A Secular Sobriety, authored by Dale K. is an invaluable tool for anyone who may be interested in a secular interpretation of the 164 pages of AA’s Big Book. Dale takes the reader through the first 164 pages, but rewritten as a secular version of the book. The book also contains personal stories from secular members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, we are featuring one of those personal stories: Tomas L.
I drank my first beer when I was 16. We had a swimming pool and a sauna that we could use after PT in high school. One day, some of my classmates had brought beer. It was an amazing experience. That buzz after two or three beers was peculiar and exciting. More than that, it gave me a sense of finally finding my place in the world. I recall one of my classmates saying, “Hey Tomas, you’re drunk!” It felt like the nicest compliment anyone had ever given me. I was one of the boys. I had found a place where I belonged.
When I joined AA many years later, I sometimes wondered when my addiction started. I have come to see my alcoholism as something of an addiction by proxy. It has seemed like it is not really the alcohol I want, but things like fellowship, relaxing, self confidence and relief from anxiety. It was alcohol that gave me all that, or at least an illusion of it. I had a social and emotional withdrawal that alcohol soothed. If someone would have told me there and then that I had a drinking problem, I would surely have thought them delusional. Alcohol was not the problem, it was the solution!
When I was 25 I met the woman I was to spend the next 10 years with. She was more mature and responsible than me, which meant I didn’t have to bother too much about taking any responsibility. Perhaps it was mutual needs rather than love.
Drinking is what I have typically done instead of solving problems. Drinking makes problems feel less problematic, which is much easier than actually solving them. The small issues grew into big problems, which slowly but surely killed whatever love may have been between us.
When the relationship ended, I quickly went back to my bachelor style drinking. I was on a fast track bound for disaster, but was rescued by the next woman in my life after a year of bachelorhood. We fell in love and soon decided to have a baby. I had six months parental leave when my son was around one year old, and they were the most wonderful months of my life. To be with that little miracle and explore the world through his eyes was an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately, that happiness would not last. I gradually increased my drinking. As my gloom grew into a depression, I started using alcohol as self medication and ceased to even try having fun or meeting people when I drank.
In 2006 I left my job for half a year of sick leave for fatigue syndrome and depression. I went to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and picked up my spirits enough to get back to a new job. My therapist did his best to make me realize that my drinking was a problem. I did my best at denying it.
My marriage had been going steadily downhill for years for the usual reason: drinking instead of solving problems. It took three more years before we moved apart and divorced. I resumed the pattern of drinking to numb my anxiety without any hope or intent of having fun or enjoying myself.
In August 2009 I took my first steps towards AA. I started rehab in a Minnesota Model outpatient treatment. It was there that I first said those dreaded words “I am an alcoholic.” I said it mostly because the others in the group said it, but to my surprise it felt like a heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders.
That year in rehab was a very rewarding experience, but it was a strange year. The rest of my life was collapsing. The only time I felt good were those few hours in rehab once a week. My Achilles heel of sobriety has always been the feeling that my life is hopeless whatever I do. Realizing that drinking wrecks my life was easy, but believing that sobriety could give me a life worth living was far more difficult. I never really counted how many relapses I have taken, but they all started with thinking that life is a hopeless disaster either way.
I lost my job after one relapse too many in 2011. I suppose that defines me as a failure when the success rate of a treatment is calculated. I don’t agree with that. I may have lost my job, but it was that year that I first admitted being an alcoholic. I found the feeling of fellowship that made me eventually stay in AA and I learned a lot about myself and alcohol. I think of it as my first important steps towards lasting sobriety. It was a very good and gentle introduction to the god bit in AA, too. As an atheist, it can be a bit of a challenge to choose my own conception of a god I don’t believe in. It was fortunate that I got a non-religious introduction to AA. The leader of the meetings in rehab was very clear that there was no requirement to believe in anything but sobriety, and that God can be seen as an acronym for Fellowship Without Drugs (In Swedish: Gud = Gemenskap Utan Droger). Eventually, I found my way to a meeting. The group was very inclusive of all beliefs and lack of beliefs.
A few years of relapses alternated with a few months of sobriety. My doubts that a sober life could be a good life made my sobriety frail so it didn’t take much for me to pick up that first drink. One delusion that steered me towards relapses was the idea that my alcoholism wasn’t particularly progressive. I often thought of a relapse as “hitting the pause button” and taking a break from reality. My alcoholism turned out to be a standard example of the progressive type, and I discovered ways of progressiveness that I hadn’t thought of. Every relapse got a bit worse than the previous. For every comeback those pink clouds of early sobriety turned more and more into something resembling the sinister darkness over Mordor.
Towards the end of 2014, I started to find new levels of darkness and despair in my depression and my drinking. My anxiety could get overwhelming in a way that I had not experienced before. There was a desperate feeling that I needed to flee in panic but didn’t know where. Another sense of desperation grew from the fact that I started to lose my ability to numb my feelings with alcohol. I could dampen the desperate feeling of panic, but only to a modest level of anxiety and hopelessness. Ending my life seemed more and more like my only remaining option. To ever get a life that was even bearable seemed like a delusional dream. There were a few things that kept me from taking those thoughts to action. I did not want anyone else to suffer from my suicide, so it could not be at home. It was beyond unacceptable that my son would find my body. The thought of waking up after a failed suicide as a disabled wreck was a scary thought, so I wanted to be absolutely sure that I really died. Maybe it was some remaining survival instinct that made me complicate the plans enough to postpone them. In a way, it was one of my bad sides that helped to keep me alive: procrastination. When I had taken the edge off the worst anxiety with the first few beers, it felt less important to figure out a way to kill myself that would fit my demands, so I kept drinking and postponed it to some other day.
I gradually stopped bothering about paying any bills at all. In February 2015 I was three months behind rent and getting close to eviction. I was convinced that losing my flat would mean a one way street to a homeless life of misery that I could never return to any normal or meaningful life from. This sense that the last ship was about to sail gave me the spark for one final attempt to get sober and try to get my life back together somehow.
I had a terrible first year of sobriety. I laid the foundation for a terrible first year with all my relapses and by drinking my depression into a dark abyss.
It took about ten months until I reached a final agreement that I could keep my flat, and as I lived on social welfare I spent a lot of time collecting refund cans and bottles to fill out the gaps in my wallet and catch up with the rent. I knew I couldn’t afford another relapse, so I decided to take Antabuse. It was a new level of surrender. I felt that I simply couldn’t risk trusting myself and needed a crutch to stay up. I also started taking antidepressants as soon as I sobered up. To get through the worst days, I found my own dark variety of the 24 hour program: It is never too late to give up. I heard that from a comedian (Ronny Eriksson) many years ago and found a deeper darker meaning in it. Maybe it was all hopeless and maybe all I could do was to drink myself to death, but I could at least postpone picking up the first until tomorrow. With that, the days became months.
In the spring of 2016, I sometimes felt a sense of surprised confusion. I had started my sobriety without much hope of even being alive by that spring and almost no hope of being sober that long. But there I was, alive and sober. It felt a bit like I had accidentally played some cheap trick and got away with it. My depression had gradually become less severe and I could at least have an hour or two without too much anxiety most days. I started to reflect more on how deep and horrible an abyss it was that I was climbing out of. I had learned about depression over the years. I knew that people who have had depression are prone to relapsing into depression. Looking back at the last months of drinking and first months of sobriety gave me an eerie feeling of how lost I had been and how recklessly I had stumbled along the edge of my own grave.
I started to realize that it was unlikely I would be lucky enough to survive if I were to slide back into a deeper depression. It was a scary thought that my most lethal enemy was myself. Even if I stayed sober, I knew I wasn’t immune to depression. I started to feel an urge to protect me from myself, to disarm the ticking bomb that I seemed to be. It was a vague urge that I could not turn into a clear plan, but my years in and out of AA led me to the conclusion that there was at least one thing I could try. Go to meetings … lots of meetings.
My meetings had been sparse until then, maybe one meeting a month or less. A reason for that was a sense of shame about my darkest thoughts, especially that I had thought that my own son would be better off if I was dead. I had started to realize that I was wrong about that, and felt ashamed that I could have believed something as horrible as that. The shame about that made me feel that nobody would want to have anything to do with me if they found out about my dark secret. I wasn’t sure about how much I would share, but I decided that I had to at least try to go to more meetings.
It was to be the most amazing and profound experience that I have had in AA. I started to go to meetings every day, and slowly and cautiously began to come out of that closet of suicidal thoughts. At first, I would keep it brief and not get too deep or personal. I could say things like “It was hard to believe I could get a meaningful life” or “Alcohol hijacks the reward system in the brain, and that’s just what it was like to me.”
I didn’t realize how common it really is to feel the same way I did. I believed if anyone found out about those sick, dark thoughts they would surely see me as a sick freak that they wanted nothing to do with. It was more of a feeling than anything I put words to, but I started noticing I was wrong. Nobody left the meeting when I shared or seemed to think I was weird or disgusting, so I found the courage to get more honest and explicit about my inner darkness. To my surprise and relief, what happened was the exact opposite of what I had feared. Sometimes, someone would thank me for my share after the meeting. I could often see in their eyes and hear in their voice that they had seen the same darkness as I. Others would share about similar thoughts.
I found a new level of fellowship. I wasn’t nearly as different and alone as I had imagined. Gradually, I came to the insight that the dark abyss within me wasn’t who I was, but something that alcohol had done to me. That insight had an amazing healing power. I’m not sure if I started something or just opened my eyes to something that was already there, but I know that spring and early summer was when I found faith. It wasn’t faith in god but faith that my life could be more than just bearable. It could even be a good, meaningful and enjoyable life. After a few months, I realized that most of my days passed without any anxiety or any particularly troubling thoughts at all. My depression was gone, so by the end of the summer I stopped taking both antidepressants and Antabuse.
As I write this I am two years and nine months sober. It sometimes feels like an unbelievably long time, much longer than I thought remotely possible. That dark abyss of drinking can almost feel like a legend from long ago. And at the same time it feels like I just got started. I rarely feel any temptation to drink and often reflect on what a joy and relief it is to go through a day without having to make much of an effort to stay sober. I sometimes think of how wonderful it can be to be wrong. I thought I was a hopeless case who could not possibly stay sober more than a few months and that sobriety could not possibly be any better than just bearable. I was completely wrong about that, and I hope that I will be wrong again.
More About Tomas
Tomas L. is from Gothenburg, Sweden where he is active in several AA groups. He is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his city. Tomas appeared on the AA Beyond Belief Podcast Episode 94, and he has written two articles posted at AA Beyond Belief: Narnialcoholics Anonymous, and AA Mythbusting .