By Bob T.
Although a Brit, I got sober in Kyiv, Ukraine, in March, 2006. Fifteen years of abusing benzos, booze, marijuana – and, in my younger days, LSD – had left me with hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, insomnia, and out-of-body experiences. Panicked, I decided to leave my wife, fly back to the UK, and get myself committed. I longed for the rubber room, the professionalism, and especially the meds that would bring peaceful oblivion. My plan, however, was short-lived: I soon realized that I couldn’t fly in such a state and I went to AA instead.
There were only two people at my first meeting: a Christian and a Jewish guy. The former had been in AA around 20 years and had been sober 18 years, the latter for 3 years, with just 3 days. Both espoused allegiance to the god of their own understanding, and both praised AA. I was acutely mentally unwell, and a restoration to sanity was all I wanted. I no longer cared for alcohol or drugs, I just needed something to hold onto – something to stop me from becoming irreversibly insane. In my despairing, broken state I erroneously concluded that god was the ONLY way to do this.
Twenty minutes before my second meeting, I found myself in an Orthodox church before a Cross and an Icon of Christ – I “came to believe,” or so I thought. Instead of marking what I assumed would be the end of my despair, this moment actually marked the beginning of a tumultuous journey that culminated in my rejection of the core tenets of traditional AA: the powerlessness, the 1930’s medical hypothesis, the label “real alcoholic;” and faith in a Higher Power. But more of that later.
I threw myself into AA boots and all. I worked the Steps multiple times, sponsored (locally and nationally), established new meetings, donated literature, started a hotline and website for English speaking visitors, and served as English Group Rep. I soon became an AA Nazi, pursuing people after meetings who failed to see recovery the Big Book way. I earnestly quoted the literature at every opportunity, and espoused strict adherence to the Steps and Traditions.
I retranslated the Russian Big Book (unofficially), as it was in my eyes a poor translation that would produce an inferior recovery. (I completely overlooked the fact that people were recovering just fine.) While I was doing AA, however, my marriage was falling apart, and I had become addicted to porn, sugar, caffeine, clubbing, and adultery, none of which I’d had indulged in prior to getting sober. I was living a lie. The rote sayings of “Easy does it,” “At least you’re sober,” “It gets better,” and “Don’t leave before the miracle happens” were of little help, and just confused me. Surely addiction in any form was bad, and how could I possibly say I was sober? Why was this happening? I was doing everything right, AA-wise, but heading yet again into utter despair, only this time it would be accompanied by near suicide.
I clung tightly to AA and desperately tried to believe in a god, but even at my staunchest, I had real doubts. I just couldn’t seem to believe, and essentially faked it, and never made it. I studied the Bible, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Quran, and Taoism. I read Williams James’ The Variety of Religious Experience, and all I could about Carl Jung. I became obsessed, yet no matter how hard I tried to find a god of my own understanding, my efforts bore little or no fruit. The only thing that proffered hope was a story in the first edition of the Big Book called “The Unbeliever.” It addressed many of my doubts, and suggested that I make god “just a Power that helps.” Problem solved – for a while, anyway!
This back and forth between believing and not believing lasted the entirety of my AA membership. Finally, one night in November 2014, I poured myself a glass of wine. No guilt, no shame, no “belly full of booze and a head full of AA,” no fear. There was no obsession and no out of control drinking. AA, or rather some of its members, had promised that alcoholism was a progressive disease, and that I would pick up where I had left off. But this did not happen to me. From the moment I’d first imbibed as a 15-year-old, I had drunk everyday (give or take) to blackout, unconsciousness, and loss of bodily function (often all in one sitting). But when I resumed drinking in 2014 none of this happened. I was able to drink “normally.”
In the time since I had stopped drinking in 2006, a number of occurrences had chipped away at my wavering faith in traditional AA. First, I came across a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and immediately connected with the principles it espoused. Here was something I was unable to argue with, which negated the god issue, and challenged AA’s ideas about so-called alcoholism (what is now referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder) and recovery. Second, I was diagnosed with Post Prandial Hypoglycaemia. This explained my sugar and caffeine dependence, as well as my mood swings, depression, obsessions, anxiety, physical weakness, shaking, and palpitations. All of which I had been led by some AA members to believe were the result of fear and my lack of faith. This diagnosis precipitated yet another lifestyle change, and for the first time in four years of sobriety I started to feel well.
Thirdly, in August, 2011, I moved to Australia. I was immediately disappointed with AA, not because there was anything fundamentally wrong with it, but because it seemed so mundane compared to what I’d experienced in Kyiv. The fellowship there had been fluid and unpredictable, and you never knew who would turn up from week-to-week.
I made friends from all over the world, was exposed to different cultures, gods, and ways of working the program. I relayed 5th Steps in the hotel rooms of people I saw only once, and whose names I can’t even remember. I acted as tour guide and translator, transported visitors to meetings, and helped them address the many issues that often arose in Ukraine.
After almost every meeting we’d all go for coffee or a meal, and chat about our vastly different and respective lives. In Australia, however, I was just another pom (the Australian equivalent of limey), and although I heard some amazing stories of recovery, meetings felt lacklustre and monotonous. I became intolerant of the “I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic sober by the grace the god” spiel, and the long-timers’ insistence that god and the Big Book were the ONLY path to sobriety. Despite my misgivings, however, I persevered with AA for about two years out of fear of relapse, and, I now realize, a lack of identity.
My move also changed my career. I became a Community Support Worker, mentoring people who experienced severe mental illness, as well as Alcohol/Substance Use Disorder. This was the final nail in my AA coffin, for a number of reasons. First, I was introduced to a multitude of other recovery frameworks, methods, up-to-date science, training, and tools. Second, after spending the whole day dealing with people’s problems and talking recovery, going to a meeting where I’d hear much of the same was very unappealing. Lastly, the company for which I worked didn’t care much for its staff. Being exposed daily to acute suffering, suicide, child rape, overdose, and domestic violence, while lacking professional guidance and support, I acquired burnout. I became disillusioned and depressed. My diet — the primary treatment for managing hypoglycaemia — worsened, and I was sick of anything related to recovery. Any vestiges of hope and faith in AA were gone.
I experienced a death of sorts. A whole way of life which I had practised for eight years (however imperfectly), seemed unattainable and lost to me forever, leaving a huge hole in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my whole identity – my whole world – revolved around me being an addict. I defined my very self around this concept: prior to getting sober, I was an “active addict,” and then I was an “addict in recovery.” I filtered the world and all my experiences through the disease model of addiction. Whenever, I screwed up, didn’t practise the program, or acted-out on a so-called character defect, I would tell myself and others, “I’m such an addict!” And having lost all hope in the concept of the recovering addict, I hadn’t really left myself anywhere else to go, and so I chose to relapse.
My relapse lasted eight to ten weeks. I suffered one hangover, although this was a result of hypoglycaemia, not alcohol. I didn’t drink every day, and although I looked forward to it, if something prevented me from having it, that was OK. After a while, however, I became quite unwell, and had what I call a hypoglycaemic hangover, the cumulative effect of prolonged exposure to sugar, poor diet, and, in this case, alcohol.
I woke up one morning, and just felt antsy. I thought that perhaps a tot of brandy in my sugar-laced coffee would perk me up; it didn’t, because I poured it down the sink – a moment of clarity! In my early recovery, I had denied being a morning drinker. First, I rarely woke before lunch so the first drink of the day technically occurred in the afternoon. At the same time, I had not considered whisky diluted by tea to be a real drink. The memory of this denial cleared my mind. What the hell had I been doing? I quit then and there.
I immediately embarked upon the ketogenic (low carb) diet for two weeks, acquired a SMART Recovery manual (I’d been introduced to SMART at work), and got back on track. I haven’t had a drink since. Neither have I attended a meeting (AA or otherwise), or worked the Steps. SMART in turn introduced me to Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), the precursor to CBT and the foundation of the SMART Recovery program, and I haven’t looked back.
REBT aims at fostering long-term philosophic change, and therefore encourages the challenging of one’s belief system, as opposed to one’s general thinking. It posits that most of our “issues” are caused by “mustabation” – the tyranny of should, must, ought, and have-to. It avoids labels, and promotes unconditional acceptance of self (as opposed to improving one’s self-esteem), as well as unconditional acceptance of others and life conditions. It, acknowledges, however, that perfect acceptance is not possible because we are fallible human beings, and that being accepting will not necessarily make us happy.
When it comes to recovering from Alcohol/Substance Use Disorder, REBT does not espouse the disease model. It acknowledges that several factors may contribute to substance abuse, such as environment, heredity, and psychological make-up, but sees addictive behaviour as mostly a choice, and therefore aims to empower the individual to take responsibility for his or her decisions and actions.
REBT didn’t free me from booze, it freed me from the trap that the 12 Steps had become for me. I no longer believe I have a disease called alcoholism, or that I’m powerless over alcohol. I don’t believe that I’m a “distinct entity,” as stated in the Doctor’s Opinion on page xxx of the Big Book, that the root of my problems is selfishness and self-centredness, or that (probably) no human power could have relieved my so-called alcoholism.
I don’t believe in character defects, and I no longer label myself an addict, for labels are gross overgeneralisations and belong on jars, not on people. Quite simply, I am a fallible human being who sometimes behaves in a self-defeating and/or anti-social manner. This has nothing to do with, as I once believed, my being inherently alcoholic, merely my being inherently human.
My identity no longer revolves around my being a so-called addict, and I no longer live in fear of a “cunning, baffling and powerful” adversary. This doesn’t mean that the occasional thought of drinking doesn’t cross my mind, but there is a big difference between a thought and a compulsion! I experience many thoughts about many things. Indeed, if thinking unhelpful thoughts were a crime, I’d have been locked up long ago. Thanks to REBT, I’ve learned that thoughts are not to be feared, merely rejected if deemed unhelpful, and embraced if they help me achieve my goals. I don’t practise REBT in fear of relapse, but simply because one of my core values is self-development.
While traditional AA had once convinced me of my powerlessness, REBT has re-empowered me. I choose not to drink, choose not to abuse porn, sugar, or caffeine, and I choose to remain faithful to my partner. I have no need to make such choices on a daily basis, however, for the myth of my addiction has been dispelled, and I can’t remember the last time I experienced a craving or an urge for any of them. I am sober today because of my own volition, NOT the will of a Higher Power or adherence to the 12 Steps.
All of this, of course, has not been easy. I have found it difficult to relinquish some of the beliefs I acquired in AA, and living in accordance with my new philosophy has had its own challenges. In many ways, I feel like an apostate. Indeed, when I find myself entertaining “old ideas” (usually the AA refrain of the self-centredness that was supposedly the root of our troubles), I often listen to stories of people who had a crisis of faith and left their religions, or I’ll surf the web and read articles by people who have left AA. It was such a search that led me to AA Beyond Belief, and thus to this article being penned.
Although Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t work for me long term, it really did save my life, and for that I am exceptionally grateful. I am certainly not anti-AA, although I have had my moments, because it has, in some ways, impacted me quite negatively. But it really does work if you work it, however one actually works it. I’ve learned, however, that ANY framework of recovery works if you work it, and that AA does not have a monopoly on recovery, and that neither does god.
This has been proven to me time and again both in my professional and personal life. I’ve been exposed to many recovery models such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, CBT, Mindfulness-based Cogitative Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I’ve also attended and participated in many forums and workshops about addiction (what is now referred to as Substance Use Disorder). Having had such experiences, I can’t help but think that chapter two of the Big Book would be much better titled, “Here is one of many solutions.”
About the Author
Bob, a self-proclaimed former AA fundamentalist, left the AA fellowship following a relapse after eight years of continued abstinence. Having once believed that a slip would be catastrophic, it actually turned out to be his salvation. Bob’s sobriety date is February 28, 2015. He currently resides in sunny Queensland, Australia, with his fiancée and two dogs. Bob recently started a blog, aa-apostate.com, detailing his experiences with AA, relapse, and apostasy.
The images used for this story were created by Kathryn F.