This is my favorite slogan in AA. It barely gets mentioned in the meetings I attend, but it’s on every coin I receive for another milestone of sobriety of AA. It’s a quote by William Shakespeare from “Hamlet.” I find this quote beautiful and a very accurate description of how I approach a twelve-step program for my second time around. I love the concept in AA of the power of the fellowship. I truly believe in the concept of one addict helping another. It keeps us accountable and helps us stay sober, one day at a time.
My story with addiction began when I was 12-years-old. I had the common traits of an addict in the making: low self-esteem, feeling less than and different from others, depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. I constantly questioned my worth as a human being. I was not comfortable with myself or in the presence of others. I flat out viewed myself as dog shit. Just writing these words makes me shiver. The word I have come to know all of these ugly feelings by is SHAME. It wasn’t until I was 29-years-old that I started to get into recovery and look into the shame aspect of my problems in life.
The first thing I got addicted to was pornography. It was the perfect “drug” for me at the perfect time. All of the feelings of shame I possessed at around 12-years-old led me to also believe that I was not worthy of love. I was scared shitless of intimacy. I became a very lonely person on the inside, though on the outside I had a lot of friends, played sports, and was always doing something outdoors with people. Before even discovering pornography, I realized that masturbation would relieve me of negative feelings such as anxiety and depression. It was an escape. It was a way to “solve” these feelings. Then I added VHS tapes and magazines that I found from the adults I was close to and would escape into those. Then the ultimate gasoline was poured on the fire. The Internet became available in our homes and we had a computer with Internet access in no time. Once I discovered Internet porn, it was game on. This is when I really felt the strong pull of addiction, and I was only 14-years-old. I needed to get my fix almost daily and I had to struggle to stay away from porn. I knew it was not right and I didn’t want to do it anymore. But at this point, I would always lose these internal battles and would find myself right back in front of the computer getting my fix.
At this same time, I was getting into alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. In the Midwest drinking is a rite of passage and something that was done by most kids my age; or this was my perception. My core group of friends and I were drinking as early as seventh grade. Warm beers in the forest preserve were a weekly activity. I was always around cigarettes when I was a kid since my dad smoked at least a pack a day in the house, so I seemed destined to be a smoker. My friends and I got into marijuana at the end of eighth grade heading into high school. During high school, I discovered new friends and new drugs. Alcohol and marijuana were always a constant (along with porn) but we started getting into LSD, mushrooms, ecstasy, hash, and opium. On prom night at the end of senior year I snorted my first line of cocaine. This kicked off a yearlong love affair with cocaine.
When I went off to college I quickly found the coke dealer and we became natural friends. But I failed out of college by the end of my freshman year. Not too long afterwards, I threw a party at my parents’ house and they found empty baggies of coke when they got home. They confronted me and I told them I would quit on my own. And I did for 13 full years. Quitting coke was not that hard. I was mentally done with it. I was just buying it just to do it. I wasn’t feeling good off of it anymore, and it was a waste of money.
It was during this time, between 2000 and 2002, when I went through my streak of getting arrested. While still in my senior year of high school I got my first drinking and driving arrest. Also included in this was possession of a fake ID and drug paraphernalia (a marijuana pipe). We were going to a hole in the wall bar that allowed us to use our fake paper ID’s. We’d be at this bar on school nights past midnight and make it to school the next day hung over as hell. Within my first month at college I got arrested for underage drinking and possession of a fake ID. In the back of the cop car I slammed my head against the glass divider and got several stitches in my head before being thrown in jail overnight. After my freshman year of college, I was arrested for driving with open liquor in the car and possession of marijuana. Finally, in December 2002, I was arrested for drunk driving, this time while driving on a revoked license. Since then, I have not been arrested. I kept drinking and using, but I settled down to a point of not being reckless and keeping things a bit more under control.
I met my now ex-wife, Karen, in December of 2003. Up until this point, I was never in a real, loving relationship. I was yearning for love. I met Karen at a party while we were on the same team for a drinking game. We fell in love and life was great. I gave up all my addictions except for drinking. The power of love had cured me! This lasted for seven months. In July 2004 Karen and I got into an argument and I didn’t really know how to handle the emotions like anger, confusion, and fear. So, I went back to porn. It relieved me temporarily of the pain. Soon after I felt the shame and guilt of looking at pornography, but I was not going to tell Karen about it. Slowly but surely, porn became an almost daily activity. It ate me up on the inside and interfered with my ability to have sex with my wife. Once again, I wanted to stop but was powerless to do so. Whenever my relationship and life did not go my way, I would act out with pornography to cope and escape.
My relationship with my wife lasted from December 2003 through July 2014. We got married in January of 2008. During this entire time, I was addicted to the on and off use of porn and almost daily drinking. I occasionally smoked marijuana. By the end of our marriage, I was also abusing Karen’s prescription pain medication that she had laying around the house. A typical day involved me getting home from work, popping a few pain pills, downing four to five drinks and just numbing out. I forced myself to play with my three kids because they were young and wanted my undivided attention. I did not want to let them down. So, the deal I made with myself was that would numb out but play with my kids at the same time. After they went to bed I usually watched TV until Karen went to bed. Then the battle with porn would kick in and I barely put up a fight. I would find myself numbing and acting out until 3 a.m. and have to get up for work at 6 a.m. I was pretty miserable.
The main reason my marriage came to an end was my inability to stop looking at porn. During our relationship I lied to my wife, claiming I was porn free while looking at her square in the eyes. But she kept catching me looking at porn. In February 2012, she had enough of the lying and took the kids down to Florida for a month. I was home alone and in a pit of misery. It was at this point I started going to therapy at least once a week and began attending 12-step meetings of Sexaholics Anonymous (SA). While Karen was away, I was having terrible days at work. One night I planned on drinking myself to death after work by adding pills to whiskey. But ten minutes before I left work, a man I had met at an SA meeting earlier in the week called just to check in on me. It was such a great relief that someone out there gave a shit about me when I felt so desperate. I went home and did not drink that night. I’ll never forget that experience and it was at this point that I realized the power of a 12-step fellowship. We were there for each other no matter what.
After trying to make the marriage work for another seven months, I moved into the basement for an in-house separation. My ex-wife ended up going to Florida again in December of 2012 and I was alone by myself again. This time I moved out to my friend’s house in early January of 2013 for an out-of-house separation. A couple of weeks later, the locks on my house were changed and a few days after that I received divorce papers via email.
My first emotion was one of relief. I didn’t want to keep trying at this anymore; however, the pain was nowhere near from over. The divorce process lasted 1.5 years and finalized in July of 2014. It was a grueling process that bankrupted me as I fought for my basic rights as a person and a father. At this point I was living in my own apartment and was able to have my kids sleep over. My three sons were the only things keeping me sane and alive. Overall, I was miserable. I worked two jobs and still needed to borrow $500 a month from family to make ends meet. A year after the divorce finalized, in July 2015, my middle son was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. No operation or treatment would save him. We could prolong his life, but a cure was improbable. He survived 19 months and died in March, 2017, at the age of seven. I can’t explain to you the pain of losing a child and what this does to a person unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
After my son’s diagnosis I slipped further into addiction. After 13 years of avoiding cocaine, I started using again. I numbed my pain and sadness with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, or Adderall, pain pills, and whatever else helped me escape. I began missing a lot of work and other life responsibilities.
While my ex-wife went into action mode for our sick son, I withdrew into addiction. Soon after this, Karen did not include me in my son’s treatment process. Instead of standing up and fighting for my son and my rights, I withered further away. I let her and her family take control. I let them trash me to anyone who would listen. When my son passed away, I arrived just after he had died. At the wake, I was not allowed to stand next to my son’s casket but told to stand ten feet away from Karen’s family members, while she and her boyfriend stood next to my deceased son’s body. I just let it all happen.
After the chaos of my son’s death, I settled down a bit but was still escaping through addiction. My life was going nowhere. I soon began to think about suicide every day and had no hope for my future. My work was suffering since I couldn’t concentrate. I was working at home a lot, drinking heavily, and getting stoned. I would pass out on the couch for hours during the work day. In December 2017, I couldn’t take it anymore and took a leave of absence. I contemplated suicide almost hourly. I drank and smoked pot all day. I was also abusing Klonopin and Wellbutrin by taking much more than prescribed. Finally, I knew I needed to get help. I had met a guy online in March 2017 and we played online gaming together. He was open about being clean from heroin for five years and he worked in the drug and alcohol rehab industry. In mid-December I told him that I needed help. He set me up with detox and rehabilitation in California, and on December 22nd I flew there to begin treatment. I have been sober since December 23rd, a little over four months.
Going to California was the best decision that I have ever made. I got away from the chaos of home and gave up drugs, alcohol, and pornography. It was rough at first. My emotions were all over the place. I had a couple of full-blown panic attacks while out there, mostly due to thinking about my son’s death and not being able to hide behind my addictions. I had to face the truth about my life head on without the shield of addictive behaviors to mask my feelings and emotions. Since returning from rehab I have attended AA meetings and stayed sober.
I also want to share my experience of being an atheist in AA. I started my 12-step experience in SA back in February of 2012. At this point I was more agnostic than atheist. I rejected organized religion but was open to a loving and caring god.
What I loved about SA was the fellowship, and sharing my addiction problems with others who empathized and understood what I was going through. It brought great relief. In SA, we use the same 12 steps as AA, merely replacing alcohol with sexual addiction. We read from the Big Book and the 12 & 12, along with SA approved literature. Just like AA, SA is very steeped in god and I had a hard time taking what I liked and leaving the rest. I am an all or nothing guy, so picking and choosing which parts of a 12-step program to follow was very difficult for me.
I really struggled with the god part and was dumbfounded by steps three, six, and seven. Step Three sounded cultish. It made no sense to me, so I skipped it. I was not going to turn myself into a robot. I never made it to Steps Six and Seven.
I tried getting on my knees to pray, and to connect with a god that was personal to me. All I ever heard back was my own consciousness talking to myself. God is not real to me, and forcing it does not work. It was at this point that I became an atheist. I do not believe in any supernatural entities and I am perfectly ok with that. I will never tell anyone that there is no god because that’s as ridiculous as someone telling me that there is a god. None of us know for sure one way or the other. Being an atheist for me is simply not believing that there are any deities.
So now I am back in the 12-step world in AA. I decided this time that I am going to make the program work for me. I am going to try to take what works and leave the rest. I am committed to making this work without believing in a god. There are powers greater than myself which I can wrap my head around: love, kindness, and the good of humanity. But these are not things that I can pray to or have a personal relationship with. And that’s ok.
But two months into AA I started to get agitated with the amount of god talk in the rooms and in the literature. At every meeting at least five people share how god is the only solution, and Jesus gets mentioned at least once a meeting. When I share that I am an atheist and that AA nonetheless works for me, I get the subtle jab of, “Keep coming back.” At a meeting recently, an old timer shared how EVERYTHING in life is owed to the power of god . . . who he chooses to be Jesus Christ. This shit makes me sick. These people reject intellectualism and believe that their own thinking is dangerous and must be avoided. I don’t want anything to do with these people.
At the peak of my frustration, I typed “atheism in AA”’ into Google and found the communities of AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief. I was instantly relieved. All of the things that I thought about 12-step culture were being talked about on these sites. I had complete strangers confirming all of the things swimming in my mind. God is not a requirement for overcoming addiction. Human power is enough. The podcasts on AA Beyond Belief were a daily support for me. I listened to them while I worked to get me through the day. It helped me get back on track and to keep taking what works and leaving the rest.
While there are secular meetings in my area, the closest is 30 miles away. So I attend traditional meetings. I believe it is important for us to still attend traditional meetings once in a while. We are never going to change AA culture if we do not stand up for our beliefs (or lack thereof) in traditional meetings. We need to show people in these meetings that recovery is possible without giving our wills and lives over to the care of the Christian god. For me, it’s all about the fellowship of AA. One alcoholic helping another is how AA all began and is what makes it work. When Bill and Bob first met they just talked for six hours, with no drinking. The god stuff was added later and is in my opinion unnecessary.
I understand that when Bill and Bob met, religion was a huge part of the culture. What drives me crazy is that more than 80 years later people are unwilling to adapt and change for the betterment of AA. These dogmatists use the Big Book like hardcore Christians use the Bible. The first 164 pages expresses the will of god and that’s all we need to recover. All of the information gathered over the 80 years since the book was written is irrelevant.
Once again, I am grateful for the secular AA world. It has helped keep me in AA and helped keep me sober. I hope that this community expands enough that it can reach young newcomers walking in the rooms, most of whom are not religious. When they walk into AA they can be turned off and turned away by the heavy reliance on god and the overt references to Christianity. Most meetings I attend are full of white men between 45 and 75 years old. What’s going to happen to AA when these people stop attending or die? I wish these old timers would think more about the future of AA and its ability to survive. I wish AA could be more about practical ways to get and stay sober rather than believing in god. It’s up to us to shift the focus.
My life story shows that early on I developed negative ways to cope with my depression, anxiety, and self-hatred. When I decided that these coping mechanisms were hurting me and that I no longer wanted to behave this way, my brain was already addicted to these behaviors and I was powerless to resist the urges. Recovery to me is untraining the brain from this reliance and using healthy and practical ways to cope with life — practicing how to accept life on life’s term. This has nothing to do with god. Recovery is hard work, but it can be done with the help of others and a belief in yourself. Success comes with being true to yourself and your own best path to recovery.
About the Author
Roach is from the Midwest of the United States. He likes the nickname roach or cockroach to describe his ability to survive tough life conditions. Roach is currently rebuilding his life and starting over in many areas including sobriety, financial, career and outlook. His top goals in life right now are maintaining sobriety and a healthy state of mind; and being the best father that he can possibly be. He plans on continuing to build himself up from the ground and to achieve a modest life where he is content, happy and can support himself and his children.
The artwork used for this article was created by Kathryn F.