Episode 105: An Atheist Makes Sense of the 12 Steps

This episode features a conversation with Steph R., an atheist in recovery who has found a way to make sense of the AA Big Book and to practice the 12 Steps. As Steph shares her experience, an interesting discussion unfolds about the difficulties that atheists and women have with AA’s original literature. Steph explains how she learned to place the Big Book into the context of its time, and to glean from the book practical and sensible actions that can be taken to help one stay clean and sober. Steph is a talented public speaker and several of her talks can be found on her YouTube channel. She has also recently started a new podcast called Away, which you can find on iTunes and  YouTube.

Transcript

00:00 John: This is episode 105 of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast.

[music]

00:23 John: A few weeks ago, I was reading the comments on an article at AA Beyond Belief, and I ran across a post from Stephanie R. It was a link to a YouTube video of a talk she gave at the Wilson House. She was speaking as an open atheist about the Big Book and the steps, and I thought she gave an excellent presentation. Then I went and visited her YouTube channel, and I found even more videos of talks she’s given at various places, and I thought to myself, wow, she’s really talented. I’ve got to have her on a podcast. So I wrote her that day, and she agreed. And now, we’re posting that discussion. So if you’re an atheist, or an agnostic, and interested in the 12 steps, and how to make sense of them, then this episode is for you.

01:06 John: Well, hello, I’m here with Steph R. And, Steph, where are you from?

01:11 Steph: I am from New York, New York. I live in Amityville, New York now, but I spent 35 years in New York City, in the Upper East Side.

01:20 John: So I learned about you through our website, AA Beyond Belief, and you posted a link to a YouTube video there, and I went, and I listened to it. And what it was, it was a audio recording of a talk you gave at the Wilson House, and you were going through the Big Book, and the particular audio that I listened to covered the first three steps. And I thought… As an atheist, I thought, “Wow, this is really cool. And it reminded me so much of myself and how I view the steps in the Big Book. And I said, “I really need to have her on a podcast and learn more about her.” So thank you for agreeing to do this.

01:53 Steph: Well, thank you so much for asking me. It was humbling. I’ve never done anything like this, and it felt really good to be asked, so thank you.

02:02 John: So, can we begin with you giving us a little bit of your background about your recovery and what brought you to where you’re at today?

02:10 Steph: Sure. My qualification, why I even deserve to be on this podcast. I’ll shorthand it a little bit. I was adopted when I was very young, six weeks old, and it… Adoption stories were different then. You went to a foster mom, and the in-between, and then you went to your family. And I was adopted by a great family, loving, to the best of their ability, some flaws. But when I look back at my story now, I started feeling that discomfort and anxiety at a very young age. I didn’t really want to join in with the other kids, and I couldn’t have told you, at the time, that it was fear or anxiety. I just felt different. I felt like I wasn’t one of them. And I grew up on the Upper East Side, going to a prep school, like fancy life, going to Southampton, and I just did not feel like one of the blondes and Blairs of the ’80s, you know.

03:01 John: Yeah.

03:02 Steph: Yeah, it wasn’t me. I felt fat and brunette, and that was not what everyone else looked like. So my first addiction, I really… Is very clearly food. I started stealing money from my parents at a pretty young age, like 8 or 9, to buy food. And I would binge in secret in my room, and that fairly quickly morphed into drinking. I’m not one of those people who remembers her first drink. There were always cocktails in my house, growing up. And, actually, I listened to one of your podcast… Podcast with someone from London, who said very much the same thing. I would run around the parties and finish off all the drinks and… You know, I was an only child, so I was with the adults a lot, in at the parties, so I don’t remember my first drink. I do know, and this is more in retrospect than at the time, that it changed everything, right? I went from feeling different from and less than to feeling a part of. I wasn’t one of those alcoholics who felt better than. That wasn’t one of my problems. They describe that a lot in the Big Book, the grandiosity and the arrogance.

04:06 Steph: I just felt like one of, not better. So, weekend warrior drinking took me through most of high school. I was kind of a chameleon. I could fit in with any crowd from the prep school girls, and I felt most comfortable. I don’t know if you know New York City, but I felt most comfortable hanging out on 135th and Lenox, which is right in the middle of Harlem. In the ’90s, it was a little bit different than it is now. And I would drink 40 ounces of old e and pour a little out for my homies. And you can’t see me, but I am very white, very blond, and I was living on the Upper East Side. But it’s where I felt more comfortable, I felt accepted. College was really no different. Weekend warrior drinking still… Then I found cocaine, and the drinking got more and more.

04:54 Steph: Binging, all binging. My father died at the end of college. I went to take a job, my boss there was, is an alcoholic. And liquid lunches started. And so, for a few years, daily drinking was really a part of my story. I would drink every lunch time. I’d get the lunch time, and then, I’d bring back to the office Mountain Dew and vodka, drink that throughout the day, then drink all night, and do it again. And life got really bad. So, rather than thinking of, oh, not drinking, I found a boyfriend, I took him hostage, and I moved to… I moved to Glasgow, Scotland for a year, because he was from there. And I thought that would fix everything, and that didn’t fix everything.

05:40 Steph: Alright. So I came back, I left him there, I ghosted him, I came back. And, my first night back, I thought it was going to be a fresh start, and I picked up where I’d left off and did all the same shameful things, or things that made me feel ashamed, I should say. And I woke up the next morning with one of those hangovers that was unbearable. My pores were huge, and dry sweat. And, a few years before that, a shrink had given me… I’d been in and out of therapy since I was 8. A shrink had given me a copy of ‘The Power of Now’, and I can never say the author’s name, Eckhart Tolle… Tolle, and a copy of ‘Living Sober’. And at the time, I’d been like, “I don’t know what this is for,” and put them on my bookshelf. But that morning, when I woke up, that was the first thing my eyes landed on. And so I think sort of theists in AA would call that a God… Like a moment, but circumstance, happenstance, whatever. So I saw them, and I was like, “Oh my god, I can quit drinking.” Like this doesn’t have to be my life. And I got on the phone. I found the AA number, this was when there were still phone books around, or at my house, we still had a rotary dial phone, in 2000.

06:54 John: Right.

06:55 Steph: I want to say my family was old school. My dad was born in 1924, so a lot of stuff at my house was still from the 50s. So I picked up my red rotary dial phone, and I called the number for AA, in a group in New York, and the woman gave me a meeting at a place called the 79th Street Workshop that day. And I said, “No freaking way. I can’t move.” And I really couldn’t. It wasn’t even an excuse. I was like… I had alcohol poisoning, for all intents and purposes. But she said there’s the same meeting the next day, the workshop in the city is… They have like six or seven meetings a day. It’s basically every two hours there’s a meeting there, up until 10 o’clock at night. So, I went the next day, I raised my hand. I said I was an alcoholic. I cried. A lovely woman sitting in front of me helped me find meetings for the rest of the week. I went to a meeting on Monday. I wanted this. I actually thought getting sober was as chic as being a drug addict, which, in my generation, it was chic, right? The Basketball Diaries and stuff, it seemed sexy, it seemed cool, and I always liked being the bad girl because that made me cool in my own way. So I didn’t fit in with the cool girls, but I was the bad girl.

08:13 Steph: So I went to a meeting the next day, and I asked for a sponsor, and I got in gear, and I went in whole hog, zealot, like Big Book thumper, within a year, telling everybody what to do. Meanwhile, I was doing it. I was like, you have to pray and… I didn’t believe anything I was saying. I was doing the act as if… Act as if. And I had never been a believer. I would have called myself an agnostic, I think, before. I certainly wasn’t a militant atheist, but I just didn’t care. I was agnostic on the issue of God. So I thought I had to change everything the first time I came in. And when I thought of change everything, I thought that meant I had to go from the bleeding heart liberal I was to a conservative. I thought like… So I changed everything. I started only wearing Brooks Brothers, and it was like crazy.

09:08 Steph: And I’m going to believe in God, and I’m going to go to church, and like I did all this stuff, and… But I stayed really angry, and I put down alcohol, and I picked up food. And so, in those four years, I really didn’t do any real changing, any inner growth, and I blew up to 260 pounds. And I was eating the way I drank, binge-eating every night, and I wasn’t sober. I wasn’t… I was dry, but I wasn’t happy. And so it was really easy to go out. So, I relapsed after four years. I spent a couple of years out drinking, the drinking changed. It was as worse as it had been, almost immediately.

09:48 Steph: I’m not… Period, I’m not someone who can have one drink. So I had figured it out, in a way now, that I could do like Thursday nights for 72 hours, and then recover the next three days of the week. There were a lot of lies, a lot of shameful behavior. I was badly behaved, as a woman, especially, things that make us most ashamed. And, I don’t know, I was just… I was so miserable. AA had ruined my drinking, because I knew I had a problem, so I would have to drink so much to block it out, block everything out. And it was just a few years of the same old, same old, lots of lies, secrets from my boss, from my friends. I hadn’t told the people in AA for a long time that I was drinking. Again, I just kind of disappeared. And then the night that I decided not to drink again was not different from any other night. I had been on a 48-hour binge, and I missed the baptism of a really good friend’s baby, and because I was so coked up and so drunk still that morning, that I couldn’t go, I couldn’t go sit in church and pretend I was normal.

11:00 Steph: And, actually, one of my friends forbade me from going, like you’re in no condition, and Christ, he knows. So… So I skipped, then I lay in bed. And, for the first time ever, I really considered killing myself. I had sort of joked about it in my past, or like a fleeting thought, but this was like, I can’t live this way anymore. My life is unbearable, let alone unmanageable. I was $300,000 in debt, but I couldn’t see that, that wasn’t available to me yet, the unmanageability. But the unbearability was. I didn’t have any mirrors in my house, I couldn’t afford cat food sometimes, and was making deals with the local pet store. I couldn’t live the way I was living, and I was like, “Okay, I can’t do it anymore.” But then a believer, again, would say God thing. Instead… But, for me, it was just like I had… The seed of AA had been planted, recovery had been planted. So I called a former sober friend, and I said, “I need help.” And that, to me, is the key, right? That’s it. The minute you allow yourself to be that vulnerable, to say like, “I can’t do this and I can’t stop alone,” that’s it.

12:15 Steph: That’s the quote unquote ‘miracle’, I need help. So I said, “I need help.” And he said, “Sit tight, I have Antabuse. You can’t take it now because you’ve been drinking so heavily, but I’ll bring it over tomorrow.” So I lived on Antabuse in fear for about three months. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go back. I went back. I went back. I don’t remember my first meeting back, but I went back, and I was embraced. And this is in New York City. So, at the time, it was getting more Big Book thumpy, and more God-centered, but this was a phase in AA that wasn’t that bad in New York. So I came back and I just got into the program in a totally different way, and I wanted to find God but I didn’t pretend I had. And I read as much of the literature about different religions as I could, and I tried meditating and going to church, and I read a lot about Judaism, and I just… I couldn’t find it, I didn’t have the God gene. I stomped in Central Park with druids.

13:21 Steph: I was like, “Maybe I’m a druid,” pray to the fairy of the flower, or whatever. So I just couldn’t find it, but that didn’t stop me from moving on. And I had a sponsor who understood that I didn’t have to call it God, and it wasn’t a lazy decision. I think a lot of people in the room think that, like, “Oh, you’re just lazy.” And it really wasn’t, I was desperate for a label. So… And then I did the steps, and I did everything else I was told, just didn’t get down on my knees. And I gave myself a pat on the back whenever I did something great.

13:57 John: It’s interesting that people would think that it’s lazy, and I think it’s quite the contrary, because I’ve done it both ways, and actually, for me, when I realized and accepted that I was an atheist, and I started looking at the program through a secular lens, I started focusing much more on what I actually do, the practical things that I did, that kept me sober, rather than any of the belief stuff, which I found irrelevant. And, by doing that, I felt like I’m doing the same thing that anyone else is doing in the program who might believe. It’s just that I don’t believe that there’s some kind of supernatural force that’s propelling me through this. And so… I don’t know, it forced me, I think, to stop and ask myself what these things mean to me. And it even actually says to do that in The Big Book, by the way, it says, “Ask yourself what these things mean to you.”

14:47 Steph: Right.

14:47 John: And I did that, and, yeah, unfortunately, I wasn’t that well-accepted, that when I started to verbalize this new outlook on the program. And it was like I had a similar experience as you, I guess, that I saw some change in Alcoholics Anonymous here, locally, during the time that I’ve been in the program. And I came in in 1988, and it was like the first group I went to, they were really laid back, they said, “Oh, don’t you worry about any higher power. You just go to meetings, you’ll be fine.” And I did that, but then I fell into this group that was more into somehow replicating the way it was in the 1930s. They were nice guys, it was a men’s group, they’re nice and everything. But it was like, before I knew it, I was mouthing the words that I knew they wanted to hear, and I don’t know if I really believed it. I was, somehow, somehow trying to reconcile it in my mind, and I actually was going through the motions and doing stuff like praying, and everything, but I don’t know. So yeah… So that was my… That was my journey, anyway.

15:57 Steph: Well, I completely understand that. I had an easier time in New York City. I came out to Long Island. And I was an atheist, but… And I didn’t feel a need to give voice to it that often, because we didn’t close with the Lord’s Prayer in New York City. Like people closed with the Serenity Prayer, people didn’t talk about their religious beliefs ever, because it’s New York City. Like it’s a bubble. And it really is, and it’s a bubble for AA too, it’s getting a little more religious there, and Big Book thumpy, but it’s not bad. I came out to Long Island, and I joined a new group out here, that some friends of mine out here, on the island, were a part of. And it was like a whole new world. We’re 40 miles from the city and it couldn’t be more different. And it was so God-centric. And I started to give voice to my atheism, people would give me a hard time, but I wanted to let the newcomer in the room know like, by the way, you don’t have to have a supernatural higher power to do this, that it really can be the group. But they wouldn’t let me speak. They had been asking me to speak prior to that, because I’m a pretty good speaker. And when I started giving voice to my atheism, nobody asked me anymore. And then, at a business meeting, they were like, “Maybe we should ban people from saying they’re atheists.

17:19 Steph: And I was like, “Oh, that’s good. Great answer to that quote unquote ‘problem’.” It’s this… It’s like you said, it’s like they want to bring it back to 1939, and I think they might not know a lot about history if they wanted that. We were, what? 20. Not even… No, 13 years since women got the right to vote.

17:44 John: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.

17:46 Steph: Segregation constitutionally was, what? Not ’till 1964, was that finally…

17:52 John: Right.

17:53 Steph: Right? A part of the Constitution. So that’s 25 years later. This was not a great point in American history, so why we want to sort of sit there, I don’t know.

18:06 John: So tell me what was the story behind getting to the Wilson House? And can we kind of go into that a little bit, about your talk? And also, I’m kind of interested in knowing if you still have use for the Big Book today, and how you deal with it.

18:21 Steph: Well, I have use for the Big Book because I help other women, and people who come into AA, a lot of them come in really excited by the idea of being given assignments and readings, they crave that, they crave that structure. And I find the women who really want God and religion, I can work with them, because I try not to shove my atheism down their throat, because I don’t like it when people shove their religion down my throat. But we still go through it secularly, because I want them to understand that this is a personal, very personal choice they have to make, and there’s no reason for it to leap out of the page in the book. And I have a devoutly Catholic sponsee, and it has never been an issue. So I have use for the book, because it has some… It makes some fantastic points, but as I go through it with them, I take the best and leave the rest. And you hear a lot of the old-timers say, “You can’t do that, you’ll die.” I think that’s not for… By the way, take the best and leave the rest, because there’s some good stuff in there, that is valid today, certainly. And I can talk a little more about that later. But what brought me to the Wilson House was actually this home group out here. It’s a big group. It’s like 150 people. And when it’s full, and it meets seven days a week, and, in a lot of ways, it’s fabulous. It’s got a lot of newcomers and old-timers, and it’s full of energy and life and excitement.

19:49 Steph: So, in many ways, it’s a great group. I was still a member of this group, and they asked me… They booked a retreat up at the Wilson House for its members and other people on Long Island. And they asked me to speak. And I was terrified because I knew that I was going to say I’m an atheist, and I knew that that was not going to go over all that well. So I approached it somewhat carefully, but I didn’t… I didn’t shy away from it because I really… I thought people need to hear this, they need to know that even if it’s not for them, atheism, even if they are believers, if they can accept some of these ideas, they can help more people, they can… I said, at one point in the talk, I think, you’re going to sponsor an atheist, at some point, don’t you want to be able to help her too? So if I can sponsor someone devoutly Catholic, they should be able to sponsor someone who’s an atheist, and not shove down their throat that they have to believe in a supernatural higher power.

20:55 John: And that’s the spirit of… Actually, in the Big Book, it actually says to do that too, I think, in working with others, it says, “If your man… ” because they were all men. “If he’s not religious, don’t push the God stuff on him so much, but if he is, go ahead and go for it.”

21:08 Steph: Right. Right. But I find that the zealots, the fundamentalists, they also take the best and leave the rest, they pick out from the book what they want. Whereas, I feel like I’m looking at the action parts of it. That’s really what’s happening. I’m just not focusing on the God parts. I’m focusing on the action part. And, working with women, I have to change a lot too, like it has to be… For an atheist, it has to be reframed, and for female sponsees, it has to be reframed, because they just don’t identify with a lot of it. And then, I have the men, in some of these, “Yes, they do,” etcetera, etcetera. I’m like, “No, you don’t.” Grandiosity wasn’t their problem. Anger and… Vehement anger was not their problem. They’re damaged, not defective.

21:54 John: No, I’m noticing, actually, in our home group, and our group is a secular group in Kansas City, but we’re actually getting a lot more younger people, and a lot more women. And the Big Book, to them, is just… Is just impossible. Is just… It’s laughable. It’s not anything that’s even closely relatable.

22:12 Steph: Right.

22:13 John: They have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever.

22:15 Steph: Nope, why would they? Why would they? It’s a book by men for men…

22:19 John S: Right, right.

22:21 Steph: Written in 1939, really, by White men for White men. When it gets down to it, it’s… And I can excuse them that. It was 1939 in America, right? So like these weren’t… I can’t fault them for being a part of their own time, and so having a paradigm of that, right? And I can probably give them the benefit that they were a little bit ahead of their time, because they do talk about accepting more than just the Episcopalian.

22:51 John: Right. They were trying, they were really trying.

22:53 Steph: Right. They were thinking. They were making an effort.

22:54 John: And I think that they, honestly, thought that using higher power and God, as you understood him, was somehow opening up, widening the gateway, I guess.

23:05 Steph: Really forward-thinking. I mean, that story which you have… You have a great deal of fantastic history in the forward to the second edition, if you can sort of go through the weeds. And I always recommend people go on to the internet and Google some of it, because there’s really fascinating stuff, even on silkworth.net, about these guys and their history. And it was incredibly forward-thinking, because it all… It all came to Bill through Ebby Thacher, right, who was an Oxford group member, and that was about as religious as you can get. And Ebby just said, “Look, I can’t take how annoying you’re being about the higher power thing. Could you just follow whatever you want?” Like let’s just move on.

23:46 Steph: Meanwhile, he didn’t stay sober with his Oxford group, so that should have given them a peek into what didn’t work. But, yeah, I guess I see the Big Book, back to the other question, is like it’s a great foundation. They started something real and they started something remarkable and beautiful in so many ways, and they had a lot of good motives, their egos aside, which appear throughout the [laughter].. But the motivation was great, and I think the outcome was great if we are willing to change. The institution of AA will die, in my opinion, if it does not change with the times. Institutions are dying everywhere now. So, if the more conservative people who love institutions want this to survive, they’re going to have to move it along. But I don’t foresee a rewrite of the Big Book anytime soon.

24:46 John: No, I don’t either. And I don’t know if it should actually be rewritten, but what I would like to see is I’d like to see the Big Book put in some historical context as a foundational document in its time.

25:00 Steph: That is perfectly put. That is perfectly put.

25:01 John: But let’s have something new now. Let’s have… Lets us write our own program, and our own language for the 21st century and beyond.

25:11 Steph: Right. Right. Old Testament, New Testament.

25:14 John: Yeah, why can’t we do that? It just blows my mind.

25:17 Steph: Totally, I mean…

25:21 John: And, two, it’s like that would be like a big seller. Imagine the press, ‘AA comes out with a new book for the 21st century.’ I think it would be huge.

25:30 Steph: Talk about getting more people in. I mean, that would bring people in in floods, and some of them would love the old Big Book, and some of them would identify and use it, it would be one of the important pieces of literature to read, along with Living Sober, and…

25:49 John: Well, I would love to be able to reach some of these younger people in a way, just so that they can understand the history, because, see, we have people that come to our group, and they’ve never been to any other AA meeting. They wouldn’t want to go to an AA meeting where there’s prayer, they just have nothing to do with it. So, therefore, they haven’t read the Big Book. If they’ve ever heard little snippets of it, it’s not interesting.

26:06 Steph: It’s not.

26:07 John S: We’re just kind of getting into the steps now with them, because I didn’t think they wanted to do the steps, honestly. They were like doing fine without steps. And I thought, okay, well… But then they said, “Oh yeah, we are interested in these.” I said, “Okay.” Well, so, we’re trying to get through those, here and there, we’re reading different secular literature in our meetings.

26:31 Steph: Right.

26:31 John: But it would be nice to be able to, in a way, say, “Okay, I’m almost afraid of some aspects of the program because I don’t want it to hurt people, but it’s like just put this in context from where it was and understand how our secular group came from all of this sort of stuff.”

26:49 Steph: Absolutely. Yeah.

26:50 John: Because we’re connected to them.

26:52 Steph: Right.

26:52 John: We have a connection to that past.

26:54 Steph: We don’t have a program but for the past, right? There’s no there, there, if we don’t tend to it. We need it. It’s our foundation, just like sobriety is a foundation for life, it’s not all of life, right? And these are our beginnings. That’s important. Yeah, but just like a changing Democratic, Republic, here’s hoping it changes again, we need to change, we need amendment, we need to move forward.

27:25 John: So, what reminded me of my early times as an atheist when I was listening to your talk is because you were really talking about some of the chapters of the Big Book that I was really trying to understand too as an atheist. And, basically, what I did the first time I went through this, it was… It was really kind of a difficult time, to be honest with you, I was just… I put all my beliefs on the table, everything was up for debate. I would throw out any old ideas, bring in new ideas. And I took that Big Book out, and I started reading it, and I started crossing out all the God stuff.

28:01 Steph R: [laughter] I did that too.

28:01 John: And… Yeah. And when you do that, it’s really interesting because you’ll read a paragraph, and it talks about something that’s perfectly sensible and practical. And then the last sentence or two talks about how, oh, it’s so wonderful. It brings us closer to God, and we’re… All this stuff. But you cross all that godly stuff out, and you’re left there with that practical stuff. And I did that, I thought, “Well, this is really… This is really interesting. This is what I’ve always done, just throw out the belief part.”

28:31 Steph: Absolutely. I think AA is, at its core, really good basic cognitive behavioral therapy, changing a bad habit, replacing it with a new habit, and it’s available to people who would never otherwise go to therapy. Be it there’s a stigma, they don’t think they need it, whatever it is, this helps you retrain your brain. So if you take the spiritual aspect out of it, it really is like a fantastic cognitive behavioral therapy, in my opinion, that’s sort of the base of it.

29:05 John S: Yeah, understanding your thoughts and actions, and somehow changing them.

29:08 Steph R: Right. And, I mean, all the steps speak to that. So you can kind of reword them without changing them entirely, to do that, to really do a cognitive behavioral… Cognitive behavioral work.

29:24 John S: Yeah, that kind of makes sense to me.

29:27 Steph: Not a $100 an hour, you get it free, totally, I mean, unless your sponsor’s kind of a moron.

29:34 John: So, during your talk, you were kind of going through the first three steps. And you want to talk about those first three steps a little bit, how you see them?

29:41 Steph: Yeah, I absolutely do. I’m actually just looking at my notes a little bit to see… I’m going to start by looking a little bit, at there is a solution, to bring that… To bring us into step one, because I think that the title of this chapter may be the best part of it, there is a solution. How exciting. I don’t have to live this way anymore. I don’t have to… I can put the mirrors back up in my house. I loved that. And I got excited. And, in the first paragraph of that, I felt like, “Okay, I can do this because there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness and understanding, which is indescribably wonderful.” And I believe that. So when I came in, I came in on step one, I think, as many people do. I had admitted I was powerless over alcohol, meaning I knew that I would never be able to have just one drink. I wasn’t someone who could take one, and then go home, get a good night sleep, and show up for someone tomorrow. I did not… It was not easy for me to see unmanageability in my life, as I said earlier. So my life had become unbearable, and that’s what I needed to change.

30:53 Steph: So step one became about I’m powerless over alcohol. All I need to do to stop the cycle is not take one drink, and that should be relatively easy considering my life is unbearable. I was pretty invested in the lies I told myself, so that was, I think, why the un-manageability was difficult for me. So I often ask my sponsees, and maybe their lives don’t look unmanageable, maybe they have jobs, maybe it’s like… I did, I had a job. Maybe it’s incredibly hard to identify an emotional life as in an unmanageable life, but when I ask them to reframe that idea and look at it as unbearable, living with shame, living with guilt, living with remorse, living as a liar. If you can see it as unbearable, then you might have a chance, right? You might be able to sort of grasp the first step. Mostly, I think, most people come in on the first step. We’ve admitted, we’ve said, “We need help. I can’t do this alone.” So we’re sort of moving pretty quickly into step two, in my opinion. And the way I think of step two is like I walked into a room where a lot of people say they once felt the way I did, and now they claim to feel better.

32:07 Steph: And are they all lying? Are they all just telling me that because they think I need to hear it? I want… Or are they all genuinely not drinking, to start? I hate happy, joyous and free, because life isn’t happy, joyous and free. There are moments of great joy, there are moments of happiness, and there are moments of incredible pain. I am free all the time, but I am not happy and joyous all the time. I’m free from the constraints of addiction, but that’s it, there are no… Really, I don’t like when people promise happy, joyous and free. So I chose to believe when I came into that room for the first time, even when I pretended to have God, but more so the second time, I was going to believe these women who hugged me even when I didn’t want to be hugged. I’m not a very touchy person. But who said like it’ll be okay and you don’t have to feel this way again, we promise, and there’s a way through this. And that’s a leap of faith, right? It’s not a leap of faith in something supernatural, it’s a leap of faith like, “Okay, I believe you.”

33:12 Steph: I believe the words that are coming out of your mouth, and that’s all step two is to me, right? The power greater than me is that I, alone, am unable to do this, but with other people who have the same problem, together, we can, right? That’s powerful.

33:31 John: That’s how I see it too. In the Big Book, when I was going through the chapter to the agnostic, I rewrote the entire chapter. I had to just re-write it completely.

33:42 Steph: I just say, ignore that.

[laughter]

33:45 John: One thing I did find in there, this is what I drew from that, is that I resisted asking for help, for whatever reason, for most of my life. And especially when it came to my drinking, I just resisted asking for help. And so, for me, that getting to that point where I came to understand that I could be helped and that there was hope for me, that was a big turning point for me, was just asking for help, and not just trying to make it on my own anymore.

34:17 Steph: That’s a huge, huge thing. That’s a reality that, I think, for most of us, we were always playing a part. They talk about that in The Big Book, they talk about it in a way that isn’t identifiable to everybody, because they talk about the director, and so on, and that’s not all of us, but we’re not all controlling, many of us were people-pleasers, and like, “Anything you say, I’ll do.” I don’t know what to do with anything ever. I’m conflict-averse, and terrified all the time. But that is a point there. We wear a mask for most of our lives, whatever that mask may be. And, for most of us, it is very difficult, I think, to take it off and to say, “This isn’t me. I need help finding me.” So, yeah, step two was, in big part, the asking for help, and then relying on the women or men around you, and believing in them. That brings us to step three, I think.

35:18 John: Right? And a lot of people, there’s a lot of atheists who say this step is impossible.

35:23 Steph: Yeah, totally not impossible, just reviewed it in step two, right? Okay, fine… This is my step three. Okay, fine, maybe I’m being naive, but I’m going to believe them for now. Maybe I’ll even take a few of their suggestions and see if they’re liars. What’s the harm, right? That’s literally how I think about it. What’s the big deal? They have that stupid saying that I don’t love, like give it 90 days, we’ll refund your misery if you’re not like… Yeah, but that’s right. So I let myself be naïve, the worst that can happen is this doesn’t work. Okay. I’ve lived through way worse at this point. So I’m just… I’m… There you go. I’m giving over my alcoholism to you. That’s it. I mean, I think it’s as simple as that, really.

36:12 John: I think so too. I think so too. It’s like, I’m not going to try to control this anymore. I’m going to decide to go some other route. And if you say that this works for you, I’m going to give it a shot.

36:23 Steph: I’m going to give it a shot. I don’t… There’s nothing supernatural about that, right? I was listening to a bunch of other people who’ve done this for longer, and who might know what they’re talking about, because wisdom unfiltered through experience does not become a part of the moral fiber. So we can get all the things and read all the books and learn about God, but if we don’t experience it, what have we got, really, to give, right?

36:47 John: Yeah, isn’t it interesting that those first three steps basically are just setting the stage there. And, I think, to a large extent, they are things that happen to us that maybe we might later recognize happen to us. I mean, we get to that point where I’ve got a problem. I think that there’s some hope for me. I think I’m going to go try this. And that’s basically what’s happening to us, and that’s the first three steps.

37:10 Steph: Right, we’re just in it, we’re already in it. And I think, especially for atheists or agnostics or humanists, they let that stop them from moving forward. And, in my opinion, steps four and five, and then eight and nine, six and seven too, if you reframe them secularly, are really important. They’re important steps to changing the way you think, changing your paradigm, changing the way you view others and yourself. They can be incredibly helpful to building self-esteem and self-confidence.

37:49 John: I think so. I think so. And I kind of think that’s why they’re there. Especially, it’s really interesting too. I’ve been talking a lot about steps six and seven with some of my atheist friends here. And a lot of people think that’s crazy. But you know what? Steps six and seven are all about character building, and changing, and recognizing that there’s… I need to continually improve and work on myself. That’s how I see those steps.

38:13 Steph: Absolutely, I’ve just spent… Step five, talking to another human being, and that’s important because my own head is a little nutty. I’m medicated now, well-medicated, Zoloft may have saved my life too, but I don’t have always the best thought. So someone else has helped me identify some negative patterns, and maybe some… I like to call them damages, as I said earlier, not defects, because they were born of necessity, right? These defects were born of necessity, so they protected me for a long time, just like booze helped me get through the anxiety. It’s just they are now a hindrance, where once they were a help.

38:55 John: That is so interesting. I read about… I can’t remember what book it was when they were talking about character defects, and they also looked at it that way. It’s like coping mechanisms, is what we use to somehow survive.

39:06 Steph: Absolutely. With my first sponsor, actually, who told me that before I relapsed, and she said… And she was someone who’d had to reframe it for women. So this has been especially important with women, because a lot of them come in, and they can’t even identify resentment, and they’re not defective, they have had to use these things to protect themselves, for whatever reason. Something happened, usually, that caused them to create this defense mechanism. And so, it’s just that now they don’t need it anymore, so, yeah… So I think that’s really important that we do it with another person, so we can see that. Yeah, and then six is really… Okay, I’ve got this list of damages. This list of sort of maybe useless things. Can I get rid of any of them? Am I willing to get rid of any of them yet? That’s it. And I say, choose one, choose one that you can do today. Don’t worry about the rest of the list. Don’t worry about anything else. Small achievable goals, that’s the only route to success, right? So let’s pick one and work on that, and then your step seven.

40:18 Steph: And so you can do this for a long time, but I think it’s important to be firmly rooted in those steps. So then it just becomes about identifying when you’re using that defense mechanism, right? You see it coming. Oh boy, I just got defensive. And you start to be able to arrest it in the middle of the process. I can maybe stop it even before I start, but, if not, I can stop at mid-defensive, whatever it is, and I can pull back. And maybe later, when this is all by rote, when this has become a natural part of me, maybe then I’ll be able to apologize to people if it comes up.

40:58 John: And that step seven, to me, was all about just persistence, being persistent in wanting to develop myself as a human being, and having ups and downs, I guess, as I go along. Those steps do mean a lot to me, and I even learned a lot from the 12 and 12. I have to… I have to throw out a lot of stuff, but I learned a lot in there. But what I find really interesting, though, about those two particular steps is that I think… I think, in a way, that we, as secular people, almost get more out of them and we think about them than someone who thinks that God is doing it all, because I swear to God, I’ve been to so many meetings where they talk about those steps, and all I hear the believer say is, “Well, God hasn’t taken my defects away. Nope, I still have them. God hasn’t taken away my… “

41:46 Steph: So, by the way, that means you’re not taking any action, right?

41:49 John: Yeah, because they’re not thinking that they have to do something, I guess.

41:52 Steph: Right. So this is where I think… The Pope said, a couple of years ago, “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” Right? And that is perfect. So, believer or not, the action has to be there. You have to take the action to change. There is nothing… There is no miracle, it will not be changed magically. Even if you believe in God, you’ve gotta do the work.

42:19 John: Yeah, and they used to even say that. I remember they used to say… I don’t hear it anymore. Of course, I don’t go to regular meetings anymore, but they used to say, “Pray for potatoes, but get out a hoe.” They would say something like that.

42:29 Steph: Right. They don’t say that in New York.

[laughter]

42:33 Steph: We’re not growing potatoes…

42:35 John: It’s a Midwestern thing, I guess.

42:38 Steph: Maybe I would say it, I don’t know. But, yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s in the book, thought, action, action, and more action. And then a lot of people just sit there, “I’m waiting for God to lift it.” Well, isn’t that nice for you, because, you know… What? That’s not a thing. It’s not going to be magically lifted from you. And this is… So six and seven, to me, are sort of the keys to the cognitive behavioral part, because you’re looking at things a little more objectively, as they come into your head, right? So the mean thing that you’re saying to yourself, or you’re thinking of saying to someone else, right? If that’s your quote unquote ‘defect’, if you get nasty when you feel cornered or angry, as the thought comes in, you can stop it. You can’t always stop the first thought, but you can stop what you do afterwards, right?

43:29 Steph: And a big part, for me, was a script in my head about myself, like the self-loathing script, the hatred script. And I had to notice that when it came up, and stop it, right? And then I had to pat myself on the back. So when the you’re fat and disgusting came into my head, I had to say, “No, that’s not right. You’re very attractive. You’re doing really well. Pat on the back to you.” The best way to change your habit is to reinforce it by giving yourself a pat on the back, thought isn’t going to. Even if you believe, you’re going to need to give yourself the credit, you’re doing a lot. I’m actually looking at ‘We Agnostics’ right now. Oh boy, please, God, help me gouge my eyes out.

44:14 John: If they could rewrite it, it would be pretty cool, because when I rewrote it, I looked at it as, at the time, I was trying to build a bridge, and I was trying to write it as whether you believe or not, that… And I wrote it as an atheist to people who might believe, and I was trying to say where we have in common, and I can’t remember how I worded it, but I said something that… I have respect for you and your way and your belief and everything, but this…

44:39 Steph: Right. It’s not mine.

44:40 John: Yeah, they should have written it that way. It should have been written that, hey, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a total atheist or a believer, we can still find some common ground and find a way through this.

44:52 Steph: Totally.

44:52 John S: It’s too bad. They wrote a chapter to The Agnostic in a way that they were truly trying to convert.

44:57 Steph: Not only convert, it’s not only… It’s not only proselytizing or something, it’s written not to an agnostic, right? It’s written to a militant atheist, who… A closed-minded militant atheist. Agnostic means… I don’t know. I can be agnostic on Trump. I’m not, but I could be, right? I could be agnostic on the shirt my husband is going to wear tomorrow. So, agnostic just means, I don’t know, I’m on the fence, I don’t see proof, but I might believe. This is not written to agnostics, like this is written to angry atheists, and most atheists I know are not angry. They’re only angry when someone tries to shove their beliefs down their throat, right? When fundamentalists come at them. Normal religious people don’t make me angry. Yeah.

45:49 John: Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous when they do look at atheists that way, but, unfortunately, that made its way throughout the fellowship too, because, as a closet atheist, I’d be sitting in, I’d be listening to people say, “Oh, those atheists, they’re unhappy and terrible, and all this stuff, and I’ve never known a happy atheist.” I’m, “Jesus… ” You know.

46:13 Steph: Really? I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I know that that’s like one of our never do. But when I look at my life and I look at where I am, spiritually, as they say, and remembering that one of the definitions of spiritual is not supernatural, it’s of the mind and the intellect, right? So they’re not all definitions of some corporeal thing, right? It’s, “I am so content. I am genuinely content with my life. I’m not overjoyed. I’m not manic. I’m not depressed. I had a friend who used to say, “I aim to live in the four to six, right, between the one and the 10.” And I’m pretty firmly rooted in the five, six. And I can’t say the same of the people who are waiting for God to remove their defects of character, because my goal isn’t just to be a better person for myself, which I really want to be, because it feels good, it is to be a better citizen of the world. And if I’m not constantly working on myself, like they say, putting the oxygen mask on myself first, how can I be a better friend, a better daughter, a better wife, a better worker, right? If I’m just waiting for someone else to remove these problems, then I’m not…

47:28 John: And it seems like you’re doing that. It seems like you are a better citizen of the world. I mean, I’ve listened to some of your talks that you and your husband have gone out, and speaking, like at treatment centers and so forth. So is that an important part of your recovery today, to do that kind of work?

47:42 Steph: Huge. Huge. Because I’m not a meeting-maker, at the moment, because I don’t… I don’t see the point for me right now, it makes me angrier. And giving voice to that anger, in fact, creates conflict. And I’m not trying to convert the fundamentalists and the zealots. They’re not listening. So the conflict is basically pointless, and I don’t want it in my life, my life doesn’t have room for that anymore. It’s uncomfortable in a way that I don’t need to be… I’m already uncomfortable enough trying to work on not being defensive. So, I love speaking. I love it. And I love when people come up to me afterwards and ask for my number, because I know that they identified with something I said. And I love sponsoring. So a lot of people… I don’t stay anonymous at all, and I never have. Throughout my life, I’ve always been really open about my mental problems, and everything, the shameful behavior, I talk really openly about all of that, because someone’s got to. And I understand that other people don’t want to, I get that. So I’m really open. And a lot of people, like I used to be really open on Facebook, would write to me privately and say, “What are you doing?” And I say, “I used AA.” And one of them was an atheist.

49:03 Steph: He’s like, “But but but… ” And I said, “Go, and then come talk to me afterwards, and we’ll talk about it from another perspective.” But that’s it. Step 12 is it for me. One through 11 gave me a good foundation, but giving back, helping others, be it with alcoholism or anything else, food addiction, food restriction, anorexia, this is so applicable in so many ways.

49:31 John: Well, you’re really talented at it, and so is your husband. I just… I really enjoy everything that you guys do.

49:36 Steph: Yeah, he’s great, he’s great. He’s more spiritual than I am, but… And we’re fine with that. He’s a believer, but not a missionary.

49:45 John: Right. Right.

49:46 Steph: Yeah, we have a lot of fun. We’re a good team. And we have a good rapport, we can make fun of each other, we both have a good sense of humor.

49:57 John: Well, I am so glad that I got to know you, and I got to have this conversation.

50:01 Steph: I loved it, thank you so much.

50:02 John: And thank you for visiting AA Beyond Belief. Please keep doing that. And maybe come back on another podcast some time.

50:08 Steph: I would love it. Invite me anytime, we can go though ‘We Agnostics’ line by line.

50:13 John: Yeah. Well, people actually like it. There’s something you said, that I think is very true, people like structure, especially when they’re first starting, they want, “Just tell me what to do. Show me what to do.” And having some structure is nice.

50:30 Steph: Totally right. And I find that, yes. So I like to go through it with them until they feel a little steadier, and then kind of takes off on their own. But I absolutely love going through it. And, in fact, you’ve inspired me. I think I’m going to do a limited series podcast of my own, talking about a lot of this stuff, just going through the book and the passages that are especially difficult for secular.

50:53 John: Oh, that would be so cool. I would love that.

50:57 Steph: Yeah, I will send it your way once I get going. It makes me look to see what we can do.

51:01 John: Awesome. That would be really good, and, you know, it’d be quite popular. People are really interested in that. People are looking for… They’re like… There’s like, I don’t really believe in God, but I am interested in AA, it seems to be everywhere. Is there any way I can understand this as a non-believer?

51:17 Steph: And we need this so much right now, with the opioid epidemic, and heroin youth, we can’t afford to lose. It doesn’t work for everybody, but it works for enough people. If we want to save our species.

51:32 John: Exactly. It does help a lot. It does help. That human connection, I see it when I leave my meeting, and it just warms my heart to see these people becoming friends and supporting each other, and helping each other, and…

51:43 Steph R: So pay attention to the preamble. That’s a big suggestion. That is the program, in a nutshell. That’s all you really have to know.

51:51 John: Well, again, thank you very much. I appreciate it. So nice talking to you.

51:56 Steph: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great talking to you.

[music]

52:06 John: Wow, that stuff really impresses me, I tell you. Shortly after we recorded this podcast, Steph went and created the limited series podcast that she was talking about. And those podcast episodes are posted on her YouTube channel. You can find her on YouTube at Steph Roberts, that’s S-T-E-P-H Roberts. And the name of the podcast is ‘Away’. And I tell you what, they are excellent and definitely worth your time to listen. So, thanks again, everybody. I’ll be back again next week with another great episode.

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Bethany
Bethany

I’m so happy to have found this podcast! It was the podcast on the book Staying Sober without God (J. Munn) that drew me to the podcast part of this site, but when I scrolled down, I was delighted to see this one. I actually have been listening to Steph’s podcast A Way which I love, so this gives me so much more background about her. I love it that Steph is so open about her secular approach, but still open and tolerant of believers. I am relatively new to AA again (back after many years….), but this time back… Read more »

Ivy P.
Ivy P.

Hi!  I just found this resource and listened to this interview with Steph R. I am now working my way through this and the AWay podcast. There is so much good in both of these. I started AA about the time this podcast was recorded and live in really rural America, and the power of God is strong here. Luckily I am part of a group that is relatively open….but I haven’t come out as an atheist, so that might change. I was having a crisis because there were not any other voices in the room and was afraid this… Read more »

John S

Hi Ivy, thank you for listening and for sharing your experience as a person in recovery who also happens to be an atheist. I encourage you to be true to your own values and beliefs. I spent way too much time trying to conform to beliefs of other people and it just wasn’t very good for me in the end. We do post transcripts to all of the AA Beyond Belief Podcasts. We post them within the body of the post, but we will also start posting the pdf file for people to download. Here’s a link to download the… Read more »

life-j
life-j

And I guess I ought to add that yes it is good to have something, something we can tell the newcomers to do, all the helpfulness in the world isn’t going to be of much help if it isn’t translated into some kind of action. The steps are action of the sort needed, something we can give newcomers to do with their restlessness and confusion, so clearly if we want to replace the steps with something that makes sense we have to have that something, we can’t just be empty-handed, but a complete re-write of the program, rather than individual… Read more »

John S

Thanks for listening and also for your thoughtful comments.

Steph R
Steph R

Thanks so much for your insights. It’s so inspiring to know how many people take this seriously. While I agree with a lot of what you said, and hope to see it most of it come to fruition before I die… I’m a pragmatist. At this moment in time, it does not appear that a new book is in our near future. And I’m not willing to devote my precious little free time to making that happen, honestly. Like most of life, we do the best we can with what we have.  And without people who think as you do,… Read more »

life-j
life-j

Hmm, you talked about so many things that are important, and in such a good way, except perhaps with respect to the main topic, finding a way to use the steps. Yes that can be done, the steps can be re-written so they sort of work, but we’re still left with something that is one third helpful, one third irrelevant, harmless nonsense, and one third damaging. Or, to wander off into an analogy, and hopefully not get stuck there we could say it is like the difference between Monsanto-style agriculture, and organic gardening. Yes, you can grow plants, yes, they are edible,… Read more »

John S

I don’t think that ego deflation was supposed to be connected with building self-esteem. Ego deflation isn’t how I would describe my experience, but the admission that I was an alcoholic was a blow for sure. It was a low point in my life. I felt defeated and it felt like life would never be bearable, let along fulfilling. It would be hard to imagine someone with lower self-esteem than myself. Drinking, I hated myself, even in early sobriety. Yet, over time whether it be through the steps or just maintaining sobriety a day at a time with help and… Read more »

life-j
life-j

  Exactly, John, that’s how it was for me, too, after around 15 years of hanging around the fellowship, soaking up the very real love that is there, and mostly ignoring the steps, but working hard on finding other ways to work on my issues, I did get to be a reasonably normal person.   It’s just that the whole program is built around (besides the god stuff) the idea that our main problem IS a big ego, and if we deflate it we will be ok. So that is the solution offered to everybody, including you and me, so… Read more »

Stephanie Roberts

Right! Totally where I see one of the strongest problems not only for atheists but for women. And it’s exactly why, if a sponsee or newcomer really wants to “read the book” or “do the work,” it is incumbent upon us to be both willing and able to do that without insisting he/she see it the way we do. Like a good teacher for a curious pupil, we give the information WITH CONTEXT and they learn what they will from it. They choose the path they take from there. Dogma is dogma and one hardly has to be a believer… Read more »

Lech Lesiak
Lech Lesiak

I haven’t had a drink in over 37 years.

I have never done a step or ‘worked the program’.

I’m beginning to think that ‘working the program’ is for those who had a living problem.

I had a drinking problem.

My life otherwise was pretty good.

So I don’t drink.

Steph Roberts

100% right! As I see it, AA is meant to fix one problem so that I can fix the others myself with or without god(s). Of course, there are people who come and want to “do the work,” and I think we are obligated to try to help them to the best of our abilities. But water seeks its own level… or like attracts like and I’ve  found that most of my sponsees have similarly open minds even those with personally devout religious beliefs.