My experiences with and within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The late Broken Hill Jack (long term sober Sydney member) used to say, “The three most important things in your sobriety are meetings, meetings, and meetings.” In his view, the meetings that he referred to as “The clinic of calm,” served a definite and invaluable purpose for the alcoholic.
He expanded on this idea by describing how at around fifteen minutes into the meeting the alcoholic might experience “emotional discipline” coupled with “mental diversion.” These two elements were essential to toning down and settling down our overly sensitive and overactive nervous systems. Emotional discipline allows us to relax, both mentally and physically, creating an environment where we can experience mental relief from agitations of the mind. With continued and regular exposure to this therapeutic meeting environment, we develop the art of listening, mentally diverting our attention onto the speaker. Jack said, “Over time, with practice, we can, for probably the first time in our lives, experience a feeling of mental calm. If we are calm mentally, then we can listen, and if we can listen then we can learn.”
Until I heard Jack speak I knew that the meetings were of tremendous benefit to me and that almost invariably I would feel better afterwards. As an example, in early sobriety I went to a meeting determined to drink afterwards, but decided I would take in one last meeting to prove that AA wouldn’t work. Of course afterwards, the idea of picking up a drink seemed ridiculous. Something happened during the meeting that I now believe was the therapeutic effect as described by Jack.
Getting an alcoholic to attend a meeting in the first place can be very challenging. In my own case there was no way I would go to a meeting, never mind admitting to being an alcoholic. I then relented, attending two AA meetings purely to placate my wife and keep a marriage going. While I left the meeting even more convinced that I was not an alcoholic, AA did spoil my drinking. I never drank with the same ease again, having been exposed to the honest sharing of other alcoholics. But drink again I did.
I returned to AA three years later with the gift of desperation. Alcohol had stopped working for me and instead of relieving my anxieties, as it once had, it only made them worse. I experienced levels of unimaginable fear, and one night I realised I could not continue like this. Something had to be done and I was desperate to stop drinking.
I was a start/stop periodic drinker and prior to this had been trying to give up alcohol. I even circled days on a calendar when I hadn’t drunk in an attempt to stop. But the fears would build up again and this overly sensitive, nervous system of mine would require relief. I thought I could just have a few drinks, settle the shakes down, get some sleep and, continue on. The morning after I would hate myself for busting, and throw out the leftover beer (at 2 am to avoid detection). Then a few weeks later I would buy some more and start again. Yet through all this period of time, I did have a grip on the third tradition, even though I was unaware of it at the time.
So, at 29 days off the grog I got back to AA and was willing to give it a go. Terry from Kogarah used to ask, “Are you living the life you want to live; if not has alcohol got anything to do with it?” “Has alcohol cost you more than money?” “Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?” And Irish Des used to say, “If you don’t get AA maybe AA will get you.” This is essentially what happened to me; my resistance was worn down by the love and concern of other members.
Railway Norm told me “You have to be ruthless about your sobriety. Don’t let anybody or anything come between you and the first step.” He also emphasised, “This is not an overnight affair.”
Generally, the message was very simple “Don’t pick up the first drink, one day at a time, go to meetings and get involved.” “One drink is too many, a hundred’s not enough.” “If you don’t pick up the first drink you can’t get drunk.” “You need to go to meetings to stay sober.” “Give time time.”
The early days were hard — withdrawals, shakes, sleepless nights, the racing mind. But, the meetings settled me down as Jack described, giving me some relief. I instinctively knew that somehow the answer lay in the meetings of AA.
Although I was literate, I was unable to read in the beginning and was concerned that I would not be able to stay sober if I couldn’t read the literature. But Little Davey told me not to worry, to put the books aside, that I could come back to them later. The first book I read at nine months sober was a children’s’ book with pictures and I was so proud of myself. It took me years to read the literature but there is no sobriety timetable that dictates where you should be at any given length of sobriety.
That being said, there are plenty of sobriety experts (Stepologists) in the fellowship more than happy to tell you how you’re not getting sober the right way. The Stepologists claim that their way is the only way and you had better take notice of what they say and do it the right way. Bill from Paddington told me, “No one speaks for AA and the best way to get sober is the way that works for you.” So I ignored the Stepologists and instead took notice of members with experience in staying sober while dealing with all sorts of problems in life. Relaxer Jack used to say, “The young man knows it all, the old man has seen it all.”
I had difficulty talking and holding a conversation in the early days, and struggled with sharing. I needed a drink to converse, so Stan from Ramsgate advised me to start telling my story, disclosing what I used to be like, what happened, and what I was like now. Initially, I could not see the benefit of this, but over time I began to see and understand that my drinking was driven by alcoholism. And maybe the good old days weren’t so good.
The AA storytellers attracted me to sobriety through their stories, even though in the early days I still felt apart and separate from the fellowship. Since I was only a periodic drinker, I honestly doubted if I was a real alcoholic. I held on to the view that real alcoholics could not go one day without a drink. Once again the old-timers encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing, and I did love going to meetings.
Then I heard a speaker called Athol share a periodic drinking story very similar to mine, and he spoke to Broken Hill Jack about this dilemma. He could stay away from alcohol for long periods of time without being interested in it. Jack said to him, “The question you need to ask yourself is not how long it is between your drinking spells, but rather after you take the first drink how long before you have the second drink.” Athol replied, “It’s only a matter of seconds.” Then Jack responded, “I wonder why that is?” Bingo. I understood I only needed to take that first sip of alcohol to trigger the physical compulsion and mental obsession.
So, over time I gradually became part of the AA story of one alcoholic sharing their experience, strength, and hope with another alcoholic. As well as a drinking story, I began to have a sobriety story. Like the older sober members, I began to learn how to handle all sorts of problems without the need to pick up a drink.
I still couldn’t read, but I listened to CD’s in my car on the way to and from work as a way of learning. The Australian AA history CD’s hooked me in, giving me a sense of belonging to something that had a history and was still developing. I met members who knew our AA co-founders from their early days and they would quote them and share their experience.
I was under the impression that if I did the steps the “right way,” with the “right sponsor,” and understood the big book the “right way,” and did it all at the “right time,” then I would be elevated to some position of mental nirvana. Of course I was very frustrated and disappointed with myself when this just wasn’t happening. I then heard a recording of Dr Sylvester Minogue, an alcoholic psychiatrist and co-founder of Australian Alcoholics Anonymous in 1945. He said, “You are what you are. You have to accept yourself as an alcoholic and AA can’t change you. All AA does is to teach you a philosophy of life, a way of living so that you can learn to live with yourself and put up with yourself.” Hearing Minogue was a big relief and allowed me to take the pressure off myself.
My transition to atheism came over a long period of time and started at around seventeen years sober. I had the industrial strength Irish Catholic God of fear beaten into me as a kid. So initially, I had to learn how to unwind all of that and was advised to establish a relationship with a loving God. I thought I had achieved this, but still the prayers seemed hollow and meaningless. My breakthrough came in December of 2015 when I attended an AA meeting in Orlando, Florida. A member shared about being an atheist and explained that he could nonetheless put all the steps into his life. What a thing to hear. I didn’t realise that atheists existed in AA. The next speaker was a Christian woman whose share was a lambasting of him personally. But it didn’t matter because I had heard him and now knew for certain that atheists could stay sober in AA.
A few weeks later I was in Berkley, California and attended an atheist AA meeting and was in awe at being in a roomful of atheist alcoholics. The secretary gave me some useful website contacts that allowed me to access a wealth of resources.
We now have a Quad A (Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) meeting in Sydney (six weeks in) that provides a space for atheists to experience our storytelling, fellowship, and sobriety.
My story continues and grows with AA and I attend all the meetings that suit me. I don’t want to change anything to do with the program, as I got sober without atheist AA meetings. However we do need a space for like-minded people so that they can feel safe and comfortable sharing their doubts about the “God stuff.”
I have quoted AA members in this writing to acknowledge the importance of what they said and its impact on my sobriety, and I hope that some of you readers will benefit from this too.
So, I will finish with one final quote from Broken Hill Jack: “Love many, trust a few, and learn to paddle your own canoe.”
About the Author, PJ
PJ migrated to Sydney Australia from Ireland in 1989 and got sober in 1993. Having come from an Irish tradition of oral storytelling he naturally gravitated towards the wonderful Sydney AA storytellers, sharing experience, strength, and hope. This has proven to be a mainstay of his sobriety with the tried and tested formula of sharing in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. He co-founded the Sydney Brookvale Quad-A ID meeting with Dave in February 2017 and has enjoyed the tremendous boost to sobriety that being part of a new meeting provides. The Brookvale meeting continues to grow and develop and provides a safe space for those not sure about the ‘God’ bit.
Original photos by PJ 1. Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, 2. Big Book (Jim Burwell’s story Vicious Cycle)
The audio version of this story was 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, please send an email to email@example.com