By Randy P.
I remember Eddie looked bad at his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I don’t mean a little bit bad. I mean bad even by AA standards, as in the early days when low-bottom drunks came in off the streets because they knew they were dying. Not like today’s bad when a judge, parole officer, shrink, family member, or friend has steered the problem drinker our way with the threat of dire consequences. Today’s first attendees often have a few days or weeks sobriety under their belts, with the medical profession giving them something to “take the edge” off of withdrawal. I don’t know about you, but that’s what gotten me to AA in the first place – a tendency to “take the edge” off of life with soothing, comforting, mood-altering substances. Personally, I can knock the edges off of life and keep going until there’s precious little life left. This makes me still edgier and requires still more relief.
Old timers used to carry a pint of whiskey or a six pack of beer and maybe some honey in the trunks of their cars to keep a new guy from twisting off into DTs. Delirium tremens are nasty stuff and include shaking, confusion, and hallucinations. At worst, they can be fatal. Other than that, he just had to “suffer the consequences of his actions” and live through the hell of coming down. I believe this withdrawal eventually helped me give up the booze—that it was one more price I was no longer willing to pay. Sobering up involves not only this physical hell, but confronting the hurt, pain, chaos, and wreckage in our wake. It is usually a dark day indeed when a drunk takes his last drink.
Anyway, Eddie looked bad. Nine people sitting on him couldn’t have stopped him from shaking. Mostly he looked straight down, but when he did glance up there was a haunted look in his bloodshot eyes. But, even from this place of desperation, Eddie didn’t want to hear about God. It’s real hard not to hear about God in AA since seven of the twelve steps refer to Him and most recovering alkies, especially in the Bible Belt, attribute their sobriety to His grace. Outside of the God aversion, Eddie was a most willing candidate for sobriety. He wanted to hear all our stories and was very open to taking advice concerning sponsorship, cravings, diet and sleep. He showed up for a meeting every night at eight o’clock and looked a little better each time I saw him. I had a full-time job so I don’t really know how he spent his days, but probably he hung around other guys in the program who had free time for him.
I always enjoyed Eddie’s shares and his earnest questions and his enthusiasm for embracing a new life without booze. After years in AA, one learns to spot those looking for a real long-term solution, not just temporary appeasement of spouses and authorities until they can resume their preferred life. “Its’s hard to bullshit a bullshitter,” and old-timers have watched all the games that a drunk can play on himself to feign recovery. But, Eddie’s attitude and chances looked good.
The night that Eddie received his thirty day chip he surprised me after the meeting by asking me to be his sponsor. The idea of sponsorship came along after the Big Book was printed in 1939. The book refers to sharing the details of your life with a “close-mouthed friend,” and that’s exactly how I think of it. I hadn’t sponsored but two or three guys in the dozen years I had been in AA and none of them stayed sober. I don’t let myself get bogged down in someone else’s life and recovery; I tell them I’ll help if I can, but I won’t take credit for their recovery or blame for their drinking.
I told Eddie yes, that I would be honored. Whether he made it or not, I knew he was old enough and had been through enough pain already to know this wasn’t some game. He had been made aware of how small is the percentage of drunks who actually escape, and of how “cunning, baffling, and powerful” alcoholism is. I suggested to Eddie that he read the “Doctor’s Opinion” at the beginning of the Big Book, and Appendix II, “Spiritual Experience,” in the back. “Spiritual Experience” was added in the second edition to broaden the width of the spiritual door in AA; it says most people don’t have a sudden “flash of light” conversion but come to a realization of their faith slowly. Their transformation is more of the “educational variety.”
“You need to know I don’t really do the God stuff.”
“Why is that, Eddie?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. When you guys tell your stories about the crazy amount you drank and the crazy things you did while drunk and the trouble you got in with the law and your wives, I’m all ears and I can’t get enough of it. You’re the only people in the world that understand the shit I’ve done and how it all made sense to me at the time. You’re the only people in the world that can’t look down your noses at me because you did it too. But then every story seems to change from real things that happened in this world to “glory be to God in the highest” for swooping down and rescuing me.”
“So? That’s how Bill Wilson who wrote the Big Book and most of these guys around here believe it happened. Why else did you finally open your eyes?”
“Maybe I just got “sick and tired of being sick and tired” as you guys say. Maybe a guy can only let himself and everyone else down so many times before reality breaks through the fog. My overwhelming feeling the morning I quit was that something had to change and I didn’t much care what. I didn’t care if I died, I just could not take another day like the five thousand previous ones. Alcohol won EVERY day the last few years; I never drank just a little or acted responsibly, and seldom remembered what I said and did the night before. If alcohol is in my bloodstream, it’s driving the bus, not me. I don’t know where it’s headed and I have a deep fear of killing myself or somebody else while drunk.”
Eddie and I started spending quite a bit of time together. We’d arrive at the night meeting an hour early a couple nights each week and he phoned whenever he felt the need. Unlike many low-bottom drunks, Eddie still had a car and a driver’s license so he didn’t need rides. He had also managed somehow to keep his original wife and a little cinder block house just outside the city limits. Sue loved Eddie dearly and was his biggest fan; she could “scarcely believe the happy day of sobriety had arrived” and started attending Al-Anon and open AA meetings.
Eddie had been a carpenter and a builder most all his life but had been able to work only sporadically the last few years due to his drinking. He hoped to return to it one day but for now he made a little money building birdhouses and cedar chests in the small workshop behind his house. He had no trouble selling everything he could produce as his reputation for quality work was well known. I also had dabbled in woodworking ever since a shop class in the eighth grade revealed an aptitude for it. We both marveled at still having all our fingers after years of drinking and using power tools and shared how our workshops had been our refuges where we stashed our booze. Whenever one of us was feeling picked on by life and needed a “gratitude list” of what hadn’t gone wrong, the other would lift both hands and wiggle his ten fingers.
Eddie and I enjoyed one another’s company and it was a pleasure to watch his physical and mental health return. We didn’t do as much formal step work as a lot of sponsor/sponsees but we did discuss the program often. Eddie was always quick to see the principle behind each step but insisted on interpreting them in secular terms. He didn’t get defensive at the way the steps were written, he just seemed to have an internal guideline that automatically shunned the supernatural or anyone claiming authority over him.
It took a long time for Eddie to trust me enough to relate many of the experiences that had molded him in his youth. Eddie had been a victim of the much-publicized pedophilia rampant in the Catholic Church. Talk about someone needing an escape from reality! Then, after years of drinking to make the memories and shame go away, he shows up at AA and is told this is the very God he must pray to for deliverance. Eddie was having none of it. He said that in his case, the cause of his drinking and the cure for it could not be the same. He would never in this lifetime trust anyone or anything that claimed moral authority over him, that demanded his awe and allegiance.
I must admit that I initially viewed Eddie’s stubborn refusal to accept God with the same condescending attitude that I now see on display throughout AA literature. “That’s okay, son, you just come on in with your doubts and disbeliefs and your childish ideas of whatever your higher power is. Just come on in and (wink! wink!) get started on these here steps and surely knowledge of your belief in something a little more, shall we say, mainstream and acceptable will come to you.”
But over the years, I have come around to Eddie’s way of seeing things. I realized that even though I hadn’t attended church since I went off to college at eighteen, I had fallen right in line when joining AA and had begun spouting traditional AA story lines of how my deliverance was due to an unseen God and undeserved by me. Eddie’s sincere disbelief without rancor coupled with his obvious recovery has enabled me to question where the power really comes from in AA.
So, if not sober by the grace of God, to what do I attribute my sobriety? I now give credit where I think it belongs: first of all, to my own desperation from living an active alcoholic nightmare. Alcohol had finally “beaten me into a state of reasonableness.” Secondly, to the goodwill and selfless sharing of their experience, strength, and hope by AA members who got sober before me. And thirdly, to the AA program itself, minus the religiosity, which uses universal principles common to all religions for how to live well and relatively peacefully in one’s own mind and among other people. “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition,” is how the Big Book puts it and I think it’s pure poetry. I just don’t want “spiritual” defined for me.
AA will either adapt or fade away. I believe Bill Wilson would be appalled at the rigidity and hardened dogma of AA today. Why did he end his 164-page text with “Our book is meant to be suggestive only–we realize we know only a little?” AA doesn’t need to change as much as it needs to honor its own words and traditions. The preamble states “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution,” yet most meetings are closed with the Christian “Lord’s Prayer.” Kind of like Thomas Jefferson penning “we believe all men are created equal” while owning slaves.
The Traditions state that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” They do not specify as necessary a belief in an all-seeing God that has a plan for your life and directly intervenes in it. Agnostic members have begged for acceptance from AA’s General Service Office for thirty years. Other sub-groups have sprung up and have been welcomed after some initial resistance: gay and lesbian, men’s, women’s, black, Spanish, professional. But not atheist or agnostic groups. Two such groups in Toronto were accepted and listed with GSO headquartered in New York but were then booted out of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup because they removed references to God from the “suggested” twelve steps.
Why do you care what I believe? Why not a big tent AA? In a 1946 article in the Grapevine Bill Wilson wrote: “So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other–these rampant individuals are still an AA group if they think so!”
Eddie found out about a Freethinker movement within AA that sprang up in Toronto as a result of the two ousted agnostic groups. Eddie and I started such a group in our town a little over a year ago. We have six regular members now and many curious visitors. We adhere to the Agnostic AA Preamble: “This group of AA attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s belief or having to deny their own.”
Eddie recently received his five-year chip and I picked up one for seventeen years not long ago. I doubt that I have helped him one bit more than he has helped me over these last five years. He has also helped our whole group to become more tolerant and to realize how wide the spiritual door to AA can be. Eddie is a very good man who has integrity and I’ve come to understand that that word means all the parts of a man’s life are integrated, that his inner and outer lives match. Eddie has no bones to pick and is not trying to convince anyone to start believing or stop believing anything. He merely asks the same of you.
About the Author, Randy P.
Randy P. is originally from North Carolina. In 1974 he married and moved to the farm where his grandparents had lived when he was young. He ran a small body shop on the property, raised two children, and stayed functionally intoxicated until March 3, 1989. his sobriety date so far. Randy now lives in a RV in Cottonwood, AZ and attends “Freethinkers Living Sober Too” meetings three times a week. He attended the WAAFT Convention in Austin and believes “nothing’s so bad that a drink can’t make it worse”.
The images used in the body of this article were created by Cope C. from the Many Paths group in Urbana, Illinois
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 firstname.lastname@example.org