The Day I Found God and Quit AA

By Neville Elder 01/31/16

Maybe I didn’t need to spend my life identifying as an alcoholic anymore. Perhaps it was possible to totally recover.

The Day I Found God and Quit AA

It took me ten years to do the third step. The God thing, it always bothered me. 

“We made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”

That word.



It was a few days after I quit drinking. I was a wreck and I didn’t have another plan, so I pretended I hadn’t seen the G word.

I’ve spent 11 years in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. At first, everyday, then down to a few times a week, now less. Early on, I kept going for the stories. Every night, I got to hear the worst moments of someone’s life. When they bottomed out and stopped drinking, horrible times but so compelling, and so very like my own war stories. Close enough to my own life that I started to understand these were my people. No one "got me" like another alcoholic. 

My God! That was so me.

People shared how they were lonely as a child, how everyone in high school seemed to have a copy of the "social handbook" but them. How their first drunk was an almost spiritual experience. While they were drinking, they became entertaining to members of the opposite sex; suddenly they were "in." In my beginners’ meetings I’d hear people with time recall waking up unable to remember the night before or how they got home. Worse, waking up with someone they didn’t recognize or coming to in jail. Many speakers revealed, to my amazement, that despite their best efforts, they found they couldn’t drink like everyone else. They couldn’t have just one or two drinks after work, so they stopped drinking with other people and started drinking alone or in bars, where their consumption wasn’t noticed. 

Yes, yes, me too! 

And of course to complete the arc, the "white light moment." After their spouses left them, they lost their crappy jobs, and as their lives were tumbling down around their ears they revealed their own "moments of clarity." The drink didn’t work anymore. It didn’t stop the loneliness. They needed help to stop. And in that moment, the relief they felt was the first positive thing that had happened to them in ages.

Sound familiar? When I counted days I was the happiest I’d been in years. Yes, my marriage was falling apart and I was broke, but the fellowship—the community of AA—and my sponsor were there. They had my back. I struggled with the God thing so much in my first year—my secret fear of being sucked into a cult never really panned out—but I just couldn’t take the whole religious trip.

In a purely philosophical sense—Kantian to be specific—I considered the question: was it in my interest to believe in God? I wanted what these AA people had, and they got sober running through these damn steps. So I figured, if I’m going to do the steps, it’d be a lot easier if I gave up swimming against the tide. So with no evidence to prove the existence of God either way, I resigned from the debating society. 

The fog lifted and I discovered the meditative properties of prayer. In my first 90 days, my mind was so shot I had trouble memorizing the ones in the Big Book, but the Serenity Prayer sort of rolled off my tongue, so I went with that. 

When I opened my mind to the possibility of God, I had all I needed. I didn’t need to go back to Mass every Sunday. All I needed to do was pray and accept I couldn’t stay sober on my own. 

For years, the community of AA was my Higher Power. The fellowship of AA, the literature: Living Sober, The Big Book. From time to time, like many alcoholics, I rebelled. I just wanted to be "normal." There’s a joke that goes:

An alcoholic sits down in a meeting and turns to the person next to him and says:

“If you found out you weren’t an alcoholic, what’s the first thing you’d do?”

“Oh man,” they say. “I'd go out and get absolutely shit-faced.”

There were plenty of alcoholics to tell me what it’s like to drink again. The ones that made it back never brought good news with them. Often, they found they had trouble holding on to their seat. That scared the hell out of me. They say the first time you get sober is a gift. The next time, you’re going to have to work really hard to keep your shit together. 

In the last couple of years, I started going to a very small liberal community church in Brooklyn. I’d been through a bad breakup and I recognized my passive belief in God wasn’t going to cut it anymore. 

In our initial conversations, the pastor shocked me when he said he too often questioned his faith. Father Pat from my little English Catholic primary school would never, ever have said that! And there’s none of that "love the sinner hate the sin" crap here. All are welcome—gay, straight or whatever. This is a church where women hold positions of responsibility and men take turns with childcare. Instead of renting a church, the ministry set up a coffee shop. Without any fanfare, they give thousands of dollars to charity every year by donating all the tips from the café. There is a selflessness here that reminds me of the 12th step—the final step—that recommends taking all the knowledge gleaned from working through the 12 Steps and helping another alcoholic through the early trauma of recovery.  

I spent more and more time with this community and less time with AA. I began to see the church and my spiritual life as more relevant to my life than AA meetings. Soon I found I could go without AA for weeks at a time without suffering that slightly out-of-control, spooked feeling I used to get if I hadn’t been for a while. 

If you’ve spent any time in AA meetings, you’ll have sat in one where all the alcoholics seem to do is complain. One night in Williamsburg, I found myself in one exactly like that. One three-minute dump after another. It may have been my mood or maybe it was the dank, slightly moldy, overheated church basement with flickering fluorescents that got to me. But it was so depressing. I heard a woman finish up her empty share with the phrase, “At least I’ve got these rooms.” And I thought, is this is it? Is this all there is? 

No, it isn’t. I had more than "just the rooms." I had a Higher Power. Suddenly I had the third step in my grasp. God was my Higher Power. 

Maybe I didn’t need to spend my life identifying as an alcoholic anymore. Perhaps it was possible to totally recover. I felt more and more in tune with the church community and my faith developed and matured. When I introduced myself to someone at church, I said, "Hi I’m Neville," and that’s it, no qualification. And very quietly, without telling anyone, I graduated from AA. 

A few months after that dreadful Brooklyn meeting, I found myself on a street corner in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. I’d been writing non-stop at a coffee shop for most of the day without a break. Typically when I stop writing, I feel a little spaced out. I feel lonely, depressed even. It was a chilly Friday night on a holiday weekend and I had nothing planned. I’d been dealing with a lost wallet on and off all day, talking to the bank and knowing I’d be without access to money for a few days. I was bummed.

I thought to myself, I guess I could go to a meeting. 

Fuck it.

I called Intergroup and a volunteer gave me a local address. I was ten minutes early, so I cruised past the church and glanced in. Two old-timers chuckled with each other as they hooked the blue AA disc around the railing at the top of a flight of stone steps that descended to the inevitable church basement. 

The meeting filled up quickly—a mix of men and women, 30s and 40s, mostly middle-class, with a decent amount of sober time between them. Pretty soon, I was enveloped in the cloud of their stories. I completely identified with everything they shared. 

I’m closer to God now because of my recovery. If I think AA has nothing left for me—that I’ve absorbed all AA has to offer—then I should probably start helping another alcoholic, and pass it on. 

I raised my hand.

“I’m Neville, I’m an alcoholic, this is my first time at this meeting,” I said.

And with a little polite applause and a chorus of welcomes, I shared about my shitty day. Once again I surrendered, which, coincidentally, is the first step.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years.

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