Sober Without God: Love, Honesty, and the Pursuit of a Good Life

I recently made the decision to join the ranks of the sober, having been a rather exuberant drinker for more than 20 years, and I have chosen to do it without Alcoholics Anonymous.

coffee This, it turns out, is considered by some to be a radical decision. Alcoholics Anonymous is so culturally entwined with our ideas about alcohol consumption, abuse, and our response to that abuse that it almost invariably comes up when I mention that I have stopped drinking. Until I came clean about my alcoholism, I had no idea just how much this has narrowed the public view about the subject, and I’m kind of shocked. Apparently, the notion is that my choice not to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous not only means that I will fail but also means that I have not fully admitted to my alcoholism. I must be kidding myself. Going sober without AA is an equivalent to failure.

If AA is the only way, then I suppose I am well and truly screwed. The common feeling is that it’s AA or the highway when it comes to alcohol addiction, and any other choice is met with incredulity. Thankfully, logic dictates that there is usually more than one way out of a room, and, being that my way out of this room cannot include AA, I am in luck.

My present decision not to join Alcoholics Anonymous is rooted in an experience I had about twelve years ago when I escorted a friend to a meeting. He was psychologically unstable, and the mixture of his psychiatric medication with alcohol was making a rather spectacular mess of his life. We listened to stories. He told stories. I sucked back sour coffee out of a limp paper cup. I have lost track of that friend since then, but, at the time, it seemed that AA just might have saved his life. He and the program made a good fit.

It is not so for me. The coffee wasn’t the only sour thing about that experience. A quick read of The 12 Steps reveals deep and irreconcilable differences between the program and I. It demands that I believe in a Power greater than myself that could restore me to sanity, that I turn my will and life over to God as I understand Him, that I be ready to have God remove my defects of character, that I humbly ask Him to remove my shortcomings, and that I seek to improve my conscious contact with God, as I understand Him, and gain knowledge of His will for me and the power to carry that out.

No can do. I am a staunch atheist. There are obviously forces greater than myself in the universe, but I cannot and will not understand these greater forces as particular godheads with particular wills invested in the direction of humankind. I just don’t have it in me. I’ve been told that I can visualize this Power in any way that suits me, but there is no way that would both suit me and not leave me feeling more insane than I went in.

There is no God to restore my sanity. There is no God that would remove my defects of character. There is no God with a will for me. And I will not admit to a powerlessness that demands I switch one insanity, alcohol, for another.

What I do believe in, though, if my sobriety is to be successful, is support from a community, which is what I think AA has accomplished extremely well with its network of support group meetings dotted throughout every city on every night of the week. That is one aspect of the program of which I wish I could take advantage, but I think it is probably frowned upon to attend meetings while shunning its core philosophies, so I have had to seek my support community elsewhere.

I am finding my community, if a little haltingly and a little more slowly, even without the ready-made one that comes with Alcoholics Anonymous. I have a list of emergency e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, and Skype usernames at the ready. I have found a group of sober women with whom I can confide and share. I have a partner whose gentle and kind patience has carried me through some difficult days and nights over the last five or six weeks.

I believe wholly and unequivocally in love, honesty, and my pursuit of a good life, a sober life. I have spent the majority of my years on this earth castigating myself for my lack of restraint and poor decision-making, allowing my own weaknesses a drunken pass to design a lesser life. If I am to move forward into a future in which I can both believe and love, a future in which those I care about can also believe and love, sobriety is not an option, and I truly and honestly trust that I can be sober without surrendering myself as powerless before a deity in which I have no faith.

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  1. avatar says

    Just come across your site and agree with what you are saying. I went to AA for a while but it was not for me. I found a lot of the people there were pretty odd, especially those that went to lots of meetings. I’m going to write a bit about my experiences. I have been out of AA for about 6 years and feel so much better. It felt like a huge relief when I left and I’m glad I am proving all those people who say you can’t do it without the steps wrong. Best of luck in the future.

  2. avatar says

    Wow. We SERIOUSLY have to get together for coffee next time I’m up your way. Say hi to Palinode for me, and keep up the good work. You rule!

  3. avatarKelli says

    The person who ever said, “AA or the highway,” must live a very sheltered life! First of all I am certified in the Study of Addiction, and there are about 20 different models in recovery. Secondly, I was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and opiates for more than twenty years and now I live victoriously life. I will say that I did not benefit from AA either, I mean maybe a person can receive some helpful information there but It seems a bit like a cult to me. I will say that there is absolutely no way I could ever do it on my own though. If I depend on myself I might be able to last a year or two but sooner or later something will happen or even out of just plain boredom I will give in as history repeats itself. A few years back I overdoes on cocaine and heroin. And as I was dying, I laid there my body going into shock, I experienced deep demonic torture…somehow I was able to scream out to the Living God, I said, “Jesus Christ, if you are real please save me,” I continued screaming, “Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, if you are real please forgive me now and save my soul!” And I have never been the same since that wonderful day! The wonderful thing is, I didn’t have to do it on my own, I just received Him and allowed Him to do it for me. To stay strong I cast all my fears and worries on Him along with prayer and the reading the Bible. Jesus Christ is the only way!

  4. avatar says

    Thank you!!! My youngest brother has quit drinking and I know that one of the reasons he never went to AA was because of the whole “god” thing. He used it as an excuse not to quit, in my opinion- that the only readily available method wasn’t something he believed in. I feel like judgement is the LAST thing people who have addiction need to deal with.

  5. avatarEn attendant Godot says

    I want to thank you for your very open and honest telling of your struggles and successes. I know deeply just how rewarding, and at the same time tormenting, your effort has been. I am also in recovery from addiction. I have tried AA several times in my quest for sobriety. Although I believe it has helped a great many people, I do believe that as a society we have become too dependent upon its teachings and too willing to believe the folklore that surrounds it. There is a fundamentalist attitude that is prevalent within the AA community. I struggled with this for many years. Having nowhere else to go I was eventually led to the doors of AA and there I was repeatedly told that without a belief in a supreme being I was doomed to either alcoholic misery or death, and how frightening a thought this was for me. Broken and desperate I was willing to believe whatever I was told if it meant I could escape the anguish I was enduring. Only then to live in another prison of fear that I would never get the so called spiritual awakening and I would forever remain in a bleak desperate state of being. I felt as if I was waiting for Godot, but if Godot didn’t show up soon I would die. This conflicted state of mind drove me to the very brink of suicide, that feeling of there being no hope for me as I was incapable of believing what I was told to believe. Often times the only response I was given was to keep on drinking until I was miserable enough to have the willingness to believe in god. I don’t exactly know what level of misery they were referring to, but I hope I never experience it as I believe that myself and those around me have suffered enough because of my alcoholism. I was lucky enough to break through those thoughts that were holding me back, and I was even lucky to find those willing to help me within the AA community regardless of my spiritual beliefs. I am more comfortable now in my beliefs than I have ever been before, and more content in my sobriety. I still attend AA meetings, although not religiously (no pun intended). I know that there are others just like myself that will walk through those doors and I wish to give them the same hope that others are willing to deny them. As AA members recite in every meeting, “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” I run into quite a bit of conflicts because of my beliefs, some are even unbelievably obstinate about it, yet I know that my sobriety is no more reliant upon their beliefs than mine is upon theirs.

    It is a struggle, but a struggle with great rewards. And yes, time does move impossibly slow. However I have been able to revisit many of the activities I used to love but lost the ability to do as a result of my drinking. I even have times where it doesn’t seem like there are enough hours in the day. I still have my struggles, but I’m more able to rationally deal with them. I still have temptations, but those desires diminish as my desires for other experiences grow. I have found the happiness that is within me, and I hope that you shall find it within yourself as well.
    Be well.

  6. avatar says

    I applaud you. Not only for your decision to become sober for yourself, but because you are capable of standing up and realizing that there are other ways to become sober that fit you the best.

    My mother, also an atheist first believed that there was only one way to sobriety, AA. It took only a meeting or two before she realized what she really needed was a therapist.

    Her path is not like most, but it fulfilled her and taught her how to be a more complete person without AA, and without alcohol.

    I wish you continued success.

    And with a mother who has been sober for nearly 25 years without AA, I know it’s possible to accomplish.

  7. avatar says

    We each have to find our own path. Kudos to you for sticking with what feels right for you.

    I attended ACoA for a while, about 20 years ago. It was a great help in the beginning but after a year or so I needed to let go, otherwise it could have pulled me in and down for a long time. I felt at some point, I needed to get past all the muck and move on.

    Well done to you, on your journey! Great that you have / are building, a community of support to help.

  8. avatarmaggie g says

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you got the “u r doin it rong’ treatment from some people but I really am. Who would know better how to manage your own health than you?

    One size does NOT fit all for any health treatment or recovery plan. Why is that a difficult concept to grasp?

    Keep doing what you’re doing and building your community on your own terms. Congratulations and good luck!

  9. avatar says

    I’m another that isn’t using AA (I haven’t talked about that much on my blog for fear of getting blasted…)

    I did try meetings when I first got sober, for about two or three weeks. While there, I remember someone saying that they didn’t know if they could do AA in the beginning because of the higher power, but then it was revealed that anything could be your higher power. Your dog. Just something outside of yourself that would be a voice of reason. I guess that’s one way to look at it.

    All that being said, I’ve found success in sobriety without AA. It’s possible. I think AA is wonderful for some people. But for others, it’s just not a good fit. And that’s ok. I just wish those of us who don’t use the program would get the same respect that we give to those who have had success with the program.

  10. avatarRosalie says

    Good for you! I have 15 years or so of sobriety and without AA. I just decided one day, I guess, and only told people whom I knew would be allies. A year later, I ran into an old “drinking buddy” – neither of us knew the other had quit drinking til we met up – and we didn’t mention it for a week or so. She did AA, I decided I’d go to some meetings with her, feeling like maybe it would help me. My goodness, I never wanted a drink so badly as after one of those meetings! But I think the point is that we just do what we each need to do. Her way has worked well for her (and many others) but not for me. Funny thing, she was atheist when she started, and I believe in God. One size does not fit all.

    Good luck and I’m in the tribe too…

  11. avatar says

    Proud of you, Schmutzie.

    I don’t drink, never have. I admire your courage in wrestling a big, fat, hairy demon to the ground and subduing it. Congratulations.

  12. avatar says

    Well said. I think one the great things about true people is their ability to know themselves and what makes them tick; which in effect means knowing what DOESN’T make them tick. And. . . . (I truly cannot help myself) knowing is half the battle.

  13. avatarMichael Lebowitz says

    If you are sober and you are happier, steadier, more thoughtful, less destructive, more in your life than out of your mind then sober is better than un sober.. Important things to think about and well written but yours to put in in your own tool box. The good news, the best news is that it works for you. My toolbox is different. It works for me and has for years. Together, as we struggle to stay steady, we are better off than alone..the rest of it, to me, is conversation.

    all the best

  14. avatar says

    I like this part: “There are obviously forces greater than myself in the universe, but I cannot and will not understand these greater forces as particular godheads with particular wills invested in the direction of humankind.”

  15. avatarMicaela Brown says

    This is some of the most lucid persuasive writing I’ve read in a long time, and on such a thorny and personal subject. This is an ESSAY in all caps.

    Thanks for elucidating your viewpoint in such a clear and compelling way. As an agnostic I have no opinion or judgment about whether you are correct. I just want to say yay you, yay for thinking about and making a conscious choice. I’d feel the same way if you wrote just as well for AA. What stands out: You. Are. Thinking. Critically. For. Yourself.

    To use the overused vernacular: awesome.

  16. avatar says

    Schmutzie –
    What a bold and wonderful article! I do hear you on the “this way or fail” mentality – it is unfortunately espooused sometimes in AA. I’ve come to realize that it looks a lot like fundamentalist religion – “my way or hell!” I don’t buy in to either one – presented that way. But there are other wonderful and beautiful people in AA, who don’t force that on people, and for whom it has been a life-saver.

    Way to go to speak your truth! My parents had been in AA since I was 17, and I tried to go to the meetings for a while, but realized later I was getting triggered on PTSD issues every time I saw someone who looked or acted like my Dad. So I have been able to avail myself of the 12 steps, but in other programs. And have been sober for many years successfully.

    I salute you for giving your perspective on how sometimes a program can be mis-presented, and how you didn’t just accept that premise!


  17. avatar says

    You’re amazing, Schmutzie.

    You astound and inspire me every time I read you or talk to you, and it sounds very strange, but I often feel hopelessly inadequate around you, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, because you make me want to be better. And that’s a good thing. I think there ought to be more people around who make folks want to be better.

    I love your strength, and your weakness. I love that you are forthright and terrified. I love that you keep moving forward, even though you sometimes give the impression that you’re doing so without your glasses, on a really foggy night, in the middle of a super humid and hot jungle, having forgot your machete at home, and talking to monkeys. Not that there’s anything *wrong* with talking to monkeys.

    Please, please, please know that you are changing the world. One you at a time.

  18. avataringrid says

    You have my whole-hearted support. I have frequently been unable to participate in things due to strong convictions and freakish stubbornness. I left the church about twenty years ago because I could not define my worldview based on its tenants or beliefs. I still struggle to define them with or without, actually.

    I hope you consider me part of your support-tribe. :) I am in your cheering section 100%, virtual splits and pompoms for free.

    You will absolutely do this. Because you are you. Fabulous, smart, funny, determined and yourself and because there are tons and tons of us in your cheering section all with gaudy fabulous unique costumes and rousing chants.


  19. avatar says

    Whenever we make a BIG SCARY change in our lives, we as humans, like to have others with common experience around to support us.

    My mom was sober almost 20 years when she passed, and my dad still has his 2 daily cocktails at 5. I always thought it should be dad in the program.

    Not my call.

    I’ve been in, out, and around the “program” since age 12. I have 4 or 5 purposefully sober years, and there have been times in my compulsive obsessive life that the program community has saved my ass. Thank you AA & NA and all the great people that I’ve met there.

    As you know, I do not believe in a single deity either, though I respect those who do. I recognized the truth that I needed to release my willfullness and desire to control everything ,because “I” was NOT all-powerful. THAT was BIG one. I learned to recognize my virtues and my defects and have acted to improve myself. I have owned my poor decisions and the damage inflicted on others along my whirling dervish path and made amends where they could be made without inflicting further damage to others. I work to live here, now, everyday. And in the process of all of that I came to think of the program’s use of the word “GOD” as Good Orderly Direction, instead of this gendered all powerful anthropomorphous deity.

    Worked for me.

    My point is that it is the progression of realization, release, and action found in the 12 steps that helped me the most, in every part of my life and really provided me with a platform to improve myself as a person, though I still love my guinness.

    Good for you sister, you already are your own success story.

  20. avatar says

    Bipolarlawyercook summed pretty well my thoughts on the similarity between church and AA. I applaud you for turning to sobriety, whatever path you take. Where there is a need, there will be support for you. You don’t seem to be someone who has ever let others define you, why should this process be any different.

  21. avatar says

    My dad got sober thanks to AA– and I don’t think he could have done it without them, because the sitting around in a circle every damned night at a meeting instead of having a beer, which was what he’d rather be doing, was something to do. Talking to him about it now– he was a lapsed Catholic even then, even as he still believes in God, still prays the rosary, and he finds the 12 Steps maudlin and icky and “gives him the willies,” which is sadly lolrarious since it saved him therefore my relationship with one parent. But the admitting he’s powerless over alcohol parts– and the making amends parts– those he still practices every damned day and I am certainly glad.

    You are right, though, that there are aspects of the method that … urgh. I went to Al-Anon for a while in college, and the whole Adult Child thing… ick. While the construct and ideas are useful… It can get cult-like in there. The community aspect quickly becomes an us-against-them thing, and when you add God into the mix (as much as I personally believe in a Being?). Organizations are organizations are organizations, and prone to flaws like any other. It’s church, just in the church basement. With more less singing and more coffee and more smoking breaks.

    There’s a reason why I’m a Quaker, and barely one at all that.

  22. avatar says

    Very good post Schmuzie.  I’ve been sober fir 19 years in AA.  

    There are many who are so rigid they think it’s their job to tell you what’s good for you (these ppl are everywhere).

    Since I am not the knower of all things, it’s never my place to tell someone else “they’re doing it wrong”.  I’ve had friends kill themselves after some idiot at a meeting told them they needed to get off their meds.

    I love how insightful you are, how you seem to ways reach for the stars even when you don’t want to.

    I have worked with women (sponsored) in the past that did not believe in God.  I can certainly see how some would be put off by it.  I was agnostic before I got sober and a few years into it.

    Just bc it’s worked for me and others does not mean it will work for everyone.  I support what you’re doing (even though you didn’t ask for that).


    • avatar says

      Thank you for understanding what I was trying to get across. I thought hard about how I might want to go about finding my sobriety, and I decided to go with my gut, which rarely, if ever, steers me wrong.

      Also, good work on your 19 years. I look forward to hitting that number one day.

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