By Mark C.
My sobriety date is 12/10/2009. Perhaps two words that describe my three decades with alcohol are “progression,” and “surrender.” Having once been an ardent, Evangelical, Reformed Christian believer, by the time I staggered into AA, I had been an atheist for almost fifteen years. I was “without” Theistic belief when I came into AA, and still self-identify as an atheist—on purpose. A “conscious contact with “God,” and a growing understanding of “God” was what my life had been about for a couple of decades. I became a drunk while in full-orbed, meaningful, Christian theistic belief and practice.
I had my first drink of alcohol at around eight or nine years old. I remember it very clearly. My cousin and I were at our extended family’s annual Fourth of July get-together. It was a large group and most of the adults in our extended family drank heavily. We had a lot of heavy drinkers, and by all appearances, several “alcoholics.”
Some of the adults had an “old school” approach to life, and decided it was time for these boys to find out. Perhaps the theory was a “curiosity killed the cat” notion. We were told to drink until we couldn’t drink any more. We did that. I got very drunk and very ill, threw up all over the place, and almost immediately decided I absolutely hated those feelings, those effects, and the taste. I seemed to develop an immediate aversion to alcohol. My cousin got very sick as well, yet did not feel my aversion, and instead said he “liked it.” It was years later before I drank alcohol for the second time. My cousin died of cirrhosis of the liver at 32 years old. He was a full blown “alkie” and drug addict by his early 20’s, and was in and out of hospitals, and jails. He died drunk, in agonizing pain.
At about twelve years old I smoked marijuana for the first time, and liked “that stuff” very much. By the time I was 17 years old, I was using amphetamines and marijuana daily, and managing my schedule with both those substances. I more or less walked away from all drugs at eighteen when I joined the military. In a real sense the United States military service saved my life.
In my early 20s that aversion was given a major boost with a “transformative religious experience” while driving along a Houston, Texas freeway that marked my entrance into Christian belief. It was a type of “Damascus Road” experience not all that unlike what Bill Wilson describes as his “white light” experience. I was filled with a profound peace, and love, and surrender to this love, this Being, who I felt loved me intensely. These intense sensations came like waves in my mind.
That “experience,” or rather a cluster of experiences, went on for some days, was life changing, and in many ways was life-saving. It altered something inside me, and I became fascinated and devoted the next couple of years to hermit-like study of the Bible and the history of Christianity. I became obsessed with the “Will of God.” I did not know any others like me at the time. Eventually I stepped out from my isolated, solo study of the Bible and started attending a little Southern Baptist church and found “Christian Fellowship” and “Discipleship,” and those things were to become very meaningful to me over the next twenty years. For a couple of decades my life became one of growing, disciplined prayer, intense and systematic Bible study, Scripture Memory, “Life Style” Evangelism, Discipleship, Disciple-making, and Christian Apologetics. I started out with a quite literal interpretation of the Bible, and gradually moved away from Bible literalism toward recognition of the fact there were very real contradictions in the Bible, and outright historical falsehoods as well.
My progression into alcoholism began very slowly, and very moderately. It started with a bit of Bailey’s Irish Crème in a hot cup of coffee one Christmas Eve among my Christian mentor and friends. Nobody got drunk. Drunkenness was a sin, you see, but imbibing was not. After all, hadn’t even the Apostle Paul recommended a little wine for a bad stomach? If one could say one thing, generally speaking, about the people I was close to then, it would be they were characterized by disciplined moderation in all things. I had become disciplined, and moderate. I was responsible. Self-control, and “Knowing God” were at the bottom of all those things we were doing in the Christian life.
Within a couple of years I was drinking a couple of cans of beer every day after work. I maintained that sort of intake for some years. Everything seemed disciplined, ordered, and absolutely controlled. But early on I noticed I had come to a place where alcohol agreed with me, and I liked the softening effects of alcohol on my mind. It slowed my mind down just enough. I felt more comfortable in my own skin with a little booze in me. Alcohol had become an innocent pleasure. And it was that pleasurable state of mind and body, seeking and enjoying that mental and physical “sweet spot,” that eventually paved the way for my progression into full-blown alcoholism.
By about the ten year point I would have the occasional passing thought that sometimes I seemed to drink more, and faster, than those around me. By then I was well into my professional career, and many of my peers drank heavily, and often. The first time I went to a “happy hour” on a temporary work assignment, I got insanely drunk. Drunk enough for others to mention it later. Drunk enough to have some regrets about my behavior. Drunk enough to have a doubt placed in my mind about me and booze. Yet, the pleasurable state of mind and body was more convincing, certainly more alluring, and I found booze helped me in many other ways.
By about the twenty year point I sort of knew, and started admitting to myself that I probably had a problem with alcohol, and it was about then that I starting making a conscious effort in moderating, controlling, and disciplining how much I drank, and how often I drank. By then I had been drinking daily for twenty years. At first I had some success in moderation, frequency, and control, but I also noted there were times, many times, when my drinking seemed take-on a life of its own and left my desires, and choices out of the picture. During this time I quit for good a few times, and one time for almost three months. But I starting drinking again, and instead of the problem getting any better it just became progressively worse. Toward the end of that five year stretch of attempting to control or solve, or quit and stay quit, I was in utter defeat. So, twenty-five years into my “relationship-with-boozed-turned-addiction,” I was still five years away from reaching out to sober drunks in AA as a last resort. I had retreated into drinking in total isolation from my fellow human beings. I was nearing, or at the threshold, of that state of “incomprehensible demoralization” Bill Wilson described in the Big Book.
The last couple of years of my active alcoholism I drank as soon as my eyes were open, before coffee, and I drank all day and into the night, or until I blacked out, or passed out. I would wake up and start all over again. I had thrown in the towel, and was convinced that booze had won, I couldn’t beat it, and that I would wind up like my cousin. It was all just a matter of time. Nature would take its course. I did not care if I lived or died. I was done trying. I was fifty-four years old, had become an alcoholic, and that appeared to be the end of my story.
One night in this state of mind, I decided that I wanted to live after all. I had three grown children from a failed twenty-year marriage, and I had three grandchildren. I decided that I would have to take a completely different set of actions in one last attempt to fix the problem, if that were possible. I knew one thing for sure, and that was for some reason I could not fix this deal by myself, alone. One of those actions was to reach out to others for help. AA was the place where drunks got sober, and drunk as a skunk about 10:30 one night I looked up AA in the phone book, dialed a number, spoke with a nice person on the other end, and was informed of the meeting schedule. I attended my first “AA” meeting the next day.
I didn’t know much about AA, but at one point during my Christian days I had examined the 12-Steps from a Protestant, Reformed theological perspective. I perceived AA’s 12 Steps to be intrinsically religious, based from within, and also based upon the presuppositions of Theistic Supernaturalism.
But I was also under the general and largely false impression that AA was about drunks getting sober. That impression was smashed at the first meeting I attended. Very quickly, based on what I was hearing at that first meeting, the problem was not booze, but a lack of religious belief, a lack of an acknowledgment of “miracles,” and the lack of “belief” in a Supernatural Intervention. I live in Texas and to hear folks yammer about such things is part of the air we breathe. However, what I was not prepared for was the level of cultish certainty and dogmatism that I heard during that first meeting. I had never seen that kind of dogmatism and vehemence even among Christian fundamentalists I had known. No, this was something very different. I simply listened, and observed. I read the things on the walls. I could see there were individuals in the room who appeared to have been very “low bottom” drunks. There seemed to be people who escaped living in a dumpster. There were even some who were quite young.
There were a couple of very vocal, apparently dominant, apparently very knowledgeable “AA experts” that I listened to and observed those first few meetings. These guys were very “spiritual.”
On my third or fourth meeting I asked the main guy, “How does an atheist go about working the Steps?” I was not prepared for the response. The man flew into an instantaneous, near violent, rage, got in my face and screamed, “You better get God, motherfucker, or you are going to die!” The man’s friend jumped right in and started screaming at me as well. I backed up a couple of steps, held my hands up, and said, “Whoa there, fellas! Thanks for the help.” That was all the response I could muster. I was shocked, to put it mildly. Wow. Never before had I seen that kind of vehemence toward a nonbeliever. Not face to face. Not in a place “devoted to helping people.” Not even among ardent Christian fundamentalists. Little did I know that would be the start of a two and a half year long, daily campaign to drive the atheist either to conversion, to quiet subservience, or to leaving AA.
My sincere and honest question had stirred a hornets’ nest.
It was a couple of days after the expert and his friend’s initial verbal violence that the man’s friend saw me again, screamed at me for being an atheist, and stabbed his fingers hard into my chest. Little did I realize this would only be the first of three physical assaults (performed by believers) that would become part of my story as an atheist in AA. It was fairly minor as physical assaults go, but it was one nonetheless. I basically sloughed it off. Another member saw what had happened and approached me. She said, “Hey, don’t pay attention to those guys, they don’t own this place. Take what you can use and leave the rest; that’s what most of us have to do.” Those few words of encouragement and compassion struck a chord in me. A couple of days later I saw the expert guy again and told him I wasn’t trying to offend him but was being honest about me. He moderated his tone some, yet was still basically hostile, and suggested I try to do ninety meetings in ninety days, and just to not drink no matter what. I told him I was committed to staying sober, and that I would set a goal to make ninety meetings in ninety days. As it turned out I attended far more meetings than “90 in 90.”
As of this writing I have six years, eight months, and seven days sober, and have been completely relieved of the “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” The first few years of my sobriety I was fortunate enough to attend many different AA meetings in seven states. What I found in most of those were echoes of theistic religious bigotry so prominent in the first group I attended. What I also found in all of these meetings, however, were sober drunks, and people still learning to live sober. We have that one thing in common, apart from being human beings. I focus on what we do have in common: realizing that what others think about “atheists, and other types of nontheists,” or say about me, or what actions they perform are outside of my control and power. The only thing I have power and control over are my reactions (if any) to what occurs external to me.
There really are babies in the nasty bathwater.
I still take what I can use and leave the rest.
About the Author, Mark C.
Mark C. has had a lifelong, and growing fascination with what humans think and believe, and why they believe the things they do. That basic impulse included a B.A. in History, and decades of incessant reading nonfiction, intellectual history, philosophy, religion and literature. His professional career has been spent in insurance claims and investigations. He has three grown children, and nine grandchildren, two of whom are Monoamniotic-Monochorionic (“MoMo”) twins.
The featured image used in this piece was created by Kathryn F.
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 reach him by email at email@example.com.