Secular AA Panel at Manitoba’s Keystone Conference

Listen to Cathy, Colin, Glen and Doreen share their experience as secular members of AA at the 2018 Keystone Conference held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 2018 marked 74 years of Alcoholics Anonymous in Manitoba. This was the first Keystone Conference to feature a panel of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. 

Cathy

[applause]

00:08 Cathy: Wow. It’s a lot different thinking of coming here four months ago than it is today being in front of you. My name is Cathy and I’m an alcoholic.

00:16 Audience: Hi Cathy.

00:17 Cathy: A couple of thoughts. When David was going through housekeeping, I was thinking way back to the day at the Marlborough where we weren’t vaping, but we were all smoking indoors. Times have changed for those of us who remember that far back. I wish I was wearing a costume today in some ways. I’m always learning about myself. As I develop in AA, I know my personal defenses. I’m either wanting to run away or fight. So, being in front of you today is really testing and I know myself well enough that I’ve written notes, and I hope to read through them so that I don’t embarrass everybody or get into a fight here.

[laughter]

01:00 Cathy: So this is regarding secular recovery in AA about anyone, anywhere. Good morning, everyone, and I really thank you for being here today and I’m glad it’s not snowing for our guests from out of town. Thanks to the 2018 Keystone Conference Committee for trying new content this year and my fellow seekers for showing up today to share a condensed version of their version of secular recovery. I have Doreen D, from Winnipeg, Glen G, from Brandon, and Colin from Winkler.

[applause]

01:39 Cathy: Now, I looked up the definition and by Merriam-Webster’s terms, secular means non-religious. Secular means not overtly or specifically religious. Not concerned with religion or religious purposes. As I choose to understand, secular does not mean not spiritual. Spirituality is not exclusive to religion. I’ve met people in secular AA who hold many different views. Some say non-theist or free thinkers, others prefer a scientific approach.

The fact is, we know more about the science of addiction today, and I acknowledge that the original text of AA is timeless in many ways. So here, I’ll give a personal disclaimer. Please don’t mistake my enthusiasm on this subject as an attempt to convert anyone, anywhere. That’s not saying you won’t have a spiritual awakening of the educational variety.

[laughter]

02:46 Cathy: My role today is to provide background about how this panel came to be on the program today. Doreen and I attended the 2015 International AA Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Specifically entitled… A panel titled, We Agnostics. The panel members told of their recovery as agnostics, atheists, or others in AA. I did not know. I had never heard this perspective before out loud. Not against God, they simply described their experience, strength and hope without God and there was some solid recovery in that room.

After hearing that panel in Atlanta, some pieces fit together for me. Looking back, I recall an early time in recovery doing a fifth step with a minister at the Harrow United Church. It was a woman minister. I explained to her that my then sponsor had been asking me about my belief. What was my belief or my understanding of God? I admitted I was using the underlying words as I understand him, to dodge. I told her I didn’t know. I couldn’t answer. Her reply has stood out all these years later. “Cathy, better men and women have spent their entire lives searching, trying to understand, there is no definitive.” I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

04:22 Cathy: Long story short, we returned to Winnipeg, and along with another member, who’s no longer here in the rooms, Gail K., we commenced meeting as Beyond Belief in January 2016. Indeed, we are a small group finding our way, however, the core members of this group attend other meetings and continue service work in AA carrying the message to anyone, anywhere. Come check it out.

Last spring, we heard that the 2018 Keystone Conference Committee was interested in trying something different. Doreen, Chantelle, and I presented the following in our request to participate. We reported that the AA International Conference has hosted a dedicated panel for agnostics and atheists since 1990, that’s the last six world conferences. We were inspired by this commitment and the nature of inclusivity. We cited census trends: There are fewer identifying as any religion, that’s in and out of AA.

It may be difficult to come up with specifics, but over the years, I think everyone has heard of the fluctuating income and membership in AA and a definite void in filling service positions at all levels. AA’s not unique in these issues affecting many volunteer or non-profit organizations.

05:45 Cathy: The popularity of secular groups is growing. A recent tally, we have 31 meetings per week in Canada, 388 in the United States, and approximately 458 worldwide. Many in this stream of secular or non-religious AA base their sobriety on the fellowship, the fellowship, people, connections, and the ideologies ranging from humanist to non-theist to not sure.  I should mention, too, secular meetings are not new. Quad A, which is the AA for atheists and agnostics, began in Chicago back in 1975 and is still going strong. We cited the rising number of non-AA recovery groups versus secular AA in Canada and the US. Smart Recovery, SOS, and Refuge Recovery are gaining momentum. These non-AA recovery programs are evident in major Canadian cities and online. Not only do they surpass the number of secular AA meetings, they are regulars in our provincial rehab facilities, which speaks to the demand for an acceptance of other recovery groups.

07:00 Cathy: Timing was everything. This past May or June, we heard that “The ‘God’ Word” pamphlet was approved for publication as conference-approved literature underlining the support from our governing bodies. All this was surpassed by the upcoming… It’s here, Grapevine issue, “One Big Tent”, and that’s a compilation of stories by and for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers. I have it from a reliable source, it’s out selling the last Grapevine best seller. One Big Tent is available now online, and we have a few copies here at the conference.

07:39 Cathy: So, I’ve asked the panel, we’ve agreed that we would give a short version of our… How we got here to Secular AA, and I’d like to share a little bit about mine. I started my recovery at the Southside group, and then I transferred for work to Calgary in my first year of sobriety. When I came back to Winnipeg, unfortunately, I moved around a bit. I’ve been an active member of the Fort Garry group, the Wilder group, the KIS group, and the Transcona group.

There were members who seemed to emphasize their beliefs and those who shared without. I must say, I prefer the latter. Early on, it seemed to me that if my views were not in sync, I must be doing something wrong, and I’m surprised that I didn’t go. It’s just amazing how simple that can be. I take in meetings when I travel in summer meetings in Kenora. I’ve seen some of the folks here today and I’m really glad. Today, I see young people and returning members at AA meetings, and sometimes they share or they question, they express their doubts. I make sure to see them after the meeting and tell them, “It’s okay to not know.”

So, now, I’d like to invite Colin up and he’s going to start the next path.

[applause]

Colin

09:00 Colin: Hi everyone, my name is Colin and I’m an alcoholic.

09:01 Audience: Hi Colin.

09:03 Colin: I’m very grateful to be here. This is my first conference, and it’s been an interesting experience so far. A bit of background. I don’t know the exact date, but I’ve been an atheist since I was 12, 13, somewhere around there. I had my first drink, which ended up being me getting drunk for the first time at the age of 15. Pretty much after that first drink I, looking back, yeah, I was obsessed with it right away. It became a constant companion of mine for the next 23 years of my life. At first I was a functional alcoholic, young and all, but as time went on it progressed and it began to control my life without me ever really realizing it, or being truly conscious to the extent of what it was doing to me.

10:00 Colin: My moment of awakening was the first time I got shakes at work. I was doing quality control and had to pick up a sample with tweezers, and something I’d done a thousand times before. All of a sudden, I couldn’t pick it up. Whenever I hear the term about how life becomes unmanageable, I see my hand shaking uncontrollably and it keeps me sober. But yeah, I knew I got the shakes at work and I knew I was in trouble.

It steadily got worse as the hours passed. From shaking, picking up a sample, I couldn’t even pick up a glass with two hands by lunch time. I left work early and drank for the next two days. I realized I had to change, and I was terrified about what my life might look like without alcohol. I had seen my dad die a few years before from his alcoholism, and the delusion that I was somehow on a different path was absolutely shattering. 

[chuckle]

11:13 Colin: I’m from Winkler, which you may or may not know is considered a fairly religious community. Twenty-four churches and counting in a population of a little over 10,000. So yeah, but being an atheist in a religious community was a isolating experience all to itself. It was, however… It was and still is something I generally keep to myself, but it is who I am. I had researched getting help for my drinking several times throughout the years, and of course I looked at the AA website. And to be honest, seeing God mentioned in the steps so often was off-putting. I don’t ever recall making it to the Third Tradition where I could see that the only requirement for membership was a desire to stop drinking. It did seem, however, that AA was the least religious option available to me in Winkler, with all the other programs being explicitly Christian.

12:11 Colin: I found a local meeting on Saturday. I was terrified. I was a few minutes late and I was at the door, which was already closed. I remember hesitating, feeling sorry for myself, and that, again, pure fear of what life would look like without alcohol, and expecting rejection and condemnation on the other side of that door. How wrong I was in those… How wrong my expectations were.

I was a mess coming in, I asked for help, and immediately apologized for being an atheist and for wanting to go join their group, but I was desperate. I shortly blurted after… I don’t know… Something along the lines was, “I don’t know what I’m going to do about all this God stuff, but I’m going to do what I can.” I also knew I had to try something and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. As it happened, the person chairing my first meeting was also an atheist, and during the meeting he told me the standard line that AA is a spiritual-based program and not a religious one. Then we proceeded to read “How it Works”, and ended the meeting with the Lord’s Prayer. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

[laughter]

13:39 Colin: When the meeting ended, he took me aside and let me know how an AA meeting for a first-time atheist must look, but I was perfectly free to take what I needed and to leave the rest, and that the only requirement was a desire to stop drinking and just to keep coming back. After that meeting I went straight home instead of to the vendor where I always got my case of beer to set me into sleep. And that was my first sober night by choice in 23 years, and it has been that way ever since.

The knowledge that I was not alone, that I could be who I was, an atheist in AA and be accepted, made a sober life bearable… Made a sober life a bearable prospect back then, and something I cherish now. Eventually, I found websites like AA Agnostica and Beyond Belief, where I listened to and learned from other secular points of view on the 12 steps.

I also learned that atheists and agnostics have been part of AA from its earliest days and became more comfortable not only in my recovery, but as a member of a AA. I no longer felt a need to look for loopholes in the Big Book to justify my presence to old-timers or to perform mental somersaults when working the Steps. I even also came to believe in a higher power I could call my own and put faith in, and no longer look at spirituality and faith as sucker’s bets, but as a deeply personal source of strength with which I know I turn to when I’m in need.

15:33 Colin: At around eight months of sobriety, I was attending three meetings. Still do. The Fresh Air Group in Morden and two meetings at Greater Heartland held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Within a span of two or three weeks, the two guys who formed the leadership of the Greater Heartland Group both suffered relapses, and I found myself not only chairing meetings or setting up meetings, but also making coffee, keeping the books, keeping us supplied with everything from Big Books to newcomers to cream and sugar. This, of course, did not start out as any sort of intentional course of service work. This was truly out of my own self-interest. I needed these meetings for my sobriety and I was determined not to risk going back.

As I chaired more meetings and I saw more newcomers experience their first time in AA, in their first days, weeks, and months of sobriety, there were times my heart were broken to be sure, but there have been so many more times of joy. Sheer, simple true joy, watching people like myself struggle and overcome their daily challenge, the daily challenge we know so well. They changed me. They, in the fellowship of AA made me human again.

17:00 Colin: Our meetings aren’t exactly what you would call a traditional AA and certainly not secular either. We’re a balanced group. We open with the standard AA Preamble and readings, including “How it Works,” but we do include at least a page or two from a more secular source such as Beyond Belief by Joe C, and lately, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher, which has gotten a lot of good responses from people on both sides of the aisle. Of course, all these readings are just suggested topics for conversation. People are free to talk about whatever they wish. Their struggles, their victories and just getting people to talk honestly and openly seemed as the hardest part to getting the door to recovery open. This balanced approach has increased our group size.

18:03 Colin: Regular attendance of Greater Heartland meetings has doubled from the four or five people from when I began, to eight to ten. People who do not identify themselves as Christian or religious make up a significant percentage of these people. For some of them, it’s the only meetings they go to because it’s the only ones they feel comfortable at. This year, I had the privilege of presenting three 1-year medallions to people who have been in my group and who had never tried AA before, but regularly expressed gratitude for their new lives that they are putting back together and for the safe space that AA provides for them to do so.

In closing, one of my favorite lines from Beyond Belief by Joe C, when talking about the Steps. “It’s the work that matters, not the words. It’s the honest attempt. It’s the desire or willingness to change that matters, not technicalities.”

And with that, I’ll pass.

Thank you.

[applause]

Glen

19:23 Glen: I guess that’s me. I’ll ask Colin or somebody on one side or the other to give me the elbow when it gets closer to 15 minutes. I’m Glen, I’m an alcoholic.

19:35 Audience: Hi Glen.

19:36 Glen: I’m very pleased to note the… Go, go, go.

[laughter]

19:41 Glen: I’m very pleased to note the absence of torches and pitchforks so far at least, [laughter] so that’s a good thing. I came to Alcoholics Anonymous when I was 22 in 1976, and I’ve been here ever since. A little bit of my background, I was raised in a French Catholic community, a small town in Saskatchewan, a whole family of alcoholics and extended family of alcoholics, I should say. My uncles used to think it was cute getting me drunk when I was about eight. They had feed me Porch Climber. They made their own booze all the time and thought that was cute to get me going. There was no resistance from me whatsoever either. I loved it. The more the merrier.

And I made every opportunity to get more. So by the time I was in my… Well, little other, sort of my, I guess, my religious bonafides, I was French Catholic, of course, raised in a French Catholic community, altar boy. At the time, the mass was in Latin. So, I know the mass in Latin, French, English, and Ukrainian. So, yeah, the Ukrainian part came when I was in Grade 9 and in so much trouble at school that my parents sent me to a Ukrainian Catholic boys boarding school where a whole bunch of other people had sent their bad kids.

[laughter]

21:06 Glen: They were all into drugs, which I embraced wholeheartedly as well, so that little experiment really failed catastrophically. So, well, dropped out, dropped out of school, dedicated myself to making enough money to support my drinking and drug habit basically, and really directionless, aimless, smart enough, you know, but no control, no management at all. So, I recognize now, of course, that I was using drugs and alcohol to try and manage things in my life, particularly in my internal life, but that wasn’t working very good.

21:42 Glen: By the time I was 20, I was in big trouble, big trouble with the cops and employers and family and girlfriends and schools and whatever with all those things, but more importantly, in trouble with myself, deep trouble with myself, suicidal. By the time I was 20, I had thought, “This is… I can’t do this. This is ridiculous. There’s no way out for me.” I had took a bunch of the stuff that I thought that I had learned from my religious upbringing and understood to mean that I was condemned and there was no possibility of redemption because of the way I thought or felt. And, you know, that’s classic alcoholic exaggeration, the classic ego, either you’re better than you are or you’re worse than you are, right? So, that was… Certainly, I was caught in that little loop.

22:29 Glen: Anyway, I lived with that for a couple of years and tried all sorts of different strategies to manage my drinking, manage my drugs with my drinking, or manage my drinking with my drugs and, or escape, run away, go someplace else, change jobs, change whatever. Just running like a… I was like a dog with a tin can tied to his tail basically. The harder I ran, the harder that tin can rattled and the scareder I got.

23:00 Glen: So I was in… Finally I ended up in Saskatoon. The last night I drank, I was out. I had coerced a couple of my buddies to come out and watch my back in the bar because that’s while I was deeply paranoid about that, maybe not paranoid, maybe I had good reason because I was hanging with some bad characters. But anyway, [chuckle] these guys came out and I drank starting about 11:00, drank beer until 2:00 in the afternoon. I wasn’t working, so I switched to tequila and drank hand over fist until closing time, still wasn’t working. I still wasn’t shutting my head off. And I figured, “Holy… ” And I recognize now of course that’s what happens is tolerance changes and there’s tolerance shifts and that came upon me [chuckle] at that time, and I figured, “Well, that’s it. Time to get the shotgun and check out.”

23:49 Glen: Just on the off chance though, I had an uncle, one of these uncles that had gotten me drunk when I was eight, who had actually sobered up in AA. He’s still miserable, but he wasn’t drinking and he had a bunch of people that he had went to meetings with. So, I thought, “Hmm, I’ll talk to him.” I went and talked to him. I said, “Do you think there’s a place for me in your organization?” He said, “Well, sure, we’ve been waiting for you. Come on.” [laughter] And sure enough, you know, so I went and I went to a roundup in North Battleford, Saskatchewan that day, April 28th, 1976. I never looked back.

24:25 Glen: I don’t know. I didn’t really understand what was going on, what alcoholism was or if I was an alcoholic or what AA was. I’d heard in the bar, of course, that if you go to AA, they’re going to baptize you and all this stuff, whatever. [laughter] But at that point, I didn’t care anymore. I figured, “You know, you want to baptize me? Baptize me. Fix me.”

So I basically turned myself over to AA, and they explained to me that’s the steps. So, the first step was that, “Do you acknowledge that your attempts to use drugs and alcohol to manage are a failure?” Said, “Absolutely. No question about that.” “Do you acknowledge that in step two that we have a group here that has a system of working around that, making it so that you don’t have to die of alcoholism?” “Yep, I could see that.” “Will you commit to it?” Step three. I did. So I committed then, and every day, every time I go to an AA meeting, every time I do anything related to AA, I reaffirm that commitment. And for me, that’s what keeps me sober. That’s the power.

25:31 Glen: So, then they said, “Well, you’re going to have to do a little bit more work than that. You’re going to have to do some character work. You’re going to have to… Your true character’s going to have to change because you’re so used to bullshitting yourself about stuff. That’s not going to work because it’s going to be a very short time before you start convincing yourself that you’re fixed or so. So we need to use step four and five, six, seven, the rest of the steps to try and discover what your nature is.” And my nature was, and like any other human being, you’ve got a nature. Most of us, when we’re afflicted with alcoholism, our nature gets twisted. I should speak for myself. Anything I say is strictly for myself, too. My nature got severely twisted in my alcoholism and the twist remains.

26:17 Glen: I don’t think that’s ever going to change and no matter how hard I pray to an imaginary being, I don’t think that’s ever going to get pulled away from me. It’s going to be… It’s part of my character. But AA taught me some workarounds, and the biggest workaround for me was recognizing that most of my troubles resulted from the stories that I told myself.

The stories that I told myself about how it was okay to drink, okay to use drugs, it was the RCMP’s fault or the judge’s fault or this, my parents’ fault, that things were screwing up so badly. I had just told myself repeatedly, told myself bad stories. And what they suggested in the program was, “Pick a better story. Tell yourself a better story.” So I did that, and I still was confused about the religion part, but they said, “Well, don’t worry about that. You figure out something. You choose your own conception of a higher power.”

27:08 Glen: I didn’t know how that was going to work either, but I jumped into it. I was unemployable for the first couple of years I was sober, so I went to university. [laughter] What else are you going to do, right? So anyway, it was great. It was good. I took psychology classes, I took philosophy classes, I took philosophy of religion classes, I went to every church, synagogue, temple that I could find to see what the hell was going on there and how this all worked and, yeah, that was all good. It was useful to me.

I came to an understanding that I’m not sure I can really do this, and they said, “Well, don’t worry about it. Just use your own conception of a higher power.” So I said, “Well, I’ll use George Burns.” George Burns, there was a movie at that time, “Oh, God!” It was called. That’s a long time ago, but it was “Oh, God! I figured, “Well, you know I could… This is a little drunk with a cigar. I can relate to this guy ‘because I was better than that guy up on the ceiling.” So yeah. So that helped.

28:10 Glen: And they said, “Yeah, just choose the properties that you want to have for the higher power that you want.” So boy, I made up this fantastical being that would do everything from getting me a better job to the next bus or to get me out of a jam. So I had this Mr. Potato Head god, somebody called it. I had the ears from one thing and the lips from another thing and I put it all together and I, “Huh.” And that also worked, I guess, for a while.

After a while, after about… Well, actually, after about 30 years of sobriety in the program, I started recognizing, “Hmm, this is not right. This is BS. You’re making this up right out of whole cloth. Got to get honest, time to get honest.” So I did. I got honest with myself, and I said… And in fact, I think somebody squeezed me into it one time. They said, they quoted that thing out of the book that said, “Either you believe or you don’t believe.” “Okay, I don’t believe. Sorry. I just don’t believe. For me, that’s the way I’m built and that’s the way it works.”

29:10 Glen: So actually that was a relief, although I was bit terrified, because I figured, “Well, how am I going to stay sober in AA without a higher power? Is that even possible?” And this was, it was a few years ago, and Colin mentioned the Facebook groups and all of the online groups, I’m eternally grateful for those things now, too, because that’s where I found my reinforcement to understand, coming from Brandon or rural Saskatchewan, there’s not much support for secular sobriety out there as you can imagine. It’s pretty thumper, thumper village out there.

I started to realize that, yeah, there’s lots of other people that believe, have their own ways of looking at these things that are not necessarily religious or even necessarily spiritual. It’s a very, for me, it’s a very practical thing, so I kind of embrace that stuff. And one of the women in my group at home calls me a born-again atheist. Okay. Yeah. I’ll live with that.

30:10 Glen: So I’ve been doing that for about 10 years, I guess. And since I really got honest with that and I recognize now I feel like I’m doing it sort of right, not that I will ever claim to be 100% honest or fixed in any sense of the word. At least with respect to that, I’m now, I feel like I’m honest with myself about the fact that I just don’t believe in magical beings or higher powers of any sort. I do believe strongly in Alcoholics Anonymous. I do believe in the groups. For me, the nods, that’s what the magic sauce is, is one alcoholic talking to another, sharing the message of Alcoholics Anonymous. And the message of Alcoholics Anonymous is: You don’t have to die of alcoholism. That’s the message. So as long as that message gets spread to anyone anywhere, yeah, I think that’s a good thing. So how you believe is up to you.

31:07 Glen: How I believe certainly won’t work for anybody here necessarily, but I should… I try not to miss too many opportunities to let people know that you don’t have to believe the way other people believe. Even if though that guy in the meeting gets all puffy-faced and red and shaking his fist and pounding on the page, “The first 164 pages! ” Okay, that’s how he believes, that’s how he needs to believe, that’s good. I don’t believe like that. And the program actually still works.

31:38 Glen: So, if you’re struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, whatever, I think that even Bill in his later writings too was talking about this. He wanted Alcoholics Anonymous to be more inclusive, not less inclusive. So the One Big Tent thing is a very powerful thing for me too. We all got a place. If you believe in a higher power, if you believe in a god, if you believe in Jesus, Buddha, Allah, whatever, that’s good. I would caution you to make sure that it gives you power and not terrifies you. But if you do, that’s good and if it gives you power and it gives you your strength, that’s good. It doesn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean the program doesn’t work for me or wasn’t designed for me either. So…

32:28 Glen: Then I, just said I came in 1976. I was 22. And in ’76, if you think back a little bit, there weren’t that many young people. In Saskatoon, I think there might have been half a dozen people under the age of 30. So, I’m used to old puffy face, red old time AA saying, “Aw,” shaking their fists at me. Don’t be put off by that. If you’re looking for support, look around. The support is there. And that’s what I found in lots of other situations, too, is that if I’m terrified to be there, I just sit back and relax for a minute and I’ll be shown something. The universe will reveal itself to me.

So anyway, that’s probably enough for me. And I asked if there was going to be questions from the panel, but apparently that’s… We didn’t want to have questions for the panel, but I would invite anybody after if you want to ask me anything, anytime. I don’t… I would appreciate that. So, thank you.

[applause]

Doreen

33:44 Doreen: Okay. This is ridiculous. This is the talking podium. [laughter] Oh, my God. Anyways, my name is Doreen and I’m an alcoholic.

34:00 Audience: Hi, Doreen.

34:00 Doreen: This is a Saturday morning. We know where we are. We know who we’re with, and we know where we’re going to be today. That’s a miracle, and that’s the miracle of this program and this fellowship. And it’s available to anyone, anywhere, if there’s a willingness to give it a try. And as I stand here, this is very different from when we were thinking about it four months ago. You know, “Oh, yeah. We can do this.” And then it’s like here we are and I have something that is very familiar to me and that’s called fear.

I know that for me, fear manifests itself in three different ways. It’s fight, flight, or freeze. And this program has taught me that I can change that. So today, when I am with fear, I do it in three different ways: I face it, I follow it, and I flow with it. So, I’m here very fearful and I’m just turning it over to all of you and know that no matter what I say at the end, you’re going to take what you want and leave the rest, and that you’re going to love me just the way you did many years ago.

35:26 Doreen: I came into this program off the street in October the 11th, 1979, and with a very ugly bottom having lost a marriage, a home, the privilege of driving, a job, and most importantly, the privilege of parenting four children to this disease. I only came into this program and on this journey because the man that I was with on the street, who was my meal ticket and my room for the night, decided to get sober. I’m forever grateful. So, when he took me to an AA meeting, I couldn’t understand what kind of party this was.

[laughter]

36:22 Doreen: It was like, “What the hell is this?” And what I do know is that there was something in that very first meeting that has not changed for me, and there was something about that… It’s almost magical. It’s very powerful. You peoples told me to keep coming back. My own family didn’t tell me that, and that’s the energy in the room when two alcoholics get together. It’s that connection. Because you know me and I know you, and it’s like this soul connection that is so powerful and so amazing, that it’s almost incomprehensible to put words to it.

I still oftentimes have trouble putting words to that. That’s the power of this program. That’s the power of this fellowship. And that really transcends any kinds of belief in… Any kind of belief. It just is. And that’s amazing. So, when I came in, in that day and those times, I stayed. I stayed. I stayed. When my fellow went back out, I was more fearful of him out there on the street than I was with what you guys had to tell me here [chuckle], and I’m telling ya, it took me a long time to figure out what was going on in AA.

38:01 Doreen: I do know that when I was presented with the Steps and the word “God”, there was something about that, that was very confusing for me because my sponsor told me it was a not religious program, and yet there was many confusing passages along the way in the Big Book, and so it was very confusing to me.

I had no other place to go, so I stayed and thought, “You know what? I’m just going to deal with what I need to deal with here.” So, that’s what I did. My sponsor, and I don’t know how many of you from those old days know this sponsor, but he was a blind guy and he was older. His name was Hap McGavin, and I can say that name now because he’s gone, and he’s probably up there thinking, “Oh Doreen, here we go again.” [chuckle] It was the blind leading the blind.

[laughter]

39:03 Doreen: It took me ages. He would make me drive him to take him to a meeting, and at every corner he would tell me, “Oh you took the wrong turn.” I was like… At one point I was really doubting whether he really was blind.

[laughter]

39:25 Doreen: Those early days were really something. As I’ve journeyed, I’ve journeyed in my conception of God and the place of God, not only in my personal life, but in how I work the Steps. And it’s been a journey, because I come from a family background that is quite religious. I actually applied to go into the ministry, and my application for social work and the acceptance for social work came before the acceptance for my going into the ministry.

So here I am. [chuckle] And I’m still a seeker, and I’m still seeking the truth, and that doesn’t change, and my AA program has enhanced that in many ways, I think even more than if I’d gone into the ministry. So when I… Just as Glen was saying, Step 1… I found Step 1 okay. Alcohol, unmanageability… Yeah, okay, that’s a check. Step 2 it’s like, “Okay, the insanity. Yeah, I can buy that.” I got to Step 3 and it was this real stumbling block for me. I was really mad at God, the God of my parents, and I had a hard time with that.

41:06 Doreen: My sponsor just said “good orderly direction”, so “Doreen, when you go to a meeting. You know, many things happen for you. Actually, just what happened today. I know where I am, I know who I’m with, and I know where I’m going to be. Better than when you go to the bar. Yes. Okay.” So, it was on that basis that I went through those steps in the early days.

Now, I’ve really sort of changed a whole lack of things in terms of my understanding and I would consider myself a freethinker. For me God is too limited a concept for me. I’ve embraced some of the Aboriginal traditions that are just so amazing, and I’ve done a lot of the Buddhist teachings that Julie talked about, and so it’s all of this discovery in this exploration that for me, is so exciting. I’m more excited about this program now, than I was in those early days when I knew I had an answer.

So, for me, recovery is uncovering, discovering, and recovering. It’s like it’s amazing. What an amazing gift we have here. Just recently someone asked me, “So how do you do the steps without, when you’re a non-God person?” I was like, “Well, guess what?” These steps are based on principles. They’re based on principles, and when I look at those principles, I thought that’s what I wanted when I came in. I wanted to live a principled life, and I did not know how to do that.

42:58 Doreen: This program has taught me that. Slowly over the years as I’ve grown and as I’ve learned, and there have been hard lessons and there have been wonderful lessons and with it all, the faithfulness of this program and this fellowship has just stayed with me. It’s been with me. It’s companioned me, it’s loved me, embraced me. That’s so amazing.

So you know the principles of AA. And Step 1 is honesty and surrender. And I can honestly say that today, I have no… I have no question about how alcohol contributed to the un-manageability of my life. What I know today is that I need to surrender to that on a daily basis, I have a disease that is a daily disease, and I need to treat it on a daily basis. So how am I doing that? And I have to be honest about that.

44:01 Doreen:  The principle behind Step 2 his hope. Every time I go to a meeting, I see hope in someone else’s eyes, and I know that for myself, I connect with that. That’s what keeps me sane, because when I go in there, the insanity of stuff with my disease, I don’t pick up a drink today, I pick up a negative and I go with it. It’s like into a rabbit hole, [chuckle] and some of you know what that is. I’ll take how someone looks at me, I’m like, “Oh yeah? Oh yeah? You look at me like that? Well, I’ve got stuff on you. Just watch this.” It’s like, “What?” That’s like a nano-second, right? It’s like, that’s the insanity. So I need to go to meetings and I still do after all these years. Everyday, ‘because I have a daily disease, and I need to treat it on a daily basis. 

45:04 Doreen: The principle behind Step 3 is faith. This program has been faithful to me. How do I treat it? How is my faithfulness to this program and to this fellowship? I consider myself a woman of faith. I’m faithful to my readings, to my sponsees, and my responsibility to my sponsor.

So, I know about faith, and it’s a powerful one, and it leads me into Step 4, which is the principle of courage. Courage. When you look at courage, the word courage is “courage,” which means getting into the heart of things. That’s what Step 4 is about. It’s getting to the heart of what’s really… For me. And you know I have my first Step 4, and I did that in 1981 and any time I’m doing another Step 4, I get that one out. And it’s like, “Different actors, different situations, same shit.”

[laughter]

I’m still dealing with my inadequacy. My feeling that I’m incompetent and that I’m insecure and that I’m not good enough. That’s what that is. And it takes courage on an ongoing basis to deal with that as things come up. So that, for me, is the step four.

46:23 Doreen: Step 5 principle is integrity. For me, integrity is the picture and sound match. When I came into this program, I didn’t want you to know me. I had masks all the time because I’d been hurt. So, I put out here what I wanted you to see. But in here, it was a different story, right? And when I was little… I’m always little. [laughter]

When I was younger and going to school, children… I was very tiny and children mocked me and they would hang me up in the clothes room and watch me struggle. And I learned very young to laugh on the outside and cry on the inside. And so for me, Step 5 is important to be real and the picture and sound match. And so today, my mantra to how I live this step five is to say what I mean, mean what I say and say what I mean kindly. And that’s my step five.

47:51 Doreen: For Step 6, it’s about the principle of willingness. Am I willing on a daily basis to do what I need to do to treat my disease and how do I do that?  Step 7 principle is humility. I have lots of things during the day where I’m humbled. I’m humbled by the people that serve me, that serve me a meal in the restaurant. You know, they’re doing service. Do I recognize that and how do I treat them? There are many, many little things that for me, humility is alive and well. Humility is part of all of these steps. It’s so important, because Step 6 and 7 are the change steps. Those are the steps that tell me that I need to grow up. And I wish I was going this way, [laughter] but I’ve been horizontally challenged all my life and that’s not going to change.

The principle behind Step 8 is compassion. That’s when we begin to understand from the wreckage of our past how we have affected other folks and to have compassion for just trying to walk in their shoes, just for a bit. And that’s Step 8. The principle behind Step 9 is justice. Now, there’s a balance here that I need to step up to the plate, be accountable and to bring justice to the situation.

49:21 Doreen:  The Step 10 spiritual principle is perseverance. That means that I have to, in order to preserve what I have, I need to do certain things to keep myself on a daily basis, accountable. That inventory just said, that touchstone like, “How am I doing today? If you want to know how I’m doing, ask my family. [chuckle] They’ll tell ya”. Step 11 is spiritual awareness. So, I know that when I got to this step and I’ve done all of those things, I’m ready. And there’s a gift in readiness and that spirituality awareness. The spiritual awareness means that my spirit is now connected. My spirit was disconnected by drugs, alcohol, sex, man, food, gambling, whatever that was. Now, through these steps, I have now reconnected with my spirit and it says deep down inside each and every one of us is a fundamental reality of goodness.

50:45 Doreen: I’m now connected to that spirit of goodness in me. It was there from the moment of birth and it just got clouded, and it’s back, and we’re back. We’re now ready for that spiritual principle in Step 12, which is service. So, I’m going to be taking all of this with me out into all areas of my life and that service. The benefits we get from being there for another person is something that is almost incomprehensible. So, don’t leave five minutes before the miracle happens.

And I just wanted to… To say what Bill Wilson wrote in The Grapevine, in closing, in July of 1965. He says that,

Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA, we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy, whatever should be a first consideration for all of us. Let us not therefore pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way to the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that every alcoholic among us is a member of AA so long as he or she so declares.

Thank you for your time.

[applause]

David

52:58 David: My name is David and I’m a grateful alcoholic.

53:01 Audience: Hi David.

53:03 David: I have to say that when this was brought forth to our committee, this idea of having this particular panel, it was something very new to me. I’ve been in the program for a while and it was new to me. Through talking in the panel, through talking with these people and from what I’m hearing today, it’s been wonderful for me to have my eyes opened. I did not know that the international conventions had workshops on this. I did not know that there were Grapevine articles about this. I did not know that there’s a whole publication of Grapevine, which you can purchase over there [laughter] about this, and it made me think and made me proud to belong to an organization like AA that’s so inclusive. The name of our conference this year is “Anyone, anywhere” and boy does this fit. We are inclusive. We even have drafts.

[laughter]

54:21 David: We tolerate animals.

[laughter]

54:25 David: Our groups are inclusive and I’m proud of that, too. Whether or not I believe, don’t believe, skeptical, one of my sponsors told me and taught me long time ago, “Get out of the debating society, David. Get out of the debating society.” And really what Colin said struck me. The only requirement for a membership is a desire to stop drinking. As a small token of our esteem, we have a little gift for our speakers.

55:01 Audience: Thank you.

[applause]

55:06 David: Would you help me thank Cathy, Colin, Glen, and Doreen, four recovering alcoholics, for sharing their experience, strength, hope, and the way they have achieved sobriety. Thank you.

[applause]


Links

The We Agnostics Panel at the 2015 International AA Convention

The ‘God’ Word pamphlet

AA Grapevine book, One Big Tent

AA Agnostica

Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, by Joe C.

Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higherpower, by Marya Hornbacher

AA Grapevine

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