How It Works Without A God

By John B

Can a drunk expect happiness to emerge from recovery?

My answer would have been a resounding YES as I floated out of a 12 step oriented treatment episode on a pink cloud of euphoria in August of 1980. Fast forward four years and I had compiled  a history of perpetual relapses. Whatever definition of happiness you choose to use, I had none of it at that point in my life.

I hadn’t just been lounging around church basements for those four years. I had two sponsors helping me with step work, I was trying to extract meaning and purpose from AA literature, and Helen and I were socially engaged with AA and Alanon friends. Alcohol free days and weeks began to roll by again, and even though I was not drinking, fear was palpable. I was starting to feel stranded in a recovery place I had visited many times before. AA camaraderie, friendship, and role modeling were again functioning as palliatives, but as usual the ubiquitous presence of the God of AA was lurking as an impediment to progress. I felt like I was trying to stay sober using two mutually exclusive tools – the needed support vs. the unneeded divine intervention. God had to go!

My frustration with “approved” AA literature intensified and I took the liberty to expand my reading boundaries. Three or four months into sobriety I picked up a book titled, Man’s Search for Meaning. Now, what could be more useful to a recently dried out drunk than to discover some meaning? I bought the book ($2.00 in 1984), and 36 years later it remains my all-time favorite. The author is Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived WW2 in a Nazi internment camp.

In the book he lays out an easy to understand approach for coping with the capriciousness, and even the sometimes cruelty, inherent to the human condition. Frankl helped me to understand the steps from a humanistic perspective, and the book provided me with several eureka moments, some that still affect my life today. I’ll share three.

Surrounded by squalid, inhumane conditions, Frankl was able to extract meaning from his experiences. He observed a few devoted inmates who made serious efforts to comfort others, even at times by giving up their last morsel of food. From this he concluded that men have the power… “To choose one’s attitude, to choose one’s own way.” (p. 75). This was a eureka moment. Big Book be damned – I have the power within me to choose sobriety. I kept reading. Later on Frankl tells us this… “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more he actualizes himself.” (p. 115). In other words, “self-actualization is possible as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” (p. 115). Eureka! Then finally, if you want to find happiness… “happiness cannot be pursued: it must ensue.” (p. 140).

This all gave me pause. Reading 140 pages of descriptions of how a man adapted  to the horrible conditions of living in a Nazi internment camp can motivate some serious thought about the meaning of life. What was going on in my recovery became starkly evident. Those sober alcoholics closest to me were doing precisely what Frankl was talking about: they were helping others, they were choosing how to live, they were satisfied with themselves, they were happy. I had the feeling I was finally on the right path. One day at a time I started to emulate what they were doing so I could get what they had.

That’s how it worked.

One day at a time sobriety continued, but life’s challenges did not magically evaporate. Marital stress and financial pressures made some of those days difficult to navigate. Those were the days when I was grateful for those AA buddies. They didn’t offer solutions to my personal problems, but they provided the personal support which helped me focus on finding solutions, one day at a time. For that I owe a debt of gratitude to AA: if it had not existed, where would I have found people like that? Thank you Mr. Wilson – but I’m going to stay on the people path to sobriety – no need for divine intervention.

Reading widely also continued and I began to create a “philosophy of life” based on mutually beneficial personal relationships. Thirty-six years later the intrinsic value of those human connections alone would create ample contentment; in reality, I almost always get much more back than I give.

Not long after finding Dr. Frankl, I was again browsing around Hyde Brothers Used Books, in Ft. Wayne, In. (check out their website), and stumbled on another psychiatrist whose ideas made sense to me, and supported how I was trying to live my life.

William Glasser became nationally known in 1965 with the release of his book, Reality Therapy. He acquired immediate notoriety due to his rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis and instead stressed one’s own responsibility for their personal mental health. He stated it this way… “People do not act irresponsibly because they are ‘ill’; they are ‘ill’ because they act irresponsibly.” (Reality Therapy, p. xv). Another outlay of $2.00. To me this fit neatly with Frankl’s statements about attitudes, actualization, and happiness, and my humanistic view of the 12 steps.

I’ve been frequently accused of unnecessarily injecting too much “thinking” into my approach to recovery, but I have this old fashioned belief that knowledge is power. Reading the views of these two sober psychiatrists did nothing to impede personal growth, the insistence on reliance on God definitely did.

Glasser’s insistence on personal responsibility actually validated the AA stress on the necessity for me to keep working on me, and simultaneously invalidated the need for help from God. About six years into recovery, I took a few college courses, got some on the job training, and jumped through all the necessary hoops to become an addictions counselor. The two doctors got quoted a lot when I worked as a counselor at the V.A. hospital in Marion, In. I was living my own life and trying to convince others that the best way to live was to take responsibility for yourself and to build quality personal relationships. I got some back-up.

In 1998, Glasser released another book, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. Glasser gave a lot of attention  to personal responsibility and also to the necessity for solid personal relationships. Depending on the source, the topic of  basic human needs can get to be somewhat cluttered. Glasser distilled it down to five: survival, love, power, freedom, and fun. He then adds this observation: “Most of us know nothing about our basic needs. What we know is how we feel, and we always want to feel as good as we can.” (Choice Theory, p. 45).

Alcohol worked for a long time, then it quit. I imagine that sounds familiar to some of you.

Choice Theory argues that the best way to satisfy these basic needs is to make choices that enable us to accurately perceive our own reality by structuring what he refers to as our own “quality world”. It contains the people we want to be with, the things we want the most, and the ideas and beliefs that we live by. (Choice Theory, p. 45). Glasser claims we have the power to control what goes into that quality world, hence we also have the power to control the quality of our own mental health. He was blasted with a lot of criticism from the medical community for the strong emphasis on individual autonomy along with his de-emphasis on the use of pharmaceuticals in treatment.

Personally, I have seen all of the ideas shared above work in my life. One thing is for sure: How it Works will be up to you.


John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.


25 Responses

  1. Larry G. says:

    A fine basic overview of a couple of pioneer’s in contemporary psychotherapy. I enjoyed it very much.

    On another note I add that in traditional AA it is emphasized to end “all the debate”. I have come to understand that to mean “think only within the parameters we give you”. I’ve always found it most puzzling and disturbing that most meetings only allow the discussion of AA approved literature. Well kiddies at best that’s how religion functions and at worst how some organizations isolate and exert control. Just plain dumb.

    I’ve always felt fortunate that my first AA sponsor freely promoted independent reading, discussion, and friendship beyond the cloister of AA. Very early on in AA I discovered that it was okay to take what I need and leave the rest. If not for that I don’t think I could have gotten sober!!!

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks, this was a great read, what a long life of success good on you.
    And thanks for sharing that with us.

  3. Daran N. says:

    John, huge thanks. “Big Book be damned – I have the power within me to choose sobriety.” Eureka, indeed! A description of a transformative moment that I can not only relate with, but really sink my teeth into. Tapping that ‘unsuspected inner resource’ as Appendix II of the old tome puts it. I am also grateful for your last line “..How It Works will be up to you.” Damned right. A message that I will carry from now on. Excellent.

    • John B. says:

      Daran – AA Agnostica is a great place to hang out. I check in on a regular basis and always learn as much from people like you who take the time to participate, as I do from the posts. Thank you.
      John B.

  4. Pat N. says:

    Thanks for reminding me of those books, John. You and I share many biographical details, two of which are the influence of Glaser and Frankl. And may I add Eric Berne and RET, whose Games People Play and the subsequent I’m OK – You’re OK, whose author I forget? Another is The Art of Counseling by Carkhuff.

    All those books have helped me in getting/staying sober, and to begin being an effective counselor (more of the time). I’ve found that many of the helpful ideas I’ve been able to offer have stemmed from the ideas in those books. Even more, many of the ideas and values I try to implement in my life have come from the collective wisdom, practical ideas, and personal examples of folks in AA.

    It’s preposterous for anyone in AA to claim that only Conference-approved literature can be read, quoted, or referred to in meetings. That’s not what “Conf-app lit” means, and it’s not any requirement. Our objective is sobriety for ourselves and others, and a good idea doesn’t mind where it came from.

    BTW, in recent years, two of the most meaningful books for me have been Love is Letting Go of Fear by Jampolsky, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.

    Thanks again.

    • John B. says:

      Pat – thank you for participating. Roger is providing us with a marvelous forum. I’ve been learning a lot over the past several months. The title, The Power of Now, sounds interesting. I just finished ordering it.
      John B.

  5. Jeff P. says:

    I was just privately reprimanded in an A.A. Zoom meeting for having the temerity to recommend “Towards a Psychology of Being” by Abraham Maslow as a companion piece to the Big Book (and I would commend it to anyone here—it is in many ways very similar to Frankl’s behavioral model). I have even offered to have a debate/discussion with the deacon of orthodoxy in my group about the orthodoxy – heterodoxy problem; however, I have come to realize that no one wants to have this conversation. Every time I even dance around the subject, I am harassed for being “outside our traditions” and asked patronizingly “whether I have a sponsor.” I too have been upbraided for “thinking too much.”

    There is a good case to be made for some of the orthodoxy. In my experience, sobriety has required a tremendous amount of deep self-inquiry; these have not always been pleasant remembrances, but necessary ones.

    I don’t believe long term sobriety is possible until one understands one’s self thoroughly. Your approach is a great path and one I have eventually meandered onto myself.

    Alcoholics are accomplished liars. So accomplished, in fact, that lying became our go-to lug wrench in any moment of crisis. And we learned to also lie to ourselves so convincingly, with the aid of a mind befuddled by alcohol. We came to believe not what was true, but what was conveniently true at the moment that would allow us to keep drinking.

    Most of us learned this behavior over a long period of time, and when we put down the bottle, we have largely forgotten, often intentionally, that there are alternatives to lying, in order to manage our own affairs.

    This is why we will never be sober for long in the absence of self-knowledge. We must learn, as we once did, how not to be deceived by our own lies. We must abandon dishonesty if we are ever to have a fighting chance in the sober world. Even the Big Book tells us that. And the twelve steps provide some crude cognitive conditioning tools to help make that happen, but they are not enough to keep us sober.

    We have to start, one brick at a time, dismantling the intimidating fortress we have built around ourselves to protect our drinking behaviors. That cannot be done overnight and it can’t be done without some stuff outside the orthodoxy.

    I can tell you how it works and I can show you how it works. Will that be enough? I can’t answer that question for you, but I would suggest you start here: instead of asking how it works, starting thinking about WHY it works. That, my friend, is your first step on the path to true self-knowledge, without which, in my opinion, you won’t much care for the sober life. Without knowing why things are happening, sobriety can be the loneliest place of all.

    • John B. says:

      Jeff – Yes, getting out of self and getting to know myself based on reality, not on illusions was critical to staying sober-and just as importantly learning to enjoy the sober life.
      John B.

    • David W says:

      It’s difficult to know how to respond to people in meetings who try to shut down anyone introducing anything that isn’t directly gleaned from AA approved literature. They seem to have an irrational fear that outside knowledge will somehow contaminate us and destroy our sobriety.

      The obsession with the Big Book reminds me of a bible passage in Joshua 1:8:

      This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

      Could have been written for AA. Memorize the Big Book and quote it to dismiss anyone bringing in outside info.

      • Jeff P. says:

        Thank you for that. I will remember, from now on, to always keep Joshua at my side, ready to send him in to keep the peace at a moment’s notice. That quote about sums it up for me and it reveals one of the many irresolvable paradoxes in AA orthodoxy. I am working on an article about this, so stay tuned.

  6. Al J says:

    Some excellent thoughts. I too have spent 10+ years in meetings only to suffer the sobriety/relapse syndrome. I have spent a lot of time in meetings listening to repetitive readings which remind me of church. There are a lot of good people in these meetings and I enjoy their support and friendship. But something has been missing and the thoughts above gave me some new(?) areas to explore.

    • John B. says:

      AI J – I like that term,”areas to explore.” I was able to find a helluva lot more worthwhile things with all my senses free of alcohol. I hope that happens a lot with you too.
      John B.

  7. Teresa J says:

    Yay! Thank you John. Excellent recommendations, along with your experience, strength and hope. I have found in my living sober since 1988 that personal responsibility along with self awareness is what gives me the power to live well, one day at a time, through the difficult and the smooth times. The support and encouragement of others is very important to me AND I make the choice to accept personal responsibility through right effort as best as I can. May we all be open to new ideas, thoughts, actions.

    • John B. says:

      Teresa – “new ideas thoughts and actions” – really good tools to live by – thanks for taking the time to participate.
      John B.

  8. Harry C. says:

    I too picked up the Frankl book in my early years in AA. I’ve never drank alcohol again after first coming in Dec ‘86. But after heading back to Chapel (RC) to try to reconnect with god, or the new to me, ‘higher power’, I quickly became aware that the changes from pub to meetings, abstaining from drinking, and seeking an external source of ‘power’ was not working well for me. I can look back and call it my ‘identity crisis’; I knew my name and could find my way home from a meeting, but my ‘ego’, my ‘sense of self’ was definitely fragmenting. I clearly remember the choice I made and the options were: drink again and leave and ‘f’ them all; stay sober and leave and ‘f’ them all; stay sober and stay and do this AA as I wish. I chose the last one and that’s still how I do it today.

    After my early years and building my knowledge base through reading and seeking activities to increase my personal awareness, at 5 years sober my drive took me to Uni and a Dip Counselling. My life continued to change as it had done since I first gave up drinking from Dec ‘86. I have never engaged in AA Steps or sponsorship and dismissed the BB after perusal as being religiously biased and of little relevance to me. Many other things were of benefit to me and my life over the years; reading is important to me and knowledge can be power, but for me, personal empowerment is my greatest value today and I understand the value for me of sobriety. Thanks John, I enjoyed your post. 👍🤝

    • John B. says:

      Harry – one of the things that drove me nuts at the outset of recovery was the caustic rejection of any hint that willpower could be a part of quitting drinking. Still today in the meeting I have been going to down here in North Georgia for 10 years God gets all the credit when someone picks up a token for another year of sobriety. To me that is demeaning to all the people who helped the person stay sober. Thanks for the reply.
      John B.

  9. Archer Voxx says:

    Exploration into new subject matter, like the excellent book recommendations being made here by John, is essential for continuous improvement in your recovery and overall quality of life. There has been over 80 years of research since the Big Book was published into the potential factors underlying one’s “stink’n think’n”. Although it may be a good starting point, you only get a rudimentary glimpse of some of these factors when working Steps 4 through 7.

    • John B. says:

      Archer – I knew I had seen this name somewhere and ended up re-reading your post, You Will Burn In Hell. Lack of emotional maturity, actually a lack of any semblance of maturity, pretty much describes me well into my 40’s when I finally got a grip on reality. Thanks for the comments.
      John B.

  10. David W says:

    One of the unfortunate consequences of AA structure is what seems to be a widely held belief that if it’s not conference approved literature it has no place being read in a meeting. Hearing the same old stale readings in meetings over and over contributes to the dated environment I find a lot of meetings seem trapped in. Not to mention the fact that we end up looking like a cult, particularly when people chant in unison passages of the readings “all together now!: principles above personalities” It seems to be a taboo to either read or talk about anything that isn’t directly AA alcohol related.

    There’s nothing to prevent us from ditching traditional readings in favour of a more eclectic presentation. As long as a reading has some relevance to an individual’s recovery, I don’t see the danger of introducing alternative perspectives.

    • John B. says:

      David – sadly, anti-intellectualism is pervasive throughout our culture. Everyone likes to be blessed with certainty, and like organized religion, keeping recovery fenced in by approved readings makes everyone certain of what works – except when it doesn’t work, they don’t have a plan B. I’m grateful to have found a plan B – sounds like you did too.
      John B.

  11. Sheri Henley says:

    I, also, am accused in AA of “thinking too much”. Two of the little motivational signs in the clubhouse are, “THINK THINK THINK” and “THINK BEFORE YOU DRINK”. Well? Which is it? Think or don’t? I choose to use my brain.

    I do take responsibility for my own choices, and one day at a time, I choose not to cloud my body or mind with the devastation of alcohol!

    I do attend AA meetings, there are no alternatives in our area, but have ferreted out my fellow agnostics and atheists, and we have our little side discussions, texts and phone calls. There are also many pagans and new thought folks in our area also attending regular AA meetings. We take what we need and leave the rest. I say my own affirmations during prayers, when called upon to lead a prayer, I go with the flow and give it lip service for the sake of the group as a whole. My mission is to stay sober, not create controversy for controversy sake.

    Of course, there are the proselytizing types in meetings. I ignore them.

    As a woman, I find Women In Sobriety has also given me solace and meaning. They have a website and FB groups.

    I am grateful I found this group.

    Sheri Henley
    Newnan, Ga

    • John B. says:

      Sheri – We’re practically next door neighbors – we have lived up North of the big city for 10 years, just outside of Dahlonega. Like you, over the years I have refused to leave my brain in the parking lot. I don’t flaunt my secular view of life, but my comments always are focused on a humanistic approach to recovery. Like you, I am very grateful to have found AA Agnostica. Thank you for participating.
      John B.

      • Sheri Henley says:

        It’s beautiful up there!! There are several of us who “believe differently “ down here in NEWNAN, Peachtree City area. Got a few who always come in after the serenity prayer and leave before the end.

  12. Doc says:

    Knowledge is power. Knowledge in my experience also means learning new things. Exploring new ideas, new concepts, new philosophies has been an important part of my sobriety. There are, of course, those people in AA who seem to maintain their sobriety by clinging tenaciously to old ideas and rejecting, a priori, all new concepts.

    • John B. says:

      Doc – “new concepts” just doesn’t seem to be an accepted concept in AA. The most idiotic statement I have ever heard is this: “the answer to any problem you will ever encounter in life can be found in the Big Book.” How goofy can you get? Thanks for taking the time to comment.
      John B.