One Alcoholic Helping Another

By Bethany D.

Introduction: AA Without God

Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people recover from alcoholism. The stories told in the Big Book, personal testimonies in meetings and the twelve suggested steps have been the building blocks of a program that has helped men and women get sober and stay sober for decades. There’s no mistaking, however, the pervasive assumption in the AA community that a person’s belief in God (or the generic reference, “higher power”) is integral to a program of recovery. Many members believe they are sober today because they gave their “wills and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Newcomers of all faiths and those without a faith are welcome at meetings initially, supporting the third tradition that “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.” Eventually, however, they are often encouraged to be open to having “a spiritual awakening.” The core of the program is spiritual in nature.

Secular AA, a subcommunity within AA, is comprised of men and women who identify as atheist or agnostic. They do not subscribe to the concept that God can cure the alcoholic. Instead, many agnostics/atheists in AA believe that people have the tools within themselves to recover from alcoholism and/or that they can recover with the help of each other. While attending Secular AA meetings (at the time of this writing, I’m just shy of one year of not drinking), I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the personal stories of atheists/agnostics with 20, 30 and 40+ years of sobriety. If they can do the work of getting sober without God, then I can too! Some Secular AA members do not think that getting a sponsor or working the steps is useful. But many do. Thankfully, new publications and podcasts are available by and about people who are working the steps without the help of a higher power.

One example is a recent book by Jeffrey Munn titled, Staying Sober Without God. This book addresses the twelve steps from a practical perspective, eliminating all references to God. Being a person who tends to build structure around my efforts to change my behavior, I was attracted to the title, eager to investigate how to work the steps from a practical (secular) perspective around my addiction to alcohol. The book did not disappoint. When I finished reading it, I knew I wanted to work the steps with his suggested approach. I followed Munn’s suggestions for steps one, two and three. I paid attention to how unhealthy drinking had compromised my physical and psychological health, and I started looking for ways to create a healthy lifestyle by making better choices. I wrote down answers to the questions Munn posed and then shared them with my sponsor.

Step 5: Sharing My List with a Trustworthy Person

I recently completed the fifth step: “Shared our lists with a trustworthy person.” I spent the previous month working on step four, writing down my resentments and the associated information in three columns: “Specific Action (Fact),” “Emotional/Practical Impacts,” and “Unhealthy Behavior that Contributed to the Resentment.”  Once the writing was complete, it was time to share what I had written. Over two telephone sessions with my sponsor, I read each resentment on my list, then read across columns of my chart.

The first entry on my list was Mother. Under “Specific Action,” I read, She put her emotional, physical and financial needs before mine, using her status as “mother” to gaslight me into trusting her. In the “Emotional Impact” column, I read, Growing up, I felt unloved and emotionally unsafe; today I feel emotionally damaged from learning to distrust my own emotions; I feel alone in the world. The next column contained how I contributed. For years I had responded to these thoughts by self-medicating. During this fifth step exercise, though, instead of reaching for a glass (I mean bottle) of wine, I was able to articulate to my sponsor the unhealthy behavior that contributed to the resentment: Hoping for my mother to change, believing that she would love me one day, if she just had the right information or perspective, I stayed locked in a cycle of abuse. I also denied her faults and limitations as a parent because I wanted (needed) to believe I was loved by my mother. I followed the same process for each of my listed resentments.

As I read the resentments out loud, I could physically feel the anger and sorrow that gave rise to the resentment in my body. My chest got tight. My palms got sweaty. I felt defensive and vulnerable. Gradually, though, I started to experience other feelings. My sponsor did not appear shocked or offended by what I was communicating. She listened empathetically, without interjecting judgment. I then noticed that I was observing myself with love and compassion. With each entry, I invited my sponsor into my ugly, depraved world, a world that had been hidden for many years. Instead of affirming the internal belief that I deserved the negative emotional impacts I had written down, she said to me, “I see you in that situation. I see your pain and sorrow. You are ok now.” Someone said I was OK! Here was a message that challenged the old belief! Now I could say, “I am OK.”

I was also noticing some patterns around a belief that I deserved to be mistreated: gaslighting by my mother, belittling sarcasm by my father, constant destructive competition from my sister, and internalized Christian messages that I could never measure up to who God wanted me to be, could never be obedient enough to transform my evil nature into goodness. Maintaining the belief that I deserved to be mistreated allowed the resentments to linger.

Creating a New Narrative

Doing the work in the fifth step, I learned how to respond to my resentments with acceptance. I took a clear-eyed look at past events that had taken place, how I previously responded, and how I respond to the events now. One of my biggest fears in life is that I will be bombarded unexpectedly with sharp and powerful images of offensive past behaviors, being done to me or by me. I try to escape the fear I feel when I encounter the images, by trying to hide from them or destroy them. For years I’ve lived afraid of my own thoughts! But by revisiting frightening scenes of my past with acceptance and compassion, and sharing them with someone empathetic, I am learning that I don’t have to hide or destroy any of my thoughts. I can look at them directly and allow them to be, in me and with me. My biggest fears are subsiding.

By the time I got to the end of my list of resentments and fears, the resulting emotional shift was palpable. My hands and shoulders relaxed; my speech softened. My previous state of fear, anger, sorrow and pain was transforming to one of peace and acceptance. Yes, I felt incredibly vulnerable and tender, but my defenses were dissolving. I was heard, understood, accepted. I was creating a new experience with those events, a new association that did not involve alcohol. I could now think about these events with a positive response. I did not have to respond with a drink. This powerful exchange with another human was leading me to serenity. In fact, nowhere have I experienced internal psychological shifts relating to my sobriety more acutely than in working this step. It was not God who created these shifts towards an emotional sobriety. It was my willingness to address my resentments with rigorous honesty and share them with a trusted friend that opened my heart to look for alternative healthy responses to life events. I am convinced that engaging in healthy behavior will enable me to stay sober.

Conclusion: Serenity Comes from Human Connection

Social relationships are the essence of human nature. Paying attention to the human dynamic of the fifth step activity – sharing my resentments with someone else, and then taking responsibility for them by sharing how I contributed to them – has revealed alcohol as a poor substitute for human care and love. Alcohol is not glamorous, or scary, or powerful! It is simply an old response to a deep need. It cannot give me what I am ultimately in search of: acceptance, love and compassion for all parts of me.

Using the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to achieve sobriety is not for everyone. But for me, secular versions of the steps have provided a framework within which to understand and embrace my sobriety. Responding to the suggestions around the fifth step described in Munn’s book has encouraged me to discover meaning in the events from my past and to share my story and process with another person who has walked in my alcoholic shoes. I did not, at any point, think I needed to involve God in this process. God did not help me find healthy alternatives for my behavior or change my heart. As the author life-J stated in a recent article, AA and What Really Works,  “[W]hat works in this program is one alcoholic helping another.” In my case, while working the fifth step, my relationship with another alcoholic, my sponsor, helped me to begin the process of dissolving my fear and transforming it into hope. So I can say: I will not drink today.

Bethany D. lives in Austin, TX with her wife, Sally, and two cats, Crash and Rocket. She is an active member of the Sober She-Devils, a secular online women’s meeting. She loves to write in her journal and enjoys reading articles and personal essays about women and men who stay sober without God. She fully supports all efforts to separate religion from sobriety. She took her last drink on February 1, 2019.


28 Responses

  1. Cameron F. says:

    Congratulations on your one year of continuous sobriety — now you can continue on for a second.

    Once we’ve found a foothold on this new way of life, nothing is there to stop us from getting whatever good thing we want. As long as I’m remembering that there is no cure (I’ll always be an alcoholic), and if I’m willing to ask for help and follow some simple rules, then chances of my staying sober significantly increase. AA’s wheels don’t need reinvention by me (my best thinking got me here), so any ideas in my head about refining AA get directed for sifting through wiser channels. Our Big Book talks to the doubting inclinations lurking within, assuring me that if I keep poking holes in the darkness, light’s going to bleed through to reason. Additionally, the Big Book urges us into finding something beyond ourselves in which we can believe; a thing that is truthful, constant and unfailing. Because all we’ll ever have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual (not religious) condition; a unique condition separate to each of us alone.

    AA is the best school I’ve ever attended.

  2. Larry G. says:

    My growth and healing as a result of working the steps has been no less profound. However its been far more of a slow gradual process over time rather than an event that the author indicates occurred for her. I can never seem to catch myself growing and healing. Rather, something will occur or happen and then I notice “Oh heck look at that, I’ve grown.”

  3. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your comment, Susan. The shift really does come with compassion for ourselves.

  4. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your comment Joe.

  5. Bethany D. says:

    Hi Linda – Congrats on 25 years! Wow. I also appreciate the Buddhist approach very much. Practical techniques and frameworks without referencing a deity. And love Pema Chodron’s book, The Places that Scare You.

  6. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you Maria for your comment. And for being the wise and supportive sponsor who patiently took me through this process.

  7. Susan V. says:

    WOW! Great share. I loved the book too. Beautiful summary of how our greatest strength is being vulnerable with another human being. The shift comes with compassion for ourselves. Thank you. Sue V.

  8. Richard K. says:

    Amen Bethany!!! I don’t care how some recovers from this insidious disease. I would turn communist if it worked. What ever it takes.

  9. Linda K. says:

    Congratulations on one year! I just took a 25 year medallion, would have been more if I had stayed sober back then, my first meeting was in 1980. I love your words! I am exploring Buddhism, I like Pema Chodron.

  10. Well written, focused, forward thinking. I feel like I just finished my best meeting all week.

  11. Maria says:

    I enjoyed this article very much. It was well written and I greatly admire the courage it takes to be vulnerable like that, especially putting it out there for the world to read!
    Bravo on an important milestone!

  12. Bethany D. says:

    Thanks for your comment Dick. I will pay more attention to the impact of identifying as atheist in secular AA. Because my atheism didn’t contribute to me getting/staying sober either….

  13. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you Ken!

  14. Ken P. says:

    Hi Bethany. Congrats on your first year of sobriety. Don’t let anyone tell you a god is required to stay sober. It has not been necessary for me to kowtow to any form of higher power during my 21 years of sobriety in AA. Wishing you peace and happiness.

  15. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your comment Angela! I am always so interested in hearing how others view their relationship with alcohol – and recovery.

  16. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your comment Lance. Maybe I will see you at a Children of Chaos meeting here in Austin. I also appreciate Roger’s meaningful support – AA Agnostica has put its arms around me for the past year. I am so grateful.

  17. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you Pat. I completely agree with you about not needing 12…. that’s where I am starting because that’s what is here for me now and what I think I need today. But I do think that that can (and will) change as I mature in my sobriety and am enriched by the ideas of others who are traveling this journey with me. I do try to keep in my mind: Don’t take the first drink!

  18. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your comments Megan.

  19. Angela says:

    Jennifer B,
    I understand and see how that thinking helps a lot of people. In the present day there are a lot of recovery programs that use different language and help people recover from addiction and they’re not all abstinence based and many don’t require a life long identification as an alcoholic. While I am comfortable with those terms and plan to live a life of abstinence, I like to keep an open mind to these other solutions because they are helping people in ways AA cannot. I want people to be free from the suffering caused by alcohol abuse/misuse and alcoholism. Being open to additional language in recovery, including cured, might help someone in a way that I, referring to my personal thoughts on alcoholism and sobriety, might not.

  20. Bethany D. says:

    HI Richard – Thank you for your comment. I guess I wasn’t clear about the statement involving the word “cure.” My intention was to state that we atheists do NOT subscribe to the concept that God can cure the alcoholic as many religious AAers believe. As a person in recovery now, I do think that I am recovering (not cured), from the work I’m doing on myself, from working some of the secular steps, but mainly from my relationships with other alcoholics I’ve met in secular AA, especially with my sponsor, in the Sober She-Devils meetings.

  21. Jennifer B. says:

    As for the term cure, I do believe it must pertain to the ability to drink like a normal person, not staying sober indefinitely or losing the desire, craving, or obsession. Most of us have experienced the obsession to drink is no longer present. What I have learned is the obsession and cravings are triggered or set off by the first drink (or sometime later if it’s a start again situation). I am an alcoholic and will always have alcoholism.

  22. Megan says:

    Thank you, Bethany! Happy #1 sobriety anniversary and what a lovely gift you have given us in celebration. Alcoholic’s Anonymous bogus “b” (“That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism”) and cockeyed “c” (“God could and would if He were sought”) have caused great damage in stating – “WOULD” – a cure for alcoholism. I have known so many who have worked the steps, relapsed, and are unable to make it back to the healing people power in our rooms. They believe (because they have been told) they just didn’t “seek right” or “completely” give themselves to the He God. My “obsession of the mind” gets blasted every time I hear another alcoholic talk about how absurd it is to think a drink is going to resolve any problem. It gets blasted every time I write out and share a resentment (as you demonstrate so powerfully). It gets blasted out every time I listen to a newcomer share her pain and offer some hope. Thank you again for sharing your experience, strength and hope with us!

  23. Pat N. says:

    Happy birthday, Bethany! Many happy returns, ODAAT!

    I think we all wind up developing our own steps/principles/plan/whatever, and it sounds like yours works for Bethany. I think a key step is getting over the need to have 12 – I don’t believe in a god or in magic numbers. My current set of guidelines has about 13, but that may change the next time I meditate on them. The heart is still the pair I was given at my first meeting, which are still the core 40 years later: Don’t take the first drink & keep coming back.

    Thanks for your input.

  24. Lance B. says:

    Though I would like to think about and respond to Richard’s reaction, I must prepare for this mornings secular meeting where, if I’m lucky, the woman I lent one copy of Munn’s book to last Sunday will come again.

    And I expect to hand this article of Bethany’s to her because the two stories sound so similar. I really appreciate the thoughtful and meaningful contribution you make Bethany, and the similarly thoughtful and meaningful support which Roger (AA Agnostica) continues to encourage. Thank you both.

    And I may be back in Austin at Children of Chaos, which was my initial connection with our great community of secular AA members, soon.

  25. Angela says:

    Beautiful, Bethany!

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience! This article is going to help so many people, particularly women, who might be resistant to working steps due to the traditional language of the program.

    And for the record, I know many people both within and outside AA who feel they have been cured. Science has come a long way with understanding addiction as well as alcohol abuse and or misuse. As a non-medical professional, I have no place correcting others about the curability of any condition.

    Congratulations on your new milestone, Bethany!

  26. John B. says:

    Richard: I can’t see where Bethany used the phrase “get cured with God”. The consistent theme throughout her essay is how she is maintaining sobriety without any reliance on God. A totally practical, agnostic, approach to sobriety. John B.

  27. Dick S. says:

    “Secular AA, a subcommunity within AA, is comprised of men and women who identify as atheist or agnostic.” This idea only adds to identifying AA as a religion. Why must we be agnostic or atheist to be part of secular AA? AA does not have to a religion, it can and does function quite well in a secular community. Nothing turns me off more than theistic or atheistic preaching in an AA meeting.

  28. Richard K. says:

    I was reading this and stopped when it said get cured with God. There is no cure for alcoholism. The disease is an Obsession of the mind and an allergy described as the phenomenon of craving. The goal of recovery is to arrest the obsession, put it in remission. Then l hopefully won’t pick up that first drink setting off the physical craving.

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