Evidence-Based Recovery

By Nell Z. 

“…And the result was Nell until we let go absolutely,” my friend said, snickering and glancing at me over his crude translation of Chapter 5, the portion of the Big Book that is read at the beginning of so many meetings.

I laughed, along with everybody else. My beliefs were well-known at my first home group in Monterey. There were only five of us, it was a late-night meeting, and we were a very close bunch. The others were decades older than me and had been sober for a lot longer (I only had about six months at the time). I was used to hearing from them that I would “come to believe” if I could only stay sober long enough to get a higher power. I imagine they became incrementally perplexed as my days racked up and my beliefs remained the same.

The God-language in the Steps turned me off, but I always loved the Promises. The Promises gave me hope. There were two Promises that seemed very elusive to me, however: The last one, of course, because it mentioned “God,” and the ninth one: We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. I was newly sober, and the more consecutive days I collected, the more I realized I didn’t know. EVERY situation seemed to baffle me, and I hoped to one day find a rubric, a formula by which to govern my actions so that I wouldn’t screw up so much.

The first day of my sobriety I had spent in jail, after being arrested for my second DUI. Jail is a great place to sit and think. I had to figure out this drinking thing, and fast. I couldn’t keep ending up like this. My career was flashing before my eyes. I’d lost my job after my first DUI, and here I was, only two weeks into my new job, and getting arrested for another one.

I had gotten my Master’s degree in social work a few years prior. I loved social work, and I loved my job. My love of the field began my first day at school, orientation day, sprouting from the director’s speech: “Congratulations,” she said. “You all have chosen one of the few professions in which you get to be an idealist.” I decided in that moment that I had chosen correctly. As I continued my studies, I learned that social work was about so much more than the “friendly visitors” of decades past. It was a legitimate social science, moving towards evidence-based practice, backed by scientific studies, and certainly worthy of the pursuit of an advanced degree. I liked social work not only because I could be an idealist, but also because the idea of evidence-based practice made a tremendous amount of sense to me.

As I sat in jail trying to figure out how to handle my drinking, I started to sober up. And, as I sobered up, I started to examine the evidence.

Evidence suggests that if I take one drink, more will follow. Evidence suggests that if I drink, a blackout is likely to occur. Evidence suggests that, despite my best intentions not to, I am likely to end up behind the wheel after drinking.

And then came the big one, the turning point:

Evidence suggests that I am one of those people who SHOULD NOT drink… no matter what. 

I made a decision. I was a functional alcoholic and didn’t really know what it meant to “hit bottom” in the hopeless and devastating way that so many others had, but wrecking my career was certainly reason enough to stop drinking. I attended my first meeting upon being released from jail, and I’ve been sober ever since.

The happiest day of my life hit me rather unexpectedly three weeks shy of my second AA birthday. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was pregnant. Joy flooded in after the shock wore off, and I decided that this was the most wonderful accident that had ever happened to me. I was going to be a mom. My boyfriend and I hadn’t known each other for very long, but he had been sober for eight years, so at least we shared some things in common. We decided to raise our child together, and he moved in.

Halfway through my second trimester, I got a disturbing phone call about the results of a recent blood test. My boyfriend and I rushed into the doctor’s office for an amniocentesis. The ultrasound preceding the procedure confirmed my worst fears.

“There’s no heartbeat,” the doctor said softly. She quietly exited, shutting the door, leaving us to process the bad news. It felt like an eternity that he and I were alone in that exam room together.

The amniocentesis and the later autopsy both confirmed that my daughter died of Trisomy 13, a rare but serious chromosome disorder. It is a random abnormality that occurs in one of 21,500 children born in the US. Of those who survive to birth, most do not live beyond a few months. The disorder is not genetic and can neither be caused nor prevented. Chromosome abnormalities tend to be a greater risk as women age, but I was only 31, and I had passed all the first trimester screenings with flying colors.

Nell's-Story-5 I was not prepared for the trauma or the magnitude of the grief that followed. I have always heard alcoholism described as “the lonely disease,” but I never related to that. I don’t remember ever feeling lonely when I was drinking. How could I? The bottle was a friend that was always there.

After about a month, my boyfriend broke up with me and moved out. My grief was eating us both alive, and he had his own feelings about the loss to sort out.

I thought about “the lonely disease.” I had gone from having a constant companion, the life inside me that I cared about more than my own, to being just me again. The father of my child, the man I had grown to love and depend upon, was gone. I was waking up in the middle of the night, clutching my flat belly and panicking, until I remembered that nothing was wrong … it was just over. I accepted the loss every day, but each day the pain only grew. I lived alone now. I grieved alone. My belief system, based on evidence and rationality, did not allow for the possibility that I would see my daughter again someday in another realm. I was truly lonely, for the first time in my life.

This is my bottom, I realized. This is my incomprehensible demoralization. And here I am, more than two years sober.

               What do I do?

I’ve never been happier than I was when I thought I was going to be a mom. Now I’ll never get to be a mom.

In spite of the research I conducted, all of which pointed towards the circumstance of my miscarriage being a freak incident that would not be likely to recur, the negative self-talk continued in my head. My grief was so intense that it seemed easier to believe the truth I had invented (“The universe doesn’t want me to have a child”) than the actual truth (“The laws of nature prohibit me from having that specific child”).  Because of how close I had grown to that specific child, the actual truth seemed so much crueler somehow. She was my everything, and now she was gone. I read that only one in 10,000 pregnancies that reach the second trimester end in miscarriage, and the fact that I was one in 10,000 struck me as ridiculously unfair and only upset me more.

Of course, as we learn over and over again in AA, we are not as special as we think we are.

The next eventful thing that happened to me, which became a turning point in my grief, was that a woman I’d never seen before came to a meeting I went to nearly every week and told my story.

She was one in 10,000 too. She’d suffered a second-trimester miscarriage the same week I did, which means she got pregnant around the same time. Only something was different about her. She carried herself with dignity and grace and she discussed her loss with eloquence and candor. I hadn’t even opened my mouth in a meeting since the loss, fearing an outburst of tears. She had been sober for longer than I had, and it showed. The level of acceptance she had was remarkable.

The circumstantial odds that she and I would suffer the exact same unusual tragedy at the exact same time and end up in the exact same meeting astounded me. I couldn’t begin to comprehend how low the chances were of this occurring, how lucky I was that day. I wanted to talk to her after the meeting, but she left early. I rushed home and grabbed my phone list, having low hopes of success in finding her. She had a very common name, and it was a long phone list. I might have to call several people. Plus, I had never seen her before. Maybe she wasn’t on the list at all.

The name only appeared once on the list. I called, and it was she. We spent hours over the next few days relating our tragedies to each other. I asked her to be my sponsor. I learned she had the exact same sobriety date as my first sponsor. And, wouldn’t you know it? She’s agnostic too.

Today, my grief does not engulf me. It is a part of me, and one that I can reflect fondly upon. I am currently four months pregnant with a baby boy with normal chromosomes. I will be a single mother, but I am happier than any other mother-to-be I have ever known.

I don’t believe that anything magical happened. AA works because of the “power” of one alcoholic talking to another. That’s how it all started, with Bill and Bob, and how it’s intended to work. We are a bumbling group of imperfect human beings just trying to help each other. Sometimes we mess up, and sometimes we say exactly the right things. Sometimes we don’t stay sober, and sometimes, in spite of incredible adversity, we do.

The rubric I hoped to find in successfully knowing how to handle situations which used to baffle me is a constant and ongoing work in progress, but I can narrow my current one down to two simple words: “Evidence suggests.” I have navigated my sobriety through a process of trial and error, the way I think we all do, and the scientific method has proven to be the most useful so far. The scientific method is what we used to justify our continued experimentation with drinking, as is outlined in Chapter 3 of the Big Book, but our disease caused us to abandon all evidence that we were real alcoholics as we searched and re-searched, against all evidence, for that magic formula that would allow us to drink with impunity.

The hallmark of insanity is repeating the same behavior but expecting a different result. By this definition, when I was drinking, I was completely insane.

Today, the scientific method helps me know how to handle situations which used to baffle me. When I encounter something difficult, I ask myself: “What does the evidence suggest will be the outcome?”

The answer is often not the answer I would like, but by listening to reason, I am able to make better decisions than I did when I was drinking. I am also able to avoid wasting time by repeating the same experiments unnecessarily. The result is a wealth of new experiences, relationships, mistakes, and learning opportunities.

When it comes to my recovery, my experience is the best evidence I have. My experience in recovery suggests many things. It suggests that when I go to meetings, I feel better. It suggests that when I work the steps, I am able to grow and change. It suggests that life’s tragedies can neither be controlled nor prevented. It suggests that I’m a lot stronger than I often think I am. It has not yet suggested to me that God is doing for me what I could not do for myself, but it has suggested that other people often do for me what I cannot do for myself. I could not walk through my grief alone, so I went to a meeting and found someone to help me through it.

The evidence suggests that, with AA, I never have to be alone in my suffering.

Today, the evidence suggests that I DO know how to handle situations which used to baffle me. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to stay sober for at least one more day. And today, that’s good enough for me.

About the Author, Nell Z.

Nell is one of the founding members of Freethinkers in Monterey, CA. She wrote an article detailing the story of the group’s struggle to get the meeting listed by its local Intergroup, which can be red in Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA. 

Nell’s dream is to take a month vacation on a road trip visiting agnostic meetings across the country, a trip she has named “30 meetings in 30 States in 30 Days.” With the increasing number of agnostic meetings being founded worldwide, this may one day be possible, if it isn’t already.

She currently services as an Intergroup Representative for her home group in Napa.

Photography by Kathryn F.

Audio Story 

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, you may contact him at lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com.


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Benn B
Benn B
5 years ago

I loved this article! Nothing more needs to be said … so great!

Craig C
Craig C
5 years ago

Tonight, ten minutes before I opened the Freethinkers meeting that you started in Monterey , I posted an email to you saying, in part “Missing you, the person, and you, the presence.”  Shortly afterward, Janice came in and said the reason she was there tonight was your article.  Neat little package. Especially after reading your evocative and candid thoughts on that which one can only know through the honesty of spirit of one who’s been there and done that. Perhaps I will miss you less through knowing you better.

Love, Craig


Jennifer Copper
Jennifer Copper
5 years ago

Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

5 years ago

Hi, Nell. Thanks for a finely-written personal account of your experience. There are parallels in our stories, with some differences. I earned my MSW in 1977, four years after my last drink (I would not have been able to do graduate school if I had still been drinking–heck, I doubt that I’d have still been alive then if I had still been drinking!). In 1983, when my wife and I lost our unborn child in the second trimester, we worked through the loss together with our respective AA and Alanon programs, both of which we approached from a philosophical agnostic… Read more »

Doris A
Doris A
5 years ago

Beautiful story and artwork.