In this episode, John H. from the DC We Agnostics Group talks about his secular recovery as described in a series of articles he authored and posted at atheisticaa.com. The series entitled Toward a Secular Recovery features five articles: Making a Decision, Meetings, Sharing, Abstinence, and Helping Others.
John is a talented writer whose work can be found at his personal website john-huey.com, and Atheistic AA. There are also numerous audio recordings of his talks, presentations, and podcasts. What follows are links to some of these:
0:00:00 John S: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by, for, and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.
0:00:26 John S: John H. has been sober since January of 1987, and he’s a founding member of the We Agnostics Group in Washington, DC, a group that has been meeting since 1988. The entirety of John’s experience in Alcoholics Anonymous has been primarily with his secular AA group. Though in his early days he did attend meetings at a so-called traditional group, it was much more liberal and tolerant than many of the AA meetings one might encounter today. Reflecting back on his recovery, John has concluded that there were five key elements to his sobriety: Making a decision, attending meetings, sharing, abstinence, and helping others. In this episode, I’ll have a discussion with John about these thoughts, and hopefully, come out of the experience a little wiser, or at least no worse for wear. Well, John, how are you?
0:01:24 John H: I’m doing fine today. How are you, my friend?
0:01:26 John S: I’m doing fantastic, and I’ve been looking forward to talking with you. I’ve read your articles a number of times, and I’ve been giving this some thought lately. Also, the talk that we posted on Wednesday gave me a lot to think about, so it all works out well. I hope I framed that right in the introduction, that you…
0:01:48 John H: Yeah. Well, I went to conventional meetings longer than anticipated. It was a noon meeting, I think I was discussing it with you earlier, at a very liberal African-American church in DC, very famous place, AME Church in Northwest Washington. Actually, it was Frederick Douglass’s church, a very historic place. And that meeting was extremely liberal, and I think some people from some other parts of the country might have even thought they were at a secular meeting if they’d went there, but the meeting itself was framed by the 12 steps. And it was… They did have a Big Book meeting once a week, which I didn’t attend. They had a Steps meeting once a week, which I didn’t attend. And I had a lot of old friends there that I had met very early on in my sobriety. And I mainly viewed it as a good noon break from my labors here, these days in my home office, in the old days from my office downtown. And it was… To me, it was more of a social hour.
0:03:00 John H: And in the end, I had to totally break from Alcoholics Anonymous, the conventional part of Alcoholics Anonymous, because I felt I was being a hypocrite. And I mentioned that before, and then in other places, I won’t go into it in detail, but just going to a social hour wasn’t enough for me. And, of course, all this time, I have had my secular meeting on Sundays, which I was just at today, and I came to the conclusion that AA in any form, even its most liberal form, no longer fit. And when I started getting involved in what we now call secular AA at our first convention in 2014, which you, of course, attended in Santa Monica, my determinations about conventional AA got stronger and stronger and stronger, until I finally had to admit that I was inconsistent and hypocritical by having anything to do with them whatsoever, and I no longer do. So, all I have to do with is secular AA and its offshoots, and what I would hope would evolve to what we might call secular recovery, which, of course, we talked about last time we chatted on a podcast. That’s a little long, but maybe it is a better way of framing where I’m at right now.
0:04:36 John S: Yeah. And I found it interesting that you felt alienated from a traditional AA fairly early on. You wrote that you were attending meetings initially on weekdays at a group that wasn’t reading how it works, that wasn’t particularly dogmatic, but then you started going to meetings on weekends, and you were attending meetings at this group that read how it works, and then… And I think you wrote that you just felt alienated. And that is about the time that you started attending the We Agnostics Group in DC, is that right?
0:05:09 John H: Well, that’s about when it was formed. That summer before… And again I’m being redundant, because I’ve said this elsewhere, that summer before I came very close… It was the last time I came really close to taking a drink, which was the summer before the formation of the meeting in September of ’88. Some time that summer, I got really close to drinking because I was in such despair over what I had finally realized was the point of AA as I saw it, which was developing some sort of God-consciousness. And as I mentioned to you offline, I basically would rather be dead than be forced to be part of something that required or even implied that I had to develop such a consciousness, because I’ve never had that consciousness, and I’m not going to go and be that much of a hypocrite and untrue to myself in terms of even my own survival. I value my own integrity, personal integrity, more than that.
0:06:00 John S: There are not many places in the United States or Canada, or really in the world, where there has been a secular meeting going on since 1988. You’re talking DC, New York, I think maybe some places in Florida.
0:06:00 John H: Yeah. No, Chicago was the… Back in the mid-70s, the founder of our DC meeting was first exposed to Quad-A. I think there’s a meeting that still might be around the University of Chicago somewhere. I believe that’s the one Tom went to, and that was the mid to late 1970s. And then, of course, Charlie Polacheck, the late Charlie, he started the meeting in West Hollywood, I think, ’81, ’82, and in unison or in parallel with that, some of the older meetings that our dear friend Vic was going to back in those days, but still, there was only, in those early days, it was only a handful. Actually, I found one in New Orleans back in 1989, 1990, strangely enough. And I’d really like to find out if the people going to… There are many of the people that are going to secular AA now down there were interested or were involved in that meeting in the late ’80s that I recall going to in the Garden District in the basement of a church. It was kind of a wild meeting, I remember that night. So, there were little bits in pockets here and there, but nothing like what we have today. And, of course, no way of communicating with each other. You only knew the other guy unless you showed up there.
0:07:55 John S: Right. It’s understandable to me that… Because I’ve had the experience of going to AA, but to a traditional meeting, for 25 years before I helped start the We Agnostics Group in Kansas City. And I had that experience of alienation. And then I’ve gone through, oh, a period of change in my thinking that is still ongoing. But you had already really fully evolved over a period of decades at the We Agnostics Group in DC, so now you’re meeting all these people from all over who are just now walking out of their traditional AA group into a secular meeting, but they’re bringing with them how they’re deciding to interpret what they learned in AA.
0:08:51 John H: Yeah. And a lot of that I find very sad.
0:08:52 John S: Yeah. You just kind of discarded that language. You looked at the history of what was really going on, and these are the steps that were adapted from the Oxford Group, which was a Christian fundamentalist movement in the 1930s, and the entire purpose of that group was to bring people to God. And even when you read the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Big Book, it says that that’s the purpose basically.
0:09:26 John H: Well, it started with Christian witness, and that’s in the most extreme form. In Akron, even when AA started, you had to do a Christian witness on your knees in Dr. Bob’s kitchen before he let you go to the meeting.
0:09:42 John S: Yeah. So, you kind of took a look back, I guess, at your experience, and you described it as one would, in your own words, of what actually was taking place, and that’s how you came up with these five key elements, making a decision, attending meetings, sharing, abstinence and helping others.
0:10:05 John H: Right. And I didn’t… Excuse me for interrupting, but I didn’t come up with it. I was doing these elements, but I didn’t really come up with them and sit down, and not codify but describe in the way that I do in the articles. I didn’t sit down and actually describe those until very recently. And what got me to do that was all of this stuff I see about re-interpreting Wilson and Smith’s Holy of Holies 12 steps, which, of course, is what that talk was about in Toronto. And I don’t need to go into that, anybody can scroll over there and listen to that stuff if they want to. But when I saw all of this codification going on, I said, “What is this?” Why do we need to adapt something that’s, to me, just an adaptation of a Christian Holy Writ into so-called secular language? Then, what I saw going on was really sort of… It might have had some of the elements of that, but was really something else, which is where these five elements come from.
0:11:21 John S: Right. And you begin with making a decision.
0:11:25 John H: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the most interesting part of the whole thing, because I spent years knowing that I was an alcoholic, at least 12 or 13 years in my young days, knowing that I was an alcoholic. But it wasn’t until I was 38 years old, I’m 71 now… It wasn’t until I was 38 years old that I actually made what I now know to be of a real decision about what was occurring in my own life. And that really astonishes me because I had a lot of knowledge about what was occurring in my own life. And I openly acknowledged to myself, and even some others. Of course, not professionally or anything like that, but I did openly acknowledge to family members and friends that, yeah, I’m an alcoholic. I knew that I acknowledged that. I didn’t try to hide that in particular, except, of course, in that professional context that we know we have to be careful in.
0:12:33 John H: So, it wasn’t knowing or even saying, it was really understanding at depth and making a decision about my drinking. And once I had made that final decision, which for me had to be a life and death decision… I was such a hard head, and I had a lot of fun drinking until my last 12 or 18 months when the level of misery got to the point where it damn near killed me. But I’m not one of these people that was miserable from the first drink and sitting in a corner somewhere, unhappy all the time. I thought… At least, I thought I was having a hell of a good time in my own Bohemian universe downtown in Northwest Washington before the place got hideously expensive, you could actually live sort of a Bohemian low-cost life down there. That life is no longer possible, of course. But in those days, in the ’70s and ’80s, early ’80s, it was. And it really had to be the last gasp for me. But once I made that decision, it was such a relief to find a like-minded group of people who told me the same thing, “You make this decision, and then here’s what happens.”
0:14:04 John H: And being in this liberal… If this is 1987 when I walked in the door, there was no secular meeting here. That wasn’t until 18 months later. I was just presented with what was there, but I was fortunate that there were people that knew me. I knew a lot of people in DC, there were people that knew me. I had some people around me that told me, “Well, it’s great. We’re glad to see you here. All you have to do is not drink, and go to these meetings.” And they didn’t have much else to say to me at that point, direct. I had to find out all this other stuff about what AA was really about on my own. Because the nice people that were dealing with me knew that if they tried to sell me that stuff face-to-face, that I was just going to walk away. And this is a challenge for us because we don’t have any God to hang any of this decision on, do we, Chuck?
0:15:04 John S: No. And you talked… You wrote that Bill Wilson, I guess, thought that his decision that he made came from a white bush, white light experience, God experience, whatever.
0:15:19 John H: That was the belladonna… It’s known as belladonna intoxication. Yes, white light.
0:15:24 John S: But, in fact, what was really going on is, as you put it… And I think this is true for anyone coming to grips with addiction, is just recognizing a need for self-preservation, that these patterns that we’ve been engaged in were destructive, were killing us. But there is a mystery as to why some people will get there and some people won’t, isn’t it?
0:15:56 John H: Oh, it’s that… I don’t believe in any form of hocus-pocus in this world. I believe in the observable universe, the scientific method. My favorite Englishman of all time, even greater than Shakespeare, is Charles Darwin. I really, at depth, believe in that view of the world. And we’re not going to talk about dialectical materialism, but there are philosophical systems that go directly to that. But this one, I’ve sat in meetings all these years, and absolutely, the people who make it long-term are people who have made a decision about their drinking, and they know that they have to reinforce that decision over and over and over. I was sitting next to a young man in the meeting today, he’s got about six, eight months. And he mentioned this thing about having finally made a decision about his drinking. He’s a young man in his early 30s, I guess. And I said, “Well, it’s great that you made a decision. The only secret that I have about this is that you’ve gotta make the decision over and over and over again.” Making a decision is great today, but if you don’t reiterate or somehow reinforce that decision tomorrow, that’s very problematic.
0:17:28 John H: So, that’s where the only part of this thing… I’m not saying that I’ve figured everything out because, of course, I haven’t figured it all out. We’ve got scientists and others coming to address this here, and next year at our convention, talking about the science of all of this. But as far as my own practical, non-professional experience, this is the only part that I really don’t have a handle on in terms of imparting that knowledge. If somehow we could impart a knowledge to the secular person that the starting point for us is a decision point, not a God point, not a revelation point, not a conversion, not this bullshit about personality change, or any of that other absurd crap, because all we’re about is behavior modification actually, at least in my opinion. But how can we do that? That’s our real challenge, to transmit the essence of our recovery without the formulations involved in the Oxford Group 12 Steps. Because you ask one of these people from a conventional meeting to explain their recovery, they’ll just pull out that list and start going through it, won’t they?
0:18:49 John S: And you think that’s pretty important, don’t you, to be able to transmit our message in our own way without the baggage of the 1930s?
0:19:00 John H: Right. Right. If you can convince someone that you need to make a decision about your drinking was of paramount importance to your survival, without making any judgments about their survival, we explicitly imply to secular people that their survival is something that’s up to them. Right? But if we could maybe suggest a tool that we used, which is, possibly, this making a decision business, then you can give up despair. If you can give up despair, despair about your condition, and know that I made a decision today and I can make a decision tomorrow, this self-reinforcing death cycle of continual slipping in and out of any program you might be associated with can be arrested. And there are people in the room that can tell you that, in fact, and in truth, it was arrested. Now, this is exactly… In some ways, it’s kind of ironic, because it’s like what the religious ones do, by saying, “Well, I did this and I got back.” You see? Quid pro quo, is that a phrase that we know?
0:19:49 John S: I’ve heard it before.
0:19:49 John H: And is that in the air? Something for something, make a decision and get something, I think that’s sort of in the air these days. I think most people actually know what that phrase means now. It’s like that, I did something and I got something.
0:20:52 John S: Once you’ve made that decision, that leads you to your next part of this, which is reinforcing it through the attendance at meetings, and that might actually be the answer for some of those people who might still be on the fence, they go to meetings.
0:21:06 John H: Well, if I’m just sitting in… When I was… The hallmark of the last months of my drinking, I was always a social kind of bar drinker type, loud. You can imagine me being loud and somewhat aggressive and obnoxious, and stuff like that, you might see that somewhere in me. But, yeah, I went from that, sitting and having my fun and my endless debates, sitting on my barstool, to sitting in my pretty nice place I was living in, staring down at a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka, which is… I hated vodka. And when I was coming out of Black House, looking at my feet and seeing an almost drained bottle of that swill at my feet, I knew I was in some deep, deep trouble. And that’s what came from just sitting alone and not doing anything about the problem. I found, when I started going to meetings and I met like-minded people, and I saw positive life stories evolving from those individuals, having made their decision, and listening to the stories of how their decision led to this, that, and the other thing down the road that they didn’t have before, that was just extremely important.
0:22:37 John H: And that, of course, is very similar to what every alcoholic does everywhere, that goes to any meeting, no matter what you call it. But unlike the conventional meetings, and certainly when our secular meeting started up here in ’88, what we get, at least what I get, from a secular meeting is the efficacy of those stories without any of the veneer, any of the hocus-pocus, any of the pablum and bullshit involved in ascribing your state in life, to something that I know does not exist. We get our reinforcement from the actual narrative, and the actual stories, and the actual experience without some sort of fantasy overlay. And to me, reality is always more effective than fantasy.
0:23:41 John S: Absolutely, me too.
0:23:42 John H: And I’d like to… Yeah. I’d like to think in my wild imaginings that maybe when we finally figure out what our… Since we’re getting to be over 500 meetings now, a lot more people were involved, that was ever involved in the past, I wish that some smart person that knows about statistics could somehow figure out one day what our success rate in the meetings that we have attended and promote, are compared to other methods and modalities of getting sober. I like to think that maybe reality is better than fantasy, and for our core population, focusing on that reality and the meetings, and the development of people’s lives that way would be more efficacious overall than the fear, and the pain, and the guilt, and the other stuff I see creeping through all this conventional verbiage that I even see being transmitted sometimes on our closed Facebook pages and elsewhere, and secular recovery. Yeah, I see that pain and it just… Whenever I see that pain, it just… Actually my next… If I can get around to it, I’ve gotta go overseas next month and do some work, but once I get back when I get… Hopefully, when I get around to it, I want to write something about the unnecessary nature of all this pain I’m seeing out there still that really upsets me when I see people going through that.
0:25:19 John S: It’s very real, because I went through that, as you know, 25 years at a group, and then coming out as an atheist and not being welcomed anymore at that group, having people correct me constantly and feeling that I’m going to have to leave AA. And then for me what happened, it was just a very gradual letting go of the old language, but it was a very gradual thing at first, and now it’s kind of snowballing. But that’s what people, I think, are going through. They leave, they find out about the secular movement within Alcoholics Anonymous, and it takes them time, I think, to let go of the old language. I’m still… I’ve pretty much-rejected terms like higher power, character defects, that sort of thing.
0:26:13 John H: Why can’t we reject… Excuse me for that, why can’t we just get over these initials “AA?” I think a lot of good could come… If we just got over the initials “AA” In any mention of the Big Book or the 12 steps at all, I think we’d all be a lot better off. I’m trying not to mention those initials whenever I possibly can.
0:26:34 John S: Well, it might happen simply because…
0:26:34 John H: I know that’s a little off-topic, but there we go.
0:26:34 John S: That’s all right. But it might happen simply because AA just might not last if they don’t change… If it doesn’t change, I just don’t see it working. I told you about the meeting I was at last night, and I just made some very general criticisms of the Big Book, just suggesting that it’s kind of dated, and those comments were not met well. People want to cling to that, and I don’t know how that’s ever going to change. I don’t know. If it doesn’t change, I don’t see much of a future. You can’t move into a new century with a book from the beginning of the last century, I don’t think.
0:27:23 John H: Well, I’m not going to be there… I don’t think I could stand that Detroit thing this year. I’ve been thinking about going just to see what our people get up to, and all that kind of stuff.
0:27:34 John S: Well, you should go if you can. I can’t go. It’s just too much to do two in one year, but you should go if you can swing it.
0:27:42 John H: Right, right. You want to see what it’s like, just go there and see what it’s… It’s a good experience to see what it’s like. I went to my first one there in 1990, and then another one, and a couple of others in the 90s, I think and was supposed to go to the last one in Atlanta, but I got ill, unfortunately, I couldn’t go. But there are tens of thousands of… Those people aren’t giving up. I can take you to a Back to Basics meeting, I wrote about a few years back in Augusta, I think it was. I wrote an article about back to basics.
0:28:18 John H: I went to the local Back to Basics meeting here in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the highest income areas and most educated areas of the United States. It was filled with people in their expensive shoes, looking at that fucking Back to Basics tome and reciting lolly piece crap word for word. And that was here. Those evangelical Christian movements are everywhere, and I don’t think that part of that, whatever they’re going to call it, I don’t think those people are going anywhere. They’re mutually reinforcing fundamentalist Christian loop, and they will be around for a long, long time. So, I’m not waiting for anything to change. I’m not waiting for them to change. I don’t care whether they change or not. I couldn’t care less about what they do. What I’m worried about is what we do as secular people in a secular way, where we’ve come up with some ideas that we believe will work. We wouldn’t be going to these secular recovery meetings unless we thought they worked better for us. We should focus more on why they work better for us, and what we could do to improve the process for others.
0:29:38 John S: And you kind of did that when you wrote about the meetings, the aspect of attending meetings of this, because you wrote what it did for you, and it was the same thing it did for me, and I think it’s pretty much everybody, you get this calming effect from the meeting.
0:29:53 John H: Yes. You’ve gone to a place where your condition is not only understood, but a solution for that condition, which we’ll talk about in a minute, which is abstinence is what is being propounded. So, if you know that you can abstain and your life is going to improve, and you’re not in the Valley of Doom 24/7, then you’re… I very seldom went to a meeting where I was angry or walking out than I was walking in. There have been a few times where that has happened, but certainly never in my secular meeting has that occurred.
0:30:43 John S: Yeah. Fortunately for me, it only has happened later in sobriety, during those initial… [chuckle] When I was late to the meetings, I guess it doesn’t bother me so much but…
0:30:53 John H: These days if I ever encounter that stuff, I just roll my eyes and I say, “What is this shit?” And just sort of slough it off. But, yeah, it is more serious for others, which is what I… Why I see all this suffering on the closed Facebook groups.
0:31:08 John S: But, yeah, it’s a calming effect. It’s really a replacement for drinking. It’s what I needed. I had no peace of mind at all. I was scared to death of what I was going to have to deal with as a result of my drinking. I was looking at some jail time. I was not a happy camper.
0:31:23 John H: Right, right. But let me take one second about this thing about meetings. And I don’t think I touched on it in the article, maybe I did sort of parenthetically touched on it somewhere in the article. But meetings are not another addiction. It’s not… I didn’t find meetings to be a substitute, one addiction for another. I get the impression… If you go to these AA clubs around the country, I used to travel around the United States all of the time constantly, on airplanes, everywhere, every nook and cranny in this country, and I would go to these conventional meetings, many years ago and years past, and I’d see people hanging around these AA clubs that looked like they lived there. It looked like that that was their entire existence, was somehow revolving around these fucking meetings. And I wouldn’t suggest that people do this, because I’d never suggest that people not go to meetings.
0:32:26 John H: But my own experience is when, for the better part of five years, I was living in Moscow, where my current wife and I met, and a lot of things happened there. And for a lot of reasons I won’t go into, I could not go to the one or two English speaking meetings that were there. It just wasn’t possible to do that. And I found that the things that I had learned and the people that I met were portable, and I carried them with me. And I’d been in all kinds of situations, in all kinds of countries all over the world, and never found an occasion where I had to drink. And a lot of that, I think, has to do with the knowledge and the understanding and the wisdom of the people that I was able to carry with me.
0:33:14 John S: Yeah, I could actually relate to that, when you wrote about that when you were in Russia, and you couldn’t attend meetings.
0:33:14 John H: No. I just… You wouldn’t believe that place. But the bottom line is that attending meetings is a great thing. And I do it whenever I can. I go to one brick-and-mortar meeting a week, and I go to one online meeting a week, and for me these days, that seems to be sufficient and very comfortable to do, and I like that. And I do that, and I do that whenever I’m possible, whenever it’s possible. I was even lying in the hospital a year or so ago and attended a Sunday online meeting, because I thought I needed one, my laptop sitting in a damn hospital room. It’s great. But people shouldn’t… Yeah, people shouldn’t be terrorized by meetings, “Oh, I missed a meeting and now I’m going to die.”
0:34:20 John S: Oh God, no. Oh no, absolutely not.
0:34:21 John H: Yes. You hear that bullshit. You actually hear that stuff.
0:34:22 John S: Yeah, I know. I’ve seen some… Back in the old days, I’ve seen some very subtle guilt-tripping of people, and sometimes not so subtle, if they hadn’t been seen at meetings and so forth. That doesn’t happen at our group.
0:34:36 John H: Yeah. It does come from some stuff that’s sort of true though. And that is… I’ve heard it many times, where somebody says, “And then I stopped, consciously stopped going to meetings.” And that, I’ve heard, lead to all kinds of very unfortunate outcomes. But that’s different than either… That’s different than being a slave to them.
0:35:05 John S: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And I think the whole purpose is to actually live your life in the world.
0:35:12 John H: Right, right. I didn’t give up the slavery of alcohol for another form of bondage. I just refuse to do it.
0:35:19 John S: Yeah. Well, that’s what I like to see in my homegroup. That’s actually what I’m watching happening. Our group here in KC is full of people who’ve never been to a traditional AA meeting, who’ve never cracked open the Big Book. They don’t know any other type of AA. And so I would watch these people come in, and I’m thinking, “They need… They should be doing… They aren’t doing this the way I know to do it.” But I would watch what was going on, John, and they were staying sober, they were making friends, they were getting their lives together, and they were happy. And I thought, “Well, hell, it’s working. They don’t need anything else.”
0:36:01 John H: Yeah. Well, in the fullness of time, we’re still just in the beginning stages of these secular meetings being a national or international phenomenon.
0:36:14 John S: It’ll be really interesting. I hope I live long enough to see that because there is a whole generation of people coming up in AA now at these secular meetings who have never had the experience of the Big Book and all that other crap. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to them when they’re like 20 or 30 years sober.
0:36:30 John H: Well, it will be. I don’t think I’m going to have that opportunity to live that long.
0:36:33 John S: No, I don’t think I will either, but anyway…
0:36:34 John H: Miracles do happen. [chuckle] So, where are we, my friend?
0:36:39 John S: Well, we were talking about… We talked about attending meetings and the benefit of that, and I guess that goes right along with the sharing aspect that takes place in the meetings.
0:36:49 John H: Well, yeah. If that critical communication, there’s a kind of communication that you get in a meeting that you don’t get elsewhere. There’s something there. I never meditated in my life, and I don’t think I ever will. I have friends where they tell me that some forms of secular meditation work for them, I’m not going to debate that at all, but I have sat there many times over the years, quietly, which is very unusual for me to be quiet, sitting there quietly listening to stuff that seems almost totally unrelated to my own experience, and own life, and own background, and coming away from that somehow not only calmed but educated in a way that I wouldn’t become… I wouldn’t be open enough to be educated on some of the stuff that I hear unless I was there. I know myself well enough to know that the noise of the world, and the noise in my own head, and the noise of what we have to go through everyday just to be alive is such that I wouldn’t be paying attention in that way unless I was there listening to the sharing of others, which draws me back, as important. As our own ego is and our own sharing is, the essence of it, what we really learn is from the sharing of others. And that’s a weird concept to me because I’m so ego-driven.
0:38:47 John S: Yeah. I experienced that at the very first meeting. It was two things, and you described it when you were talking… When you wrote about the woman who was very well put together, it looked like she was just… You couldn’t imagine…
0:39:01 John H: Yeah.
0:39:02 John S: And she shared the story of just these horrendous problems that she had.
0:39:07 John H: Yeah. Just like worse than any almost horror movie you could watch on Netflix, just awful stuff.
0:39:14 John S: And that’s the power of it. When I came to my first meeting, and these people would share their stories with me and I looked at them, and they looked like they were just normal everyday people who were doing much better than I ever could dream of doing, it was just amazing to imagine, “Wow, you know, you’ve been where I’ve been.” It’s just…
0:39:31 John H: Well, yeah, and there the delayed effects of it, too. I’ve been around a long time, and a lot of the people that I knew early on were people my age or even older when I was first coming in almost 33 years ago. Obviously, those people are gone. And now in my old age, where I’m looking forward… My older age. Of course, I’m not old, John, I’m just 71, shit. What I’m looking forward to the inevitabilities that we all have to face, what I somehow recall from the way some of these people were staying sober and pacing their way through the final stages of their life, man, I say, “Oh man, that was so incredible.” And even today I can recall some of that, and I don’t recall it with any euphoria, because these people were friends of mine and I wish they were still around. There’s certainly nothing euphoric about the recall, but the recall is very useful to me today. Like, when I started to have health problems and do things like… I hadn’t spent the night in the hospital until I was 66 years old, and unfortunately, I’ve spent not months but many nights in there since. And just having to go through these experiences, remembering what I saw friends of mine who aren’t here anymore go through is just of great value.
0:41:18 John H: I hear these people going through midlife problems, and problems with kids, and problems with employers, and other types of problems that I don’t have anymore, but I can see the shock of recognition and the light come on in people’s eyes of people maybe 30 or more years younger than I am, or 25 years or so. They’re going through the same stuff, and I see their eyes light up. And that’s the sharing process because you know that someone is going through something similar to what you’re going through, and you’re not so… Or fret and alone. And there’s nothing lonelier than a drinking alcoholic in a room, is there? I can’t think of anything lonelier than that. So, sharing is a… It’s just of inestimable value on some.
0:42:14 John S: It is. It is. And as you said that sometimes the benefit is just from the listening. I’ve gotten to the point, I often tell people that I feel like I’m more of an observer when I go to meetings anymore, because I feel like, I think, I’ve said all I can say, but just being there and listening, I guess, is… Someone told me, “You’re doing what you need to do, that’s a good thing that you’re doing that. People need you there to listen.” And actually, it does help me. There are all kinds of… For me, what I like is just watching these people change and get better, and it’s just something I enjoy. But now I want to talk about, I think, was the most interesting part of what you wrote. It’s something that I’d really never thought of in the terms that you wrote about it. You talk about abstinence. Now oftentimes, I think about abstinence as just the not drinking, but you wrote about abstinence as really the change that comes about simply from being abstinent.
0:43:19 John H: Oh, yeah. I had a doctor in 1985 who was a… I had all these English people in my life for some reason. I had a very interesting good English doctor, and I went to him for a medical condition in my inner ear, and somehow I had managed to poison my inner ear with alcohol. And Dr. Fenton looked at me and he said, “John, you’re a smart boy, don’t you… ” Now, boy at the time, right? [chuckle] “You’re a smart boy, don’t you know that alcohol is a poison?” A moment of revelation, right? And it is a poison, and when we remove the poison from our bodies, if we haven’t put too much… If you put too much poison in your body, you’re going to end up like that poor former FSB guy, Litvinenko, who was poisoned by Putin in London. They put a little too much poison in his body, and you die if you put too much poison, just like Litvinenko died of polonium. Alcohol just takes longer than polonium but it’s the same thing. It’s poison. You put enough of it in your body and it kills you. And there are even some of these things that people are injecting and using today kill you a lot quicker than that than alcohol does. But, boy, I just remember when I took that poison out of my body, at least in my case, I got immediate relief from many things.
0:45:05 John S: Absolutely. Isn’t that funny?
0:45:07 John H: Immediate, it was like within the first…
0:45:09 John S: And it’s not connected, as you said… It’s not connected to virtue, self-examination, contrition, personality change, and you also said moral re-armament, which I guess is like a…
0:45:20 John H: Right. Well, moral re-armament is what the Oxford Group evolved into.
0:45:26 John S: Right. But are they even still around anymore? I think they were…
0:45:28 John H: I believe they are. They call themselves something else, they’re probably…
0:45:31 John S: Yeah, they changed from moral armament to something else.
0:45:33 John H: Yeah. They’re Trump people, for sure.
0:45:36 John S: Oh, okay.
0:45:38 John H: But let’s not talk about them, we know what they are.
0:45:41 John S: Right.
0:45:41 John H: Then I’ll start… Have I used profanity yet? Again, I keep asking you.
0:45:47 John S: I don’t know.
0:45:48 John H: I don’t really remember, maybe a couple of times. We’ll have to look at the transcript.
0:45:49 John S: But what I find interesting is that… Okay, there was a guy in our meeting who said that he doesn’t have anything to do with the steps. He says, “I think that all of that is what any normal decent person would do anyway after they stop drinking.” And when you stop to think about it, yeah, you kind of… When you take that out of your life, so you’re taking the poison out of your body, you’re no longer physically sick, you’re thinking better, you’re no longer having the life problems, so now your life is together, you just start doing things that a normal person would do. You start rebuilding your relationships, you start asking yourself questions about what you had been doing, and how you might be doing things differently. But it’s so funny that that is what was bringing about the change, and yet the people back in the Oxford Group, and even a lot of us in AA today, think that the change was the self-examination and all of the other stuff.
0:46:50 John H: You need to have a spiritual experience to be good, okay? And the best people I’ve… The best group of people I’ve ever met, ever, are people in recovery. I’ve said this elsewhere, they’re just the top level of human beings, and in all of my experience, again I’m sorry if I’m being redundant, I’ve only met a couple of sociopaths in AA. There are sociopaths in AA. There are horrific stories about sociopaths getting themselves particularly involved in sexual issues and stuff like that, but the vast, vast, vast majority of people in AA behave in ways that are far superior to what I see on the outside. Did I use the initials AA? Sexual recovery.
0:47:47 John S: You did.
0:47:47 John H: Okay. Yeah, I did. Well, I’ve got this involuntary tick I have to fully eliminate. But the people in recovery that I’ve met, their behavior generally is superior. It’s not because of some sort of intercession of some sort of fate from the outside, it’s because your better self gets to emerge when you’re not poisoning your brainstem, and the frontal lobes, and the rest of the cerebral cortex with this poison.
0:48:22 John S: Your brain starts functioning again. Yeah, it really does make sense. You describe it as a gradual subtle change. And it is, and I can totally understand how people would… This is the essence of religion, you’re trying to explain something that you don’t understand. So, they come up with these myths for how the world was created, and then we later find out that that really isn’t the way it was done. It’s almost like it was the not drinking that changed your life, it was that changing your life got you to stop drinking.
0:48:58 John H: Right, right. Which brings me around to the other point, I think, I was trying to make in that part of the pieces was I cannot believe… And maybe this is just my own die-hard faith that I’ve developed over all these years, I cannot believe people that do not see abstinence as the absolute value that it is, it clearly is. It’s the only thing that works, really works, for people like us.
0:49:33 John S: People look at it, and I did, as the outcome and not the solution.
0:49:40 John H: It’s the absolute solution. The outcome is up to you. You’re a free agent, you have free will, as the Catholics would say.
0:49:49 John S: It’s almost like they had it backward. It’s that you do these things and you maintain abstinence, when in fact, if you maintain abstinence, these things will just happen
0:50:00 John H: Yeah, it’s crazy. All right? It’s just ass-backward. [laughter] And I’m supposed to be grateful to something. I’m grateful in general. Every morning, I wake up with somebody I’m totally nuts about, in love with. I have two kids that are doing unbelievable things. My brain is still able to function when I need to go out and work, which unfortunately I still need to do. Not a lot, but from time to time for various reasons, I’ve gotta go strange places, and do my job that I know how to do from years and years of working this field I’m in. And 100% of it is because I’m not loaded today, not 50%, not 75%. The agent behind that ability to do what I can do as a person is the fact that I am abstinent today, which is why I’m not going to go into this stuff… There’s going to be plenty of people coming to the fest of 2020 that will be talking about things like harm reduction, and we’ve got Jon Stewart coming over with a whole other view of things than maybe I do on the subject of harm reduction. There’ll be others there, for sure, about that. But just personally I do not understand why the first thing that… Well, first and last, in many of these schemes isn’t the absolute insistence upon the efficacy of abstinence.
0:51:43 John H: Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to become abstinent or stay abstinent, but that’s the goal, to me. I can’t see any other goal for people that have the kind of condition I developed over the 23 years that I drank from age 15 to age 38, and the shape I was in when I finally got around to showing up. The only thing, absolutely the only thing that would ever, ever have worked for me is abstinence. I owe my life to it. So, why there’s this even discussion about it as if it was too hard? Of course, it’s hard. Of course, life is hard. What’s harder, abstinence or dying on the street or in a looney bin? Oh, God, I know I’ve said something politically incorrect now. Dying in a facility somewhere from this condition.
0:52:46 John H: I once had a medical… Somebody I knew that was a medical student tells me that they estimated that in every general hospital in the United States, I don’t know whether this was scientifically correct… This is just one young doctor who told me this one time. That something like 50% or 60% of the patients that were in hospitals at any one given time had something to do with alcohol or drugs. And on the weekend in ERs, the percentage is even higher. Now, I don’t know whether that’s absolutely true or not, but I know that’s a giant percentage of people that are in medical extremis have had too much to drink. To me, it’s just extraordinary, and it really surprised me that I even had to discuss that question in all of this. But when I looked around at the literature and I looked around at so much of this stuff about controlled drinking and cognitive behavioral therapy, and all these other modalities and things, I just knew more and more and more that, for me, the only thing that worked was stopping. Right?
0:54:06 John S: And I think there’s a growing number of people, who have nothing to do with AA, where this is the key. I read a book not long ago, “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” by Catherine Gray, and she writes about this, the importance of abstinence. And she writes about how alcohol is bad for anybody, as you said, it’s a poison, and that alcoholism, or what you might want to call it, it kind of is on a scale. Some people have it really bad, and some people don’t have it so bad. But for anybody, that to not drink is better for you than to drink, but certainly, once you’ve become addicted to alcohol, the not drinking is the whole essence of the recovery. You won’t get better, your life won’t get better if you don’t maintain abstinence. And then it’s the meetings and the sharing. And in her case, she has nothing to do with AA, but she has friends, she has people who do support her, and they’re doing it together.
0:55:08 John H: Yeah. Well, just the analogy would be let’s talk about alcoholics, and how messed up they get, and how terrible their condition is. If any woman that was eight and a half months pregnant walked into a bar and appeared to have had a drink, and ordered another drink, how many people would serve that lady? I’d like to think the answer is about zero would be served. But if we’re shit-faced, obviously in extremis, but we’re not beating up anybody or causing a ruckus, when we walk up to the bar, even though it’s pretty obvious with the red face, the broken pupils and the general demeanor that we’re just out of our freaking minds, the question is, “What are you having?” So, in many ways, I don’t think we view alcohol intake and alcoholics as seriously, from a medical standpoint, as we would, that kind of awful example I gave of an obviously pregnant lady going to get another drink.
0:56:19 John H: To me, it’s analogous, and we don’t do that. We still normalize it. There are people that can drink normally, like members of my family can drink normally. I can’t, all right? I’m sitting in the club the other night, listening to somebody that my wife and I really like, she can have a glass of wine because that’s all she has, and I can have a Diet Coke, and that’s all I could have. I can’t have… I could drink something that… My endocrinologist doesn’t like it when I drink Diet Coke. I suppose I could order Perrier. But still, I can’t drink anything with alcohol in it, I can’t. And we just… By trying to tell people that really can’t drink, that they can, that to me is pernicious. And I guess, I’ve just rendered an opinion on some of this stuff I said I wouldn’t have opinions on. That’s just me, what can I say?
0:57:21 John S: We’re coming up on an hour, so let’s talk about helping others. Basically, we’re attending meetings and we’re forming friendships, we’re helping people as we become friends. Oh, I know something you wrote that I totally agree with, “Give people space. Don’t smother them.”
0:57:38 John H: Oh, yeah. Yeah. If someone… I’ll give you an example. There’s someone I know who’s very ill, who had about 11 years of sobriety, and a bit younger than I am. And I’ve gotta be careful, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but he disappeared for about two years. And I found out that he was probably in the most desperate of desperate straits because here was a guy who was a very accomplished professional, and I… Someone told me that he had been panhandling to buy alcohol, because his wife had cut off his accounts. He couldn’t get a hold of his money because the wife had cut him off. And he calls me up, and the bottom line for me with this guy was, “Well, it’s your choice, but if you make the choice, myself… ” And I listed several other friends that were involved in trying to help, “We will do anything you ask us to do, within reason, to be of assistance. Please know that. We care about you, we love you, but the only thing we can do is respond to your request. Will you meet me for coffee next week?” Was my only request of him. Of course, he didn’t show up.
0:59:32 John H: So, these situations are very sad, and we do our best, but we do have to give people their autonomy and their space. This may sound heretical to some, but if you’re not killing anyone else, if it’s your decision to kill yourself, and you’re not totally, completely impaired if you make a decision to kill yourself, what can I do… If that’s really what you’re going to do, what can I do to interfere with that decision? That may sound a little harsh, but people deserve their autonomy. But that said, if anybody gives even the slightest indication that they need our help when we do help them, we get a lot more back than we ever gave. And that’s the paradox of that part. That sounds a little selfish, but it’s true.
1:00:35 John S: What I was thinking about is giving people space to just feel like they’re safe, they’re somewhere where they can trust you, and they’re in a place where they can get better without having to be pushed. Let me give you an example. In the Midwest, where I live, and I don’t know if it’s this way where you live, but when a newcomer shows up at an AA meeting, they give them what’s called a “First Step meeting.” And a First Step meeting is when people go around the room and they talk to that person. And they talk about their drinking, and they might give them advice or suggestions, or whatever. That newcomer, that person at their first meeting who’s already jittering and afraid, is the center of attention at that meeting. So, our group, when we started up in… The We Agnostics Group in Kansas City, initially, we thought that that’s what we would do, we thought that’s what people in AA do. But we were noticing that we were scaring people away, so we stopped doing that. And so what we do instead is when somebody shows up to our meeting and they’re new, we don’t treat them any differently. We welcome them, we give them a cup of coffee, we make them feel comfortable, but we don’t make them the center of attention. We don’t… Do you know what I’m saying? Do you guys have… Is that a custom in DC? Do you guys have those sorts of meetings?
1:02:00 John H: Inevitably, if somebody’s new, particularly if somebody is really shaky, or they’re there and they indicate that they’re really in extreme circumstances, that will change a bit subsequent shares, and the emphasis. But there’s never a formal way. There’s a young man I know that’s been recently coming to see us, and he was so uptight. He wouldn’t say a word for about the first month, and we left him alone. We just said, “We’re glad you’re here.” Occasionally, he’d be asked to share and he’d say, “I don’t want to,” or, “It’s not time,” or whatever. Nobody put their finger in the guy’s face. And the last few weeks, the guy just opened up and started to share, much more openly than I thought he ever might do. And that was because he was basically left alone. And nobody’s badgering him and saying, “Why didn’t you call me this week? Here’s my number, you gotta call me on Tuesday,” or some bullshit like that. If somebody wants a number, we’ve got a phone list and people can use the phone list. And we can say something like, “Well, if you ever need to talk, we’re around,” and that sort of thing. But we don’t go beating people over the head. That’s never been the way there.
1:03:28 John S: And I think back, when I was starting out, I was pretty quiet in meetings. It took me a while before I would actually openly share in meetings. But after the meeting was done, I was out the door immediately. People need their space, it takes time, and we just can’t assume that everybody should be treated the same. Another thing I really hate though is forcing yourself on someone as their sponsor.
1:03:57 John H: Oh, man. [laughter] Oh, man, is that ever the worst?
1:04:02 John S: I do not like that. And I don’t know what to do about it. It doesn’t happen in our group. I don’t think it really happens at the secular groups as much as it does at some of the more rigid groups where… Well, some of these Clancy Groups, in particular, they put such a weird emphasis on sponsorship that it’s bizarre, quite frankly, and I think…
1:04:22 John H: No. They make you call… Some of them make you call three different members every day.
1:04:29 John S: That’s right. There’s a group in KC that does that.
1:04:32 John H: And plus you report to your sponsor about your calls during the day. That seems more like The Handmaid’s Tale to me.
1:04:42 John S: And if you don’t do something right, your sponsor’s sponsor comes down on you.
1:04:47 John H: Yeah, their grand-sponsors.
1:04:49 John S: Right, right.
1:04:51 John H: My great-great-great-grand sponsor was in the Civil War. He was drinking bourbon at Gettysburg, that kind of shit.
1:04:52 John S: It’s really freaky. It’s really weird. And I’ve written about sponsorship. I can see some good in it, but I think there’s some caution that should be played there as well. If somebody is really pushing themselves on you to be their sponsor, just be a little wary of that. That really concerns me. Anyway, yeah, I like what you had to say about that.
1:04:52 John H: Well, sometimes you’re somebody’s sponsor by accident. I’ve actually had a friend of mine tell me that he considered me as his sponsor, and I had no idea. because we used to sit around and have coffee after the meeting, and talk about kids and work and family, and stuff like that, and I never knew he considered me in that regard, because I just don’t pay that much attention to that sort of locution about things. But if we’re there and we’re trying to help, we get back more than we give. The bottom line is, the more… But there’s the help with caution stuff, that you very kindly pointed out, which is that we shouldn’t be foisting ourselves on someone. My feeling is you can make yourself available if someone needs your help, they’re going to ask for it. And if they don’t need your help, you’re not going to hear from them. And it has just… It’s not on you, it’s on… It’s what they need, okay? If I needed help amongst the people that I know, I have an endless… Well, I have a core group of people I could call upon any time, day or night, and I’ve got at least a couple of them who would fly across the world, literally, to help me, if I needed that. And I never needed that, but it’s a nice thing to know that there are people in the world who you’re not related to who care about you. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing.
1:07:04 John H: But there are always limits. If someone… I don’t want to go into it, but I’ve encountered situations where people abuse those relationships and they rely too much on… They make it as if someone like a sponsor could get them sober, at least that’s sometimes… I’ll use it now. I had a very good friend of mine who was undergoing some very difficult treatment for a mental illness, and we were no more qualified to treat his condition than I am to wave a magic wand over a drinking alcoholic. You get to a certain point with alcoholism, it becomes a medical problem, not a program problem. But the important thing with my friend, at least he told me after he came throughout of all of this horror he went through, and he came through and he started to get better and better and better, he just said that “To just know that you guys had come and visited me and that you had sent me some emails, and that you cared, that was wonderful, that was good for me.”
1:08:26 John H: But we had very little to do with his recovery from that particular condition. But making ourselves available is important because at least someone knows there is someone there. As long as they don’t depend on you, and depend on you to the extent that they think that you’re the magic sauce that’s going to make them sober, no. They are making their decision and taking affirmative steps to get and stay sober is what’s going to get them through. You helping them is good, and you do it partially because you get such good positive reinforcement back to yourself. But we’re not miracle workers, John, I’m sure you’re on board with that. I’m positive of that. Ain’t no miracles here.
1:09:15 John S: To wrap things up, John, is there anything that you’re trying to achieve by writing and speaking about these things, or are you just doing…
1:09:24 John H: Right.
1:09:25 John S: Tell us.
1:09:26 John H: Let me tell you, okay? I was accused of being overly negative about my opinions about these dreaded initials that I’m not going to mention, and their literature and all of that stuff, and I’ve had it said to me… Well, I’ve had it… Some people say to me, “We love what you do blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Others have said, “Oh, you’re so negative, you’re a pain in the ass, you’re this, you’re that.” And I said, “Well, what I’m trying to do, on the one hand, is say that there’s no one size fits all, or simplified set of rules or instructions or list of things to do in sobriety, as I see it. And I get very vocal about it because I feel that people have been harmed by those approaches. But on the other hand, I sort of get the point, if you’re saying what doesn’t work, well then, what the hell does work for you? And I wanted to clearly articulate that I found some solutions for myself that worked for me, which are totally positive, and that I come around and that I’m associated with positive, not negative, reasons. because people can misconstrue folks that have vocal opinions about things, be it recovery programs or politics or whatever, and they can misinterpret who and what you are.
1:11:03 John H: What I wanted to postulate here was that not all hardcore atheists are totally negative, that we see a positive and affirmative way forward in recovery, and that these things are things that I see as positive that made up the components of what I call my own recovery. So, that was the primary… And then possibly, that these things, when they’re presented in this way, could possibly be of assistance to someone else.
1:11:41 John S: Well, I think that anybody who reads them, if they’ve been exposed to recovery in any kind of form, would find agreement to them because it is a natural process, I think, of what happens. You relate to that really well. We’re going to post these, thank you for allowing us to do that on AA Beyond Belief. We’ll do that as a series. I don’t think we’re going to post them in the Steps section though, I don’t know what section would be…
1:11:41 John H: I don’t think you’re going to want me in Kansas City at your Step meeting.
1:11:41 John S: No, no.
1:11:41 John H: I don’t think that would be necessarily a positive thing for you guys up there in the Midwest.
1:11:41 John S: The funny thing about that, that has become the least popular meeting that we have here.
1:11:41 John H: Well, maybe it will die a natural death.
1:11:41 John S: It probably will.
1:11:41 John H: I’ll be happy to be the agent of euthanasia out there on that one if you want me to be, but I’ll let you guys deal with that on your own.
1:11:41 John S: But thank you, John, I really appreciated this chance to talk with you. You did a great job here, and I really look forward to posting this podcast and posting those articles. Again, thank you very much for all your work.
1:12:47 John H: Yeah, well, thank you, thank you. We’ll see if it resonates with people out there or not.
1:12:52 John S: Okay.
1:12:52 John H: We’ll see you later.
1:12:56 John S: Well, how about that? John’s pretty interesting to speak with. I really enjoyed having him on the podcast, and we’ll have him back on again sometime. I also look forward to seeing him in Washington, DC, in October of 2020, for the International Conference of Secular AA, which will be held in Bethesda, Maryland. To learn more about that, you can go to the Secular AA website, secularaa.org.
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