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But I’m An Atheist

A stumbling block, or more accurately a gigantic Mount Everest-sized obstacle for many people entering the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is the generous use of “the G-word” throughout the literature and in the rooms.

GOD. The aversion that name causes. The outrage and disbelief and everything else that goes along with the word. For a large section of humanity, the idea of God as a higher power is an insurmountable concept. I grappled with it myself in my early days of sobriety. When I was using I had no real conception of God and when I hit bottom, I was appalled at the idea that I would have to rely on that flimsy reed to get and stay sober. Looking back now, it amazes me that I didn’t bolt out of that first A.A. meeting, running for my life and away from those crazy, God-fearing weirdos.

I guess I was THAT desperate. That crushed under the weight of my addictions. That hopeless. That afraid.

And so I stayed. And I listened to all those strangers going on and on about God and their higher power. And then, in early recovery, I heard Keith speak at a meeting. Keith had been a hero of mine since I heard him tell his story. He shared about a time that his parents locked him in his room when he was a wild and rebellious teenager. On the night of a party he was desperate to attend, his friends rolled up with the car lights out and he jumped from his window. Keith immediately knew he had "messed himself up - and how". As he lay there under the window his friends came running. He was in terrible pain and unable to walk so his friends picked him up, put him in the car, and drove him to the party where he drank and took LSD, all while sitting propped up in a chair. The next morning someone (his friends or furious parents, I’ll never know) took him to the hospital where they did x-rays and discovered that he had fractured both of his heels.

So yes. Keith instantly became my hero. A badass. Someone willing to go to any lengths to get totally wasted. Because isn't that what drinks and drugs are for? A goddamn break from ourselves? From our chattering monkey minds? From our thoughts and our fears and our feelings? The notion of badassery in addiction is the reason I’m morbidly drawn to the

intravenous heroin users in the room - as opposed to the classic "warm vodka in a poland spring bottle sipper" like me. “Look at that dedication” I say to myself. “The conviction and the derring-do!” The idea of allowing the self-destructive vein that runs through addicts to achieve that level of not giving a damn. Of really playing on the razor’s edge between life and death. How could anyone see that as brave, daring, even thrilling?

But I did. And sometimes, even with years of sobriety, I still do.

So back to Keith. Keith spent several weeks of the summer after "heel-gate" sitting in a wheelchair, unable to walk. He was high and drunk most of the time so he didn’t really care. But Keith's addiction finally got the best of him and he knew - with certainty - that if he didn’t stop using he would die. Death? Or a life without drugs and alcohol? It was a six-of-one half-dozen-of-the-other decision, so he decided he would try sobriety. He was in his twenties at the time and rationalized that he still could make it to thirty...maybe. He felt that his parents could accept his death at thirty but not in his twenties. Addicts think that way.

But he still had a problem. A big one. Keith is an atheist. He has never believed in God and he made that very clear to everyone in the rooms. Yet there was no shunning, no objection from the group members, just the suggestions that he not drink, attend meetings, share honestly, maybe get a sponsor and try to find some sort of higher power. Something, anything, that could help relieve him of his intense desire to drink and drug. A place where he could go when he was overwhelmed with craving.

In his early days it was suggested that Keith use the rooms of AA as a power greater than himself. In time he began using the Atlantic Ocean as his higher power. He was fortunate enough to live close to the beach so he could swim and walk and run and even scream at the ocean as he went through what was for him (and for me quite honestly) the physical and mental agony of detoxing in early sobriety.

Eventually it began to get cold and Keith could no longer swim or spend hours on the beach and his higher power slipped away from him. He remained abstinent but did not feel the same ease as he had when he was able to spend long periods by the ocean. Instead of picking up - which was always an arms-reach-away option, he found and described to us his new higher power. A higher power that would never slip away and wasn’t dependent on the weather.

Keith decided that his new higher power would simply be the space between thought and action. This power was internal so it could always go with him. Anywhere. Anytime. This non-religious concept of God was always available to him.

When Keith was drinking and using, the thought would come "I need a drink" and he would drink. "I need a pill" and he would take a pill. "I need a line" and he would snort whatever he could find and crush. I NEED RELIEF! We all know that feeling. When I was using I felt what Keith described. Feeling as if I was taken over by some force, some monster, using my body to fulfill the needs of it's addictions. We feel possessed - like the old movie Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. And we are the bodies snatched.

When consumed with active addiction it feels as though there is no space between the thought of using and the action of using. But there IS space.

That space became Keith's higher power. No God, no man sitting on a throne, no old-fashioned idea of a vengeful and powerful figure welcoming us into heaven - but more likely damning us to eternal hell.

That space allows us time to look at our actions. To question why we are going down that sad, familiar road of active addiction again...when we know the absolute certainty and misery of the outcome.

This simple, beautiful, non-confrontational higher power is available to all of us regardless of our beliefs. And the longer we rely on it the wider and deeper it becomes. It gets easier and easier to tap into that space at a moments notice - the space that helps us to think it through - and to not pick up that first drink. I use it daily and welcome anyone to use it as well, with the promise that there is an easier softer way. We are all entitled to that, and to the happiness, joy and freedom of living a sober life.

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