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