Ann H. who began attending the We Agnostics Group in Hollywood during its early days, was one of the Fellowship Speakers at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention that was held in Santa Monica, California in November 2014. Today, we are presenting the audio recording of her talk as well as the transcript.
00:00: Hi, I’m Ann. I’m an alcoholic.
00:05: I’m following a lot of speakers who had a lot of fantastically good things to say. Whatever I say is just my own opinion. I feel it very strongly, [chuckle] but it’s my opinion and my experience. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most consistently good thing I’ve ever done for myself in my life. It is a gift that I have given myself and I’m very lucky to have it. I’m very blessed to have it. I like to think that Alcoholics Anonymous has become a part of the fabric of my life, it really has. It’s woven in and out of my life. I have this life of ordinary magic, and that’s really special to me because I’m a very much just a worker among workers, an ordinary person, so ordinary magic would do very well for me.
I was born in Dublin, Ireland. I grew up there. I didn’t leave until I was 19. I believe that I was born an alcoholic. I believe that I’m genetically an alcoholic. My two older brothers are not alcoholics, never were, didn’t overly drink. One of them has died, one of them still alive. The last time I was in Ireland, he said to me, “Now I know, Anne, you didn’t have a drink when you were here before, but would you like a gin and tonic?” They don’t get it. [laughter] They just don’t get it that I’m an alcoholic who can’t drink. They never saw me drink.
01:41: I remember being tipsy once in Dublin before I left when I was 19 and I was very tipsy. I’d sneaked out to downtown Dublin to go dancing and go where there was alcohol served with a girlfriend and we got very, very tipsy. That’s the only time I remember being tipsy in Ireland. My first blackout was my 20th birthday which was in Bristol, England. I was given a surprise birthday party and I was very touched because my family was very serious and we didn’t have birthday parties. I was so touched that I drank an endless quantity of gin and orange juice, and I woke up the next morning and I had no memory of the party. I’ve no memory of what happened. I didn’t know what I did or didn’t do, and was very relieved to find out that I didn’t do anything terrible. So that was my first blackout and if I’d known anything about alcohol and the problems that one can have with alcohol, that might have tipped me off to the fact that I might have a problem but I didn’t know anything about it.
02:46: Every time I drank, basically I drank to get drunk. I drank for the effect but I didn’t do it every day or every week. I did it as I travelled in Europe and when I first came to the States like when I went to a party, when it was a wedding, a special occasion, so that it wasn’t noticeable. I got drunk but a lot of my friends got drunk too. That’s how I drank until my early 30s.
Now when I came to the States, I was this little girl who grew up. I had no concept of life. I had no common sense. I had no street smarts. It was my family, my little environment. It was, I’m not saying all Irish people are like that, they’re not. I had no concept of how the world worked or how people worked, so when I came to the United States, I was very shocked at some of the stuff I found here. I was shocked at the racism, the antisemitism, the bigotry. I couldn’t believe it.
My personal belief system tends to be left of center and I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in Los Angeles, and went down to Watts to see history being made during the Watts riots. The police wouldn’t let me in and I was very disappointed, but they searched my car.
04:15: That’s the kind of idealistic young thing I was. I’ve been brought up to be always nice, always sweet, never say no. God forbid, you never said no. That got me in more trouble than you can imagine. [laughter] I mean, such trouble, you wouldn’t believe it. You really wouldn’t believe it. [chuckle] So I had a child, was a single mother, got married, got divorced, did all that in my 20s. I brought my son up in Los Angeles as a single mother with no child support and I have no family here. They’re all in Ireland. I got married when he was two. I was married to a very nice man for about a year and three months. He’s still a nice man but it didn’t work out, unlike my son’s father. He’s a good man and I’m still in contact with him.
05:13: I started drinking on a daily basis when I was married to that nice guy because he would make a cocktail when we both came home from work. I got the concept of having a cocktail when you got home from work and I didn’t object. I thought it was a wonderful idea. After we got divorced, I started the daily drinking. I was in my early 30.
What started out as drinking gin and orange juice so nobody would know I was drinking alcohol to having a Dubonnet before dinner because that seems sophisticated, to drinking white wine for years until I got the most god-awful hangover from a cheap wine called Jacquère wine. I’ll never forget it. I drank one of those gallon bottles of it. Oh, it was awful.
05:56: I had to crawl up the flight of stairs that night. I couldn’t walk up the flight of stairs. I switched to vodka, then. [laughter] Vodka and orange juice. Yeah, that made a lot of sense to me, but the orange juice, the acid is hard on the stomach. [laughter] So, I switched to vodka tonic and I drank vodka and tonic water for years. Then I got an ulcer, and if I have any doubt that I’m an alcoholic, I have to remind myself of this. The last years of my drinking, I drank my cheap vodka with low fat milk [laughter] because it was good for my stomach and I was not drinking for the taste. It wasn’t for the effect of a good scotch or a good Irish whiskey or a good glass of Cabernet. It was drinking to numb out the pain, to numb out every feeling. To be an anesthetic for me and that’s what it was all about.
06:51: I was raising my son while I was doing this, and things didn’t look a lot different on the outside then as they do right now. [chuckle] I looked a lot younger then, but aside from that, I live in the same place now that I lived then. I raised this son of mine, he’s a wonderful man. He’s now a grown-up married man with a nice wife, and so on and so forth.
I was not coping well, and when this little boy that I adored turned into an angry young man at 12 or 13 when the testosterone kicked in, it was like it was on, alcoholic mom and son. I handled everything very, very badly. I’m grateful that I didn’t overtly abuse him, but it was a very bad environment. I wasn’t present emotionally. So when I got sober, when he was 18, we were not on good terms. We were… We saw each other, but we were estranged. We had been living under the same roof for years.
07:53: I got sober because one day… I live in Santa Monica, not far, not that far from here. I woke up one day and one more day I didn’t go to work, one more day I was hungover, one more day I had had my quart of vodka the night before with my low fat milk. I weighed a lot less then too. For some reason, I just thought I got a problem with alcohol. The thought that hit me, that pounded me was I can’t stop drinking by myself, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought about it, and picked up the phone book, which I never did. That was 27 years ago, so there were still phone books.
08:42: I found the Alcoholism Council of Southern California, and I called them. It was about 6:30 on a Monday evening and they said, “We’re sorry, we have no one to talk to you. Please call back tomorrow” and they made me promise I would. So I told them, “If I don’t do something now, I’ll never do it.” So, I called Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn’t want to. I had forgotten anything I’d ever heard about AA because I realized later there were things I had heard about AA in my life, but I had no memory of them at that time. I just called up and I got a man at Central Office in Los Angeles, it’s a great commitment to answer the phones in Alcoholics Anonymous. This man set me up beautifully. He said, “Every meeting will have started, so any meeting you go to will be half over, but I’m going to send you to one in Santa Monica that would not be threatening for a woman going alone.” He didn’t know that he’d be sending the viper into the chicken house.
09:36: That meeting was walking distance from here. It was in the Quaker meeting house and I went. It was a Monday night and it was cold, it was raining, it was January 5th. I walked in and there was a fireplace going, and the lights were low and people were sharing. The only thing I remember about that meeting is they were sharing about how you didn’t have to like everyone in AA, and they didn’t have to like you. [laughter] That has held me in very good stead in AA. [laughter] It’s been very good. What was not a good thing I thought at the time, was there were all these Irish accents and I thought, “Jesus” I’m in the midst of the Catholic Irish conservative contingent. This is not going to work for me, the left-wing outsider.
10:27: The two co-secretaries were Irish women. The man who started the meeting brought the meeting format from Dublin, Ireland. It’s the Powerless Group meeting. It’s on a Monday night in Santa Monica. He can’t be with us today because he died of natural causes a few years back, sober, but his wife is here and we got sober the same time. That man was I think a religious Catholic Irishman. He stood up for my right to be not religious and he stood up for my right to find a spirituality of a non-religious type.
I was brought up in common schools. I was in common schools till I was 18 and I slowly began not to believe in a religious concept of God, and in a personal God that religions teach. I just didn’t believe in it and it was like, “What am I going to do? I’m in this program.” But what I had going for me was I was desperate, because when I got sober, my life was nothing to do with the current movie that’s coming out, but my life was shades of gray, really.
11:39: Really, it was like I had no hope. I was depressed. I was isolating. I was alone. The most important person in the world to me, my only child, my son hated me. That’s the life I came from when I came to AA. I wanted to stay sober so I just kind of kept going to that Powerless Group Monday night meeting, and I went to the other two Powerless Group meetings in the week, and I had that safe little haven and I went to some other meetings at 26 and Broadway.
I heard what people said, they said take commitments, and don’t drink in-between meetings. So I didn’t drink in-between meetings and I took commitments and I didn’t drink and I started looking around me and a lot of people I saw that were sober a long time, had done the Steps in one way or the other. I thought well, I’ll do that, I’ll hedge my bets. This is all emotional, there wasn’t… This is in retrospect, looking back I can realize what I was thinking and I started to try and do the Steps and my Step One was really easy because I knew I was powerless over alcohol and my life was totally fucking and manageable when I got sober. [chuckle]
12:57: Step Two, I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I just really had it pointed out to me that I had not been engaging in any reasonable or rational thinking and I could substitute the word reasonable and rational thinking, those words for sanity and I could be returned to reasonable and rational thinking.
Then when I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood God well, I wasn’t religious, so I had no idea of God and Alcoholics Anonymous was my god, AA and the meetings. And to turn my will and my life over, I didn’t have a clue what that meant, but again, it was suggested to me that I substitute, that I turn my thinking and my actions over to a power greater to myself. So I, turned it over to AA.
The Fourth and Fifth Steps and the rest are sort of self-explanatory. I tried to do the Steps to the best of my ability, and I’m sure it was half-assed, but it was an honest effort on my part. I’ll tell you that Fourth Step was hard. I was doubled over in pain, with pains in my stomach for days as I wrote that, because I had a lot of secrets and I had a lot of pain and a lot of shame and a lot of guilt over not being what I felt to be the best mother in the world.
14:17: I managed to stay sober and I was about two and a half years sober and the program was my higher power. Alcoholics Anonymous, I really believe Alcoholics Anonymous is one alcoholic talking to another. What I have learned in Alcoholics Anonymous in these rooms, sitting, listening to other people, and listening to what they have to share and what they have to say has saved my ass.
Something magical happened for me when I was about two and a half year sober, the woman who was my sponsor at the time, who was considered to be quite a spiritual guru, she suggested that I go to a meeting called We Agnostics that was in Hollywood, in Kaiser Hospital, that Charlie Polacheck started. She said there are people there and they were like you who are not religious. Now, I already believed I could stay sober in AA because there was an elderly couple sober when I got sober, and he took me aside after they got to know me, and he said, “Anne, I’m an atheist, I’ve been sober for years, you can stay sober.”
15:18: So off I went to We Agnostics in Hollywood and I had just started to go there when they made me secretary, which kept me busy and involved there for the first six months. I met Charlie Polacheck and Marilyn, all the regulars at that meeting, Christopher Trumbo and… Some and lot of people are not with us anymore, so I just feel sad thinking of Chris. He would have loved this.
I asked Charlie Polacheck who was a total atheist who started the We Agnostics meetings here. What about spirituality? I mean, if I’m going to stay sober the rest of my life, if I’m going to… I need to have something to grip on to. And Charlie was the one who said to me, I know it’s not an original thought, but he said to me Anne, he said, “In my opinion, spirituality is chopping wood and drawing water.” I thought, “Okay, I can go with that.” It’s action. It’s action. That’s what spirituality means to me. It’s action. The actions of taking a commitment, the actions of giving a ride to newcomers, the actions of supporting newcomers, the actions of supporting one another as we go through life and our ups and our downs. Because for me, it wasn’t some…
16:48: I mean the alcohol kept me sane until I found AA, and then AA kept me sane. Then when I stopped smoking at two and a half years of sobriety, my over three packs a day, the anger and rage of a lifetime surfaced, and I could never have stopped smoking if I hadn’t been sober. Because as well as Smokers Anonymous, I had Alcoholics Anonymous backing me up on that. I mean all of the feelings and all of the emotions of a lifetime surfaced. It’s really true that saying, “The good news is you get your feelings back, and the bad news is you get your feelings back.” [laughter] Well, that was for me, and I had gone through my life somewhere when I was a little girl, I got the message of coping mechanism means shoving everything down and not feeling.
17:34: My mother became ill and was ill when I was young, and she died when I was 15, 16, I handled all of those kind of things by not feeling them, any hurts, any disappointments, any pain, I didn’t feel them. I shoved them down, put on a cheery face, and I smiled, and people thought… I wrote in my little summer diary when I was about 17, that everybody thought I was so happy-go-lucky, and I didn’t understand that because I was so sad so much at that time. I read that when I was two or three years sober, and I thought, “That’s so true, but what’s it about?” I knew nothing about it.
It’s like in AA with the process of time and with being able to look at me, and look at other people and hear how other people lived through this heartbreak, how other people dealt with this crisis, how other people cope with being alone at night, at two o’clock in the morning and you’re not able to sleep. I was a terrible insomniac for years and years before I got sober. I would be up drinking at four o’clock in the morning still having not gone to sleep, and I had to get up at seven o’clock and get a boy ready for school and get me to work. I had terrible insomnia. I had no peace of mind. I had no serenity whatsoever. I didn’t know what that meant.
19:02: I kept going to meetings because it was the only thing I knew how to do. I just kept going and all of you drank and all of you, but not all of you, I can’t assume that all of you, but many of you drank and did drugs. [chuckle] I drank. I smoked pot. I tried butyl nitrites, very good thing. [laughter] But I was afraid to go after the drugs big time because I could go to jail and I could go to prison, but I could go and buy legally my alcohol any time. I swear to this day, I was not addicted to pot. I smoked it socially only. If I didn’t know that if I smoked a joint now, I would not, I know I would drink a quart of vodka. If I didn’t know that, I probably would smoke a joint now. [laughter] But I can’t do that. My drinking took me places that, to such places of hopelessness, and all I was trying to do is just get by.
Being an agnostic is like… The downside of that is is that not believing that there’s… I don’t know, I don’t know any of the answers to the unanswerable questions. I don’t know any of those answers. I don’t think other people do either, and I don’t think agnostics or atheists know any better than people who are believing in the religious concept are better trying to. But I know that when I drank, it made me feel good. Alcoholics Anonymous makes me feel good.
20:42: Now that doesn’t mean that I go to every meeting and love every meeting I’ve ever walked into. But I tell you, I have felt better when I walked out of the meeting than when I walked in, in every case than I’ve ever been to a meeting. I mean, my drinking as well as making me feel good took me out places. I did a lot of my drinking at home alone because I had a child. So I’d come home, I cook dinner, I drink, cook dinner, drink. He’d be doing his homework. He’d be in his bedroom talking to his girlfriend on the phone, with friends on the phone. I was drinking and stuff like that. I also went out. I wasn’t a bar drinker, but I went out to parties and stuff like that, and I had my share of experiences of going places and waking up where I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know the people with whom I was with.
21:30: I got lost in the Mojave Desert one time. I was out there in the middle of the night and remembered that, “Oh my God, there are these snakes out there called Mojave greens. I grew up in a country where there’s no snakes. Don’t you know Ireland’s a very special place? [laughter] There’s no snakes. I was lost out there. I had a fight with my boyfriend, so I took off and all I had on was a little short summer dress, but no underwear underneath it, no shoes, a drink in my hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other hand. I took off in the middle of night and got myself totally lost out there. I got rescued as all good alcoholics get rescued. [laughter] And good women alcoholics usually get rescued by good men or man. [laughter] I was rescued that night, and then in the morning, I was led to my real rescuer which was a Mormon bishop who was out there near Lake Mojave, in the desert I mean, in Mojave, near Lake Isabella.
22:38: If you believe in stereotypes, it’ll tell you how silly stereotypes are. This Mormon bishop had a lovely wife and a bunch of lovely children. They were like steps to the stairs and they were all blonde. And there I was with my little short dress and I had nothing else. Those people were so kind to me. They let me take a shower in their house. They made me tea. They wouldn’t give me any cigarettes, of course, [laughter] and no caffeine. They drove me to Bakersfield, where I could get a Greyhound Bus back to Los Angeles, and the whole drive from Bakersfield to… From Lake Isabella to Bakersfield, they were talking about how they would like to be able to get religion into the public school, and I was sitting there—the activist being rescued under very degrading circumstances. Having been lost in the desert overnight, I couldn’t say a word, but I’ve never forgotten that car trip. And I’ve never forgotten the freedom from alcohol now gives me the right and the privilege of saying what I believe as long as I don’t do it in a combative, ugly, mean way to my fellow human beings. I think that, for me, Alcoholics Anonymous is one alcoholic talking to another. It’s about love and tolerance.
24:03: Now, I don’t mean to say that I am perfect in any of that, it’s what I aspire to. I believe that that tolerance includes tolerance for people who are believers in organized religion. I have no problem with people who are religious at all, unless I get somebody who very actively tries to proselytize and tries to get in my face and tries to shove it down my throat, then I don’t like it. Other than that, I believe that as I have a right to my space in the world to be able to draw, breathe, and to believe what I believe, so too does everybody else. I just wish we human beings could learn to do it with some love and tolerance without the horrible things that we resort to and that involves all of us.
Those of us who are in Alcoholics Anonymous, we live in a real world where real stuff is going on and it’s not always pleasant. I think that we can take the principles of this program out into the world. It’s practicing a type of spirituality. All I know is is that I’m so grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous. For 27 years and 10 months, I’ve been able to stay sober, and I hope to continue to be able to stay sober.
I want to congratulate Pam and Dorothy and those people who have worked on this convention, isn’t this just a gas that it happened?