The Wording was, of course, Quite Optional

When I first started drinking, the party was on. I had found the magic elixir, the one thing that made everyone, including me, more interesting and more attractive. It was my first and longest love affair and well, we all know how the story ends. The proverbial doors were closing in on me and I was hiding from the outside world both figuratively and literally. I didn’t want to live anymore but I also wasn’t quite ready to die. The alcohol still offered an escape into oblivion but only while I was drinking it. The mornings after a drunken episode were unbearable, filled with shame, disgust and horror. I didn’t necessarily want to stop drinking forever but I did want the consequences to stop. I knew I was an alcoholic and had known it for many years but couldn’t shake the “fuck it, who cares” attitude.  Eventually, out of desperation, I made my way to AA.    

In the early years, it was clear to me that I had better “step in line” or else I was doomed. I was told that the steps were suggestions the way that opening a parachute is suggested when you skydive. It was strongly advised that I open my parachute (work the steps) if I didn’t want to plummet to my certain death. 

I sincerely tried to listen to all of the messages because I wanted my life to change but the contradictory messages were confusing. This was in 1999 when the internet was in its infancy and online secular websites and meetings did not yet exist. I knew no agnostics or atheists in recovery, so I suppressed all reason and logic and tried this whole prayer/God thing. AA was the only house on the block and their message was loud, clear and displayed on the walls. God this and God that… God God God God!  It echoed in the rooms like a broken record. 

A few members expressed the idea that AA was not a religion and that members could use their own conceptions of a higher power (the group, a tree or even a bus). However, immediately following this message, others would say (sometimes in a rather snarky tone) that they had better get on their knees and pray to God or else! I felt great pressure to conform given that everyone else in the rooms seemed to be following the direction so I began “working the program as outlined in the Big Book”. For anyone who expressed doubt or disbelief, the judgement from the believers was palpable. Not having any other option (or so I thought), I knelt with my sponsor and recited the third step prayer as written in the Big Book and continued with the steps. I prayed to a God that I suspected did not exist but buried my doubts and went on with my life. Over time, I learned how to tune out the Big Book thumpers and God warriors and gravitated toward the more open-minded members. I changed sponsors several times and found the one that would work with me and not preach at me. 

I didn’t stay sober on that first attempt at sobriety and I don’t blame AA. I simply wasn’t ready to give up the alcohol. Eventually, I did stick around and after a few consecutive sober years, I reached a point where I felt comfortable acknowledging that I did not believe in a supernatural being and I could still stay sober and find my own path. What a revelation!

Even before the proliferation of online resources for agnostic and atheist sober alcoholics, I tried to tailor the ideas presented in AA to fit what made sense to me. I did my best to adapt the words from the Big Book to be in alignment with my beliefs. I tried looking at the suggested steps from another vantage point and changed my approach.

I came to believe that AA is not a “God program” as many proclaim. AA is a fellowship. The steps … “are suggested as a program of recovery.” I wasn’t opposed to the steps in every way, but I was opposed to the religious language that was used.  

This new approach and the practical actions I took slowly started to quiet my overactive brain and began to free me from the obsession to drink. I learned to differentiate between unproductive criticism and healthy critical thinking. I’m still critical today but consider this a positive trait and not a quality to be suppressed or labeled a “character defect” that needs to be removed. It’s only when I become overly critical and let my emotions drive my decisions that I lose all perspective. 

Today, my recovery is grounded in the commitment I made to myself to live life without alcohol. I found some value in trying to implement the principles of the 12 steps into my life in a way that makes sense to me. I no longer use the steps in the literal way that traditional AA presents them. 

Steps 2 and 3 were the most challenging for me to interpret without the belief in something or someone who could restore me to sanity. Step 2 for me is simply an inner source of strength I can tap into at any time. Step 3, turning my will and life over the care of a higher power, was more difficult. Whose will am I turning my liver over to? I did not know; I still do not know and I really don’t care. It’s not relevant. 

I now view the Big Book for what it is, a historical text written by the co-founders, strongly influenced by The Oxford group and tailored for men. After countless Big Book study meetings and metaphorically being beaten over the head with the book, l know its content inside and out. I reject much of the content today but early on in my recovery, I did notice a few phrases that I could work with. These phrases opened the door for me to have my own experience. 

One of those phrases is on Page 63, written directly beneath the infamous and often quoted third step prayer, a prayer recited by many without question.

“The wording was, of course, quite optional”. At the time, this was my gateway to Step 3. 

I decided to write my own version of the third step prayer because it was a tangible way for me to take action and do something. This gave me a framework for this abstract step. 

Below is an example of a revised third step prayer. I do not say these words on my knees. I read them quietly to myself, to my own subconscious, to my own “higher self”. 

Grant me strength and courage to walk through one more day on this earth. Relieve me of the bondage of self so that I can be more useful to others. Take away my difficulties so that victory over them can show others that they, too, can overcome theirs. Help me to be open to the power, love and life that flows through all living beings. May I be willing to live with kindness, compassion, gratitude and mindfulness. May I be open to the collective wisdom that comes through others and to the inner resource that resides in me.

Some days I find this easy to do. Other days, my patience is running low and that’s when I need to take a step back, reach out to someone or focus my attention on something else. “Take what you need and leave the rest”are words that literally saved my life. 

I’m sure over time my understanding of the steps will evolve and I’m hopeful that it will. Perhaps one day, I will reject this step altogether or maybe I’ll reject all of them. That is certainly my right and regardless of the dire warnings, I know I won’t be doomed to die an alcoholic death if I do. 

May we all forge our own path, be united by our common suffering and be unified by our desire to be free.  

Thanks for letting me share. 


About the Author

Megan began her journey in recovery over 20 years ago in her hometown in Ohio. In 2012, she moved to Southern Alabama where she attends traditional meetings as well as one secular meeting. The handful of open-minded, tolerant AA members she encountered in her early years allowed her to shape her own experience and she tries to bring this message of inclusion to the meetings in Alabama, which can certainly be a challenging endeavour in the Bible Belt. She lives by the advice she heard early on to “take what you need and leave the rest”. 

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1 year ago

I have a problem with the whole idea of powerless over alcohol. Alcohol is not going to jump down my throat. I decided to drink it. Yes it may have seemed like I was powerless at the depth of my drinking but I did eventually stop. I am not interested in giving up my will. I want to take it back. I manage my life just fine thank you. I do like the fellowship but that is all. I am a no stepper. I don’t go to many meeting, I don’t like to listen to others demean themselves.

2 years ago

Thank you Megan for a heartfelt story. The opening your parachute to “… not plummet to my certain death.”, line brought back a memory from my early days as a put down line of anyone who dared to say the steps are only suggested. They would be told that the ‘Pull’ cord was only a suggestion to open your parachute but to remember the alternative if you didn’t pull it. This would usually illicit laughter from everyone else at the person’s expense. Then I heard someone else describe the activity in a much more sensible way by adding context as… Read more »

2 years ago

Megan, my experience is much similar to yours. I like your 3rd step prayer, though it is funny how the first half is indeed a prayer of sorts, ‘grant’, ‘help’, petitioning something, while the latter half is more expressing a desire or wish, ‘may I’. I am glad we now have secular AA. I just got to reflect on how odd it is that it has grown so much more in the Toronto area than elsewhere, they now have 30 meetings while a liberal place like the SF Bay Area and quite a bit larger can only boast of half… Read more »

Megan F.
Megan F.
2 years ago
Reply to  life-j

Thanks for the comment and the observation of my use of the petitioning language. I think I was trying to keep some of the original language in order to create some kind of bridge or tie to the traditional meetings. After submitting this, I’ve given this more thought and will probably rewrite this as more of an intention or contemplation. I’m slowly breaking away from the indoctrination I received early on. It’s a process but I’m so happy to be part of this community now. It’s a relief to know I’m not alone!

steve b
steve b
2 years ago

Good essay, Megan. I too went through what you did: Even though I’ve always been an atheist, I began praying because I was told that I if didn’t, I was doomed to return to drinking. After a long while, I discovered that I didn’t need to pray after all. With that revelation, I wondered how important to me the other steps were (after all, people in Secular Organization for Sobriety stay sober without messing around with any steps). So now I don’t work the steps, and I feel liberated. I’ve been sober for 39 years now, and I attend AA… Read more »

denise Stow-W
denise Stow-W
2 years ago

Thsnk you for your share Megan.I could identify a lot. and thanks for your personal version of the third step prayer. I’m always interested in how.the ” steps” happened to others, as for me they were experiential. As you say we all have our own path to the same destination. I love that last paragraph.

“May we all forge our own path, be united by our common suffering and be unified by our desire to be free.  ”

For me step 3 was simply accepting ” life on lifes terms.”