The number one hesitation I hear from people thinking of joining a 12-Step group is they’re scared of the Higher Power concept. Getting right to the point, I’m a strict atheist, and I have no problems with the Higher Power. If the Higher Power concept, or as I thought of it in my early days, The God Problem, is what is keeping you from 12-Step recovery, go ahead and join a group. You have no excuse.
My Background in Religion I grew up a preacher’s kid in a fundamentalist Christian family. I was taught to memorize scripture before I could read. My father was on the road preaching forty weekends out of every year, as what most people would call an evangelist, but we simply called a preacher. As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a preacher myself.
Like other kids idolized athletes or rock stars, I idolized preachers. I lived in a neighborhood that housed the faculty of the local Christian university, and I had men of God living all around me. Every morning as I watched my father walk out of the house and to his work, I saw the other men in their cheap suits and unmovable hair walk to the nearby campus. I saw them in the woods when my father took me hunting,
48and I saw them in the boats when we went fishing. But best of all, I saw them in the pulpits at church.
I loved the way they commanded attention, how they sweated through the cheap JC Penney suits, the way they held the microphone like a pair of brass knuckles, the colors their faces turned, the veins that stuck out in their heads, and the angry timbre in their voices that were worn low and smooth from years of hellfire and brimstone. There was something innately cool about it, even as a young boy, that was as cool as watching a demolition derby or jumping ramps with a dirt bike: I couldn’t wait for it to be my turn. Ahead of me was high school, then a Bible college, and the small starter gigs that young preachers can get. Eventually I wanted to get my PhD like my father had, along with his master’s degrees. With their recommendation and my genes, there was nothing to stop me from getting what I wanted.
At the age of thirteen, the dream began to unravel. My father uncovered an interweaving series of embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, fraud, and illegal scholarships that were rampant in the university where he taught, and had been perpetrated by men that I looked up to. These men were not only university faculty, but their other roles were leadership positions in our church. Money, power, and prestige were more important to these men than their ethics. I didn’t know what place I would have as an adult with these men.
There were a group of churches that had split away from our brotherhood for various issues. They were more evangelical, ran street ministries, and kept much closer tabs on each other than I’d ever experienced before. Better than all that, they wanted my family when the rest of the churches were turning their backs on us.
We moved to the new church in 1984. I spent the next three years inviting more than a thousand people to study the Bible with me. I took beatings on the street from gang members and thugs who didn’t like me being out there, or were just sadistic and loved the chaos and pain they inflicted. I fought with members of the Unification Church, the Nation of Islam, and various other groups for good recruiting territory. Within a year, I was deeply involved in the church’s street ministry. But things went too far there as well.
I can’t express the levels of deceit and dishonesty I found in this new church. We were told to pretend to like people in order to get them to join our church. We deliberately never told them what would be expected of them once they were in. We extracted secrets from people only to emotionally blackmail them later. I knew something was wrong. I was too young to even think about what they were doing with money; we took in enormous sums on a weekly basis, but there never was enough.
Years later, this church appeared in many books and on many TV shows about cults. Accusing them with this label or naming them would start a fight I don’t want to participate in. I only write of this here so you understand the religious trauma I’ve experienced.
So I went back to the fundamentalist church of my youth. I had no idea where else to turn. The way I saw it, by the time I worked my way to a position of power, my father’s old enemies would be long out of their positions.
One Sunday night, while in the pulpit of some hick church in the middle of Arkansas, I had the realization that religion was all bullshit. It was all a game. What had sounded so real coming out of my mouth in the past now sounded like some crazy story I was making up. I didn’t believe any
50of it from that moment. I had conned people well because I believed my own scam. All my life, I’d been taught that the smoke and mirrors were tools to show everyone that the illusion was real.
The next Friday, I was in a trailer park getting drunk on four and a half cans of Old Milwaukee 1851.The weekend after that, I had the most delicious drink handed to me. I asked what it was. Whiskey and Coke, I was told. I went to other things in my life, but the whiskey and Coke was the standard to which I always returned.
Over the next few years I was still open to other religions, but I could never trust that they were honest at the core. Ideas may be pure, but the hearts of people are susceptible to temptation. I searched for a while, declared myself agnostic for a time, then came to accept that I was an atheist.
Why 12 Step, If I Don’t Believe in All the Higher Power Crap?
Community, or the lack thereof, is the sickest part of American society. It’s not the government that’s the problem, although that’s close behind. It’s not about our health care, or even our still-imposed-upon civil rights, although those need attention as well. Because of our technology, geography, and class system, we’re losing our sense of community.
A person can go for days without really sharing an important emotion with another human being. We don’t know our neighbors. We listen to iPods more than to other people. No one talks on the bus, the elevator, or in line. We have our work friends but we exchange nothing more than congenialities and minor personal trivia. We spend an hour getting ready for work,
51and an hour getting to work, eight or more hours at work, and an hour coming home five days a week. The other amenities, you need few hours each weeknight are commonly spent with non personal distractions such as television or online gaming. Some people have families, but they don’t really have much time to spend with them on a quality level. We see each other coming and going but rarely get to do anything together. This is why families have pizza night, why grown men join softball leagues, and gamers get together in the flesh to play Warhammer. As a recovering addict, you’re going to need community to get well.
Even if you can afford other amenities, you need a community at your back. It’s awesome to have great medical supervision, to see a good therapist, and to have the encouragement of friends, but that isn’t enough. You need a die-hard group of people who experience the same reality to lean on to keep you emotionally and spiritually well. Church may be enough for some people, but if you’re reading this book, chances are that’s not a viable route. It’s not for me.
What I really miss about church is the sense of security, in mind, body, and spirit. I knew if there were anything I needed, it would be provided. I’d never be without a place to stay at night, and I’d never go hungry. There were always people to be around, and they loved me for just being myself. Unfortunately, at seventeen I didn’t believe in God anymore and felt like I was living a lie, so I left the church. I’d never been more alone.
The church I was in when I was a kid encompassed mywhole life. Maybe some of you are thinking of the church you visited a couple of times a year; I was at church or related activities many times per week. For three teenage years, I joined a cult
52and was lucky to get out when I did. I tried to go back to normal churches, but they didn’t work for me anymore. All of my conscious time since the age of four had been spent knowing I’d be a preacher someday. That dream was over.
I’d been rattled by years of cult life. While other teenagers were out racing cars and losing their virginity, I was evangelizing at Boston’s subway stops and fighting other cults for recruiting territory. I had missed out on all the normal teenage socialization.
I found my way to the Bay Area punk scene like a dog lost on a family vacation finds its way home. I was anything but normal, and so was the punk scene. The scene was full of kids with shitty home lives and weird backgrounds. By being all fucked up, I fit in.
A few years later, I found the underground poetry scene. This is the group of poets who immediately predated the slam era, and some of whom made up its first generation of performers. Confessional and transgressive writing were very popular. The more I wrote against religion and about my messed-up childhood, the more welcome I became.
Intertwined with the poetry scene of San Francisco was a performance art scene. Ever wonder what a stripper does on her day off? She dresses up like a sexy Statue of Liberty and sings an alternate version of the national anthem. Also included were theater rejects who were unable to work with others, trust-funders who went off their meds, and guys who like to stick foreign objects up their asses in front of a crowd of people who paid $10 a head to get in. I was the most well-adjusted person out of everyone. Weird religions were like the minor leagues for this crowd.
What all of these scenes offered me was community. I did like the music and the poetry, but the purpose they really
53served in my life was providing me with a social group of like-minded people. Being a recovering addict and not hanging out with other like people is akin to being a punk and never going to shows and only hanging out with jocks; if I told you to do that, you’d think I was insane. This is what it sounds like to me when someone says he wants to stay clean and sober on his own.
12 Step and Atheists
Atheists bore me—all they ever talk about is God.—Heinrich Böll, The Clown
The last place I wanted to go was to a church, but that’s where most of the 12-Step meetings were. Churches remind me of every bad moment from my childhood. Everyone swore to me it wouldn’t be a problem, but it was still hard for me.
God, with reference to 12 Step, can be anything you want it to be. It’s a god of your understanding. No one will tell you in 12 Step to believe in a specific god. They will even tell you that you don’t have to call it that.
The problem with this is that all of the qualities ascribed to the 12-Step God only describe one God ever in the history of theology: the Protestant Christian God. God is aware of you, and you can directly communicate with it, and it can remove your defects of character. Past the age of the patriarchs in the Old Testament, God talked only to select leaders and the clergy. With the coming of the New Testament, Christ introduced the idea of prayer as a direct communication with
54God. The Catholic Church introduced the idea that one cannot confess sins for forgiveness except through a priest. The Protestants brought back direct communication with God for purposes of redemption. No other religion has this simple method. In many religions, the people are too small for their god to even be aware of their existence; priests, sacrifices, and offerings must be there for the gods to take notice.
Also, at the end of many 12-Step meetings, I’ve heard the Lord’s Prayer read, which is text from the New Testament in which Jesus Christ teaches his apostles how to pray. It doesn’t apply to any other religion at all.
Some people make up their own God. This is the most pretentious idea of all, that we as simple creations could have an understanding of our superior creator, to the point that we construct the God ourselves.
Every time I’d try to talk about these points after a meeting, I always managed to upset other people. It’s as if they were being told they weren’t real. It’s a common misconception about atheists that we are trying to convince the world that we are right and everyone else is wrong; the majority of religions work this way. It doesn’t do much good to try to explain to a religious person that atheists think we’re right, but we’re not saying that anyone else is wrong. Maybe I’m wrong about atheism and there is a deistic being, so why would I try to convince anyone else about my opinion? It’s really hard for religious people to distance themselves from the religion to talk to someone about atheism.
For me, talking to Christians about atheism has been much like talking to people who think that pro wrestling is real. I can give them facts, present them with rational arguments, but they refuse to even ponder the idea that everything they know is wrong. The idea of it can really upset them. If you are an atheist, I suggest not bringing it up at all.
So what’s an atheist to do? I struggled with this idea for years, stuck on Steps 2 and 3. But I wasn’t going to give up until I found the answer. I used to quit things when they became too difficult or seemed to be a futile effort. I made up my mind not to quit until I found a better program. I didn’t find another. What I did find are non-deistic Higher Powers that have worked quite well for me.
The Ideal Image
With the Ideal Image, your Higher Power is the person you want to be. Praying to yourself means that you are reaffirming your desire to become closer to your Ideal Image.
Who’s the person you wanted to be? What qualities did you think you had when you were drunk or high?
When I was drunk, I felt like people liked me more, that Ifit in to any situation, that people were glad to have me around. In dangerous situations, I wasn’t afraid. It was easier for me to socialize in general, but specifically to talk to women I liked.
When I got sober, I didn’t know how I would be any of these things I had been when I was loaded. I wrote down all the ways I thought I was when I was drunk. There was nothing on the list that was out of my reach. All I needed was the courage and self-confidence to access them.
I spent much of my newfound time with a clear mind to think about what I really wanted for myself, about the qualities I admired in other people, and what I wanted to achieve in my one lifetime. I came up with my Ideal Image. I wanted to be an important writer of American literature, to be remembered and studied long after my death. I wanted a long-term relationship with a woman who was good for me,
56kindhearted, and would be with me as I grew through my changes, someone whom I could look up to for encouragement and advice. I wanted to rebuild the friendships that I had let decay through isolation and my own distancing. I wanted not only to be a better stage performer, but one of the best ever, like my heroes George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks. I wanted to regain my physical health: I had become overweight and had done much damage to my gastrointestinal system. I wanted to go back to making $40K a year, not a princely salary by any means, but enough to meet my needs and still have some money left over for fun.
Decide what you want for yourself, physically, emotionally, socially, and sexually. Make a list. Be specific. Don’t say you want a lot of money; find a specific number. Is it a million dollars? Would $900,000 do? Figure out exactly where you want to be, the same way you knew exactly what kind of booze you liked to drink, or how many grams of coke you wanted, or whatever. Think of these specifics as a location to which you are traveling. There is distance between you and these goals.
When other people are praying in meetings, when they say the word God, you think of your Ideal Image. Your sobriety will help you achieve every single one of these things. You will be surprised how quickly some of them come, and then you’ll be frustrated as others take time. But I guarantee that working the steps is the key to being who you want to be.
Just as others pray daily, you should think to yourself daily about what you can do to be closer to this Ideal Image. Think: “What can I do today to make my life better?” “What can I do to become more like my Ideal Image?”
The Baby Odin Never Cries
Christian children are often frightened with the weird line, “Every time you ___, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.” Not only is that a cruel thing to say to a child, it makes little sense. For this to be true, there would have to be a Jesus in a static baby form that is somehow connected to the sins of small children everywhere. Baby Jesus was only a baby in human form, not in a deistic form. Even as a child, I didn’t buy this one.
The idea of there being “God babies” always struck me as a weird one. I could only picture a little Satan and a little Jesus in diapers on some Saturday morning cartoon. So I came up with the idea of the Baby Odin.
The Baby Odin is a badass. Unlike your Baby Jesus, who cries more than the front row of a Morrissey concert, the Baby Odin never cries. The Baby Odin can watch Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Brian’s Song back to back to back and not quiver a lip. No matter what you do, the Baby Odin never cries.
I heard someone use Odin in the place of God in my Tuesday night men’s meeting, and it stuck in my head. This guy can’t really believe in Odin, can he? I thought. I had heard some far-out stuff in my time in meetings, but the chief of the Norse gods? Is he really praying to Odin?
I thought about it, and soon the picture of the Baby Odin came into my head. I imagined an angry, one-eyed baby, and couldn’t keep myself from laughing. If I had an awesome ’70s van, the Baby Odin would definitely be painted on the side of it, instead of a wizard fighting a unicorn or whatever.
Here’s the thing: If you have any god at all, the rest of the people in the program will humor you. While the atheist thing seems to set many of them off, if you have any god of your understanding, they will accept it as your Higher Power. It doesn’t matter if it is as ridiculous as the Baby Odin, everyone
58will accept it. So if you need to get people off your back about the atheist problem, this will likely work.
Thoughts on the Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
As covered in this chapter, the 12 Steppers don’t mean “God,” although it’s what they say. I have my Ideal Image; and he and I are distant in many ways. I’m speaking to an esoteric me, or a me from the future, to remind me that I’m trying to be a Me I’m Not Yet.
What is serenity, other than an inappropriate name for a stripper? From the prayer, you’re going to need serenity before you accept the things you cannot change. But also, from the request, you can assume that you as an addict do not have it in a natural state. So what is your natural state? Chaos!
Beautiful chaos, the bully, the jester, the tempter, the sucker-punching, pants-kicking, wind-knocking imp that rules your life. It’s the wind that breaks your wings.
Chaos is what ruined your drug run. It’s the cop’s flashlight while you’re fixing in the car. It’s the dye bomb in the
59sack of stolen bank money. It’s the burst pipe from the upstairs neighbor’s What is serenity, other apartment that soaks a table full of than an inappropriate cocaine while you’re splitting the kilo into ounces.
On a smaller, more mundane scale, chaos is the flow of little things that made the simple instances of the day into a bizarre situation. Chaos is the angry roommate, the nagging landlord, the car that breaks down more than it runs. Chaos is the natural state of the addict.
Getting back to the concept of serenity. . . . Serenity is the opposite of that chaos. Telling an addict who is freaking out to calm down does no good. Telling a recovering addict to relax and not worry also does no good. The world of an addict is a crazy world, but it’s home; the world of a recovering addict is differently crazy, but it’s a foreign crazy, for which there are no emotional coping mechanisms.
The best way I can describe serenity to a recovering addict is to talk about it in drug terms. Serenity is that high you’ve been chasing after all these years. Say what you want about physiology, but to me, the addict makes that monogamous vice choice after a moment of calm is experienced while high.
Let’s look at this from the point of view of the alcoholic. I’m going to exclude drug addicts for this illustration, since they rarely have a choice between brands unless they’re in a medical marijuana club. The alcoholic, in early stages, drinks whatever he or she gets hold of, sometimes vile choices made in the desperation of access: teenagers drink whatever is ignored in the parent’s liquor cabinet, whatever is at the party, or whatever is easiest to steal from the store. In mid-stage, the alcoholic buys his or her own liquor, with a favorite of
60each kind: a favorite beer, vodka, whiskey, or tequila. In later stages, the alcoholic often has selected a single choice, and other drinks will not do.
At my end, I drank only bourbon. There was a serenity I was chasing by getting drunk many nights; years before, that moment of calm had long since left me. I was never drunk enough, no matter how much I had. But it wasn’t always like that.
In the beginning of my drinking years, there was a peace of mind that came with inebriation. I was in the moment, feeling good, with friends around me. All the pain I’d been carrying for years went away with only a few drinks. But when it stopped working, I refused to acknowledge that I hadn’t enjoyed drinking for a long time. I kept thinking it was something else—ironically those things in my life I thought drinking helped me to enjoy, like the company of my friends. Increasingly I drank alone in my house. That peace of mind never came back.
That peace of mind is the serenity I now strive to achieve. In that mindset, I’m calm enough to accept the world around me. Whether it’s a long line at the supermarket full of people who can’t make a simple transaction, or an irate customer at work yelling at me over some issue with which I had nothing to do, or a tragedy like the death of a friend, I realize that I don’t have to absorb the chaos into myself, that I can maintain peace in the face of random trauma. I am a pond that refuses to ripple no matter how many stones are thrown into it.
Accept the Things I Cannot Change
My first image of an alcoholic was Otis from Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show. Otis, and the rest of his community, accepted his problem so well that he walked into the jail every night and locked himself up. What did I learn from this? Drunks are funny. Years after Ray Milland gave a signature performance in The Lost Weekend as a relentless alcoholic, drunks were still funny. Now, drunks are considered sad and pathetic, while stoners are considered hilarious. From Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli portrayal in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to now, the focus of funny addicts has been pinned on the pothead.
It was really easy for me to accept my drinking. Bars exist for the purpose of people who like to drink getting together to do just that. Why not drink at home? Because drinking in a bar is like a party. It’s socially acceptable. Everyone does it . . .everyone else in the bar, that is.
But what I couldn’t accept was my childhood trauma and the tragedies that dogpiled me later. I split my formative years first as a fundamentalist extremist and later as a cult member. My friends from those years didn’t fare well, ending up in psych wards and detention centers. When I got into the art scene in the late ’80s, many artists I knew were in advanced stages of AIDS, and soon died. In the early ’90s, my younger friends were taken by heroin, crack, and speed, and died from ODs or the chaos that comes from the lifestyle. By the late ’90s, I had a graveyard full of dead friends.
My anger at these things I could not change fueled many drunken binges, and what I accepted instead was the fact that I had to drink a pint of whiskey to kill the shakes, and another pint to get me to where I wanted to be. There wasn’t a part of
62me that thought two pints of whiskey every day was normal, but my acceptance was generous.
Courage to Change the Things I Can
You’re going to need all the courage you can get, because what’s changing is the fulcrum on which your life has been balanced. Your relationships, your jobs, your housing have all been determined by your drug and alcohol use. More than that, how you see yourself and how you think the world sees you have your usage in the descriptions. By coming to 12 Step, you’re attempting to change a focal point of your life. You have courage, but you’ve had it in all the wrong places.
What scares you is the mundane parts of life: job inter-views, first dates, and dinner parties. These are the minor dramas of life for which you’ve always had the support of your favorite vice. You think being drunk or high helps in these times. Maybe it has, once or twice, but it’s ruined you the rest of the time, no matter what you blamed the failure on. But what you may not realize are the times that you’ve been a brave addict.
Drug deals, bar fights, and random accidents scare most people, but you live with them like they’re your frat brothers. That moment in the drug deal when everyone else thinks you’re a cop, squaring off against a guy only to see his three friends get off their barstools, and cutting your leg jumping over a fence a mile from home, all these moments live in the field of frightening possibilities for Normies. For you, it’s a series of events for which you are prepared and practiced. If you can survive these episodes, you can surely withstand the rigors of a
Wisdom to Tell the Difference
Even though it comes third after serenity and courage, you’ll need wisdom most of all. This is how you will determine what goes in which category: changeable or unchangeable. To me, it was the most valuable of the three.
Don’t confuse wisdom with intelligence. Those are two separate qualities. There are plenty of people who are not that smart who seem to make healthy decisions in life. There are also plenty of smart people who single-handedly ruin careers, relationships, and the surrounding environment with bad decisions. There have been many times in which my bullheaded intelligence told me I was doing the right thing and not to listen to the advice of others. I thought I could always reason my way through any situation with my logistical skills as my weapon. I can learn new processes and techniques quickly, but I have often used this to my destruction, not my betterment.