Peeling the Onion: Shedding Theism In Sobriety
By Amy B
The Hero’s Journey… ?
In traditional AA, there’s a classic story, a hero’s journey if you will, about how you progress in sobriety. You come into AA, iffy about the existence of God, but as wonder after wonder happens in your life due to sobriety and AA itself, the veil is lifted. You come to your senses and join the happy, trudging crowd in some form of belief in God. Those who don’t, well, they’ll come around, or else we’re saving them a seat for when they come back. Right?
My path was different. Before I got sober I’d been forcing myself back into the US Catholic Church, in hopes that getting good would help me get well. In addition to alcoholism, I suffered from other compulsive behaviors, and what I understood at the time to be depression, insomnia, and social anxiety. And going to church did nothing for any of it, although to give credit where it’s due, I met some fellow churchgoers who changed my life distinctly for the better. But I was so mired in indistinct theism that I was ready to go into a convent, which I see now as more a need to escape the fulltime office work environment that was never good for me.
A Very Narrow Sober Life
I came into AA, got sober, and joined a small and avidly theist sect of AA. While this group did not push structured step work as a way to stay sober, they insisted that communication with a sponsor would give you “all the answers you need.” So you called a sponsor the same way you … went to confession. For a lifelong Catholic this model seemed familiar and comforting. And I was very damaged by all the substances I’d taken over the years, prescriptions for a misdiagnosis included. Having someone tell me what to do appealed to me because I was terrified that without that guidance and support I would go back to booze and pills. And per the group (and most other groups in traditional AA), God backed all of it, the same way “In God We Trust” is (or used to be) stamped on US coins.
Along with the “AA has all the answers you need” ethos came a deep group prejudice against pursuing other answers and solutions for personal problems, especially psychiatric help OR simply talk therapy. While I do believe that many active alcoholics are misdiagnosed by doctors and receive much more medication than they probably need, I also believe that some of the disorders named in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psych professionals are VERY real and potentially deadly if left untreated. Some members of that “sect” wisely (and quietly) advised their sponsees to seek outside help for issues like childhood sexual abuse. But most people didn’t talk openly about the exceptions to the rule.
Over several years, I stayed sober and plodded along in a safe gray world free of pesky individual choice, as directed by my sponsor. I went to work faithfully and did good work, but I stayed stuck in a low-paying job because “nothing else was coming along.” What this meant was that I was not to seek other opportunities: God would provide them if they were “meant to be.” Meanwhile, my social life was even more isolated than it had been before I got sober. What was that about? If I simply went to Vermont for the weekend, I’d get a nice wet blanket thrown over my plans by my sponsor: “You’re running away.” And every time I brought up doing something about my increasing bodyweight (due to compulsive food behaviors), I’d get a “maybe you can go to Weight Watchers in the spring.” Readers: spring never came.
Stepping Into A Different River
Often I questioned whether I should continue to talk to that sponsor, but I left it up to that magical mystical God to sunder the relationship if He (choice of pronoun entirely intentional) should choose. Meanwhile: I gained weight and continued in a world dominated by work, meetings, and TV watching.
The linchpin for my departure came, unsurprisingly, with a decision over bodily autonomy. My weight, driven by compulsive eating, had reached a level I hadn’t seen in years. I quietly decided to undertake a different way of eating AND to go to Overeaters Anonymous for support. I didn’t tell my sponsor. I dropped about 10 pounds in a healthy way over a couple of months. Later, when my sponsor triumphantly said (probably about herself!) “You’re worried about your weight, aren’t you?” I told her calmly, “Actually, no, I’m not.” I had a few more cycles of OA attendance and compulsive food behaviors to go before I would stay put in that fellowship, but the important thing was that I had started to break the psychological hold she and the sect had on me.
In October of that year, things came to a head. I’d been promoted at work and had promptly been hazed by several of my colleagues, including my then-boss. My sponsor had no answers for that situation other than “you told your manager, now let her take care of it.” One possible flaw in that logic: my manager was part of the problem. My mother was declining from dementia in another state and I had no in-person support like a dementia caregivers support group to help me with that: hey, why would I need that if I had a sponsor who had all the answers from God? Meanwhile, my sponsor was becoming increasingly rude and abrupt in our conversations. One night, after I got a busy signal yet again, I said to myself: “Take the hint.” And I did. I stopped talking to her and found another sponsor who wasn’t in the sect. And I started taking decisions for myself, the first of which was to find a better job.
A Question That Needed An Answer
In the ensuing years, I took all the Big Grownup decisions that were overdue because I never got a green light from my sect sponsor: I changed jobs (twice!), I bought and sold residences (and made money on the last one!), I went to OA or left as I saw fit. And I increased my attendance at the atheist and agnostic AA groups I’d found even before I left off talking to the sect sponsor: there was something about it that seemed to fit.
And I wondered, deeply, why my social life had remained so stagnant and isolated. Why did I have so much trouble with being bullied at work, and why did I develop destructive obsessions with people? Going to work every weekday for eight hours and grappling with these issues on a daily basis triggered suicidal ideation, and nothing helped: AA attendance, talking to a sponsor, psychotherapy. But I had become ingrained in the “all your problems stem from being an alcoholic” mentality that went hand in hand with the theism. So for years, even after I left off talking to the sect sponsor, I didn’t pursue an assessment for what I suspected the root cause of the social difficulties to be: autism.
I finally sought assessment for autism in April 2019. Surprise, surprise: the clinician agreed with my assessment and gave me strong evidence for her conclusion. (This is a typical outcome for people who quietly suspect they’re on the spectrum.) And other autists have confirmed what she said even if I wasn’t asking for confirmation. Social isolation, bullying, and obsessions with people are often a large part of the lives of cis women autists.
Had I waited for an interventionist deity to end my relationship with the sect sponsor, I might still be talking to her… and I would still be huddling in a corner of a meeting room, getting smaller and smaller. Instead, I ended the relationship myself, and I’m far stronger for the experience.
What’s Happening Today
Today, I’m retired from those jobs that set the stage for so much of my pain. and as a result I am no longer suicidal on a frequent basis. (I can assure you that the sect sponsor would have been horrified at that decision, but I have a good eye for my own finances.)
I identify as an autist and an agnostic who leans atheist, and I am sober in AA and abstinent in OA. I sponsor several people in OA and I lead a couple of secular OA / eating disorder recovery meetings. I have been travelling in Latin America since summer 2019 and I may make a Latin American country my retirement home. I’m taking up music practice again, which has always been fraught because of my many physical and emotional limitations from autism, but I feel better overall when I do it than when I don’t. I have sought answers for myself from within AA and from the world at large: today I know I’m the captain of my ship. And I’m especially grateful to the secular recovery movement and to my dear friend and sponsor, D, for giving me a new community and support.
Amy B is a cis woman in her fifties. Professionally she does best as a writer, editor, and translator, and she has deep and abiding interests in music (voice and banjo), performing arts, literature, and nature.
She is currently living in Latin America and her Spanish gets better every day. She has one biological son who she is proud to say is pursuing the career in the performing arts she always dreamed of herself… but she’s trying not to act like Mama Rose from “Gypsy”!
She got sober on the North Shore of Massachusetts and always feels most at home in an AA meeting when she hears someone with a Boston-area accent describe the disease.