Out of the Closet

By Lisa F.

When I first came to AA in 2008, I was much too sick and scared to mind the God idea. Looking back, the AA in my small central California city was quite progressive: there weren’t many God references in the meetings or in people’s shares, and the meetings usually ended with the Serenity Prayer, not the Our Father.

When I finally got serious about getting sober in 2009, I fully expected to develop a “God-consciousness” as THE result of working the Steps, as this was promised to me repeatedly in the meetings. I wasn’t anti-God. I got a sponsor and “worked” the Steps with her, although I mainly answered with what I thought I was supposed to say. This approach seemed to work OK, but I definitely remember feeling disappointed when nothing changed on the God front: no white light or overwhelming sense of the presence of God. Deep down, I was worried I was doing something wrong, but I shrugged and kept going.

At two years sober, my husband’s job transfer moved us from Central California to Sugar Land, Texas. I jumped in to the local AA, but I immediately noticed a difference: everyone around me was a proclaimed Christian, and they talked about God – a LOT about God – in their shares. Most went to the same suburban mega-church. I immediately felt “off,” although I was warmly welcomed into the local fellowship. I couldn’t seem to work up the nerve to say to anyone that the God thing had never worked for me.

Instead, I jumped into a new career (which I loved), and I started an advanced degree. My life got super-busy (kids in high school), and my meeting count dropped to one meeting every week or two. The insanity to drink returned, and I relapsed in 2012.

What followed: several painful years of “slipping,” in and out of AA. I could only get sober and stay sober for anywhere from three to eight months. Each time I went to the same large Houston treatment facility. I was quite compliant, but I repeated my bad habit of telling people what I thought they wanted to hear. Instead of saying what I was really feeling, I would only share what I THOUGHT I should say. I freely acknowledged that AA worked great (for Christians), but I suspected, deep down, that it wasn’t meant for me. I remember trying with all my might to get on the “God bus,” but it never worked.

At the third rehab stint, in 2015, I was utterly broken – lost marriage, lost custody, lost career. However, I was FINALLY willing to ‘fess up about the God issue. I could barely bring myself to say the word “atheist.” In fact, I had a harder time describing myself as an “atheist” than I did as an “alcoholic” or “addict.”

My roommate in the Detox unit was a very sweet, older Christian lady. I could see that her faith meant a lot to her. She read her Bible every morning, and she talked to God throughout the day. It seemed to me that she would be a natural for AA-style recovery. I mentioned this to the Detox counselor.  He looked at me and shook his head.  He said, “She’s right where you are, too – in a rehab DETOX UNIT. We get devout believers in here all the time. I don’t think it’s a matter of faith.” (He knew I was an atheist.) He said something I’ve never forgotten: “Maybe it doesn’t matter what you believe. Maybe it only matters what you DO.”

Sitting in the main meeting room, I felt something change, in the pit of my stomach. I thought, “I’ve GOT to make this work.”  I asked my counselor, “Is there anyone here on staff, or in the Alumni group, who I could talk to about being a non-believer in recovery?” In a treatment center with hundreds of patients, with thousands of patient Alumni, she couldn’t think of anyone – at all – that identified as an atheist or agnostic. The stigma is that strong. Thankfully, I picked up a book in the Treatment Center’s little bookstore called Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher. I cannot overstate how finding that book transformed my recovery and gave me hope for the first time. It was an absolute revelation, and I was nearly weeping in relief upon reading the author’s experience.

Because I am a non-believer, they asked at the rehab if I would like a counselling session with the Spirituality Program Administrator, a Christian minister. He was a kind and helpful man, and he told me, “Atheists and agnostics have been part of A.A. from the very beginning. They helped to get it off the ground. They found an authentic recovery, and it worked for them. I think authenticity is at the heart of how we recover. I myself have had to seek out local meetings that are more inclusive and open, because a lot of them are NOT – but you can find them if you look.” He also mentioned that there were “secular” Houston AA meetings as well as information about organizations such as SOS, LifeRing, Refuge Recovery, and some others that I can’t remember anymore. I will always appreciate his kindness.

Although my voice still shook and cracked with nerves when I spoke, I finally started sharing at meetings about being an atheist. Of course, there were some condescending follow-up shares and comments, but I found that I could let those pass. I knew that other people, like me, were making this stuff work.  When we had computer lab at the rehab, I Googled phrases like “Atheist agnostics in AA” and “Atheist recovery.” I found several helpful websites (aaagnostica.org was the first) and Facebook groups. Finding these gave me even more hope. I made a vow (again, that deep feeling in the pit of my stomach) that I was going to make this work.  I promised myself that I would be the secular voice that I didn’t hear when I was new and struggling.

This time, too, I paid attention to the WHOLE treatment plan, which included things like individual therapy, prescription medication, a three-month stint in a sober living house, and yoga/exercise – all in addition to 12-step activities. I decided that I was going to try it all, and then I would see what stuck. I also got involved in the Alumni Association at the rehab, which is a large and active organization.

Over time, I went back to grad school and finally finished that damned degree. I was able to repair my relationships with my (now young adult) kids, and I even repaired my marriage. I’ve also managed to achieve a good career, but I keep recovery the priority. Today, I think of recovery like the gas tank of a car: I must keep filling the tank with what I call “recovery stuff.” When I stop filling the tank, I will be vulnerable. As long as I remember to fill my tank, I’ll be OK.

After some time, I started getting requests to lead meetings and to serve as the “go-to” person whenever a patient or a newcomer was wrestling with the “God stuff.” When COVID hit, I started leading an hour-long information group with the patients at the rehab center. Part of my talk, which I always say very clearly, is this: “Belief in God is NOT a requirement to having a happy, healthy, full, and active recovery. If no one has told you this, yet, I am telling you now. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It only matters what you do.”

I know some secular recovery purists don’t care for the sponsorship idea, but I view it as just another beneficial recovery relationship. The rehab’s medical director told me, “Even if you take the 12 Steps and meetings as behavior modification combined with peer support, you will find them to be effective.” I’ve found the Steps to be somewhat helpful, of course with adapted wording. Doing Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Steps provide a helpful foundation for continued growth and friendship. Many of my most meaningful recovery relationships have come from sponsorship. My sponsees are about 50/50 believers and non-believers.

Today, I go to at least one “secular” recovery meeting each week, as well as three or four in-person “traditional” 12-Step meetings. I remain active in the rehab’s Alumni association, making sure patients hear about my experience as a successfully sober atheist/agnostic. I’ve found that it is enough – it is more than enough – and I am very grateful. I know the 12-Step purists and the dogmatic theists will always be present, and they will always be “Loud and Proud” in the Rooms, but I finally feel comfortable being “Loud and Proud” right back about my secular recovery. My voice doesn’t shake and quake when I share about it, anymore.

Lisa F. was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised as a devout Catholic, going to parochial school and receiving Confirmation from the archbishop as a teen – although she was frequently in trouble for asking questions based on her personal reading. In college years, she majored in Ancient Greek and Roman history, as well as a good amount of philosophy and comparative religions. Lisa became an “in-the-closet” non-believer over this time, but it didn’t become an urgent issue until trying to get sober in 2012, in Houston, Texas. After several painful years, in and out of AA, she fully embraced her agnosticism in 2015 and has been sober ever since. She remains active in Houston-area recovery in both secular and traditional AA, and her mostly tolerant traditional AA home groups now steer new non-believers her way. Lisa shares a PDF – Secular Recovery Resources – at her local rehab’s Alumni association, where she also remains active, lending a helpful hand to those in early recovery.

For a PDF of this article, click here: Out of the Closet.


7 Responses

  1. Mary M says:

    Great stuff Lisa. It took me a while to come out of that closet too. And it’s what we DO. How important is that!

    The longer I’m sober, the fewer challenges I get to my godless recovery. As in “without a higher power you’ll get drunk!” seems a lame remark made to someone approaching 35 years sober.

    Yours in sisterhood.

    • matthew d says:

      … Sadly, in my experience, ‘they’ have a response to long term ‘sobriety’ which is:

      “Sobriety can’t be achieved by willpower alone – a belief in god is NECESSARY, so if you haven’t drunk for a long time without belief, it just proves that you were never a ‘real alcoholic’ in the first place!” 🙁

  2. Gilles D. says:

    J’ai beaucoup aimé ! Merci !

  3. Larry g says:

    Neat story Lisa, my journey has some parallels to yours.

    I have found it generally true in AA, that individualism is much more tolerated and indeed celebrated, once that person demonstrates a sufficient level of conformity to the belief aspects of the big book. It took me about 5 years of conforming on the outside but struggling on the inside, before I found the readiness to begin to share my real internal truth that I’m a secular agnostic in recovery and its working really well for me.

    I’ve learned the following: 1) those that are threatened by my non belief approach, give me a wide berth in the rooms, mission accomplished; 2) when I share I always notice a couple of heads nodding the affirmative indicating I’m not alone; 3) not a single sponsee has fired me since coming out of the closet, if anything my honesty has strengthened our relationships, I let them them know that I have no opinion about their beliefs, the only thing I care about is what they do to stay sober; 4) my fears went away; 5) I am so much happier and at peace with myself in life and in the rooms. I ignore the God talk when it occurs. In a few meetings I notice that when I am present the God talk goes down; 6) I’ve had to wrestle with my own internal human tendencies to influence others beliefs. I suspect ingroup/ outgroup dynamics are an important part of human evolution and survival. Becoming increasingly aware of this has been really helpful.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, thank you, Lisa, for sharing your story about how recovery works for you, not in what you ardently or don’t believe. I went to Xavier University in Cincinnati during the 60s — there the Jebbies taught me a most valuable lesson, “to question and doubt everything !~!~!”

    I’ve been an agnostic/atheist ever since & have been successfully recovering in AA a day at a time since 1972.

  5. Thanks Lisa.
    I really like your WHOLE recovery plan, whereby AA is part of it. As you’ve so candidly articulated, coming to this was hard fought and it’s very generous to share this perspective. There’s a fairly new Wednesday 7:30 PM eastern time secular meeting, Beyond Belief Cincinnati. I thought you’d be interested but I see your schedule is not screaming for more activity.

    I also am glad to hear you’re a regular at mainstream AA. What might become of AA if all us only shared at secular AA meetings? It’s good for any of us to speak our truth unabashedly but when delivered by a regular – not a hit-and-run visitor – the message stays with people and, I think, broadens perspectives. I have also found the more tolerant and curious I am about the reflections of members with divergent views, the broader my source of that recovery “fuel” can be, as you mentioned. I don’t want to be so picky I am constrained.

    Rational is good in recovery; conscious contact with reality, but reasonable and rational is, I think, a higher level of maturity which, clearly, your PhD in the school of hard knocks has enriched you with. Not just another self-justifying rant (which – I know – I’ve been known to do as much as anyone), you are a great sample of what an enriching freethinker’s talk can be.

    Thanks again, Lisa.

  6. Oren says:

    Thanks, Lisa. Yours is a very strong message about the importance of taking an ACTIVE approach to recovery. “It doesn’t matter what you believe. It only matters what you do.” Yes, ma’am!

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