The Secular Alcoholic and The Moment of Decision

This is the first in a series of five articles originally published at atheisticaa.com and reposted here with permission. 

In Secular Recovery it can become possible, while never completely losing sight of it, to relegate our primary purpose to a secondary position while debating the future of the organization.

Within the recent context of some serious internal debates about who and what we are I caught myself up short and asked, quite seriously, what are we, personally and collectively, doing to clarify the origins of our own continued sobriety for the newcomer?

The longer I am sober in Secular Recovery the more mysterious the process, particularly for the atheist, becomes. By “mysterious” I obviously do not mean anything that might be possibly construed as coming from the so-called “spiritual” realm. What I am talking about are the all too human attributes of guilt, shame, self-loathing and disgust that bring us, literally, “on our knees” sometimes, to our first hours as sober women and men.

What makes one bad night worse than all the others?

As a longtime observer of both the successes and failures associated with Conventional AA and our rational, Secular alternative, I have come to some conclusions, anecdotal in nature, about what I have noted about the inception of this process we refer to commonly as “sobriety”.

As with all my other Secular recovery talks and writings I am speaking for myself only and can only express an individual opinion informed by the long-term personal observations I mentioned.

It appears, to me, that in many “success” stories in the program there is a shock of recognition, a point in time, that I will call the “moment of decision”. In an instant, internal circumstances combine with illness and necessity to force a commitment to quit drinking that comes from within and has little to do with outside forces and pressures that, while possibly dragging us to the edge, are not the things that prove decisive in a true start on a life without alcohol and drugs.

In my own case that “moment” came at the close of a catastrophic holiday season in December of 1986 which left me, in the first days of January 1987, at a “life and death” impasse that took me right up to the brink of self-extinction. Fortunately, since that nearly fatal hour, I have not had the occasion to drink or use drugs and the personal benefits that have accrued have been nothing short of remarkable.

As a person who deeply reveres accurate representations of fact and the scientific methodologies that have brought us modern physics and medicine, I remain intensely interested in the reasoning behind my own “moment”, in my own life, that brought me such tremendous personal benefits.
Despite there being no real science behind any of this what I do know is that while there was no external, specific, endpoint or “breakpoint” in the personal story that leads to my first sober day, that my “moment”, when it did come, was definitive and in no way provisional and that, if there had been anything tentative about that moment, that my own prospects would have been very dim.

A real challenge to the Secular person is to transmit the essence of his or her own recovery without recourse to the formulations, lists, and proscriptions contained in the Oxford Group 12 Steps and the religiously inspired text of the Big Book of Conventional AA.

Those formulations are applied there (and sometimes even in Secular Recovery by the “Agnostic Spiritualists” amongst us) to many newcomers in an indiscriminate manner and tend to obscure and minimize this most vital part of this initial process which is this “moment of decision” I have been referring to.

The conventional program elements tend to ascribe this purely personal moment of final insight into some sort of commonly adopted miraculous intervention sometimes known as “grace.” In its most extreme manifestation, you get the full Bill Wilson treatment with “white lights” and all as the trumpets of heaven play and the rapture is at hand.

To the contrary, it has always seemed to me, as framed in my own tale, that this is the moment of crystallization where the net results of long-established patterns and habits become obvious at last and leads, for some, to the “breakpoint” where a decision that can influence real outcomes, over the long term, is made.

Someone very close to me recently referred to being “tired of being stupid” and this insight really struck me as also being critical to evolving to a point in time where new actions and associations become not only necessary but vital. And though this recognition may partially come about through the intercession of outside forces and events, such a statement is also truly an “inside job” as well as being another way to articulate what I am laboring to describe here.

Sometimes there is a gasp, an intake of breath that, upon exhalation, is the first clear breath we take after years or decades of alcoholism and/or addiction and the reality of our situation is truly upon us. In my own experience, mere insight was not enough and most certainly was not the precipitating event that engendered a real change in behavior.

I knew full well by my 25th year that alcohol had become far more of a destructive than a constructive force in my life, but I still drank till just after my 38th birthday. There was absolutely no dealing with me, no argument or entreaty from anyone else regarding my drinking till that final moment arrived.

So, what, after all, is that “moment” that finally asserts itself?

As we refine our version, as Secular people, of what is referred to as the “program” by the mainstream, I see all too well the challenge of sharing any sort of universal insight into this “moment of decision” because, obviously, there can no be universally applicable expression of such a thing. However, some sort of stab at a definition might possibly be of use to some “newcomers” who are genuinely looking for a solution to our common problem that does not encompass any religious doctrine or implied article of faith.

It was in some ultimately satisfying realization of the true futility of self-harm that I think I found my “moment” where the path was clear and abstinence the only answer. I not only “knew” I had to stop (I had actually “known” that for some years) but it was in the believing in that, as the only plausible alternative, where the journey finally began for me.

Refining the idea that self-preservation was, in fact, conditional upon abstinence led me to that first meeting and my own desire to hear, at depth, the stories of others that are the foundations, the reinforcements, that allow us to re-create our “moment” over and over as we see the clear benefits of our early sobriety pile up day by day.

To be a deeply addicted person is to accept despair as the norm. The rejection of that despair is, in the end, the “moment” every addict/alcoholic longs for I think and our challenge, in the Secular world, is to convince the addicted atheist that there is no necessity for a “spiritual” guide that gets us there and that the initial solution is truly within each of us if we grasp firmly, with determination, the promise that a life without despair is at hand on that first sober day.

Tired of being stupid”, having had enough, we can point the chronically relapsing or still drinking atheist toward a moment of their own where they can trust in themselves and their own judgment long enough to step back from the repeated self-harm and value themselves enough to “make a decision” of their own that will stick.

Perhaps its something as simple as the power of example, a helping hand, a kind word after a meeting or sometimes just a smile, but after decades of observation I do know we can do a better job of helping others freely get to the point, to that day, that we reaped and continue to reap, our own, longer-term, benefit from.

As I strive to develop these ideas further, I will continue to struggle to figure out, at last, some more definitive reasoning behind why I know this to be so. As perhaps, along with at least some of the readers here, I acknowledge that those first sober hours and the events connected to them can appear to be the most significant while being maddeningly difficult to define.

I intuitively know the importance of this to be so as we all shadow box, as we always have, with the enigma of our still suffering sisters and brothers and the low successes rates we experience in dealing with chronic relapse and transmitting the essence of our own “moment of decision” to others, in a convincing and rational way, that may assist them in those first hours and days of a lasting recovery.


About the Author

John HJohn Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017.

Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.

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Elaine
Elaine

Well said. The way I describe what happened to me is that I suddenly could hear & and understand the consequences of my drinking. A therapist said, “I haven’t seen a single bit of growth in you in 4 1/2 years. Is there a drug or an alcohol problem?” And I could HEAR what she was saying and INTERNALIZE what than meant. I have not had a drink since. 30+ years. A moment of clarity or grace. I can still feel what that felt like. I go to regular AA. Go to meetings without cross talk and where people get… Read more »

John L.
John L.

When drinking alcoholically, I had what ought to have been “moments of decision” — many of them. But I kept drinking. There was a moment when, fighting for my life in delerium tremens (DTs), I suddenly had an intense desire to live. But my moment came later, when a good friend found me, barely alive, and told me about alcoholism and DTs and recovery in AA. My “moment of decision” was realizing that I had only one chance to survive, total abstinence. My second “moment of decision” came at my first AA meeting, when I identified completely with the speaker… Read more »

Bobby Freaken Beach
Bobby Freaken Beach

The reference to “the Oxford Group 12 Steps” is unfortunate. Obviously, Buchman’s group influenced Bill Wilson and AA, but the Oxford Group had no steps — 12 or otherwise.

John H Huey
John H Huey

Hi “Bobby”.. I beg to differ. My widely available talk at ICSAA 2018 on the “Steps” recently re-posted here (you may have given it a listen in the past) goes into some detail about how the “holy of holies” was indeed lifted directly from the Oxford Group. See the Oxford Group “Four Practical Spiritual Activities” of 1933 as reprinted as Appendix B (pages 334-335) and reflected in the Akron Alcoholic Squadron thereof in Mitchell B.’s well researched book, ‘How It Worked’, Second Edition, from Amazon Press 2018. Its something I think you are familiar with. Steps directly in spirit, and… Read more »

Bobby Freaken Beach
Bobby Freaken Beach

The Oxford Group had nothing called “steps.” I think accuracy is important. Of course, there’s an Oxford Group–AA connection, but referring to “the Oxford Group 12 Steps” perpetuates misinformation.

John Huey
John Huey

In 1933 the Oxford Group had “Four Practical Spiritual Activities” which were published by them at that time. These “activities” include many elements found in the 1939 Steps. According to Bill Wilson, in his 1953 Texas talk, he referred to the pre AA Alcoholic Squadron of the Oxford Group in Akron and jotted down what he said were their Six Steps directly analogous to what is in the Big Book. Being pedantic about it only serves to give some “cover” to Conventional AA when they inaccurately allege that they are “spiritual not religious”. They are directly connected to the Oxford… Read more »

Bobby Freaken Beach
Bobby Freaken Beach

If “being pedantic about it” means telling John Huey he is wrong, then I’ll cop to that. There’s a mythology that the Oxford Group had steps. They didn’t. Referring to the “Oxford Group 12 Steps” perpetrates that misinformation. My first comment included “Obviously, Buchman’s group influenced Bill Wilson and AA.” You’re wasting a lot of effort trying to convince me of what I’ve already stated.

Now show reference to the 12 Steps in any Oxford Group literature, and I’ll buy you an expensive steak. Otherwise, all that’s on your plate is the crow that you refuse to eat.

John Huey
John Huey

I explained the reasoning above and Wilson’s own depiction of those steps in the Texas talk. . Struggling with the passive aggressive denial of Conventional AA thought process is mostly a “no win” situation. One day I will learn but not yet apparently. . .
” Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in”

Dean W
Dean W

Bobby and John, this is an interesting thread. The Oxfords had a “program,” if you want to call it that, but it certainly didn’t consist of 12 Steps. Whether it contained all the principles that later became AA’s 12 Steps is debatable, but calling it the “Oxford Group 12 Steps” is simply inaccurate.

John Huey
John Huey

Let’s add a word and see if we can make everyone happy.. When I stopped being a “Militant Atheist” and became a “Determined Atheist” everyone seemed to like that despite my being exactly the same person.. What about “Oxford Group Influenced 12 Steps” or “Oxford Group Derived 12 Steps”.. I aim to please.. You all tell me… BTW.. Despite the disputes surrounding Bill writing down the Six Oxford Group Steps of the Akron Oxford Group Alcoholic Squadron (printed by AA in Bills own words on page 160 in the official, still in print, AA volume of 1957 ‘Alcoholics Anonymous Comes… Read more »

Dean W
Dean W

John, if you desire to make everyone happy, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you desire positive feedback on this website, admitting obvious mistakes would probably be helpful, as would not submitting intellectually sloppy work in the first place. So, there you are …

John Huey
John Huey

And even more from Bill in ‘AA Comes of Age’ Page 38-39 “It was from him (Sam Shoemaker) that Dr. Bob and I in the beginning had absorbed most of the principles that were afterward embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of A.A.’s way of life. Dr. Silkworth gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it. One showed us the mysteries of the lock that held us in prison; the other passed on the spiritual keys by… Read more »

Dean W
Dean W

I see plenty of quantity, John. I’m still looking for quality.

John Huey
John Huey

Quality? I gave relevant quotes from primary sources to support the essence of what I was saying. If that does not work for you that’s fine with me. I get plenty of “positive feedback” when I post my articles and talks but not everyone is going to like what I say or do. That’s just the way of the world. I think I’ll give this particular thread a rest for now.

Dean W
Dean W

Citing original sources to support a bad argument doesn’t make the bad argument good.

Denise
Denise

I really enjoyed this article, thank you. I call them “ah ha” moments. Moments of insight. It’s always interesting to hear the words that go through the mind at these times with the moment. My first moment was when after attending Al-Anon for several months secretly hoping for a way to control my drinking, i suddenly saw all the denial, delusion and.rationalisation. The words were ” youve been lying to yourself ” But that didn’t last. Then some months later, sat in a cupboard with a glass and a bottle, drinking against my will , it was ” “you thought… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey

Thanks Denise,
Though personally I would never use the word “Steps”, or refer to them as milestones of any kind for me, awareness is awareness and, by definition, a good thing. We are all, I think, looking for results regardless of the general framework used, in a personal way, to achieve them.

Bob K
Bob K

Excellent essay. In the summer of 1977, I experienced a “moment of decision” after a late-night drunken car accident. Wrecked car, potential legal consequences, etc. Further to that, I was a newlywed, so WHY??? was I out drinking with the boys? I stopped drinking. A month later, the tragic night was an entertaining bar story, as the car crash was acted out with the salt and pepper shaker. In Bill’s Story, he writes: “The remorse, horror and hopelessness of the next morning are unforgettable. The courage to do battle was not there. My brain raced uncontrollably and there was a… Read more »