Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
A short-lived, yet holy terror of an alcoholic ride commenced when I was arrested, handcuffed, and escorted from High School on charges of possession with intent to distribute. I was fifteen years old.
By my senior year, I was hospitalized for breaking my head open when I ran through a red light, hit a police car, and totaled the car I was driving – I was in a blackout and remember nothing of it. These occurrences failed to signal a need to stop drinking and drugging. In the alcoholic home I lived in, these instances were not considered outrageous. Everything was someone else’s fault in our alcoholic world. One morning I was backing out of our driveway when I heard and felt a big thwack. I had taken the door off a repair truck parked in front of the neighbor’s house. I stopped just long enough to give Dad’s number to the repairman. That was how I operated. That was all. If I sound uncaring, I really was. If I sound blasé about my legal troubles, it is because my alcoholic father was not only my primary enabler, he was also my attorney.
My parents were divorced and I lived with my Mom until the aforementioned arrest at age fifteen. I called my Dad from the jail and he appeared in short order with an arsenal of rhetorical tools that he employed to satisfy the police and inform me that what was needed was a geographic cure. I was to move to his house where he could keep an eye on me. I was skeptical but relieved.
My Dad’s house had an open bar and there was no one to monitor my comings and goings. I dreaded telling Mom, but Dad took me to see her that afternoon and we told her the plan. Her soft brown eyes revealed the tragedy of a mother losing her youngest child and even more than that, they showed the fear of impending tragedies to come as she imagined all that could and would go wrong allowing a fifteen-year-old girl to live in a home without limits or supervision.
Moving to Dad’s meant a new school and new friends. The first day of class, I befriended a fellow alcoholic who would be pivotal in my drinking and my sobriety. My new friend had a Dad who lived out of town but supplied unlimited funds that assured our next two years were filled with outrageous alcoholic benders.
In our senior year, my friend began seeing a therapist who suggested she go to AA. She did. And then she dragged my sister to AA with her. I was horrified at this turn of events. But they began to change in a way that even I could see was good. I consented to go with them to an AA meeting. What I found were familiar faces: friends I hadn’t seen in the last year or so. Everyone was happy and laughing even as they talked about the struggle to be young and sober. They were living ways that they felt good about. I knew immediately that I was somewhere I wanted to be. I moved back to Mom’s the next day while Dad was at work; my sister stayed sober and she moved back to Mom’s as well.
For the next fourteen years I lived a sober life; my sister was sober for most of this time as well. These were good years. I worked the steps of AA and became part of the fellowship. I learned how to live, how to recognize and amend those things I had done that made me feel ashamed. I learned how to express my gratitude through action, and how to feel really good about myself through contributing my unique talents to the world. I fell in love, went to University and began living a life that was happy, joyous, and free.
It was during my stint at University – majoring in Religious Studies – that I became aware of my atheism. Atheism was not something I sought, it simply happened. I grieved the loss of the god of my understanding. I was scared, but eventually I realized that my atheism was just a new part of my truth. I stayed sober and continued to work the steps utilizing the universe for the god of my understanding. I did curb my meeting attendance because I grew weary of making my ideas fit into the a quasi-Abrahamic god that was talked about at AA: the god that kept deserving alcoholics sober, saved parking spots for the good folks of AA, and turned agnostics into believers according to Chapter Four of the Big Book. This god was increasingly at odds with my own way of thinking, and eventually I quit attending meetings altogether.
My best friend from High School became my romantic life partner after a few years of sobriety. We drank together, got sober together, and after college we opened a business together. We employed our friends – sober alcoholics – and our business flourished. Since I had quit going to meetings, my connection to AA was strictly through work, my primary relationship, and our best friends, my sister and her husband who were both sober. My sister had given birth to my beautiful nephew and we all spent countless hours of joy with this tiny wonder. His first years of life were sweet times for the four of us. We were young, sober, hardworking, and successful.
In 1995 I turned 30; this would prove a watershed year for me. My ten-year primary relationship came to an end. It was amicable and so very sad. We sold our business, and our friends and family were split apart. This same year, my sister and her husband divorced and my sister began drinking. By the start of 1996, my ties to AA were almost non-existent. I was terribly lonely. I began dating and found myself around drinking for the first time as an adult. Still, I never considered having a drink; I never considered going to a meeting either.
I did think to take a geographic cure to Thailand in hopes that halfway around the world I would escape my loneliness. I was traveling alone and began spending my days with a small group of fellow travelers from England. We met each afternoon for tea and one day someone ordered champagne at our afternoon gathering. To be polite, I decided to pick up the bubbly drink and sip. I drank two or three glasses, was told I was “pissed,” and set off for a nap. I did not drink again. There was no craving. It had been wonderful and ladylike and I was fine. Moreover, I now knew what I had suspected for quite some time… I was not an alcoholic. I completely dismissed my High School drinking as normal adolescent experimentation. Besides, AA had taught me that one drink would set up a sort of mad craving for unlimited quantities of alcohol that would end with me penniless, toothless, and rolling in the gutter. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, I had my next drink many months later. Again, I was on vacation, a perfectly acceptable time and place to have a drink. I ordered a glass of wine with my dinner and drank it. Voilà. Cured. Let the drinking begin! And it was fun and I drank politely… for about one hot minute.
Consistent drinking began in 1997 with civilized Tuesday afternoon cocktails at poolside – I had a lovely home with a perfect, princess swimming pool. My drinking ended with me living in a tiny, broken-down apartment, financially propped up with student loans and the overburdened assistance of my family and friends. By the time I quit drinking in 2007, I had less than nothing. I was emaciated, wrinkled, addle-brained, and in serious debt – aka penniless, toothless, and rolling in the gutter.
I had managed during the early days of my drinking to return to school, having earned an academic scholarship for a Master’s degree. Somehow, I completed the Master’s program and I was awarded a Teaching Fellowship, which I felt was a real hardship considering the hours required to study, attend class, and practice my alcoholism. I never once felt grateful or thought of the obligation I had to give back to the University that was bankrolling me. I had reverted to my former alcoholic outlook where everything was someone else’s fault and responsibility. I received an undeserved reward with this opportunity to teach, but I fell in love with my students, and teaching helped me keep one toe on the planet as I continued to drink my way through the days ahead.
I graduated and began the Doctoral program because I didn’t know anything else I could actually do and continue with my drinking career. The delightful experience of my company justified anyone and everyone footing the bill for me. I was far too ashamed to allow myself to recognize that I was a parasite on society, my family, and friends. I pretended that the generosity I received was normal, that my lack of finances was temporary and would be resolved when I finished my Doctoral program. But somewhere I knew that I could never finish my degree because I had no idea what I was doing. I did well in my classes because I obsessed and worked like a madman between my drunken bouts. But there was no way for me to corral my thoughts into a cohesive dissertation. I just kept taking classes and hanging on by a thread.
In 2006 my precious nephew, my sister’s son, was drinking and drugging and some serious consequences were unfolding for him at his High School. My sister was normalizing his addictive behavior and even drinking with him in order to remain in denial about her own problem. I grew frantic for his well being and I decided to quit drinking in order to help him. I failed. I called my on-again off-again girlfriend of many years to save me. She came and committed to helping my nephew in any way she could, but she did not want to resume her relationship with me. She had been there for me through everything and she had seen me at my alcoholic worst – sloppy, ugly, dishonest, entitled, crazy-eyed, blacked out, dirty, degenerate, and desperate. She had never turned me away, no matter how badly I had behaved and she was one of the only people in my life who knew me when I was a more decent version of myself: sober.
But she had finally had enough of my chaos. She was going to NA and she was happy. I went home to my ramshackle apartment. I had never felt so alone. I made a decision to get sober. I mean by this that I took Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous. Even in the very first instant of taking this step, I felt relief. I searched my bookshelves and found a copy of the Big Book. There was a great deal of the old concept of god in there, but I didn’t care. That was May 18, 2007. I got sober that night and I have remained sober since.
Some people believe that you can’t get sober without a god, without going to meetings, and without getting a sponsor. I did get sober, and without any of those things. What I did do was change my habits and work a modified (god-less) version of the steps that made sense to me. At first, I just meditated and made art. I painted, wrote poetry, made videos, designed and sewed clothing, anything at all. And I called my Mom. My precious Mom who never gave up on me. Mom took me to the doctor and encouraged me to eat. She stayed with me in my tiny apartment. We laughed and cried and she guided me back to the land of the living.
When I am drinking and drugging, I am tormented; I think this is true for all addicts. Not consciously tormented, but it’s always there, just below the surface. The program of AA can help us to alleviate the drinking long enough to clear up some of the wreckage, forgive ourselves, and return to lives filled with joy and peace. It is possible and even probable with a bit of effort.
Today I am happily married, gainfully employed (teaching!), and my nephew has been sober for almost eight years. I remain acutely aware of the ease with which I found a drink in my hand. Endeavoring to maintain my sobriety, I attend meetings at a We Agnostics, Atheists, and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) AA group recently established in my own neighborhood. We are a group, like all AA groups, that finds the fellowship assists us in achieving our common goals: to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.