By John L.
Living Sober is by far the best AA book — the only one I could recommend. I remember when it was published, back in 1975, when I had been sober for seven years. Even then I was not alone as a freethinker. We hailed Living Sober as “Conference-approved” literature, which described what we knew as the true AA — the AA that works — the AA that had saved our lives.
My current Boston home group has the up-front name, “Atheists and Agnostics.” At each meeting, we start off by reading and discussing a chapter from Living Sober, which tells us how to get sober, stay sober, and lead a good life in sobriety.
The author, Barry Leach, a gay man, received only a one-time payment for writing Living Sober. Years later, after his book had become a bestseller, he asked AA for a new contract that would give him royalties. The request was denied. At the same time, Bill Wilson was receiving millions of dollars in royalties from AA books — of which he was by no means the sole author (long story here).
The Living Sober approach is neither for nor against religion, but independent from it. It relegates the Steps to Chapter 30, with the dismissive title, “Trying the Twelve Steps.” Merely suggesting that the Steps might be tried is another way of saying that they are optional. Try them or don’t try them, it’s up to you. In the original edition, from 1975 to 2012, the Steps were neither described nor listed.
Living Sober is explicitly secular. In the chapter, “Using the Serenity Prayer,” we read: “Whether we belong to this church or that, whether we are humanists, agnostics, or atheists, most of us have found these words a wonderful guide in getting sober, staying sober and enjoying our sobriety.” What a contrast this is to the helpless-without-god religiosity in the Big Book!
From beginning to end, Living Sober is about abstinence — staying away from the first drink a day at a time. I stress this because AA is currently under attack for its bedrock principle of abstinence. On the Living Sober page following the table of contents is a quote from the American Medical Association:
Alcohol, aside from its addictive qualities, also has a psychological effect that modifies thinking and reasoning. One drink can change the thinking of an alcoholic so that he feels he can tolerate another, and then another, and another …
The alcoholic can learn to completely control his disease, but the affliction cannot be cured so that he can return to alcohol without adverse consequences.
And on page 3 we find:
This booklet is about not drinking (rather than about stopping drinking). It’s about living sober. We have found that for us recovery began with not drinking — with getting sober and staying completely free of alcohol in any amount, and in any form. We have also found that we have to stay away from mind-changing drugs.
Accordingly, the second chapter is “Staying away from the first drink” and the third is “Using the 24-hour plan.”
Living Sober is filled with practical advice on how to stay away from the first drink and lead a happy and productive life in sobriety. For example, the acronym, HALT — which stands for “Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired” — there is a chapter on each of these issues. Other chapters discuss gratitude, eating nutritionally, “Easy Does It,” going to meetings, telephone therapy, and much more. I heard most of this advice when I got sober in 1968, in Greenwich Village groups and the midnight meeting. The chapters are short, appropriate for group readings.
A revised edition of Living Sober was published in 2012. There were few changes, and most of them were minor. In general, the significant changes tended to downplay secularism and to cater to the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry — which, in my opinion, were backward steps. I’ll give a few examples.
Let’s start with the front cover. The original cover is in yellow and tan, yellow being a color associated with reason. The revised cover is in a light, cloudy blue that suggests church magazines or “inspirational” books. Conspicuously missing on the new cover is a sentence that was in the original: “Some methods AA members have used for not drinking.” Apparently, the approving conference didn’t like a book about not drinking.
The title page of the revised edition omits a quote from the American Medical Association: “… treatment primarily involves not taking a drink …” — a quote which had been in the original. The same comment applies. There seems to be an inverse relationship between sobriety and spirituality. Some spiritual people feel threatened by an emphasis on not drinking.
Most of the chapters in the revised edition have only trivial changes or none. But in Chapter 12, “Getting Plenty of Rest,” an important paragraph is dropped:
One thing we have learned for sure: Sleeping medicines of any sort are not the answer for alcoholics. They almost invariably lead to drinking, our experience repeatedly shows. [Emphasis in original.]
Without this paragraph, the next one makes no sense. The emphasized statement really is based on shared experience. Many times in the first years of my sobriety I heard about disasters that happened when alcoholics took sleeping pills, which are “sedative hypnotics,” a category which includes alcohol. The worst sedative hypnotics are barbiturates, which are like alcohol in dry form, but all of them are dangerous for alcoholics.
This is a difficult area. Tradition 10 states: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” This tradition has served AA well over the decades. But individual groups and individual AA members should have more freedom. When we share experiences with each other, knowledge is part of our experience. We should be able to share what we know.
Both editions of Living Sober say that AA members should not give medical advice. Fair enough, but concerning drugs and alcoholism, the opinion of a well-informed AA member may be worth more than that of the average doctor, who learns almost nothing about alcoholism in medical school. Doctors do not always know best. One study found that almost everything most doctors know about drugs comes from “detail men” — “detail men” being a pharmaceutical industry euphemism for “salesmen.” As I said, this is a difficult area. In my opinion, the best policy is free speech.
In Chapter 21, “Avoiding Dangerous Drugs and Medications,” two paragraphs are re-written to be friendlier to the pharmaceutical industry. And an appendix directed to medical professionals has been written, also to be friendlier to the pharmaceutical industry. At some point, AA should fully and honestly confront psychoactive drug use among its members, but the issue is beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll drop it here.
To sum up: Living Sober is our book. I could quibble about a few things — like the overly laudatory chapter on AA literature or the suggestion to eat sweet things — but these are minor.
In areas where the intergroup is controlled by intolerant god-people, a secular group could name itself “Living Sober” — as many groups have. There’s no need to re-write the Steps. Just ignore them. That’s what our “Atheists and Agnostics” groups do in the Boston area.
Those of you who attend regular AA groups should make sure that the literature table always includes copies of Living Sober. This is the book to recommend to newcomers and to those we sponsor.
I believe that our movement will succeed when we offer the very best AA wherever we are. The best beginners meetings. The best 12-stepping. The best sponsorship. The best sobriety. Living Sober can be our guide.
About the Author, John L.
John was born and raised in Nebraska. He attended Harvard College (AB 1963), majoring in Social Relations (Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology). In New York City he worked as a market research executive, writing on the side. He was in the antiwar movement since 1965 and the gay liberation movement since July 1969. He founded Pagan Press in 1982.
For a decade, beginning in 1985, John was a leading writer for the New York Native, which was then the foremost gay paper. He has twelve books to his credit. John dates his alcoholism from his first bender in 1958 to his last drink in 1968. He considers himself a loyal, but by no means uncritical member of AA. John now lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
The audio version of this article was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len would like to start a secular AA meeting in his area. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.