By Steph G.
At my first AA meeting 16 years ago, a priest slapped the podium and bellowed a question.
“HOW LOVABLE WERE YOU WHEN YOU CAME TO AA?!”
The woman seated next to me, knowing that I was newcomer, cringed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her embarrassment was something palpable and later my interpretation of her body language was confirmed when she took me aside and mumbled apologies.
“Of all the people for you to hear – that’s not typical.”
I smiled awkwardly and with what I hoped was the appropriate amount of consolation told her that I had liked the meeting. And I had in spite of the praying, the ubiquitous references to god, the crucifix that dangled from the priest’s neck and the fact that we were assembled in the meeting hall of a (ugh) church.
“What’s with all this god stuff though?” I had asked the woman who had introduced herself through the cigarette smoke outside an hour previously.
“Keep an open mind,” she told me. And she smiled again and introduced me around. A weather-beaten and affable Scottish man told me I was the most important person the room.
I was also an atheist who drank too much. And so, with many misgivings, I kept coming back.
Until I left.
Go to AA
Eight and half years later I awoke monstrously hungover and suddenly aware of my general, all-around bat shit craziness. My partner’s legs protruded from our closet where he had apparently collapsed after yet another alcohol-soaked debacle – this one in public. I lay there humiliated, ashamed, despairing and in physical pain on account of the advanced gastritis I dulled daily with the local liquor store’s cheapest vintage and copious amounts of high-octane marijuana. There seemed no end to my agony until the room filled with a bright white light. In reality, the May sun had chosen that moment to debut from behind a wall of clouds in accordance with the laws of physics and meteorology, but I had my first rational thought in a quite a while.
If I don’t drink, shit like what happened last night won’t happen.
I sat up in bed convinced that all of this – the white light, my epiphany, my sudden energy – was a “miracle” I would later liken to Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. A whisper within.
It said: “Go to AA.”
And I did. The following morning I woke early, flooded with purpose and the certainty that the God of Bill Wilson was a still-living reality and that he had come to me while I lay drowning at the bottom of a bottle. I walked leaning forward from the waist, arms pumping and with thick, dried out hair standing on end. A Lutheran church some three miles from our apartment was my destination, where friendly smiles would greet me and hands would reach out to welcome me home.
I was high but not drunk and my head teemed with a dozen epiphanies and the voices of angels.
A year and half after that day, I found myself staring across a table at a hospital psychiatrist and feeling sorry for her. Her small, frowning mouth hung so low on her face that I was afraid it might fall off. Never had I met anyone so depressed-seeming. She scribbled a few notes and then informed me of what I, in a moment of lucidity, had already told her: I had paranoid schizophrenia.
A few weeks later I sat next to my partner on our improvised couch (a box spring leaning against the back of a futon frame and the mattress to sit on) and popped a Seroquel. I accepted a burning joint from him and said that weed had many more pros than cons and that it was something genuinely medicinal to me.
My faith never wavered. It was in fact stronger than it had ever been. There was a God and he was looking after me. From that one core delusion sprang all others: I was a modern day prophet, chosen and empowered to reel in the lost and hurting and so save the world one soul after another. One world was ending and in its place a new world order would emerge, united under one God. Every gear would mesh with its neighbour and a near-infinity of harmonious interactions would add up to a clockwork Utopian society where discord and suffering of any kind would be relegated to the history books. There would be lots of pot and sex for everyone.
I worked in secret, sharing little of the universe between my ears. It was ever-expanding and ever-changing. I became a recluse as I diligently prepared for the day when God would elevate me to worldwide fame and give me the opportunity to speak my epoch-ending words in front of a camera.
I stayed sick another four and a half years.
I Choose Life
In the summer of 2014 I was living with my parents and awaiting the end. When I did not die as god told me I would, the resulting cognitive dissonance shattered my worldview and in a very short period of time my delusions became apparent as such. It was extremely traumatic. All that had given me direction, comfort and purpose was stripped away and I was left raw and chaotic. What was actually true?
For a few months I clung to my belief in god, hoping that that particular rope up the cliff face would turn out to be anchored to something real. It seemed to me that the only way of explaining my unhappy circumstances was to believe I was a sinner and the scum of the earth and that was why god had punished me with such a cruel disease. It was all my fault. I returned to AA contrite and in search of my lost relationship with god.
As my head cleared, I rediscovered my atheism and slowly developed a more balanced and, I hope, accurate view of what had happened. I was not evil, just someone who had become very ill. I knew it could not have happened without my addiction but the solution, as proposed in AA meetings and literature, did not seem the right thing to me. Turning my will and my life over to the care of god had gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past and it was triggering to me to hear people share things at meetings that I had believed in the depths of my psychosis. In addition to having to contend with lingering symptoms of schizophrenia, I had developed PTSD. I had nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive, obsessive thoughts, and to be told to “Let go and let god” was anathema to me.
I went through a couple of sponsors and made an effort to work the steps. The version with capitals. But it didn’t help. I could no longer believe as they did. Any solution that involved reliance on guidance from god was not going to work for me. I couldn’t imagine anything less healthy to tell someone recovering from a prolonged religious-themed psychosis.
“When you talk to god, that’s praying. When god talks to you, that’s schizophrenia,” I heard a speaker joke at a meeting once. Most laughed. And yet…Step 11 is all about establishing and maintaining conscious contact with a god or a higher power (as we used to say in school: same shit, different pile) who will guide your thoughts, protect you, keep you sober and do many nice things for you while ignoring all those starving children in Africa.
“If only there were a way of having AA without the actual AA,” I had lamented to a friend. The fellowship was something marvelous, a rare jewel of community within a deeply fragmented society.
I felt very much stuck between a rock and a hard place. I needed help and in desperation turned to the internet.
That is when I found AA Agnostica and Toronto’s tiny but thriving community of godless alcoholics in recovery. It was indeed fortuitous that I conducted that Internet search or else I would never found out about Toronto’s WAAFT (We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers) meetings as they were delisted in 2011. A photograph of a non-anonymous frowning and familiar religious figure accompanied the Toronto Star article I found during that same search. I was immediately intrigued.
The problem was that I was then living in Milton (small town Ontario absorbed by suburban sprawl) and out of range of anything so progressive. My means were limited and there was no god to magically pave a golden road out of all my predicaments. I have heard depression described as a numbing out, a protective mechanism against a surfeit of emotion. If only. Numbness would have been most welcome. My neurons were screeching, I had been out of the workforce for nearly seven years, options were few and I was reeling from the supreme unpleasantness associated with being suddenly sane in a world where that is a rarity. I spent whole days researching suicide methods online. I wrapped the power cord leading from my computer around my neck to see what it would feel like.
One day I was smoking out on my rusty and otherwise ill-maintained balcony and saw clearly that I needed to make a decision. Life or death. Which was it to be?
“I choose life,” I said out loud. Moments later I stubbed out my cigarette (not my last) and thought what a wonderful scene this would be in a movie.
Less than two months later I was living in Toronto. Chance had rewarded my diligent efforts to escape with a fresh opportunity in the form of one of the only really decent group homes in the world. I knew AA faithful would attribute this too an all-loving and all-powerful providence. So I steered clear of them. The idea of an interventionist deity automatically begs the question: what of all the millions who won’t get help? Babies continue to be born with congenital defects, schoolchildren raped and murdered and the prayers of the devout soundly ignored.
I joined nine others in a chopped up Victorian mansion located in the Annex – a neighbourhood praised for its beauty, activity and mellowness. My health was gradually restored through generous meals of organic food prepared communally, jogs down quiet streets and the kindness of staff and residents alike. I was now a pleasant fifteen minute walk from two WAAFT meetings and a short subway ride away from a third. Yet I balked. There were things about AA other than the god hypothesis (always presented as unassailable fact) that I found objectionable. What if I found those same troublesome things replicated in the meetings of downtown heretics?
I appeared at the meeting one late winter’s evening with an expression on my face that might have betrayed my trepidation and still-traumatized condition. The group had assembled in a carpeted classroom within one of U of T’s graduate facilities. I took my seat and looked around. There was not a single reproduction portrait of Caucasian Jesus to be seen. Nor was his likeness anywhere rendered in crayon and construction paper by the hands of innocents. That familiar Church smell (sanctimony mixed with a thousand stale potlucks?) was also gloriously absent.
Smiling faces aimed in my direction beamed with the potential for true companionship. I sat quietly while the meeting started, having found at last my true salvation.
About the Author, Steph G.
The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.