By Bill P.
It took the author several decades to finally obtain long-term sobriety; eventually he did and part of his solution was agnostic AA meetings. Tomorrow Bill P. turns 89, so let us celebrate with him by reading this insightful account of how he found long-term recovery. Happy Birthday, Bill P.!
Why I Drank
I had my first drink in the Navy. One beer. I was 19 years old. Later that year I entered college. My parents told me that if I stuck to beer, I would never become an alcoholic. They even agreed to pay for the beer. But in college it seemed that everyone was drinking whiskey, largely on weekends. And weekends started on Friday night and ended Sunday noon. After the football games it seemed like every dormitory room had a large tin washtub with ice in the center to cool the gin and grapefruit juice (maybe half and half). Everyone had paper cups and the room was crowded with men and women. Most of us lost count of how much we had consumed. This drinking culture continued into graduate school and by the time I graduated it was obvious (except to me) that I had a real drinking problem.
Later on, when asked why I drank I would say “Because…! Because of my sister’s illness and later death, because of the stress at the office, because, because, because…” A litany of denial. I never seemed to realize that I drank because I was an alcoholic. Plain and simple. I was an alcoholic and when not drinking “because” I thought I could “handle it.” Maybe a glass of wine or two, or three. Try to drink only on weekends. When I got married, I used my wife as a “control.” And when she went off on a trip to visit relatives, leaving me alone there was no “control,” and the drinking got out of hand. I remember once taking her to the airport. I was sober as a judge. But after leaving her off and saying goodbye, I suddenly felt like I had just consumed three martinis even though I had not started my drinking. A clear case of conditioned response, like Pavlov’s dog.
I was an “alcoholic.” The traditional view was (and maybe still is) that this is “because” I was “bad,” had “character defects,” and had to pray to have these “removed” by a “Higher Power,” usually referred to as “God.” And then, if I was humble, confessed my sins, and made amends to those I had “wronged” I would be sober.
Forty Plus Years
I continued to drink for forty-two years. During seven of these I was completely sober. But thirteen years before I hit bottom, I had a relapse and then two more relapses until the final one, when I agreed to enter a 28-day rehab. I haven’t had a drink since then and am blessed with 27 years of sobriety. I no longer have a craving for alcohol or any other addictive substance. What with three heart operations and high blood pressure, taking around twenty pills a day, none of them addictive, I know that even if I wanted a drink (which I don’t), if I had just one, I might well pass out. Blood pressure pills are my sleeping pills, my anti-anxiety medication.
What Didn’t Work and What Worked
For all those forty-plus years, I relied exclusively on physicians and counselors. No AA because living primarily in small rural communities, I didn’t trust AA’s professed anonymity and feared that if the word got out somehow that I was attending meetings, this might hurt me professionally. Few of the counselors were really very helpful and none resolved my doubts about AA.
As for the doctors, some handed out addictive prescriptions to deal with my “anxiety” and sleep difficulty. The first one I went to gave me an “open” (perpetually refillable) prescription for chloral hydrate in liquid form. I was addicted to that for around seven years. Later my doctor gave me a prescription for 100 Valium with three renewals. He was a psychiatrist and professed to have skill in treating alcoholics. Occasionally I relied on Antabuse, but this merely provided a breathing spell and delayed my entry into any kind of program for a solid recovery. One psychiatrist said that alcoholism results from sex problems and suggested that I join his coeducational sex therapy group. I declined to do that. I doubt that it would have achieved sobriety but it might have been interesting in other ways.
So what worked? AA worked, although I had serious issues with some of it. What AA gave me was contact with other recovering alcoholics. I learned that recovery is a little like mountain climbing. You might be able to do it alone but it’s far better to rope up with fellow climbers who have more sobriety and skill than you have. Far better, far safer. If you relapse they will help you climb back on a ledge and resume your upward way. The rehab I was in had an exercise where you went up on a wooden platform, faced backward and then fell off into thin air, trusting that the other recovering alcoholics standing seven feet below, and linking their hands would catch you and keep you from breaking your spine. I fell back and they caught me.
What about AA? The rehab center I was in had AA as an important part of its program, and we were taken in buses to many AA meetings several times a week. But these meetings had distinct religious overtones, sometimes referred to as “the God Stuff.” I had serious doubts that my alcoholism was solely due to “character defects,” and that I had to pray to God to have them “removed.”
So eventually I joined an agnostic group and they told me that AA has it the wrong way around. Drinking causes character defects: lying, cheating, selfishness, stealing. In addition, it’s part genetic, part cultural (like college drinking or drinking within one’s family), and it’s also due to what I call “personality characteristics,” like shyness, loneliness, perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and risk-taking. And part of it is voluntary and another part stupidity, like starting to drink again after a serious relapse, picking up that “one drink” which starts you again down the slippery slope. It’s all of these things, and maybe more.
I’m not really an agnostic or an atheist but my agnostic group helped me. Occasionally they would go overboard: when immediately before Christmas they were joking that Christmas was a cover up because the Virgin Mary had been cheating on Joseph, and needed to explain her pregnancy. I walked out of that meeting saying that for the life of me I did not see how that had anything to do with sobriety.
In the past eight years or so I’ve benefited from internet websites, like AAAgnostica and SoberRecovery. I also learned about Rational Recovery, with its stress on the “Addictive Voice” (AV). The AV folks often say that Rational Recovery is incompatible with AA and that AA does more harm than good. I happen to disagree with that and believe that there are many ways the insights about the AV–scientifically valid with regard to more primitive parts of the brain (the so-called “lizard” brain)–can be helpful along with AA. Rational Recovery tends to avoid group support, something which AA and Smart Recovery provide.
Sometimes people make fun of the AA “slogans,” calling them “clichés.” Slogans like “One Day at a Time,” “Easy Does It,” “Don’t try to change what cannot be changed,” etc. I have found these very helpful but they are not unique to AA. Such insights have been known for thousands of years to the Buddhists, the ancient Greeks and as far back as the Fifth Century B.C.E. to Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching. I believe that there is indeed a “Higher Power,” inscrutable and essentially unknowable. A power like a river, the Eternal Tao, which cannot be named, cannot be written, the source of all that appears in the phenomenal world, the “ten thousand things.” I try, then, to “go with the flow” and for me it works. It helps.
What about the “Higher Power?” Critics of AA sometimes make fun of the idea that a recovering alcoholic can have anything he or she wants as a “Higher Power,” “even a doorknob.” Obviously the “doorknob” suggestion is ridiculous, just what it is intended to be. I believe that a recovering alcoholic needs help from persons or something other than his- or herself. This can be the group of other recovering alcoholics. As for “God,” I think there may be an alternate reality, coexisting with the “ten thousand things,” the reality we perceive. This alternate reality underlies our own and from time to time may send, wormhole-like, messengers to indicate its presence. Hence Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu and others. Occasionally we may sense it by the “sublime,” in music, poetry, and art. Or where, in nature, it may dwell “in the light of setting suns,” in massive canyons or in waterfalls. Power, sublime and numinous. The sense that this is indeed a holy place, that the alternate reality also exists within you.
I cannot prove that there is an alternate reality. But I sense it, and at times I feel a presence of loved ones who have gone before, perhaps returning, Bodhisattva-like to watch over us. There are several paths upwards to the sunlit meadows of recovery. Mine is to free myself not only from dependency on alcohol but from those who, well-meant but sometimes mistaken, encouraged me to persist in the old ways. I hope to be free from selfish ends, from “me,” accumulation of wealth, possessions, power, “career,” and to stress understanding and wisdom rather than knowledge, moderation in lieu of excess. If understanding and wisdom supersede knowledge, then it may be possible to forgive real or imagined wrongs, to learn love from the animals, and to cherish all living things. And finally to leave a footprint, a token, however small, to say that at least I was here. Death should be nothing to fear, for if one were to survive, would a compassionate God not forgive one who in the end tried to do his best, repenting wrongs done along the way? If there is to be no survival, no “self” after death, there would be no suffering any more than before one were born.
About the Author, Bill P.
Bill P. has had a long and successful career as a law professor, retiring in 1997. Since then he has focused on helping others with alcoholism and drug addiction. He has a web-site, Alcoholism and the Higher Power, that offers guidance on how to utilize AA despite its “god stuff.” He also routinely posts on soberrecovery.com. Bill does not believe himself to be an agnostic, much less an atheist, but he appreciates what agnostic AA meetings have to offer. He lives on the east coast with his wife and an exceptionally wise and loving English Cocker Spaniel.
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