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.


 

10 Responses

  1. Victoria says:

    Really liked reading yr story. A New perspective is important to all AAs! Unfortunately not all of them are open minded.

  2. Larry g says:

    Thx for a great article. Very touched by your share and experience. The whole phenomenon of sponsorship control fascinates and sickens me. The second tradition in AA ends with our leaders are but trusted servants they do not govern. Govern means to legislate and control. As far as I’m concerned the highest form of leadership in any recovery work is sponsorship. Control, or telling people what to do is a no no.

  3. Sasha Lee says:

    Thank you, Amy. I appreciate the grace and clarity of your story. I was with you in every twist! Your generosity – and your maturity- are the hallmarks of the kind of recovery to which I continue to aspire. I am encouraged to continue to wrestle with the sometimes tedious task of telling my own story, not simply to overcome loneliness, but to be true to what it really means.

  4. Piyayo says:

    Hola Amy y hermanas y hermanos. Pertenezco a Grupos Virtuales de Ateos y Agnósticos en español que gracias a la pandemia hemos crecido. Somos de más de 15 países distintos. Tenemos 5 reuniones por zoom semanalmente. Si deseas más información me puedes contactar por WhatsApp +14387641252. o moranmario69@gmail.com.

    Gracias por tu historia.

  5. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Amy! I read your story with interest and was happy to read at the end, “I know I’m the captain of my ship.” It’s a significant milestone, especially for women.

  6. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, Amy. I’m glad you survived sponsorism. I think it’s great when sponsorship is helpful, but I’ve never had one – the fellowship has given me what I need, sometimes through 1-to-1s with AA friends.

  7. bob k says:

    The essay has a variety of themes. I’ll address one – “the hero’s journey.”

    Mainstream 12-Step members aren’t overly concerned when newcomers declare that they are “iffy about the existence of God.” The expectation is that their views will change in short order, as the witness and experience the “miracle” of recovery.

    Why do they think that way?

    Very simply, because that’s what usually happens to the self-identified atheists and agnostics who stick around for a while. Fitz Mayo “OUR SOUTHERN FRIEND” of Big Book story fame called himself a militant atheist. Bill and Hank visited him in Towns Hospital and told their stories of alcoholism and recovery. Twenty minutes after they left, the “militant atheist” is kneeling, praying, and crying like a baby!!

    WTF??

    Fitz was like most AA prospects who identify as atheist or agnostic. They have misdiagnosed and mislabelled themselves. Atheism isn’t being angry at God. Agnosticism isn’t the fear of God’s wrath driving one to the faint hope the religion of my upbringing had it all wrong.

    Those mad at God are taught to lose their resentment. Those fearing divine justice as punishment for their hedonistic ways are encouraged to create a more user-friendly Supteme Being. AA is long on God, but short on eternal damnation.

    Bill Wilson had no understanding of the real atheist or the real agnostic, most of whom fall through the cracks of regular AA. “He just didn’t want it enough” is what they say when we disappear.

    Those misunderstood folks are whar secular AA is all about.

  8. David W says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Amy. Sponsorship in AA is truly a double edge sword. It can be a positive addition to ones recovery but has the potential to be a very destructive and dangerous relationship. The power exchange dynamic that sponsorship creates can easily lead to abuse by the sponsor if he or she lacks the necessary skills and mental heath to truly help another. I find it extremely offensive the way it is presented as a mandatory part of AA in some groups. Not everyone is fit to be a sponsor, not everyone needs a sponsor.

    I’ve noticed in the 2+ years I’ve been attending meetings, there seems to be a bias among some members in traditional AA against anyone not an alcoholic. “He’s not one of us, he doesn’t get it.” While members of our families and friends may be misinformed about addiction, it’s foolish to dismiss outside help and resources just because the individuals are not a member of the club. To some, AA and god are a panacea. I find that a very dangerous mindset.

  9. Oren says:

    Thanks, Amy. Your story is significantly different from mine, which makes it intensely interesting. At the same time, there are some distinct similarities in our respective histories, including recovery, learning to think for ourselves, and banjos. Happy pickin’ and sobriety to us all!

  10. Doc says:

    Thanks for telling us about your journey into sobriety.