Sober in the City: An Atheist Walks into AA

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I’m an atheist, so it’s pretty ironic that my epic celebration of Easter Sunday 2008 is what ultimately landed me in an AA meeting. On that fateful Sunday, my biological mother (I was adopted because she was a crack addict — a shit show of a story that I will save for later) came into the city to take me out for drunk brunch, an activity that seemed to be the only thing we could bond over because being sober while listening to her justify her abusive behavior was soul-crushing. We started off with the usual: bottomless mimosas. This turned into an afternoon of bar hopping. After she went home, my partner and I invited friends over to our apartment and we continued to drink… until around 8am-ISH.

Still drunk as the morning sun crept into my living room, I sent an e-mail to my employer requesting a sick day. (Yes, I was one of those people who came to work with colds and flus because I would use up all of my sick days to sleep off hangovers. Although I guess I was always technically sick, but in a different way.) After hitting send, I stuffed my face with a bunch of food and fell asleep. Hours later, I woke up crying. I had promised myself time and time again that I would quit partying so hard, that I would drink in moderation. And yet, here I was… AGAIN.

For the first time, I admitted I needed help. I picked up the phone and started calling substance abuse treatment centers and organizations. All of them wanted me to make an appointment, bring in my insurance card, and jump through a bunch of hoops. But, I knew that if I waited another day, the lure of vodka and good company would convince me that I in fact did not need the help that I was so desperately seeking in that moment of clarity. Throughout the day, I alternated between making calls, crying, and sleeping, until my quest eventually led me to an organization of volunteers who assist people with finding AA meetings convenient to their schedule and location. The person on the other end of the phone told me to get dressed ASAP and go to a meeting in a nearby neighborhood that would be starting soon.

I was reluctant, but I threw on a pair of pants, some sneakers, and a dirty sweatshirt and headed to the address provided. I was a bit confused when I first arrived. From the outside, the space was dimly lit, almost like a bar. I was such an addict at the time that I thought, hell, if it is a bar and I’m at the wrong place, I’ll just have a drink. But, it wasn’t a bar. It was the coolest AA meeting, nothing like I envisioned AA to be. The members dim the lights to give it a nice, relaxed vibe. Between the lighting and the stories, I was hooked. AA is where I needed to be. I finally found home. Until…

After a few weeks, some of the members started asking me if I had a sponsor, if I believed in a “higher power,” and if I was working the 12 steps. I was told that I was focusing too much on the “problem” and not enough on “solution.” They warned me about the perils of becoming a dry drunk: a person who basically engages in the same destructive alcoholic behaviors, only without actually drinking. These behaviors could ruin my life just the same as if I were on the sauce. Furthermore, they said dry drunks ran a greater risk of relapsing, which of course would exacerbate existing problems, or worse, lead to death.

These messages really resonated with me. I did have many character defects I wanted to address. There were behaviors I wanted to change. I was ready to stop the shenanigans and work on solution. But where to start? Therapy? Shall we talk about how my crack addict mother abandoned me, leaving me behind to live with my sexually abusive stepfather until the courts awarded my grandparents custody of me when I was 14? Maybe I should explore the feelings I had about my grandfather also being a raging alcoholic who would rip doors off of hinges when he was wasted? Or my grandmother dying when I was 17 and how, since high school, I supported myself and buried all of this pain as I plowed through college and grad school? Perhaps I might want to examine why I shacked up with another addict who constantly encouraged me to stay wasted? Also helpful might be researching the genetic component of alcoholism and addiction, since it seemed to run in my family?

“No,” the fellowship said! None of this mattered. I could talk about these factors and process in meetings. But, ultimately, I needed to follow the guidelines in the Big Book (the complete text of Alcoholics Anonymous) to the letter, or else I would fail! And, according to the Big Book:

If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic. If that be the case, you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer… Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God.

…we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom.

Obviously? The only thing obvious to me was the book’s sexism, misogyny, and victim blaming. It didn’t matter that I was molested or grew up in a home where I was exposed to drug use. Nor did it matter that I may have been dealt a bad genetic hand and possibly predisposed to addiction. All that mattered was that, according to the program, I was “spiritually bankrupt” and needed God to set me on the right path.

So many problems with this, I don’t even know where to begin. I’m going to save the sexism and misogyny for another post and start with the fact that I’m an atheist. Even if I did believe in God, I simply cannot ignore all of the burgeoning scientific explanations of alcoholism that include a number of biopsychosocial factors outside of religiosity or lack thereof. There are plenty of atheists who are not addicts, so being “spiritually bankrupt” could not possibly be the only explanation for my alcoholism. Thus, finding God could not possibly be the only solution.

My skepticism was met with condescending reassurance. Members instructed me to believe in anything greater than myself, and that soon, if open to it, I would eventually believe in God. They advised that I pray to anything, even a radiator (yes, a radiator) and to read the chapter “We Agnostics” in the Big Book, which includes passages such as:

To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face. But it isn’t so difficult. About half our original fellowship were of exactly that type. At first some of us tried to avoid the issue, hoping against hope we were not true alcoholics. But after a while we had to face the fact that we must find a spiritual basis of life – or else.

…We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. ‘Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe that there is a Power greater than myself?’ As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we empathetically assure him that he is on his way.

Oh, fantastic! I must submit to a God (they soften the blow by allowing it to be any God) or be doomed to an alcoholic death. It sounded a bit too much like “pray the gay away.” You know, like I was choosing to be an alcoholic, like I chose to be gay, because I was “spiritually bankrupt” and all I needed to do was find God to cure me of all my moral failures. (By the way, I’m not likening homosexuality to alcoholism as Rick Perry does. Being gay is not a bad thing, and it was not ruining my life the way alcohol was. I just do not believe that either are “moral failures” that can be cured by praying to a God that I do not believe in.)

The fellowship said I was thinking too hard about it, that I was stubborn, and that I was not willing to admit that there were forces bigger than me. What they didn’t get was that I did believe there were forces beyond my control, powers bigger than me. Let’s just take gravity as one of many examples. I just don’t believe that praying to gravity or the radiator or the ocean would cure me of my alcoholism. Sure, meditation could be one tool to alleviate stress and perhaps make me a better person. But, to literally turn my will and life over to the care of a radiator until I could find God? Uh, not going to be effective for me!

Some people were really supportive. They would point to a sign on the wall that read “There’s No Right Way to Get Sober,” or share AA slogans like, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” All helpful, until I would be asked to speak at a meeting and members would respond, “I use to be like you. Lost. Godless. But, don’t worry. You’ll ‘get it.'” I became increasingly resentful. And, I was told that my resentment was due to my unwillingness to accept God. It was not feasible to them that, perhaps for some, God isn’t real, alcoholism is real, and that there may be a way of treating addiction without shaming people into believing that there is an omnipotent being invested in our daily drink consumption.

But, here was the problem: Despite all of my issues with AA — sexual predators, verbal abuse, misogyny, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and victim blaming — it seemed to be the only thing keeping me sober. So, I’m not writing this to deter anyone from seeking out AA if they feel they need help. Rather, I would like to see more inclusive, progressive versions of AA. As a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs concluded:

God belief appears to be relatively unimportant in deriving AA-related benefit, but atheist and agnostic clients are less likely to initiate and sustain AA attendance relative to spiritual and religious clients. This apparent reticence to affiliate with AA ought to be clinically recognized when encouraging AA participation.

I, like many other atheists, stopped regularly attending meetings, with the exception of a few queer-friendly meetings from time to time. Still, I’ve maintained my sobriety for five years and three months to date.

In February 2014, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Alcoholics Anonymous, Without the Religion,” which documented stories of individuals like me seeking alternative versions of traditional AA. Take Glenn’s story, for example:

When he first went to an A.A. meeting 27 years ago, he found himself confronted by religious language and ritual that he considered anathema. Desperate to stop drinking, he tried to fit in. ‘They had this fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude,’ recalled Glenn, 72. ‘This feeling that the religion will catch up with you. It worked in the sense that I got sober. But I got weary of it. It felt mindless.’ After 10 years without alcohol, Glenn ordered a glass of wine and spent the next five years suffering from what he wryly diagnoses now as ‘the merlot flu.’

And Dorothy:

‘A.A. starts at its core with honesty,’ said Dorothy, 39, who heads the steering committee for the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention.’ And how can you be honest in recovery if you’re not honest in your own beliefs? If you don’t believe in the God they’re praying to, that’s not honest practice.’

Good question, Dorothy! I may just check out one of these meetings. However, not all of us atheist and agnostic queers are so lucky to have such meetings available in our respective cities. And, about that sexist, misogynist Big Book

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Ginger Hale

Ginger has written 13 articles for us.


  1. Obviously this is significantly easier said than done, but could you start a meeting group that fits the guidelines you want? What does it take to start an AA group? (I really want to know)

    Thanks for writing this piece and for being honest about your experience.

  2. I’m sorry that you experience with AA was so sour. I’ve got 7 years clean and sober and had my ups and downs with meetings as well. I’m not sure where I really stand with a HP today, but I have an amazing sponsor, and one hell of a life. I also have amazing friends who are sober. My life truly gets better every year.

    Like with any group or organization some people are awesome and some people aren’t. The book was written a years ago and has some issues sure, but so does H&M, the Gap and just about everything else. If you are looking to nit pick, you can find stuff wrong with everything…everything. Overall it is a program that has saved many people’s lives and families. Hell you have 5 years are you happier? Has your life improved?

    It makes me sad that you are writing so negatively about something that has helped so many people. And while at the end of the article you mention your clean time…the overall tone full of resentment. There are plenty of meetings (at least in NYC) where you can talk about childhood and outside issues. Some AA meetings are less open to those types of shares. Non the less the program is about attraction not promotion. AA is for people who want it, not those that need it.

    • On the contrary, I think she is being extremely honest. Also, I know several AA devotees. It’s like trading one addiction for another. Their addiction is now the Big Book of Misogyny and Prayer and meetings and sober settings. I guess that is better than booze and drugs….but replacing one addiction with another is just not a good thing. Couple that with the god bothering that is a turn off to anyone who isn’t religious and the other long list of issues that Ginger mentions…and…well..the organization just isn’t as good as it is made out to be.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am sure it has saved a lot of lives, and that is great. But that does not give it a free pass from criticism.

    • I totally agree with this article, if AA were not so much about god, I think I could be a member myself. But as a result of my personal history, I have seen AA fail people who don’t believe in god.

      I wouldn’t ever want to take away the positive effect that AA has for some people, but I could never go based on that reason alone.

      Furthermore, it is this precise attitude that makes AA (or relationships outside of AA) hard for those who don’t believe.

    • I get that when something has helped you so much, you want to defend it. But she is not being bitter and rejecting AA. She is pointing out what is good, and then also what needs to be improved on. I think that this is very nuanced and mature.

    • Major Music Kid,

      I am sorry that you are sad that I and others have had negative experiences with AA are openly sharing about it. What I do not like most about it is precisely what is reflected in many of the statements of your comment: that people who criticize AA are often shamed or told we are just “full of resentment” for speaking up, rather than the fellowship acknowledging that, while AA is helpful to some, many of its outdated and exclusive views might actually be HARMFUL to others. As a result, AA has been slow to recognize that “one size does not fit all” and move forward with a wider variety of progressive versions of AA that are more inclusive. The paternal, authoritative approach of AA can be very oppressive and alienating. As a queer person of color, I have heard all to often from society at large that I should not question authority, not have my own opinions, not think, not challenge, not rock the boat, not have agency. I don’t understand why AA (which is built around the same EXACT religious patriarchy that has damaged many of us and that we are currently saying does not belong in our government, our health care, our bedrooms) is above criticism and change. The ole’ “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “the sexism doesn’t bother her, so if it bothers you, you’re crazy” sounds a bit too Rush Limbaugh for some people…and it is very, very harmful if you tell people who are obviously TRYING to get sober that they need to fall in line, or else they will be lectured about how there is something wrong with them.

      To me, being told that I am full of resentment because I question authority is no different then when white people tell POC women that they are “angry black women” when trying to call out racism…or when men tell feminists that they are “man hating” when trying to call out male privilege. Resentment is something that is just an easy card to play, instead of working on AA issues that may actually be preventing many people from leading happy, sober lives.

      And, speaking of my “resentment,” “angry black feminism,” etc., to answer your and the “man’s” question: Yes, I am VERY happy. In the last 5 years of my sobriety I have made friends (both inside and outside of AA) who truly care about me and my health; I have a smart, gorgeous, successful partner who is also atheist and does not drink (she’s a normie, but never liked drinking); I have a new job that pays me TWICE as much money as I made before I was sober (the most amount of money I’ve ever made); I’ve finished my THIRD degree; I’m in the nicest residence I’ve ever lived in; I’m actively involved with LGBTQ advocacy (never was before); I blog for many media outlets; I have traveled all over the world; I actually have money in my savings account; I can go on and on. I’ve also suffered some losses, like anyone else. But, the point is…I’ve done it without GOD or “spirituality.”

      Also, please consider that your comment is peppered with slogans and ideas that are the exact reason why people leave AA. For example, “AA is for people who want it, not those that need it.” This motto is used time and time again to shame people. It insinuates that all alcoholics need AA, or anyone who is questioning it needs to work the program (because questioning for some reason automatically equals resentment and not believing in god automatically means you’re unhappy, etc.). It says “you need AA, you just don’t want it.” Actually, some people may want to get sober, but for various reasons do not actually need AA, it’s teachings, or god. If AA teaches acceptance, empathy, and compassion, wouldn’t it be better to apply that and acknowledge that AA is not perfect, harms some people, and wish that all people, regardless if AA was a fit for them or that they believe in god or not, get sober in whatever way is right and welcoming for them? AA can be (doesn’t have to be or isn’t always in some groups from what I’ve heard) so dogmatic, so authoritative that anyone questioning it must be quickly put in their place and told they should be ashamed for speaking out against their painful experiences with AA.

    • I get that Nit picking.Well some done understand why I have aproblem with the HP God direction. It is because they beleave in God. Actually the god, hp is agaist my religion thats one reason Another is I hear god 100 times in just 4 meetings. If you dont beleave in gods it feels like its being pushed on me. Especailly when I can’t say I am an atheist or buddhist without getting negitive crosstalk. The hp and god thing is pushed. Saying i don’t do the hp higher power path is not safe. I glad you can’t see things from our direction and the eample of minimization you used.

      • In one of the traditions it says: The minority has a voice. But on this topic people don’t want to hear it. You get shamed, negitive comments, put downs. The program should include our beliefs also. Often there is no consideration for others who don’t beleave in god or hp. It’s like too bad if you don’t. Just saying: “I dont beleave”, once in a period of two months is not tolerated well. Despite the fact that I heard god 800 times and the Lords prayer 30 times in that period. Lack of consideration. People say we have the ego? In Buddhism it says it is one of 85,000 paths to enlightenment, AA says it is all 85,000 of those paths. Now lets talk ego!

  3. I really wish places like AA and other therapy would leave god out of the mix. It really could stop people who need help from getting it. Some people come to atheism- at least partly- due to religious abuse. I am one such person. I actually have avoided going to therapy because of the pressure to give god another chance and that jazz. It is seriously the last thing I need, and I’d rather cope with my issues on my own than go through that, because it only causes more damage.

    I am so glad you are sober and doing better. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • You deserve a secular therapist. A reputable therapist would never shove religion down your throat.

      AA was a christian organization from the beginning, doing things this way due to their own beliefs, though they are ok with any religious believer…I wish people knew that so they could avoid religious pressure if they are atheists and agnostics. Atheists need to set up meetings with different, healthy rules according to their own ideas. That would be so great for everyone.

      • I second this! Secular therapy is definitely available, especially therapists who specialize in addiction.

        Just from Googling:

        Shannon, if therapy is something you want but have been unable to find, I recommend searching/yelping/Googling for therapists in your area who specialize in addiction, and interviewing them on the phone and questioning them specifically about their relationship to religion. (Of course you may have done this already.) As someone who has struggled with various things, I of course know that this can be stressful and difficult. But could be worth it if it feels like a safe option to you.

        • Oh, not for addiction, for PTSD due to conversion therapy and sexual abuse. I had a good secular therapist in NY, but I now live back in my hometown in South Carolina. God is everything around here. The stories you hear about the Bible Belt are rooted in a lot of truth.

        • @devoralie Thank you! I can use all the hugs I can get. I thought I was well shut of this place, but moved back in February. My second cousin had a heart condition was on a transplant list, and he just died. My dad had a stroke and other issues that almost killed him while I was gone. My mom has had multiple surgeries on both of her feet. My grandma is 85 has dementia and is barely mobile. My grandpa is 92 with health issues. So, to that end, they begged me to return, when I thought I was well shut of this place. Just keep your fingers crossed that I get the apartment I applying to this week…It will go a long way toward healing to have my own quiet place without my overbearing religious mother breathing down my neck.

  4. Thank you for this article! This is something I’ve been trying to articulate for years! The first time I was handed the 12 step motto/creed I was grossed out. It just rubbed be the wrong way.Ignore the problem and it will get fixed? Live life assuming I’m inherently flawed and unmutable? Nope. Not a thing,not for me at least. Also,I think part of the “success” rate is the same reason that evangelism works so well:You only hear from the ones it works for because all others are cast out and discredited. And really,anything that makes you dependent on it for survival forever,is probably worth taking with a grain of salt.

    It has helped many people over time. But I think,with a new generation of folks with well developed critical thinking skills and the habit of questioning everything,an overhaul is needed. We need an alternative,because I’ve watched what 12 step can do to those who it doesn’t work for.

  5. This is a great article. I appreciate the nuance in not bashing AA, but wanting a better AA. My dad was a horrible, shake in the morning until the first beer, drive his kids around drunk, incoherent screaming, violent drunk. AA worked when nothing else did, including rehab. He went to AA after comingout of a nlackout where he had been driving with his baby in the backseat. He had now been sober for 6 years. I love AA and I am so grateful my dad is alive. He went every day for a few years, until he was strong enough to start feeling uncomfortable with some of the cultishness. Honestly, sometimes maybe people need that cultishness to break free if all their friends are addicts and they will have no one if they quit drinking or using. They need the community and the obsessiveness. But it would be really good to start a non abusive AA like you talked about…great article, would help a lot of people if it happened. And my dad would start going to meetings again. I wonder if I should send him this article even though we are estranged.

  6. I’ve been involved with Al-Anon and have, at various times, found it to be helpful. Fortunately, the group I was in was mostly very supportive and progressive. Groups vary profoundly. As an atheist, I have a lot of problems with the God-talk (and why doesn’t AA have any consistency when it comes to God vs. higher-power references) and the victim blaming and misogyny (which I haven’t noticed as much in Al-Anon but it’s clearly still there in 12-step). I do like alternate versions such as: It’s one tool to deal with issues of addiction but it’s certainly not the only. If this society would place more emphasis on funding addiction-related and mental health programs and resources, we wouldn’t be relying on AA/Al-Anon so much. There are positive aspects to them and I hate to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ but it’s a shame there aren’t more alternate groups and options.

  7. 19 years sober, feminist, queer, progressive. When I first went to AA I was scared because I knew the God thing wouldn’t work for me. Well as it turns out you don’t have to believe in God to get sober in AA. As suggested in the literature, I used the group as my higher power – meaning I saw people in AA who had been able to get sober and have meaningful and generally happy lives as well as manage whatever came up without getting drunk or high. So I thought, “Clearly there are some people here who know something that I don’t know. Am I willing to accept their help and guidance?” And although my higher power has changed over the years to something that resembles a more buddhist philosophy, I was desperate enough to get sober that I couldn’t allow my atheism to get in the way. My suggestion to you regarding the Big Book is that yes, it is sexist and homophobic and all of those things, but I read those bits with amusement, as it is a piece of literature that was written in another time and another place. I work in the field of drug addiction and AA and the Twelve Steps help people get sober more than any other way. Yes, Could I write dissertation on the anachronisms of the Big Book? Absolutely. But I’d rather stay sober.

    • Isn’t excusing and ignoring and brushing aside issues in big organizations what allows said issues to continue?

      I’m glad you were able to look past all that and get sober, but some people can’t, and they shouldn’t have to. The organization should be about sobriety, and identifying the problems that lead to and enable addiction, not about that “higher power” stuff.

      • I have to say though, to agree with CAsnowboarder, believing in anything, even your fellow group members, helps. Anything that’s more than you as an individual in a big scary world. I look to people I admire and when I picture my higher power, I picture my idols and mentors and who I want to be, and that has helped a ton. Doesn’t have to be God, just anything bigger than you.

    • Hi, I just finished reading the article & CaSnowboarder’s comment,I got sober in AA in 1987 & have been sober since my first meeting. Life happened along the way; births & deaths, being in love, falling out of love, living here, moving there. I have sometimes struggled to find a workable, practical and expandable concept of a higher power – I actually explored several ‘spiritual paths’- some of those paths seemed to enhance my serenity & sobriety. one ‘alternative path’ almost killed me; and, while I didn’t drink, I lost myself and everything I had worked for & cherished in my life was stripped away.
      Sober lesbians saved me more than once, I’d like to believe I have helped others along the path as well.
      To me, not drinking, not drugging is just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes, AA is clearly not enough, I want to be immersed in a community of like – minded women, I want to be embraced by both the incredible strength, and healing gentleness of the company of women – often, my higher power takes the form of part of the Ferron song ‘Testimony’ (YouTube it)… ‘By my life, be I spirit; By my heart, be I woman; By my eyes, be I open & By my hands, be I whole.’ That I did not learn in AA, but, without AA, I am sure I would be locked up somewhere or dead.

      • @abbidale @casnowboarder, it is wonderful that AA worked for you. If it weren’t for AA, I wouldn’t be alive either. However, I couldn’t stay in AA because it started to actually hinder my sobriety. Further, I personally do not see what God or a misogynist Big Book has to do with being sober. I don’t understand why the love of atheist lesbians armed with empowering feminist texts couldn’t do the trick. In fact, what research shows is that it’s not necessarily AA’s teachings, but rather having a network of sober support that makes recovery successful. Thus, you do not HAVE to choose between being sober or ignoring all of the problems with AA. You CAN be sober and be critical, despite what is being taught. However, society relies mostly on AA because investing in other types of treatment is not a priority. Thus, everyone is filtered through this program, regardless of whether it is a good fit for them or not. The damage for some occurs when it’s not a fit, but the doctrine states that AA is perfect and there is something wrong with YOU if you don’t fall in line. We hear from those who succeed, but not those who don’t.

    • The Higher power direction, just one, who you focus on, pray to ask for things, rely on. That is a certain path. It is not a Buddhist path. so , therefore, the program is not universal. I have to skip the whole path of HP suggested. That is a Christian suggestion (oxford group) They changed God to hp and to God of understanding. That does not mean the Christian foundation was changed.
      Buddhism has no belief in something we can pray to for help. When people push HP path on me and reject me if I don’t want it. I take it as disresepct for my religion and the old warlike habit of Christians forcing there religion onto others.

  8. I hear this so deeply — as someone totally outside the experience. I’m in Al-Anon, and I’m deeply religious and spiritual (and I wince saying that in a queer space because I know what it usually carries, but it is who I am). I hear this from people looking at the program so often — that they can’t get on board with this Higher Power thing, even when the program says it doesn’t have to be God with a capital G and a Sunday sermon. I don’t “get” that, obviously, because it’s outside my experience, but it does break my heart because I do think (as others have mentioned) the program has really workable parts that don’t require Prayer And Jesus, but it’s so easy for dominant personalities in a particular home group to make it seem like you have to be Religious for the program to work.

    I do think it’s possible to believe in a higher power that is more like Peace, or Joy, or Sanity, or the Wisdom Of The Home Group, or something bigger-than-us, and to have the program work in that context. But I do hear so often from active atheists that the God-talk is prohibitive, and I wish I knew how to help with that.

    • I just skip steps 2,3, 5, 6 and 11. Use secular steps for those and work my own program. One that works for me! And the program is not my total source of recovery. Half of it is Buddhism. I leave behind what does not work for me despite freelance sponsors or people who forgot who’s inventory they are supposed to take. It’s crazy that others take an inventory of my personal program.

  9. This was a fascinating read. I don’t have any personal experience with AA or any other 12 step programs, but I’ve noticed the religious fervor that often seems to go hand-in-hand with such programs, so it was really great to hear your perspective. I would love to read a follow up piece that confronts the sexism and misogyny you’ve encountered in the texts and with the members of these communities.

    • Yes, I’d also like to hear more about the misogyny side of things, if anyone cares to share more about it. I’m pretty unfamiliar with AA and I knew that they were heavy on the religiosity, but I didn’t know about the misogyny (although, considering how often those things unfortunately go together, I’m not surprised.)

      • @Elenore @kasey

        Here is a bit from the Big Book’s chapter “To Wives”

        “The first principle of success is that you should never be angry. Even though your husband becomes unbearable and you have to leave him temporarily, you should, if you can, go without rancor. Patience and good temper are most necessary. Our next thought is that you should never tell him what he must do about his drinking. If he gets the idea that you are a nag or a killjoy, your chance of accomplishing anything useful may be zero. He will use that as an excuse to drink more. He will tell you he is misunderstood. This may lead to lonely evenings for you. He may seek someone else to console him – not always another man.”

        I think this article also sums it up pretty nicely:

        Additionally, there are sexual predators in AA (the whole 13th step issue.)

        Again, I think it’s great that AA works for some people. Addiction is a life or death issue, so some need to do whatever it takes. WHATEVER. IT. TAKES. But, it doesn’t work for me and many others…and those who speak out are sometimes shamed and silenced. We are told we are focusing on the negative, instead of the program acknowledging these flaws and working to rectify them. As I mentioned above to someone who questioned my happiness, I am happy and sober today…and I did it without god or spirituality or the Big Book.

        Also, yes, there are women’s meetings. As a newcomer, I was told by the fellowship make lots of women friends and stay away from the men because…you know…the whole “sex” issue. Ironic because I’m a lesbian. The women rallied around me. They tried to get me to go to a “God box” party, where we would all craft cute God boxes, write our problems on pieces of paper, and place them in the box to give them up to a higher power. This is not something I found to be useful or therapeutic for me, because I don’t believe in God. Instead of respecting that, I was told I was being stubborn and resentful. ???

        • Wow! “To Wives”? I know the book was written in the 1930’s, but didn’t it occur to anyone that women might also be alcoholics?

          I grew up in a religiously abusive environment, and the idea of the “God box” made me shudder. If it helps some people, that’s great. But not for me, nope, thanks, I’m good.

          Anyway, thanks for sharing this, and for being so open about your experiences. Congrats on your long-term sobriety, and wishing you all the best!

  10. Constitutionally incapable here. I cannot being to say how much I needed to read this. While I may die a drunk at least I know I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. Everything 100% Thanks Ginger.

    • Hi Dana,

      You do not need to die a drink because AA is not a fit for you.

      Some of the previous commenters shared these helpful links:

      Keep reaching out for help. Do not let anyone discourage you from getting sober because of your beliefs. There is a way for everyone. One size does not fit all. Not in medical care. Not in the bedroom. Not in mental health. Not in recovery. Not anywhere.

      Sending you hugs and love.

      • *HUGS BACK* thanks

        Over the years, I can’t count how many doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, hospital visits/stays and a 13 month stint at rehab and never have I seen ANY of those choices offered to me. Only AA. I don’t know of any other medical treatment that is near 80 years old with NO updates, has a 10% success rate (so they told me in rehab), blames the patient when it doesn’t work, and is pretty much the only offering of help.

        I also have childhood sexual trauma. Self blame and self-hatred are my natural states of being. The 4&5th step was actually sickeningly fun for me to have ‘proof’ of what an awful person I am.

        Anyway, I found the contradictory slogans confusing, the all or nothing approach unhelpful. Then there’s that tricky bit of atheism. I believe that others believe is as far as I can get.

        • Thank you for sharing, Dana. It takes so much courage to share and to seek help. I too had a difficult run getting sober, with 3-4 relapses before I managed to hit my stride. (One of the relapses, I walked right out of a meeting and straight to a wine bar because, I thought, if this is the only way, I’m screwed.)

          Things AA did help me with (I ignored God/HP/spirituality, moral inventories, etc.)

          (1) Counting days. For me, I needed that. Sober time became a precious, tangible result. The more time I had, the harder it was for me to even consider giving it up. 5 years and 3 months is a lot to give up. It’s hard in the beginning, and one of those slogans that stuck with me was “time takes time.”

          (2) Having a sober place to go. Even if I didn’t buy what anyone was selling and even if I found some people and concepts in AA to be detrimental to my mental health, there were nights where it was either AA or the bar. I chose life.

          Once I got to the point where the temptations and cravings were significantly reduced, I stopped going to meetings as much and started taking a hard look at other factors may have been impacting my sobriety, mental health, happiness, etc. I sought the help of a *licensed* therapist. You know, one who knows that being sexually assaulted and mentally abused can cause PTSD, and that sh*ts real and maybe you just can’t pray it away or stuff it away just so you can just “get over it already.” I got a full physical exam and lab work. For years I was physically weak, depressed, tired…turns out that I was INSANELY anemic! Even without the iron supplements and diet, I felt a huge weight lifted as soon as I got the results – I was given hope at that very instance!

          There are other approaches that worked for me on a day to day basis. I would be happy to share with you if you direct message me on Autostraddle.

          Oh, also, I forgot to give you this link that Jo provided below for Smart Recovery:

          Hang in there! Wishing you all the best and sending more hugs.

  11. This is great! I have had this exact question in the back of my mind sense high school when I had to attend an AA meeting as a part of a class. I have always been an atheist and so when we sat down at this AA meeting and they started to talk about the steps and how AA works, I just could not move past the believing in a higher power part. Thank you for finally answering this question of mine that I have been pondering for the last 8 years.

  12. Experiences with AA are nuanced and varied. I’m a queer, atheist sober in AA for 6 years. The thing that you fail to mention is that AA is the first to admit that it’s not the end all, be all to sobriety. It willingly admits that if you find something else that works, AA encourages you to seek that out even if it’s not AA. No one is ever cast out of AA. It’s in the traditions. The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking and nothing else. Read Living Sober to read this tradition in action. A cross dresser came to early iterations of AA and because of the 3rd tradition, amongst straight, white, upper class hyper-masculine men of “god”, this person was welcomed to the group and got sober because of it. It’s miraculous and the language of the program was limited by the access to other language in those days. All meetings vary and there exists ones out there that encompass the parts you desire (you being the scared, potentially dying queer who wants to get sober but might now know how and reads stories likes this and finds nothing but negativity and hopelessness) and know that, take it or leave it, AA will be there for you if and when you need it.

    • Reading some of the supplemental literature that AA has published after the Big Book that addresses so many of the grievances in this article, before dragging it through the mud and reifying falsities that claim AA doesn’t make space for anyone who isn’t white or male would be helpful. It alienates and others people who identify as gender fluid, queer and atheist who bring radical queer ideology/politics to AA and thrive. They aren’t mutually exclusive and to imply they are is divisive and dangerous.

      • I do not feel that sharing my personal experience is dragging AA through the mud. I know it is hard for people to hear criticism of anything that basically saved their lives. I totally get that. But, anytime I questioned AA, I was told not to question, not to think, not to challenge. I did read the supplemental literature. That did not stop me from being badgered by other members on a regular basis to find god (or fail) and to read the big book. The messages I received (from people who were not licensed to provide therapy or medical care) were completely confusing and conflicting. On one hand, the only thing required for membership was a desire to stop drinking. OK, check…works for me. Then, non-stop messages of God and spirituality, etc. For some, the idea of surrender or die works. But, it does not work for everyone, and that should be addressed. I am advocating for change because I do not think AA and the ideals I seek are mutually exclusive. However, to date, I have not found safety in any meeting I attended because the overall message I got time and time again was that I needed spirituality to stay sober, which was not anything I could honestly commit to and that made me feel like a failure every time I walked through the door. And, I think it is OK to share my own experience with others who are feeling the same way and who may be discouraged — maybe even considering relapsing — so that they know they are not alone. I think what is dangerous is not questioning and making those for whom AA does not work suffer in silence.

  13. Thank you for this article! I don’t have any experience in AA, but I have been working the 12 steps in Codependents Anonymous for almost 2 years. If you don’t know much about CoDA I’d suggest checking out the book Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. I would say about half of the members in my home group have come to CoDA through AA or other substance abuse groups. A lot of the family of origin subjects you talked about (abandonment, sexual abuse, child abuse etc.) is exactly what brings most people to CoDA. We don’t run away from that stuff, we bring it out in the open and get down to the nitty gritty. Many people consider codependency as the root of most addictions, and I definitely consider CoDA my personal life saver.

    All this being said, when I first got into recovery I really couldn’t get down with the whole God/Higher Power thing. I really rebelled against the 2nd and 3rd steps because I thought I needed to subscribe to a specific image of God (human, male, white etc.). Fortunately, my home group uses very neutral language and we mostly use non-gendered pronouns, and the word Higher Power, in place of God. No one even really describes their HP, it’s considered to be a very individualistic, personal thing. My sponsor never pushed me to believe in anything specific, but he said “Think about the things you’ve made your HP; things that you allowed to determine the course of your life. Other people, institutions, chemicals, or even your parents. Now, what do you think you could believe in that really resonates with you? What do you connect with on a soulful level?”

    In my experience, I realized I couldn’t work my program without coming to believe in something. The only thing I could kind of, sort of connect to was the natural world. I’ve always loved the outdoors and have felt most at peace sitting quietly outside. When people ask me what my HP is I tell them it’s the sound of a bee’s wings or the color of mist rising off a river. And I just went with it. Little by little I started to develop my own spirituality which is completely unique to me and my needs. Somewhere along the way I just started believing. My HP is not something I need to “submit” to or “obey”, rather it is that little voice inside me that tells me what I need to take care of myself.

    This is just my experience. If there’s one thing being in recovery has given me it is hope and a renewed sense of self. I have never experienced the type of self love and self knowledge that CoDA has given me, and I hope you find something similar in your program. Thank you again for writing this wonderful article! Well done!

    • Thank you for sharing, and thank you for your support. I find love and light in many things, power in my sobriety, great freedom in self-care as a QPOC. Some people call this spirituality or god. I do not see it as so. The little voice inside my head is just my own thoughts. However you slice it or dice it, work what works for you. The HP thing just doesn’t work for me, but I’m very happy that it works for you. We all deserve happiness.

  14. No 12 Steps for me, no AA meetings, no shame or guilt……Alcoholism is defined as a medical problem by the medical community. However—courtesy of AA—it is treated as though it is anything but. People are taught that it’s not something that can be cured unless they’re working the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps are not a medical intervention! Furthermore, the recidivism rate for AA members in extremely high. Treatments that use a medical model and treat the alcoholic with medical interventions—instead of AA’s shame-based offering—have a much, much, higher success rate.

    • Interesting! Can you provide more information about these medical interventions, and whether mental health counseling/support is included in that? I’d love to read more. Thanks :)

      • I hear what Rickshaw is saying about the recidivism rates. I’m not sure what medical interventions Rickshaw is referring to specifically and am curious to learn more as well.

        I do, however, also recognize that some people have biological mental health/recovery comorbidities that cannot be simply addressed by prayer or “self control.” Some may benefit from medications in combination with therapy. For example, anemia or thyroid problems may cause depression that can lead to a relapse! Others may be self-medicating because they suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. and may wish to take prescription medications in conjunction with therapy. But, I’m not down with blaming and shaming, and I’m not down with telling said people to pray their problems away. I respect peoples’ individual preferences when it comes to achieving wellness, health, and happiness. One size doesn’t fit all. Thanks for the link you provided below!

  15. You really nailed this topic for me! I had a wispy-washy Tarot kind of vague spirituality when I arrived at AA on 12/1/03, and they was surged me that I could work with that and stay sober. The years rolled by, the questions and objections mounted “I feel almost physically sick when we do “To Wives” in a book study. I finally had a spiritual awakening that shook me to my core: None of that is real. NONE OF IT. There is no “supernatural realm”, no sentient HP, no teacup orbiting Mars. We have one Freethinker meeting here, but it’s really small, and there is at least one person at every meeting who is way into churchianity wanting to “bring us good news.” After ten years I can barely sit through a whole meeting, and I feel my atheism has totally separated me from the rest of the program-and how satisfying is it to have a friend who blathers on about “God’s will” anyway? I am at the loneliest point in my life-cut off from the fuzzy feels of AA and living in THE premier wine valley in California. I have been told I probably am not an alcoholic after all, if I can go over ten years without a drink and not believe in God. I can guess where that reasoning would lead me-straight back to the bar. Bitter, party of one, right this way your table is ready.

    • You’re definitely in a tough geographical location to stay sober (I’m in the area, myself) – but seems like you’re doing the right thing by reaching out and commenting here! Thanks for sharing!

  16. There is another group that one can seek out called a Smart Recovery group. I was dating a guy who could never get past the religious affiliation that AA has. He started researching and came across Smart Recovery.

    The main goals of Smart Recovery are

    1: Building and Maintaining Motivation
    2: Coping with Urges
    3: Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors
    4: Living a Balanced Life

    I’ve read the big book and have been to some AA meetings myself and I have to say that even I liked the approach that Smart Recovery had more. It’s more about seeing the reasons why you have these urges and then asking yourself what the consequences will be, and following through to not doing those urges because of the negative consequences. With practice this way of thinking (of satisfying immediate urges) can be changed.

    here is the link to their website if anyone wants more info

    They have really great online help to find someone to talk to even if you don’t have a Smart Recovery group around you.

    I think that anyone with the strength to get help is beautiful.

  17. I’d like to share something. It’s not something I like talking about, but here goes.

    A little over a year ago I was in the Navy. 5 years in. My life was falling apart around me due to a lot of factors, and I had always had an alcohol problem, though I never realized it or wanted to. That final year I fell off the deep end. Drinking when I woke up, at work, all day every day.

    I got caught, and the Navy sent me to their Rehab program (SARP, Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program). It was roughly a month long, and a total joke. I almost got booted from the program because it was AA based, and every time I butted my head against the religious aspects of it, I got shot down and almost terminated from the program. This would be bad, as I would be a program failure, and my eventual out process from the military would have gone much worse. I’m an Atheist and got much the same tut-tuts you did from the instructors and shrinks. I was put on probation twice because of it. While you’re on probaation one more infraction, something as little as smoking when you’re not supposed to, being out of your room, etc, and you’d be a program failure.

    So I sat down, shut up, and just paid lip service to all of it. I left the program and drank right at the airport going back to my duty station. A few months later I was out processed from the military (I got an honorable due to things and circumstances, thankfully).

    But I kept drinking, and drinking, and drinking. Tried a few more AA meetings and just couldn’t get behind any of it even as a civilian. I’m actually 92 days sober right now. I had to come the realization myself. The whole AA stance really soured my rehab process, and I honestly think it made me take longer to actually make the change I needed in my life, as I kept shunting responsibility to everything else besides myself.

    I now have a good job, a great girlfriend, a house, and lots of little fur babies. I don’t want to risk any of it, and I am holding myself accountable, which is how I’ve finally managed to stay sober. I had to stop blaming other people, or putting faith into things I can’t conceptually grasp as reality, and accept the fact that no, I cannot have a drink ever again.

    And that’s ok. Finally.

    • Woo hoo! 92 days! That is fantastic.

      I am sorry to hear about your experience. It took me 3 or 4 relapses and lots of pain before I finally found the combination of what works best for me. One size does not fit all.

  18. Thanks for writing this article! I’ve made many of the same critiques about AA (the sexism and misogyny mostly) and when I first went I did have an issue with the “God” thing but I never once got the impression that it was about religion; in fact, most of the people I know are not religious and were/are atheist. I’ve found that spirituality in AA is more about getting out of myself because I, like most alcoholics I know, tend to be obsessed with self which manifests in many different forms- for me its constantly thinking and analyzing everything around me to the point of paralysis and depression. But when I help someone else, or realize that a lot of stuff (definitely not everything) is out of my control, that paralysis gets less. This works with science too! My partner is an atheist AA and she always says that science is her higher power.

    Also, I’m SO sorry that people in your meetings told you not to go to therapy and that you experienced victim blaming. Again, most of the people I know in AA go to therapy (and encourage others to go) and get a lot from it (myself included). When I did my 5th step with a sponsor I told her about being sexually assaulted and she made it absolutely clear that I had no part in that (obviously! But I could understand where you might see the victim blaming in steps 4 & 5 because we talk about our part in things). Also, everyone I know agrees with the fact that alcoholism is biological. I can’t believe that is still disputed by anyone.

    AA keeps me sober (almost 6 years) and I go to 1-2 meetings a week. I stick to women’s meetings and go to Queer meetings when I have a chance (but I’m in rural Connecticut so that’s not often). I’ve mentioned my feminist critiques to other AAs and most agree with me but some disagree (lots of men, obvs) and some even go as far as saying that we can’t/shouldn’t change AA from its original, inspired form because it could mess up the process, or the magic, of AA. This really makes me mad; what if the whole world acted that way – oh wait, lots of people do :( . So I’ll never stop being critical, and I hope you don’t either. I also go to MA meetings when I can – Yes, that’s Marijuana Anonymous!- because Mary Jane is one of my major issues. MA is amazing! It’s like a more modern version of AA. MA doesn’t use pronouns for a higher power and it doesn’t say god anywhere (just higher power). It’s the best.

    Any way, I know a lot of people on here have commented about their experiences with AA – some similar, some different. I have definitely noticed it is different depending on location. I got sober in Santa Barbara and hot damn that place is THE best place to get sober -women’s meetings are amazing, and there are so many young people and queers in the rooms. I hope you find what works for you.

    And to comment on something someone said about not being nit picky because the whole world is that way – NEVER stop being critical about social institutions (especially those made by men in a capitalist world). There’s always room for change and revolution.

  19. My father had the exact same experience with AA. He’s been clean and sober for many years but no longer attends meetings because the religious overtones were too overbearing. He tells me that he thanks AA every day for getting him clean and introducing him to a sober community, but just couldn’t sit through the paternalistic nature of the God-talk at the meetings, and he’s not even totally atheistic. He actually does believe in a higher power, which I think is all the more compelling for your argument. He just felt that it was exclusive to people who had varying feelings about God and religion. Thanks for sharing this. I actually feel that it will help people find a way to attend AA meetings knowing there are people out there who have used it to get sober, and who can do it without the God stuff.

  20. I had a similar problem with the Al-Anon meetings. It was helping but eventually I got tired of people trying to shove religion down my throat.

  21. Thanks for this article! I’ve been clean and sober for almost 9 months and have a few things to say about this.

    I should preface this with the fact that I’m from a town in Oregon, a couple hours south of Portland, that is by far liberal leaning and accepting of the queer community. I’ve attended AA meetings as much as possible since the day I got sober. There are 3 specifically queer meetings a week in my town and I have a pretty solid feeling that this isn’t how AA operates in certain parts of the country.

    There’s no doubt that the big book is full of misogyny and homophobia, and I definitely hope that one day it can be rewritten to carry the same message in a way that’s more accessible to different identities. However, at least in my AA community, this is acknowledged at nearly every meeting in town. In my experience, AA has done nothing but welcome people of all different identities, stressing the fact that all that really matters is that we’re all there to get sober and most likely have suffered from the same misery that active addiction and alcoholism causes.

    I have also never experienced the victim blaming mentality that you mention a few times. My heart goes out to you for having that happen, especially in a place that you were told would be safe. My sponsor and other people I trust in my fellowship have explained to me time and time again that I had no part in the abuse I suffered.

    As for the God thing, yah, it’s been super fucking difficult for me to wrap my head around how I’m supposed to turn my will and my life over to the care of something that I truly cannot begin to wrap my head around. I struggled with this an incredible amount in the first few months of my sobriety. The thing that I’ve figured out about myself is that I’m an inherently spiritual person, I just can’t get down with calling that God… and AA has been nothing but supportive of that.

    My “God” is the energy we’re all putting out in to this world, sincere human connection, life without ego, unconditional love, the spirit of the universe, and the middle of the forest. When I read that I kind of want to puke, because like… it’s so woo woo sparkle magic… but that’s sincerely what I’ve turned my life over to, and like I’m still sober, which is nothing short of a miracle.

    I guess I’ve just turned in to one of those people that believes that AA truly saved my life. I don’t mean that joining and signing my life over to an obsessive religious cult saved my life, cause that’s not what happened. What happened is I found a community that fosters and supports spiritual growth, that allowed me a safe space to work through the things that got me to the place where AA was my only option left, that offered me a community of sober queer folks who would support me and love me when I had no idea that’s what I needed, that showed me how to live and cope without turning to drugs and alcohol on a daily basis.

    Sobriety is fucking tough for people who are for some reason programmed to get loaded as a response to pretty much anything. Recovery looks different for everyone, and it’s rad that you’ve found a way that works for you. Our ways just look different!

  22. Because of the nature of this article I expect only those who have experience with the dark side of alcohol/drugs will be responding, so you are hearing feedback from folks who have either been in your shoes or have watched someone spiral/recover.
    You do not have to believe in god to attend AA meetings. If you don’t like the atmosphere of one group, try another or as Devora mentioned you could start your own meet up. But it does sound like some folks you were in AA with were trying to help you when you mentioned “There’s No Right Way to Get Sober,” and, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” I wonder why you rejected that. Anger undermines personal growth. I know this from personal experience and if you cannot move past the negative in your life and strive for a healthier and more positive outlook then you undermine yourself. This is not victim blaming; it’s reality. You cannot expect a wound to heal (no matter how you acquired it- I’m not blaming you for your alcoholism-) if you keep picking it open. A shitty childhood and genetic predisposition is the cause of many an alcoholic and they find their way to recovery.
    You seem intent on sullying the reputation of an organization that has an inclusive nature and has helped many, many people. Despite being a militant atheist you admit that AA meetings have helped keep you sober.
    Further, the first AA book was published in 1939 and if your particular group is working from text that hasn’t been updated in 70 years, yeah, there are going to be semantic differences from a modernized version.
    If you did indeed experience proselytizing or conversion attempts I would wager you either live in a very small town where there is only one way to believe in a higher power or you live in the south…where there are also limited ways to believe in a higher power.
    One of the things individuals in my family have adopted is choosing to not make commitments. This is a technique straight out of AA. “We’ll see” and “maybe” are ways to express that you would like something to without overcommitting yourself. You could apply that to god. “Maybe” Leaves the issue of a higher power open-ended.
    I hope your perspective grows and I wish you well on your journey.

    • Your comment best exemplifies my experience with AA. I do not believe in God and never will. There is no “maybe.” I don’t know why this concept is so hard for people to understand. I very happy without a god in my life, as are other atheists. There is no need to pity us or hope we find happiness because happiness exists without god for some. The annoyance comes from hearing that I need to find god to find peace and happiness. It’s the same as the annoyance one might have when their parents keep asking when they are going to get married and have kids when the individual will not be made happy by marriage or kids.

      Also, sexism, misogyny, racism, etc. is unacceptable in any form, and can even be damaging for those who may feel re-victimized by constantly bring exposed to that oppressive hierarchy. I know it was for me given that I was sexually molested by my step father! So, to say ignore it seems just as insensitive as those who tell women who experience street harassment to get over it and just smile. It is putting the responsibility on the victim, rather than asking the perpetuator to accept responsibility and change.

      Furthermore, I did make good friends with and accept the wisdom of those who supported me. I did not, as you say, reject that. But the bad outweighed the good for me. Because I didn’t like the program me, the fellowship says that there MUST be something wrong with me (again the victim blaming), rather than admitting there may be things that need a huge overhaul in the program to make it more progressive and inclusive. This black and white, conservative approach is very alienating for some. I’m not trashing the program, but rather letting others know who have been told that there is something wrong with them for questioning the status quo that they are not alone and need not be ashamed that AA didn’t work for them and that they need not stop their quest to achieve sobriety.

      I am science minded. I do not blindly follow things without questioning. Any organization, program, person, etc. who tells me not to question, not to think too much, or not to advocate for progress and inclusion is suspect, to me at least.

      Lastly, I also do not want to harp on my childhood. But, I think many people, addicts or not, who were victims of violence could benefit from addressing it and learning from it, rather than denying it. I had never addressed it before I tried to get sober, so for people to tell me to get over it or say that it didn’t impact who I am today was also mind blowing to me!

  23. I am really tired of hearing people tell those who feel rejected by AA to “find the right meeting for you.” It’s easy to say that. It’s not easy for someone whose driver’s license has been revoked to get to “the right meeting” two hours away, every day.

    I would absolutely recommend people find the most tolerable meetings that they can realistically attend regularly, but everyone going in should definitely be armed with the knowlege of what the author of this post experienced, because it can’t just be ignored.

    I struggled with the religion issue in my experience with Al-Anon, and it really opened my eyes to why my brother has such a complex relationship with AA. My personal aha moment came when I realized that my “higher power” is actually the lack of a higher power. The idea that we are simply animals ruled by nothing but nature (which, in its total ambivalence, gives some of us the chemistry ideal for addiction) is (oddly?) comforting to me, especially when presented with the alternative that “God has a plan and he deliberately gave your loved one a shitty role to play, now thank Him.”

    Of course if “God’s will” works for someone and gives them the drive to be a better person? Great.

    I have taken “take what you need and leave the rest” very seriously; all of my literature has passages blacked out and notes in the margins. What sense I did find though, and the experience of connecting with others who are also trying to find peace of mind (when your subconscious is screaming at you to stay in crisis mode indefinitely), really made the bullshit worth it for me.

  24. Ooooowwwwweeee this is the best thing I have read since the last Benghazi report!!! Yes, Yes, Yes…about time someone takes down AA like I’m going take down the GOP!

    Ok, so I don’t actually mean that. I totally agree that AA helps a lot of people and I am happy about that because I need those people to be sober enough to vote for me on the morning of November 8, 2016. Ok, kidding again! I AM genuinely happy that it helps and people should explore it for themselves.

    But, really, the god thing is so freaking old. Literally old, like, 6,000 years old! Let’s get with the program. Are you really going to take for granted everything from some beat up book talking about Directors and Agents. It sounds like the Matrix!

    My advice is to question everything. Have freaking congressional hearings on your issues and get to the bottom of it. Talk to people, talk to your therapist…it works! It’s not, “oh, if you pick your scab, it won’t ever heal!” What kind of an advice is that? Oh, bury it deep inside, pretend it didn’t shape your life (cuz god did), and then leave it up to some invisible-it-can-be-anything-you-want-or-make-up-god/power/higher power/energy.

    Jesus!! Yup, I…

  25. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I really appreciate this column, especially since it must be a painful topic to write about and be so public about. And I’m sorry you had to deal with an extra layer of awfulness when getting clean is already so horribly difficult by itself.

    I also wanted to link to this book by Dierdre Hebert (who is a trans* woman, btw), called ‘The Pagan in Recovery: The Twelve Steps from a Pagan Perspective.’ Obviously, this isn’t going to be of interest to atheists, but this is the only alternative resource I know about. Sorry! On her radio show (Pagan FM) Dee has talked about feeling alienated in AA because of the religion thing, too, so I thought I should leave a link in case this might be of interest to any Straddlers out there.

  26. Thank you for this. I’m part of a recovery group that includes recovery from just about anything, and it incorporates AA language and traditions (my first exposure to them). I have a lot of people in my life who talk about how much AA has helped them with issues besides their drinking, so I was grateful to be getting exposed to it without actually going to AA. For me, at least, though… I just can’t do it. I’m not an atheist, but I’m uncomfortable with the “I have no control and I am a wretched human being” vibe that I get from the 12 steps, and from what I’ve seen, I could not sit in a meeting and ignore the misogyny/homophobia just because the book is from a different time. I’ve been feeling sort of alone on this front, and it’s so nice to know that someone else has had a similar experience, and even nicer to know that you’re still sober despite it.

    • Thank you for the support and the share. You are not alone! Wishing you all the best on your road to recovery.

  27. I’ve been sober for 10 years, queer for over 35, and hold a doctorate in English with concentrations in queer and feminist theory from a university with an internationally recognizable name. I completely understand where you’re coming from.

    When I was getting sober, I spoke to others privately about my atheism, and I found there were others like me in that respect. Some had long term sobriety and were able to help guide me–people I respected intellectually and professionally as well as personally. It took time and patience, but I found them. I found a sponsor from that small circle. From him, I learned that I could tell the religious people they were ‘promoting instead of attracting’ toward me, that I had a sponsor already, and their comments were unwelcomed and offensive to me. This generally stopped the before and after meeting comments toward me.

    But I also came to recognize that for the vast majority of drunks coming through the doors, latching onto the God concept was integral to their recovery. Learning that my resentments– not just about the mention of God in meetings, but toward the world in general–required a change on *my* part (a lesson which comes around Steps 8&9), and led me to acceptance of this mild difference between my personal version of spirituality and others within the group. So when people brought in Higher Power or God during meetings as they talked about what worked for them, I came to understand that “Higher Power” is code for “that which brings me peace.” Instead of berating them for their shares, I learned I could instead talk about what moved me to peace in times of turmoil. For me, it was always walks with my dog off leash in the forest where I was unlikely to run into others. For my atheist partner, it’s reading from her unabridged edition of Walt Whitman’s work. When I talk about conferring with my Higher Power, I’m talking about getting clear on a walk in the woods. “Praying” is meditation. I don’t get caught up in semantics, and I find neither do most of anyone else in AA. Whatever works for you to get you centered is perfectly fine.

    Being queer, radical, highly educated and a woman, I rarely find anyone who perfectly dovetails into my world view. That’s okay, today. I’ve learned to concentrate on what I have in common with anyone I meet. And that, too, has brought me peace.

    • @kbow, this is REALLY super helpful and awesome! Thank you for sharing. It gives me a lot of comfort to know that someone else had a similar experience and found a way to make AA work for them. Maybe I am in a place now to return and seek out other like-minded individuals in the program. I really like the concept of “what brings me peace.” (Although, personally, I feel that what brings me peace is all a biological response to stimuli, not “spirituality.”)

      When I entered the program, almost everyone was badgering me about HP/God/spirituality. Also, some of the women thought that I was a lesbian because I was sexually abused and/or because I didn’t believe in god. They held onto the hope that I would be cured of both my homosexuality and alcoholism as soon as I stopped being so resentful and opened my heart to god. *Some* of the men, when not badgering me about god, were intrigued that I was a lesbian and would ask me questions about it and/or try to hit on me.

      At the time, I was really vulnerable. I was a victim of sexual abuse. I was just getting sober. I was living with an active alcoholic. I was desperate, beaten up…I did not have the self love or voice to set boundaries with anyone, let alone in a space that was so integral to my mental well being. So, I used AA until I got enough time under my belt and the cravings went away. Then, I worked on my other issues with professionals so that could I find the self-love and peace I could not find in AA. (And, I was successful!) I left AA before I got to steps 8 & 9 because AA itself was becoming a trigger for relapse. In fact, I met other newcomers who were desperate to get sober and ended up relapsing because of their experience with AA. They didn’t have time on their sides to search for the perfect meeting and align themselves with the right people. The negative experiences they had right off the bat sent them right back to the bottle, and this is something that can be prevented.

      The point is that one size does not fit all. It is important that people understand that some of the AA issues I speak of can be real barriers to recovery. This is a life and death matter.

      I am at peace now. I wanted to let others know they can find peace and sobriety outside of the program if it doesn’t work for them. They can also find it inside the program if it works for them. Whatever works, work it!

  28. PREACH! (pun intended)

    I’m in NA, and this is why I only go to super liberal women’s and queer meetings, but this is all still there :( Luckily although both AA and NA have a shit ton of problems that you mentioned above, NA has a teeny tiny booklet as opposed to Bill W’s Giant Ass Book of Misogyny and Victim Blaming.

  29. Yeah, I’m a member too, and thank you for bringing this stuff up – we have a sexy gay senator in Australia called Penny Wong, whose partner became pregnant at a time when Australian politics was stagnant, toxic and repressive (sadly, those times are still going). Penny totally avoided negative fallout from the pregnancy by saying something like ‘I don’t think anyone would criticise something so personal and private and lovely’. I think so many things fall into the personal, private and lovely category, including a healthy spiritual relationship with the universe or the great forces or the spirit of the goddess. I almost never share about my own such relationship and am disappointed that others sought to foist theirs onto you.

  30. I would like to point out a group called Seeking Safety. It is designed to help those with PTSD and substance use. It may be difficult to find a group in some areas, but I would recommend checking it out if you can.

  31. I’ve noticed this common theme both in the original article and in many of the comments. I am astonished that many of you seem to think AA should change into some organization that meets your specifications. AA is what it is and it works for many people. If you want some group or program that doesn’t rely on God, uses more “inclusive” language (although I am going to suggest that your idea of inclusiveness excludes others–just not the people you care about), and whatever else you want in a group that AA doesn’t have, then why, in the name of Zeus, don’t you start your own thing? Don’t you think it’s rather arrogant for you to show up at a place and start demanding that it change for you? Everybody is entitled to group up with others like themselves. If you feel excluded, it may be some issue you have or chip on your shoulder–or it may be because you just don’t agree with the philosophy. I don’t know how old you are, but you remind me of when I was young and demanded that the entire world be changed to be non-sexist, non-racist, etc. But before you run around destroying institutions such as AA, you might want to ask yourself what business it is of yours. How does the existence of AA, with all the flaws you perceive, threaten you? AA isn’t for everyone. There are all kinds of ways to stay sober.

    • I hope I never stop demanding “that the entire world be changed to be non-sexist, non-racist, etc.” because really that’s the world I want to live in.

    • Yes, Kari! Yes!

      Cynthia, I’m not asking that AA get rid of religion or its spiritual basis. I am talking about my personal experience and why I left AA and that I am still sober. I’m letting others who have had similar experiences know that they CAN leave AA without being ashamed or feeling like a failure AND still stay sober too. I’m talking about the fact that, “In any other area of medicine, if your doctor told you that the cure for your disease involved surrendering to a ‘higher power,’ praying to have your ‘defects of character’ lifted, and accepting your ‘powerlessness,’ as outlined in the original 12 steps, you’d probably seek a second opinion. But, even today, if you balk at these elements of the 12-step gospel, you’ll often get accused of being ‘in denial.’ And if you should succeed in quitting drinking without 12-step support, you might get dismissed as a ‘dry drunk.'” (Maia Szalavitz). I’m talking about how this idea that addiction is a ‘moral failure’ prevents society from investing in treatment and moving forward with more comprehensive, evidenced-based, diverse treatment modalities. I’m talking about the many addicts who are treated as criminals and then mandated to faith-based treatment programs, which may not be in line with their beliefs ( I’m talking about all of those who are shamed or told something is wrong with them if AA doesn’t work for them, instead of society acknowledging that one size does not fit all and coming up with alternative solutions.

      And, like Kari, there is no room for racism, sexism, etc. in my world. Especially in an “institution” that our society relies so heavily on for addiction treatment!

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