An atheist at Alcoholics Anonymous
Spirituality is central to the Twelve Step programme. But when Frank B reached rock bottom, he discovered that even the godless can be saved
I am crunched tight in the fetal position, whimpering pitifully on a piss-stained carpet covered with a layer of crushed plastic Wild Oak Cider bottles. I have ended pretty much every day for the last decade in this fashion. It is May 1999, I am 31 years of age, a skeletal eight and a half stone, my teeth medieval and I smell a little like a pet shop in summer. I am emotionally desolate, haunted by a profound sense of sadness, a thousand nameless fears and the threat of some terrible impending catastrophe. I believe I am ugly and worthless. I hurt all over. My drinking is killing me. My thinking is killing me. My behaviour has made everybody who knows me want to cry or punch me. I have become a peculiar fusion of fox and snake, saloon-bar ponce and high-street pest. My mind is vicious in its pursuit of alcohol. I will steal your wallet and help you look for it. In the previous week I have begged, borrowed, manipulated, collapsed in the street carrying the last of my record collection to the pawn shop, drunk my poor mum’s bingo money and carried out countless other charmless acts of ruthless deviousness. It is a relentless, degrading, endlessly humiliating existence. Everything I held dear has gone and I am close to the end. Trapped. Compelled to harm myself. Day in and day out. Hello, my name is Frank and, though I do not know it at the time, I am an alcoholic and my head has very nearly broken my heart.
Alcoholism is a pernicious, progressive mental and physical illness that will insidiously strip away and annihilate everything in your life that contains love and goodness. Its pathological nature is to isolate you, imprison you and then ultimately bring about your demise. If you are suffering from alcoholism and unable to stop drinking, life will absolutely definitely end in tears. Those tears will typically be shed in prison, on a park bench in the rain, after being sectioned under the Mental Health Act with or without Korsakoff’s Syndrome or alone in a darkened room as I was, drink in hand, arguing with the curtains or sobbing in my underpants to Phil Collins’ Face Value.
As a hard-boiled eight-year-old I had rejected God along with Santa and The Six Million Dollar Man. As a London-Irish Catholic, at ten years old I survived the trauma of being an altar boy by being on permanent nonce alert and taking cheeky swigs of the communion wine. How could any sentient being watch a single episode of the BBC One O’Clock News and still maintain the existence of a loving, interventionist God? Life itself demonstrated every minute of every day that it was completely arbitrary and random. Bad things happened inexplicably to good people all the time, there was no real meaning to life and my life in particular as viewed in the broken mirror of the toilets of The Sun pub was spectacularly, unavoidably doomed.
I had clocked the shady figures, smoking away, huddled around the side entrance of the church, many times as I stumbled around. I usually hid my face and hurried past. Until, on one unremarkable Monday evening, 6 June 1999, utter exhausted desperation led me to shuffle into a back-row seat for my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Very occasionally, when a human being finds themself in a position of complete mental and physical collapse, there is a fleeting moment of such tremendous intensity that it can serve as the starting-point for a life-saving change of direction. I needed truth. And honesty. And simple practical help. And eventually I found it.
Coming from a very physically and verbally violent background, I had instilled in myself a sense of guarded self-sufficiency. Trust no one and keep your anguish to yourself. My initial conditioned understanding was that a drink problem was overcome via a “Battle with the Bottle” war of attrition. But sustained recovery doesn’t work like that. It is the wrong dynamic. AA is a program of everyday selfless constructive action. To get sober you need to get vulnerable. Breathe. Discover the power of softness. A big ask if you have operated in a state of advanced survivor’s hustle all your life.
AA’s masterstroke in contrast to other therapeutic and holistic disciplines is that it establishes early doors that you cannot think yourself well. No amount of mental exertion or willpower is applicable against alcoholism. You come for your drinking and stay for your thinking. And with the thinking comes the fear. The true bogey-man of all alcoholics. If my thinking is the problem and I cannot solve the problem with the problem, then I need a new internal line of defence against picking up the first fatal drink and equally, without a drink, against becoming mentally unwell again. For the majority of AA members that line of defence means God. God as you understand Him. Underlined and in italics in Step Three of the 12 Step Program of Recovery. And often an old-school God with a capital G who protects, guides and takes the time to schedule the events in your life. Divine intervention and acts of providence are commonplace interpretations of life-altering experiences shared throughout the 77-year history of AA. A benevolent God steps in when all else has failed. This is an approach to sobriety that essentially means from here on in letting God run the show and you getting out of the way through prayer, faith and appropriate loving actions. Seductive, comforting and empowering. But not for me.
If you are an atheist in AA and AA is your last-chance saloon, then you have to develop an authentic and powerful workaround to make sobriety breathe for you. Pioneering atheist and agnostic AA members fought long and hard to make it explicit that belief is not a prerequisite of staying sober. And I champion their bold lead. I do not participate in any of the prayers. I ignore any raised eyebrows. God is not looking after me and the Cosmos does not care if I relapse on cheap vodka or not. Outing myself as an atheist in AA proved to be an incredibly liberating act. It pared away any delusions or expectations of life. It gave me a way forward of simplicity and responsibility. It made me look deep inside myself for the answers. It made me embrace the strength and healing to be found in real unconditional human love and compassion. Love as a group of people sharing their darkest concerns. Love as putting the kettle on. Love as making amends for harms done. Love as sitting all night in A&E. Love as being quiet. Love as being brave. It allowed me to honour my former broken self, lost and petrified in that darkened room, and tiptoe falteringly into the world again. It makes me take nothing for granted. Be simple. Live the moment. To not be afraid. And to know that by staying true to my disbelieving self and under no circumstance picking up a drink, a remarkable second chance at life is here to be lived.
As the name implies one of the rules of AA is that members remain anonymous. For this reason the author is only identified as Frank B.