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An atheist at AA

Embarrassment of Bitches: An atheist at AA.

My father is a Benedictine oblate. He teaches Christian meditation. When I was home over Christmas we had a conversation about the universal human condition of feeling like a fraud. He can’t reconcile the fact that people see him as a source of inspiration. He has the same feelings of shame that I do — that because we’ve done bad things in our lives we will never, ever be allowed to be good. That good people are good from the get-go and forever. If you really knew us, you wouldn’t want to take our advice and be our friend and admire us.

It breaks my heart to see my father, who wants nothing more than to share a sense of unity and peace with people, question his kindness. He wants more than anything to feel at ease in this world and in turn pass that on to others who are troubled. It is terrible when we carry the burden of our shameful behaviour with us everywhere and don’t allow ourselves to believe we can be and are good.

I have reconciled the differences in my father’s and my beliefs. He is a monk and I am an atheist. I know we wish the other would see the truth in our way, but we can both see that we have the same intention: to find harmony and connection. This is where our lives intersect. This is where we find each other.

On Feb 5, 2012, the day after I decided to get sober, my friend J took me to an AA meeting. This wasn’t the first AA meeting I’d been to. In 1988 I accompanied someone my country-boy ex-boyfriend used to deliver bread with to one in Montreal. In 2011 I went to one in Toronto after asking a friend who’d been sober for five years to take me. It enraged me. I didn’t want to touch anyone, and I couldn’t believe people knew the words to all the literature and repeated them with enthusiastic gusto. And then there were the slogans. Slogans? What was this, 1937? Oh wait, yes it was. AA’s basic tenets have not changed since then.

The meeting J took me to was in the Evangel Hall Mission on Adelaide. There were perhaps 10 people in the room, eight of them men. A woman wearing an early-’90s peach power-suit got up and spoke, as is the tradition in what’s called an open meeting. She told her story in such an ordinary way. She embellished nothing. She did not tell an uplifting story or one that was full of wild twists and turns.

She was a woman in her 50s who at one time had everything and was now living in a shelter. There was no question that a relationship with alcohol had brought her there. She was self-reflective without being ostentatious about it. She had a good job in finance in the days before a person needed a bunch of degrees to work in this field. Through a series of completely unremarkable incidents, she now found herself with next to nothing. At 43 and without any financial or academic security, I was cut to the quick by her story.

The next day I went to a meeting by myself in a church in the Village, and when the person chairing it asked if there was anyone new, I raised my hand and said I was Alex and that I was an alcoholic and an addict, then I just sunk into tears. I wasn’t crying because I was an alcoholic and an addict and I was ashamed of that. It was too late for that — my behaviour had preceded me for close to three decades. I was crying because I felt like a fraud. For fuck’s sake — I couldn’t even feel like I was an authentic alcoholic.

As an atheist, AA meetings and their heavy focus on God and the even more vague term “spirituality” are complicated for me, but I go to them because I need to be around other people who identify as alcoholics. As a gay person, I don’t feel I need my identity confirmed by other queers (in fact, I feel less gay being around other queers. I seem to have nothing in common with this current crop and the constant need to perform ally-ship). But boy, do I relate to other alcoholics. We drank because we felt like frauds and then we were fraud alcoholics. I am wary of the way people embrace “The Program” with all the fervour of religious acolytes, but I do recognize in their stories my own behaviour. I recognize my own desire and need to fit in at any cost, and in the end being so inept at it.

Part of recovery has been reconciling the innate disparities in my own character. As an atheist, I am struck by Fran Lebowitz’s words at her recent Toronto appearance: “I don’t believe in anything I have to believe in.” Yet in the same week I sit in the bathtub in a pitch-black room holding a smouldering bundle of sage begging the Mother of the Earth to free me from my coiling temper.

As I go through this process of reclaiming my sober brain, I think a lot about authenticity and how it is entirely possible that authenticity never feels . . . authentic. I search constantly for moments of transparency in my life, where I feel present and not pulled in all directions — worried about letting go of stuff that has possessed me. Convinced that my thoughts about my own hurt will actually have some impact on anyone other than myself.

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