On New Year’s Eve, I spoke at the Liberty Group’s 43rd annual alkathon. I planned out what I wanted to say and actually wrote it out, but when it came time to speak, I chose to talk off the cuff naturally rather than read what I had prepared. What follows is the talk that I wrote, which has a little more material than what I shared at the alkathon.
I walked out of the jail cell where I spent the night after my third DUI arrest in as many years and set forth upon a search for my car. It was a workday and as I stumbled about the city, I watched the rest of the world go about its business. Normal people on their way to the office as I was trying to piece together memories of the previous night.
My search eventually took me to a bridge spanning a highway. I stopped halfway across to watch the traffic below, and I began to think. I thought about jumping to end it all, but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I crossed the bridge, found my car, drove to my apartment and took the first step in my recovery from alcoholism—a phone call to the Kansas City Area Central Office of Alcoholics Anonymous. That was sometime around July 20, 1988, and I have not had a drink since.
The person on the other end of the phone answered, “Alcoholics Anonymous.” And I replied, “I think I need help.” There was something about the man’s voice that I found reassuring. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he spoke to me. There was a respectful and understanding pause after my feeble plea for help. He spoke with a compassionate and understanding tone. His was a kind voice, and exactly what I needed at that moment. This kind voice on the other end of the phone gave me the information for a meeting not far from where I was working at the time—The Downtown Nooners Group, but more importantly, he gave me hope.
The meeting room was empty when I walked through the door. There were chairs set up, and the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions hanging on the wall. Then a man walked in with a pot of coffee and introduced himself. Just like the man who answered the phone at Central Office, this man seemed to care and understand. Others soon filled the room, and then they gave me a first step meeting.
It was the first time I ever heard someone say the words, “I’m an alcoholic.” For so many years, I tried to hide my drinking and the resulting problems, so to hear people openly admit they were alcoholic was stunning, to say the least.
Then they shared their stories and I could relate. Though the details were different, what I had in common with them all was how we felt about our drinking. The shame, the fear, the hopelessness. Yet, they were speaking about their drinking in the past tense, and I could tell from how they carried themselves that this was a problem they had overcome. At that meeting, I concluded that I too am an alcoholic and I came to believe that I could find help in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I did well over 90 meetings in 90 days. AA meetings were the only place I felt comfortable in those days. The meetings and looking forward to the next meeting gave me the power that I had never possessed to somehow make it through the day without giving into the obsession for a drink. The people at those AA meetings were honest, and through their honesty, I learned to become honest.
Eventually, I settled into a home group, found a sponsor and went through the Big Book and 12×12. I had a total of four sponsors over a period of four years. During that time, I learned from my experience of admitting and accepting my alcoholism and coming to believe there was hope for my recovery. I realized that drinking was only part of my problem and there was a lot of about me that needed to change.
I wanted the entire psychic change that I read about in the Big Book, so with the help of my sponsor, I decided to change by following AA’s suggested program of recovery. I didn’t do it perfectly, and I didn’t always do things in order, but I made it through all the Steps, and all these years later, I still lean on the Steps to help me in all areas of my life.
I’ve always been regular with my meeting attendance, and I’ve always had a home group. In my early days, I attended meetings at several groups because I needed a lot of meetings, but as my life stabilized, I attended meetings mostly at my home group, P3. I was active in the group. We took meetings to treatment centers and jails and went on many old fashioned 12-Step calls. I served as a trusted servant for the group and helped start their 11th Step Meditation Meeting. I sponsored people as I was sponsored, going through the Big Book and 12×12, sharing my experience and relating that experience to our literature.
I learned that honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the three essential ingredients to recovery, and to this day I believe that to be true.
In my early days when the meetings opened with a reading from “How It Works”, I worried that perhaps I am one of those who is constitutionally incapable of “grasping and developing a manner of living that demands rigorous honesty.” I would find myself talking about this concern during meetings and with people before and after meetings.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but through openly expressing my concern about being honest, I was, in fact, beginning to practice the rigorous honesty that I feared was beyond my capability. Listening to others share honestly and openly about their own experiences further helped me develop the quality of self-honesty.
As I worked my way through the Big Book, I realized deep in my bones that I needed to change, that my self-centeredness was just as dangerous to me as was my drinking. There was much more to my unmanageable life than drinking. My sponsor helped open my mind to this idea. By sharing with me his own self-centered and self-seeking behavior, I was able to see mine. My mind was open to the idea that I needed to find a new way of living, thinking, behaving and relating to others, and I became willing to change. My willingness was expressed and is still expressed through action.
The inventory process was and is a valuable tool. The process helped me remove the emotional attachment to my memories and to focus on the facts, how those experiences impacted me and shaped my personality. I could see that there were specific personality characteristics that I had developed as a sort of defense mechanism—a way to deal with my fears and insecurities. Overcoming these will be a lifetime process, but it’s a process that in my opinion enriches my life.
Moving through the process of the 12 Steps, I made amends to those I had harmed, but I was careful not to do so at the expense of the other person. Most of my direct amends were to employers and to people who if I had seen them on the street, I would have turned around and walked in the other direction.
I had a lot of shame and I couldn’t live that way. I also made amends for my actions both while drinking and during my early recovery. There were things that I had done that were dishonest and wrong and I had to set things straight. I really believed that I needed a clear conscience if I had any hope of remaining sober.
I still believe that keeping my side of the street as clean as possible is important. Last year, I had to rely on the principles of these Steps to help me get through a crisis at work. I simply wasn’t doing my job as well as I should have been doing it and as a result, I was on the verge of getting fired. I got through this by embracing the qualities of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. Through an inventory of my resentment and fears, I was able to bring clarity to my situation. I was able to see what I could change, and I put in place a plan of action to achieve that change.
Today, my boss and her boss both think that I’m an amazing success story. I still need to watch out for those things that caused my failure, to begin with, and it takes vigilance. I use a sort of mantra, a meditation if you will during the workday. I just say to myself quietly, “focus, focus, focus.” I also try to set aside my ego as much as possible and try to be of service in the workplace.
It’s hard and I don’t do this perfectly, but it is good that I had the humility to recognize and accept where I had failed, and to work diligently to improve through the process of character building that I learned in AA.
I mentioned earlier that as part of my service to my group, I helped start a meditation meeting in 1999. I got the idea from a friend in Massachusetts who sent me the format for what he called an 11th Step Meeting. The meeting was focused on the 11th Step and featured a 20-minute moment of silence for meditation. I found meditation helpful in learning how to let go of my thoughts. It’s something that requires a lot of practice and discipline, but when I do this on a regular basis, it does help.
During that time in 1999, while we were starting the meditation meeting, my father unexpectedly died, and this impacted me significantly. I realized that there was a lot that I hadn’t accomplished. I was 36 years old at the time and had never been married, I hadn’t finished college or owned my own home. I decided to correct all of this so for the next five years, I got busy with life. I enrolled in college courses, I started dating, I improved my credit and eventually I achieved all my goals.
During that five-years, I grew a lot as an individual in recovery. In the first ten years of my sobriety, AA was the center of my life, but for that five-years, after my father died, AA became the foundation of my life, but I began to live more of my life outside of the meetings. It was an exciting time, and it was a time of change.
When I returned to school, I learned to think more critically and to question things. I didn’t’ realize what an impact this would ultimately have regarding my experience in AA, but it led me to where I am today. I began to question my beliefs.
From 1988 to 1999, my experience in AA was very traditional. I did the drill. Though, never a religious person, I did my best to believe in God. I prayed daily and throughout the day. Spirituality was important to me. When I shared in meetings, I related my experience to the Big Book and 12×12. People seemed to like what I was saying, and I sponsored several people, taking them through the Steps as my sponsors did with me.
Slowly, doubts began to enter my mind. Specifically doubts about the need for God. I stopped praying and though I wasn’t acknowledging this in meetings, it was just something that I stopped doing. I went through a long period of time in AA where I was just treading water. I was saying the things I knew people liked to hear. I was replaying the greatest hits of my sobriety. Life was good, but AA for me was stagnant. I was just going through the motions.
Then, in 2014 I had had an experience that changed my journey in AA forever. I fully embraced that I’m an atheist. At first, this was frightening. I read books that I didn’t want anyone to know I read. God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins convinced me that I am an atheist. I prefer science and reason to faith. I found that the explanation that science provides for how the universe and people came to be is far more beautiful than any of the myths from the world’s religions.
What terrified me was that I feared I would no longer be welcomed in AA. I returned to the Big Book and studied it again, but this time I used a black sharpie instead of a yellow highlighter. Like Thomas Jefferson did with the Bible, I redacted all the supernatural references in the Big Book, and what I found underneath was the practical program of action that had transformed me and had given me a sober and manageable life.
I also realized that some of the Big Book wasn’t correct, at least for me. The Chapter to the Agnostic needed and still needs to be rewritten. I took the time to rewrite it from the perspective of a real agnostic. I wrote it in a way that is respectful to the believer and nonbeliever alike. Really, when you get down to it, what we believe is far less important than what we do, and our higher power if you will, is only what we as individuals believe empowers us to take the action.
Our more religious members say unabashedly that it is God who empowers them to practice our suggested program of recovery. We atheists and agnostics believe that it is the other people in the rooms of AA who help us practice these principles. I learned that our experience in AA as believers and nonbelievers is essentially the same, the only difference is how we describe or explain our experience.
As I was going through this process, I also rewrote the 12 Steps in my own language. It was an exercise that I found invaluable and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s important I think that to practice these steps, to internalize them and understand them in our own way.
I learned that Atheists have been in AA from the very beginning. The atheist Jim Burwell was among those early AA’s who was present when we were hammering out the wording of the 12 Steps, the atheist Hank Parkhurst helped Bill set up what eventually became AA World Services. So we agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers helped build this Fellowship.
Bill Wilson credited the atheists and agnostics of helping to widen the gateway to recovery so that all may pass through regardless of their belief or lack of belief. So, if you are an atheist in AA, don’t let anyone ever tell you that you don’t belong or make you feel that you feel unwelcome.
AA meetings for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers have been taking place since 1975, and there is a wealth of literature written by agnostics and atheists in AA about how they approach the program. There is a wide diversity of experience among nonbelievers. Some embrace spirituality, others like myself see it as a metaphor. Some practice the 12 Steps as I do, others reject them in whole or in part.
What we all have in common is that we suffered from alcoholism and we found that together we can do what we could not on our own. We agree that the Fellowship is important to our recovery, and we agree about helping others. It comes natural, I think for all us who have escaped alcoholism to want to help those who want to get well.
Feeling comfortable with my new perspective, I began to test the waters at my home group. I was too afraid to come out directly as an atheist, but I started to share my new understanding of the program, which is essentially a humanistic approach.
It was probably more my perception and my own discomfort than anything else, but I began to feel that people were not responding to me as they had in the past. I was no longer seeing the bobbing heads of approval. In fact, people began to share at me, correct me, quote the Big Book to me as if I had never read it or perhaps I didn’t understand it.
I also started having a problem with the literature. I no longer liked listening to the reading of “How it Works” before meetings because I knew that I did not have to “Find Him now.” I felt it was overly dogmatic and went against the ideals of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. My open mind, after all, led me to atheism.
I never liked the Daily Reflections book, but now I was suddenly more aware of all the religious references. The 12×12 and Big Book are in places flat wrong and I started to say so, but when I did some people again corrected me.
I didn’t want to debate or argue or defend my understanding of AA and it was really becoming difficult. I felt like I had to walk on eggshells at my home group. I no longer felt like I fit in. After 25 years of regularly attending AA, I no longer felt like I belonged and it was only getting worse.
Eventually, in July of 2014, I approached Jim C., the only other atheist who I knew at my home group and I asked him if he would like to start an AA meeting for agnostics and atheists. He immediately agreed, and the We Agnostics meeting was born.
We didn’t realize it, but two years earlier, a We Agnostics meeting was started in Lawrence, Kansas. Jim and I attended a meeting there the week that we started our meeting in Kanas City. At our first meeting, three of the Lawrence members were in attendance. If not for them, I would have been alone as Jim was out of town.
On only one occasion did Jim and I meet alone, but we still held a meeting by starting with an opening reading of the AA preamble, a secular reading pertaining to recovery from alcoholism, and then closing with announcements and thanking people for attending.
In November of 2014, I had an experience that was one of the most amazing of all my experiences in AA. I attended the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention that was held I Santa Monica, California. There, I met people from all over the world who like me were nonbelievers in AA. The speakers were incredible. Phyllis H. who at the time was the General Manager of GSO spoke at the convention as did the past Chair of the General Service Board, Reverend Ward Ewing.
I was on fire for AA and I decided that I wanted to get involved with General Service, specifically for the purpose of bringing about what I thought was needed change. I think that because we have such a rich history, that we make the mistake of trying to replicate the work and experience of AA’s founders when what we should be doing is building on their work. After all, they did say that they knew only little and more would be revealed.
Well, more has been revealed, but we aren’t updating our basic text. Would you use a textbook from 1939 to learn algebra? Of course not. Textbooks are updated to add new information and to keep the language current.
So, I returned to my group and acted as the GSR and Central Office Delegate. The group continued to grow to where today, we regularly have between 15 to 20 people at our 7:00 meetings and 5 to 10 at our noon meetings. Another group, Freethinkers in AA spun off from us and they meet on the nights that we don’t. Today, in Kansas City there is a secular AA meeting every day of the week, which is remarkable for a city of our size.
I’m grateful for our group. We get a lot of newcomers. People come to our meeting who would not go to AA because they feel it’s religious. They aren’t comfortable with group payers. Others have tried AA in the past but were driven away by people who didn’t respect them. You should know when you approach a newcomer who is an atheist or agnostic that we do not want to be converted. Be careful with how you use religious or spiritual language. It scares us away. That’s just a tip to consider. Even in the Big Book, it suggests to not stress the spiritual feature if you sense the newcomer isn’t receptive. We also don’t need to fake it until we make it.
I’m not seeking a revolution, though I do have my fights in AA from time to time. I have a great deal of respect for the Traditions and Concepts. Through my experience in General Service, I have met past delegates and others who have dedicated their time and their lives in service to AA and they are some of the most amazing people who I have ever met. Most of them are probably believers, but they believe in AA first and they welcome me and they help me.
Our group tries to follow the concepts when we hold our business meetings. The one thing that I like the best about the Concepts is the right of the minority to give their opinion before a final vote. I have seen it change a vote at one of our business meetings.
I think that the best way for me to maintain my sobriety is through helping others and I’ve found a good way to do that in General Service. As I speak to you today, I do so with a tad bit of guilt that I have not yet updated the District 6 website. A person who I respect is on my case about that quite regularly. I will need to get that done.
I’m also now a member of the Board of Directors for Central Office. As some of you may know, we recently lost our Director Sue Ann K. to cancer. I had a lot of love and respect for Sue Ann. On occasion, I would go to Central Office when they stayed open late to sit and visit with her. We had different experiences in AA, but she respected my experience and she was supportive of our group.
One of the last things she showed me was a new book that she began to stock at Central Office, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, by Marya Hornbacher. It was a book that I gave her a few years ago and didn’t think she would ever read. She told me that she was proud to stock that book. She is also the person who nominated me to serve on the Board of Directors for Central Office.
Sue Ann was a good person and I’m glad that I got to know her. My most sincere condolences and sympathies go to her family, friends and all who loved her.
The Central Office, as many of you know has been going through a difficult time this past year. A lot of groups have been angry with Central Office, lost confidence in it and have been withholding their financial contributions. I understand that and it’s the right of the groups to use the power of the purse to express their disappointment with Central Office.
However, I want to caution those groups and everyone who cares about Central Office to not just withhold funds without also getting involved with the change you want to see. The thing that makes AA special is this amazing infrastructure of service that we have built over the past 80 years. We need the Central Office.
I carry the Central Office phone one week a year and I still feel proud to answer the phone, “Alcoholics Anonymous” and to speak with people who were like I was some thirty years ago when I walked off that bridge.
I will conclude by saying that I am grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous and I am inspired to serve the Fellowship in whatever way I can. I urge everyone who can to get involved in service outside of the group. It is an experience not to be missed.
Phyllis H. at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention
Rev. Ward Ewing at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention