Without A Higher Power

By Peter T. 

A paragraph from the “We Agnostics” chapter of the book Alcoholics Anonymous tells the reader:

“Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?”

This is precisely where the Big Book loses most non-believers. After having done a masterful job of identifying and describing the alcoholic, it then goes on to insist that the solution is one of spirituality and religious faith.  Nonetheless, in an unintended way the book did lead me to find one such power greater than myself:  This is the collective human power of like-minded others who reject this religious prescription.

“Powerlessness,” like “humility” or “spirituality,” is bandied about so much in our meetings and readings that it almost sounds like a cliché to me now.  When it comes to my alcoholism, it’s a paradox because I don’t believe I’m powerless over alcohol:  I haven’t had a drink in a few years and don’t want one today.  I understand now, after sufficient defeats, that I am powerless under alcohol, so I choose not to put myself under it anymore.  As it says in Living Sober: “Sounds almost foolishly simple, doesn’t it?”

For most of my life I believed I was powerless over the demons that defined my being:  Depression, loneliness, anger, self-pity, resentment, bitterness, and hopelessness.  I resigned myself to all of this as simply my lot in life, never imagining that it could or would be any different.  I felt my only shot at any form of happiness would be to make enough money to at least have nice things, and possibly attract a mate on the basis of superficial traits  – how else would I, with a terrible self-image and profound negativity?

Through a few false starts as a college student, and basically at trying to be a human being, I found my good friend marijuana and spent a few years getting to know it well.  It wasn’t terribly expensive and seemed to agree with me better than booze.  There were no hangovers, bed-spins, blackouts, or regrets, just a fair amount of comfort.  The actual price became an inability to do anything with myself or my life, which I was willing to pay for a while, until I realized I couldn’t use it casually.  After a couple panic attacks that happened on attempts to use it only occasionally, I simply stopped smoking pot.  There was no program or drama; I just didn’t do it anymore.  Unfortunately, I was not to part ways with alcohol in the same manner, once it owned me later in life.

I focused on the goal of making money, so I finished college with a degree in computer science.  As an intense student, obsessed with maintaining a 4.0 GPA (you know, that top-of-the-heap thing) I was in one of the cleanest periods in my life but didn’t manage to correlate it with the bit of emotional stability I had at the same time.  I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself as an older student playing catch-up, or jealous of better-looking or richer students; I was for perhaps the first time in my life exercising what power I had to get what I sought.

I got a job as a computer programmer with a software company and felt like I was somewhat on my way.  After a couple years of work success, but still, without any personal fulfillment, I went to a graduate business school in hopes of getting rich.  It turned out to be a poor personal choice, and many of my old demons returned:  loneliness, resentment, self-pity, and depression.  My drinking had gotten to be a bit more than social in the prior working years, but without consequences.  It had now clearly progressed to abnormal consumption, such as drinking liquor while watching cartoons on weekday afternoons.  I was not in denial that I was a drinker but felt justified in allowing myself the only apparent satisfaction attainable.  I got the graduate degree, despite not putting much effort into it, and was again on my way:  Only this time, it was as a functioning alcoholic.

I managed to carry on for 15 more years as a daily drinker.  My work path took me back to computer programming, and I derided myself for squandering the grad school opportunity.  I was able to work with intensity, perhaps fueled by bitterness and resentments, that led to some surprising success.  My personal life remained a cycle of despair, anger, and boredom that could not be enjoyed, but managed by the only power I had as remedy:  alcoholic medication. 

I lived the garden-variety hellish insanity that is drinking as much as possible, while still holding a job and trying to show up for life.  It has been said that alcoholics change their goals to match their behavior; at this point, my only goal in life was to outlive my parents so that they wouldn’t have to witness my demise.  Now 45, but already displaying the signs of physical damage from alcohol, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to accomplish this.

My employers got my attention by firing me, and my first visit to an AA meeting was very shortly after that.  I didn’t know much about the program, other than that the goal was abstinence.  I never tried to quit drinking completely, but glumly accepted this as my new fate. I went to lots of meetings, met with a sponsor regularly, hung out with other members, did service, and managed to maintain a couple years of decent sobriety.  I tried to work the steps in an academic fashion but had no interest in anything more spiritual than this.  It was a notch or two up from just not-drinking, but good ways from honest self-reflection and growth.

Meetings in my area are fairly homogenous, with a healthy dose of Higher Power and almost all ending with the Lord’s Prayer.  There is little talk of being agnostic or atheist, and no meetings openly hospitable to non-believers.  I didn’t pay too much attention to the spiritual side of things in those first two years; they simply didn’t apply to me.  I had never prayed in my life since it made no sense to me.  I never had a God in my life, and I wasn’t about to try understanding one since I knew for me that would only mean inventing one.  After all, if God could and would restore me to sanity, couldn’t he have just not made me so broken in the first place?  The fellowship was an acceptable “starter” higher power, so I left it at that.

Like many, I had seen psychiatrists and been on medications over the years but was never honest with the doctors about my drinking.  Through this first run of sobriety, I had been taking self-prescribed (mail order) anti-depressants but started feeling well enough to try going without them.  It was now the first time in almost 25 years that I didn’t have some form of drug in my system, and my natural state of malaise slowly resurfaced.  Instead of being honest and reaching out for help, I pulled away from the fellowship and tried drinking again.  It was sometimes moderate but usually ended in sustained periods of numbness and uselessness.

I was now facing my dilemma of lack of power.  After two years sober, and then six months of mixing drinking and meetings, I was finally at my own jumping off point.  I was going to have to figure out how to get sober and reasonably content or resume drinking myself to death.  Could I find that “unsuspected inner resource” without a mystical higher power?  I was suddenly aware of the recurrent “only way is with God” message in the rooms, but I had an obstinacy that I had to believe was integrity.  I can’t recommend resentment towards the religionists as the foundation for a program of recovery, but I was determined to become sober and happy without their God. 

My last drunk ended on 11/29/12, but in an act of defiance and stupidity, I took one last taste of alcohol on 12/11/12 so that my sobriety date could be, ironically, 12/12/12.  I also can’t condone picking a date with cool numbers as a reason to stay sober, but in my quirky grandiosity, it served to help me get a foothold back on recovery.

They said God was everything or nothing, and I’ll never forget the exact moment when I suddenly realized that God was doing for me what I could not do for myself:  Nothing.  No entity was going to do for me what I could do for myself.  I finally understood how “Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes” and I took responsibility for my own wellness.

I worked with a new psychiatrist that specializes in recovery and was completely honest with him.  We eventually found a helpful combination of anti-depressant and anti-seizure meds (the latter serving as a mood stabilizer), and it keeps the demons at bay.  I now had a fighting chance to stay in a mostly balanced zone and work honestly with a new sponsor.  We respectfully challenged each other on our beliefs – or my lack thereof – but focused on the underlying principles of the steps.

I started feeling like a grownup for the first time in my life.  I had taken measures to get well and found myself in a genuine place of calm contentment.  I made many new friends in the fellowship who had a variety of spiritual inclinations.  I was getting more outspoken in the rooms about my lack of a personal higher power.  I was occasionally indignant about it, as I felt the need to show them I didn’t need their God.  I started staying seated for the Lord’s Prayer at some of our biggest meetings, and am still the only person who ever does that in my area.  One of my mentors was getting concerned that my lack of faith was itself becoming my higher power.

I was enjoying non-spiritual recovery and took to the Internet to explore it further.  In prior years I had already found much anti-AA material, critical of the history and cultish tendencies, but I wasn’t ready to give up on the fellowship.  Naturally, I found the AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief sites, and my enthusiasm for secular recovery was kindled in a way that became genuinely exciting.  Just as the fledgling power of the telephone led Bill W. to eventually meet Dr. Bob, the power of the Internet had connected people who might have fallen off in isolation.

I was fortunate enough to go to WAAFTIAAC in Austin, which inspired me to start what I believe is the first ever Atheist/Agnostic friendly meeting in the Burlington, VT area.  As of this writing, it’s only been meeting for a few weeks with a handful of people, but I’m determined to do whatever it takes to get it to its own momentum.  I feel it is my duty to share my secular experience – now in a polite fashion – in all meetings of A.A., to let others know that it’s OK to have doubts and that they have the power to find their own path.

I tend not to use the word “recovery” myself, for it implies getting back something you once had.  I was broken well before I started drinking, so I like to think of my post-using growth as “maturity.”  I see recovery as the reclaiming of power, through redirecting energy from defective behavior to the behavior of enlightened self-awareness.

The pamphlet says The AA Group is “where it all begins.”  To that end, I have come to understand that AA as a whole has very little power over what happens in the rooms.  It is the culture of conformity in the rooms that propagates the misunderstanding that meetings and individual programs must be aligned with AA’s founding literature. The genius of AA, however, is its intentional lack of organization, with no insistence on a uniformity of thought. Individuals in AA should take their cue from this and recognize that there are a variety of paths to recovery.  Some involve religious or spiritual belief, and others do not.

In making use of our literature I have found it useful to read “between the God lines,” and comfortably dismiss the religious tendencies I find in many meetings. I find it helpful to remember that The Preamble says “AA is a fellowship.”  That means AA IS NOT itself a program, but rather that AA has a suggested program.  Additionally, The Third Tradition says “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking,” and in its long form that membership ought never depend on conformity.  Living Sober says “There is no prescribed AA right way or wrong way.”  Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions says, “AA does not demand that you believe anything.  All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.”  Finally, Alcoholic Anonymous says in its closing, “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.”

Those are some pretty powerful statements, wouldn’t you say?

About the Author, Peter T.

Peter is a Vermont native who has lived in DC, Chicago, and Detroit but enjoys the beauty and laid-back lifestyle of his home state. As a music lover, he has played bass guitar in bands and worked as a radio DJ. He is also an antique car enthusiast and loves going to car shows with his 1971 Buick Riviera. Peter attended WAAFTIAAC 2016 in Austin where he gave a workshop on the Living Sober book. He looks forward to discovering WAAFT meetings as his work travels take him all over the US, and he welcomes all to enjoy his soberbingo.com website.

Audio Story

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Thank you, Len, for your service.

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2 years ago

Chiming in a couple of years after this was published, all the way from Istanbul, Turkey: Thank you for this. As an unbeliever, I struggle greatly with the concept of a higher power. One thing someone told me, though, seems appropriate to share here: “You already have a higher power: drugs. Drugs control you. You know how to give in. The only thing to do is to replace this with anything.” I’m happy to see there is a way to do this without spirituality. Reading between the God lines is a good strategy. Maturity instead of recovery resonates with me… Read more »

Erich S
Erich S
4 years ago

Excellent! Thanks.

“Powerless over alcohol” vs “Powerless under alcohol.” How simple and clear. Now I will read through all the comments, and I expect I’ll keep a copy of this article on my tablet, probably Lens’ fine audio version.

Thanks again, Peter.

Norman R
Norman R
4 years ago

Peter,  thank you for a very well-stated and calmly-stated piece.  And, thank you, fellow readers, for  your comments – they, too, were extremely helpful.  At 77 years young, you might think that I should have it together, but if I do I’ve forgotten where I put it.  A good deal of help comes to me from attending meetings, though I now avoid one where a “bleeding deacon” who is actually some kind of office holder in the church where we meet finds me rude for not staying in the circle for the Lord’s Prayer.  I withdraw and stand behind, quietly… Read more »

Cope C
Cope C
4 years ago

Wise perspectives, and beautifully written. Thank you, Peter. I keep dancing around the traditional pushing-God, pushing-AA as all-powerful, we are powerless. The lovefest aspect of AA meetings can strike me as pathetic — at the same time as I too am in love with the honesty and wisdom I find at meetings, consistently and dependably. I just bite my tongue too often when people deliver the mantras to me like the sermon on the mount. What you say would be well shared in larger contexts of the fellowship. The larger group in so many ways does not serve many who… Read more »

Doris A
4 years ago
Reply to  Cope C

I think it would be a great Grapevine submission.

Doris A
4 years ago

Wonderful essay Peter.  “I lived the garden-variety hellish insanity that is drinking as much as possible, while still holding a job and trying to show up for life”  – that so aptly describes a few decades of my life. I am glad you eventually found a solution within AA, and I am happy to know that another agnostic AA group has been added to the roster.  It was a pleasure meeting you in person in Austin, and thank you for your contribution to the AA Beyond Belief community.