This is the second installment in our series of Fellowship speakers from the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention that was held in Santa Monica, California in November 2014. The first speaker we are presenting today is Tim M. from the We Agnostics group in Los Feliz, California, and the second speaker is Michael B. from London, England.
My name is Tim and I’m an alcoholic.
My sobriety date is September 4, 1987, and my home meeting, as Pam mentioned, is the We Agnostics Los Feliz meeting. We get together every Tuesday night, and I am one of the old guys who was there when Pam walked in the door. Worst case of alcoholism I’ve ever seen, I got to tell you.
Just kidding. Just kidding. The first thing I have to say, being a native Angelino, being a fourth generation Angelino, is welcome to Los Angeles. It may not be the world’s finest city, but it’s home to me and I love it. I hope you have a great time here. Welcome.
I will do a little bit of my usual first person narrative and then I’ll talk about my view on belief and non-belief in recovery, and particularly in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. I do not present myself as an expert on alcoholism. To this day, I don’t pretend to understand it, why it happened to me, how it works, I really have no idea.
Now, there are some things I know. I know there are some reasons that don’t apply to me. I did not have an unhappy childhood. I’m one of those very fortunate people who had warm, loving parents who were generous with time, attention, and affection. So I can’t use that excuse, I’m sorry. I’m sometimes at a loss to understand the talk about not fitting in. I don’t quite relate. Again, maybe I’m just lucky.
But when I was 19 years old and drafted into the United States Army… Yeah, it was miserable. Of course, those were the days when you got invited. I was invited. Thank you, Richard Nixon. I was 19 years old and I hated my existence. I had nothing to do at night, and that’s the point at which I became a daily drinker— I loved it.
I was a good boy and I stayed away from drugs. They scared me. They were illegal and I might go to jail or end up in prison. But I loved alcohol and what I loved was the feeling of a weight being lifted. Alcohol to me was buoyancy. It took my cares away, it took that feeling of heaviness away. I enjoyed getting intoxicated. That is why I drank. It wasn’t because I was unhappy or mistreated.
I love getting high and I did every night. For the first 10 years, it didn’t seem to cause many problems. I didn’t have blackouts. I knew what I did, I knew what I said, I knew where I went, and I had a good time. That changed. That changed when I turned 30. All of a sudden the drinking intensified dramatically and I became a blackout drinker, and I did not know where I had been, what I had said, what I had done. I had no idea. It was extremely frightening, but still I persisted. I kept on going. I’m sure we can all relate to that. It just got worse and worse.
I was employed at the time, and I’m sufficiently middle class that I have a horror of unemployment. Of course then the recession happened, but that’s another story. I certainly wanted to keep my job, but the worst thing about alcoholism to me was the psychological state that it left me in. I was frightened, I was ashamed, I was alone. I was completely alone. To me, the defining attribute of the alcoholic experience is total solitude. That’s the way I was, and it was the kind of solitude that was horrible because I had to wear a mask. I had to be alone because I couldn’t face you. I couldn’t tell you the truth. I had to hide.
So my existence was one of total falsehood. It was a mask all the time. I got so good at keeping you from knowing what was going on with me that I kept me from knowing what was going on with me, and I lost the ability to connect with my own feelings. When it got more than I could bear, there I was, someone who simply did not know how I felt, with one exception—anger. I understood anger and to this day, I’m still very talented at anger. It’s one of my specialties.
I was a man at the bottom of a pit.
Now, my development as a skeptic and non-believer, and that’s how I tend to refer to myself, developed completely independently of my alcoholism or my recovery. I was a philosophy major in college and my brand of non-belief has a whiff of academia about it, I suppose. It’s a genuine conviction none-the-less. I simply see no connection between my convictions regarding the non-existence of God with just about anything else, certainly not with alcoholism or recovery. So that was a problem from the beginning.
When I got sober, you had a choice: It was either the Schick treatment or AA. So my choice was to take the stuff that would make me throw up or sit in a room of people and talk. So the choice was fairly easy. I came into AA.
During the first six months I didn’t say a word. I just listened and was turned off most of the time, but one day I was listening at a meeting and I heard a man talk about his newborn son. Here he was suddenly confronted with being a father, and maybe because I had a wonderful father, somehow I fastened on to that. I related to it. I listened to him, and I began to feel some of what he was feeling and that is how the positive side of AA developed for me.
I learned to listen and in what you told me, I re-discovered my own feelings. I became a feeling human being once again for the first time in a very long time—and then I discovered the We Agnostics meetings. I got to meet Charlie Polacheck and I came to meetings where the authentic human emotion came to the fore, always, at every meeting, and it came with depth, and conviction, and honesty, and it meant something.
At these meetings I didn’t have to sit and listen to rhetoric, I didn’t have to sit and listen to cliches, I didn’t have to listen to the book-thumpers repeating some form of fundamentalist Christianity that I could not bear. Instead, I heard human honesty. I saw compassion at work, and these meetings really brought me alive in recovery. I’ve been attending the We Agnostics meetings here in Los Angeles since 1992, and I’m extremely grateful to the people who came before us, to people like Joan who showed the way. By the way, Joan, two of my sisters went to Saint Mary’s Academy, but I got revenge. I sent my daughter to Immaculate Heart. So if you’re local, you’ll understand what that means.
I really appreciated what Joe C. had to say about respect for the non-believer and about freethinking being an attribute, a potential attribute for believers as well. I am not interested in atheism as a movement. I’m not particularly fond of Mr. Richard Dawkins. I respect the religious sensibility where I find it. I have a brother who’s a Jesuit priest. I believe that it’s important that we stand up in Alcoholics Anonymous, and make ourselves clearly heard that Alcoholics Anonymous should be a place where you can share honestly what you believe and honestly how you feel. Without honesty, this program isn’t worth a hill of beans, it doesn’t work. I think it is important that we arrive at a position of mutual respect where each of us can feel free to express openly without shame, without reticence how we feel.
I’ll just end on the following note. I think there are two AAs if you examine the history of our movement. There is the AA of Bill Wilson in Towns Hospital on some very good drugs, seeing a bright white light [laughter] and this was the foundation of his conviction. Then there’s the Bill Wilson who was in Akron, Ohio. He suffered a crushing defeat. His proxy work collapsed and he trudged back to the hotel. He was in the lobby and he heard the lilt of conversation and the sound of glasses and silverware, and all the feelings came rushing back to him. Despite all the disasters that he’d endured for so many, many years time and time again, he still wanted to walk in that bar and drink again.
Then suddenly, somehow, the thought came to him, “I need to talk to another alcoholic.” To me, that is the AA to which we are heir. That is the AA that is truly humanistic, an AA that is for those who understand that the Fellowship is a place where we return to life. That’s how I see it, and that’s the message that I carry, and I hope that, just as Joan said and just as Joe C. said, that we take the message from here and keep this thing going.
Thank you very much.
Thank you. I felt like a lamb being led to the slaughter waiting there. [laughter] Well, my name is Michael. I’m an alcoholic and I’m very happy to be here. Yesterday, when I arrived at the airport, something unbelievable happened. When I went through to immigration, I was the very very first one. All of the agents were standing around gossiping and as they scurried back to their place, I went forward.
I was interrogated at great length by this extraordinarily handsome young man… [laughter] about what I was doing yet again in America, and why I come to America. I’ve learned the hard way that it isn’t sufficient to say that you like America to come here. [laughter] I was quite honest, and I said “I’m going to Santa Monica,” and he said, “Have you been there before?” I said “No, but as you know, I’ve been in LA before.” He interrogated me about my work, which stopped many, many years ago, so he knew I was retired and I had retired from engineering. So he said, “Well, what brings you there?” And I said, “Well, I’m attending a convention.” And he said, “The convention is to do with engineering?” Trying to catch me out, when I said “No, it isn’t.” And he said, “Well what convention is it?” I said, “Well since you asked, it’s Alcoholics Anonymous.” He looked at me for a while, stamped my passport, and said, “You can go.”
Here I am, but it is sort of funny to break one’s anonymity if you can call it that, but I’m very, very proud to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Isn’t it extraordinary? The very word which brought so much shame to me, is the one which brings me great pride now. I’ve always loved the Fellowship right from the very, very first moment I went to my first meeting, and I remember it so well.
I went into the center of London, I live in Chiswick which is lovely place just outside, well it’s part of Greater London. I went there so I wouldn’t meet anybody I knew locally. They said we’ll send someone around. I thought a van would come down the road with AA on the side, all that sort of madness. [laughter] I remember distinctly going up the steps into the building and thinking of my father, who is long dead. In one of the many lectures he gave me, I was a very wayward teenager. He said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to you Michael,” he said, “I think you’re going to end up on the end of a rope.” I thought about him, I thought, “Well, Dad here I am, it’s much worse than the end of a rope.”
I went into this meeting and I thought it was the best thing I ever did. It was so amazing because no one interrogated me, no one paid any attention to me at all. They were all fighting among themselves and they were fighting with this woman, this fairly young woman who was telling them about her cat. Her cat had cancer, and she wanted to take her cancerous cat to the Bristol Homeopathic Cancer Treatment Center, which was for human beings, and they wouldn’t accept the cat there. She obviously was dragging this story around London and driving all the meetings mad. She said that they said the cat must understand what to say. She said, “But my cat does understand, and I know what my cat is saying, and I can tell you what my cat is saying.” I thought, “This is the best place ever.
Towards the end of the meeting, one woman turned to her and said, “You know what you should do with your cat? Is take it on to the laying on of hands, which takes place in Westminster Cathedral,” that’s distinct from Westminster Abby. That just about finished me off.
At the end of the meeting, I went over to this woman and I said, “You know, I’m very fond of animals. I think I prefer animals than human beings.” Really, I try to treat people like I treat dogs, and it doesn’t work that way. [laughter] Sit, come, all of that, no.
So I said, “Cats are very territorial, and if you just love your cat, keep your cat in the place that it knows and just make a wise decision.” A little old lady who was pulling on a fag said to me… A fag in England is a cigarette… [laughter] She said, “I haven’t seen you at this meeting before.” I said, “Of course you haven’t seen me at this meeting before. I haven’t been at it before.” And she said, “Then what meetings do you go to?” And I said, “I’ve never been to a meeting,” and she said, “You’re a newcomer.” I said, “Yes,” and there was a sharp intake of breath, “Ahh! You’re a newcomer!” They all discovered.
One man turned and he said, “Why didn’t you say you’re a newcomer? We asked for it at the beginning of the meeting.” I said, “I heard it at the beginning of the meeting, but I didn’t know what a newcomer was, that’s why… ” [laughter], “That’s why I didn’t respond.” I said, “And incidentally, I don’t like your attitude. I don’t like the way you’re addressing me, and I don’t like the way you’ve been talking to that woman with the cat.” [laughter] So he said, “Oh, oh, oh, I am sorry, I apologize.” I said, “That’s better.” [laughter]
I had arrived and I thought that all meetings were going to be like that. In many respects, it echoes it, but it’s been downhill ever since, but I’ve always really loved the Fellowship from that moment forward.
Incidentally, the little old lady, her name was Kay, unbelievably, she lived near me in Chiswick, and she was with another woman called Jean. I had found a pub outside, which was called The Cock and Pheasant and that’s where I was going to go after the meeting to have a drink, but they wouldn’t go away, they kept with me. I thought ‘Christ, what’s going on here?’ By this time, we were in Oxford Circus, and I was drunk, but not drunk in my sort of term that I was falling over, but they wouldn’t go away.
I thought, ‘I’ll have to get rid of them, I’m beginning to shake.’ I started to shake, and shaking in front of other people. I don’t recommend it, it’s very, very nasty. It just gets worse and worse. They were holding on to me, and I thought, I’ll have to get rid of them, and I’ll get back to pub, and then the shakes got so much, I knew I wouldn’t be served in the pub in that condition as I’ve been there before. Then I thought, I’ll have to go to an off license, that’s a liquor store. Then I thought, I’ll have to go to a hotel. Somehow or other we ended up in a taxi and we got back to Chiswick, and I was told to just remain quiet for the afternoon and drink some tea, which I did and promptly threw it all up. I went to a meeting in the evening. That’s how everything started for me, and I really love the Fellowship.
There were things I didn’t want. One was a sponsor. I didn’t want one of those. The other one was anything to do with the Steps, didn’t want that at all. Spiritual awakening I thought was a very good idea. You just had to sit around the place and wait for it to happen. So that was going to be the easiest part of it.
I knocked around with two wonderful friends. We really were demonic, but we had a great sense of humour, and we used to do what we later learned was taking everybody’s inventory, but we didn’t know that expression. I have a right to giggle about… And one of them was a mimic, so we used to extend all the meetings. I had such fun with those guys. I’m eternally grateful to their bad company.
After a while, we realized that, we shouldn’t be talking and gossiping about people at the meeting. So what we used to do is say, “We’ll come off the program for two minutes and talk about them, and then we go back on to the program.” [laughter] We did that very successfully, but something big happened. We stopped doing it completely. In other words, the effect of going to meetings, sticking together, something was happening. It happened because of the two minutes, it happened because we stopped. I got this feeling about the power, if you want to use that word, of actually going to meetings without any effort on my part.
The reason I didn’t want a sponsor was they were killjoys, and just everything about them. You know they were bullies, and they disapproved of sex for sure. The three of us used to say, largely, because they weren’t having any themselves. Then they did the dirt, and they went and got sponsors, and I thought “damn them!” So, I had to go and get a sponsor. I asked this young man at my meeting, he was blonde, much younger then me, and he lived locally, that was important. He was married and his wife was expecting a baby, that was evidence of fairly recent sexual activity, so…
Perfect, and I thought he was going to interrogate me, and I was all prepared for the question, “Are you willing to go to any length… ” But he said nothing, he said, “Fine.” Then I discovered that he was the wrong sponsor for me, because I knew what sponsors did, they would tell you something and you went to a meeting and you repeated it, prefaced by those three words, those important three words, “My sponsor says.” Well, he said nothing. He used to say, “How do you feel? How do you think the other person feels? What options have you got? When you say you’re feeling frightened, what do you actually mean by that? When you say, you hate the other person, what do you mean by that?” So he’s completely wrong, but I couldn’t dump him, because I’d gone around all of London saying, “I’ve got a sponsor, and I’ll bet he’s the best sponsor,” so I couldn’t let myself down and say that I had to get rid of him. So he was the wrong sponsor for 22 years.
During that period, I learned very little about him, but an awful lot about myself, everything about myself. I start with the good. Everything that was good, everything which was bad, everything I didn’t want to talk about. I learned all of that about myself, and also something which was wonderful. I learned about my own talents and how to respect them, and how to develop them, and actually how to go and find new talents and develop them, and to take an interest in what I did with my downtime, and a great amount of interest which I had in life. I’m eternally grateful to him. So I prospered quite a lot, and I was always happy to be in the Fellowship. I prospered in my job quite a lot, and then after 22 years, something disastrous happened and it happened in America—and that is I relapsed. I relapsed just like that.
It was an ordinary day, I had done my rituals in the morning, which I’ve done this morning here, and I always thought if I was going to relapse because of the quality of my recovery, something big would happen and intervene, and it didn’t. I’d been to meetings in the morning, I’d telephone people, I just went. I thought, “Okay, in for a penny, in for a pound. I’m having such a good time with these rather glamorous people and I’ll go back in whenever I want to.”
No, it didn’t work that way; the day chose me when I came back in. I wasn’t young when that happened, I was age 65. I was retired, had this perfect life, and I came back in and I was nearly 70. The reason I came back in was not to end up standing here today, and I want to thank everybody who’s organized this and for inviting me, it was really to die with dignity.
I was really a write-off. I was very, very thin; I weighed 12 stone, that’s about 125 pounds. I had black lines under my eyes, I was a complete wreck. I had been a recluse for three years. My poor head had gone long, long, long ago, but I just didn’t want to be found like that. I knew I was better than that, I knew I had been better, and I just wanted dignity in death.
Well, that was eight-and-a-half years ago and here I am, and it says an awful lot about the Fellowship that I come back. I wasn’t always welcomed with open arms when I came back. When I shared what happened, people said “What happened to you Michael? You above all people?” Well, I told them, I said, “That’s inappropriate sharing; you can’t do that.”
I listened to them and I believed it. I said things in a different way and I began to please people, but I desperately wanted my own misery to end. There’s a line in the Big Book, which I remember was one of the reasons it brought me back, where it says “We will know loneliness as few do.” At the worst stage of that relapse, I wasn’t reading the Big Book, that came to me when I was trying to get in touch with who I had been, that lovely spiritual man that I’d been. I thought, “My God, I always thought loneliness was to do with people. This is loneliness of the inner self.” I had absolutely, completely destroyed it.
After about 18 months when I was back in and people were saying “Oh, he’s back in,” and “Oh, Michael, he’s doing wonderful,” I began to get that loneliness again. I thought “No, no, no, I’m not going to let this happen to me.” So I just said what had actually happened to me, and that is at the age of 65 with 22 years of recovery in the Fellowship, I picked up drugs for the very first time in my life and I did it here in this city, in Beverly Hills.
I snorted cocaine at a party. I had never ever touched it and instantly I wanted more. Instantly, I was out of control. My alcoholic temperament had just been there waiting for all of this to happen, and I didn’t know a thing about it. I thought it was so glamorous, I thought the feeling was so wonderful that that was how I was going to spend the rest of my life. I felt I’d always been a rather silly Irish man who didn’t indulge in such stuff as smoking that stuff and all of that.
I did have a good time. I know you’re meant to say it was all horrible, it wasn’t; part of it was very, very good, but I did end up in that pitiful condition which I told you. It wasn’t only cocaine, I became a crackhead very quickly; I was on heroin; I was on ketamine; I was on sleeping pills, and I was also on downers and all of that every day, not just occasionally. Every single day I was toxic.
So that is what I learned about it, and I raged against the Fellowship that no one ever told me about drugs, no one told me or even spoke about it, that they were seductive and that they were part of my character that I should have been aware of. I speak about it quite loudly now, and it is my experience in particular for young people— talking about young people, I’m 78 now. I’m doing well, aren’t I, really?
Thanks to the Fellowship, thanks to people like you. The reason why I am so involved with the WAFT movement is for young people, and the not-so-young who are coming into the Fellowship. I’m as old as the Fellowship. Everything has changed, everything changed 15 years ago, everything. In two years’ time it’s going to be different.
You come across the words which we use so proudly in our publicity, the Serenity Prayer, and Step Six and Step Seven in particular where it says “humbly asked Him,” with a capital H. As you know, this does frighten people. I don’t want them to walk away. I want the people to come through the door and find out what it’s all about. What Tim was saying this morning is absolutely right. The magic is actually sitting beside each other on those cheap poly chairs in so many church halls throughout the world. That is the way it must continue, but the power of the Internet mustn’t be ignored. We have to accept it. Look at all the wars that are taking place. Look how all the people group themselves together into armies through the interweb.
It is our responsibility for the future. I hope that since this is the first one, and to Dorothy and Pamela, and everybody associated with this, I’m eternally grateful that this has happened. I have my friend sitting here, Pat. We’re of the same age. I hope you won’t mind me saying that he’s nearly that age. [laughter] We have said to each other, we never thought we would see this in our own lifetime. So let’s hope it’s going to develop for the few years that we have left and for all of you who are so much younger, I think.
Thank you very much for listening to me.