I sauntered into my first AA meeting in Asheville, North Carolina when I was 18-years old. The drug treatment center that I was attending would bring their clients to outside AA/NA meetings once per week, after they had completed the first phase of the program. The word on the street was that there would be coffee and cookies at this gathering and that there may even be a chance to mooch a cigarette from an unsuspecting bystander. This may sound ridiculous to some but, to us, this was a big deal. All of us had been ripped from the teat of our addictions only 45-days prior and we had spent the majority of that time living outdoors on a diet of trail mix, sausage, cheese, granola, powdered milk, apples, and river water. This wasn’t a boot camp, it was a wilderness therapy program.
Of course, we were safe, we had food, and we had all the therapy that we could handle. The problem was that our brains were still wired for addiction and we knew that the combination of sugar, caffeine, and nicotine could produce a relatively strong “high” effect after we had been deprived from substances for so long. It didn’t matter that we could be kicked out of the program for bad behavior or that we might have to sit in a group for hours, “processing” our choices, if we were caught. We were fully immersed in the fantasy of trying to feel different. Hell, even the intensive planning, lying, and comradery of our heist was enough to get my heart pumping. By the time we got back in the van, we had demolished the cookies, chugged as much coffee as we could manage, pulled at least 6 cigarette butts from the ash tray, and contributed nothing to the meeting.
That night, we rolled the tobacco we gleaned from the leftover cigarettes into our own cigarette made from notebook paper. My bunkmate, who had spent some time in prison, used pencil lead stuck into the outlet near our bed to spark some toilet paper on fire so that we could light the makeshift cigarette. To this day, I’m still amazed that this is possible and that he was able to that without electrocuting himself.
All four of us took turns smoking the cigarette until the fire alarm went off in our room. When the night shift security guy barged in, we all buried our faces in our pillows and refused to say a word as he angrily interrogated the backs of our heads.
What we did was big news around the program that week. We were put in Group D, which I assume stood for Degenerates. We didn’t get to attend any outside activities with the rest of the clients and we all stayed in that group until we left the program. I didn’t think much about that meeting for the rest of my stay and I had no plans of going to another one. To me, it was just another formality of being in rehab.
Most guys were going on to aftercare programs but, I believe a combination of my youth, my parent’s optimism, and my resistance to attend another program, left my current program with little choice in their recommendation. Instead, they gave me stern talks and set up an at-home program of rules and consequences for my parents to enforce. One of the stipulations was that I go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days. I remember thinking, “Well, I don’t think they even have AA meetings in my town so we will see how that goes.”
Surprisingly, when I returned home, I had every intention of following all the rules. I was grateful to be out of treatment and I never wanted to go back. Being sober didn’t sound all that bad for now so I got online to see if they had any of these AA meeting things. Sure enough, they had about 20 meetings per week within a 20-minute drive from me so I surrendered to the recommendation.
Showing up to my first voluntary AA meeting, by myself, was terrifying. It didn’t help that it was held in a big church because I had been raised in a completely secular household. I was greeted by two elderly men at the door and welcomed inside. The demographic landscape was not much different inside the big meeting hall where the event was taking place. Probably 50% of the members were at least 65 and the other 50% were 40 plus. I knew that I stuck out like a sore thumb.
We had done pseudo AA meetings in treatment so I kind of understood how it all worked. I knew that I could pick up a “chip” for my 60-days of sobriety and I understood the general format. When it came time for the chip presenting, I nervously raised my hand and approached the front of the room to claim my prize. A tall, old, bearded man, gave me a big warm hug and bellowed, “How’d you do it, son!? in a deep southern voice so that the whole crowd could hear. I froze in front of everyone with no idea of how to answer that question. “WTF? How did I do it?” I thought. I stammered, “Well, I just went to rehab and I couldn’t do anything there and now I’m trying to stay sober so…. yeah.” The group erupted in applause and I was completed bewildered.
After the meeting, there seemed to be an unintentional line to talk to me. Everyone wanted to know what my plan was, if I had considered a sponsor, and if I would be coming back. They handed out their phone numbers until I finally saw a chance to escape as they were folding up the final table. The experience kind of freaked me out but, I also felt a warmth and calm when I climbed in my car to go home. It seemed like these people really cared about my well-being.
The meetings were spread out across town so I went to a different location every night. I had the same experience with most of the same people at every meeting and the energy slowly shifted from nervous to slightly confident. I was like a celebrity at some of these meetings. I was always the youngest person and I almost always got called on to share. After about 2 weeks, I picked the youngest guy I could find to sponsor me and we started working the steps. He was a really relaxed guy and I could relate to his story, even though he was in his 30’s. He was like an older brother and he wasn’t too wrapped up into doing things by the book.
For some reason, I kept going back to those meetings. I think it was mainly because I had no other social life in my small town and it gave me some credibility with my parents but, there was also something about being cared about that made me feel really good about myself. Within months, I was speaking the AA language, working the steps, sharing in meetings, putting away chairs, picking up service commitments, and praying. I didn’t really ever understand what I was praying to but, it felt good.
I went to over 250 meetings in the 2 ½ years that I lived in Arkansas. After that, I somehow got a job working at a treatment center in Utah and I immediately started going to meetings there. We would have meetings in the program I was working at and I would go to meetings in my off-time to meet people. There were a ton of young people in recovery in Salt Lake City so I began to thrive. I started going to AA campouts, conventions, and I started sponsoring other guys when I was only 21. For the next 5 years, I went to 750 more meetings and I stayed sober the whole time. I diligently went through the steps twice and I sponsored at least 30 guys. Most of them were short-term but, I did go all the way through the steps with a few.
I went to the International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous in San Francisco where there were over 5000 people in attendance. I went to the International Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous in Atlanta where there were over 60,000 people in attendance. As I traveled the world, I attended meetings in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Thailand, and Switzerland. Everyone was speaking the AA language, using the same book, and working the same steps. I felt completely welcome, wherever I went. Without AA, I don’t know if I would have stayed sober. Without staying sober, I know I wouldn’t have the life I have today. So, why did I not only leave AA, but also find it necessary to write an article about it? Here’s why.
It can easily be seen and understood that AA survives and thrives based on the love it gives, the service it provides, and the agreements it upholds. Most of this can be found in the 12 Traditions that run alongside the 12 Steps. Agreements, such as Tradition 3, remind members that the only requirement for membership is the desire to quit drinking. Something as simple and pure as this, is foundational for an open-minded and inclusive program, such as AA. Tradition 6 reminds members that AA ought never endorse, finance, or the lend the AA name to any facility or outside enterprise. This keeps the program free from outside influence and corruption.
And, this trend of humility, thoughtfulness, and compassion continues in the steps. Step 1, which some say is the most important step in the recovery process, asks that we admit that we are powerless over alcohol, that are lives have become unmanageable. For many, this truth is glaring. Alcoholics Anonymous does not stray away from real world action either as Step 9 requests that we make amends to all those we had harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others. How big, impactful and profound the steps can be. Although you could easily harvest a barrel full of good cherries from the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, here are where things get tricky to explain.
I will do my best to sum up my reasons into 3 categories so that they can be easily understood. My humble goal is writing this article is not to fix but, to put words to something that others may be feeling and to open up enough dialogue so that AA can evolve and meet the needs of all people who are struggling with substance abuse. Everything needs to evolve in order to grow and prosper and AA is no exception. I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe speaking my honest experience is the first step in creating real change in the world. Not many people have spent as much times in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous as I have and I feel a duty to do my best to improve the world in the areas that I inhabit.
The God Thing
If you’re a person who is secular or agnostic, you need only read to Steps 2 and 3 before you’re left scratching your head. Even though the book offers the steps as suggestions, this is far from the truth when it comes to how it presented culturally and how it reads in plain text. Step 3 says “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God – as we Understood Him.” I’ve listened to countless people try to explain this to others in their own words only to end with, “Well, it’s just your however you understand it.” Yeah, but what about the whole “give your life to God” part? The most fitting translation for me was that it would be helpful to stop trying to control everything but, why must I have to go through the confusing process of dancing around the elephant in the room and why is sobriety being tied in with divine servitude?
Or Step 6, “We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” This is implying that an outside force does the job of removing your character flaws and that they can be fully removed in the first place. This may have made more sense in the 1930’s but, it doesn’t make sense now based on all we know about the brain and psychology. It’s not possible to completely remove one, let alone all, of one’s negative character traits and it’s only by years of brain healing and therapeutic practices that we are able to inhibit our impulses enough to avoid most of our destructive, negative behavior. Believing that something is going to remove all of these from us, forever, will be frustrating, at best.
The Big Book gets into the weeds again when it explicitly tries to explain further to non-believers in the chapter, We Agnostics. It goes as far to say that “a spiritual experience is the only thing that will cure your alcoholism” and that “this will seem impossible for an agnostic”. On this point, it is obvious that the authors have tied their definition of spirituality to the God they believe in and unnecessarily narrowed the prerequisites for a healthy, happy, sober life. It is 100% possible to have a spiritual experience as an agnostic toward God and although powerful or “spiritual experiences” seem to be a theme in self-discovery work, they are not, by any means, a requirement to quit drinking alcohol.
We Agnostics takes many wild swings at this topic only to end with “He has come to all who has honestly sought Him!” If you’ve made your way through the rambling, incoherent, heap of assumptions, sugar-coated condescension, and anecdotal evidence without blinking an eye, then you may not understand what I’m trying to say. But, if you’re eye brow raised, your jaw dropped, and you chuckled to yourself as you read along, what are we to make of this? It is clearly not a fact-based explanation and there are way too many fires to put out in one go around so I will leave it at this: this chapter will continue to be a dead weight in AA’s mission to carry its mission to everyone struggling with alcohol.
If it seems like I’m being unfair to the author’s then let me drive home this final point. I think they did a pretty good job with what they knew and it’s not the book that needs to go. No, it belongs in the Alcoholics Anonymous Archives in New York City just as much as all the other information, pamphlets, and history records that hold in place the roots of this resilient program. Where it doesn’t belong is on the table of every AA meeting in the country. Today, we can write a way better book, we can write more informed steps, and we can finally let go of the old ways that are driving many people away. They have worked for so many, including me, for a long time but, the program needs to evolve in order to include everyone. Members who want to keep their God or their Higher Power can still do so without needing a book to point to.
Bottom line: As an agnostic, I can no longer ignore or talk around the real words that are on the page. It’s time to finally acknowledge that the Big Book is just a book and it needs some 21st century revising.
So much of the power of AA lies in it’s emphasis on community, service, and recovery. In fact, the simpler you make AA, the more altruistic, connected, and healthy it becomes. It’s when people start to think they know the “right way” that things start to go awry. Just like the God thing, ideas only have as much influence as a group gives them. There are many things that the authors of the Big Book never thought to cover because they weren’t an issue when the census was in the 100’s, the majority of members were white males, studies on addiction were lacking, and the drug problem wasn’t what it is today.
In the handful of meetings I’ve gone to in the last few years, I’ve been amazed at how unhealthy habits are such a huge part of the culture. There will often be cookies, cakes, endless coffee, and group smoking after the meeting, even if it’s 9 at night! It’s rare that someone talks about general health in a meeting because the whole focus is on not drinking or not using drugs. Sayings like, “take care of things in the order that they’ll kill you” get tossed around but, as a group, the work tends to stop at alcohol.
Another unexpected outcome of having a group of people together who struggle relationally is that unhealthy relationships and promiscuity tend to gain traction. Terms like “13th stepping” refer to someone preying on a newly sober member for companionship when they know the newcomer is emotionally vulnerable. Rehab romances become all the rage in the young people’s community and I can honestly report that Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous Conferences are tainted with a fair amount of unhealthy behavior behind the scenes. Trauma and relationships become another issue that is either not talked about or not talked about well because most members are uneducated, unaware, or turning a blind eye to it.
You don’t have to sit for very long in an AA meeting before you start to hear people talking about “we alcoholics”. People who aren’t alcoholics are referred to as “normies” and the discussion tends to take on self-reliant tone. Although many people go to therapy programs to get sober initially, it’s assumed that getting a sponsor, working the steps, and hitting meetings should carry you the rest of the way. However, sponsors are often untrained, the steps are very basic, and meetings are only one piece of the larger puzzle. That doesn’t mean that someone isn’t going to thrive in AA with the aforementioned trifecta of recovery but, if someone is really struggling, most AA members will just double down on their prescription of AA. There is enough value placed on getting outside help for trauma, relationships, and health when AA falls short.
The final piece of culture that I’ve had a difficult time grasping in recent years is the dogma around identity and meeting attendance. Early on in my journey, I loved that I had a special name. Every share would start with, “My name is Bryce. I’m an alcoholic.” Yet today, that ID doesn’t resonate anymore and I’m left confused as to what to identify as if I’m in a meeting. It’s not crazy to think I would be mocked if I were to say that I “used to be an alcoholic” and even “recovered alcoholic” comes with the connotation of arrogance for many. This idea of transcendence from addiction doesn’t seem to be a topic that most members are open to. Nor does the idea that you can live a perfectly happy life, completely divorced from the program of AA. I’ve heard many “old-timers” speak heavy handedly about the necessity to keep attending meetings or risk going back to the drink. For many young people, hearing this can conjure a feeling of skepticism and/ or dismay. “Does this mean I have to keep going to meetings for my entire life in order to stay sober?” I remember wondering. This thought clearly struck fear in me as a newcomer to AA and I this was a definite concern when I moved overseas about 4 years ago. However, I found that close relationships, personal work, and honesty were the cornerstones of a happy life and I was able to dispel some of these myths I believed in for so long.
Bottom line: Although AA may help many people get sober, it’s not the final solution for everyone and it’s important to move beyond just “staying sober from alcohol” and into a full understanding of complete well-being. Finding support outside of AA can be very worthwhile when it comes to dealing with core shame, relationships, and health. Alcoholism is not a special sickness, it is just one representation of the human struggle. And finally, it is possible to transcend the disease of alcoholism and to live a fulfilling life with or without Alcoholics Anonymous.
Better Ways for Me
Like I said, I grew up in Alcoholics Anonymous. I became a man, I found my best friends and I learned how to be a leader in Alcoholics Anonymous. This program was the springboard for me to find my passions and my tribe. The paradox is that it also brought me to the point where I felt I needed to create something new and personal to what I was wanting. This came in the form of a life coach, a Heart Circle, and a therapist. After I spent about 18 months overseas, I came back to Utah with a blank slate. I had followed my dream to travel around the world but, I had lost touch with the recovery community, I was very single, and I didn’t have any professional guidance.
I started going to AA again but, the feeling was different. The crowd had changed faces and I wasn’t in the loop with many old friends. They started talking about God in the meetings and I realized I hadn’t thought in those ways for quite a while. It didn’t make sense to me anymore, as much as I tried for it to. My mental and physical health was at an all-time high but, I was having a hard time connecting with people who were making their health their #1 priority.
Without much to lose, I contacted a man that I had used as a life coach sparingly throughout my adult years. He was instrumental in helping me follow my dream to move to Utah and then travel abroad. I started meeting with him some and he brought up the idea of a Heart Circle. I gathered a few of my best friends from all over the country and we began to meet on the phone, once per week, with guidance from him. A couple of friends came and went until we ended up with 5, core members. One of our agreements is that we strive for clear minds through abstinence from mind-altering substances.
I met my current wife Jenny about 3 years ago and we started seeing a marriage therapist about a year into our relationship. Jenny is also a marriage therapist so I started to become more interested in learning about real, evidence-based, personal work. As my internal life began to transform, so did my external life. As a couple, we were meeting with a therapist 1-2 times per month, I was meeting with my coach, 1-2 times per month, I was meeting with my men’s group once per week, and I was no following my passion of becoming a professional life coach. I began attending trainings, workshops, and taking online courses.
I realized that I was learning new tools that AA had never taught me and I was on a learning curve that far surpassed what I had been accomplishing when I was going to AA on a daily basis. My support system challenged me to look at my whole life and to make big changes in every aspect. This required significant financial investments and I began to charge money as a certified life coach. This went against the cultural of complete altruism that suggests I can only keep what I have by giving it away.
All of this created some aversion to the rooms of AA. It wasn’t that I was actively avoiding Alcoholics Anonymous. I just wasn’t feeling as included or interested anymore. When I would show up to a meeting, the message seemed circular and sometimes redundant. Organically, I kind of just stopped going.
As I looked around at other people I knew who had been sober a long time, I realized that many of them weren’t really attending meetings either. They had families, hobbies, and careers that took up most of their time. There were also long time AA members I knew that still went to a lot of meetings and who were living great lives but, it just clicked that there was more than one way. It’s not that I feel I outgrew AA or that AA would banish me for my atheistic lifestyle, it’s simply that I had reached a place in life where I wanted something different. And, it’s my belief that there are countless others out there who are looking for something different and who don’t know that there are other ways.
Bottom line: It’s really important that everyone understand that they are in charge of their own lives and that they can strive for what they need and want. For some, AA provides all of that. For others, it may be a part or nothing at all. You are capable of creating the life you desire.
This article is simply my experience and is not meant to diminish the power that AA has on positively affect people’s lives. I am still 100% sober and I consider the program an instrument in saving me from a life of addiction. I still recommend that anyone struggling with addiction attend AA meetings on a regular basis in order for them to see what a path to recovery can look like and to connect with a supportive community. Although, I’m not an active member of AA, I’m still open to attending when I feel inspired to. My goal is writing this was to shine a light on the issues that are not being addressed well in AA. I hope my words give a voice to other’s feelings and that it moves us closer and closer to a world where we are winning the battle with addiction and where everyone feels included in that fight.