By Bethany D.
AA Without God
Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people recover from alcoholism. The stories told in the Big Book, personal testimonies in meetings and the twelve suggested steps have been the building blocks of a program that has helped men and women get sober and stay sober for decades. There’s no mistaking, however, the pervasive assumption in the AA community that a person’s belief in God (or the generic reference, “higher power”) is integral to a program of recovery. Many members believe they are sober today because they gave their “wills and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Newcomers of all faiths and those without a faith are welcome at meetings initially, supporting the third tradition that “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.” Eventually, however, they are often encouraged to be open to having “a spiritual awakening.” The core of the program is spiritual in nature.
Secular AA, a subcommunity within AA, is comprised of men and women who identify as atheist or agnostic. They do not subscribe to the concept that God can cure the alcoholic. Instead, many agnostics/atheists in AA believe that people have the tools within themselves to recover from alcoholism and/or that they can recover with the help of each other. While attending Secular AA meetings (at the time of this writing, I’m just shy of one year of not drinking), I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the personal stories of atheists/agnostics with 20, 30 and 40+ years of sobriety. If they can do the work of getting sober without God, then I can too! Some Secular AA members do not think that getting a sponsor or working the steps is useful. But many do. Thankfully, new publications and podcasts are available by and about people who are working the steps without the help of a higher power.
One example is a recent book by Jeffrey Munn titled, Staying Sober Without God 1 This book addresses the twelve steps from a practical perspective, eliminating all references to God. Being a person who tends to build structure around my efforts to change my behavior, I was attracted to the title, eager to investigate how to work the steps from a practical (secular) perspective around my addiction to alcohol. The book did not disappoint. When I finished reading it, I knew I wanted to work the steps with his suggested approach. I followed Munn’s suggestions for steps one, two and three. I paid attention to how unhealthy drinking had compromised my physical and psychological health, and I started looking for ways to create a healthy lifestyle by making better choices. I wrote down answers to the questions Munn posed and then shared them with my sponsor.
Step 5: Sharing My List with a Trustworthy Person
I recently completed the fifth step with my sponsor: “Shared our lists with a trustworthy person.” I spent the previous month working on step four. I wrote down my resentments and the associated information in three columns: “Specific Action (Fact),” “Emotional/Practical Impacts,” and “Unhealthy Behavior that Contributed to the Resentment.” Once the writing was complete, it was time to share what I had written. Over two telephone sessions with my sponsor, I read each resentment on my list, then read across columns of my chart.
The first entry on my list was Mother. Under “Specific Action,” I read, She put her emotional, physical and financial needs before mine, using her status as “mother” to gaslight me into trusting her. In the “Emotional Impact” column, I read, Growing up, I felt unloved and emotionally unsafe; today I feel emotionally damaged from learning to distrust my own emotions; I feel alone in the world. The next column contained how I contributed. For years I had responded to these thoughts by self-medicating. During this fifth step exercise, though, instead of reaching for a glass (I mean bottle) of wine, I was able to articulate to my sponsor the unhealthy behavior that contributed to the resentment: Hoping for my mother to change, believing that she would love me one day, if she just had the right information or perspective, I stayed locked in a cycle of abuse. I also denied her faults and limitations as a parent because I wanted (needed) to believe I was loved by my mother. I followed the same process for each of my listed resentments.
As I read the resentments out loud, I could physically feel the anger and sorrow that gave rise to the resentment in my body. My chest got tight. My palms got sweaty. I felt defensive and vulnerable. Gradually, though, I started to experience other feelings. My sponsor did not appear shocked or offended to what I was communicating. She listened empathetically, without interjecting judgment. I then noticed that I was observing myself with love and compassion. With each entry, I invited my sponsor into my ugly, depraved world, a world that had been hidden for many years. Instead of affirming the internal belief that I deserved the negative emotional impacts I had written down, she said to me, “I see you in that situation. I see your pain and sorrow. You are ok now.” Someone said I was OK! Here was a message that challenged the old belief! Now I could say, “I am OK.”
I was also noticing some patterns around a belief that I deserved to be mistreated: gaslighting by my mother, belittling sarcasm by my father, constant destructive competition from my sister, and internalized Christian messages that I could never measure up to who God wanted me to be, could never be obedient enough to transform my evil nature into goodness. Maintaining the belief that I deserved to be mistreated allowed the resentments to linger.
Creating a New Narrative
Doing the work in the fifth step, I learned how to respond to my resentments with acceptance. I took a clear-eyed look at past events that had taken place, how I previously responded, and how I respond to the events now. One of my biggest fears in life is that I will be bombarded unexpectedly with sharp and powerful images of offensive past behaviors, being done to me or by me. I try to escape the fear I feel when I encounter the images, by trying to hide from them or destroy them. For years I’ve lived afraid of my own thoughts! But by revisiting frightening scenes of my past with acceptance and compassion, and sharing them with someone empathetic, I am learning that I don’t have to hide or destroy any of my thoughts. I can look at them directly and allow them to be, in me and with me. My biggest fears are subsiding.
By the time I got to the end of my list of resentments and fears, the resulting emotional shift was palpable. My hands and shoulders relaxed; my speech softened. My previous state of fear, anger, sorrow and pain was transforming to one of peace and acceptance. Yes, I felt incredibly vulnerable and tender, but my defenses were dissolving. I was heard, understood, accepted. I was creating a new experience with those events, a new association that did not involve alcohol. I could now think about these events with a positive response. I did not have to respond with a drink. This powerful exchange with another human was leading me to serenity. In fact, nowhere have I experienced internal psychological shifts relating to my sobriety more acutely than in working this step. It was not God who created these shifts towards an emotional sobriety. It was my willingness to address my resentments with rigorous honesty and share them with a trusted friend that opened my heart to look for alternative healthy responses to life events. I am convinced that engaging in healthy behavior will enable me to stay sober.
Serenity Comes from Human Connection
Social relationships are the essence of human nature. Paying attention to the human dynamic of the fifth step activity – sharing my resentments with someone else, and then taking responsibility for them by sharing how I contributed to them – has revealed alcohol as a poor substitute for human care and love. Alcohol is not glamorous, or scary, or powerful! It is simply an old response to a deep need. It cannot give me what I am ultimately in search of: acceptance, love and compassion for all parts of me.
Using the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to achieve sobriety is not for everyone. But for me, secular versions of the steps have provided a framework within which to understand and embrace my sobriety. Responding to the suggestions around the fifth step described in Munn’s book has encouraged me to discover meaning in the events from my past and to share my story and process with another person who has walked in my alcoholic shoes. I did not, at any point, think I needed to involve God in this process. God did not help me find healthy alternatives for my behavior or change my heart. As the author Life-J stated in a recent article, “[W]hat works in this program is one alcoholic helping another.”2 In my case, while working the fifth step, my relationship with another alcoholic, my sponsor, helped me to begin the process of dissolving my fear and transforming it into hope. So I can say: I will not drink today.
1. Jeffrey Munn, Staying Sober Without God, San Bernadino, CA, January 6, 2019.
2. Life-J, AA and What Really Works, November 3, 2019, https://aabeyondbelief.org/2019/11/03/aa-and-what-really-works/