John C. “Where’s the Atheist A?”

John C. who helped found a secular AA meeting in Paris, France spoke at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention held in Santa Monica California in November 2014. John was the first to suggest the second “A” in WAFT to include atheists, and the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention became the We Agnostics, Atheists, and Freethinkers International AA Convention. 

Transcript

0:01 Dorothy H: Next, we have John C, who’s 28 years sober and the founder of three WAFT meetings in Paris, France. John’s originally from Texas and actually met the founder of the Hollywood group, Charlie Polacheck. He also attended some of the New York meetings and truly carried the message to places he went such as starting meetings in France for everybody there. So next, John.

[applause]

00:31 John C: I’m John and I’m an addict and alcoholic.

00:33 Audience: Hi John.

00:35 John C: She didn’t tell you that I was the second choice.

[laughter]

00:38 John C: So, probably when I’m done, you’ll understand why I was not chosen first ’cause I can be a troublemaker, and I can be contentious so you’re not gonna find me going to the Pacific group, I can tell you that.

[laughter]

00:54 John C: The second little bone I have to pick with you people is where’s the other “A” up there? Where is the atheist A? Sorry, sorry. I said I’m contentious. I was just gonna get a can of spray paint and come in at night and just put it there, but I won’t do that.

[laughter]

01:26 John C: I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, which as many people know is the asshole of the earth. I had a good childhood. My parents were nice, so I don’t blame my upbringing or anything that happened to me when I was a kid for my alcoholism. What I blame is my genetics. Alcoholism is an illness. There is a genetic cause. What the fuck does that have to do with spirituality? Nothing, nothing. I don’t need a spiritual solution. Alcoholics Anonymous is not a spiritual program. It’s a practical program. You don’t have… That what they said is, “Don’t pick up a drink a day at a time.” Is that spiritual? God, I don’t know. I don’t know.

[laughter]

02:10 John C: Anyway, back to me, the most important subject.

[laughter]

02:17 John C: Okay. So, first the genetic thing, both of my grandfathers were alcoholics. One of my uncles was an alcoholic. My cousin was an addictive gambler, he shot himself in the head. There are some others but those are the most notable ones. So, growing up in Amarillo, I always just thought of getting away from there. I could get away by reading books and stuff like that, and actually the first time I really got away was with the MYF, the Methodist Youth Fellowship. We took a school bus to Yellowstone. It was fantastic. I loved that. So then, the next summer, there was this huge Baptist Church and they were going to Canada. I was like, “Wow, that sounds like a really exotic place, Canada.”

[laughter]

03:06 John C: So, I joined that choir and I went there and I learned a lot about Canada. I had my first sex with a guy I know on the trip as well. All the Baptists found out as well, and it was like a huge scandal. It was terrible.

[laughter]

03:20 John C: But… Then later, the choir director had had an affair with the piano player, and they had this whole thing where they came to the church and confess their sins. It was really weird.

[laughter]

03:34 John C: But anyway, that’s enough of that. So, I loved getting out of Amarillo. I didn’t start doing it till I was 18. My first beer was at the Pizza Hut on Western Street in Amarillo. Then I went to UT Austin. Austin is a great place, and the first weekend I was there was the ZZ Top Barn Dance and Barbecue. There were 40,000 people. I smoked my first joint. I fucking loved it. I love drugs more than anything, but I do not go to NA because I never shot them up.

[laughter]

04:13 John C: I have read the NA book, though, and I think it’s way better than the Big Book, way better. It’s more modern.

[laughter]

04:21 John C: What’s with the book anyway? Do we have to have a book that is like the AA version of the Bible? Do we have to have that, like everybody has to read it and underline it? My brother, they’re very Christian. They read the Bible every day and they underline it, something like that, but do we really have to do that with the Big Book? Aren’t there other books about sobriety, about recovery. Ain’t there other stuff to read as well? Well, I think there is. Okay, so back to me again. How did I get off on that?

[laughter]

04:57 John C: Alright. So, I went to Austin, graduated with high honors, Phi Beta Kappa. I was using drugs all the time, mostly Quaaludes and cocaine when I get my hands on it. Went to grad school, got a fantastic job. I was a Latin America expert. I also spent a year in Brazil, that was really fun. So, since I was a Latin America expert, they sent me to Taiwan as my first assignment.

[laughter]

05:27 John C: And in Taiwan, indulge as you could buy anything over the counter, any kind of prescription drug you wanted. So, I got really hooked on this prescription speed. So what happened was I started completely freaking out at work. I thought the Chinese were after me. I thought the…

[laughter]

05:51 John C: They call it acute paranoid episode. So, I had this acute paranoid episode. They sent me back to Rochester, New York, which is where the headquarters were, and they sent me to a psychiatrist, of course. And the psychiatrist said, “You know… ” After a few sessions, he already said, “You know, you are an addict and an alcoholic, and I can save your job if you will go to this treatment center in Minnesota.” And I was like, “You know, fuck you, man. I don’t need a treatment center. I’d get another fucking job.” And I did, I was right, I got another job.

[laughter]

06:24 John C: It was with a Dutch company, being the sales rep for Latin America, which meant that I was spending more time between Amsterdam and Curacao.

[laughter]

06:36 John C: That lasted about a year and four months or five months. So there I was in my late 20s, I lost my job again and I had to go home to Amarillo. Ohhh, I was just like devastated, I was devastated. My parents were… They were so nice, they were so nice to me. They bought me a car, they were trying to help me and stuff and everything. Then I went to visit a friend of mine and rammed a car off the road in Roy, New Mexico. As I got back, and it was like… My mom said, “You’re going to Alcoholics Anonymous.” And I was like “Fuck. I don’t wanna go to Alcoholics Anonymous.” And I went to that first meeting and I will never forget it. The steps on the wall, there’s that weird picture of the guy in a hospital bed with a light behind it.

[laughter]

07:31 John C: And I went home and told my mom, I said, “You know, it’s a cult.”

[laughter]

07:37 John C: And to be frank, sometimes I think today it’s a cult. Sometimes I think that. But I guess I’m part of it now. So, you know.

[laughter]

07:49 John C: I did fly all the way from France, not just for this, but it’s always good to be back in the States after such a long time away. So anyway, I went to that first meeting and I said, “I’m an alcoholic.” And just the thing of saying, “I’m an alcoholic,” that first admission that was really… That was somehow helpful to say that. And they said, “You’re right where you belong.”

[laughter]

08:17 John C: And I was like “Whoa, okay. Nobody said that in quite a while.”

[laughter]

08:23 John C: I was miserable. I hated myself, I hated other people. I looked bad, I was like 30, 40 pounds overweight. I was a wreck and wasn’t even 30 years old. So then, I got a job in the charming metropolis of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

[background conversation]

08:44 John C: So I moved to Tulsa, and as soon as I got that job, I was immediately back out there. But only for a little while ’cause something in my mom driving me to those meetings, it’s like something stuck and I think the thing that stuck was, don’t pick up the first drink or drug. ‘Cause when I did it again… And they said, “It progresses even when you’re not doing it, so if you pick up again, it’s gonna be way worse.” And they were right. So I went to a meeting, and I met my first AA friend, he was so great. Richard, he was so great. He had been to the Betty Ford Center. He knew movie stars who are sober.

[laughter]

09:24 John C: He had a lover, who was heir to a shipping line who was like 30, 40 years older. And he was gonna inherit all this money. I was like, “Wow. This is, this is, finally somebody I can relate to.” So, Richard and I became really good friends. We went to meetings all the time, and then my company sent me to Germany.

[laughter]

09:40 John C: I got my first sponsor, David, too. David was like one of those AA circuit speakers and he would say, “I’m… ” He was like a radio announcer, he’d say, “I’m David, I’m an alcoholic. And I’m sober by the grace of God, by the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and you people.” And he killed himself like a year and a half later, two years later. So that was kind of…

And then what happened was, I went to visit Richard at his mansion down in Key West and he picked me up at the airport— he was totally drunk. Then like two years later, I went to his funeral. So, that’s sad. That’s sad because it’s a disease that we have and it’s a serious disease. And if you do pick up, you hang around AA and I’ve been in around the rooms in France now since ’91, in the English-speaking meetings in Paris, and see people who go back out. I’ve seen people who were in really, really bad shape. So I’m really glad that I haven’t done that. I’m really glad.

10:54 John C: So let’s talk about meetings ’cause I think meetings, for me, are somehow the key to sobriety. If I don’t come here, I just wouldn’t wanna think that I could do it by myself ’cause I couldn’t do it by myself before. So I don’t think I’d be able to do it by myself now and I wouldn’t wanna try to do it now ’cause I have a great life because I’m clean and sober.

So let’s see, let’s start with Paris. Paris AA is pretty cosmopolitan. We have a lot of English-speaking meetings. We have a lot of tourists and the people are pretty cool. They’re not like super fundamentalists, there are some now though. They’ve started their back-to-basics movement there, as well. But, I travel around the world a lot, and actually, the first meeting that we started, I got really somehow tired of hearing “How it works” read at every meeting, and I just got tired of hearing that. And I got tired of reading that Big Book. I don’t know, it’s like go to so many meetings you get only… You’ll hear that stuff so much. The first thing we did was, ’cause I really liked it, was we started a Living Sober meeting. I love the book Living Sober ’cause it’s practical, and it’s not all this pie in the sky shit.

[laughter]

12:12 John C: So we started, that’s probably like 15 years ago, we started that meeting. And we started it where we only read the steps, we didn’t read all the other stuff, and it was in a meeting of the Mairie, the Town Hall. And it’s still a great meeting, but then of course stuff happened and they moved the meeting to this Catholic church and it was in a room right next to the sanctuaries, when the mass was going on. Oh yeah, in the room there was this super religious iconography of Mount of Olives and stuff, and I just found it really kind of overpowering somehow. But the meeting’s still going on and Living Sober is a wonderful book. The chapter on anger is one of the best things I’ve ever read. If you read that chapter, there’s this like 16 forms of anger.

[laughter]

13:01 John C: I don’t know, it’s stuff like distrust is a form of anger, snobbishness is a form of anger. It’s really, really good that chapter. The rest of it’s really good as well, because it tells me just practical ways of living life without drinking or doing drugs. So we started that meeting.

Then I was going to New York and I went to… Actually I went to two meetings, that were very unusual. The first was the S&M lifestyle meeting.

[laughter]

13:32 John C: Swear to God, they do have it. The only thing I remember about that meeting was they passed around a leather cap at the end.

[laughter]

13:41 John C: I swear, I swear. There are some kinky meetings in New York, but I also went of course to the… I went to the… I don’t think they call it We Agnostics. By the way, why do we call the meetings here We Agnostics? Has anybody actually read that chapter in the book?

[laughter]

13:57 John C: It’s not complimentary to people who are not believers. It’s not complimentary at all.

[laughter]

14:04 John C: We actually changed in Paris the name of the meeting from We Agnostics to Agnostics. I wanted to change it to sober agnostics, but they thought that maybe a little too controversial.

[laughter]

14:15 John C: Maybe we’re back to the WAAFT. Anyway, so yeah. I went to the New York meeting and people there are hard core, it was great. It was great to have hard core secular people at a meeting who didn’t say, “My higher power, my higher power.” Everytime somebody says, “My higher power” I just feel like a twinge inside, “Ooooh, talking about that again.”

Anyway, we started an agnostic meeting in Paris and it started really, really small. There were like four of us, for seem like years. It’s been like 11 years now. It’s a super strong group. There was lots of young people, people of all ages. People talk really about honestly what’s going on with them, and that’s the thing I like about it, is its honesty and not a regurgitation of the first 164 pages of a book that was written in 1939. So yeah, that meeting was great and it’s really evolved.

We started last year, a Free Thinkers meeting. And in conjunction with my idea that we need to read stuff other than just AA literature, we read AA literature one week, and then we read like anything else about alcoholism the next week. Thank you so much everybody for the AA Agnostica website, there’s just a wealth of stuff on there.

[applause]

15:58 John C: And it makes really, really good discussion stuff for meetings. We’ve used that and there’s also all these other books floating around that occasionally you can find chapters of it online. Thank you, Josie, for the new meditation book as well, we’ve used that.

[applause]

16:16 John C: So yeah, that meeting is still small. The funny thing about Paris is, we get a lot of tourists there. Invariably we get tourists, who don’t know what a Freethinkers meeting is. They don’t know, and even the Agnostics meeting. It was funny, because there was a guy who shared, he was from California as a matter of fact, and he just talked on and on and on about how God was important to his life and his program, da da da, which was actually fine for him. But then, from my head, I was saying, “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t think you have to believe in God to get sober or to stay sober.” When I say stuff like that in meetings that shocks people. And he was like, “Wow.” And he was like pulling out his meeting list and, you know, “What is this? What kind of meeting is this?”

17:08 John C: A couple of weeks ago in the Freethinkers meeting, we read an article from the Grapevine and I think the title was “Without God” or something like that. A visitor came in and heard the thing and said, “I’m leaving.” I think, like somebody just mentioned, I think there are maybe like, for lack of a better word, there’s a left wing and a right wing in AA for sure. And I know which side I’m on, I guess.

[laughter]

17:36 John C: I went to meeting in Austin a couple of years ago called Liar’s Club. Liar’s Club is right by UT, and it’s outdoors in this kind of funky cafe. I think, probably the real reason I went there is ’cause there’s really good-looking young guys there. So I ended up meeting Charlie. He was like 90 plus years old. And ’cause he said in that meeting, which is pretty fundamentalist meeting, he said, “You know, I’m an atheist.” That somehow gave me courage to come out as an atheist as well in AA. So that’s why I say what I just said, I don’t think you have to believe in God to get sober, to stay sober. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. And a lot of times I don’t get real good feedback from people when I say stuff like that.

[laughter]

18:36 John C: As a matter of fact, I went back to that same meeting, Liar’s Club, I think it was last summer, and the topic was invariably Step Three. And I said that and somebody, when it was her turn to share, she said, “People like you are a danger to AA.”

18:51 John C: “People like you, you’re practicing a watered-down version of the program. You’re not a real alcoholic, because if you were a real alcoholic, you need the spiritual solution.” So this kind of wild, twisted reasoning logic. Okay, it is what it is. What else did I wanna say, I wrote some little notes here on the offering of the church, let’s see.

[laughter]

19:29 John C: Let’s see. I covered that. I have a wonderful life because I’m clean and sober. The only thing I’ve done right in Alcoholics Anonymous is not pick up the first drink or drug, and I think that’s all it takes. I think to sanctify parts of AA, whether it’s the steps or the books or whatever, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, because I think the real thing that makes AA what it is and what they intended it for and what it has been from the beginning was one alcoholic helping another.

I was in a meeting in Detroit last week. I work in the automotive industry and I was up there and I went to this really cool meeting, it was like… It’s funny, in the meetings there, there were lot of people at the meeting, but then they divide everybody up into groups. And so we’re sitting around this round table and then I looked at… There was a table outdoors. It was around this fire, I thought, “This is great. I wanna go out to that.” And I went to the outdoor meeting, it was really great, it was a beautiful night to sit outside, I’d never been to a meeting around a campfire before, it was great.

20:45 John C: Of course the subject was, at the end, of how it works is A, B and C. We were alcoholic, could not manage our own lives, no human power could relieve our alcoholism, that God could relieve us all. I had to put up my hand and said, “Well, I think it is a human power. I think it’s other people who’ve helped me.

I wouldn’t wanna think… I wouldn’t wanna be the big know-it-all like I was in the past. I think I’m too smart to be an alcoholic, ’cause that just wasn’t true. It’s a genetic-based illness, and I’ve got it and I know I’ve got it and I keep coming back because I just wouldn’t want that… I wouldn’t want a return to the way that I used to live.” And the agnostic meetings have… I mean it kinda… It’s on the very first, what was it, “Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.” Okay, maybe I need a little bit work, a little bit more on the open-mindedness. But I’ve got the…

[laughter]

21:50 John C: I’ve got the honesty and the willingness. So it’s progress not perfection. What do they also say, “The spiritual life is not a theory we have to live.” Who knows what the fuck “spiritual” means, I don’t really know, but life is not a theory. We’ve got to live it and we’re living it and we’re living the dream, only I forget that, if I don’t come here, ’cause I forget somehow to be grateful, I forget that… I forget a lot of stuff, I just become self-obsessed, I become worried about my job, my relationship, my real estate or whatever it is, it just somehow… I take things too seriously. And when I come here and when I come to most meetings, if it’s not like too cult-ish [laughter] I feel better. What also really helps is, even when I go to those meetings, where I just don’t relate, is I put my hand up and say whatever my truth is for that day, and that also really helps no matter what kind of meeting it is.

23:00 John C: I went to a meeting a few months ago, down in Brazil. I speak Portuguese, it was Portuguese meeting, they have a whole different set-up there. So you have to go up to the front of the room, there was like one leader of the meeting, and you sit in a chair next to the leader. And I was sharing and then I noticed that on the table or the desk where the leader has his stuff, there were all these turtles, like stone turtles and wooden turtles and all these turtles. And was like, “Hey man, what’s the deal with the turtles?” And he said, “That? Well, it’s to remind us that we have to slow down.”

[laughter]

23:41 John C: And I thought, “Wow, that’s great.”

[laughter]

23:45 John C: “I like that.” ‘Cause I’m always speeding around and going here and going there. And I think probably the latest thing, like California, I’m sure it comes from California, “Mindfulness.” I think it was like… I wanna be present, I wanna be in today, and AA helps me do that. It’s not the only thing. I think from the beginning of sobriety for me, there’s this meditation thing. And for me to sit down and chant or… I’m not gonna do to that shit. In fact, now there’s also a third agnostic meeting. They call it Agnostic Meditation, and they do like, they use a god of meditation. That’s embarrassing. I do not have trouble with that, but I used to always say that… Well, my first meditation was high-impact aerobics. That was like, really good. You sweat like crazy. It really just calmed me down. I think meditation is something that calms me down. So, high-impact aerobics when I got sober in the ’80s was the first thing.

24:52 John C: Then, I started on running, but then I got this problem with my foot, and I couldn’t run anymore, and I couldn’t get over the problem, couldn’t get over the problem, couldn’t get over. So, I finally found this masseur, and he sent me to a… He said, “You know, you should do hot yoga.” And I was like, “I’m not doing that.” [chuckle] And he’s like, “No, no try it. Try it.” So, I started getting into yoga. It’s like the real physical kind. Sometimes there’s a little bit chanting, but I don’t have to do that. I learned how to stand on my hands and stand on my head, and that’s like it gives me a whole new perspective.

[laughter]

25:40 John C: Because I was a really clumsy kid. And so, I think… Is that moves up my time? Alright. So, now, just in closing, thanks everybody for being here. And let’s have some fun. And oh, I’ll close with what my yoga teacher said. She’s total anti-spiritual as well. She’s super physical. She’s like, “Oh, the spiritual BS, I hate this too.” And I was like, “Yeah, me too.” She said… But what I heard was spirituality is sharing your health with other people. And I kinda like that, so I’ll close with that. And have a good day. Cheers.

[applause]

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  1. Diana July 24, 2018 at 8:20 am - Reply

    I loved listening to your story. You have a wonderful sense of humor and are refreshingly honest about your experiences. I benefit from hearing other people’s experiences and how they are living their life now. I appreciate the fellowship and the honest sharing. Thank-you!

  2. John L. July 22, 2018 at 11:15 am - Reply

    “Alcoholism is an illness. There is a genetic cause. What the fuck does that have to do with spirituality? Nothing, nothing.”

    Right.  Alcoholism is a physical addiction to ethyl alcohol.  The susceptibility to addiction is largely genetic, but I think it can also be acquired — by those who drink enough for long enough.  Anyway, recovery means that, no matter what happens, you don’t pick up the first drink.  Come Hell or High Water, you don’t drink.

    Love the idea of the turtles.  Ebay has lots of them — carved wood, ceramic, etc. — and I’ve just bought a couple.

  3. Joe C July 22, 2018 at 8:42 am - Reply

    I never get tired of hearing your story, John—unabashed and, in my opinion, a vital voice in AA. I’ve heard it before and of course I was there to hear it ‘live’ in Santa Monica but I love this format with having the transcript to follow along with.

     

    See you in Toronto, I hope.

  4. bob k July 22, 2018 at 8:36 am - Reply

    I think the point that gets missed in the “Just don’t pick up the first drink” philosophy is that when we stop drinking, most of us are some sort of emotional mess. Sobriety is so unpleasant that there are pressing urges to return to ingesting liquor that are so powerful that quite recent tragedies brought about by alcoholic drinking are easily shunted to the side. I had a variety of warped perceptions, most especially about drinking.

    Among what AA gets right is it’s description of the restlessness, irritability, and discontentedness that (at times) washes over the sober alcoholic. Beneath the religious and spiritual gobbledygook, there are some useful tools in AA for reframing the psychology of the alcoholic. I needed to engage in something that chipped away at my NEED to drink. Self-examination, community, letting go, amends, and service are tremendously valuable. No need for God, but I certainly needed more than the mere cessation of drinking

  5. John S July 22, 2018 at 8:09 am - Reply

    Here’s the link to the podcast that I did with John a while back. 

    Episode 26: John C. An Atheist AA in Paris

  6. Ron Bone July 22, 2018 at 6:02 am - Reply

    ‘A’ is a simple symbol, forming part of a contextual word. Atheism has no contextual meaning at all unless perceived as meaning that no religious God’s exist in your belief. I too believe this to be true, but I have no empirical evidence to support my disbelief, and no person can have absolute empirical believe that metaphysics is not a reality. When we consider  the problems which alcohol can bring to society then metaphysics is surely not important.  Nature is for the survival of the fittest, death for others. That way homo sapiens progress, evolution. Fight alcoholism yourself, you have the ability. I am back in the fight today, but I will win again, I am determined. I don’t need anyone to fight the battles life has presented to me, although
    I appreciate the kindness not given out of loneliness or want for glory.

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