An Atheist Like You, Bill? You'll Never Get Sober!

By Bill Manville 05/14/14

Note to my fellow AA non-believers: If you think this piece is going to end with a religious conversion experience, read on; you’re wrong.


I remember wandering the streets of New York on my last drunk. Wearing a black raincoat, I have a pint of gin in each pocket, another in my hand. 'I hope I don’t drink this,' I say to myself and drink it. 'I hope I don’t buy another,' I say to myself and buy two.   

Passing one of the bottles up and back with a vomit-stained and bloody-nosed crack-head I found who knows where, I told him I wanted to stop.

“You believe in God?” he said. I said no, the idea of religion just made me smile.

“Then you’ll never get sober,” he said. “Every AA meeting ends with the Lord’s Prayer. Booze is too tough to beat all alone without the help of Jesus and His Infinite Mercy.” That blurry episode ended when I drank my way into two hospitals in ten days, kidneys too alcohol-poisoned to pee.

Entering a rehab, you feel like a new kid first day at school.

When I came to in the second hospital, a doctor suggested rehab.

“You actually think,” I said with a laugh, “some bunch of holy rollers are going to turn me around in 28 days?” But there was something about her. I agreed to go to a rehab she recommended, and but for one 15-day relapse at the six month mark, I've been sober ever since. 

28 days?  Why couldn’t I have learned all I needed - faster - by becoming a patient of Dr. LeClair Bissell herself? Why do rehabs work better than anything else I know? I often ask that of rehab grads.

“I don’t know why it works,” runs a frequent answer, “but I left floating on a pink cloud. I can’t put it into words but it's magic.” Not as dumb as you might suppose.  

The important stuff that goes on is not processed through the brain in words. Ever read the lyrics to a popular song without listening to the music? The words alone are often flat and trite, even silly. Put music behind them, they take on enormous power…magic.

Patients attend medical lectures on addiction, come away with hard, scientific information about their life predicament. All fine, sure, but the words merely reinforce what you already know: this stuff will kill you. Cut it out. 

They can't act on it. What is missing is motivation, the power to put that hard, factual information to work… the music.  

The rehab I went to called itself a therapeutic community. “We help heal each other,” is how one counselor put it. “It's the existential experience of going through the process with a bunch of other addicts and drunks - all of whom want to stop too - that changes the self.”

The live-in heat and intensity melt down the fraudulent old identity as a supposedly cool, sophisticated drinker/doper. A new identity struggles to be born. Introjection is that amazing ability, Sigmund Freud tells us, to identify with an admired person or group so strongly we cannot separate that person or group from ourselves.

My experience in rehab tells me Freud was right. The “magic” has little to do with will power, medical fact or philosophy. You don’t have to understand it for it to work. Living there, being there - the music never stops. 

Let’s say you have a Seventh Day Adventist, an Arab, a Jew, and an atheist like me. There’s a war, and you tell them: Run up on that beach and take out that machine gun emplacement.  

Fat chance.

The military long ago learned a practical solution. Group morale - esprit de corps. "Group cohesion," is the term used by our army. Give recruits a uniform, put them through the intense rigors of basic training, hardships they suffer together. Group morale takes over, they become bonded as a regiment, a company, a squad - an identity stronger than they ever felt on their own. 

“Run up on that beach and take out that machine gun emplacement!” is the order. Group morale heartens them, pride in their new identity as one of a band of fighting brothers keeps them going even in the face of death. They run up on the beach. The machine gun nest is taken out.

One of the recommendations for AA newcomers is to make 90 meetings in the first 90 days. An effort to build identification with the group as quickly as possible. A very sound idea. But rehabs do the same thing in 28 days, and in my experience, do it more often, more lastingly. The music, the intensity of the live-in experience changes your perception of who you are. 

Entering a rehab, you feel like a new kid first day at school. With your old rules, signs and landmarks gone, the primitive power of territoriality enters: you're low in the pecking order. Better take your clues from the people who were here before you.  

What are all these strange new slogans in the air? "The First Drink Gets You Drunk," someone says. What does that mean? "Easy Does It." Isn't that too stupid to be freighted with the heavy meaning these people seem to put on it? But these are the rules, and the Number One Rule here is that the people most admired are the ones everyone feels are going to "make it" - stay sober - on the outside once the twenty-eight days are over. 

Before rehab, your friends boasted about how often they got blasted, wasted or drunk; the most admired were those who drank or doped the most.  Group ethos - peer pressure - made using the cool thing to do. In this society you've just joined, that's turned upside down: losers are people who get high. 

Nor are the people saying all this Goody Two Shoes. They're not preachers, not your mother or Aunt Sally. They are hard-core drunks and dope fiends just like you used to be. No longer are you fighting addiction on your own. You’re one of a huge, successful fellowship, an army of people who’ve won over booze and drugs and want to keep winning after they've left rehab.   

Esprit de corps.    

Why do women who would never think of going into a bar by themselves like to go to male strip joints like Chippendale’s when they’re in a gang? Or: think of going to a football game by yourself. It’s OK, but not too much fun. Now think of going to the same game with a bunch of friends, all rooting for the same team. An entirely different experience. It’s a kick, and you want to do it again. 

Nor does group morale affect only people in the stands. Hardheaded bookies in Las Vegas factor it in when figuring the morning line. Is the team playing at home, with thousands of partisan fans cheering them on?  Group morale changes the odds.

I write about sobriety in newspapers these days, and still attend AA meetings often enough. When I join hands with fellow members at the end, I feel so buoyed by this merging of self into the greater whole that I find myself reciting the Lord’s Prayer aloud just like rest, and if there is indeed a God listening above, I hope my over 20 years sobriety will make Her smile.

Bill Manville is a novelist and former contributor to Cosmopolitan. He last wrote about being a bar-fly.

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