I have been sober for over twenty-six years, an atheist who doesn’t believe in the existence of a deity, having developed a much more natural secular sobriety. But if I could travel back in time with this experience and attend my early sobriety A.A. meetings, what would I now see in hindsight as the simple and true drivers that still underpin my sobriety today? Underneath the A.A. god talk, program speak, stepology, prayer and ritual, what are the elements of sobriety that I still utilise today? I have discarded much of what I originally learned in A.A. but retained the essentials. This writing is my attempt to outline a few of these simple tried and tested elements that still work as well as those that don’t and have been discarded along the way.
I stay sober by remembering; remembering what got me sober and continues to keep me sober. It is still the first drink that does the damage, if I don’t pick up the first drink, I can’t get drunk.
In simple terms, sobriety for me is a series of behavioral changes in my life, from not picking up the first drink to putting it down and leaving it down. From drinking with practicing alcoholics in bars, to staying sober with sober alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous. From leading a drunken alcoholic life to leading a sober, much more fulfilling and happy life.
My simplified secular sobriety hinges on the following three actions;
- I don’t pick up the first drink one day at a time no matter what happens.
- I attend and participate in A.A. meetings that suit me.
- I try to lend a hand in helping others to get and stay sober
Over time and with repetition, these three actions keep me in the game of life. My sobriety began by learning how to navigate my way around A.A., particularly how to interact appropriately with A.A. members I met at the meetings. This process was very painful at times because I was so immature, expecting everyone else to change to suit me. I had to learn to be comfortable as just being ‘myself’, living in a world where I have little or no control over anything or anyone else. Then I began to use these A.A. acquired living skills outside in the real world to lead a happy and fulfilling life. I have learned to live a sensibly disciplined life, with a chance of being more reliable, honest and generally much more engaged with society in a way that suits me.
What Sobriety used to be like.
First Step and Third Tradition
The first step and the third tradition are still the base line drivers of sobriety. I accept the fact that I can’t safely drink alcohol in combination with my desire to stop drinking. Step one, ‘ We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.’, is the most important step because I had to get honest with me. Not the honesty that prevents me from taking money out of the collection basket at an A.A. meeting but honesty with PJ. Maintaining focus on getting honest with myself, my motives and my actions and what I am really trying to do are still central elements in my life today. I try to avoid blame games, excuses or dumping responsibility for my well-being on others, instead focusing on what I can do. My sobriety begins and ends with the first step because it is the point where I had to honestly admit and accept myself as an alcoholic and the fact that I cannot drink alcohol safely in any way, shape or form. With sobriety, I haven’t ‘stopped’ drinking the way I stopped so many times before with all the effort that entails. Instead, I have simply ‘surrendered’, ‘admitted’ and ‘accepted’ defeat, that I am an alcoholic and given up. This acceptance at a gut level when it came, was effortless, but it took a lot of effort and resistance to get to that point. Jack from Kogarah told me, “Your struggle with alcohol is like you being the weak opponent in a mismatched boxing match where you keep getting knocked down, next time, stay down. You need to surrender to win!”.
I tried ducking this honest admission of powerlessness over alcohol by refusing to call myself an alcoholic. I would say, “I’m not a real alcoholic, just a heavy drinker with a discipline problem.”. But with regular attendance at A.A. meetings, by listening and identifying with you people, the evidence of my active alcoholism began to mount. It got to a point where this evidence became more apparent to me when I told my own story. I may not have gotten into trouble every time I drank but whenever I got into trouble I had been drinking. Speaking of evidence, it was Railway Norm who described it perfectly for me. He said, “I had to imagine myself in a court of law as both judge and jury and put alcohol on trial for what it had done to me. Then find it guilty and give it a death sentence!”. This vivid and apt description made sense to me as I could now see alcohol as my mortal enemy, not my best friend. Alcoholism is the driver of disaster for me but when I am sober it is not so obvious to me. How do you treat something called alcoholism? Might be easy to spot when I’m drinking but not so much when I’m sober, particularly in early sobriety. Railway Norm showed me that I needed to focus on alcohol, the poison, the trigger for my alcoholic drinking and keep it out of my system at all cost. I knew what alcohol was, I could see it, taste it, smell it, the magic liquid in the bottle, can or keg.
This practical approach of keeping alcohol out of my system gave me something real and tangible to focus on. I did not need to understand what alcoholism was, what caused it, or whether you call it a disease, malady or illness. I try to avoid getting drawn into discussion or argument about this. I used to and in hindsight I was simply looking for a way out so I could drink again. Because if I could understand what alcoholism was, find out what causes it, then I could fix it and guess what? I could drink again, simple and deadly!
Meetings, Storytelling, Laughter and Kindness
Regular attendance at and participation in A.A. meetings is central to maintaining my sobriety. The human power of alcoholic fellowship is my sobriety dynamo, drawing strength from the unique affinity I feel with my fellow alcoholics through alcoholic storytelling; “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened and what we are like now.”. The tragedy of active alcoholism I heard described in your drinking stories was ironically served up with a big dollop of humour and laughter. Despite having experienced profound loss and humiliation, you people were obviously happy about being sober and this attracted me. My favourite Sydney A.A. meetings are 90-minute ID meetings, short for identification where we share our alcoholic stories. When I first came to A.A., it was your drinking stories that hooked me in. Prior to this, I had never heard people share with such honesty. The message was simple, don’t pick up the first drink, come to meetings and lend a hand. Over time and with repetition, this simple message, served up with laughter and human kindness, wore down my resistance to what you people had, in the most loving way. As Irish Des put it, “If you don’t get A.A. then maybe A.A. will get you.”, and it did!
I can still remember being warmly greeted with a handshake and smile the first time I went to the Marrickville, Saturday morning A.A. meeting. It had been a while since I had been welcomed anywhere. After opening the meeting, the Secretary prepared a sandwich, placing it on a table to the side of the room, I wondered what was going on. Then about half-way through the meeting, a derelict alcoholic who lived in the park across the way arrived, slowly shuffling across the room and sitting at the table. As he sat eating the sandwich, the secretary gave him a cup of tea. Her kindness won me over, and I decided that if this was A.A., then I wanted to be part of it. I would later realise that she was doing service work, crucial in maintaining her own sobriety and helping others to get sober.
A favourite lunchtime A.A. meetings on the Central Coast will have hundreds of years of sobriety experience in the room. Attendees are mostly very elderly retirees with the full gamut of medical problems and age-related conditions. But they continue to turn up each week, hobbling in with walking sticks or pushing walking aids, making their long-term experience freely available to anyone who wants it. Their benchmark for long-term sobriety would be thirty-five years going all the way up to one lady with sixty years of sobriety. They have experienced it all, bereavements, financial problems, family problems, health problems some chronic and long-term. And yet when they share, there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude, nothing else matters because they are sober.
Interestingly, I have heard them being criticised from the floor of meetings by others for not talking properly about the steps or the A.A. program. The critics are generally not sober a wet day themselves, and don’t seem to hear what is so obvious to me, happy, human, living proof of sobriety. A member of the Manly, Friday lunchtime AA meeting, who is sober over fifty years and still illiterate was asked by someone how he can possibly do the steps. He simply replied, “I don’t do the steps, I live them!”.
Identification and Meetings go hand in hand, the first place where I began to experience a feeling of comfort and ease with being me, without a drink. A.A. meetings are full of humans, not just any humans but that unique group, alcoholics, just like me that I have a close affinity with. Your stories won me back to life in the gentlest most natural way possible. When sober only a couple of months, I heard Bill from Paddington share, “I needed a drink to get a drink.”. I knew that he knew, I wanted what he had. With only eight words, Bill got my attention and gave me hope through the alcoholic affinity I felt with him.
My early A.A. shares were a series of whinges, complaining about my miserable life, unable to sleep, full of raw nervous tension and no longer able to drink to find relief. The alcohol had stopped working for me and then I experienced a loneliness I never thought possible. Somehow, I seemed to instinctively know that A.A. was my only hope, although I was not happy about it. Being in the throes of a divorce, didn’t help either, particularly when I heard you people talk about making amends to ex-spouses, I would seethe with anger on hearing this. When I would finish whining to an old-timer, they would invariably ask me the question, “But have you had a drink today?”. I would bark back, “No, I haven’t!”. They would simply nod and say, “Well then you are doing just fine.”.
I regularly heard Don from Gordon share at the Lindfield Thursday night meeting. He described being pulled to one side by an older sober member who told him; “You need to get some gratitude in your life and realise what it means to be a sober alcoholic. If you are in A.A. and you haven’t had a drink today, then you are a real chance of being a participant in life.”. I eventually began to take Don’s advice, trying to become grateful for being sober in A.A. On days when I remember this, I try to remember what it used to be like when I was drinking and how it has changed with sobriety. Particularly when I wake up, I remember that I have woken up in a clean dry bed, no blackout the night before, without a hangover and with someone I know and love beside me. In contrast, a long-term sober member of the Edgecliffe AA meeting, describes waking up from alcoholic blackouts in strange rooms, in strange cities with strange women. The morning pillow talk would usually begin with him asking his bed companion three questions, “How are you, who are you, where are we?”.
I felt awful in early sobriety going through withdrawals, living in a body that was denied alcohol and boy didn’t it let me know it? When I would complain about feeling awful to Jimmy from Ramsgate, he would tell me that was a good thing. In shock, I asked him why? He said, “When we were drinking, we would wake up feeling crook, pick up a drink and then start to feel better. But we are actually making ourselves sicker by poisoning ourselves with alcohol. In A.A. we get sober, put the drink down feel terrible, but we are getting well because our bodies are simply going through withdrawal from alcohol. It is perfectly normal to feel the way you do; it means you are getting better.”. In a twisted kind of way, I began to associate feeling crook with getting better and from the way I felt, I must have been getting really well.
Time is the treasure in sobriety, a crucial factor irrespective of length of sobriety. The only downside I have found is that I am getting older, losing my hair, getting more wrinkles and slowing down. But aging is universal so I’m not missing out. In early sobriety, I found it essential to learn to give myself time. As was suggested to me, “Give time time, you didn’t get sick overnight, don’t expect to get well overnight.”. “Get on the 24-hour plan.”. “If you get your head on the pillow tonight and you haven’t had a drink today then you are a mile in front!”. I would say that it took about eighteen months before I could accept that I was an alcoholic because I was a stop-start periodic drinker with long spells of not drinking in between. A very dangerous element of my drinking, I couldn’t be certain whether I was really sober this time or just in between binges. I needed to break all previous records of not drinking before accepting the first step. And over time my story began to change and include elements of sobriety. With your help, I began to learn what makes me tick, could now take steps to identify behaviours that were a hinderance to me, making behavioural changes in my life to grow personally. This is not rocket science or complicated but simply growing up. I picked up a drink as a very immature nineteen-year-old and never grew up, is it any wonder that my life was unmanageable?
Benefit of early career and work experience
My early work career and training was as an engineering apprentice and for that reason I generally have a practical approach to life and sobriety. Hold on to what works, turf what doesn’t! As an apprentice, I was surrounded by tradesmen with decades of work experience which they would freely pass on to me if I cared to have it. Sobriety is the same for me, plenty of older sober A.A. hands to pass on their experience to me.
Leo from Newton said, “I don’t have to understand the workings of an internal combustion engine in order to drive a motor car. I just need to know what to do, start the motor, accelerate, brake, steer and the rules of the road.”. However, this approach is at odds with my engineering training, I naturally seek an understanding of how things work. But I have to admit I don’t understand alcoholism, instead relying on knowing what to do to stay sober. Being an atheist only further exacerbates this contradiction, I have substantial faith in something I don’t understand. But then again, as a tradesman I didn’t need to understand how absolutely ever element of a mechanical system worked in order to maintain/repair it. It was probably my trust in sober A.A.’s that lead me along. I knew that I was not alone, instead surrounded by fellow A.A.’s who understood me, were with me.
After eighteen years of sobriety, I realised I didn’t believe in god. Admitting and accepting this fact was like having to go through the first step all over again. It was uncomfortable to say the least but it would have been even more uncomfortable to pretend to believe. So how does an atheist stay sober without a god when both the literature and A.A. member shares are heavily ‘god laden’? I reverted to the basics, don’t pick up the first drink, go to meetings, try and lend a hand. I confided my atheism to some A.A.’s, received pushback so stopped confiding. Then I heard a guy at an A.A. meeting in Florida say that he was an atheist and didn’t need to believe in a god to stay sober. Once again, I knew that someone knew, someone understood, I was not alone. Now, eight years down the track I am very comfortable with being an atheist. Initially, this realization turned much of what I knew about sobriety on its head. The idea of turning my life over to some deity who is going to handle it for me makes no sense whatsoever. All well and good to realise this and get honest, but now what do you when you kick the god prop out from under?
Eventually, I realised that it was my efforts and A.A. fellowship that were keeping me sober all along, you people, human power. I could relax and stop the panic, what I had been doing to stay sober was working just fine. I was simply doing too much, adding an unnecessary ingredient to the sobriety mix that was also spoiling it. Namely, theism! But then I discovered Secular (non-religious) A.A. online and once again I have surrounded myself with like-minded sober alcoholics.
Roy from Cronulla told me, “If you ever have children, you will grow up with them.”. What he said seemed important but I couldn’t understand or relate to it as I didn’t have the experience of being a parent at that time. But in the interim, Little Davey told me that I would grow up with people in A.A. and that is what happened. I got sober with alcoholics, we got close, became friends, had disagreements and fights, sometimes made up, sometimes not but by hanging together we stayed sober. Over the last twenty-six plus years of sobriety I have continued to grow up with other A.A.’s and in recent years an increasing number of them are atheists because they share the same experience as me. We understand each other, support each other, care about each other and together we keep each other sober.
What Secular Sobriety is like now.
I continue to practice my three basic actions and probably have more time and energy to devote to living a happy and sober life because I now do less. I am no longer wasting my time and energy on practices and rituals that have no meaning for me. I love the written and spoken words in stories and the way that text can be woven together so magically. Instead of praying, I read a story from the back of the Big Book, identifying with the author. I also have a book of A.A. secular stories that I read in addition to listening to numerous secular podcasts. My secular sobriety is supported by two Sydney Secular A.A. ID meetings, plus online access to a Secular meeting in Brisbane. At the time of writing, all face to face A.A. meetings are closed to try and slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus and we are now hosting our Sydney meetings online (email firstname.lastname@example.org for details). While I have no doubt that our replacement online secular meetings can keep me sober, they are just not quite the same. They simply lack the ability to create the magic feeling of sitting in a shared physical sobriety space with other alcoholics. And like many of my A.A. friends I look forward to the day when we can re-open our A.A. meeting rooms.
I use the term sobriety, not recovery because it accurately describes my life as a sober alcoholic, a very big deal for me, compared to someone who is a sober heavy drinker. I’m an alcoholic, not an addict. I identify through the affinity I feel when you tell me your drinking stories because that is what I did too. I know plenty of alcoholics in A.A. who have drugs, gambling and other addictions as well as alcoholism in their stories, but it is the drinking part I tune in to. I simply don’t identify with addiction. Some addicts I have spoken to have been quite emphatic that all addictions are the same, maybe for them but not for me. One man even explained to me that he wasn’t addicted to alcohol but rather having sex with animals. I couldn’t relate to him, didn’t identify and so have no affinity with him because it isn’t alcoholism. I remember Little Davey sharing, “I’m an alcoholic on my say so, no one else’s.” and I have found A.A. to be roomy enough for me to find my place.
The three basic actions underpinning my sobriety have been retained, remain unchanged over the years and been strengthened, while elements that don’t work have been discarded. Essentially, a declutter of my sobriety which is ongoing. I have generally avoided the pitfall of feeling the need to replace something I no longer find useful with something that is unnecessary. Otherwise, my sobriety becomes cluttered again and I waste time and energy once more. I find myself constantly going back to the basics of my early sobriety, remembering what works and continues to work. Today, I do what I have always done to stay sober but far more efficiently with a simplified secular sobriety.
About the Author
PJ was born in Ireland into an imaginative and colourful storytelling culture before joining the Irish drinking culture at nineteen when he picked up his first drink. He migrated to Australia in 1989, rapidly accelerating his alcohol consumption when he joined the hard-core Australian drinking culture.
Alcoholic burnout followed in just four years and he finally put his last drink down, getting sober through the Sydney fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. He soon felt at home in the Sydney A.A. ID meetings where he was once again immersed in an imaginative colourful storytelling culture. After eighteen years of sobriety he finally shook off the shackles of the A.A. ‘god talk’ and embraced secular A.A. Today, it is simply the power of human A.A. fellowship with the affinity felt through alcoholic storytelling that keeps him happily sober.