My Alcohol-Addicted Agnostic-Atheist Recovery Story


Chapter 27:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

Thomas B.

Hello, I’m Thomas B. and I’m primarily addicted to the liquid legal drug, ethanol, preferably Colt .45 – by the case lot, daily. However presently I’m in my forty-third year of ongoing recovery, a day at a time. My spiritual progress has been that I came into AA fearful of going to hell, but this has morphed over the last several years into an agnostic atheism with Buddhist leanings and a smattering of lots of New Agey stuff. I meditate daily and still pray, at times somewhat frantically, not for divine intervention, but in an attempt to still my sometimes raucously racing mind. An agnostic-atheist? Yup, I don’t believe there is a God, but I also can’t know for sure that there is not!

But, I get ahead of myself. Let me tell you how it was.

What It Was Like

I grew up in a middle-class, white collar family in Jackson, MS, from prominent southern Baptist and Presbyterian Scotch-Norman clans. Mother got religion and converted to Catholicism when I was in the throes of puberty. I tagged along because my best friend was Catholic, and I wanted to drink, smoke, gamble and dance without fear of everlasting hell.

My first girlfriend at the time, Judy, a Baptist, with whom I had won a jitter-bug contest at Arthur Murray, promptly ditched me because I worshiped an idol of the Virgin Mary. I didn’t realize that to think about masturbation as a Catholic, much less to do it, would damn me to hell forever and ever and ever were I to be struck dead before I could confess and get absolution from a priest.

About the same time, age 12 or 13, I started drinking. One of my first horrid drunks was camping with a couple of buddies and getting hammered on stolen altar wine.

I was never a social drinker and never became the cool, slick, debonair chick-magnet, life-of-the-party kind of guy. Whenever I drank, even several beers, my speech became slurred. Most of the time, I got sloppily drunk and this included throwing up on my date, a decided impediment to getting a walk to first base, much less hitting a grand slammer. Whenever I drank, what early-on I judged to be an unmanageable life became utterly unbearable!

Now, mind you, externally my life was peachy keen. Good grades, lots of friends, starting football player,   a star even sometimes, leading man in thespian productions, a different one-and-one-only-forever sweetheart each year of high school, president of my senior class.

Didn’t matter. Internally I was a fearful, nervous, isolated, alienated, teenybopper – no pimples or acme, but with a huge inferiority complex not soothed by any ego-enhancing achievements. I looked in the mirror and saw a gawky, gangly, geeky misfit. I was only faking it, somehow getting by, and if only my classmates knew the real me, I would be forever spurned and shunned.

This state of “incomprehensible demoralization” continued throughout four years of college at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where under the tutelage of Jesuits I became an agnostic. I continued doing well in studies, graduating with honors. I was also heavily involved in extra-curricular activities, producing and starring in most thespian productions, elected to student government, an editor of the newspaper, etc.

However, my most important activity was the two to four hours every night I spent drinking, usually by myself, in a lowdown bar, as far across the railroad tracks as one could get. There in a darkened corner with pitchers of 3.2% beer, I would carefully watch the old geezers come in, shaking, and down that desperately needed first shot, along with a beer chaser. I was convinced then that they were what I was destined to become.

So why did I drink? Because I was addicted, because it was the only thing I could do to get a few moments of relief or, better yet, to pass out. Because I could literally cry in my beer and feel something, even if it were awful. I was more terrified of feeling nothing, being a numb automaton, a no man. I preferred to be a bad drunk rather than a no man.

By the time I flunked out of my first year of grad school at Xavier, shortly after another relationship ended, I was convinced there was no way I could ever get satisfaction –  as the Stones famously sang – much less love and happiness, since I was such a loser. I became increasingly suicidal in thought, just wanting IT, my life, to end.

However, I was terrified of putting a bullet in my head or driving a car into a tree at high speed out of terror that some god, despite doubting one even existed, would manifest itself out of the Kosmos and send me to hell forever. So, I volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, so Charlie would do what I was too chicken-shit to do.

Didn’t work. Despite my best efforts during a time of ever-mounting American KIA casualties, even though I volunteered for every extra-hazardous duty assignment I could, I somehow survived despite myself to come home to a ready-made family, having married two days before I went to Vietnam because my girlfriend at that time was pregnant with our first daughter.

The next several years were spent finishing my active duty army commitment, going to graduate school for theatre, which I  also flunked out of because I was too drunk to pass the oral exams, and getting my wife pregnant with our second daughter while having an affair with my real one and true only love. Most important, I got drunk every day while obsessively still fantasizing about suicide. Unmanageable? You betcha!

After convincing my real true love to be named co-respondent, providing love letters between us as evidence of my unfaithfulness for a quick and dirty divorce from wife No. 1, I moved to New York City to pursue a career in the theatre and married wife No. 2.

What Happened

In a story I shared on AA Agnostica, “First AA Meetings”, I detail how this second marriage became the impetus for me to get into recovery in October of 1972 at age 29. Through the human power of the AA Fellowship, I’ve been sober ever since.

I am forever grateful that I found recovery in New York City where the formula for staying sober was “Don’t Drink, Go to Meetings, Help Others”. I threw myself into service at the group level and co-chaired the first New York City Young People’s AA Conference. I was also able to finish – finally! – a third graduate school, Columbia University, with a masters in psychiatric social work and enjoyed a successful thirty year career in the field of addiction treatment.

Early in my second year of recovery I got a sponsor, Peter, who guided me for 33 years. Our friendship deepened when we shared an AA sober house on Fire Island for several summers. It was with Peter that I started meditating. My first time meditating I had a mind-blowing, white-light experience as powerful as any account I’ve read of what can happen under the influence of psychedelics.

We spent hours discussing our various spiritual pursuits. These included attending numerous workshops and weekend retreats, with voluminous readings in the world’s spiritual traditions, astrology, rebirthing, yoga, New Thought, and several New Age gurus and authors which included Ram Dass and Alan Watts. During the 80s, we also became heavily involved with “A Course in Miracles”. Yup, we were prime examples of our woo-woo baby-boomer generation!

I married for a third time in 1980, and we had a son, who shares recovery with me. One of the most spiritual moments of my recovery was witnessing his birth. Especially since my first daughter was born when I was in Vietnam, and I was royally hammered when my second daughter was born in 1971. That marriage also destroyed itself on the shoals of passing time in 2001. While awaiting the sale of our Victorian cottage on the South Shore of Long Island to close, I spent a couple of weeks down at ground zero following 911 in Lower Manhattan as a Red Cross Mental Health Volunteer with first responders.

One of the most desperate years of my life was going on the road in a Rialta RV bought with my half of the proceeds from selling our home. In anguish, I did what I have always done since 1972 – I didn’t drink, and I went to meetings all over the U.S. and Canada, prior to settling down for a couple of years in Tucson, Arizona.

In 2003, disgusted as a Vietnam Vet that we were doing it again, invading another far-off foreign country, Iraq, I expatriated for two years to Sri Lanka, serving as an unarmed peacekeeper between the Buddhist Sinhalese Army and the minority Hindu Tamil Tigers. I used the Grapevine and monthly meetings in Colombo to do what I’ve done since 1972, stay sober a day at a time.

I also survived the devastating Tsunami the morning of December 26, 2004. About 15 minutes before the 30-foot high wave demolished the guest house complex where I was staying, I left the grounds on the pristine beach of the Bay of Bengal near Trincomalee to go on a bike ride inland to visit a 2,200 year old Buddhist/Hindu/Vedda Temple complex deep in the jungle. Providence? I think not – just another example of my Scotch-Norman luck.

After Sri Lanka, I moved back to New York, meeting and marrying my fourth wife, Jill, also in longterm recovery, whom I met at an ACA meeting. In 2011, we decided to relocate to a small town on the southern coast of Oregon, Coos Bay. To say we experienced a culture shock is a vast understatement. AA was primarily oriented to a strict parsing of the Big Book, which they haughtily profess is just a tad smaller than their Biggest Book, the Bible. There, we experienced AA as a Christian cult!

What It’s Like Now

In the same way that I am grateful to have found recovery in New York City in 1972, so, too, am I most grateful for stumbling across the AA Agnostica website in early 2012. Who knows? Had I not connected with AA Agnostica, I very well might have drunk again, so alienated was I from the small-town, Christian fundamentalist prejudice my wife and I experienced in Coos freaking Bay. We were not only shunned, we were also shamed for our non-traditional beliefs. Thankfully, we were able to move to another seacoast town, Seaside, which is a reasonable commute to Portland where we started a Beyond Belief meeting on December 1, 2013.

I was mortified to experience my first and only “Back to Basics” meeting in Frederick, MD, while Jill and I were visiting my daughters and grandchildren. Our experience in Coos Bay and connection with AA Agnostica with its numerous agnostic-atheist friendly articles has made me realize how fortunate I’ve been for most of my recovery to experience AA in New York. I was mostly oblivious to how radically AA has been changing over the past several decades. It has become increasingly more doctrinaire, largely focused upon an evangelical and pietistic Christian fundamentalism.

Even in Portland, Oregon, one of the most progressive cities in North America, the program is increasingly God-centered. All meetings ritualistically read “How It Works” and announce that only AA conference-approved literature can be used in meetings. Indeed, some groups are lobbying for the Portland Intergroup Office to only sell conference-approved literature.

Nevertheless, my intention is to remain a member of AA until I pass into whatever lies beyond this mortal coil. In the meantime, I shall continue to not drink and go to meetings, where I share my non-religious experience, strength and hope.

I am ever so grateful to be engaged with other agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in our expanding movement within the Fellowship within AA. We help each other not only to stay sober, but we also encourage ourselves to tell the truth of our human power to recover, as AA members who deeply doubt or are without belief in the intervention of any alleged deity. The growth of our meetings around the world and the inspiring experience many of us shared in Santa Monica provide me great gratitude and awe-inspiring hope!

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.

3 Responses

  1. Tim M. says:

    Saturday Morning Early in June 2016.

    In my 30th year of sobriety I am having the most difficult year yet. In early March we had a great warm day and I went out kayaking a week earlier than I ever had before. Those of you who live south may get to kayak year round. But for upstate NY early March means ice on the water. In fact the northern half of Irondequoit Bay was covered with ice that day. Still, it was in the seventies and the wind was out of the south. That wind started my problem when I got off the water.

    When I picked up my 14 foot kayak to carry it to the car a gust of wind tried to take it out of my hands. I didn’t let go and got twisted like a pretzel. A previously herniated disk popped again. This might have responded to quick treatment as it had in the past. But I had committed to a client that I would be at their business, nine hours away. I drove there the next day. Presented to their employees and then drove back. Those eighteen hours in the car were agony.

    Three months now I have been getting treated for the pain. The entire litany of treatments have yet to relieve the pain for any length of time. I can lie down and be pain free eventually with the heating pad. Weekly Chiropractic, physical therapy, Chinese Acupuncture, pain medication, massage therapy, recommended exercises and now I have an inversion table to reduce the pressure. They all have given temporary relief but it still is impossible to sit for a meal or drive anywhere without pain.

    So why do I say this has been my most difficult time since getting sober? Well, because I am in pain now. And now is the only time that really matters. Right? When I was getting divorced at ten years sober that was certainly the worst time to date. But that had purpose and I knew that it would be worth it. Looking back I was right. The loss of my business a couple years after the divorce was also tough.

    But I want to make clear that in thirty years as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous drinking has never made sense to me. It never occurs to me that a drink would help. Or that drinking would make my life better.

    One result of attending thousands of meetings has been a recognition that drinking has the ability to make things worse, never better.

    Hearing how other sober alcoholics have dealt with the vicissitudes of their lives, without drinking, helps us all know that drinking when things go awry is not the answer.

    Doing the nine steps that lay open the past, our responsibility for what has happened, making necessary amends and then getting to the good part. Living day to day with a simply plan embodied in the last three steps. Keeping an eye on my own behavior and my thinking. Making adjustments as needed to assure the quality of my life and the life of those around me is what will keep me sober. This daily review should happen while taking the suggested quiet time each day. Ten and eleven should and are best taken simultaneously. Then sharing life, the steps, sobriety, example, effort are all how we do the twelfth step. Nothing so much assures immunity from drinking….

    Going to meetings should allow us to either see how the twelve steps lead to a great life or allow us to share how the twelve steps lead to a good life.

    By the way, you never read anything in this post related to a higher power because the steps, even though one is mentioned, can be best worked without reference to anything but our own responsibility to take advantage of other abstinent sober men and women who willingly show us how to live our own lives sober.

    My name is Tim and I am glad to know that I am alcoholic.

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Ah Dave, I agree generally with your assessment of AA, and greatly appreciate your reference to MASH, but having been deeply involved in General Service Work the last couple of years, to include attending two of the Pacific Region AA Service Assemblies, I have a more optimistic view with regard to the “fracturing of AA.” The secular AA Fellowship shall continue to evolve and expand, while the “Back to Basic” folks will become more entrenched within their narrow and non-inclusive concept of AA based on the 1930s Christian ideology of the Oxford Group wherein AA was born — this will, however, appeal to less and less, as the flattening of AA’s growth since 1993 amply demonstrates.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think there will be a formal “fracturing of AA” — we’ll trundle along in wary tolerance of each other, more or less respecting each other’s different paths to recovery in accordance with Tradition Three, our legacy of Unity, and AA’s Responsibility Declaration.

    I am greatly encouraged by the number of young people who are flocking to secular AA meetings, many who are getting involved in service — they will carry on the inclusive and tolerant spirit of AA in accordance to our history, traditions and concepts of service.

    I hope you are able to join with us in Austin during November 11 – 13 for the second biennial conference of We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers. I am hopeful it will surpass the excellent first biennial convention in Santa Monica in 2014, which provided for me much hope that AA can and will, perhaps slowly, adapt to accommodate the needs of “anyone, anywhere . . .”

  3. Dave J says:

    Good stuff, Thomas I share most of your sentiments and almost the same amount of time. I find myself these days at AA meetings like Hawkeye in the original Mash staring across the table at Major Burns asking ” Were you crazy before Korea Frank, or did you crack up over here? In my forty two years I’ve seen the program devolve from something “really cool” to a mindless bunch of (dare I say morons) parrotting off as Bob D so adroitly put it “What they don’t know to begin with”. But a lot of them are not drinking and that;s a good thing. This program is about to fracture. I’d say 5 years tops. But it will all work out eventually when the members discover who they really are and realize that each one of us got ourselves drunk and each one of us got ourselves sober.

Translate »