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”.