Living Sober (the book)

By John L.

Living Sober is by far the best AA book — the only one I could recommend.  I remember when it was published, back in 1975, when I had been sober for seven years.  Even then I was not alone as a freethinker. We hailed Living Sober as “Conference-approved” literature, which described what we knew as the true AA — the AA that works — the AA that had saved our lives.

My current Boston home group has the up-front name, “Atheists and Agnostics.” At each meeting, we start off by reading and discussing a chapter from Living Sober, which tells us how to get sober, stay sober, and lead a good life in sobriety.

The author, Barry Leach, a gay man, received only a one-time payment for writing Living Sober.  Years later, after his book had become a bestseller, he asked AA for a new contract that would give him royalties.  The request was denied.  At the same time, Bill Wilson was receiving millions of dollars in royalties from AA books — of which he was by no means the sole author (long story here).

The Living Sober approach is neither for nor against religion, but independent from it.  It relegates the Steps to Chapter 30, with the dismissive title, “Trying the Twelve Steps.” Merely suggesting that the Steps might be tried is another way of saying that they are optional.  Try them or don’t try them, it’s up to you.  In the original edition, from 1975 to 2012, the Steps were neither described nor listed.

Living Sober is explicitly secular.  In the chapter, “Using the Serenity Prayer,” we read: “Whether we belong to this church or that, whether we are humanists, agnostics, or atheists, most of us have found these words a wonderful guide in getting sober, staying sober and enjoying our sobriety.” What a contrast this is to the helpless-without-god religiosity in the Big Book!

From beginning to end, Living Sober is about abstinence — staying away from the first drink a day at a time.  I stress this because AA is currently under attack for its bedrock principle of abstinence.  On the Living Sober page following the table of contents is a quote from the American Medical Association:

Alcohol, aside from its addictive qualities, also has a psychological effect that modifies thinking and reasoning.  One drink can change the thinking of an alcoholic so that he feels he can tolerate another, and then another, and another …

The alcoholic can learn to completely control his disease, but the affliction cannot be cured so that he can return to alcohol without adverse consequences.

And on page 3 we find:

This booklet is about not drinking (rather than about stopping drinking).  It’s about living sober.  We have found that for us recovery began with not drinking — with getting sober and staying completely free of alcohol in any amount, and in any form.  We have also found that we have to stay away from mind-changing drugs.

Accordingly, the second chapter is “Staying away from the first drink” and the third is “Using the 24-hour plan.”         

Living Sober is filled with practical advice on how to stay away from the first drink and lead a happy and productive life in sobriety.  For example, the acronym, HALT — which stands for “Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired” — there is a chapter on each of these issues.  Other chapters discuss gratitude, eating nutritionally, “Easy Does It,” going to meetings, telephone therapy, and much more.  I heard most of this advice when I got sober in 1968, in Greenwich Village groups and the midnight meeting.  The chapters are short, appropriate for group readings.  

A revised edition of Living Sober was published in 2012.  There were few changes, and most of them were minor.  In general, the significant changes tended to downplay secularism and to cater to the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry — which, in my opinion, were backward steps.  I’ll give a few examples.

Let’s start with the front cover.  The original cover is in yellow and tan, yellow being a color associated with reason.  The revised cover is in a light, cloudy blue that suggests church magazines or “inspirational” books.  Conspicuously missing on the new cover is a sentence that was in the original: “Some methods AA members have used for not drinking.” Apparently, the approving conference didn’t like a book about not drinking.

The title page of the revised edition omits a quote from the American Medical Association: “…  treatment primarily involves not taking a drink …” — a quote which had been in the original.  The same comment applies.  There seems to be an inverse relationship between sobriety and spirituality.  Some spiritual people feel threatened by an emphasis on not drinking.         

Most of the chapters in the revised edition have only trivial changes or none.  But in Chapter 12, “Getting Plenty of Rest,” an important paragraph is dropped:

One thing we have learned for sure: Sleeping medicines of any sort are not the answer for alcoholics.  They almost invariably lead to drinking, our experience repeatedly shows.  [Emphasis in original.]

Without this paragraph, the next one makes no sense.  The emphasized statement really is based on shared experience.  Many times in the first years of my sobriety I heard about disasters that happened when alcoholics took sleeping pills, which are “sedative hypnotics,” a category which includes alcohol.  The worst sedative hypnotics are barbiturates, which are like alcohol in dry form, but all of them are dangerous for alcoholics.        

This is a difficult area.  Tradition 10 states: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” This tradition has served AA well over the decades.  But individual groups and individual AA members should have more freedom.  When we share experiences with each other, knowledge is part of our experience.  We should be able to share what we know.          

Both editions of Living Sober say that AA members should not give medical advice.  Fair enough, but concerning drugs and alcoholism, the opinion of a well-informed AA member may be worth more than that of the average doctor, who learns almost nothing about alcoholism in medical school.  Doctors do not always know best.  One study found that almost everything most doctors know about drugs comes from “detail men” — “detail men” being a pharmaceutical industry euphemism for “salesmen.” As I said, this is a difficult area.  In my opinion, the best policy is free speech.         

In Chapter 21, “Avoiding Dangerous Drugs and Medications,” two paragraphs are re-written to be friendlier to the pharmaceutical industry.  And an appendix directed to medical professionals has been written, also to be friendlier to the pharmaceutical industry.  At some point, AA should fully and honestly confront psychoactive drug use among its members, but the issue is beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll drop it here.          

To sum up: Living Sober is our book.  I could quibble about a few things — like the overly laudatory chapter on AA literature or the suggestion to eat sweet things — but these are minor.          

In areas where the intergroup is controlled by intolerant god-people, a secular group could name itself “Living Sober” — as many groups have.  There’s no need to re-write the Steps.  Just ignore them.  That’s what our “Atheists and Agnostics” groups do in the Boston area.         

Those of you who attend regular AA groups should make sure that the literature table always includes copies of Living Sober.  This is the book to recommend to newcomers and to those we sponsor.         

I believe that our movement will succeed when we offer the very best AA wherever we are.  The best beginners meetings.  The best 12-stepping.  The best sponsorship.  The best sobriety.  Living Sober can be our guide.


About the Author, John L.

John was born and raised in Nebraska.  He attended  Harvard College (AB 1963), majoring in Social Relations (Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology).  In New York City he worked as a market research executive, writing on the side.  He was in the antiwar movement since 1965 and the gay liberation movement since July 1969.  He founded Pagan Press in 1982. 

For a decade, beginning in 1985, John was a leading writer for the New York Native, which was then the foremost gay paper.  He has twelve books to his credit.  John dates his alcoholism from his first bender in 1958 to his last drink in 1968.  He considers himself a loyal, but by no means uncritical member of AA.  John now lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

 

Audio Version

The audio version of this article was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len would like to start a secular AA meeting in his area. Please email lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com if interested.

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  1. Michael S February 20, 2017 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Great article. Yet what I find curious about today’s AA is the notion that only “conference-approved literature” is permissible for groups or individuals to discuss. All of that started after the “conference-approved” statement started appearing in the big-book some decades ago. I recall much agonizing about it, and it seems to be a universal interpretation that only those books are “allowed”. All else is heresy. In 1979 we always took the daily reading from “24 hours a Day” by Richmond Walker” and discussed it. This was so in all the meetings in my general region. We all got sober with that little black book, and good fellowship. AA was a lot more geared toward personal accounts of experience, strength and hope, rather than book study of the official publications to the exclusion of all else. In my local area, 66% of all meetings are book study groups. Big book and 12×12. Nothing else, ever. The opening rituals of each meeting take up to 20 minutes. So dogmatic, so narrow… The AA website itself states that there is no prohibition of “outside” publications as long as they pertain to sobriety and AA in some way. Gosh, it all used to be so relaxed and tolerant back in 1979..

  2. John L. January 17, 2017 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks to all for morale-boosting comments.  I’m delighted with the audio version by Len R., who reads my talk better than I can.

  3. Dave B January 16, 2017 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    Great article.  Gonna start reading LS at our group ASAP.

    Thanks,

     

    Dave B

  4. Jerald V January 16, 2017 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for the article. Traveling so do not have the book available. BUT – the new edition has the 12 step list & somewhere they left in the statement that the 12 steps “are not included”

    Jerry V

  5. John S January 15, 2017 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    Thank you for writing this and posting it here. When we started our group, we designated one meeting each month as a Living Sober meeting. That kind of fell by the wayside, but after reading this, I would like to bring it back.

    It’s interesting that I had never been exposed to Living Sober for most of my time in the program. Most of the people in my home group derided it, yet they considered studying the Big Book as essential.

    I also never knew about the changes made to the book and I would never have caught on to the color of the book having any significance, but that makes perfect sense.

    Thanks again for your contribution John.

  6. Dan L January 15, 2017 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks John for the excellent essay.  The book “Living Sober” is my favourite approved publication by a country mile in spite of the widespread claim that it has murdered millions of alcoholics by de-emphasising the spiritual and “god”.  I recently found out the author was a gay man and somehow that makes perfect sense right down to him being screwed by AA.  I have been in the habit of keeping several copies in the trunk of my car and hand them out to newcomers.  Imagine a book about “Living Sober” hated by alcoholics.  There are more useful suggestions for day to day living in that small book than in most of the rest of the literature.  It is also the first admission I can find that alcoholism is not an allergy.  Thanks again.

  7. boyd p. January 15, 2017 at 11:58 am - Reply

    Thanks for identifying the “author”, Barry Leach, and some of the publishing history.  Would like to know more.  Did Barry conceive of the book, make a pitch to GSO,  put out the call, then choose which stories to include, by certain criteria, etc?  Checking with my “small” bookseller was pleased to learn there is a Spanish version.

     

    Would it be useful to ask for a republication of the original, as was done with the BB?

  8. Pat N. January 15, 2017 at 10:10 am - Reply

    I went to inpatient treatment in 1981, at one of the 2-3 programs in Washington State at the time.  (I was sober 18 months thanks to the fellowship of AA, but my friends were worried about me). There was a copy of “Living Sober” on everyone’s bed when we checked in, and although programming was based on the Steps, and LS wasn’t even discussed, I read it cover-to-cover the first night. I don’t think I ever read the Big Book. In my opinion, it’s the only worthwhile thing published by AA, and I need to re-read it and consider seeing if my home group will start reading from it at the start of meetings.

    I’m sorry to hear the thumpers have modified the original book, but glad to hear it’s still around.

  9. Jo-Anne K January 15, 2017 at 10:03 am - Reply

    For anyone’s information: some correspondence btw. Barry Leach and AA world Service.

    I cannot find information as to the life of Barry Leach. The current edition of Living Sober is credited to Anonymous.

    http://library.brown.edu/cds/repository2/repoman.php?verb=render&id=1264723858390750&view=pageturner&pageno=1

    • John S January 15, 2017 at 10:19 am Reply

      I found this recording from Barry Leach on Rebellion Dogs Publishing some time ago. This was the first time that I learned anything about Barry Leach and it was also the first time that I heard the true story behind Tradition Three.

      Barry Leach on Tradition Three

      • Jo-Anne K January 15, 2017 at 10:35 am Reply

        Thanks John!

        • boyd p. January 16, 2017 at 8:19 am Reply

          Thanks for identifying the “author”, Barry Leach, and some of the publishing history.  Would like to know more.  Did Barry conceive of the book, make a pitch to GSO,  put out the call, then choose which stories to include, by certain criteria, etc?  Checking with my “small” bookseller was pleased to learn there is a Spanish version.

           

          Would it be useful to ask for a republication of the original, as was done with the BB?

           

          Jo-Anne K.,

          Thanks for posting the link from Brown Univ. The letters from Barry reveal much about the publishing history.  Wish we could connect with him directly.  AAWS comes off as autocratic at best, individual members asserting authority, rather than taking action to put the question of royalties to the whole body for deliberation.  Predictable and sad.

  10. Oren January 15, 2017 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Thanks, John. I appreciate being reminded of Living Sober, and learning the history of the book. It is a valuable resource, as are you.

  11. joe C January 15, 2017 at 9:41 am - Reply

    John’s writing not only informs and encourages me, John challenges me. I like that. I recommend his book as an articulate expression and example of why the AA Steps are optional – or suggested.

    Our group, Beyond Belief in Toronto, in its original format, included reading s chapter from Living Sober for a few reasons. First, its conference-approved and while any group can read anything it wishes, we weren’t-to quote a wise old AA owl-“braiding the beard of the lion” by sticking to AA narrative; Secondly, it is secular; thirdly, it is short/sweet practice bits of advice for the newcomer or any of us, really.

    Our group got off the habit. Many regulars tired of re-reading chapters (every 39 months or so). While I felt that rational was more self-serving than “newcomer first” serving, we, for all practical terms, accomplish the same ends as the book by group discussion. It’s practically the same topics, told in first person story telling. I wish more institution meeting (hospitals and correction facilities focused on this book.

    John didn’t say it but there is a certain 12-step zealotry that is heard by the Genersl Service conference. There remains a secularohobia which expresses itself at times such as the vote to reject an atheist & agnostic pamphlet. Still, our groups are free to do as we please and I would love to go to John’s home group and I’m sure any AA would enjoy it.

  12. Thomas B. January 15, 2017 at 8:08 am - Reply

    Thanks so much, John, for this most effective description of the most effective piece of conference-approved literature. I enjoyed hearing your presentation in Austin, and it was good to read it again this morning.

    I’m so grateful that we both got sober in New York City at a time when “true AA,” as you have described it — how to stay away from the first drink for a day at a time — was prevalent at meetings such as the Perry Street Group and the Midnight Meeting.

  13. Tommy H January 15, 2017 at 7:42 am - Reply

    Excellent article.  Thanks for an update on what has happened with Living Sober.

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