As a child, I had the common experience of growing up in a home with an alcoholic parent. My step-father was a daily drinker who was incapable of forming a loving relationship with me or my younger brother. When my stepfather had been drinking he seemed to resent us and was emotionally abusive.
Things became worse as I grew older. My family moved into a ‘public house’ (bar) when I was almost 13 years old. My parents often argued, and at times there was physical violence. My growing unhappiness and insecurity at home, a deep sense of rejection and the easy availability of alcohol, set the scene for my own alcoholism and drug abuse.
I began drinking regularly around age 15 and would get drunk at every opportunity. I left school at 16 and spent the next 10 years in and out of employment, hospitals, courts, police cells and prison. By age 25, I wanted to stop drinking and using drugs, but I seemed unable to do so for any significant time. Around this time, I found the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and began my journey into some sort of recovery.
At my first AA meeting, I understood the goal was complete abstinence.
Although I knew this was the only option for me, I did not fully believe I was an alcoholic. The room was full of people much older than I who’d been drinking for a lot longer and were clearly “proper” alcoholics. Nevertheless, I wanted abstinence, so I kept attending meetings.
I also started reading the AA Big Book and realised that belief in God was a vital part of the solution. I was open to this suggestion, although it felt awkward to me as I wasn’t brought up in a religious home. I don’t remember religious or spiritual issues ever being mentioned by my parents; I only came across Christianity in morning assembly at primary school. Despite this, I had clearly been conditioned with basic Christian ideas about God.
After several months of attending AA and while still occasionally drinking, I began to pray regularly. Since I didn’t feel any spiritual connection, this felt embarrassing and not completely genuine. I continued praying in the hope that it would free me of the desire to drink, which was becoming a very conscious struggle the harder I attempted to remain abstinent. I was beginning to think I was “constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself,” and even more sure I suffered “from grave emotional and mental disorders” (This was, in fact, true!).
The torture of my obsession with alcohol continued into my early 30’s.
By then, I had formally been through the AA Twelve Steps more than once with different sponsors but still hadn’t connected with God or the spirituality of the Steps. Despite this, I managed to attend regular meetings and stay abstinent for five years. However, I was suffering from ongoing depression and other physical health problems and was far from being a content, emotionally sober man. In retrospect, I can now see that the relationship I was in at the time was enabling me to remain physically sober; but when it ended, so did my period of sobriety.
Although I mostly remained abstinent, I struggled with the mental obsession to drink for another two or three years. My last drink was on July 2, 2005.
During the twelve months that followed, the obsession with alcohol left me. I started feeling secure in my sobriety. As my confidence grew, so did my questioning of the Twelve Steps and what I perceived as religious dogma. I became increasingly disillusioned and hostile toward the literal meaning and language of the program, and I began pushing AA friends away with my negativity.
I then had to undergo a course of significant medical treatment for Hepatitis C, which I had contracted in my early 20s through intravenous drug use.
This treatment affected my energy level, motivation, and emotional well-being. My attendance at meetings was reduced to the odd occasion. My belief in the Twelve Steps continued to deteriorate, and I became very isolated and depressed. I considered no longer attending meetings, as I felt disingenuous at them. When I did attend, I would attempt to undermine others’ beliefs. I realised that unless I could find a genuine relationship with the Twelve Steps, I would need to leave the Fellowship.
Suddenly one day, I had an inspiration to look online for some literature that might help me. I came across Ernest Kurtz’s ‘Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous’. This book is a detailed history and study of AA. While confirming the Christian influence upon the Twelve Steps, it provides a good understanding of the liberal principles of AA philosophy. I started to develop a new appreciation of the Steps and the Fellowship.
So began a twelve-month study of the program through the eyes of various authors. I attended many meetings during this period and revised some of my Step Four inventory. I began to relate to the Steps in a spiritual, but nontheistic way, and to clearly see the underlying moral and spiritual principles inherent within the Steps. I came to genuinely believe in them and saw both their importance and their transformative power.
My new relationship with the Twelve Steps slowly brought a more positive commitment to the Fellowship and to helping others. I started to sponsor others and became the secretary of a new meeting. My service to others, despite still suffering from a chronic illness, continued to develop my commitment and appreciation of the Steps. It also helped to improve my mental and emotional well-being.
As the years have gone by, I’ve become increasingly secure in my sobriety – thoughts of drink rarely enter my mind. One of the Step Ten Promises has truly come about for me:
“For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in alcohol. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition, p.84-85)
I now comfortably relate to the Twelve Steps from a primarily humanistic, though spiritual point of view. I don’t believe in the traditional concept of God and apply my own concepts to the idea. This legitimate approach to recovery is based upon the program’s liberal and pragmatic, as well as spiritual, principles.
“When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions that you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.” (Ibid, p.47)
The Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, p.26, further illustrates:
“First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.”
If you don’t believe in God, use your imagination to relate to the AA program in a way that is meaningful to you. I relate to spirituality in terms of moral virtues such as honesty, compassion, kindness, and love. My emphasis is on a “way of being” or “way of life” and developing a right attitude toward my recovery.
I practice self-reflection, prayer, and meditation in order to grow in virtue and to develop my consciousness in relation to the mystery of life. I like the saying “God is Love” because it expresses the idea that spirituality works in and through people. Spiritual principles are practiced as we help one another.
About the Author
Steve K. lives in Cheshire, which is in the Northwest region of England, and describes himself as an agnostic who is open to spirituality. He has been a member of AA since 1991 and his home group is the Macclesfield Saturday Morning AA Group. Steve is the author of The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K. The paperback version is available on Amazon, or you can download the pdf. version for free here.
You may also like to check out Steve’s well-received recovery site, 12stepphilosophy.org.