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