It was 1981, and I was nineteen years old and in my sophomore year at the University of Kansas, where I was living in a fraternity house. I was responsible for stocking the fraternity’s beer machine, actually an old soda machine that I would load with bottles of Coors and Budweiser. It was fortunate for me, but not so much for my fraternity brothers, who trusted me with this task. I loved drinking beer, and with keys to the beer machine, I had a steady supply. I loved alcohol. I loved it too much, really, and I was beginning to pay the price. At that time, I paid for my drinking with poor grades, broken relationships, self-loathing, and fear. Such was the state of my life when one day I was browsing through the local newspaper, The Lawrence Journal-World, and I ran across an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. “No,” I decided, “I can’t be an alcoholic.”
The decision I made that day not to seek help would ensure I pay an ever-increasing cost for my drinking. Soon, I left school because of poor grades and eventually moved to Kansas City, where I worked at first unloading trucks before getting a job repossessing cars. I lived in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen drawer stuffed full of unpaid traffic tickets. My bed was a mattress on the floor, and my refrigerator was typically barren unless I was lucky enough to have a few beers in there. I had an old car that got me to work and the bars afterward, and though I would usually make it home at night, that wasn’t always certain.
On a few of those nights when I didn’t make it back to my apartment, I learned what the city jails were like on both sides of the state line. In the Kansas jail, I had a cell to myself, but in Missouri, they locked me up in a cage with about twenty or so other people. I was never in the Kansas jail long enough to be served a meal, but in Missouri, it was beans and coffee for supper and a cinnamon roll for breakfast.
I always thought I was a blackout drinker, but have since learned that I mostly experienced brownouts. It was only portions of an evening that were beyond the reach of memory. Sometimes, I would drive my car without any awareness that I was driving until the police were putting me in cuffs and taking me to jail. On my third and final drunk driving charge, I had enough. It was either leap off a bridge or ask for help. I chose the latter, and I made a phone call to Alcoholics Anonymous. “I think I need help,” I said. That was my first step. It was the first time since I started drinking that I acknowledged that I needed help to stop.
Yet, my phone call to AA and the recognition that I had a problem, by itself, wasn’t enough. I would have eventually returned to drinking without some hope that I could stay sober. In my case, this came from attending my first AA meeting. There, I met people who had the same problem and similar experiences, and they seemed happy. They were smiling, and they were kind, and they inspired me to continue attending AA meetings. Of course, this is my experience; for someone else, hope might come from a conversation with a therapist or a trusted friend. Whatever the case, finding hope isn’t something I did. It is what happened to me, and other than putting myself in the right place, there was nothing I could have done to manufacture that hope.
Understanding the nature of my problem and acquiring the hope that I could solve it, I committed to recovery. I decided to make some changes to the way I lived my life and to continue attending AA meetings, maybe even “work the steps.” If I were a religious person, I might describe this as turning my life over to God, but I’m not, so from my perspective, this was a decision on my part to do something about my problem.
These stories, from my early days of sobriety, correspond with the first three of the Twelve Steps. I didn’t realize it while I was living through the events because, to me, they were life experiences. I didn’t consider them as the steps I took to affect some needed change in my life. Only after I learned about the Twelve Steps would I understand these events in that context. However, I do believe reading about the Twelve Steps and discussing them with others in AA helped solidify my commitment to sobriety. When I spoke at another group or shared about a topic during a meeting, I was reinforcing the fact that I’m an alcoholic and that my life depends on not having the first drink.
I realize that reading and discussing the Steps is anathema for many of my fellow atheists, and I can understand why. The Steps with their reliance on a relationship with a deity and their religious and moralistic language would make them out of reach for an atheist who understands them literally. I see the Steps more like a description of an experience than a specific set of instructions. People have been using religion to explain natural phenomena for thousands of years, and that’s what I think Bill W. did when he wrote the Steps in 1939. He gave a religious explanation for what is a very human process.
It’s not difficult to look beyond the religiosity of the Twelve Steps and extract from them the underlying event or action involved. For example, I didn’t admit that I was powerless; instead, I realized that I had a problem. I didn’t come to believe in a power greater than myself; I understood there was hope. I didn’t turn my will and my life over to the care of God; I decided to do something. I didn’t take a moral inventory of myself; I took an honest look at my past behavior. I didn’t ask God to remove my character defects; I committed to grow and improve as a human being. I didn’t make amends; I repaired relationships. I don’t seek to improve my conscious contact with God; I’m trying to live a balanced and constructive life. I didn’t have a spiritual awakening; I learned about myself and how to change my behaviors.
There’s nothing extraordinary about any of this. Without a book, without AA meetings, without a sponsor, I think I would have done the activities as mentioned above on my initiative alone. That’s not to say I didn’t benefit from those who traveled a little further down the road of recovery, or that books and some deliberate action on my part were useless. Recovery books, meetings, and the support of my fellows in recovery helped me understand what I was going through and guided me through the process of rebuilding a life post-addiction.
And I needed a guide. I remember that coming out of denial was like waking up from a bad dream. I was stunned by how stubbornly I refused to admit that I had a drinking problem despite all the evidence. It was natural to turn inward and think back on my past, and it was painful to realize how much my drinking hurt other people, and how twisted my thinking became, how I would justify almost any offense. I think it’s a natural human response to feel regret for past mistakes. It’s also natural to want to improve, to set things right, and to mend relationships. The Twelve Steps and friends in AA helped me through this.
I’m not claiming the Twelve Steps are necessary for sobriety. I use them as a frame of reference only because I was introduced to them decades ago, and they have been with me now for the majority of my lifetime. It’s my language, my native tongue, you might say. Other people will put their recovery in a different context. SMART Recovery, Dharma Recovery, LifeRing, a therapist, an online recovery community, or a combination of any or all of these can serve as a helpful guide through the process. Then again, there are a significant number of people who have full and lasting recoveries without any “program” at all.
For me, I know recovery as an organic process enhanced through intentional and deliberate action. The Twelve Steps are a roadmap, and the fellowship of AA is my support and encouragement. On July 20, 2020, I celebrated thirty-two years of sobriety. Life is good, and I have few regrets.
About the Author
John S. lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and when there isn’t a raging out-of-control pandemic, he attends meetings at his home group, We Agnostics.