MY program, not THE program

By Russel S

In 1957, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill Wilson wrote: “The A.A.’s Steps are SUGGESTIONS [emphasis added] only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership.”

The big book of Alcoholics Anonymous is full of suggestions; there are no demands, commands or orders.

In chapter 2 of the big book “There is a Solution” the authors state “This should SUGGEST [emphasis added] a useful program for anyone concerned with a drinking problem”. In chapter 5 “How it Works”, arguably the most important and quoted chapter of the big book, the authors reiterate “Here are the steps we took, which are SUGGESTED [emphasis added] as a program of recovery”.

Despite there being no rules per se, I personally found the big book to be extremely patronising and condescending. It is full of religiosity and devoutness and I simply do not find the fundamental rhetoric written by (ex-)drunk(s) in 1938 in anyway useful to me. THE program is well defined, there is no wiggle room:  “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program…” This says to me that “THE program” is the only way. Which means that it is hardly a suggestion.

Advances in the knowledge of and the treatment of the disease of alcoholism and addiction since 1938 are significant and there are many wonderful and helpful resources to discover. That said, I am not a pugnacious big book basher; I do know it has helped thousands of people to get sober which is, after all, the crucial issue and the primary purpose.

Although AA is perceived to have no “rules”, the rehab where I received my initial treatment and where I got clean definitely did. On the wall was the serenity prayer, “let go and let god”, “one day at a time” and “THE program works if you work it”. They advocated five tenets that were drilled into me:

  1. Go to meetings (90 meetings in the first 90 days out of rehab)
  2. Discover a higher power
  3. Find a sponsor
  4. Do the steps
  5. Do service

Clearly, item 2 was a huge obstacle for me. I have been an agnostic/atheist/freethinker all of my adult life.  I discussed this concern with my counsellor who told me not to worry, just “fake it till you make it”. Strange and contradicting advice from the same individual that was constantly demanding “rigorous honesty” from me. I was, to say the least, extremely confused.

Then I was given the goal to “find a sponsor by Friday”. Choosing a sponsor, for me, was a daunting task as back then as I did not cope well with rejection. In early recovery I was impressionable, susceptible, bewildered and did not have the cognitive decision-making means that I have today. Back then, my desperation was compelling me and I attentively listened to sharers at the meetings we attended. I was very weary of meeting attendees that attributed all positive events to their higher power or some other supernatural presence in their lives. And anyone who said “by the grace of god” or mentioned a “miracle” was off my list too.

Eventually, I did find someone who I could relate to and that matched well with my way of thinking.  After a few one-on-one meetings with him, we started to talk about the steps. The discussions were thought provoking and vibrant. I told him that I have difficulties with the traditional AA steps in respect of what they portray to me, specifically the first 10 steps:

  1. Powerlessness
  2. Insanity
  3. Submission
  4. Immorality
  5. Confession
  6. Defectiveness
  7. Weakness
  8. Malicious intent
  9. Restitution
  10. Self-criticism

The last two steps 11 and 12, except for the praying and spiritual awakening bits, are well meaning and I have no issue with meditation and helping others; in fact I actively engage in and highly recommend these actions.

We looked around on the Internet and found many secular versions of the traditional AA steps online but the feeling I got was that they typically try to just rehash the existing 12 steps in a way that kind of sticks to the plot but changes a few “offending” words and phrases. For me the plot is where my issues begin.

I find the steps so very negative and totally unhelpful to me even without the supernatural mumbo jumbo. For me, I need positive reinforcement and practical ideas that are meaningful and make a difference in my life and help me to understand the weird wiring in my brain so I can self-improve, grow and be the best person that I am able to be. Of course, for me, that also means abstaining from drink and drugs and other destructive behaviours.

We decided that I should write my own steps. The steps I initially wrote for myself have transformed over the years as I myself have changed and grown as a human being, but the underlying essence is still the same. I do think that “MY program” needs to evolve as I grow and become a better version of my previous self. “MY program” is fluid and not a strict set of rules.

I start with step zero as the jumping off place – you can call it acceptance, acknowledgement or admission but actually it is just something I never knew before recovery. A humbling reminder that I don’t know what I don’t know.

0. It’s definitely not my fault, but I have a disease called addiction which if not kept in check will be fatal to me.

1. I am loved, loving and loveable and can get support from those who love me if I have the humility to ask for help.

2. I am intelligent, capable and able to control my perception of events and react to them responsibly.

3. I am not a bad person, but I have behaved badly and need let go of my resentments and fears, making apologies where necessary and attempt to live in the present moment.

4. I should always try to do my best at anything I undertake, taking special care to be exceptional when it comes to all my relationships.

5. The genuine, authentic version of myself is the finest version – I do not need to aggrandize, exaggerate or lie. Secrets make me sick and my ego is my enemy. What other people think of me is none of my business.

6. I treasure my serenity – honesty, love, humility, empathy, patience, gratitude and purposefulness are non-negotiable.

7. I can get un‑serene and it is important for me to spend time reflecting on myself and my inner growth by embracing stillness and being present.

8. I have a story to tell that can benefit others. Being of service to others resonates positively within me.

I then had a “sponsor” and steps I could call my own and actively pursue. I left the treatment centre with 2 of the 5 tenets checked off and proceeded to attempt 90 meetings in 90 days. In actual fact, I did more than the 90 as I was on some days attending 3 meetings AA, NA and SLA. It became my new social life as I avoided the perilous “people, places and things”.

But, I soon became disillusioned with the traditional meetings as most were intolerant of my lack of a higher power and my obvious non-participation in prayer. As my honesty, authenticity and confidence grew, so I became more outspoken and similar to my feelings of pre‑recovery days, I began to feel ostracised and that I did not fit in.

The zealots in traditional AA can be really off putting to new comers, especially to those who would prefer a less rigid approach to recovery. I am not talking about a “softer way” as referred to in chapter 5. I am talking about the inflexibility of the environment created by the bible punching, god squad and big book fanatics that tend to frequent the traditional AA meetings I have attended. Most with some sober time under the belt, those that might be referred to as “old-timers”.  They seem to be the self-appointed keepers of THE program and espouse that there is only one way to stay sober and that is their way – the big book way. The same old-timers I once heard refer to a busload of inpatients from the local rehab as “fresh meat”. The same old-timers that preach open-mindedness, tolerance and “live and let live” up and until you challenge their ways of doing things. The same old‑timers that told me that “if you don’t find a higher power you may as well go out and continue drinking until you do”.

The same old-timers that made me feel really out of place in traditional AA meetings. The same old‑timers that compelled me to ultimately decide to get out of traditional AA and co‑found the first secular meeting where I live and prompted me to discover the wealth of secular AA groups around the world. I have no resentments towards them. They are who they are and are doing what it takes to preserve their own sobriety. In an odd kind of way I am grateful to them for helping me find my own way to stay clean and sober – MY program.

I have chosen a secular and singular path for my recovery. I have no higher power, no sponsor and work my own version of the steps. I host a weekly online meeting and tend to only participate in secular meetings. I am also a member of the local AA treatment facilities group of sharers.

While I do know that many people have recovered using the big book and “the program” of Alcoholics Anonymous, for me it was important to take ownership of my recovery and work “MY program” as I do not believe there is a “one-size fits all” solution to addiction. Clearly there are many similarities to addicts’ experiences and as such, there will be recurring themes in recovery and common tools to keep us clean and sober.

I want to add that I am extremely grateful to AA – AA saved my life. If it wasn’t for AA, I would never have found many incredible people who have positively contributed to my recovery. My journey and experience is my own and has worked for me thus far and perhaps can help others of a similar ilk. The irony of it is, that in my own way all but the last, (“We will suddenly realize that god is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves”), of the AA promises have materialised in my life and I have got to know “a new freedom and a new happiness” and I now “comprehend the word serenity and know peace”.

I think the best way to conclude is actually with a quote from Bill W that can be found on many secular AA websites: “It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.”

Russel is a 59 year-old alcoholic and addict whose active addiction began early in his teens. After a horrendous and terrifying rock bottom he  was duped into attending rehabilitation in 2015 and has been clean and sober ever since. He co-founded the first secular AA meeting, Secular Serenity, in Cape Town, South Africa in 2017 which remains his home group. He is a student of philosophy and enjoys writing poetry about his addictions and recovery. In his free time he enjoys serene activities such as motorcycling, scuba diving and deep sea fishing.


27 Responses

  1. Adi says:

    Hello I am Adi from Israel, I cant find “contact us” anywhere. How do I contact AA Agnostica. Do they have an email?

    Second Question: Does AA Agnostica, has zoom meetings?

    I am sorry I am writing here, but I don’t know where else.

  2. AM says:

    Russel — Your Steps seem to hit a fundamental core, an understanding that is free of over complicating and oversimplifying. Wonderful. Something about you starting with 0 that I love….here’s a definition I found of 0 (zero): “a point or arbitrary reading from which all other readings are to be measured.” I wonder, are you finished with Your Steps…or will there be more beyond #8? Would really like to attend your Secular Serenity meeting. Hopefully I’m able to find it online. Thank you for writing the article.

    • Russel S says:

      Thanks so much for your comments and positive feedback. I am very grateful. You can find details on our meeting on our website, Secular Serenity.

      Hope to see you there.

      • Gregg F. says:

        Russel, I look forward to this week’s meeting. It’s on my calendar!

      • AM says:

        I’m time zone challenged and am having difficulty with conversion. If your meeting happens at 1900 on Thursdays (GMT+2) (which I think is 7pm), is that 2pm EST?? Would appreciate the clarity….from anyone! Thank you.

  3. John says:

    Thanks Russel, I have always viewed recovery as the Bigga Booka states. A personal, individual journey, you will not want to miss.

  4. Bullwinkle says:

    Russell writes >>>1. Go to meetings (90 meetings in the first 90 days out of rehab) 2. Discover a higher power 3. Find a sponsor 4. Do the steps 5. Do service <<<

    This is bogus treatment / rehab hype.

    The AA text (12 Steps) is the suggested recovery program, not meetings. The text doesn’t suggest 90 meetings in 90 days or sponsorship. The purpose of the steps is to get from Step 1 to Step 2, via self-examination i.e., Steps 4 through 9. I was restored to sanity (Step 2) when realizing I’m my higher power. Step 10 is the self-examination continuum. As an atheist, Step 11 for me is meditation and Step 12 is helping others (man, women and child), whether addicted or not.

    In the early days (50+ years ago), the only requirement to be a treatment / rehab counselor is being sober for a few years and, having the ability to fog a mirror when held under your nose. Although today one must have a college degree, the revolving door rehab industry is a big money maker for the rehab owners, counselors are underpaid. The disease model keeps the rehabs in business, otherwise insurance wouldn’t cover the expense.

  5. Dianne B. says:

    I am so glad I found We Agnostics out of the Berkshires in Massachusetts… It is of no help to me to hear the same repeated phrases from AA Zoom Meetings that quote a Bible passage or The Lord’s Prayer. Also, comparing the Higher Power to Our Father and We Are His Children. I take what I need from non-secular meetings and now I have a new journey to explore the secular meetings. Thank you.

  6. Tracey R. says:

    Thoughtful essay, Russell. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to write the steps in your own words using positive language. Very refreshing.

  7. Doc says:

    I like the basic idea of creating MY program rather than forcing myself into THE program. While the steps may be helpful to some people, I have not found them to be useful in the form they are written in. I see no reason to have the magic number 12 in MY program, not, in fact, steps. I have over the past half century of sobriety discovered a number of principles or concepts that help me stay sober.

    • Tom F. says:

      Absolute agreement with you, Doc. I always had difficulty paying homage to “The 12 Steps”…much to the chagrin of the A.A. “Authorities” who attempt to correct me! I guess it is “MY” Program since I have almost 30 years of contented and mature Sobriety.

  8. Terry says:

    Thank you so much! I’m really struggling right now with not wanting to leave my support system within traditional AA, but also realizing that I can no longer go on with “faking it.” I have to make the jump to the free-thinkers meeting an hour away.
    I LOVE your steps!!! I will use them!

  9. Dan L says:

    Great essay Russel.

    My experience echoes yours in many ways except I was rescued by local secular AA people before I had to leave. It is my belief that we all make our own program out of the “…kit of spiritual tools laid at our feet.” For the ethanol addict achieving sobriety is an internal struggle to the death with our alcoholic selves. Our higher brain says, “This has got to stop!” Our mid-brain says, “That’s a big Nope dude!” And our lower-brain (reptile brain) senses danger death and disquiet and operates in flight of fight mode all the time.

    I believe we can use the steps, the principles of the steps and more than anything else the collective wisdom of the Fellowship to craft our own way out of this mess. The higher-brain (our head) has to learn to overcome the mid-brain. That is a formidable task since the mid-brain is the stronger by far but our ally is our inner reptile.

    Sooth this beast, take him to a meeting, get comfortable, make friends, know safety and a little peace. Start to work on teaching the mid-brain (your heart if you will) why it might be a good idea to not drink.

    Work the Steps on the side if you wish. They are only a tool to facilitate change.

    Thanks again.

  10. Brilliant and eloquent, Russell. There is a difference between “bashing” and critical. Your unabashed account of your obstacles and triumphs is candidly laid out. This is it; thank you.

    While February 7th, we look forward to the next stop in the ICSAA (International Conference of Secular AA) Speaker tour. OMAGOD (our mostly agnostic group of drunks) hosts our Zoom Florida Winter Get Away from Orlando.

    Sunday February 7th, Noon PST, 3 PM EST, 8 PM GMT passcode 121212

    And, we are so looking forward to March 7th as we are off to South Africa for our monthly event. That will be great. See you then, Russel.

    (Future dates: April Montreal, May London, June Cottonwood AZ, July – Dec TBA)

  11. Anne R says:

    I am an alcoholic; my name is Anne.

    In almost 17 years of sobriety, this is the description of a road to recovery that best describes what Is working for me.

    Thank you Russell!

    I went to “traditional” AA for 10 years, then to a secular group for 6 years, but finally left AA altogether. My original sponsor is one of my best friends, and we never discuss AA now.

    I will try to save these steps: I REALLY like them!

    Thank you again for sharing them.

  12. Sheri says:

    Where can I participate in your on line meetings?

    • Tom F. says:

      Hi, Sheri : It is Tom F. in Ottawa. Just go to your regional A.A. listing of meetings and there should be a “filter” for “Secular” type meetings. There is a good one (online) from Toronto (Saturday 19:00 ET) where I have gone recently. People attend from all over (even Australia / South Africa / Denmark / England, etc!) The Global “Secular” A.A. Community!

      • Tom F says:

        Sheri : In my area today (Sunday) there are online “Secular” meetings in Kingston, Ontario (19:00 ET) + Ottawa, Ontario (19:30 ET.) Hope this helps.

    • Tracey R. says:

      Hi, Sheri, here is a link to secular meetings in the US and around the world:

      • Tom F. says:

        Many Thanks, Tracey. I am old (68) and not too “tech-savvy” but I have “Bookmarked” this extremely valuable list. Wow! I am in Ottawa, Ontario but at 3:00 AM (during COVID-Lockdown-Isolation) I can log onto a meeting in beautiful San Diego!. Or this Thursday @ 14:00 Eastern I can join the “crew” in Newcastle, England. (The Old Country.) As long as a taboo subject is the raging local soccer rivalry between Sunderland & Newcastle United! Better Days Ahead!!!

    • Russel S says:

      Hi Sheri

      Details of our meeting can be found on our website Secular Serenity.

      Hope to see you there.

  13. Tom F. says:

    Well-said, Russell. My name is Tom F from Ottawa Canada – almost 69 years old – 29.5 years continuous sobriety – 28.5 years free from tobacco use. My writing tends to ramble and be a bit “free-form” but take-it-or-leave it.

    I went to my first meeting in ’84 and to a treatment centre (Cornwall, Ontario) in 1991 and have never looked back. Alcohol is just not an option for me… I know it… it is ingrained. Alcohol is a Dangerous Drug (as N.A. friends so rightly say.) Your bold idea of “MY” program as opposed to “THE” Program is essential. I smile when I have some “youngster” with 2.5 years dictating that he perceives that I need to develop and “Grow further along spiritual lines.” Hold on: I thought that the idea was not to lecture or take anyone else’s inventory but our own! Tobacco was worse … a cigarette “junkie” … 40-50 smokes a day … a blue-collar labourer.

    Now, I have just been involved with the AA Secular / Agnostic people for two weeks, having been to 2 online Zoom meetings from Toronto. O.K. here is the “Hard Stuff” : people who have had authority / disciplinarian / legal / parental / religious / societal dictates rammed into them rebel and become “Users” then go to A.A (or N.A.)….and there they discover a whole new group of individuals who (sometimes blindly) adhere to a codified / structured Program of Recovery…and live it with “quasi-religious” fervour. I am part Aboriginal and the simple : “Don’t Drink / Come To Meetings” idea is my “mantra!” Yes we can use or “gather” what we wish from the formal Big Book + Program + 12 Steps / Traditions as long as we maintain a healthy sobriety and the clarity-of-mind which develops with sobriety. And I am 100% adamant / fervent about “Cunning / Baffling / Powerful” so I am fully aware of that and that I keep myself focused and happy in life.

  14. Gregg F says:

    Brilliantly told, Russel. It’s so common for “we agnostics” to have to whack our way through religiosity in order to find our secular brethren. Thank you!

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