Embracing Our Pain Together


Chapter 28:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

By Alyssa S.

I’m sitting here reflecting upon the day of St. Valentine. It is bitterly cold outside.

It’s time in my recovery for “me time” – a time for introspection, perhaps for self-love.

I have longed for this for many years. Despite the pain and fear I’ve already encountered, I have faith in love through sobriety. I am at a place where I recognize the denial of my behavior which has direct correlation to my alcoholism. I haven’t confronted this type of clarity until now. I’ve certainly never experienced this kind of self awareness.

In a broader sense I am embracing empathy and compassion for the human race at a depth of enlightenment that I’ve never experienced. Of course, with any new expansion within the human psyche, parallel experiences will begin to surface, causing some to feel connected. As a newcomer, hypersensitivity is prominent in my journey today. One could compare the excitement to a child first tasting ice cream, or the pain from an undesired consequence. Recognizing commonalities in phases of sobriety is helpful and engaging for me. This is partly why I’m drawn to old-timer wisdom. They’ve been there and done that – although not all old-timers have wisdom. I’m learning to draw conclusions about people with whom I want relationships, while learning boundaries through assessing my own behavior.

I grew up with parents who worked in social services, addictions and family therapy. Naturally, part of my mission would be to follow in the footsteps of my role models. Alcohol was never a factor in my childhood, and my surroundings were free of addictions. My mother’s career was in social services and my father was a psychotherapist and social worker. He was an addictions specialist within the ARF (Addictions Research Foundation), before they amalgamated into CAMH (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health) in Toronto. He was involved in creating a link between treatment centres and AA. He was the founder of recovery homes and trained many psychiatrists using the therapeutic techniques that assisted thousands of people. Before learning he was Métis Cree, he was drawn toward training within First Nation’s communities. I loved him and when he passed away three and half years ago, it not only broke my heart, but built me up.

The goal of my parents was to raise an emotionally healthy child, while providing a foundation of safety for free expression and assertive communication. A girl who thinks and reasons for herself is the meaning of my name, Alyssa. Throughout my life and drinking career, I would learn that if I abandoned my truth, I would suffer greatly, more than any other loss would ever generate.

There was no drinking around me as a child. My parents were child centered in that decade of their lives. I believe that the nature versus nurture argument is inclusive to both explanations. I believe genetics and environmental factors both contribute toward the development of alcoholism. Genetics played a role in my life because I picked up before I ever saw alcohol in my environment.

Rum, Gin, Rye, Triple Sec, Tequila, Kahlua, and the list goes on. The bartender’s guide to get your teenager as drunk as possible in a safe environment. All these liquors, I would acquire at very early age, and I had a bar in my bedroom by the age of 16. Hey, the party was on my porch. There were enablers in my life and people I could manipulate. Suddenly, this child centered home, full of love and tolerance, would crumble and turn into an alcohol focused environment. Healthy brain development as a youth became distorted by alcohol abuse, which compromised my self-image and led me to present myself as a seductive teenage girl. Smoking rainbow cigarettes in jazz bars and pretending I was older, I learned to compartmentalize my experiences in a way I felt safe. Numbing my reality kept me away from experiencing unpleasant emotions. I was a pot head by day and a drinker by noon.

My father, an expert in the field of addictions, tried to keep me safe inside the walls of the house. I know he was terrified to think that his daughter had turned into his worst nightmare. I think it’s a huge topic that faces the parents of teenage alcoholics. What is enabling? How much is too much? Should I put her in a group home and operate through tough love? It must be torment for a parent.

And then, he relapsed himself, after 40 years of sobriety. Just like that, depression and lack of any supportive environment took its toll.

We all began drinking under the same roof. My mother drank her wine, I drank my liquor and my father drank his fantasy concoction of soda, grape juice and alcohol, and convinced himself it was helping his stomach, while remaining in the dark about a painful relapse. He suffered from numerous health problems. Nobody communicated their pain and fear anymore. Family meetings turned into threats, crying and manipulation. And back to drinking again. We all suffered.

I’m eternally grateful there was love in my foundation. I was terrified of being abandoned. Out of the many things I learned from this man, the most important was to have faith in love and forgiveness. He hit a gold mine when learning to manipulate me based on fear. He fabricated stories about finding a 15-year-old on drugs, who was stuck in a mental episode for the rest of her life. He knew my fear of going crazy would stop me from doing hard drugs like ecstasy, special K, and Crystal Meth. This method worked. Alcohol and marijuana became my escape.

Embracing our pain together, as my Dad would die from the crippling disease of Parkinson’s, has saved me today. He was sober again and so was I. We were stronger when we could support each other.

It’s all a learning experience and insight into who I am today. That’s what my therapist told me recently. This was probably to get me to operate by solution focus and quit harbouring shame and guilt from the past. Can you tell I’m pro therapy? My Dad once said, in my early sobriety, before my 2 year relapse and after his relapse, “you need to get your own therapist again.” I think he wanted me to build my own foundation. I love therapy. It’s a relationship between two people and you have the opportunity to analyze everything. If you’re a family therapist, which is something I aspire to be eventually, you get to analyze more.

The work I would go on to pursue, is a huge part of who I am. In high school, I began to study female genital mutilation and childhood sexual abuse. I think I scared the shit out of some of my peers, unintentionally. I was so drawn to learning about childhood sexual abuse and other childhood traumas because my Dad was a victim and I saw the mental health issues that arose from this horrific experience. I developed immense respect for survivors and an empathic understanding. I experienced rage and anger on behalf of the survivor in my early studies.

I went onto college to complete my child and youth diploma and spend the next 15 years as a child therapist in group homes and the school board, drinking and relapsing all the way through. Summers became a blur of alcohol poisoning and threats of being kicked out of my boyfriend’s house.

I would manipulate my way back through the charm and charisma that I developed in my early 20s. Brad was my first love. He was killed through an act of violence at 24 and I was only 23 years old. I had just finished college with honours. He was so proud of me. He was an artist and a brilliant young man. He was a believer in the spirit world and he and I would often debate within my limited perspective. It was debating for the sake of debating and to evaluate how much control you have over the other person’s emotions.

After Brad’s passing, I drank 24/7, had multiple partners, encouraged a young woman to develop a business in the sex trade, and hosted chaos everywhere I went. I’m ashamed of myself when I look back and examine. I continue working through these painful emotions today. My high risk behavior led me into situations where rape and crisis occurred more times than I can count on one hand. Escaping from being held captive by a rapist only kept me off the bottle for one month. When I drank again, my whole head caught on fire from a candle. Car accidents and chronic back problems are part of my shame. My rock bottom was a series of events and I manipulated my way out of being charged four more times. I gave the police a pity story every time. An ability which many alcoholics possess.

Sitting here on Valentine’s Day for the first time single in over a decade, I realize that I have given up my old playmates, play places and playthings. This is born of wisdom that my brother has shown me. He is an old-timer now with decades of sobriety and he understands the darkness of relapse. He has the exact wisdom I need at this time and I ask for it. We have the same blood and although he is decades older, It feels good knowing he’s connected to me.

Today, as an alcoholic, I have a second home. It is Alcoholics Anonymous. I always felt excluded from AA because I needed to get beyond the God focused language and couldn’t. Jim B. “A god of my understanding.”

But now I’ve finally developed a relationship with AA. Now, I can go into any room and be okay to hear your story. It’s because I’ve built a bond with others who feel excluded from AA and bullied from Intergroup. My family is a group of non believers, agnostics, free thinkers and, some religious people who believe solely in discussing recovery options. These people – who embrace me and hold my hands even though I don’t accept the “God bit” – are my anchor. In May of 2011, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Intergroup rejected two agnostic groups and kicked them off of the official AA meeting list. What intergroup did is keeping out the vast majority of young non-believers. We hide in the hallway. AA needs to open the doors. This is your chance AA, to open your heart to all alcoholics and blossom with the future.

Knock, knock. I want back in. It’s Valentine’s Day. And it’s bitterly cold outside.

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.

11 Responses

  1. Jo-Anne K. says:

    Thanks Alyssa for sharing your story to date. I look forward to years of knowing you and getting the updates!

  2. Jeb B. says:

    Many, many thanks for such a wonderful and full sharing of personal experience, strength and hope. This is precisely why I have always valued the personal stories in the Big Book, the Grapevine and more recent other literature. For me, that is where the true picture of the varieties of recovery experience have true meaning. As I am again observing the relapse of significant members in my life, your story helps me to see all too familiar patterns of complacency, lack of fulfillment in the life of recovery, and the insidious power of denial. I am fortunate in that I have always liked for what seems to be working and not working I other people’s lives, as well as my own. That is the great miracle of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, actually learning from both our own and others successes and failures. When my partner committed suicide nearly 32 years ago, I learned two things: if you love an alcoholic, he can break your heart (but we learn to take that risk), and that those who don’t make it can be useful “examples of bad examples,” exactly what Bill Wilson repeatedly warned against.

    When I entered the rooms of AA in Helena, MT many years ago, I took away the most important ABC’s for my life of continuing recovery: ACCEPT, BEGIN, CONTINUE.

  3. Alyssa (soda) says:

    Thx for the feedback everyone. It’s hard to believe how much I’ve grown since I wrote this a year & a bit ago.

    I feel very comfortable with calling myself spiritual, but an atheist at heart and even more comfortable calling myself an alcoholic experiencing addictions patterns in her life.

    Although I’ve grown a spiritual path, believing in love and the spirit world beyond myself, I continue to feel it doesn’t belong in the rooms of AA as much as it does. I’d much prefer to examine the psychology behind why we do the things we do as addicts. I’m a learner, so I welcome other Teachers and learners in my life. It makes me high…

    Thx to Larry K, Dianne P, Roger C and Bob MC, & of course Joe C for being cool.

    PS. C u in Texas. I hope.

  4. Maureen says:

    Thank you Alyssa. Although I have acquired a belief in a Higher Power I will call God, at one time I belonged to a Facebook AA group. When I read of another alcoholic’s struggle with the God thing, I posted the AA Agnostica site. The admin removed it. I unjoined the group. My sponsor believes in God but resents the fact that a belief in God is mandatory for sobriety in the Big Book and with most old time AAs. She even resents the Lord’s Prayer at some meetings closings. I agree with her. Thank you so much for your essay.

  5. Wray Pascoe, Ph.D. says:

    As a therapist God is a part of my life but not my work with others. A client told me about the Albert Ellis paper on addiction.

    I learned that belief in God or not, there are many issue that need to be addressed but the belief in God or not need not be an issue in treatment UNLESS the therapist makes it an issue.

    • Alyssa (soda) says:

      “Need not be an issue in treatment unless the therapist makes it an issue?”
      I think you mean client. I hope you mean client;)

      Who’s the patient here? 😉 joking.

  6. Lisa says:

    Every now and then I like to check in and read an essay. What I appreciate are the shared stories and honesty. The readings are generally of comfort and help me not to feel so lonely on the agnostic front.

    I’ve been searching for community and am still hyper sensitive about how AA people respond to my lack of desire for, or belief in, a higher power. I’m sober and it’s a bitch doing it solo.

    Thanks Alyssa et al.

  7. Chris S. says:

    I came to recovery because of drugs. Sticking a clean needle in my arm with clean drugs had a way of nudging me into the realization that I would implode if I continued yet…

    What I really wanted was to be able to continue to do drugs and drink without consequence. Fat chance of that my friends.

    The first time I heard that recovery involved complete abstinence from all altering substances was in my first treatment centre. As a health professional, they hustled me off the street pretty damn quick. Otherwise there ends up being too many bodies. Mine or perhaps someone else’s.

    While the learnings in that treatment centre only took me so far, it planted a seed. That was the fall. By spring I was in for round 2.

    The doc who did my intake kept saying we.

    The gates were broken, I was broken and it was through that surrender that the process of recovery began. I can tell you that I was one huge ball of shame and fear.

    I had been a searcher for spiritual nourishment for years. Nothing fit. The organized religions were way too hung up about sex and a bunch of random arbitrary behaviours. I had seen my alcoholic father who, despite being a full-on bottle-hiding drunk and survivor of the POW camps of Siberia, totally failed to forgive and love himself. Gee thanks Jesus and your fairy tales. How is the bible any more “true” than the earth is built on an animal’s back or that aliens are going to come to earth for whatever. For me, as a person trained in science, there is only one philosophy necessary. Treat others the way you would like to be treated and leave it at that . AA tells us we need to change or else. It’s about time that AA followed its own good advice.

    I live in Guelph and I believe that a freethinkers meeting is desperately needed for the agnostic/atheist types coming out of treatment at Homewood (rehab). It could be a lifesaver.

  8. Mark C. (Mark In Texas) says:

    Thank you Alyssa! Pure awesomeness as usual. 🙂

    So happy for you, and your presence amongst the heathen contingent of AA.

    We are all a bit better for it.


  9. Thomas B. says:

    What a powerful and most moving story Alyssa — thank you !~!~! Like so many of us, your experience of trauma in your life story, which continues to impact your recovery. But in secular AA, you can deal with it because you are learning how to love yourself.

    You story comes at a most propitious time when GSO must make a major decision in light of the on-going OHRC hearing, will it passively sanction narrow-minded views of what AA is, such as what happened in the delisting of secular AA meetings by Intergroups in Toronto and Vancouver? Or, will it find a way within the spirit of the AA traditions of group autonomy and non-leadership to find a way to assert AA’s over-riding principles of inclusion for all who suffer from alcoholism and respecting that all groups of AA members are legitimate groups in AA, if they so declare themselves to be? Will AA as a whole be able to live up to it’s code of love and tolerance?

    I find in my community of Portland, OR that the secular AA meetings are attracting younger people to AA not only to get sober, but who also stay and get involved in the General Service Work of AA at large.

    Your story is an exemplary story of how AA works for anyone, with belief, without belief, with radically different beliefs, especially for those of us who are survivors of trauma . . .

Translate »