Episode 61: PJ and Sydney’s Brookvale Quad A Group

In this episode of AA Beyond Belief-The Podcast, we meet PJ, a co-founder of the Brookvale Quad-A Meeting in Sydney, Australia.

PJ started drinking as a teenager in his native Ireland, and to this day, he can remember the effect of that first drink. He was 19 years old, at a pub in Dublin and nervous about approaching a young woman. After drinking a beer, it seemed everything that was once impossible, was now possible, and he felt as if all was well with him and the world. The drink helped to draw him out of his terrible shyness, and he suddenly found himself easily joining the conversation and feeling that for once, he was part of the crowd. He loved this.

During the first five years of his drinking, PJ didn’t experience many problems, but over time, alcohol gradually took over more and more of his life. He began to experience blackouts and drunk driving episodes, and he would often not return home after a bout of drinking. His life was, as we say in AA, “unmanageable.”

Looking for a change, PJ migrated to Australia at the age of 29, but unfortunately, he found that he brought his problems with him. He became a binge drinker who could go extended periods of time without drinking. He once stopped for a year, which gave him the impression that he couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic. Now he understands that he was in denial, and was at that time just unable to admit that he was an alcoholic. 

Under pressure from his wife, PJ sought help and began to see a psychologist who concluded that though he does drink too much, perhaps he could learn how to moderate and control his drinking. She helped him come to terms and find peace with much of his past, but this wasn’t enough to resolve his alcoholism. He was unsuccessful at controlled drinking, so at the suggestion of the doctor, he began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

During this period, his wife had enough and left him, which gave PJ the freedom and rationale to drink as much as he wanted. Feeling defeated, he returned to his psychologist who recommended that he see another doctor with more experience and success in helping alcoholics. 

She referred him to one of her colleagues who encouraged PJ to address his drinking problem upfront because in so doing, he would find that many of his other problems would disappear. He suggested PJ continue attending AA to learn from other alcoholics how to live without drinking. PJ followed the doctor’s advice, and he was going to a lot of meetings and making many new friends in the program. He’s been sober ever since.

Though Australia is, for the most part, a secular nation, there was still enough mention of God in the meetings to make PJ feel uncomfortable. However, this wasn’t enough to turn him off from AA altogether. He latched on to the stories told by other AAs and the kindness and warmth of the Fellowship. Oldtimers encouraged him to establish a habit of attending meetings. 

The religiosity of AA wasn’t overbearing in those days. PJ says that people suggested that one leave his or her religion at the door on the way to the meeting, and to pick it up again on the way out. Though there were some religious people in meetings, for the most part, it seemed that religion didn’t belong in AA. It was an outside issue. 

Though PJ is an atheist and doesn’t need a supernatural deity to intervene in his life to keep him sober; he is sure that he couldn’t stop drinking on his own, and he did come to believe that the Fellowship was a power greater than he, and this is what he relies on to maintain sobriety. He believes that bonding with others in AA made sobriety possible and ultimately saved his life. 

PJ says that there were some fundamentalist AA groups in Sydney when he was first getting sober, and he remembers them coming to his group, pushing a very rigid approach to the program. It wasn’t as if they were sharing their experience; it was more as if they were selling this strict approach to AA. This insistence on one right way to work the program didn’t sit right with PJ, and he noted that the proponents of this ideology only had a few years of sobriety. On the other hand, oldtimers with 30 to 40 years of sobriety were much less rigid and encouraged PJ to relax and take it easy. PJ listened to the oldtimers. 

After about 17 years of sobriety which involved attending meetings and reciting prayers, PJ started to feel a little hollow because he wasn’t entirely comfortable with what we in secular AA call “the God bit.” Then he met an atheist at an AA meeting in Florida which changed everything. This person was the first atheist that PJ ever met in AA, and the experience helped with his recovery.  

With a renewed excitement for AA, PJ searched online to learn more about atheists in AA, and in his search, he discovered AA Agnostica and books such as Adam N.’s Common Sense Recovery. The stories on AA Agnostica and the books reflected the experience of secular people in AA, and this was a huge inspiration to PJ.  

Returning to Sydney, PJ and his friend Dave started a secular AA meeting called Quad-A Brookvale. They began meeting at the end of January 2017, and the group is growing quickly. Many people find the meeting after specifically seeking a secular AA meeting, but others find the listing online and attend the meeting simply because the location, time and day is convenient for them. 

The meeting is what PJ calls an “ID Meeting.” These meetings usually last for an hour and a half and involve a person sharing his or her story. The ID meeting is all about storytelling, which PJ loves. Because the Brookvale Quad-A group only has an hour for their meeting, they had to change the format a bit to shorten the opening readings so the speaker can start as soon as possible. 

The group is attracting believers and nonbelievers alike. PJ likes this because he sees his group first and foremost as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where all are welcome regardless of their religious belief or lack of belief. He doesn’t want people to think of the meeting as an “atheist meeting.” No, this is a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Newcomers who have never before attended AA, and who would not attend AA if not for the option of a secular AA meeting are also finding Quad-A Brookvale, and as PJ and I talked, I told him that we have the same experience at my group, We Agnostics Kansas City. We get a lot of people who have never before attended a traditional AA meeting. They don’t know what it’s like to pray during an AA meeting or to read from the Big Book. Some new members of my group don’t even know what a Big Book is!

PJ thinks it’s important that all AA members, regardless of belief should be under a single umbrella. He fears the danger that the secularists split into their own camp. During our discussion, we thought that perhaps studying and learning the history of AA is a way to bring us together. 

I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast. I found PJ to be a lot of fun. He is a thoughtful person with a lot of helpful insight to anyone interested in recovery from alcohol addiction. 

Thank you, PJ for participating. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I hope that I did a decent job with your story.

Additional Reading

On May 7, 2017, we published PJ’s article Notes from Down Under: Meetings, Storytellers, Fellowship and Sobriety

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  1. Doris A July 9, 2017 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    PJ – what a delight to hear your voice. I enjoyed this podcast from start to finish.  I am going to remember “there is no wrong way to get sober…no right way to pick up that first drink”. Thanks John and PJ for your conversation – I listened to the podcast while enjoying a slice of watermelon sitting in my yard.

     

    • pj July 10, 2017 at 3:27 am Reply

      Thanks Doris, the old timers dropped some marvellous gems of wisdom when they shared and I hung on to them for dear life. The gems are still valid today. I really enjoyed talking to John, he takes the pressure off you.

      Regards

      PJ

  2. Joe C. July 9, 2017 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Last week, maybe I said, “Wow, life-s story… Best ever!” The reason for the ranking is not what he said, I don’t remember what he said; it was the way he made me feel and I still remember that.  This week I feel that PJ’s is the best AA story ever and who wouldn’t be transformed from hopelessness to hopefulness when they heard today’s discussion between two alcoholics?

    PJ, if you’re planning a trip, maybe you could think about ICSAA 2018 in Toronto. It’s a great city for families if you’ve never been and there are lots of folks who don’t listen to podcasts but would live to hear you identify. Maybe one day Sidney will bid for the International Conference of Secular AA; wouldn’t that be a trip?

    I, too have been to AA in many cities in many time zones and it is true that there are easygoing and rigid AAs everywhere. But what rigid AAs insist is pure AA in South Florida is different than what the same personality types insist AA is in Nee York or Fort McMurray Alberta. It’s different again in Glascow and Montreal, too.

    Even those of us with zealous opinions about what secular AA or is not, don’t agree with each other about everything.  PJ talked about following his gut feelings and that brings up a great point-we follow our own compass and take responsibility for the AA decisions we make. We can always make a new decision based on our experience, later.

    Another great take away was, “There is no way to do sobriety wrong just like there’s no way to take the first drink correctly”… Sage advice.

    • PJ July 9, 2017 at 5:25 pm Reply

      Thanks Joe, I would love to attend ICSAA in Toronto but can’t make it this time. Hopefully, down the track I will be able to attend a convention. I find the differences in AA are important to help with identification and provide a choice for alcoholics to get sober. I can find what works for me and a place where I can feel comfortable.

      PJ

  3. Lance B. July 9, 2017 at 8:01 am - Reply

    Thanks, PJ;

    When one visits meetings in other places, one finds that clever ways of illustrating ideas grow up in those places which rarely get used at home.  This podcast was especially lush with such “cutisms”.  Being born 4 or 5 drinks short of normal seems a valuable description of me.  Kissing the glass for the first drink–isn’t that an apt description?

    But also more thought provoking stuff gets stimulated.  I have long felt that I had that pressure to work harder in the beginning given that not drinking was so hard.  And I never was able to verbalize the problem with that until now–the solution for me actually turned out to be not trying so hard–take it easy, one step at a time, the rest of my life to be an alcoholic, etc were helping, but I couldn’t exactly see why that could be true when all my education said I must put more effort in to get more results.

    Then too, the problem for our secular groups in not liking the steps as written, but not really knowing what steps all of us might like–so why not just leave them alone and encourage everyone to just adapt as comfortable to them.

    So this podcast was special to me for ideas but also for my connection with the quad A meeting north of Sydney which I visited.  Nice to be able to actually picture the library room where they meet and the table downstairs where they have coffee afterward.  I loved the one meeting I attended with the secular books I had become familiar with displayed on a side table.   Coffee available in that little room on the side and a chair on each side of the chairman table (that is a layout I found at several AA meetings in Australia).

    A fun listen.

    • PJ July 9, 2017 at 5:47 pm Reply

      Thanks Lance, I think we were only about three weeks old when you came to visit and we were very much trying to find our own way in uncharted territory. Now that we are five months old we are still very much trying to find our own way in uncharted territory. But this uncertainty keeps us alert and fresh and focused on helping newcomers. Lately we have had a few new people come to us who have never attended AA before. They come to us because they are “not sure about the God bit” so at least we can provide a safe space for them. This website is a tremendous resource to refer them to as we all try to find our way in unchartered territory. The great fact for all of us is that we are not alone.

      Thanks again Lance.

      PJ

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