My AA Story


By Alex M.

Growing up as an only child in an alcoholic family was the perfect incubator for an isolated, selfish, self-centered life. My father shared his alcoholism with his mother, and with many family members before her. He was a callous, abusive drunk, whom I rarely saw sober. I was grateful he ignored me, since I was terrified of his rages and unpredictable behavior.

My mother was a narcissistic, aggressive, controlling woman, the daughter of a nomadic World War I veteran. Her love was conditional on how I behaved rather than who I was, and was withdrawn if I failed to measure up to her standards. She had a mean streak, with a hand so fast that she could slap you before you knew it was coming. You did what you were told, kept quiet and never argued. A secluded silence was the safest defense.

One of my earliest childhood memories was sitting at the top of the stairs in my house, watching my enraged mother chase my drunk father round and round the first floor. Both would whiz by the bottom staircase, picking up speed, dishes and pans flying, and I always wondered if they would ever run so fast they would just melt away and disappear.

The rest of my family was secretive, insular and somber. None were genuinely affectionate. We were a family bound by blood but not by love: no touching, no emotion, no tears. I quickly learned to “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” at an early age. We rarely visited each other, although we would occasionally attend church together during the Christmas and Easter holidays. No matter how often I sat in those cold pews, I never came to believe in the enigmatic, ethereal God those people worshipped. I was an atheist before I knew what the word meant.

Unable to fit in with my family, much less my peers, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be a part of rather than apart from. I felt unappreciated and unloved, and concluded there must be something wrong with me. I knew if I could figure out what that was, I’d be accepted and able to prove to the world I was important, just like Bill W. had wanted to do.

So I began to behave in ways I thought others wanted me to behave. I’d put on the pretend mask and become whatever you wanted me to be. Many times it worked, and I would feel your love and approval. When it didn’t work, I became agitated and angry, seeking escape into the fantasy world of my books and developing imagination.

To my great relief, my parents divorced when I was eleven, and I said goodbye to a menacing alcoholic father I never wanted to see again, and hello to a single mom constantly stressed trying to make ends meet with a low wage job and no child support.

Entering my teens I mercifully discovered alcohol. What a magical elixir! My anxiety, anger and fear melted away. I was on top of the world, riding that magic carpet of peace and contentment. Everyone loved me, and I was finally accepted into the herd. I didn’t have to hide my daily drinking, only the amount I drank. No one cared in those days.

Despite my relief from drinking, over time I began to feel more detached and alone than ever, so I just drank more to forget my woes. My only pleasure was school. I loved learning things, and wanted to be a physician when I grew up. I studied hard, was somehow able to balance my drinking with my lessons, finished college and graduated from my hometown medical school.

After moving to the Boston area, I acquired my first wife and additional medical training. My hard drinking had not progressed, and I set up shop to treat and heal the citizens of my local community. Like Dr. Bob, I never drank on the job, but I drank a lot off the job. So much, in fact, that after ten years my wife filed for divorce saying “You’re never here for me. All you do is work and drink and I’m sick of it,” as she walked out the door.

I assumed she didn’t understand the real me, so I made a geographical move back home. It was there that I discovered the finest woman I had ever met, and we quickly fell in love. At that point I decided to overhaul my life by getting honest, accepting that I was becoming more and more dependent upon alcohol, and that I had to stop drinking “so much.” And I did. I stopped getting drunk, but I wasn’t sober.

Seven months after we married my soul mate died of a cancer we discovered the week after our honeymoon. We were both 43 years old at the time, and my world collapsed. I no longer cared about anyone or anything. I hated every living being and had a rage I never knew possible. My wife was taken from me just as I was starting to get my life back in order, and someone had to pay.

I sought revenge by committing to drink as much as I wanted, and do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Besides, maybe more alcohol would heal my broken heart.

Somehow I remained employed as my drinking escalated, and after a few more years I found a new drinking buddy that became wife number three. Even though we were both hard drinkers, my illness progressed and hers did not. The committee in my head began meeting constantly, reminding me of yesterday’s misdeeds and fueling tomorrow’s fears. Alcohol drowned out that guilt and shame, but not for long.

One day, out of the blue, I heard that fateful snap. I woke up from another blackout and realized I had been unconscious for the past three days while I had out of town guests staying with me. I remembered nothing. I knew then that I had reached that jumping off place of deep loneliness and despair. Hopeless and helpless, life was not worth living. With no way out, I was doomed. I was an alcoholic.

So I stopped working, hoping my savings would last until I died of drink. I rarely left the house except to buy booze. I divorced my wife, cut off my family and friends, never answered the phone, and kept the TV on round the clock to keep me distracted whenever I was able to open my eyes.

For days on end I repeatedly stuck a shotgun in my mouth, pleading with myself to pull the trigger. When that didn’t work, I gave up and resigned myself to living life as a hopeless, useless drunk. Somehow I’d figure out how to manage each day, and who knows, maybe tomorrow would be different.

After a few more months of self-destruction, I was totally worn out. I couldn’t stop drinking and I couldn’t kill myself, so what options were left? I knew about Alcoholics Anonymous, and heard rumors some folks who went in there were spit out sober. Why not give it a try, I thought? I could go for a few weeks, and if it didn’t work, I could always return to drinking and embrace the shotgun. My problem was, I truly didn’t know how to stop drinking. Maybe those folks could tell me.

I slid into my first AA meeting drunk, but remembered to ask them how to stop drinking. They explained the one minute at a time, one day at a time approach that had worked for them, so I tried it. I stayed home alone for a week, not drinking, fearing I’d have a detoxification seizure, wondering why I couldn’t think straight.

After that first week I started going to as many AA meetings as I could each day, and listened to people tell me how much better their life was sober. When I was introduced to the 12 Steps and Big Book, I noticed both overflowed with God. All the AA members told me God got them sober, and would get me sober too, if I would let Him. When I said I don’t believe in God, they said “You will.” I wondered “How can I force myself to believe in something that doesn’t exist, and why should I have to anyway?”

My astute sponsor was very supportive when I told him I had no god, but I knew I could aspire to be a better person through practicing the spiritual principles of the 12 Steps. So I decided to call my higher power in AA the principles of the steps, and found I could easily use them to motivate and guide me through life. In my mind it all boiled down to the Golden Rule anyway, so it couldn’t be that hard, even for an atheist that never needed God.

After making my amends in Step Nine, my obsession to drink vanished as a result of doing the step work. After completing all twelve steps, my spiritual awakening consisted of a permanent change in my attitudes and actions. No longer bound by guilt and shame over the past, I was mindful of living in just this day, trying to do the next right thing right using the principles of the 12 Steps, and no longer fearing what tomorrow might bring. Self-esteem returned. I was much less selfish and self-centered. I felt like a human being. I fit in with my new herd, called humanity. Free at last.

Today I have the privilege of being able to spend part of each day touching another alcoholic in some way. By doing so, I try to help someone stay sober and stay sober myself. It’s a simple recipe for a simple life, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m comfortable in my own skin, have no resentments and few fears, and my relationships with my family and fellows, though bumpy at times, are founded on the love and tolerance Bill W. spoke of in the Big Book. What more could anyone ask for?

Web Links – Books and Articles by Alex

AA Books (Amazon for softcover & Kindle. BookBaby BookShop for ePub)
Books by Alex

  • Daily Reprieve – AA for Atheists & Agnostics (October 2017). Amazon and/or BookBaby.
  • Design For Living – Daily Meditations on the 12 Steps of AA for Atheists & Agnostics (March 2018). Amazon and/or BookBaby.
  • Gods of Our Misunderstanding in AA – Not just for Atheists & Agnostics  (October 2018). Amazon and/or BookBaby.

AA Grapevine Articles (As of Oct, 2018)

AA Agnostica 

Alex M. is a retired physician and life-long atheist living in the Bible Belt where he got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous in 2006. Since so many newcomers flee AA because of its God-centric focus, Alex believes his responsibility is to share his experience on how recovery can be attained through the AA Fellowship, its 12 Step program and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous when one does not believe in God.

He has published three books: Gods of Our Misunderstanding In AA – Not just for Atheists & Agnostics, complements his previous two books, Daily Reprieve – AA for Atheists & Agnostics, which is a daily meditation book on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Design For Living – Daily Meditations on the 12 Steps of AA for Atheists & Agnostics, which is on AA’s 12 Steps.

The international AA Grapevine magazine has published ten of Alex’s articles, including “God on Every Page” in the October 2016 special edition AA Grapevine for Atheist & Agnostic Members, and that article is also included in the 2018 Grapevine book One Big Tent.

He has also published in his AA Area Newsletter and wrote an article called “A Friend of Jim B.” for the book Do Tell! Stories by Atheists & Agnostics in AA by Roger C.

In 2010 he started a program which takes AA meetings to alcoholics in his community who are unable to attend their regular meetings due to medical conditions or legal restrictions. An article on this outreach service called “24 Hour Delivery” was published in the AA Grapevine in February, 2014.

His home group was the first atheist-agnostic AA group in his region. Service work remains the foundation of his recovery. He is active in AA sponsorship and volunteers for various service committees in his local Intergroup.

21 Responses

  1. Adam S says:

    Alex M, I’ve so glad to see your writing was posted just a few days ago meaning . . . this blog is ALIVE! I hope there are many other current writers here because if this blog is active, it’s just what I need right now. Like right now now. A few hours ago I left my AA “homegroup” incensed. It wasn’t the God talk really, but the dogmatism many of the folks around the table showed. And then one pulled me aside afterwards to critique my post-meeting private conversation (which he overheard) with a new member facing legal trouble.

    The fundamentals of the 12 Steps are beautiful and the fact that I’ve met a few (sadly only a few) people in the program who truly are open-minded are only what keeps me hanging around.

    The religiosity has to go. I know it won’t, but it would be so nice to have a group (ideally, a whole “wing” of AA) where we could edit and modernize the literature and the steps themselves so we could get to the root of their message.

    Thanks, Adam S

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks Adam. I too get frustrated by the often smug religiosity in the rooms from so many members, and it gave me ulcers and resentments for a long time. Years ago I had to make a decision. Was I going to be a part of AA or not? If I was, I was going all in. If not, so be it. Going all in meant my job was not to make AA nonreligious, or re-write the Big Book or Steps; it was to use what I had to try to help someone else.

      Deciding to go all in, I knew I needed a major attitude adjustment to be able to tolerate all the self-righteous God crap in the rooms, and to ask myself “how can I best carry the AA message (that we can recover) as an atheist?” That message is through my experience, and is what it is, even if others don’t like it that I got and can stay sober without God. Their problem with me & my beliefs is not my problem – it’s theirs.

      My home groups drive me nuts with their incessant godly praise, but I just keep telling myself, “If the God stuff works for them, that’s great, so let’s sincerely celebrate their recovery in AA, regardless of their beliefs and dogmatism.”

      I really worry about the folks who just run from AA and die because they assume they must believe in God to get sober. This is the huge, unspoken damage AA does to members because they are so religious. If I can act as a kind, soft-spoken, reasonable, rational counterbalance to that B.S., maybe I can help someone. I know my local fellows in AA don’t like me sharing about my atheism, but I wager they respect me as a serious and sincere AA member who believes in service to others.

      And I think it’s very important for us secular folks to set a good example in AA for all the believers. If we act like assholes, it doesn’t reflect on us very well. If we behave as somewhat humble, good folks that have found sobriety through AA just like everyone else (despite the God issue), more people will listen to our story and take us seriously. We can be true to ourselves and our beliefs without trying to overhaul AA or being pricks. Let’s keep our eyes on the real prize – acceptance by all members that even those crazy, godless alcoholics have a good chance of recovery in AA.

  2. Wisewebwoman says:

    Thank you for this wonderfully honest story of your life and AA life. I, too am an atheist and living in an area of God AA but I find there is a slow change happening with the young coming in who have no time for religion or God. Also out here there are more open atheists in the past year and in the city a complete acceptance of that though the LP still closes most of the meetings. It is changing in many ways and I also find God is not coming into the shares as much. Change is. It’s all about changing and sharing how that came about.

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks W-W-W, and I’ve also observed that the younger the AA member, the less they seem to share on God & religion, but they will talk about a “spiritual other/higher power.” The recent Pew Religious Landscape Study is a fascinating look at current religious beliefs in the general population, and those trends seem to hold up in AA today. Unfortunately, where I live, our God-hugging, evangelical regional fellowship really, really hates to hear shares on secular experience, and openly saying one is an atheist brands one with the dreaded AA scarlet letter (Alcoholic Atheist).

  3. Ken G. says:

    Very glad that you couldn’t kill yourself. Other than that part our stories are very similar. I’m a 34 years sober atheist. Keep on trucking brother. Ken G.

    • Alex M. says:

      Yea, I’m glad I didn’t kill myself too haha. That would have been a real mess for someone else to clean up!

    • Ken says:

      Also, we changed from lords prayer at closing to responsibility statement.

      • Alex M. says:

        I absolutely HATE when the Lord’s Prayer is used to close meetings, but 95% of meetings here use it, and they adamantly refuse to change it. The other 5% use the Serenity Prayer. And I was HORRIFIED when AA closed the 2015 Atlanta International with the LP (as they also did at the 2010 International I think). I wrote AAWS and gave them a nasty piece of my mind, but they never replied. When I chair, I always close with the Responsibility Statement, especially because meeting members’ eyes glaze over as they stutter and mumble because they don’t know the words – hahaha.

  4. Ray H says:

    Nice story. Unfortunately for many, if not most, of us, the dogmatic AA claptrap is not the least bit helpful. Nor do we find it necessary / appropriate to attribute our drinking to our childhood. I drank because I was introverted and painfully shy. Drinking helped me fit in. I continued because I liked the feeling.
    AA didn’t change any of that. It was depressing, uninspiring and frankly kind of ridiculous. I’m glad it worked for you, and helps other people, but proselytizing for it has always seemed inappropriate. Good Luck

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks Ray. Bill W. readily admitted that AA wasn’t for everyone, and openly encouraged folks to seek other avenues to recovery if AA wasn’t for them. When I tell my story, it isn’t to assign blame or excuses for how the adult turned out. It is simply a record of memories, which may or may not be “the truth,” since memories can change over time. But the truth for me today is that AA did help me because it allowed me to connect in a non-judgmental and supportive way with people just like me, despite my inability and refusal to believe in their recommended higher power. I feel like I fit in in AA, whereas I had never fit in anywhere before. As a side note, I’ve found AA as a whole has a common message, but that AA meetings are a bit different depending on which city and region of the country I visit. I was not inspired at many meetings in certain areas of the country I visited, but very inspired in others… so I suggest folks try lots of different meetings to see if anything works before giving up on the program (I’m not putting you personally in this bucket; just some general thoughts).

  5. John M. says:

    Dear Alex,

    I got sober in 2007 at the age of 54 and life has never been better. Your story, like mine, has what Bill W. called “the verdict of inevitable annihilation” written all over it. Isn’t it wondrous that we are driven so close to the edge, don’t go over, and yet come back somehow rejuvenated for life. And some of us do it as atheists within AA, and in a pretty much God-filled AA at that.

    When you talk about AA, your essay has the feel to it that you have let the God intoxicated aspects of the program evanesce and you allow the spiritual (existential) principles of the 12 Steps to appear in their straightforwardness — as you write: “In my mind it all boiled down to the Golden Rule anyway….”

    This is the way both my wife and I as atheists worked the program not allowing the pseudo-religiosity of the program detract from that which you so clearly identify as the principles of the steps.

    Of course, we must stave off an attack by any “can’t-stay-sober-unless-you-find-God” proselytist, and stand up to say it ain’t so — especially if the fundamentalist is hovering around a newcomer — but I really relate to your atheism that is unafraid to take the 12 Steps and the Big Book seriously as well as the fellowship.

    Profound story. Thank you.

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks John, and we are the same age – I came in at 53 in 2006. I finally stopped getting so agitated about all the God stuff in the Big Book since that was what got Bill and most of those folks sober. They are simply documenting their truth — how they did it; not how we have to do it. That was their experience, so why should I get upset over that? “God bless” anyone who can use God or some other non-human power other than themselves to get sober. My challenge is how to pass on my personal message of recovery in a manner of attraction vs. autocracy. I have to put my story in “AA relatable language” that people can understand, which is why I call my higher power the “spiritual higher principles” of the Steps. I find if I say “my higher power isn’t God, but the principles of the Steps & the people in the Felllowship,” AA members (new or old) will not immediately tune me out. They will continue to listen to my experience and may gain something from it. It’s a bit tricky, but seems a good approach for me, at least.

  6. John S says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, and also for you books and other writings. Your talent and the ability to put out so much work is amazing and a great contribution to the Fellowship, especially the secular wing of the Fellowship.

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks John for your comments, support & personal efforts to carry a wider, more inclusive message to all of us who struggle trying to jump over the mouse-turds of life. Writing soothes my soul, keeps me in the day and keeps me sober. I’ve found many of us in AA find additional relief and release through some type of artistic work; we somehow find our own best way.

  7. Thomas B. says:

    A wonderful story Alex — thanks for sharing it and Roger for publishing it. I greatly identified with your dilemma of being unable to live drunk and unable to kill yourself. I am most grateful that after my last week of binge drinking, I surrendered and took myself to an AA meeting on October 12, of 1972 — I’ve been gifted with day-at-a-time recovery ever since.

    • Alex M. says:

      Tom: I love hearing what you shared; thank you. I’ve met few alcoholics that haven’t considered suicide at one time or another as the only way out, but what stopped me was thinking of those few folks I knew still loved me, and imagining them getting a call that I had blown my brains out and they needed to come clean up the mess that I made. Recovery is indeed a gift, and we don’t really need to figure out where it came from…

  8. Evan B says:

    Excellent article! Once again, the similarities are unbelievable. I too am, as the book says, a god isn’t person. I also found my place in AA as an atheist and learned to put the ‘g word’ aside. My life is great because of AA, something I didn’t think I would ever say. A tinge of open-mindedness can work wonders for an alcoholic like me, and if I was to guess, could work wonders for others as well.

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks Evan. I work pretty hard to maintain a connection with everyone in our fellowship, regardless of anyone’s spiritual or religious beliefs. Discussing the secular, “non-God” option in AA without coming off as a crazy, angry atheist (when no one will listen to you) can be a bit of a challenge, but AA saved my life and showed me a much more rewarding design for living. So how can we best give back, being inclusive and without any pride or prejudice? That’s a good question for me most days.

      • Evan B says:

        I have found sharing my experience, no one else’s, is the simplest way. Whether or not others, believers or not, are open to hear the similarities is up to them. The other side is, I need to continue to be willing to hear the similarities in their story as well. Paying close attention to what solutions have worked for them, for me, is critical. I have the choice to buy what they are selling or not. Thanks again for your story. 🙂

  9. Micaela S. says:

    Great article. I, too, am an atheist in AA and have found AA to give me the tools for living a peaceful, happy, joyous, and free life without any belief in God. Keep up the good work.

    • Alex M. says:

      Thanks Micaela. Step 12 and Tradition 5 are pretty clear — my job as a sober alcoholic is to keep trying to pass on the message that anyone can recover from their hopeless state of mind and body and find a new way of life in AA. Let’s all keep carrying that message!

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