Early Shaky Days


What was it that kept me sober in those early shaky days of sobriety? It was in the early 1990’s in Sydney Australia when I found myself sitting in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was incredibly frightened but I was so desperate to change my life that I had no choice but to force myself to walk through those doors. A warm handshake with an assurance from an AA member that I would be all right was the perfect greeting I received when I walked into the meeting room.

I appreciated anonymity (even though I didn’t have an exact idea what it was) when the only personal information an AA member asked for was my first name. At the end of the meeting the same AA member told me, “The first drink does the damage; don’t pick up that first drink one day at a time no matter what happens, and come to another meeting.” These two pieces of information saved my life because they simplified how to get sober in AA in a manner that my scrambled brain could understand. Also, even though I did not realize it at the time, I had the third tradition: “The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking.” I acted on the advice given to me and have been sober ever since.

I heard some members say that I had to read the Big Book straight away and do the steps immediately or I wouldn’t stay sober. Initially, my mind was like a food blender on full speed, and despite being literate I was unable to read any of the literature. If I tried to read, my focus jumped all over the print, and even if I did manage to make sense of a line I forget what I read in a matter of seconds. I was worried about this and thought I would never get sober because I couldn’t read the AA literature. Little Davey suggested I put the AA books to one side and come back to them later when my head cleared, which was great advice. I was able to stop putting pressure on myself, essential to achieving quality sobriety. In time, I was able to make a start on reading the AA literature and continue to do so to this day: I just had to be patient.

Little Davey told me how many AA members were unable to read or write, but they got sober. That is one of the reasons why the steps are read out loud at the beginning of the meeting. Little Davey also pointed out that what I needed to be able to understand in AA was “The Language of the Heart.” Scottish Jock from Parramatta used to say, “What keeps me sober might get you drunk.” This allowed me to just be myself and get sober the way that works for me, not anybody else.

I used to worry about my shakes in the meetings and not being able to sit still. I thought I might get thrown out for it, but then I heard Maureen from Edgecliff share about a similar concern she had. A member called Greg the dentist said to her, “Maureen, remember that you are sitting in a room full of ‘professional shakers’ so you just shake away.”

The drinking stories and laughter were so important for me, helping me to identify as an alcoholic in order to accept myself as I was. I realised that AA had an answer for me, that I could get well and lead a happy, sober life if I wanted to.

I would follow certain members around to meetings to hear them share. For example, ‘Railway Norm’ was a regular at the Kogarah Friday lunchtime meeting and I would hang on to every word he said. Railway Norm had been a steam train driver and used to say, “If you were a passenger on my train and knew the condition of the driver up the front, you would want to get off straight away.” He also had the habit of abandoning trains full of passengers in the middle of nowhere so he could get himself a drink, creating chaos on the NSW train system. I can still vividly remember sitting at that meeting of laughter and love and slowly coming to the realisation that AA can work for me.

Railway Norm also spoke about the deadly nature of alcoholism. His entry into AA was initiated by his brother, also an alcoholic, who took him to his first meeting in 1950. Norm got sober but, ironically, his brother was still in denial about his own alcoholism. As a doctor, he considered himself to be too intelligent and knowledgeable to be an alcoholic. While Norm accepted his alcoholism and what AA had to offer, his brother refused to have anything to do with AA, hanging himself some years later. This is an all too familiar tragic story we hear in the rooms of AA. The impact of this story on me was profound, bringing sharply into my mind the fact that my life was on the line. I began to take my sobriety very seriously and was determined to do what was necessary to avoid picking up that first drink.

I heard a number of precious one liners at the meetings in the early days. I would hang on to a line I heard at a meeting and it would see me through the day. I was told, “You didn’t get sick overnight, don’t expect to get well overnight.” And Irish Des used to say, “If you don’t get AA, maybe AA will get you,” which is exactly what happened to me.

Jimmy from Ramsgate used to quote Father Tom Dunlea, a Roman Catholic priest, alcoholic, and co-founder of Australian AA. He used to say, “You can never be too stupid to get AA but you can be too clever,” and also to “Keep it simple, take it easy, and make haste slowly.” Father Tom also cautioned us about AA’s survival when he used to say, “AA can never be destroyed from the outside, but it can be destroyed from within.” Father Tom was talking about his own experience of a split between the members in Sydney AA’s ‘Early Shaky Days.’ There were some who believed that American AA would not work for the Australian alcoholic. They broke away from the fledgling AA group, starting their own version of AA. Many of them perished by picking up a drink, while some of the breakaway members did re-join AA and achieved sobriety.

Curly Frank told me “This is the easier softer way.” Terry from Kogarah used to quote Sylvester Minogue, a psychiatrist, alcoholic, and co-founder of Australian AA. He said “If you had a watch that kept perfect time you wouldn’t take it apart to see how it worked. You would just accept that it worked and use it. So, treat the steps the same way, don’t take them apart, just use them as they are.” Terry put it me this way, “If you want what we have, do what we do.” This meant I had to stop analysing the steps and getting stuck in analysis paralysis. Instead I took practical and simple actions to get and stay sober. So I stayed away from the first drink, went to meetings, got involved, and tried to help where I could. An understanding of the steps came later when I could look back on the changes brought about in my life by doing what Terry and the other old timers did.

In a similar vein, Leo from Newtown used to say “You don’t have to understand the workings of an internal combustion engine in order to drive a motor vehicle. You just need to know how to start the motor, engage drive, accelerate, brake, and steer. In the same way, you don’t have to understand how AA works in order to stay sober, you just need to know what to do.” Metaphorically speaking, I began to drive my sobriety without any need to understand exactly how it all worked. I could see the positive and remarkable changes in my life as proof that what I was doing in AA was working.

Some of the meetings I didn’t like and I thought there was something wrong with me. I had the impression I had to attend them even though I didn’t like them. I spoke to Jimmy from Ramsgate about this and he just said to me in his matter of fact manner, “Of course you realise that the roof won’t fall in if you don’t come back to this meeting.” I laughed and started to attend meetings where I felt comfortable.

I thought I was the only person who suffered from ungrounded and unfounded fears until I heard Bill from Paddington share. Bill said “My drinking got to a stage where I had to have a drink in order to answer a knock on the front door. Then it progressed to the stage where I had to have a drink in case I had to answer a knock on the front door.” What beautiful words for me to hear from someone who suffered from fears just like I did. I was no longer ‘terminally unique.’

Stan from Ramsgate gave me a tape of the first AA public meeting in the Sydney Town Hall in 1957. One of the speakers on that tape was Sylvester Minogue. Minogue described certain characteristics of the alcoholic. It’s the best ten-minute description of me I have ever heard, and he defines the most outstanding characteristic of the alcoholic as “restlessness,” the inability to be at ease with oneself. He said, “You have to accept yourself as you are, you can’t change yourself. All that AA does is to teach you a philosophy of life, a way of living, that allows you to accept yourself and put up with yourself.” Hearing this description helped me to learn to be myself, and to live more comfortably in my own skin without trying to be perfect.

Over time, AA has opened up for me and I have been able to live my sobriety in practical daily living. I hold onto a quote from Sylvester Minogue on living happily sober, “Forget yourself, help others, and live twenty-four hours at a time.” I’m so grateful for the simple, practical advice given to me in those early shaky days.

About the Author

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, who shared their 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 Secular ID meeting with Dave in February, 2017 and has enjoyed a tremendous boost to sobriety from being part of a new meeting. The Brookvale meeting continues to grow and develop and provides a safe space for those not sure about the “God” bit.


By Cope C.


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  1. Dani December 26, 2017 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    Hi pj are you aware of any secular/agnostic al anon mtgs in sydney pls? Google hasn’t helped. Thx and well over the season!

    • Doris A January 11, 2018 at 9:24 am Reply

      Dani, I am going to send PJ you question by email, I know there is a noon one in the area. I will let him tell you.  Also, have you looked in this directory?


  2. Gerald October 2, 2017 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the memories, and they’re mostly memories of feelings, now, of how the local cast of characters made me feel when I got sober in ’93 in Ohio, USA. They made me feel better: hope, validation, humor.

    Life saving words that I do remember: “Don’t kill yourself now because you’ll be killing the wrong person – you’re not the person that you’re meant to be! You have to find out who you are, but we can’t tell you who that is. Ditto about ‘God’. And those childhood hurts, it’s what you did to yourself with what was done to you.”



  3. Galen T. October 2, 2017 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks for passing along some of the wisdom you received when first getting sober, PJ.  Either I got less advice than you, or your memory has hung in better than mine. I do remember being told repeatedly not to take myself so seriously.  In fact, not to take myself seriously at all.  I very much needed that advice, and still do on occasion.

    When I read about ‘Railway Norm’ leaving his passengers to fend for themselves, I laughed out loud.

    Thanks for the laugh and for your article.



  4. Joe C. October 1, 2017 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    This is a trip down memory lane; my own path of weird AA folk-wisdom included, “Remember, if you get run over by a train it isn’t the Caboose that kills you; and it isn’t the last drink that did you in-it was the first. Of course trains don’t have Cabooses anymore so I guess that metaphor is out of circulation. There was, a pickle never becomes a cucumber again; you aren’t going back to social drinking. There were more too, of course.

    I certainly enjoyed this “early days” recollection; it made me smile.

  5. John S October 1, 2017 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    I love this story as it reminds me of my own early shaky days of sobriety when it really wasn’t certain that I would stick around. I also had a sponsor who told me not to worry about reading and steps for now and that was good for me. I just had to not drink and go to meetings for a while.

    There’s a lot of wisdom in AA and if we are lucky, it seems that we get what we need right when we need it. I’m like PJ in that I hung on those words from the people who came before me. I trusted them enough to follow their suggestions.

    My recovery has been an evolutionary process with my understanding of what works for me constantly changing as I change. That’s perhaps as it should be. What helps me today at 29 years sober is much different from what I needed at 29 days sober.

    Thanks, PJ for your contribution. I enjoy your talent for story telling. I hope one day to have a secular ID meeting here in Kansas City in the not too distant future.

  6. Skip D. October 1, 2017 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    About half way through reading this story, I had to scroll back up to the top of the page to be sure I was reading a story from Beyond Belief. Many thanks to Life-j for expressing my thoughts about this story, exactly.

    • John S October 1, 2017 at 3:57 pm Reply

      There really isn’t a standard formula for our stories because they are based on our experience, and the experience we share, even among us secularists is quite diverse.

      The more people who are kind enough to contribute articles to our site help to ensure that we have the broadest spectrum of experience as possible. You will find articles here that are anti-steps and pro steps, anti spirituality and pro spirituality, and everything in between, but all of it is mostly the expression of people’s individual experiences as they understand it at that time.

      If anyone out there has not contributed an article to AA Beyond Belief, I encourage you to do so. We are now entering our third year of publishing and it only happens because of people who are kind and generous enough and brave enough to allow us to publish their very personal thoughts and experiences.

      Thanks again, PJ. I do appreciate your taking this opportunity to share in this forum, and I hope you continue to write as you go through this ever evolving journey of recovery.

      • life-j October 1, 2017 at 7:42 pm Reply

        Hmm, John, you’re the boss here, and I appreciate all the hard and dedicated work you put into this, and continue to do so. I couldn’t have done it and so, obviously, couldn’t have done it better.

        But I can not understand that you would hint that our purpose here is to have  “the broadest spectrum of experience possible” – it seems that there are some experiences we would just as well let people write about elsewhere?  Such as the genuinely religious, just to pick an obvious example, and indeed I don’t remember you ever including any of those. I do think, and to the extent my opinion matters, that PJ’s article for the most part falls within what it makes sense to me that you publish but I would have hoped that you would have challenged PJ in the editorial stage on those bits of advice which he rather uncritically recounts, and which we by now know to often be unhelpful, and often even detrimental.

        Seems that we do need to bust myths here, not perpetuate them. I perhaps represent the somewhat more radical wing of agnostic AA, and I would not try to foist upon your readership that my way is the only way. I see clearly that it isn’t, and so I do accept (well, what else could I do anyway, lol)  that some people for instance will write about their higher power and what not, while of course I won’t pass up many opportunities to speak against the higher power concept – yes, we do need some broadness of viewpoints, but we do need to keep in mind that some of the “AA wisdom” can be outright dangerous to some newcomers, and while we should be careful about attempting to shut it up, lest we succumb to something similar to our opposition, it seems that at least we need to keep challenging it. Strongly.

        • Galen T. October 2, 2017 at 2:09 pm Reply

          I always enjoy reading what you write, life-j, and a little controversy is hard to resist.  Plus, though I am not any more in charge here than John S., I did work a bit with PJ on the article.  So I will toss in my two cents.

          The reference to the steps seems to be the key point of discussion.  PJ reports a piece of advice he received when he was new that he should do the steps rather than take them apart.  He responded to this counsel by ceasing to analyze the steps, returning to them later in his sobriety when he had more perspective on his experience.  This is certainly no endorsement of the theism in the steps.

          Being an agnostic, atheist, or freethinker  does  not require rejecting the steps. When I take my sponsees through them I also caution them against over-analysis.  And we go through them just as they are laid out, with one exception.  They choose their higher power.  It may be the AA fellowship, the vibrations of love in the universe, or the natural world.  Or they may not have a higher power at all.  Whatever their higher power is or isn’t, we proceed on this basis, and it appears to work.

        • John S October 1, 2017 at 8:11 pm Reply

          I don’t think that I expressed myself very well. We are a site dedicated to the experience of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA, and that experience I have learned is varied and diverse, and I am proud of the fact that this site has for the most part reflected that.

          What I was really trying to hint at Life, is that we need people to send in articles. That is our lifeblood. The more articles we get from our community of secularists in AA, the better we will reflect our membership.

          I do think we need to be careful in our written communications to understand it’s not always easy to be clear and it’s super easy to be misunderstood.

          And, I am absolutely not the boss. I just work here.  This site belongs to you, and all the people who write here and post comments and read the articles and work behind the scenes to make it happen. We’ve been at it for two years now and it’s been a relatively positive experience for the most part. I think we have done a good job, thank in large measure to you Life.

          So, please anyone who is reading, please consider being so kind as to submit an article. See our submit an article page.

  7. Doris A October 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    PJ, it’s always a pleasure to read your articles. I wish I heard more colorful AA nicknames for people in my local AA community.  I am just called Seattle Doris (there is a woman in town known as New York Doris), a friend of mine is called Creepy Mike ( he doesn’t mind, and it’s only said in private), that is to distinguish from Angry Mike.  We could use a Railroad Norm.

    When I first came in the rooms I didn’t care for a lot of those catch-phrase sayings, but that was mostly due to being raised by a mentally ill AA mother who used them all the time.

    But I do have a clear memory of talking at meeting after a relapse, talking and crying really, and the woman next to me said “let us love you till you can love yourself”.  The flip side of that story is that I asked her to sponsor me, but at our first meeting she wanted me to get on my knees and pray.  AA was full of landmines those years, but now there are secular meetings that allow many to find their own path.

    One more comment.  I often hope that people who attend my secular meeting consider going to some “good” traditional ones in town.  You hear years of wisdom there that may not have seeped into our own community. 

    Cope, I love the artwork and look forward to sending this to my homegroup.

  8. life-j October 1, 2017 at 11:55 am - Reply

    PJ, thanks, AA is a funny mixture of sensible advice, and conservative stuff which really doesn’t serve us. About half of what you write falls into one category, half in the other.

    I particularly noticed the advice on not picking the steps apart, with the inference that they are working perfectly. This is some of the stuff we are trying to fight. So personally I waited about 25 years before I started taking the steps apart to the best of my ability.

    Just because they work perfectly for the 5% that they work perfectly for, and work sort of half-way for another 5% of those who at one time or another walk through our doors, but are just a bunch of religious revival for the rest – who in many cases go back out to the bottle.

    I have heard it a few too many times: Don’t fix it if it aint broke. Who says it aint? The few for whom a conservative religious movement is the perfect answer to their alcoholism. Yes there really are people like that, and I’m happy for them. Just not so happy that it’s the only solution they want the rest of us to have.

    • Doris A October 1, 2017 at 9:06 pm Reply

      I am confused by your comments Life J, the author wrote about his experience when he got sober many years ago.  The point was that there were many things he heard during those shaky days that got him sober, it was his connection to the people he mentioned.  How that was taken as a dis-service to secular AA makes me scratch my head. He said he worked the steps back then but he didn’t say the reader should.  (By the way, as his bio says he has started two secular meeting this year.)  We published a variety of viewpoints, and when an author writes about their very personal experience getting sober on this site, I am befuddled that one would argue with that.  It wasn’t an opinion article, it was “this is what it was like for me when I got sober”. I have trouble understanding how any of can critique a person’s personal experience.

      • life-j October 2, 2017 at 3:35 pm Reply


        I’m really not looking to start a trench warfare here.

        However, when people told PJ to read the Big Book and work the steps right away, he recounts someone who told him he didn’t have to do that.

        That is the sort of thing I’m looking for with all the rest of the sayings and advice he recounts.

        I could write a story about how they all told me to pray when I first got sober – but so what? Without some critical commentary on the advice, I am condoning the advice, it seems to me.

        As a newcomer to AA,  if I read this story, the only advice I would know to not necessarily take, would be the immediate reading of the big book. All the rest, which is uncritically recounted, I would think that I ought to follow.

        I’m glad to hear that PJ started a couple of agnostic meetings. Indeed if something like that were not the case I would have wondered what he was doing here, since there was almost nothing critical about standard AA in the article.

        True, I guess there doesn’t have to be, but it does just seem like then it is kind of pointless.

        Instead a list not pretending to do anything more intelligent than to list the slogans could be posted, such as


        That list at least to me in itself exposes the mindlessness of standard AA (though some people might think it is absolutely wonderful). PJ’s article in spots feels like it condones it, even if the fact is that PJ doesn’t.

        No matter what category the article falls into, such as in this case “Just telling what people told me in early recovery” it seems to me that what I presume we all agree is bad advice such as “just do the steps, don’t question them” – needs to be questioned, unless the article is called “Here is some of the outlandish advice I got when I first got sober”  – that would at least provide an umbrella-negation of the bad advice given, so we know it isn’t condoned, or an opening remark to that effect.

        Anyway …..


  9. Lance B. October 1, 2017 at 8:52 am - Reply

    More great quotes with insights to match.  I did not expect you to have more than last time you wrote.   The style works well for me.  Storytelling is indeed valuable the way you point it out.

    Your last article I made a list of all the quotes you gave us and carried it around for a while.   I think I shall do that again, PJ.  Some are more valuable for friends in the early shaky days, and some are more appropriate for guys like me who are in later stages.  Of course, even the shaky days quotes, are valuable for trying to remember and identify with those who are still in them.

    Thanks for another  gift to me and to the people I meet in the rooms.

    • Lance B. October 1, 2017 at 9:48 am Reply

      I no longer print every article produced on our websites, but did this one for use in my meeting coming up (or really any situation which I might encounter in an AA meeting).  And my experience is much improved.   Formerly all I got was the words in a rather jerky font.  This time all the great art work and a more professional looking font came out of the same printer and computer I’ve always used.  Easy as pushing the print button.

      So thanks to you people who keep improving our experience on aabeyondbelief.org.  as well as to PJ.

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