The Challenges of Twelve Step Recovery for Agnostic Alcoholics
Going to my first AA meeting at the age of thirty was the best thing that I ever did. I loved the fellowship from my very first meeting. As a drunk, I was someone who lived on the margins of society, alone and isolated. I suddenly found myself in a community of people like me. They shared openly in meetings about how I felt all my life. I had finally found my tribe. Coming to AA was a homecoming.
I was raised in foster care and never had a sense of family that I could call my own. Almost overnight, my fellow recovering alcoholics became the family I never had. This blog will explain why I felt unable to do the steps. Why, at an early age, I stopped believing in God. What were the higher powers that eventually worked for me?
A newcomer to AA
After arriving in the fellowship, I started attending meetings every day, sometimes twice daily. A suggestion that I received was to get into the middle of the AA bed. That’s precisely what I did. When I first got sober, life was chaotic and unmanageable. I was utterly unemployable for my first four years in recovery. With all that spare time, Attending AA meetings became my primary purpose.
It took a while for the alcoholic fog to clear. I noticed things I hadn’t seen before at meetings. Most of my fellow members had sponsors and were ‘working the program.’ What did that even mean? That expression had me bewildered. I genuinely believed that recovery was just about not drinking and going to meetings.
An agnostic reaction to the 12 steps
I noticed the scrolls hanging on the walls of the meeting. One of the scrolls had 12 steps, and the other had 12 traditions. I began to read through the twelve steps. After I read steps two and three, my heart sank. As happy as I was discovering AA, I suddenly felt hopeless again. The second step mentions a higher power, and the third says God. I wondered if AA was the right place for me after all.
What did God have to do with not drinking? To me, that sounded ridiculous and left me feeling bewildered. I had rejected the idea of God in childhood and wanted nothing to do with religion. In childhood, having had negative experiences with religion and religious people, the very mention of God would make me “bristle with antagonism”! (BB p.48)
Why did I become an agnostic?
I was placed in foster care when I was still a baby. My mother was forced into this situation because she was single and had to work. In those days, there were no welfare benefits for single mothers. My foster mother was an ardent, church-going Catholic. She put religion at the very center of her life.
She doted on my foster brother, who, in her eyes, could do no wrong. To me, she was cold and indifferent. Sadly, she was also physically and emotionally abusive. My foster mother constantly shamed and put me down. She told me that I would never amount to anything. My foster brother, on the other hand, was the family hero.
By the time I reached nine years old, I wanted nothing to do with God. If his followers were anything like my foster mother, then God wasn’t for me! When my mother put me into care, I experienced this as abandonment. Although she had valid reasons for doing this, I didn’t understand this as a child.
When my mother abandoned me, I felt abandoned by God too. If he existed, he would never have allowed my mother to leave me and place me with this cold, mean-spirited woman.
A Catholic boarding school
When I was about nine or ten, my mother took me away from my foster mother and placed me in a boarding school for boys. Coming from a Polish background, she put me in a Catholic school run by an order of Polish priests. The religious education we received at that school was extreme, as were the religious rituals we had to follow daily.
We attended mass every morning and benediction every evening. Before every meal, we would gather in the assembly hall and say a prayer called ‘The Angelus.’ Weekly catechism classes were also compulsory, as were the stations of the cross and rosary recitals. The priests didn’t hesitate to beat us if we disobeyed the school’s rules.
My Mothers alcoholism
In the meantime, my mother became an alcoholic. Whenever I came home from school during the holidays, she would be too drunk to communicate with me. After my Mum started drinking, there was very little connection between us. By the time I was thirteen, I was so full of anger and pain that I followed in my mother’s footsteps. I, too, became a drunk.
They say that alcoholism is a lonely disease. As a troubled teenager, it certainly was for me. My father died when I was still very young. I missed out on any parenting as they were absent from my life. As far as God was concerned, he did not exist, and the religion of my foster mother was complete nonsense.
Inability to work the steps as a non-believer
So here I was, a newly sober member of AA. The suggestion was to get a sponsor and work through the Twelve Steps. How was I expected to work through them if I didn’t believe in God or any higher power? The fact that God appears in five of the twelve steps made them impossible for me to take. I decided to go into therapy to resolve childhood traumas. I felt utterly unable to surrender my will and life to AA’s suggested program and certainly not to any God!
Therapy instead of the 12 steps
I continued going to meetings and therapy. Over the next thirteen years, I was unable to stay sober. I had dry periods from alcohol, but the madness in my head was too much to bear. My mind was so consumed with resentment about my early life that I kept picking up that first drink again and again. After so many years on this merry-go-round of relapse, I developed a death wish. I no longer cared whether I lived or died. Sobriety was too much.
First agnostic-friendly sponsor
Following my last relapse, I asked David B for sponsorship. He was quite a notorious figure in the London fellowship. David had a reputation for being a tough sponsor. He believed in a fundamentalist approach to recovery. In what seemed like a last desperate attempt to save my life, I asked him to sponsor me. I mention David in my book ‘The Twelve Steps for Agnostics.’
He was undoubtedly a unique character. David was an ex-captain from the British army. His style of sponsorship was like ‘basic training’ in recovery from alcoholism! He started the controversial ‘Vision for You’ groups in London. Some of us jokingly referred to them as ‘The AA Taliban.’ At the time, David was what I needed. I told him that I didn’t believe in God. Despite being a practicing Catholic, David did something that probably saved my life.
Acronyms for GOD: – Good Orderly Direction, Group Of Drunks and Gift Of Desperation
David told me to open “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” on Page 27. He asked me to read the following quote in the chapter on step two. “You can, if you wish, make AA itself your higher power” (12&12 p. 27). Are you willing to follow suggestions,” lad, he said. After so many years of relapse, I had “The Gift Of Desperation.” (Acronym for GOD). If he said “jump,” I would ask, “How high.”
The solutions for an agnostic alcoholic
In step three, David suggested I turn my will and life to ‘Good Orderly Direction.’ (another acronym for GOD) This was in the suggestions that David gave me. He told me that I could use the Group Of Drunks (GOD) as my higher power. From that moment, AA became accessible to me as an agnostic.
As I continued to work the steps, besides other drunks, I began to acknowledge other positive powers greater than me. They were the suggestions I was receiving from David. What made them higher powers? They taught me how to live with the solutions and not remain hopelessly bogged down in my problems. They did for me what I could not do for myself!
It dawned on me that any suggested action was a new idea. These new ideas were the total opposite of my “old ideas.” (See footnote) I could no longer deny that my old ideas condemned me to keep relapsing. I conceded that the new ideas David taught me were powers greater than mine.
The truth was that I had thirteen years of evidence to show me where my “old ideas” got me. The best of my old ideas failed in every area. My very best thinking always ended with the first drink.
“Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas, and the result was nil till we let go absolutely.”
Effective powers greater than me
When I was with David, I realized that the “power greater” keeping me sober was:
- The AA group
- The suggestions of a sponsor
- The steps themselves
- Helping newcomers. “Constant thought of others” (BB p.20)
A non-God-centered spiritual awakening
These higher powers enabled me to do the steps and helped me let go of my past. They guided me toward healing and forgiveness of others as well as myself. As I see it, the complete “psychic change” (BB p. XX1X) that I experienced amounted to a spiritual awakening. The steps completely transformed my perception of reality as well as my history.
This psychic change has not been dependent on a God-awakening. Step twelve in the literature does not mention God. It says a spiritual awakening. Through service to others, I gradually began to experience a non-God-centered spiritual awakening. This beautiful awakening began to transform my life after going through the first nine steps.
I remain open-minded about the question of God. In the meantime, I continue to see myself as a spiritual seeker. Love and service to others are the new ideas I continue to learn in AA. I am grateful for the precious gift of sobriety; that I didn’t quit before the miracle of AA was also mine.