By Len R.
I grew up in a large family, the oldest of eight children. We were raised Catholic, but even as a teenager I was skeptical about how the same God could be both loving and vengeful. How could it be that unbaptized babies, through no fault of their own, could never go to heaven? I never received good answers to this and other questions, so I became an unbeliever and quit going to church in my late teens.
Dad was a good provider and Mom stayed at home to take care of us. Heavy drinking was normal. When we went to visit friends or family, the first thing that happened when an adult walked through the door after a handshake or a hug, was that somebody handed them a beer. The hard stuff would come out later.
Dad was a truck driver. After a hard day’s work, he would stop at the bar for a beer or two and a few shots of whiskey or more. Mom was a secret drinker, waiting until we all went to bed before she started up. This seemed reasonable to me. I had never lived any other way. Working hard, drinking, eating, drinking, and sleeping was just the way life was.
I was a smart kid, though I was a loner. I was a nerd, socially inept, not at all athletic, and never participated in extracurricular activities because I was needed at home after school. I did develop an interest in electronics and at 15 was working part-time after school in a TV repair shop, learning a trade.
Due to an illness in 11th grade, I missed too many days of school, and they were going to make me repeat the year. This did not appeal to me, so I quit school and started working full-time fixing TVs. I was good at it. What I didn’t know, I either learned from more experienced guys or would read in manuals. On my 18th birthday, I sat for the GED tests and successfully completed them in one session.
I Become an Adult and an Alcoholic
Shortly after passing my GEDs I got married, and within three years my wife and I had two daughters. I worked hard, supported my family. My wife stayed home and took care of the children. I made sure they had food, clothes, and a good place to live. As my reward, I began drinking after work.
I drank alcoholically from the start, but as long as I got up every day and went to work, I figured everything was all right. The money I made from my job supported my family. The work I did on the side, fixing TV’s for friends and family and referrals, supplied my drinking money.
I was a good worker, and even though I was young, I was regularly promoted. I worked, I drank, I got up in the morning, and I did it again. The only family time we had was on the weekends, but I drank then, too. Not in the mornings, though. Only alcoholics drank in the morning. I did my weekend chores, spent some time with my family, but of course as soon as my “responsibilities” were done, I drank.
This was my life, and I was a happy, functional drunk. I didn’t go into rages, get into fights, beat my wife or children, spend the grocery money, or display any of the other behaviors common amongst many alcoholics. But I was never physically or emotionally home for my wife and kids, and the fact they were hurt by this never occurred to me.
Sober, I was usually shy and introverted, but once I had a few drinks in me, I morphed into a different person. I was friendly and loved to entertain people with jokes. I was also very skilled at playing pool, which supplied more money for drinking.
After seven years of marriage, my wife divorced me. With nobody to nag me about coming home, I spent most of my free time hanging out at bars, and this was where I met my next wife, who also enjoyed a few drinks. We were married in 1980 and soon after I was promoted and we relocated to Southern California.
I made new friends in the bars and also got well-acquainted with marijuana and cocaine. My use of everything increased, and with no kids, at home, we could drink, smoke, and snort to our heart’s content.
As my alcoholism progressed, however, my work began to suffer. I started trying to quit but never lasted very long. On one Sunday after a weekend of heavy drinking, I began to get very sick and went to the emergency room. “I believe you’re in withdrawal,” the doctor said, and he suggested that I see my primary doctor ASAP.
I went to my physician and told him the truth about my drinking. He sent me over to the Chemical Dependency Unit. The counselor at the unit wanted to admit me. I said I needed to think it over, and she gave me a copy of the Big Book and The 12 & 12. I related to Bill’s story but balked when I saw the word “God,” and concluded this was not for me. I was agnostic and had not seen the inside of a church in 20 years.
When I went back to the unit to return the books I was greeted by the director the program, Dr. Paul O., the author of the story in the Big Book named “Acceptance was the Answer” in the 4th edition. Dr. Paul calmly told me his story, and I was impressed. If a doctor could go through what he had and get sober through this program, well, I decided to give it a shot and agreed to check in. I called my boss and told him the truth, that my sickness was due to my drinking problem and that I was checking into treatment. He told me to do what I needed to do and not to worry about my job.
I Get Sober December 16, 1988
It was a three-week inpatient program, and on day two they loaded me into a van and took me to my first AA meeting. I expected to see a room full of skid row drunks. But, to my surprise, there were at least 150 “regular” people, laughing, hugging, enjoying themselves . . . Sober! I wanted what I saw more than anything in the world.
So, I jumped into the program with both feet. I did not abandon my agnosticism immediately but sincerely agreed to give God a chance. I was not alone. AA in Southern California is full of clapping and cheering, and while God was certainly discussed it was also more secular than in other parts of the country. Everyone was accepted, even me. I was no longer alone! AA became my passion. The compulsion to drink evaporated immediately. I went to meetings every day, got a sponsor, did the steps praying on my knees. I dived into service work, chairing meetings, accepting treasurer and secretary positions, helping the treatment program’s alumni program and eventually becoming the head of it for a few years.
After several years my agnosticism returned, and I adopted the group as my higher power. I lost faith in God, but not in the program. And I stayed sober through a divorce, the death of my mother, the loss of my job due to an RIF (reduction in force), unemployment, and a new job. The new job required a cross-country move—very stressful because I was leaving my adult daughters, my friends, Southern California, and my AA community. This was at about five years sober.
In Chicago (at least at the meetings in my area) the clapping and cheering were gone. I found myself having to introduce myself, rather than being welcomed into the meetings. I still went, but they felt solemn rather than a celebration of sobriety. Much more God, many more drunkalogues, much less talk of recovery. These weren’t the happy, joyful meetings I was used to and I began to slack off.
At about eight years sober I was transferred to Atlanta, GA. In Atlanta, I met my third wife, to whom I am still married 20 years later. But, wow, if the Chicago meetings were different, I was now in a new world: not only was a religious belief in God expected, I was even asked what church I belonged to. I faked it, joined the circle, held hands, and recited the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer.
Sharings frequently included not only references to God but to Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If the Chicago meetings felt solemn, these felt like I was going to church. If I wanted to go to church, I would have picked one and gone. I was looking for the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and wasn’t finding it.
The Empty Years
Feeling alienated and disaffected, I stopped going to meetings. I stayed sober for the next ten years without a single meeting or any other contact with AA. During most of this period I had no desire to drink. I had a loving wife and a good job as a division manager in a Fortune 250 company. However, at around the 12-year sober mark, I developed a severe health problem and had major surgery. This caused or exacerbated a spinal condition that put me in such great pain that it was necessary for me to take some pretty strong narcotics, long-term.
I can attest to the fact that when narcotics are really necessary, there is no high—at least for me. But as my condition improved, the pain lessened, and as I began to need fewer narcotics, I started to begin to feel a high. Though still not drinking I occasionally exceeded my prescribed dose so I could, “get some extra pain relief.” This put me on shaky ground. I had no program and no desire to return to AA. I felt alone and empty inside.
After yet another RIF, extended unemployment, and the death of my dog and death of my father, we made another move, this time to Houston, TX. I’m now sober for 18 years, settled into a really stressful job. I was now in my mid-fifties, and with no college degree, my ability to find other employment was limited.
I Lose It
Four years later, after 22 years of sobriety and my wife out of the country, I took a drink on March 15, 2011. There was no triggering incident. I just decided to have a drink. My intellect said maybe I wasn’t an alcoholic after all; maybe I just had a “drinking problem” back then. I bought a bottle of bourbon, planning to have just a few drinks, and got drunk. I poured the remainder out the next day. I didn’t drink again for months.
Then after working late one night, I stopped for dinner on the way home from work. The restaurant was crowded, but there was room at the bar. I took a seat with no intention of drinking, grabbed a menu, and when the bartender asked what he could get me, it just rolled out: “A bourbon, a draft beer, and a cheeseburger.”
I began making these kinds of stops more and more often, telling my wife, who had never seen me drink, that I was working late on stressful projects. But, she knew something was wrong and thought I might be having an affair. Once I confessed to her that I was drinking, she didn’t know what to do. I swore to her that I could control it. But I couldn’t and started binge drinking. Sometimes after going to bed early, I would hear her crying alone in the living room. I just picked up my bottle and drank enough to pass out.
I reached the point that, when I went to work, I didn’t stop shaking and sweating until mid-morning. I told my boss it was that damn medicine the doctor had me on. Finally, I took some time off of work and checked into a detox center because I was afraid of the DT’s. But I felt there was nothing they could teach me about drinking or sobriety, and I was out in five days.
I did begin attending AA again, but this didn’t last for long. This wasn’t Georgia, but I was still in the bible belt. The God talk had me gritting my teeth, and I gradually stopped going. Let me be clear about the “God talk.” It doesn’t bother me to hear others share their experience with God as their Higher Power. I can respect their belief, but what bothers me is when they won’t respect my disbelief and insist that I must believe in their God.
Soon my drinking again became uncontrollable, and I experienced another detox and another resumption of drinking.
I then agreed to attend an outpatient program—three-hour sessions five nights a week plus required AA meetings where I had to have my sheet signed, just like a probation slip. I stuck it out, finished the program, went to AA every day at 7 a.m. before work, and got a sponsor. But I still couldn’t stomach the God talk, so once again I stopped attending AA and found a different program called Smart Recovery. A lot of their material was pretty good, but there was no fellowship.
I lasted about a year with Smart Recovery before I began drinking heavily again. This time I found a psychiatrist who specialized in outpatient detox and treatment, and I agreed to see him for a year (paid in advance). He helped both my wife and me very much. I still had a few minor slips but didn’t slide as far down the slope.
In AA, we come up with names for many so-called triggers, such as HALT (Hunger, Anger, Lonely, Tired), but for me, it all boils down to being uncomfortable. When I am uncomfortable in my own skin, I want relief. And for me, that’s a drink. So, I have to focus on keeping myself out of uncomfortable situations. During this period I mostly stayed sober but slipped occasionally.
Another Geographical Move
My wife visited her relatives in Georgia during August of 2015. During that visit, she learned that one of her cousins, who owned a small business in the North Georgia mountains, was looking to sell out. When she got back to Houston we fantasized that it would be nice to move there when I retired, and open a small business of our own for her to run—my wife is 12 years younger than me and had no intention of retiring when I planned to. I finally quit the lousy job that was stressing me out, and which I guess was really one of my subliminal triggers.
My wife desperately wanted to move back to Georgia, as she hated Houston. Within two weeks, I packed up our SUV and a U-Haul trailer with as much of my stuff as I could and moved back to Georgia to perform due diligence and learn the new business. My wife stayed back at her job for the time being; we now had only one income—my wife’s—which also carried the medical benefits I needed for my ongoing medical issues.
In Georgia, I was lonely, isolated, and uncomfortable and began drinking again. When my wife arrived a few months later, the stress levels went through the roof due to the challenges of the new business. I really wanted to stop drinking. I wanted those 22 years back.
So, I started looking for a local doctor who specialized in alcohol and addiction problems. In June 2016 I found one, and started seeing him—it turns out that this doctor was in recovery and an atheist, so he was someone I could be honest and open with. I also started seeing a counselor my doctor recommended. The doctor also helped my wife understand that she was not responsible for managing my recovery.
I started going to meetings again and faking it when it came to the God stuff. The doctor told me to speak up at the meeting and tell them I was an atheist. I didn’t say “atheist, ” but I did say, “I am not a man of faith.” This was not well received, but I kept going back, still sharing without bringing God into it.
I lasted until mid-July and then went off the rails again. I binged nightly after my wife went to sleep drinking a pint or more of vodka (bourbon, my spirit of choice, is too easy to smell) as quickly as I could and then jumping back into bed. She caught me one night because instead of ditching the bottle and going to bed, I passed out on the couch.
Hopefully, My Last Recovery Begins
On July 31, 2016, I entered another 5-day detox, and this time when I got out, I was the most determined I had ever been. I was more agnostic than ever, but I gave AA my best. Then, in September of 2016, I discovered AAAgnostica.com on the Internet and found my first secular meeting in Atlanta. I hadn’t known that secular meetings existed up until now. It turns out that there are only two of them in the Atlanta area, both of which are a two-hour round trip from where I live. But I began attending. I also found AABeyondBelief.com around this time and volunteered to help narrate stories on their site (which I am currently doing). I also attended my first—their second—International Convention of Atheists, Agnostics, and Free-Thinkers in AA, held in Austin, TX.
My New-Found Sobriety
I am staying sober, one day at a time since my last detox. I am abstaining from competitive sobriety and refusing to count days. Plus, since I am following the competent medical advice I am taking some medications to help maintain that sobriety. So, when I am free of those meds, maybe I’ll pick a date.
The hardest part when I first returned to traditional AA, relapsing after 22 years of sobriety, was my ego. I felt humiliation and feared rejection. My fears were unfounded. I was welcomed back as a lost lamb. However, in traditional AA when I tried to discuss my problems, doubts, fears, etc., I was preached to, told I wasn’t praying enough, that I wasn’t right with God. I couldn’t find the counsel, direction, or solace I was seeking that made sense to me. And I relapsed again
When I returned again, the counsel I received was the same nonsensical advice as before, and I kept relapsing.
Since finding the secular AA community, I have experienced a renewed hope. I have found a fellowship of like-minded individuals who, collectively, are my spiritual higher power.
I now have a group that I can share openly with about my recovery issues on a secular level and can discuss my problems, doubts, and fears with on a rational level. I am slowly, but surely, regaining the serenity and comradery that was missing in my life for so long.
Thank you, AA, and especially to the secular AA community.
About the Author: Len R.
Len grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and has lived in Orange County, CA (where he began his 22+ years of sobriety in Dec. 1988), Chicago’s northwestern suburbs, Atlanta’s southern suburbs, Fort Myers, FL, and Houston, TX. He now lives in the Northwestern Georgia mountain city of Jasper, with his beautiful and understanding wife of nearly 20 years and two dogs, both rescues. Chance, as in second chance, is a Maltese and Lil’Bit a mostly cocker spaniel mutt. Keeping them company is a stray bob-tail cat named Bob.
He has two grown daughters, two granddaughters (one in college and one in high school), and a grandson currently serving in the US Army. Len is diligently trying to start a secular AA group in his area. Anyone interested can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images for the Story:
Family Drawing by Charlotte v. W. G (a dear family friend of the author)
Images Collected and Composed by Cope C.
The audio version of this story was recorded by the author, Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len has recorded audio versions of the stories posted on AA Beyond Belief, all of which can be found on AA Beyond Belief’s YouTube Channel. He is currently working on a project to record stories published at AA Agnostica, which are being posted on the AA Agnostica YouTube Channel.