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