A month or so ago, I received a long, beautiful email from a reader of the site - a fan - that called to my attention a rather large fuck-up on my part: I had asserted that without God, one could not be sober, or, at least, happily sober. This came up on one of the Steps episodes on the HOME podcast, where Laura and I had said that we hadn't known anyone that was sober - and happy - who was atheist (and then for good measure we laughed).
This reader - Alice - pointed out that she was shocked that I could be all about finding your own way and doing your own thing and trusting your own path, and there I was also saying 'Oh but you can't do it without believing in something bigger than yourself.'
The only way I can express the severity of this mistake is in her words.
'By telling people that they can’t recover unless they do or believe X, you are taking away their hope. The only thing people NEED to believe in order to get sober, is that they CAN get sober. Placing conditions on recovery, by saying 'You can’t be sober unless you believe / do XYZ’, is destructive to hope. And hope of a better future, hope that they can stop drinking, hope that there is another way, is the key. So please don’t take hope away from anyone; you don’t have the right.'
This whole exchange made me terribly uncomfortable, and while Alice and I both worked hard to make it right for the benefit of the whole, it has been and remains jugular for me. Because I've had to face the depth of my own judgment. In my mind, because I don't go to church or read the bible or think Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, because I draw from various traditions, because I think it's perfectly fine to use a rosary and a mala, because I believe in past lives and reincarnation and star stuff and use psychics and tarot and astrologers and All things are welcome here people! I was of the mind that I am so fucking open. And, um, I was. I was open to any kind of spirituality someone chose.
Alice's note and our conversations since have made me realize how not open I was to those that do not believe or identify as spiritual. How of the mind I was that for all people the trajectory was Just a matter of time! or Finding the right book! or Hearing the write Word! And then they'd get it.
This is hard to type. Hard to write. Hard to admit. But it's true. When Alice wrote me, I told her that I didn't mean to hurt. And I told her that I didn't get it. Because I don't. It's not my reality.
The beauty of it is I don't HAVE to get it. Just like Alice doesn't HAVE to get me. As I learned more about her, what I learned was how much we were alike, not how different we were.
I asked Alice a series of questions, written below, to help all of us. We'll also be doing more with this topic. Laura and I are doing a HOME podcast episode on it (to air November 11th), and also, Alice and I are going to work together on a resource guide for atheists in recovery. Stay tuned.
Atheism + RECOVERY: 7 Questions.
Holly: How did you get sober? Did you use Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or some other modality? I know you say you used AA for a bit, but if someone came up to you and said 'How do I get sober?' what would you say?
Alice: I would say that I got sober by becoming obsessed with recovery. Equally as obsessed as I had been with drinking. In the early days, I approached my recovery as a full-time job. I didn’t have a job at the time, so thankfully I was able to. I will come back to my tools after dealing with the AA question.
When I first tried to get sober, I was told by some people in recovery who are close to me that AA is THE only way to get sober. I believed them. Why wouldn’t I? So I spent six months in the rooms. I went to well over 50 meetings. I was well and truly IN. I read The Big Book three times, and I was totally convinced that AA was the only way.
During this time, I was offered some free therapy with an addiction counsellor. Six free sessions. In our first session, I told him I wouldn’t be needing further therapy sessions, because I had been told that everything I needed was to be found in the rooms of AA. Thankfully, he encouraged me to continue seeing him, and to keep an open mind about recovery outside of AA, as well as recovery inside AA.
During my six months in the rooms, I kept coming up against the issue of faith. I was constantly told to read the ‘We Agnostics’ chapter in The Big Book. I did. I will quote it now.
'To one who feels he is an atheist or agnostic such an experience seems impossible, but to continue as he is means disaster, especially if he is an alcoholic of the hopeless variety. To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.'
It even contains the sentence, 'We must find a spiritual basis of life - or else.'
Yikes. Scary shit. I remember being terrified that I was not spiritual. Frightened that I didn’t believe in anything besides evolution and science. I spent a long time trying to locate my higher power. I read a whole book on the subject (Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher). I dropped to my knees and prayed. I tried faking it until I made it, although I felt deeply uncomfortable with the idea of saying I believed something I just didn’t. I followed all the suggestions.
I failed in my quest. I really couldn't grasp or believe in the idea of a higher power. I think it is possible to do the steps in a spiritual, agnostic way, but practically impossible to truly do them as an atheist, unless you twist yourself into all sorts of contortions.
In the last AA meeting I attended, the topic was Handing over to a higher power. I had previously kept quiet about my atheism, for fear of rocking the boat. But now there was no getting around it, and the meeting was a small one, of only five people. And it was a meeting where everyone was expected to speak.
I shared that I had no higher power, that I was unfortunately not spiritual in the least, and that my understanding of handing over to 'my higher power' was handing over my urge to be a selfish person, to my desire to be a better person. Acting for the greater good, rather than my own personal interests.
In response, I was told that the program was ALL about having a Higher Power (HP), and you couldn’t do it without a Higher Power. I was told in the shares that followed that you cannot be sober without an HP. The meeting ended and I was shocked to find that I’d been frozen out. The people who had been friendly before the meeting, would not even look at me at the end of it. I felt like a marked woman as I left.
Fundamentally, I don't believe alcoholism is a spiritual malady in need of a spiritual solution, and for that reason, the program is wrong for me. Which is a shame, as I did have some positive experiences in AA. I really wanted to make it work for me, but it just didn’t.
How I Got Sober.
1. Reading every book and blog I could get my hands on about sobriety. I read voraciously.
2. Listening to podcasts. In particular The Bubble Hour. In early days (first month or so) I listened to The Bubble Hour every night. It's just like going to a meeting in that you hear a bunch of people's stories, but they're all from different recovery paths and I think that is ACE.
3. Research into the science of addiction and the brain stuff. I don’t see alcoholism as a spiritual lack; I see it with the same eyes as neurologists. In my opinion, it’s a brain disorder. And that broken-soul feeling is just a result of your dopamine being fucked and your body being exhausted and your brain living in ‘fight or flight’ mode.
4. Exercise. Oh exercise. I honestly felt like I was running off cravings in early sobriety, or sweating them out in hot yoga. Swimming away from the urge to booze.
5. Finding other alcoholics. Through private Facebook groups, and other means.
7. Being accountable to my friends and family. I have told everyone in my life either the full, gritty, morning-drinking-and-shakes truth; or if I don't trust them not to gossip, I've told them I'm a recovering alcoholic, but with no gory details. Telling everyone has helped me torch the 'return to drinking' drawbridge.
8. I keep my self-esteem topped up. Self-loathing, rather than ego, drove my drinking at the end. I had my moments of being a cocky little madam, hell yes, but those were years ago. Now I need to be careful when the voices in my head start up again about me being a loser, useless, ugly, a failure etc. As that is the same voice that follows up with 'How's about a drink then?'
9. I like a booze-free haven. When other people are around, it doesn't bother me. But alone is when I'm most vulnerable.
10. Meditation and mindfulness. I had full-on social panic for the first year or so of recovery and this helped me enormously.
Holly: How did you get around the Higher Power thing? Did you substitute it out or just move away from something that had that language? How did you draw lines?
Alice: I think I’ve pretty much covered this: I didn’t get around it. I tried various alternatives for my ‘Higher Power’, e.g. ‘Love’, ‘The Universe’, and ‘Nature', but ultimately, I didn’t believe that these things could restore me to sanity, or that I could turn my will and life over to them, or that they could remove my defects of character. I believed those things were up to me.
I have been asked 'Do you think you’re the most powerful thing in the universe then?' I mean, NO, of course not. I think I’m a tiny blip amid thousands of galaxies, an ant in the cosmos, a totally irrelevant human being. Why are there only two choices presented? That you either believe in a Higher Power, or think you’re all-powerful? It is very frustrating to be accused of being an egomaniac for not believing in a Higher Power. I find that very black/white – either you have to believe in a Higher Power, or you are saying you ARE the higher power. I mean, what? It just doesn’t even make sense to me. This is the kind of ‘believe or you are sunk/an egomaniac/too smart for your own good’ attitude that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Shouldn’t we be offering everyone the hope of recovery, no matter what they believe, or what meetings they go to, if any?
Holly: When you hear people say "spiritual path" what do you think? Do you think of yourself as spiritual in any way? What word would you use to describe your path? Obviously you've evolved, grown, changed. How do you define that?
Alice: The word I would use to describe my path is – freedom. Finally being free of the constant 'To drink or not to drink?' monologue, or the 'How to disguise my hangover?' fear, or the 'Am I an alcoholic?' debate. Thinking about drinking made up 90% of my thoughts. It is so, so lovely to take drinking totally off the table and free up my mind to think about other things.
I am actually slightly envious of people who find spirituality in recovery. I wish I did believe in an unseen force for good, or my own Angel, or some Avatar-style pagan connectivity hidden in the trees. It sounds awesome, but I just don't.
I have grown and done many things in recovery that I never would have done while drinking. But I don’t see that as a spiritual awakening, it’s just a wonderful side effect of your brain/body not being totally bandjaxed by booze, and having the time/money/motivation/brainpower to do the things you couldn’t do before.
Holly: Do you surrender it over at all? Like, do you ever just say 'I can't do this' and hand this over to the order of the world as you see it? How do you explain surrender?
Alice: I do think I have surrendered in that I have finally walked away from the battle between me and booze. For years and years, I was fighting tooth and nail, trying to control this damn thing, trying to wrestle it into submission, trying to moderate. I see sobriety as walking away from that fight and saying to alcohol – you win. I surrender. I can’t fight you anymore. At first, this felt like a failure, but walking away from that battlefield has turned out to be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
I am actually a huge believer in the message of the serenity prayer, and differentiating between the things you cannot change, and the things you can. ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys.’ is one of my favourite recovery phrases, and finally waking up to the fact that I cannot control other people, or change the world around me, is amazing. I can only change me. I can only change how I react to the circus and monkeys. I used to try to be the ringmaster and tried so damn hard to make other people agree with me, or make people behave the way I thought they should, or change the world to suit me. Now I’m just a spectator. I am more removed.
Handing over. Hmmm. I’ve touched on this a bit with handing over my knee-jerk urge to be selfish to my higher desire to be a better person. But if I’m honest, I really don’t understand what you mean by handing over, because I don’t believe there is anything out there to hand over TO. My behaviour and my sobriety are down to me. If I drink, it’s on me, if I’m sober, good for me. I don’t understand how it could be ‘handed over’ to anything outside of me. And I don’t understand why it’s seen as egotistical to take the credit if you manage to stay sober. We take responsibility for it when we drink, so why can’t we pat ourselves on the back when we don’t drink? I just don’t get it. The whole thing is bizarre to me.
Holly: Biggest one - what do you want to say to other atheists just starting out? What advice, books, tools, resources would you offer? What would you say to yourself as you started out?
Alice: I would say to myself: ‘Don’t be scared. It’s OK that you don’t believe. Despite what everyone says, it IS possible to get sober and have a healthy recovery without compromising your core beliefs.’
The advice I would give to other atheists is to stay true to themselves, and ignore the fearmongering. I would tell them to not just walk, but RUN, from anyone who parrots the phrase ‘Get God or get drunk.’ However, in the same breath, I would also advise them to listen to what everyone has to say, even if they do mention God/Higher Power in every other sentence. To not be put off by God stuff. Some of my best recovery friends are fully paid-up members of the Higher Power mode of recovery, and I learn from them all the time. We believe different things and that’s OK.
I would tell them that each person’s recovery is as unique as their fingerprint and to ignore anybody who says there is only one way. There are as many different ways to recover as there are people. I would encourage them to keep the tools that help them be sober, while discarding those that don’t, without fear. I would also point them towards Nietzsche.
Y’know, in terms of atheist-specific recovery, there really isn’t much out there. If you google ‘atheist recovery’ you get a lot of stories of similarly frustrated people. You get rewritten versions of the steps, aimed at helping atheists/agnostics stay in AA. That’s pretty much it. This is why it would be ace if you could do an ‘atheist guide to recovery’ on Hip.
Having said that, here are a couple of things I would recommend.
SMaRT Recovery. I haven’t actually been myself, but there is no faith or belief-based element to SMART. It’s pure science and about learning new habits.
The Happy Addict by Beth Burgess. Is a good way for atheists to do work on themselves without the steps. Her positive, science-based, no-higher-power-required approach is so refreshing. There are exercises throughout the book, with a view to both building up your self-esteem, and evaluating how you can improve. She talks a lot about challenging our negative internal narrator, which I actually think was key to my recovery.
Holly: Okay, biggest biggest one. What advice do you have for other atheists who deal with people like me? Like, I'm sitting here thinking 'HOW does this woman deal with how much I fucking talk about God?. How? And be honest. I don't take personally much of this stuff (or at least not for long).
Alice: Y’know, it really doesn’t bother me. The only time it bothers me is when the God stuff is presented in a ‘You can’t be sober without it’ or ‘You can’t have a happy recovery unless you find it.’ That really gets my goat, as you know.
For instance, I read the brilliant writing of Melody Beattie (The Language of Letting Go) or Glennon Melton (Carry on Warrior) and get a lot from it. Both of them talk about God constantly. That’s cool. That works for them. I still get a lot from their words. I don’t HAVE to understand or agree with the God stuff, just as they don’t HAVE to understand or agree with my atheist beliefs. It doesn’t put me off reading and loving them. So why would it put me off digging and loving Hip Sobriety? It just doesn’t.
Holly: I imagine you come across people that want to debate or change your mind. How do you deal with that? Similar to me coming up against everyone assuming I had done the 12 steps telling me I was going to drink if I didn't do it. What do you say?
Alice: I have heard the ‘Your higher power can be anything! A doorknob, a dog, the universe’ speech so many times. I tend to say, ‘OK, cool’ and move on. I don’t engage. We don’t need to have a debate about it. The only time I take umbrage is when belief is presented as a pre-requisite to sobriety, or healthy recovery.
And to those people, I simply say this.
'By telling people that they can’t recover unless they do or believe X, you are taking away their hope. The only thing people NEED to believe in order to get sober, is that they CAN get sober. Placing conditions on recovery, by saying ‘you can’t be sober unless you believe / do XYZ’, is destructive to hope. And hope of a better future, hope that they can stop drinking, hope that there is another way, is the key. So please don’t take hope away from anyone; you don’t have the right.
I don’t try to change other people’s recoveries. So, please don’t try to change mine. Because it works for me. So let’s all live happily ever after, and find the serenity to accept the fact we can’t change each other. Nor should we want to. The common goal is: sobriety. Our mutual enemy is booze. Our recovery paths don’t have to match. So let’s all be friends. The atheists and the agnostics and the believers. We’re all in this together.'