I started drinking again in 2016 and by March of 2019 I could no longer pretend that I had the slightest bit of control over it. The situation had to be addressed.
Having had some experience of residential treatment, I started to look around for somewhere to go. Scotland is a small country and there are very few options. I finally found somewhere but its treatment programme was based on A.A.’s 12 steps. This was a serious concern. I have always instinctively recoiled from A.A. It’s the God business. It’s the veneration of the ‘Big Book’ as holy writ. It’s Dr. Silkworth. It’s the pamphlets. It’s the church halls. It’s the readiness to see meaning in every coincidence. It’s the language. It’s a problem.
I was in serious trouble. The treatment centre I found looked like the best of a bad bunch but how on earth was I going to endure the ‘higher power’ stuff? It bothered me. I didn’t want to be sniping from the sidelines and dragging everybody down. I have never got on with A.A. but I have always loved being with other addicts. I don’t care if my peers are believers or not, I still feel a solidarity with them. How was I to participate in good faith? I had to find some way of thinking about the programme that would allow me to engage with it wholeheartedly.
I used to practice yoga regularly. Anyone who has attended a yoga class will know that practicing in a group is very different from trying to practice on your own. Something happens in the group. I suspect it has something to do with focus and concentration. “A-hah!”, I said to myself. If it works in yoga it can work in group therapy and who knows, as long as the Bible thumpers are reasonable, it might also work in A.A. meetings. I still had reservations but I was desperate, so I decided to give residential treatment another go.
On the centre’s timetable the day began with ‘Morning Meditation’. Excellent, I thought, expecting a guided meditation. Wrong. Very wrong. ‘Morning Meditation’ consisted of the assembled group of alkies intoning the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Not quite the Spanish Inquisition but I really was not expecting it. I had been duped. Their sales and promotional materials had somehow, mysteriously, failed to mention this type of activity. I had the distinct impression that the management of the place counted on the patient turning up as a basket case and ready to go along with anything. After a few days I talked myself round to joining in as a courtesy to the other patients.
In spite of the religious element I really enjoyed being with the other alcoholics and by the end of the first week, I had started to become attached to them. As my recent episode of drinking progressed, I had grown increasingly isolated. It was great to be with other people for a change. I got on well with my peers. The nurses, lowest paid, least appreciated and leaned on the heaviest, were excellent but the therapists, …. Oh dear.
“Someone is looking after you!”
This line was trotted out by various therapists, usually with a slow and knowing nod. Oh yes. He’s up there. He’s pulling the strings. He’s looking after you. After all, how else can you possibly explain your survival? The partially educated tend to confuse this sort of rhetoric with argument. Anyone with the intellectual means to bring some rationality to the proposition would be asked to, “Try and keep an open mind.” The open-mindedness, it was very clear, was something incumbent on me, not on them.
I tried to get across to my god-fearing therapist the notion that the atheist is not compelled to divorce himself from the poetry of life. I gave as an example a delightful, uplifting, memorable and entirely chance meeting I had with an older woman while travelling to the treatment centre. “That was your mother!” he declared, certainty personified, mind entirely closed to my point of view. He was not inviting me to consider the possibility that there might be some basis to his bald assertion. No. Not at all. He was telling me that it was the case: “That was your mother!”. He seemed to believe that my long-dead mother had somehow manifested in the form of this unknown woman in order to act, as some sort of guide. “You didn’t come here by accident!”. Total certainty. Absolute belief. No room for the slightest doubt. No readiness to consider that, for the atheist, it is something of a giant leap from the world of reason, from the laws of physics and the periodic table to the world of spirit guides.
Thanks to the nurses and my addict colleagues I managed to last two weeks. One of the other patients struggled even more than I did with the relentless religiosity. I think she might have put up with it for about a week. She made no secret of her own sincerely held and entirely rational and materialist point of view but the treatment centre was unable to accommodate her, unable to meet her halfway. They would not relent. She had to fall in line. She did not look at all well the last time I saw her. One morning she wasn’t there. They failed that woman.
Spending two weeks with other alcoholics was very useful. In spite of the religion, I most certainly benefited from my stay. On leaving the treatment centre, I resolved to implement two simple changes in my life. In the interests of clarity please be advised that no mysterious being, no higher power or unseen celestial force was involved in this. I had stepped back from my day to day life, I had looked at it and I had decided to make these changes: the first change was to maintain a strict, seven day a week routine that began with an early rise: I now get up around 05:00. Secondly, I would force myself to go to A.A. meetings. Like it or not, I resolved to go. There are hundreds of meetings every week in Glasgow and I started with the closest one. It was only an hour and it didn’t seem too bad. After a few weeks I started to look forward to seeing the other alkies there. I’ve attended regularly for the past four months. There are any number of references to god (may you find Him now) but, on the whole, I have been able to put the god business to the side as I really like the people. I genuinely don’t care what they believe. At times, when I find myself deep in higher power infested waters, I resort to the old tactic of counting down slowly from one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine, nine hundred and ninety-eight… Eventually it comes to an end.
After a few weeks of attending my local meeting the daily reflection drew attention to the third tradition of A.A.:
“The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
That’s me! I have a desire to stop drinking! In spite of my resolute atheism I am really entitled to be a member. I, too, belong! I had never really noticed the third tradition before and thoroughly enthused and full of trust for the meeting, I decided to announce my atheism. I tried to do so in a humorous, light-hearted manner. Some of them might have got the joke. I think most got the message.
Being an honest, thoughtful and sincere atheist in mainstream A.A. is a bit like being a vegan in an Argentinian steakhouse:
Waiter: Your salad, sir…
Atheist: (looking at the plate) With boiled egg?
Waiter: (impatiently) Boiled egg is not meat, sir…
Atheist: What about the bits of bacon…?
Waiter: (with increasing impatience) That’s just for flavour, sir. Try and be open-minded. That’s all we ask.
Just try a little bit… Come on… It’s not religious bacon it’s just a little bit of… spiritual ham. It’s spiritual, not religious. It’ll do you good. Yeah, right. Thanks. Here endeth the first lesson.
Discovering the third tradition reassured me that I was entitled to be present. Attending the meetings provided me with much-needed social interaction. I don’t need much contact with society but some is definitely a good idea. Crucially, the meetings also provide a very healthy reminder of the reality and continued presence of my addiction. For me, that’s how it works.
I listen to podcasts regularly. About two months into sobriety I hit a real milestone. I discovered A.A. Beyond Belief. I listened with rapt attention to Episode 108: Angela B. Sharing Her Recovery as an Atheist. I was truly astonished:
“I went to my first meeting and they were god-ing all over the place…it was everywhere, I swear…”.
A kindred spirit! Such a being exists! After my recent experience in rehab and my limited experience of mainstream A.A. meetings this really was a revelation. I listened to that episode several times. Angela B., on the other side of the Atlantic, in describing her struggle with mainstream A.A. was using phraseology that I would have used,
“She was able to help me translate some of the language… so that I understood better… so that it could work for me… because language really was getting in the way for me…”.
‘Language’, the need for ‘translation’, now you’re talking, now there really is a sustainable way forward, a possible future of sobriety and sanity. Counting down from a thousand is kind of ok as a short-term tactic but does not look like a long-term solution. Listening to Angela B’s excellent presentation really got me thinking. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, there are no secular A.A. meetings in Scotland. Not at the moment. Not yet. But discovering that there are others out there who speak the same language as me, amongst whom I can express myself freely really was hugely encouraging.
I have to travel from Glasgow to London on a regular basis. A few weeks back I was in London and listening to another episode of A.A. Beyond Belief. I think Secular AA.org might have been mentioned. Out of curiosity and with no expectation I tried searching on Secular AA for a secular meeting in Europe. Wow! There was one nearby, in Bethnal Green. I resolved to go there at the first opportunity.
That opportunity came a couple of weeks later. I was so excited about going to the meeting on the Saturday that I walked up there on the Friday to make sure I knew exactly how long it would take. It was another milestone. What a pragmatic, sane and genuinely inclusive approach to a mutual support programme. After the meeting the guy sitting next to me told me there were other secular meetings in London and he said something about searching for ‘atheist’ on alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk. When I got home and looked at the page, I couldn’t recall exactly what he said so I wrote to A.A. and asked about atheist meetings. If you go on to the UK site, under ‘Find a meeting’ where it says, ‘enter town or postcode’, if you type in ‘atheist’ you will discover that five meetings are listed; four in London and one in Colchester. Five meetings for the entire United Kingdom with a population of sixty-six million. I think there’s room for one more. My long-term recovery may well depend on it.