In this episode, I share my experience, strength, and hope at an Alkathon hosted by the Paseo AA Group in Kansas City, Missouri. I talk about what got me into AA, how I feel about the first three steps, my experience as an atheist in AA, starting a secular AA meeting, my thoughts on Steps 6 and 7, and the importance of service work.
00:00 John S: This is Episode 106 of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast.
00:24 John S: This episode features a recording of a talk I gave at the Paseo Group for their Annual Holiday Alkathon. It’s something I do every year and have been doing at least for the past four years. This was fun, as I was speaking, one of my early sponsors, I believe he was my second sponsor, walked into the room and it changed the trajectory of my talk a little bit, but it was really a special night, and I’m glad I had the opportunity. I hope you enjoy the podcast.
00:53 John S: Hi, I’m John, I’m an alcoholic.
00:55 Audience: Hi, John.
00:57 John S: I’m glad that I’m here. This is the fourth year in a row that I’ve been able to speak at the Paseo’s Alkathon, and I want to keep this up. I almost missed it, because I swear to God, I was in my pajamas. I was ready to go to bed, thinking it’s going to be tomorrow at midnight, but then my alarm came on and I said, “Oh, I’m going to be speaking at the Paseo Group. [chuckle]
So, I rushed up here as quick as I could. I was speeding on Highway 71, but there were still people driving faster than me, and I thought I was going pretty fast. There is like no speed limit on 71, it seems, but well, I’m glad to be here.
I didn’t really prepare anything because I thought I had some time to think about what I was going to say. So, I’m just going to share my story and talk about some things that are on my mind. I think about the program a lot, and there’s been a few steps I’ve been thinking about that I might want to talk about. But just to qualify real quickly, I’ve been sober for 30 years. My last drink was some time around July 20th of 1988, and… Yeah, 1988, yes. So it’s going to take a while. [laughter]
02:09 John S: My situation was that I had just turned 26, and I drank out of control pretty much from the beginning, but the last five years of my drinking were pretty bad. I was blackout drinker, and I drank pretty much like every other day, I was either drunk or sick. I started getting DWIs, and I got my third DUI in ’88. I was getting like one a year, and the third one cost me my job and my apartment and everything else I had, which wasn’t a whole lot.
I was fired from my job because they found out about this DUI. I used to drive their vehicles, and they knew I had two DUIs already and they told me if I ever got another one, they’d have to fire me. They also thought that I had a drinking problem, and they often talked to me about it and offered me help. They’d tell me that they could get me into a treatment center, I could go there and come back and so forth, but I told them that I didn’t have a problem. I guess I didn’t really believe that I did. I thought I could somehow get it under control, but when they fired me, they reminded me of all the offers of help that they gave me, and they also reminded me of all the times that I didn’t show up or came in not looking so well, and didn’t keep my word and all of that. So, they told me they had to let me go.
03:55 John S: I sat there in their office with tears coming down my cheeks, and I said, “I just didn’t know I had a problem.” And when I said that, that was as honest as I could be at the time. I didn’t think I had a problem. I didn’t know I had a problem, is what I told them. But now that I’m in AA, I think the truth was I couldn’t admit that I had a problem. I always knew, but I just couldn’t admit it. I lied to myself and everyone else, so.
04:38 John S: When they fired me, that’s what propelled me to my first AA meeting. It was the Downtown Nooners Group. At the time, they were meeting in 11th and Grand. I walked in there and I was the first one in the room, they had the 12 Steps, the 12 Traditions, on the wall.
One thing that kept me from getting help was my age. I was pretty young. The first time I thought that I should go to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was 19 years old, and I told myself, “That’s ridiculous. No, I’m too young,” and so, I didn’t go. I thought to be an alcoholic, you had to really get up there in years, I suppose, but I looked at the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions, and that first step, “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol, that our lives have become unmanageable.” I just thought those words describe perfectly the situation that I was in at the time. I couldn’t think of any better way to put it.
05:34 John S: And the third Tradition, “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” I had that. It wasn’t like I wanted to stop drinking; it was I had to stop drinking because I could not take it anymore. Life was unbearable. So, that gave me hope. It was like I didn’t have to worry about how old I was, or if some doctor would diagnose me as an alcoholic or whatever. I knew that I found a place where I belong.Then people filtered into the room and they introduced themselves and they gave me coffee and they gave me a first-step meeting, and that was a powerful experience because it was the first time in my life that I ever heard somebody call themselves an alcoholic.
06:29 John S: I remember when I heard that, it was shocking, that someone would make that admission. But then they shared their stories with me, and some of what they went through was almost identical to the problems that I was having as far as how I drank and the problems that’s happened in my life. Some of them were really different, but the one thing that was the same was how we felt about our drinking. Man, I could really relate.
What was more powerful about that meeting was that the people who were telling me these stories were sitting there in suits, they had jobs, they were clean, they had homes, it looked like their lives were together, and they were talking about the past, and some of them even laughed, and it was like I could tell that they had gotten out of this thing. So, I was immediately filled with hope, and they told me to come back, so I did.
I guess I’m really very lucky, I have not had to drink, I have not relapsed since I’ve been in AA. I don’t know why other than I followed suggestions. The closest I ever came to drinking, I was…
07:53 John S: The man walking in the room right now, John, was my sponsor, and I called him one night. I was two years sober. Yeah, you might remember this, John. I was two years sober, and I had this thought in my mind that I was going to buy a bottle of apricot brandy. I don’t know why I thought of apricot brandy, I think it was some memory from high school. I was going to get that bottle, and I was going to put in my coat pocket so it would be there when I need it. I had this thought in my mind, and I just couldn’t get it out.
Then one day, I went to a liquor store to get that bottle. I was in that store and I was nervous and scared. I turned around, I went home, and I called John, sitting right here, and I can’t remember what we talked about, but I told him that I went to a liquor store and I was ready to buy a bottle. I talked to him, and I didn’t no longer wanted to buy a bottle. That could have saved my life. I don’t know what would have happened had I not called him. Had I not called him, what would have happened the next day or the next day? So, that’s how it works, and that’s why I haven’t drank. It’s because of doing things like that.
09:15 John S: I don’t have any control over this. Even after all this time, there could be thoughts to drink, but I really stay involved in AA. As long as I do, I feel like I have some sanity over it now, I suppose, as long as I do these things that were suggested to do. So, so nice to see John. [chuckle] Yeah. Yeah, I haven’t seen John for a long time, but he took me through the Big Book. A lot of what I’ve been grounded in with the program, I got from him, and he got it from someone else.
09:57 John S: But going back to my story, they told me to go to meetings, and I did. I had to, I was propelled to, because I had all these problems that came out of my drinking that had to be resolved. I mean, the DUI, other tickets and legal problems, and losing my apartment, and all that stuff, and I was just full of fear of what was going to happen to me. The only way I knew to shut down those feelings was to drink, and the the only way I knew to be comfortable without drinking was to be in an AA meeting.
So, during those first few months, I was in a lot of AA meetings, and it really did help me. After about six months or so, that might be about the time I approached John, I think. He got me into the Big Book where we started going through the steps. He had me read things repeatedly… Repetitively? Whatever [chuckle] Repeatedly? I’m sorry. [chuckle] Over and over again.
11:14 John S: He said he wanted me to read “The Doctor’s Opinion”. This is almost torture. He wanted me to read it every single day for 30 days. If I missed a day, I had to start all over again. I was stupid enough that I was actually honest and told him on the day I missed, and I had to start over again. So, I read that chapter probably more than any other, but it was good. The one thing that I liked about it… Well, a couple of things, but the one thing that really hit home with me was the idea that I needed an entire psychic change, that I needed to change. There was also that little paragraph about, we drink because we’re restless, irritable, and discontent, and that once we drink, it kicks in, unlike other people and we can’t control it. That just made sense to me, and it has always been the basis of my understanding of alcoholism.
12:15 John S: So, I’m going to go fast forward now because I’ve got 30 years to cover. [chuckle] Life was good. I was going to meetings at P3, and things were getting better. The first 10 years of my sobriety, I think I spent… I think most of my life was spent surrounded by AA people going to meetings. Almost everybody I knew was in AA. They were my friends. Sometimes I’d go to meetings at P3 just to meet up with people to go to a movie or something. It was really the center of focus of my life.
Then in ’99, after I’ve been sober for 10 years, my father died unexpectedly. He was 64, he got some kind of a virus, and in three days, he died. That put me on a different track. I didn’t abandon AA, but, I was 35 years old and I’d never really accomplished any of the things that I thought that I would accomplish in my life, like going to school and getting married and buying a house.
So, I enrolled in school, I got a degree. I bought a house, got better jobs, ended up getting married. And for the first time in my life, while AA was still the bedrock, it was still the foundation of my life, it wasn’t my entire life. I was beginning to meet people from other walks of life, and I was learning in school how to think critically.
14:05 John S: So, my thinking began to change a little bit, and I wasn’t going to as many meetings, but I was doing fine. I think that that’s what the program is for. It is there so that I could recover my life and I could do the things that I couldn’t do because of my drinking. So, after this ten-year… This went on for quite a while, [chuckle] this period of time, I got married and so forth, and so… I start getting back into going to meetings on a regular basis again, but there’s been a real change with me. During the time that I was working with John, I was praying every day, they had me doing the drill, I’d get on my knees and I pray in the morning and I’d pray at night. But I stopped that. Some time after my dad died, I stopped all the praying, and I started having these creeping doubts about whether or not there was even a God.
I would go to meetings and I knew the lingo. John taught me. [chuckle] I knew what to say in meetings that would get their heads to bob up and down with approval. That’s pretty much what I did. I wasn’t telling people I wasn’t praying, I wasn’t telling people that I was having these doubts.
15:32 John S: Then after about I hit 25 years of sobriety, I realized I am an atheist, and it scared me because I thought, “How am I going to do AA?” So, I got out the Big Book, which has always been the foundation of my recovery, and I looked at it a little bit differently. John used to always have me highlight important passages in the book, which is great, but this time, what I did, I started crossing stuff out. I took out any reference to God or spiritual, supernatural things. I would cross it out.
When I did that, what I noticed was underneath there were the real life experiences that I had, and the practical action that I was taking. It made sense to me like, the Big Book says, that this is a practical program of action, that it doesn’t matter what I believe. I respect and honor people of faith who believe that there’s a God that empowers them to do these things. That’s important and I never would want to take that away from them.
16:55 John S: I’m empowered by you. I’m empowered by the people in the rooms. I can tell you that that’s probably the only difference. The experience is the same. When I look at the first three steps, for example, these kind of set me up for the rest of the program. I think that those first three steps are a description of what happens to us organically, naturally, through the recovery process. I got to a point, where I gave up, I need help, I admit I have a problem, step one. I came to believe that there was hope for me in AA, step two. I made a decision to work the program, step three. I went on with step four and five on down. So, for me, I don’t see the difference.
18:00 John S: Now, I had started sharing my new outlook at P3, and sometimes I might not have done it well, and it seemed like the literature was contradicting some things that I believed in. Like for example, the reading of “How It Works,” I didn’t like that. There are a lot of things I didn’t like. Remember, I was crossing stuff out in the Big Book.
I got to the point where, I don’t think the guys at P3 made me feel this way, but I didn’t feel comfortable there anymore. I didn’t really feel like I could be who I was now, but I was doing some research, and I found that since 1975, there have been special interest groups in AA for agnostics and atheists, and so, I started one here in Kansas City, the We Agnostics group.
18:51 John S: It’s an AA group like any other; we just don’t open and close with a prayer, and we believe that creates an environment where everybody is welcome. It removes that one obstacle that people might have. We just share and help each other, we work the steps, we sponsor, we do everything that any other AA group would do. But, it makes a big difference for us to not have to use the Lord’s Prayer or any kind of other prayer in the meeting, and it really makes a difference for the new person who even if they’re religious sometimes, they don’t want to have their religion brought into their recovery. It’s totally an individual choice. Some people want to use that; some people don’t. We give them that option.
19:40 Audience: Exactly.
19:42 John S: So, anyway, a couple of things I’ve been thinking about lately that I wanted to talk about, because I do think about the steps a lot. Two steps I’ve been thinking about and talking about are steps six and seven. These are really important steps, I think, because this is really where the work gets done. Now, I know they say that we get ready for God to take our defects away, and then he does, I suppose. But the way that I see it is there’s work that I need to do. I like the way that Bill Wilson described these steps and the 12 and 12 as a character-building process. That’s how I’ve been looking at it as the building of character. I identify these problems in steps four and five, so in step six and seven, I need the willingness to take the action to do something about them.
20:36 John S: I think of these character defects as personality traits that I need to change, but I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, a fellow atheist, and she said, “You know, these character defects were really just coping mechanisms. These were behaviors that I used to cope with my addiction, and they made my life difficult even without drinking. I need to find a way, a different way, to cope with life. So I need to be willing to have these coping mechanisms replaced with healthy behaviors.” That’s how she sees it, and it got me thinking.
She tells her sponsee, she says, “Just work on one. Just work on one at a time.” That just really seems like good advice, because as you work on one, you might not completely take care of it, but you’re consciously aware that there’s an area that you want to improve upon. That might bring up another one and another one and another one. So, those two steps, they really keep me engaged if I think about it, because I have to stop and think about my behaviors and how I’m acting and what I want to change. So, anyway, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
22:12 John S: Something else I’ve been thinking about is the importance of service. This was actually impressed upon me, again, this guy here, he had a lot to do with who I am today. We used to go on old-fashioned 12 Step calls. John remembers a time when we went over to some guy’s house, remember, Rob, we took him to the hospital and blood everywhere, and we did things like that. If we weren’t doing that, we were making coffee or we were cleaning out ashtrays, and that was a big deal. Any time that we were asked to go speak somewhere, that’s what we did. So service is important. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Service is important to the Paseo Group, I know for a fact, because when I go to the Area Assembly and when I go to district, the Paseo Group is always represented. So, when we were starting our group We Agnostics, I wanted it to have the same sense of service as the Paseo Group does. I wanted to pattern that after you guys. I’m proud now that when we go to Area Assembly, there are three of us that go there now, and we’re now on on our third generation of GSRs.
23:33 John S: What I find with this level of involvement, this is service outside the group is how it’s helped me. It’s given me a connection to others in AA that aren’t like me. It gets me out of my little bubble, out of my own group, and it gets me interacting and talking to people from other groups, and it’s good for me and it’s good for them because we can have conversations and we can see what we have in common.
I think that focusing on those things that we have in common is critical to this whole idea of unity in AA, which is essential if we’re going to… If any of us are going to survive in this fellowship. So, when I go to Area Assembly, I work with people from other groups, and they might be from all kinds of different religions, believers, it doesn’t matter. We don’t care what we believe. There’s work that we need to do, and we get together to get the work done for the benefit of Alcoholics Anonymous, and for the benefit of the still-suffering alcoholic out there, who wants help.
24:44 John S: And that’s all we want to do, is we want to find a way to better help the still-suffering alcoholic. And there’s so many people out there that we still need to reach. And there are so many problems that are going on and our society is changing so much. There’s all kinds of different ways of reaching people now. And it’s really… For me, it’s fun to be involved and it’s exciting to be involved in this whole idea of working with people to further our work.
25:16 John S: I’m also blown away by the quality of the people that I meet at Area Assembly who have represented us at the General Service Conference in New York, our Area Delegates. What really amazes me is the people who served as area delegates in years past still go to area assembly to help us out. They still show up to let us know how things work, and that’s really critical, because if we didn’t have their experience, we would just be fumbling around with this book trying to figure things out.
I’m realizing that that’s the same thing that happens at the group level. We have to have the old-timers, and I guess I’m one now, who could sit around and let people know how things work. We also need the people who have done trusted servants positions within the group to back up the people that are doing it now to let them know how it’s done. I just think it’s important, because this is how the group functions. From the very beginning, our group has had business meetings and the group decides what it’s going to do. It’s been a great experience.
26:33 John S: Being part of creating a new AA group has been the greatest experience of my life. That sounds extraordinary, to say something like that, but it really is the truth. I get to see people get their lives together and make friends. My favorite part of the meeting, I think, is when I leave at night and I see the younger people gathering out smoking cigarettes, they probably shouldn’t smoke, but they’re smoking cigarettes and they’re talking and they’re forming friendships, and they’re doing what I was doing when I was young and I was starting out. They are forming those bonds with those people who they can call when they need to. I almost get chills when I think that starting this group is helping these people.
We laugh, and like every AA meeting does, we have a good time. We get serious when we need to. It’s a beautiful thing.
27:42 John S: So, I also got to learn a lot about myself and other things in life with that group. When you start an AA meeting, you have the benefit of just you and one other person, so we can do things however you want to. We can set it up, “This is how our meeting is going to be.” But then other people start coming in, and they might want to do things a little bit different.
If the group is really going to survive, those of us who started the group have to stand back and let go and let the rest of them have it. I was able to do that, and it was the best experience. I’m so glad that that’s the way I did it. If I had tried to hold on to control that group, it would not exist. It would just die. So, anyway. How long am I supposed to speak?
28:47 John S: You know what? Would you like to speak, John?
28:49 John A: Yeah, I will.
28:50 John S: Yeah. He’s not from my group, but I love this guy. Like I say, I haven’t seen him for a long time. He was like one of my first sponsors.