Secular Sobriety, The Final Frontier

At eighteen years sober, I needed to get honest with the fact that I was an atheist, praying to a god I no longer believed in was pointless. I have come to similar personal crossroads of directional decision in sobriety many times before but this was probably the most challenging. All well and good to get honest with my atheism but this fundamental shift in my sobriety raised the question, how do I stay sober with god out of the picture?

What followed was a reevaluation of my sobriety thus far by reflecting on my experiences in AA, identifying what had been keeping me sober all these years. The most obvious consistent factor in my sobriety was attendance at and participation in meetings of AA. The human power of fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous is the force that got me sober and keeps me sober. The third tradition is what keeps me coming back, I don’t want to drink alcohol. It’s just that simple for me. What I have received from AA is much, much more than freedom from the lash of alcohol. 

The word ‘program’ is commonly used in shares at AA meetings such as, “I work the program”, “Are you on the program?” and “You need a program to stay sober”. In many instances I sense that ‘program’ has a ‘pressure to comply’ connotation to it. The recent proliferation of questionable Big book study guides, sobriety worksheets and the like only add further pressure, particularly on newcomers. Sobriety seems to have become hard work and very academic in comparison to my early years in AA where I was told not to pick up the first drink, go to meetings and lend a hand.

For me ‘program’ is no more than a word used to describe the whole shebang of what I do to get and stay sober. It’s the meetings, fellowship, sponsorship, reading, listening to C90 tapes/CD’s/USB’s/podcasts, service work. In a nutshell it’s my own personal and unique experience of sobriety that you won’t find written in the steps, big book or even the secular literature.

What follows is my attempt to describe what got me sober and keeps me sober. Words can be blunt instruments when describing sobriety, so bear this in mind when reading. If nothing else, I hope to demonstrate that sobriety can be enjoyable, you can even have a laugh. 

Meetings

Before coming to AA meetings, I had never heard people speak honestly about themselves in the way we do. Generally, the self-honesty I heard expressed in shares was a completely new vocabulary to me; Statements like “I was at fault”, “I was powerless over alcohol”, “I was dishonest”, “I needed to make amends” and “I needed to take inventory”. The words that most amazed me and gave me a flicker of hope were “You can leave this meeting tonight, need never pick up a drink and be happy”. The word happy was not a word I was very familiar with in the final throes of my drinking. Instead, I would have used more apt words like miserable, lonely, bereft, resentful, self-pitying and afraid.

And yet, despite turning up at AA feeling this way, I instinctively sensed that these AA’s might have something I could benefit from. The kind of honesty I heard in their shares stuck out like dog’s balls in my world of dishonesty, deceit and deception. I was so full of pretense and ego driven denial about how bad my drinking had become. I wouldn’t dare admit to anyone what was really going on and I didn’t have to at AA either. The only thing I was asked to admit was my first name, even at that I could have refused or given a false one.

By sitting in these AA meetings, surrounded by the living proof of decades of sobriety I couldn’t help but think to myself, “If they can do it, so can I” and I began to hope. I had a racing mind so couldn’t concentrate long enough to read any of the literature. Despite this and shaking my way through early withdrawals I could recognise a warm, welcoming handshake. I was open to the AA message of sobriety because I did not want to drink again, the third tradition. I still had reservations about accepting the fact I was a ‘real alcoholic’ being a stop/start periodic drinker. When in one my dry spells, I had no interest in alcohol. But once I had just one mouthful of grog, the physical compulsion to drink kicked in and I was on my way again. It took eighteen months of sobriety to lay that one to rest. But where is the sobriety schedule that says we must achieve any predetermined, preset goal at any given time? I am an imperfect human alcoholic, the most important thing I will ever do is to lay a sober head on the pillow at night. That is what I need to do each day irrespective of imperfections or mistakes.

This point was powerfully illustrated to me in early sobriety by a bloke I heard share at the Saturday night Mortdale meeting. He had gotten sober, educated, employed, met and married the love of his life and had children, a sobriety dream come true. That night he had just come from hospital having spent the day with his wife who was terminally ill with cancer. She got a nasty untreatable form of cancer with a three-months to live prognosis. He said to her, “The worst thing that can ever happen to me is you dying”. She responded, “No it’s not, the worst thing that can ever happen to you is you picking up a drink!”. I have never forgotten this profound statement.

Identification

Identification with other alcoholics’ shares and the accompanying affinity I feel with them is the key that opens the door to sobriety. I know I have found my tribe, alcoholics like me who understand. When I heard Bill from Paddington say, “I needed a drink to get a drink”, I knew that he knew. My mind immediately transported me back ten years to a night in Dublin. I was supposed to meet a group of friends in Kavanaghs pub but as I was walked towards the pub, I felt increasingly nervous and knew I would not be able to walk through the front door. No problem, I knew how to fix this. A quick detour to the Brian Boru, for four quick gin and tonics. Now fuelled by gin, I marched into Kavanaghs with confidence to get that drink.

Affinity with other alcoholics through identification allowed me to become teachable and listen to what alcoholics in AA suggested to me. Don’t pick up the first drink no matter what, come to as many meetings of AA as you can, join a group and get involved. Get on the twenty-four-hour plan and in time try and do something about the steps. I was reminded that sobriety is long-term and most importantly, I could be happily sober. I even discovered the sheer joy of laughter, something I hadn’t done for a long time.

Laughter

Humour and laughter in AA shares smoothed my shaky path of early sobriety. I remember Peter telling us how he was so grog sick he had to remain in bed while drinking large bottles of cider. He was unable to get out of bed to go to the toilet so instead when he had drunk the first bottle empty, he peed into it. He continued on drinking and peeing as he went. Then he went into a blackout and when he came to was puzzled to find all the cider bottles empty.

In an Irish AA meeting, I heard a bloke say he had an incredible fear of heights, just standing on a chair made him dizzy. During one of his drinking escapades, he went into a blackout and when he came to, he found himself lying on his back on the roof of a four-story building with his neck resting over the edge of the roof gutter, terrified.  A concerned passer-by on the street below called the Fire Brigade to rescue him. They soon arrived, parked their fire engine and extended a ladder up to the roof where our friend lay. The fire chief shouted up, “Ok, now you can climb down”, “I can’t” said our friend”. “Why not?”, “I’m afraid of heights!”. “How did you get up there?”, “I don’t remember!”. Our terrified friend was carried down, slung over a fireman’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

Ron had a terrible childhood involving abuse, institutions, violence and adult homelessness. Despite his nasty experiences he remained a kind hearted human being whose story telling made us all laugh. In early sobriety, he went to the men’s toilets at Sydney Central Railway Station to wash and shave. He filled the sink to overflowing, using copious amounts of soap to work up a sizeable amount of suds. I should tell you that he was stripped down to his underpants as he stood there with his face lathered in soap suds. As blokes came into the toilet and saw this apparition standing at the sink, they couldn’t take a pee and get out of there quick enough. Eventually the curiosity of one of them got the better of him and he said to Ron, “Hey mate, what the f**k are you doing?”. Ron paused, holding his razor in mid-air and replied,” I’m doing the best I can one day at a time!”. 

Professional help

In addition to using the AA steps in sobriety, I have availed myself of professional help as needed. I will describe these professional experiences just briefly and in general terms. They reflect my personal experience, this may not suit you, the reader. In twenty plus years of sobriety I have consulted psychologists five times, each consultation period lasting about six weeks. Week one is usually my outlining what is going on, then week two is the psychologist explaining the problem and outlining a plan of action with the following weeks an implementation of that plan. I have had substantial success by using professional help but it has never replaced AA, only supplemented it. A word of caution here, the professionals I have consulted were very pro AA. Were any of them to tell me that I don’t need to go to AA any more I would be out the door of their consultation room before they finished their sentence.

In general, most of my problems were unresolved childhood issues compounded by a lack of adult maturity. When I picked up a drink at nineteen, I just didn’t grow up as my peers did, hiding in the bottom of a bottle instead. Psychological therapy identified problems of self, control and fears that are similarly described in the big book. Additionally, I needed to examine my Catholic upbringing with its accompanying unrealistic outlook on life while at the same time not getting into a blame game. Same with my parents and family, no blame, just identifying influences and effects.

In hindsight, I can see where the steps fall short in this regard. Even if I truly believed in god, which I don’t, just asking to have my defects of character taken away is ineffective without understanding the underlying causes of behavior. In contrast, psychological therapy identified these underlying causes, outlined a plan of action to make behavioural changes that solved many of my life problems. This process is really getting down to the nitty gritty of trying to become more mature and leading a more satisfying life.

Alcoholism

Big subject, and I have had a variety of ideas on this one. I used to think, more hope, that alcoholism was curable but it is not, just treatable. I thought there was an alcoholic personality, not so. I thought there were underlying causes of alcoholism or someone I could blame for it, I loved to do that. No, not so either. This particular blame bubble was burst by an alcoholic nun at an AA meeting who shared that she knew why she was an alcoholic. My ears pricked up at these words as I anticipated a very complex answer. Instead she simply said, “I’m an alcoholic because I’m one of the five to ten percent of the population that suffers from alcoholism.”.

In recent years I have come to the conclusion that it is my physiology not psychology that influenced my downward spiral into alcoholism. This idea was crystalised for me when I read, ‘A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous’ by John Lauritson. Additionally, John’s book refers to a book titled, ‘Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism‘ by James Robert Milam and Katherine Ketcham. These books have been a watershed read for me as they focus on the all-important physical element of alcoholism, an element often overlook and ignored in the field of alcoholism. My body reacts differently to alcohol by a mixture of my genes, hormones, enzymes, brain and body chemistries. It is this abnormal reaction to alcohol felt as a physical compulsion that sets me apart as an alcoholic. Additionally, these books provide excellent advice on ways to take care of our bodies, living healthily to prevent relapse back into active alcoholism. Many of you readers may well disagree with this description, but it is simply my understanding or lack of understanding of alcoholism. The important point is that it works for me and as Campsie Mick used to say, “You and I can disagree”.

Service work

In my experience, the importance of service work in getting and staying sober cannot be overstated. In early sobriety, I was taken on a twelfth step call by an old timer to take a newcomer to a meeting. At the time I was living on my own and assumed everyone else in AA did the same, no family at home. We knocked on the front door of the prospect’s house and his wife opened the door holding a baby. I nearly fell down in shock as it dawned on me that he had a family. He was a very big broad-shouldered bloke who filled the doorway while he stood and spoke to us. His son who was about six years old, stood beside his dad with his arms wrapped around his dad’s left leg, like a tree trunk.

As we headed towards the car to leave for the meeting the son ran towards his dad, leaping into his waiting arms saying, “Daddy I love you!”. I felt extremely privileged to witness this precious display of love and affection between a father and son. I was given a glimpse of the potential effect of an alcoholic’s sobriety on those close to us. This experience created a burning desire within me to put my best efforts into my sobriety.

Finally, I hope readers will benefit from reading this article even if it is a description of what not to do. I am eternally grateful to the online secular AA community for their freely given friendship and support. A support that enabled me to find my secular feet in the broader AA community. I consider myself one of the fortunate few who stuck around long enough, to get well enough, to realise what AA has to offer.


About the Author

PJ migrated to Sydney, Australia from Ireland in 1989 and got sober in 1993. Having come from an Irish tradition of oral storytelling he naturally gravitated towards the wonderful Sydney AA storytellers, who shared their experience, strength, and hope. This has proven to be a mainstay of his sobriety, with the tried and tested formula of sharing in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. He is a member of the Brookvale Secular and Ryde/Eastwood Secular AA ID meetings, two friendly spaces for those not sure about the god bit.

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Jax
Jax

What to do about quite religious people who are on the look-out for newcomers and present their beliefs as indisputable requirements to gain recovery from addiction.

PJ
PJ

Hi Jax, my own experience as a newcomer and being on the receiving end of a theistic sales pitch is outlined in the related ‘Jimmy from Ramsgate…’ story I wrote. It is a big question and I only have a limited remote Sydney experience. But I did visit many secular groups in North America last year that are thriving, particularly Kansas. Also many secular groups like in New York and Seattle are ancient, 30+ years. Have you considered posting on AABB facebook to get a dicscussion going? I imagine this problem must be widespread, I would love to hear from… Read more »

life-j
life-j

PJ, thanks, it’s good with articles such as yours to be reminded that our program can be quite simple, and that we should always work toward unity as much as we are able.

PJ
PJ

Thanks Life, glad you liked the emphasis on simplicity.

Ken
Ken

Great essay PJ, I really related to much of your thinking and enjoyed the humor!
I liked your condensed version of the Steps: don’t pick up a drink, go to meetings and lend a hand. Pretty much says it all for me.
Thanks

PJ
PJ

I had to keep it simple Ken, particularly in the beginning. Those three simple actions still keep me in the race and then I can sort out the rest of it over time.

PJ
PJ

Thanks Ken, those three simple actions kept me coming back to AA and staying in the race. Then I could sort out the rest of it over time.

jan
jan

I really appreciated the way you divided up your thinking under headings. In fact, I’ll use your simple method if/when I share again.
People say ,”Just let god speak through you”, which is fine for them but leaves me winging it and often feeling unfocused & rambling.
Thank you for this ..including the smiles !

PJ
PJ

Thanks Jan, I use headings for writing to provide a framework and when I read it back it helps me gain perspective on my thinking. Those sort of god statements were fine in the beginning when I thought I believed in god but once I realised I didn’t believe in any deity then they stopped working. But many AA members have a strong belief and faith in god which works just fine for them. I’m delighted to hear you smiled, I still laugh when I recall those characters telling those funny stories. Smiles and laughter are the best medicine for… Read more »

martynieski
martynieski

I was taught that steps were the “program” within the Fellowship. The “suggested steps. I’ve been saying it ever since.

PJ
PJ

Me too, the steps are the ‘program’ was what I was told. My current broad and expanded view evolved over time, particularly over the last three years when I began to publicly identify as an atheist in AA.