Episode 69: Petrina S.

In today’s episode, we meet Petrina S., who helped found the Curl Curl Secular ID meeting located about 18 kilometers from the central business district in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, and about 10 kilometers from the other secular AA meeting in metropolitan Sydney—the Brookvale Secular ID meeting.

Petrina is focused on her sobriety and committed to her group. She wants to do her part to help assure that atheists and agnostics have a place in AA, and she feels strongly about the importance of unity among secular AA groups so they can stay centered on their primary purpose. The podcast begins with Petrina sharing her story, and then evolves into a conversation about how we interpret the 12 Steps as atheists and implement them in our lives. Petrina found it surprisingly easy to leave the “god business” out of the steps.

Growing up with alcoholic parents, Petrina had an aversion to drinking. She hated everything about it and recalls watching how her parents’ drinking changed from a social activity shared with friends to a more lonely affair as people stopped coming around. Yet, this didn’t keep her away from alcohol for very long. Just before she was 18, she got drunk for the first time while out at a club with friends. The drinks made her feel fantastic, and she found that she could easily break out of her shyness and join the party. However, soon enough, the party was over, and Petrina found herself in the bathroom getting sick with the room spinning. The evening ended with her being unceremoniously dumped onto her parents’ lawn. It was all downhill from there.

Petrina drank to get drunk, and as her alcoholism progressed, she became a blackout drinker, which at the time she thought was entirely normal. Like her parents, her drinking was no longer social, and people began to stay away. For the next ten years, she was unable to drink with any degree of control, but she never tried to stop altogether. Instead, she did her best to manage her hangovers and react to all the problems that came her way. 

Looking back, Petrina can see how her entire life centered around drinking. She was either drinking, thinking about drinking, or hungover. She did her best to cover it up, but one day a friend came over for an unannounced visit. Petrina was drunk and doing her best to hide it, but she could tell from the expression in her friend’s eyes that the game was up, her cover was blown. 

Realizing she was painted into a corner, Petrina contacted a treatment center and asked for help. During treatment, she did a lot of writing, and through the process, she was confronted by how often she thinks about drinking, not drinking or managing her drinking. She was amazed by how much of her time was taken up with these thoughts. One piece of advice she received in treatment that she remembers so well was to “prepare to feel uncomfortable.” Petrina found this to be good advice, and she realized that since alcohol numbed the pain, there was no discomfort when she was drinking. 

Leaving treatment, Petrina went to AA meetings and was very focused on doing what she needed to do to get and stay sober. She read only AA literature, attended 90 meetings in 90 days, and was open to suggestions. The god business didn’t bother her much, and she took to heart what people said about AA being “spiritual, not religious.” The only time she winced at the god talk was when a newcomer showed up, and people would lay it on a bit too heavily. She was afraid that it would scare them off, and indeed it seemed a good number were scared away. Still, Petrina took the program seriously and even tried to help others find a Higher Power.

A lot has changed, and today Petrina identifies as an atheist and is quite happy and comfortable with it. She says the blinders came off when she realized that she was an atheist, and she started to see and experience things much differently. She began to share in meetings about how she progressed from a person open to the idea of a god playing a role in her sobriety to becoming agnostic, and then ultimately realizing that she’s an atheist. It was difficult at first for her to come out openly as an atheist in AA. As she spoke her truth, she would observe people shifting in their chairs, laughing at her, or trying to assure her that she would eventually come around. 

Within our diversity, we rest on a singleness of purpose – EMBRACE UNITY

Her difficulties as an atheist in AA were relieved after she learned about secular AA meetings and started going to the Secular ID meeting in Brookvale. She loved the meeting and the fellowship. People at the Brookvale Secular ID meetings weren’t laughing at her or shifting in their seats or correcting her or trying to help her find a Higher Power. She was again at home in AA, and she liked the meeting so much that she started up another secular ID meeting in nearby Curl Curl.  

The Curl Curl Secular ID meeting uses the same format as the Brookvale meeting because Petrina believes that for the purpose of unity and staying focused on our singleness of purpose, meetings should be standardized. While she appreciates and respects the diverse experience among secular AAs, she feels that we secularists in AA need to come together to an agreement on some sort of standard format for our meetings—with of course a flexibility. She believes we should come together for the greater good and to sharpen our focus on our primary purpose. 

Thank you, Petrina, for joining me for this podcast and for taking the time to share your experience, strength and hope with the rest of us. 


By Petrina S. 

I did mention my parents at the beginning, and that they were practicing alcoholics.

After I joined AA, I never saw them drink again – this was a choice they made, and it was never spoken of, it just happened.  However, I was still very resentful of the effects their alcoholism had had on me growing up.

One of the things that highly motivated me was a therapist who warned me,” You don’t want to be standing around holding a well-tended garden of resentment when they pass away”. I worked hard in (and outside) recovery on this.  I was eventually able to overcome my resentments towards them and moved along the dotted line to a forgiveness.  I would never have believed that this could be possible

Because I was sober and had been working a program, I got to have a kind and close relationship with them during the final years of their lives, and while very challenging and tiring, I eventually became their carer in their home.  Five years ago, my dad passed away and then my mum two years later.  If I had still been drinking, I would have been left with more than a well-tended garden of resentment.

On another note, something that a sponsor I had said to me more than once in the early days – you need to find your place in AA. I know she meant this from a longevity angle.  I didn’t understand what she was saying then, but now I do.  So now I am finding my place in AA again.

Mentioned in the podcast: 

Episode 61: PJ and Sydney’s Brookvale Secular ID Meeting

Saying Goodbye to My Home Group

Secular AA Meetings in Australia

Al-Anon Family Groups

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3 years ago

I loved listening to the two of you talk–so much honest sharing and humor. Thank-you!

Joe C
4 years ago

I was talking with a sociologist/academic who has studied AA – women and the larger 12-Step community to be specific (I’ll be sharing on Rebellion Dogs Radio soon). She isn’t an addict; like anyone she has family members and friend who’ve fallen on hard times and been helped by NA, AA etc. Some are clean and sober a la AA, some are clean sober another way and some didn’t make it. We talked about the regionalism of AA. Every town has a variety of AA meetings. But what Trish Tavis noticed, visiting AA meetings in the North East and then… Read more »

4 years ago

Great podcast and I particularly liked the discussion on unity and carefully considering secular AA in the context of the broader AA community. One of the initial problems we had with Brookvale was being perceived as an athiest meeting not an AA meeting. A name change from Atheist to Secular helped in that regards. But at the end of the day I think time will be our ally as long as we remain true to the last line of the Preamble “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.”. John I am so glad to… Read more »

4 years ago

Good to hear more Aussie voices – Justin We Agnostics Canberra.

Thomas B.
Thomas B.
4 years ago

A wonderful heartfelt story and message — Thank you, Petrina !~!~! Though I doubt we’ll ever be able to herd our diverse numbers of secular AA members into one uniform format, I salute your diligent efforts to insure that our secular stream of AA groups and members stay fully active and engaged within traditional AA, serving as powers of example for newcomers who can learn from our ability to “live and let live” with the god stuff. I often identify myself as an atheist in the traditional AA meetings I attend, always in a respectful and non-judgmental manner. It’s what… Read more »