Deirdre S. at the First International Secular AA Convention (WAFT IAAC 2014)

Deirdre S. from New York City created and managed the International Secular AA Meeting List for 14 years at the website agnosticaanyc.org. In November 2014, she was one of the Fellowship Speakers at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention held in Santa Monica, California. Today, we are presenting the audio recording of her talk with a written transcript. Deirdre will be a featured speaker at the International Conference of Secular AA to be held in Toronto, Ontario from August 24-26, 2018.

Transcript

[applause]

00:12: Hi everybody. My name is Deirdre and I’m a cross addicted alcoholic.

00:19: Thank you. I can’t thank you enough for following through and I love organizers, and you two are like a wonderful… This is a wonderful event, and the moment that the doors opened and we were allowed to come in—it was already a success. And I think it’s just going to continue from there. I was listening to some CDs of Joseph Campbell, like a year or two ago and he had this one story where this guy came up to him and said, “You know, because you’re teaching about the myths that societies based themselves on, you’ve gotten rid of all my illusions.” And before I got sober, I was one puking, hungover person with lots of illusions. And I still have some illusions, I’m sure, just not so many hangovers.

[laughter]

01:14: So, I know this is an AA conference and I know that we have singleness of purpose around alcohol, but I think of my addiction problems as a big sticky ball. And that ball is made up, in part, by substances, alcohol being the biggest, but also drugs. And it’s also made up, for me, with behaviors, like overeating, like bad relationships, like other addictive behaviors. And I find that if I do not add to the ball, then it’s sort of manageable, at a manageable size.

In 1997, just after I stopped drinking, I said that I didn’t want to go into AA, I could not go into AA, because I did not want to air my dirty laundry. So, get ready for some dirty laundry folks, it’s coming. I’ve brought it with me from New York.

[laughter]

02:11: I have to really begin my story with the fact that I was sexually abused as a 6-year-old child, and that’s not easy to say. And I don’t say it because it’s easy, I say it because whenever I say it, people come up to me after and tell me their story too, and the fact that they get a little bit from the fact that I could say it makes me feel better. I remember I was reading a book about… It was a book on codependency and there was this list of behaviors in the book. And it was alcoholism, drug addiction, weight problems, promiscuity, low self-esteem, and I thought, “Yeah, okay. That’s me. I get it. Yeah, I get that.

03:00: And then I flipped the page and it said, “If you have this list of problems, you might have incest in your life.” And I threw the book across this… It was like, “How can I be defined by a book?” But the fact is, is that a lot of people who have had that history also have addiction problems, and alcoholism. When I was in junior high, I started helping my parents. I will take those cocktail glasses for you and I will bring them into the kitchen, clean. And I didn’t like my father’s rye, and I didn’t like my mother’s scotch, but I kept at it.

[laughter]

03:41: In high school, I was stealing out of my parents’ liquor cabinet. And recently I went to my high school and spoke there, and so I brought my high school yearbook with me and it’s like, “Queen of the parties.” And I was like, “No, I was not the queen at the parties.” But apparently there were enough people around who thought that I was that they would document it in the book.

When I went to college, I became the person you stepped over in the bathroom to get to the bathroom. I was just like, cut loose. I would demand to my roommate, “Bring my pillow in!” Because I liked the cool tile. Yeah, she would stand over me saying, “You should drink water. Here is an aspirin.” And I would take it, “Okay, okay.” And then I’d pour it out, like, “Oh, I’m so smart.”

[laughter]

04:29: I found that the days that I was drinking and then puking were better, the next day was better than the days when I managed to keep it all down, because I had gotten rid of some of the poison. Yeah, I chose to go into theater when I was going into college, and after college, I moved to New York City with a boyfriend and a very close friend and lived in Queens. FYI, neither of them speak to me any more. One of them had the graciousness, my ex-boyfriend, to accept my amends when I made it to him. And the other one, he’s not ready. I try to be ready, but he’s not ready, and I’ve… It’s like I’m presently going through the steps again, but because I’ve already reached out to this person, written a letter, called several times, I’ve done my part. I’ve done my part with him, but it just… It makes me understand exactly what kind of alcoholic I was.

If I ever want to gloss it over and say, “I don’t know, I wasn’t that bad. God, why can’t you talk to me?” So, me and all my addictions came with me to New York. New York can be a scary place. I remember being so drunk that strange men would walk up to me in the subway and say, “Hey, wake up. You’re cute,” or whatever. I remember hanging between two subway cars, getting sick, standing on one slippery side and the other going like this. And it’s just like, and I still wasn’t getting it that that was… I knew I didn’t want to do that, but I did not know that really stopping drinking would stop that from happening.

[laughter]

06:20: I remember I was living in Astoria, Queens, and there is this park that everybody walks through after they get off the subway. And I was really, really gone, and I stumbled into this pile of leaves and got sick. And then I thought, “Wow, those leaves look so soft! Hey, I think I’ll sleep here.” And then there was this little voice inside of me that says “No, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. You go home.” And so I walked the five minutes home, it was very close to home. I followed that little voice. And that nagging little voice, I think, is what got me to quit. And that wasn’t the voice of God. It wasn’t mysterious. It was my own survival instinct. There was that sinking feeling that you get that says, “You know what? The way I’m living is not healthy, that this is going to kill me.”

07:15: Years before I got sober, I rode my bicycle from New York City to my parents’ home in Utica, New York. To get ready for this is a 250-mile journey, I stopped drinking and drugging for a month. Anytime my boyfriend came up and said, “Hey, you want, you know, get whatever?” I’m like, “No, no, I’m in training.” People like, “You want to go for a drink?” “No, no, no, I’m in training. Can’t do it”. And I rode, alone, for four days, up the Hudson, across the Mohawk River to Utica. I arrived. I was so happy. I was so proud. My father was proud, he told me the four words, “I’m proud of you.” My mother, I think was proud but she never told me that, but I think she was.

08:00: I got back to New York, I hung up my bicycle, because I live in a studio apartment, so you gotta hang your bicycle up. I thought, “Man, this is really great. I’ve been working on this goal for four months now, I accomplished it, I deserve to celebrate.” And I went out and got some champagne. Why not? Alone, and as I drank that champagne, a thought pathway in my brain that was very old and very deep got reinvigorated by that alcohol, and it said, “Yes, this is the answer.” And the logic of alcohol took over again. Whereas I had separated myself for a month, the logic of alcohol got reinvigorated, that thought pathway where any problem appears, and the thought zooms down there. And this is physically proven, that thought pathways that you use often are bigger than thought pathways that you don’t use often. So if a problem comes up, and I think the solution is alcohol, boom. That’s a very fast thought. It’s hard to derail that thought. So the logic of alcohol had been imprinted on my brain from the thousands and thousands of beers that I drank, from all the scotches, from the bottles of wine that I never intended to finish. And that old thinking took back over.

09:22: When I finally did stop, and it was… That was… The trip was in 1993, and I didn’t stop until 1996, so I still had more time to drink. I thought I had more time to drink and I did drink for more time. I went to the acupuncturist, because I heard that that was a way to get over addictive behavior that somebody had told me, and it worked, and I was going to acupuncture three times a week.

And it was about 80 days before I went to an AA meeting, and the reason I went into an AA meeting is because I was overwhelmed by emotions that were no longer being drowned by alcohol. I had been numbing these emotions for 30 years. Yeah, I drank for 20 years, and I hope one day to be able to say that I’ve stopped drinking for 20 years. And obviously I have more work to do. But hey, I’m trying to do it. That’s what made it so wonderful to hear Joan C. talk, because she quit drinking in her 30s, and that’s when I did. And just putting one day after another together, you get over 40 years somehow, if you managed to survive. And by the idea that I might survive has… That’s been helped by the fact that I’m not drinking so much or riding the subway and falling between the train or something.

10:51: The thing is that I had to stop hurting myself to know how much I was hurting myself. I didn’t know. Sometimes, I think that the therapeutic model has it backwards. They say, “Okay, the alcoholic, what she needs to do is, she needs to figure out why she’s drinking, and then she will stop drinking.” But for me, it was, stop drinking and you will no longer be able to hide the reason you were drinking.

[laughter]

11:19: I finally, finally was cornered by two very loving, atheist, lesbian, sober people. Sober people, probably women, yes.

[laughter]

11:33: They’re recovering alcoholics though.

[laughter]

11:36: And they kept being really nice to me and supporting me and saying, “How you doing? How are those emotions doing?” And I am like, “What emotions? What are you talking about? Emotions?” One of them came up one day and said, “So what are you going to do with all this free time you have, now that you’re not getting… Thinking about drinking, figuring out where you’re going to get your drinks, drinking, and then getting over drinking?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. Well, I don’t know.”

So I finally went into an AA meeting, and I too kept quiet, absolutely. They said, “Anybody in here for the first time?” And I said, “Mm-mm, no way. Uh-uh.” And something else they said and I said, “No, no, no. No, no, no.” But it was a step one meeting as a matter of fact, and these people were talking about God and this and that. I’m like, “Oh God, oh no, no, no.” But this Irish bartender got up, and in New York, there’s a certain large percentage of Irish people, particularly men, who are bartenders.

[laughter]

12:43: And this guy was in an AA meeting, and he’s got the brogue and everything, and he’s like, “This is not about God, this is about, don’t drink, go to a meeting, help another alcoholic.” And I was like, “Oh! Oh, oh, oh, okay. Yes, yeah.” And so I went up to him after the meeting and I admitted that I was an atheist and I admitted that I had about 80 days, and that I… This is my first meeting. And then on 14th Street, right where the meeting was, I cried on the street, and it was just like, “Oh my God, on 14th Street?” But what I did learn is that by talking about my problems and letting them air, I stayed sober, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

At the time, I had a high-pressure, very, very low-paying, non-profit job, and so I began sneaking away at lunchtime and it was like running off to meet a secret lover. It was just like, “Okay, I gotta go!” And I was so thrilled to be able to go to these meetings. I tried to figure out what I needed to say and put my hand up and say it. I was also in therapy at the time.

13:50: In the meeting, I shared about my experience and rarely mentioned that I didn’t believe in these particular meetings. But as alcohol left my system, I’m no longer taking a antidepressant. I began to feel much better because my body chemistry was changing. And since I had let go of my coping mechanism, the thought pathways in my brain were re-programming themselves, and they still do. Our brains are malleable, they change. Also, they’ve recently discovered that we can make new brain cells, which we always were told that we couldn’t. Every problem they came up with, I ended up having to figure out a different solution than just drinking, so the thought pathway to drinking got less strong, and new thought pathways got stronger, like going to a meeting, calling somebody, telling people how I’m feeling, asking for help and, miracle of miracles, getting it.

14:50: But the element in these meetings that I was lacking was fellowship. I did not have fellowship, I did not go for a coffee with anybody, I didn’t… I wasn’t participating. I was just going, feeling better, feeling so much better, but that was it. Then one day, there was an 11th-step meeting and I shared for the first time, “I’m an atheist but I think maybe this meditation thing can help. I’m going to try it.” And somebody came up to me at the meeting and said, “Oh, by the way, there’s agnostic meetings. They’re in the book.” And I was like, “Oh, gee, okay. Gee, huh.” And I was talking to people here in New York, of course we’re lucky. When I got sober, there was like five or six meetings and now there’s like 12 or 13 meetings in New York, so we’re lucky. We didn’t have to… I did not have to struggle for that. Anyway, I called New York inter-group, because I wanted an atheist sponsor, and I said, “Hi. Yeah, I want an atheist sponsor, where shall I go for that?”

[laughter]

15:57: And luckily, Martha, who many people who… If you’ve been to New York meetings, you might know Martha. She’s the one person at inter-group answering the phone, and just like, “There’s agnostic meetings at…” Whispering into the phone about the agnostic meeitngs.

[laughter]

16:11: So I found this, “Okay, I’ll go, I’ll go.” I went to them. And at that point, I had six months sober and I walked in and the chairperson asked me to qualify, and so I did and I told my story, and said that I was looking for a sponsor and by the end of the meeting, I had a sponsor. Sam, a wonderful guy who still goes to meetings in New York, he’s 81, asked me, “Hey, do you want to go out for dinner after the meeting?” And I said, “No. No.” I walked home. I’m like, “Why are you walking home? You could be eating at a diner with people. What’s your story?” So I said yes the next time. And then I also made sure that, at every meeting, if I can do it, I ask somebody to go out to fellowship, and we have it in our scripts about fellowship after the meetings so that there’s no in-group, so that people don’t feel like they have to know somebody in order to go out.

17:17: Tuesday became my home meeting. I started doing the steps, a process that took years and at least three different sponsors, sponsor types, to get me through. I started doing service in the meetings, I took on sponsees. And I just want to just pause for a moment here from my prepared remarks and say that one of the service that I do is to keep the agnosticaanyc.org website going. And a lot of people I’ve probably communicated by email with, either you or somebody from your group, when your meeting has been added to our list. And later on, I’m going to be giving exact numbers about what the progression of the numbers of the meetings are. And I left that in the hotel. I would be telling you right now.

[laughter]

18:11: But in 1997, there were approximately 13 meetings nationally, that the New York group knew about. That’s mostly New York, Chicago and California. Virginia had one, and Washington State, Washington DC, Washington State. So that was all that they knew about. I counted up the meetings on Halloween, and we had 181 listed. 181, that’s amazing.

[applause]

18:48: I just want to say that the website didn’t come out of nowhere. I can’t remember who it was, told me. “How did you start in 2002 with having a website? That’s really forward thinking.” “Well, we had just gone through September 11th.” Is that the bag?

[applause]

19:11: Okay. I’m so glad.

19:15: It’s a miracle.

19:16: It’s a…

[laughter]

[applause]

19:19: Hallelujah, hallelujah.

[laughter]

19:27: Okay. Okay. Anyway, back to September 11th, like we haven’t heard enough about that. Anyway, Tuesday happened to be September 11th, right? We were in New York. Our meeting is below 14th Street. Because of the attacks, 14th Street is completely blocked off and you must show an ID to get below 14th Street that says you live below 14th Street, otherwise you’re not getting there. So during the day, we are calling, trying to talk to everybody in the meeting to figure out what to do. And we decided we’re going to go to a diner that’s on 15th Street. But it was after that that my husband, Charles, who is here today, started going around and did a questionnaire and took it to the meetings trying to decide, if we had a website, what should be on it? And I’m going to talk more about that in another session. But anyway, in 2002, Martha had a whole bunch of information about the meetings nationally. Leonard, Leonard V went through, tried to find more meetings in the AA… Listed at AA. Charles also sorted through websites, trying to find the meetings and we put up the national list and, at that time, it was just national. We didn’t have France, we didn’t have England, we didn’t have the other countries that we have now.

[laughter]

21:01: So that’s how this website started happening, and I didn’t get that… I didn’t know how important it was until I was looking at the other websites that other people have, agnostic AA websites, or websites that have an agnostic, free thinker bend to them. And they’re all using our meeting list, our little website. So that makes me really happy. So after I got sober, I started cleaning up my apartment, I did my laundry, I started doing the kind of work that I wanted to do when I was in middle school. And most important, I was now there for friends and family in a way that I wasn’t there before. And I could never have been there when I was carrying around this giant sticky ball of addictions. Also, after speaking at that meeting, that Charles was in charge of, we started dating after a year of friendship and we’ve been married for… We’ve been intimate for 16 years and married for seven years. So yay Charles.

[laughter]

22:08: I always put the disclaimer in, “Your results may vary.”

[laughter]

22:16: Forget that. Anyway, it’s happy. To get here I had to give up the illusion that everything was okay with me. I had to give up the illusion that drinking six or seven nights a week was okay. I had to give up the illusion that the sexual abuse that I suffered meant nothing, that it was years ago, it means nothing. I had to give up the illusion that I could quit drinking alone, which I tried and tried and tried and couldn’t do. I had to give up the illusion that numbing myself was the best way to handle my problems. I had to give up the illusion that my dirty laundry had to be kept hidden.

Due to AA, due to the fact that there are agnostic meetings within AA, due to the fact that atheists, agnostics, non-believers and free thinkers, were doing upper levels of service, due to the wonderful fellowship that I continue to be a part of, due to the fact that I put work in to change myself, I managed to slowly take my life back from alcohol and addiction. And for that, I want to thank everyone, thank you.

[applause]

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  1. john shearman July 15, 2018 at 8:13 am - Reply

    wish we had secular aa in new hampshire

    • Joe C July 15, 2018 at 10:15 am Reply

      I suspect that if you started a meeting in New Hampshire and went to agnostic/atheist meetings in Maine/Vermont and/or Massachusetts and told them you would love some support, maybe some would come. I will come, from Toronto to your first anniversary, and if I can, I’ll bring a friend.

    • John S July 15, 2018 at 8:20 am Reply

      Build it and they will come. I know it’s not easy to start a meeting, but if you do, you will find that it will be one of the more rewarding experiences of you time in AA.

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