Pat N. was a keynote speaker at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention that was held in Austin, Texas from November 11th through the 13th of 2016. This is the audio recording and written transcript of his talk.
00:23: Well, thank you very much. First thing to do is to get the excuses out of the way. I managed to develop a sore throat last night, and I may lose my voice in the middle of this, which of course would be a monumental tragedy. I’m going to set my little timer here.
One of the reasons that I became a drunk, I realize now, was partly because I grew up in an emotional wasteland, and the other part was that I have attention deficit disorder, and my particular symptom in that category is distractibility. I can never leave the house without going back at least once to get something I forgot, so I have to do a lot of little things to keep myself halfway organized.
I am really honored to have been asked to do this, I really am because having Pam here, and then Dierdre following me, and I hope I pronounce your name correctly, I feel like a thorn between two roses.
01:30: One of my agnostic friends had the effrontery today. I said that to her, I said, “I feel like a thorn between two roses.” I won’t quote what she said, but it had something to do with the word prick. That’s one of the things AA has given me, is whenever I need it I get a dose of humility.
Anyhow, here’s the speech, and I just want you to know I really did try to prepare, and this is the last you’ll see or hear from this most likely. Okay. Anyhow, in addition to being grateful to the two ladies who are flanking me, I’d like to express my thanks to the Austin committee for putting this on.
02:21: Some of us put on a similar, much smaller conference in Olympia, Washington last January, two months later the folks in Phoenix had put theirs on, and I just think it’s something we need to do, is to be thinking about having regional conferences of this sort. There’s people out there who are thinking that they’re not only alone because they are drunk, but they think they’re alone because they’re not religious, and we need to tell them, “No, you’re not.” One way to do that is through regional conferences.
I also want to give my thanks to the Yakima, Washington AA group called Happy Hour. I don’t know if it still exists or not, but those are the folks who got me sober some years ago, and that group of people, there were probably 20 of them, but one of them was Father Pat, a Roman Catholic priest, and another one was Sister Ann, a Roman Catholic nun. I don’t recall either of them ever talking about religion. I recall them talking about sobriety and how not to take that first drink, and I recall them saying, “Come on in, you’re one of us, you’re accepted, you’re welcome.” Eventually, I realized that they were saying, “You’re loved.” It’s thanks to people like them, and people like you that I’m sober today, so my last thank you is for my present home group, We Agnostics of Olympia, Washington.
03:54: They’re a very quiet and sedate group. [chuckle] They keep me sober. I go back every week that I can when I’m in town and I always hear something I’ve never heard before, and it’s usually what I needed to hear that day, and so, thank you folks.
Okay, so that’s the thanks stuff. I also need to put in a plug for my brother, I hadn’t meant to do this. My brother Dick N., died this summer in Los Angeles and he was the closest thing I had to a sponsor, he was kind of my long distance sponsor. He was the first one to gain sobriety and he helped lead me into it, and later on our oldest brother followed us as well, so we were very fortunate. He was a member of the We AGs group in Hollywood. I don’t know if he was an original member because I’m not sure when that started. I do know that, God, I forgot his first name, but Polacheck…
04:53: Charlie, of course, I’m sorry. Yeah, Charlie. He called him his sponsor. He called Charlie his sponsor, so that’s really worthy inspiration. A lot of the inspiration for our group of We Ags came from that. So anyhow, I’m through saying thank you. No more gratitude.
05:12: Now I’ll tell you the whole miserable story. What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. I had a dissimilar experience to Pam’s. I did not excel in high school, as a matter of fact I flunked out. I flunked out, I believe because both of the emotional situation in my family and my ADD. Looking back, I think that’s true.
My family was formally religious, and I think in their own way, whatever spiritual means, they were spiritual. My family had probably been Irish ever since St. Patrick got hold of them, and when they came over to this country after the Great Hunger, they stayed Catholic. My grandfather was knighted by the Pope for giving a lot of free legal service to the church, and my dad was the state Grand Poobah of the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus. You know, on and on, that kind of thing, so if you’d like, after the meeting, I’ll tell you how to say the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.
06:08: So, I was not unfamiliar with religion, and a matter fact, I’m probably still an ordained Presbyterian elder as well, so I’ve been around, but it didn’t keep me from becoming a drunk. When I was about 16, the first of the two most significant events in my life happened, I got drunk. Drunk as a lord on boilermakers in a log cabin in Montana, a long story, and I got sick as a dog, and could not wait to do it again, and that was the significant part of it, because for the first time in 16 years, I felt okay. I felt relaxed, I felt on top of things, I felt life was good, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, and I hadn’t, I was just drunk.
Well, I couldn’t get drunk as often as I would have liked in the ensuing years, because back in those days they had rules about it, and thank God or whatever, all these other drugs were not around. Any of you youngsters won’t know that, but there was a time that there weren’t a lot of the drugs around in a lot of places, there was just booze, and it was sufficient.
07:32: For the next 30 years more or less, I continued to drink. I drank more and more, I drank whenever I could, and when I could, I usually drank all I could. I got drunk a number of times, had a lot of embarrassing experiences, and gradually that wonderful feeling faded away, and it got to the point where sometimes I just feel high, I guess, is what you call it. Eventually it wasn’t that, I’d just feel nothing, and finally, it was the only way I could not feel, was to keep drinking on a daily basis, the better part of a fifth of vodka I think.
I degenerated the vodka, the bottom shelf vodka, and I lost everything I valued, and everything I’d wanted, or I was losing it. My marriage, I was losing that. I had lost the relationship I had fantasized about having with my children. I was doing a crappy job at work. I had a responsible job that you taxpayers were paying for, and I wasn’t earning it, but worst thing was how I felt inside. I despised myself, I loathed myself, because I knew it was happening and yet I kept doing it, that’s a horrible feeling. It must be like falling out of an airplane, I don’t know.
08:54: Normal life was unmanageable. I couldn’t keep up with stuff, thank God my former wife was not an alcoholic, and she kept things functioning as far as routine stuff went, because I was not hopeful. I was afraid about 90% of the time of lots of things, about everything. Nobody knew it, because I had been carefully taught not to let my feelings show, and I didn’t. With my family, we were allowed to be happy, we were allowed to laugh, we were allowed to make jokes, that was okay, but you must never be angry, or disappointed, or scared, or anything else. We had to blunder on through, and boy, that doesn’t work in sobriety, it sure as hell doesn’t work when you’re drunk.
I was afraid, nobody knew it. I apologize to my home group members,because I say the same things over and over again, most of which I’ve learned in AA, but I thought I was either crazy, wicked or… Now I can’t even think of it, crazy, weak, or bad. I had to be the craziest, weakest, worst person in the world, because what I was doing and knew what I was doing, and kept doing it, and kept swearing to change and not changing. So that’s the way I was, I was impulsive, I was compulsive, and I was repulsive. I was hurting the people I love most in the world, and I was a failure.
10:23: There was no way out of the swamp there. There was no sound ground under my feet, there was no light through the trees, I was lost. Until some things happened, and I hit a bottom, and the details aren’t important, it involves a slippery road, but finally one night, I hit what was truly my bottom, and was able to stop drinking.
A man called Bob took me to my first meeting, and the day we made arrangements on what meeting we were going to go to, and we were parting for the time, he said, “Pat, you don’t have to drink any more.” My reaction was to cry, and then to this day, I feel like that when I say it. Any normal person would say, “Well what the heck? Of course you didn’t have to drink. Everybody knows you don’t have to drink.” I said, “I had to drink.” And he had like turned the key, and so I went to my first meeting, and I felt I’d come home. I like what you said Pam about, “I felt the people had come and taken me back to my real home,” that was much of the feeling, if that’s what you said, that’s what I heard.
11:36: They have different ages, both genders, wide variety of experiences, but they were all telling my story, and I thought, “Oh this is it. This is the place, these are the people, and this is how,” although they read “How It Works”, and that’s definitely not how it works in my life, and it hasn’t worked that way in my life. I knew I was home, and that was the second biggest event in my life. After a couple of false starts, I was able to stop drinking. I think what I found there, I found acceptance. They knew what I was because they’d been like me and they accepted me. They didn’t fix me, they didn’t promise to fix me, they didn’t feel sorry for me, they just accepted me, and I hadn’t felt accepted in a long time, and they gave me hope.
12:22: I thought, “Golly, these people, some of these people have hurt a lot worse than I’ve had to hurt, and they’ve making it, maybe I can make it.” I had that kind of hope. The third thing I’ve heard there was laughter, laughter, because they laughed a lot like most AA meetings do. Believe me, I knew about crying, although of course I did it privately, and I knew about rage, and I knew about a lot of really unpleasant emotions, but I’d pretty much forgotten about laughter, and that’s one of the gifts that AA gave back to me.
So, what did I learn from them? I learned that if I didn’t drink, I wouldn’t get drunk. Very complex concept. If you don’t drink you won’t get drunk. I said, “So, okay fine, how do you not get drunk?” And they said, “Well, do these things. These things are kind of simple. Stay away from the first drink.”
13:14: How do you do that? You stick with the winners, you hang out with people who don’t drink and don’t want to drink. I mean what could be simpler? Not exclusively those people, but mostly those people, and emotionally those people. Secondly, live in the present, 24 hours a day, that’s kind of a nice concept, it’s not detailed enough for me. I believe in living in the now, I believe in living in the right now. Anything in the past exists in my memory and my memory is very faulty. Well look at all the things I have to do to try to stay organized. There is no future, that’s up here too. Those are just fears, or hopes, or whatever they are, but it’s not real. The only thing that’s real is right now, and right now in this second, I do not have to take a drink. They taught me, you taught me that.
Then the third thing was to practice the principles of the serenity prayer. I don’t say any formal prayers, but the very simple idea that inside myself I can learn to distinguish what I can change and change it, and what I can’t change and find a way to accept it. I don’t have to have a God do that for me, I have that inside me, but I’d drowned it in alcohol for too many years. Now I could start practicing and I still practice it, and some days I screw up and my friend John can tell you how much I like to beat my head against certain walls of things I can’t change.
14:46: But it works, those three things. To stick with the winners, to live in the now, and to practice the serenity prayer, is what got me sober. I only learned it through people. I did not learn it from a book, I sure as heck didn’t learn it from Bill Wilson, who I respect greatly, but people who were living a life like that, sometimes facing a lot worse things than I have to, and yet they were still making it.
Then a final thing of course is to give back. Somebody was there when I needed it. Those people were… I’m sorry, I got to choke up periodically, I still haven’t learned to cry well. They were there when I needed them. Not because I’d arranged it, not because God loves me, not for any reason except that they were there because they wanted to be well, and they were willing to share it. The least I can do if I want to respect myself is to be there for people who might need whatever crappy example I can give them.
15:48: So, what’s it like now? I am checking my time by the way. Jeez, I think I’m going backwards. [chuckle] Is that a zero or a one? [chuckle] Things get better and better and better. I guess I’m an old timer. You know what an old timer is in AA? You don’t drink and you don’t die. [chuckle] I found a path out of the swamp, a path up the mountain. I can manage disastrous things, because disastrous things have happened in my life. Disastrous things happen in our lives. I’m old enough to remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. I remember the Cuban missile crisis as an adult, I remember other more recent horrible things that somehow we’re going to survive. I’m not afraid 90% of the time anymore, I’m afraid 10% of the time, and I can handle that.
I’m no crazier, I am no weaker, and I am no worse a person than most people. That’s what I learned, I’m not the worst of the worst, I’m just average, I’m just okay, and okay is fine by me. I’m loving, much more loving. I am, God knows I’m loved, and maybe that means that I’m more lovable than I was when I was a drunk. I’ve learned how to make amends on the spot if I can, or as soon as I can. I’m not a failure anymore, I am okay. I am becoming responsible, and that’s what AA is about to me. You hear people say it’s a selfish program, it’s no such thing as far as I am concerned. AA is not a selfish program or else none of us would be here.
17:27: What I think AA is, is a responsible program. We learn how to take responsibility for what’s happened to us and for what’s coming. Okay so random ideas, and I heard this today, someone else said same thing, “AA is entirely summed up in the preamble, that is AA, it’s the only official definition.” We are a fellowship that shares in order to share sobriety, everything else is additional, everything else is optional. Big Book, other literature, 90 meetings in 90 days, sponsorship, and anything else, these could be very, very helpful to some people, but they’re not required.
18:08: Do I follow the 12 Steps? I do not. I didn’t like them from the outset, because I think they’re poorly written, for one thing. For me, I need some steps, I need a path, I need some things to keep in mind. Here are mine, pick what you like, and leave the rest.
I must not drink or seek other escapes now. I must seek, accept, and cooperate with help now. I must forgive myself and others now. I must clean myself up, change what I can that needs changing, now. I must make amends to myself and others, now. I must keep growing in all ways as much as I can, now. I must help others, now.
19:10: I’m an apatheist. You know what an apatheist is? Okay. I don’t know, and I don’t care. [chuckle] I love intellectual arguments about agnosticism versus atheism, all that stuff, but it really doesn’t matter a fig to me. I don’t need a god, I don’t need a religion like I have in past years, and as many people do who have saved my life, and I’m grateful to them. The man who pulled me out of the snowbank my last night drunk was a Pentecostal Christian. He didn’t drink, he was just my best friend, and he loved me, so he came and rescued me that night.
19:39: I have been to 20 secular meetings, and there are certain things I hear over and over again. There are many people whose lives have been saved by secular AA meetings, where they don’t have to accept anyone else’s definition of a God, although they can have one if they wanted. My most important goal in life right now is to try as much as I can to give what’s been given to me, so freely.
Because you know and I know that somewhere tonight in Austin, somewhere tonight in Olympia, somewhere tonight in Toronto, somewhere tonight in California, somebody is crying her heart out because she knows that drink is killing her, and she can’t seem to stop, and she went to AA and they asked her to turn her back on all the things she truly believed about reality, and she couldn’t do it. Or there’s some guy sitting somewhere in one of those towns, and he’s looking at his pistol and he saying, “Well, this would be a way out. I know AA doesn’t want me because I can’t buy into all that God stuff.”
20:44: Well, those people are calling to us, and thank goodness for conventions like this because we can get together and make plans and gain enthusiasm for going out and doing the same thing. I hope that we continue to meet each other as we trudge this road of happy destiny.
Thank you very much.