, and I jumped in. Since then my life has been largely devoted to this cause, the emancipation of male love – to destroy the theological taboo on sex between males and to restore male love (comprising love, friendship and sex) to a place of honor in society, as in Ancient Greece. I have organised marches and picket lines, given speeches, and written books and articles. But this is another story.

Besides the antiwar and Gay Liberation movements, I’ve been a prominent critic of “AIDS” orthodoxy, and have written about English Romantics, the men in the Shelley-Byron circle, maintaining heretically that there is much homo-eroticism in their lives and works and that Percy Bysshe Shelley himself, rather than his second wife, Mary, is the author of Frankenstein. For all this, I’ve received my share of bouquets and brickbats.

I consider myself engaged in a struggle against superstition, not only in the area of sexuality, but also that of recovery. I’m proud to be part of the rapidly growing movement to secularise AA – to strengthen the True AA, the AA of the 24-Hour Plan and the Fellowship, and to weaken the False AA of dogmatism, cultic behavior, conformity, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and helpless-without-God religiosity.

I’ve attended AA meetings throughout the United States and much of the world. Almost always I’ve felt the strengthening power of the Fellowship. I’ve usually managed to find groups with a maximum of fellowship and a minimum of religiosity. My preference is for small, closed discussion meetings, rather than meetings open to the general public. I also prefer men’s meetings to mixed meetings, believing that there is greater candour and intimacy, and less religiosity, in the former.

Looking to the future, I intend to bear witness as an open non-believer in AA with long-term sobriety. I want the newcomer to know that the Steps and almost everything in the first 164 pages of the Big Book are optional. There is really just one essential: Don’t pick up the First Drink!  I don’t go looking for fights, but am not afraid to rebuke an aggressive Big Book thumper. Often, when I have done this, others have supported me. But whether I am supported or alone, I will be true to myself and true to AA as it ought to be.

Sobriety should mean reclaiming our intelligence, not dumbing it down – living the one life we have to the fullest.

Do Tell! [Front Cover]This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

The paperback version of Do Tell! is available at Amazon. It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom.

It can be purchased online in all eBook formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook and as an iBook for Macs and iPads.

15 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    Great story! Being a non conformist, I can identify with being an activist, in AA and out of AA. Thanks!

    • John L. says:

      Thanks. Erhard Neubert, a German activist: “Nur tote Fische schwimmen mit dem Strom!” (“Only dead fish swim with the stream!”)

  2. Dave J says:

    Thanks for your story. After 40 plus years in the program I finally got to the Perry Street meeting last summer with a buddy from the midwest who unthinkingly took a picture of the 12 suggested steps sign on the wall and immediately provoked the ire of a lady in the room who instantly unhinged and chased him around the room with the gavel screaming and calling him among other things a communist and an NA infiltator. It was the best meeting ever. Thanks New York for reminding me how much fun this program used to be before everyone lost their sense of humor.

    • John L. says:

      Like old times. I miss Perry Street’s “recreational arguments” — heated, but ultimately good-natured. The frequent bones of contention were doctors, religion, and the Steps.

  3. Lisa says:

    I can’t believe that he thinks the liberations of the time were all about men only. WTF?

    Each of his “causes” benefit him personally.

    What do his opinions about Shelly have to do with sobriety?

    Where is the editor?

    “Women hold up half the sky”.

    • John L. says:

      Those of us opposing the war against Vietnam were concerned with the lives of the men, women, and children of Vietnam and the young men drafted to fight them; for the soul of the United States; and for truth. We did not “benefit” from our efforts. Some of us were killed, others were blacklisted. I was badly beaten and still have scars.

      I think that all fair-minded people benefit from ending the oppression of gay men — an oppression based on superstition: a 2500-year-old taboo from the Holiness Code of Leviticus. Sexual morality should be based on rational, secular ethics.

      I think that “qualifications” (which this article is) should have some specificity. I mentioned the Frankenstein book to make a point: one can have good sobriety without being a conformist. One can be true to oneself, even if this means being a rebel or heretic. The English Literature establishment did not reward me for debunking the Mary Shelly myth. They ostracised me and attacked me in ad hominem terms, without ever coming to grips with my evidence or arguments.

      If “women hold up half the sky”, what about Atlas?

    • Frank M. says:

      People often first find a “cause” through their own personal experiences with injustice. Thich Nhat Hahn’s activism began with supporting just the country in which he’d been born. There was nothing particularly selfish about that. Just as there’s nothing selfish about a gay man finding the courage to champion gay issues first.

      And nowhere does the author imply that the movement that caught him up were the “only” movements. That’s pure invention on your part.

      I’m going to take what is admittedly a guess and suggest, Lisa, that you may be seeing someone else through the lens of your own issues, and that it’s distorting your view pretty badly here. At least consider that, and you might be going yourself a great favor.

      You accuse the author of caring about nothing that doesn’t involve himself (rather unfairly). But it’s you who have just painted a picture in virtually nothing but the colors of your own primary personal concerns.

      And by the way, it should be obvious what social and academic conflicts holding that position on Shelly and the Romantics would lead to, and from there to see that here was just one more example of John L. finding the courage to speak up in the face of painful and sometimes costly opposition.

      John, I’ve heard your story before, but this was refreshing and heartening, with a handful of details that are either new to me, or that I simply missed before.

      Thank you for this, and for all you do in AA.

  4. Kate A says:

    I have to say this is one of the most honest stories I’ve heard, excellent.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Wonderful story, John, with which I identify greatly — Perry Street was one of my first meetings, when I made the firm decision not to pick up the first drink a day at a time and the Midnight Group was my first home group where I was chairperson of the Thursday night meeting for several years, both upstairs at 156 W. 23rd Street and the Moravian Church.

    I too have been a radical anarchical , socialist activist since before and after I survived the Vietnam War. I’ve been an activist for peace with social justice for all spurned and shamed people all of my life. This year for the first time since 2000, I’m voting for Bernie in Oregon — I mailed my ballot in for the May 17th primary yesterday.

    As well, I am so grateful to be working with you and others around the world to return AA to the “true AA” you write so eloquently about. In a large, secular meeting in Portland last week, where some 45 or so 20-30-40-50-60-70-somethings gathered to share experience, strength and hope with lots of laughter, lots of cross-talk, but no dogma from the Big Book or 12 & 12, I remarked that this was what meetings were like in Manhattan when I was gifted with recovery during the 70s.

    • John L. says:

      Thanks. I envy you your Portland meeting. Last night I attended our secular meeting in Cambridge. It was a good meeting, but only had about 20 people.

  6. Anne says:

    WONDERFUL Story… I really appreciate the honesty. I attended my first We Agnostics, Atheist and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) AA meeting about two months ago in Asheville, NC. It is exactly what I was looking for and didn’t know it. I have moved to Virginia… much more religiosity and wish I could start my own FT group here but I don’t think the idea will be well received.

  7. Pat N. says:

    Great story. VERY similar to mine, except I was a straight Westerner, and had a wife and kids, whose presence kept me from drinking as much as I wanted – for a while.

    I agree that men’s groups can be very nurturing. Unfortunately, the one in my town is quite traditional, so I rarely go – maybe the Universe is telling me to help start a secular one?

    I also agree that AA in the ’80s was a far less religious gang. My first home group included a priest and a nun, and I don’t remember either of them talking about religion, at least no more than the others, which was very little.

    I got to go to several meetings in Manhattan and N.J. when I was in NY with the Red Cross following 9/11, and it was just like being home. Little talk of the disaster, as I recall. The focus was on recovery.

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