Doug P. has been sober for over 25 years. He left AA approximately eight years ago because he was bored with all the god bit, but returned upon finding a secular AA meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he lives. This is his story.
0:00:00 John: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by, for and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.
0:00:26 John: Today’s guest is Doug P., he is from Halifax, Nova Scotia. And it’s really interesting. I have been corresponding with Dave mostly via YouTube. He listens to our podcast on YouTube quite a bit, and I correspond with him. And anyway, at one point he sent an email to me and shared a little bit of his story and boy, we have a lot in common and I just thought it would be interesting to talk to him to learn more about his recovery and his thoughts on how he has evolved through the years in AA, and the group he started and so forth. So we’ll just take it from there. How are you doing, Doug?
0:01:10 Doug: I’m very good. Thank you, John for inviting me. Yeah, we corresponded a little bit I think maybe a month back, and I shared a little bit of myself and I guess it evolved to an invitation. So thank you for inviting me on this. I listen to your podcast quite a bit.
0:01:31 John: Oh, that’s always nice to hear. It’s always nice to hear that people are listening.
0:01:35 Doug: It is, it is. because sometimes I go to meetings and it’s not the same. When I started listening to your podcasts, I can relate a lot to what’s going on my sobriety and I’m sure we’ll share a little bit of that as we progress.
0:01:55 John: You’re a lot like me, that you started off pretty early and you were in traditional AA for a long time, and then became… Started questioning it, much like I did, later into your recovery, I think.
0:02:08 Doug: Absolutely yes, I did go through that. I jokingly call it my de-conversion. [laughter]
0:02:15 John: Yeah, it really is. And it’s like an ongoing process too. I was talking to John H about it in one of our podcasts, and we called it de-programming and I didn’t really mean that in an insulting way because I’m still part of AA. I still go to AA meetings and so forth, but I do make an effort to divorce myself from the lingo of AA and I do that because I just want to be who I am. I want to be authentic and honest and speak about my recovery and my experience in my own way, my own language and it took me a while to understand that we do have this lingo in AA and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have jargon, I guess, at a job, [chuckle] or at an organization, but I don’t know, I just decided I don’t want to do that. I’m going to use my own words to describe what’s going on with me. So that’s my decompression.
0:03:15 Doug: Even a little preparation for this, right? I would share my story in a traditional meeting and in preparation for this I had to let go of a lot of things even in preparation for this. I don’t think the same as I did before. And there’s different topics to talk about and a lot of what I’ll be talking about, I would never share in a traditional AA meeting, let alone some of it in a secular meeting. [chuckle]
0:03:46 John: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve kind of gotten that way myself. Well, let’s get into it. Can you start by relating your story of recovery and we’ll just kind of take it, let a conversation flow from that.
0:03:58 Doug: Yeah, sure, absolutely, John. Well, I did mention I had… I’ve been sober for 27 years. Actually, it was about three weeks ago I celebrated my 27th year in AA, thank you. And however, I’ve been around AA for about 30 years, because early in my recovery, and this may be a conversation later on, I have gone in and out, early in my recovery, and if I was to pin-point why I went in and out, I don’t know if I can give you an accurate description why, but again, we’ll talk about that later. My second meeting I’ve gone to in AA and I’m thinking this may be about ’88, maybe ’89. I was going to AA for the first time [chuckle] and somebody told me something that stuck with me till this day. And I’ll share it and I meant, it’s hurting, but I suppose I don’t mind doing it in this one case. And it may have been said when you first sobered up in ’88, but I didn’t get in trouble every time I drank, but every time I was in trouble, I was drinking, and yeah, so you heard that and I think it was just the time…
0:05:21 John: I have heard that and it’s very true, actually.
0:05:24 Doug: Yeah, it describes my drinking to a T. I had a lot of fun with drinking, but it’s just those fun times began to disappear and some of the realism began to appear and they weren’t always positive, they were negative. But the other thing this gentleman told me was that… And I think on one of your podcasts, you described the binary thinking we get into and I know this is binary. You said, “You’re either pregnant, or you’re not.”
0:05:57 John: Right, yep, that’s what they always used to tell me at my old home group. They used to always say that.
0:06:00 Doug: And if you got it and it’s going to get worse, and absolutely and… You know what, I still believe that today, because things did change early in my recovery. Not in recovery, but in my drinking. And especially the period when I was going back and forth and going in and out, things did get worse for me. My absenteeism from work began to get really bad. And this is probably some of the earlier problems that I was having, blackouts and absenteeism really dominated my early problems with drinking. I was a no-show for a lot of birthdays and funerals and graduations, family events, but then it evolved into different things. I was incapable of holding down my own place, I was renting apartments at the time and I had no money to pay the rent. It was either problems that I was getting between jobs, or it was a problem that I would… It came to a point, one point where I was spending money that had to go to bills and keeping a shelter over my home, and I turned to alcohol.
0:07:23 John: Yeah, yeah. I did too. I relate.
0:07:25 Doug: Yeah, and my parents came by to bail me out one time because I told them, “I lost money and I don’t know where it went.” And I told them, “I went in the garbage and I spent a day or two in the garbage.” It literally happened. I did lose my rent and they came by to help me and they gave me a big wad of cash. And as soon as I saw that wad of cash, I didn’t pay what I should have paid, I went out and I drank again and that just continued on and on and on. I eventually got into some legal problems. You mentioned DUI in your story. I didn’t get processed for a DUI, but I did get caught once, I was asleep behind the wheel but I was near home.
0:08:18 John: Yeah, that was one of my DUIs. They gave me a DUI for that. Yeah, I was passed out in my car and the cops came by and the lights of the flashlights woke me up, and yeah, I got a DUI for that because I was actually in possession of my keys while in the car.
0:08:33 Doug: Oh, my gosh, wow. A very different thing happened to me, which it’s probably bad looking back on it today, but I was so close to home, and I had some friends that come out, see what was going on and he let me go, just as long as I was put to sleep and not behind the wheels, and I guess I learnt later that the keys were given to somebody else and I didn’t go through a legal process. So the DUI… However, I did get processed for some legal problems for drunkenness. I did get charged for drunkenness on more than one occasion. And what did increase over time, I did, I was being incarcerated quite a bit in the latter part of my drinking. It was just foolish things. I’d never have enough money for a cab to get home or I don’t know, it was just endless.
0:09:34 Doug: And I was getting incarcerated quite a bit from the police and probably, for the last, I would say the second last time, I began to get problems with the medical side of things. I was hospitalized for suicide when I was being treated for depression. And that was in 1992. Anyway, my boss came to visit me and my family, came to visit me that morning, and when I woke up, I woke up to many things, but that was one life-changing moment when I woke up and I said, “Oh, my gosh, what am I doing here? This is getting,” I did say that to my mother, “This is just getting worse.” However, I did go on my first treatment in 1992, and it was very 12 step-based and there were a lot of speakers who came in from AA, and that’s what got me in AA from that point on.
0:10:44 John: What was your first impression of AA?
0:10:46 Doug: My first impression of AA, that’s a good question. I didn’t know what to make of this. I did like the stories that they shared. I can relate a lot. It definitely wasn’t negative, and I knew I was with the right people that time. And so it was easier for me to go to meetings, I guess. And…
0:11:17 John: Yeah, it wasn’t that… It was the same for me. I mean, the only thing that surprised me at my first meeting was I didn’t have any idea that there was anything to do with God at the meeting. So when they closed the meeting with the Lord’s prayer, I just, I felt kind of uncomfortable, but other than that, the people and when they shared their stories, made me feel very very comfortable and at home I really felt like I was in the right place, and it did inspire me and give me some hope that things would get better, so that was my first impression.
0:11:49 Doug: Yeah, exactly. I’ll share a little bit of that too. I was uncomfortable with some of the procedures and at the time, yeah, every meeting was a smoker meeting, they held hands. There was the Lord’s prayer at the end and it was God and the steps that got them sober. I didn’t resist that. I bought that, but I was still at distance from that because my first few years in recovery, I didn’t have a sponsor. I didn’t do the steps. And I would go to the meetings and there were no sponsors, no steps at all meetings.
0:12:35 John: Yep. You know how that… You know what? I think that’s really more common than not. I really do.
0:12:39 Doug: Yeah, I think so too. Yeah. And… But the… I think it was my third year, I wanted to try these steps that everybody was talking about. I’m thinking, I didn’t feel like an alcoholic until I’ve done these steps. And everybody was talking about, I think that kind of touches on conformity, right? I was going to these meetings all this time and they’re all talking about steps and how it enlightened them. I said, “Well, why don’t I have that enlightenment?” And so I got a sponsor. It was probably about three years since I’d been sober and I wanted to get a sponsor so that I could do the steps. And looking back now it wasn’t a life-changing moment for me that everybody shares in meetings, but it was a process, I did it, and that was that. And I stood at the end of it, of doing it all and I said, “Okay, well, what is it? What’s the big miracle that’s going to happen? And that wasn’t my experience. I don’t know, did you have the experience when you did the 12 steps?
0:13:54 John: After I did step 5, that I did feel some relief from that, I felt like I learned something about myself from that experience, so that was good, and it did give me kind of like a tool to use later in life. As anything would come up in life, I could do an inventory and figure out what was going on and what my reactions were. So in that sense, it was helpful. But no, the steps themselves, especially the way that we worked them at our group, they weren’t necessarily transformative because the steps as I know them now really are just a description of the experience that I was having and it was the experience that I was having that was transformative. Not reading and doing steps with sponsors and so forth.
0:14:42 Doug: No, absolutely, I can relate. Yeah. I… Back then, I believed in a higher power. I wasn’t religious, so I suppose I drank the Kool-Aid for that too. And I believed in a higher power, I believed, it was the people put in my path was this higher power and I believed somebody or something was putting people in my path. And so it’s just like a chess game, and there’s somebody out there that they’re putting people in my life. Giving me these options to think about stuff, where my recovery is going.
0:15:22 John: Well, you’ve probably heard me say that I kinda… I think I bought into it. But I think for me, I was, I don’t know if I actually really believed what I was saying. Because I came into the program and was, I didn’t really think of myself as an atheist, but I had no belief in a God, and I was very uncomfortable with people speaking openly about a belief in God and praying together, that was stuff that made me very uncomfortable because it wasn’t from my experience, but I started talking like everybody else. And whether or not I believed it or not, I really don’t know, but I was doing all those things. I was praying and so forth, and I think I just buried any doubts that I had.
0:16:09 Doug: Yes, absolutely. I can relate to… We eventually learned what got the heads nodding after a while, and that was definitely my experience. And so I would never go as far as saying I had a religious God in my life, but I would always call it a higher power and I knew how to gain acceptance with people in the meeting and what to say. Now, of course, today I don’t believe a lot of that anymore. That’s part of what’s exiting my program today. Or if you can call it that. I’ll share… When I… I went back out in ’93, I went in treatment ’92, and I went back out ’93 and my first life-changing moment was when I came back to AA, and I think that was important for me to share because I really don’t know what made to go back out and I don’t know… And at the time I wasn’t doing the steps. And I suppose a lot of people would argue and say, “Well, if you did the steps, then you wouldn’t have had that problem.” But when I started looking around, I knew there were many people of sobriety that didn’t work the steps. And I also met people that had, in their first years of sobriety and they’ve done the steps, they had the sponsor and they went out.
0:17:50 Doug: I found… That was always in the back of my head, I found that it didn’t matter what happened whether you did the steps or you didn’t. It’s just people early in recovery eventually have gone back out for whatever reason. And to pin-point that even in my own experience, I’m not sure what it was, other than I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. My second life-changing moment, but going back to the first, I realized that everything that was happening negatively in my life always had some connection to alcohol, no matter what was happening. And I especially learnt that because I had nine months of absence and when I went back out I discovered, “Okay, I’m just doing the same thing over again.”
0:18:43 Doug: And some of the same things happened again and they were negative, they weren’t positive anymore, and I realized that, “Okay, there’s a connection to the drinking.” Having that abstinence and then going back out kind of opened my mind. Did you have that experience when you stopped drinking? Or was it just a legal or problem with the family or that?
0:19:11 John: Well, I think with me, I definitely was motivated to not drink because I was just frightened with the legal problems that I had and what my wife had become and I was very fortunate that I just ended up in a group where there were a lot of people that were my age, so we could run around together and do things together and that was really… If there’s anything about AA that was transformative for me it was that, because prior to that, when I was… Prior to getting into AA, I really didn’t have friends that I ran around with. I mean, I might go out and drink with somebody once in a while, but mostly I just went out by myself. I’d go out to a bar, and I’d drink by myself and I had kind of a really lonely, solitary life, so that was good for me to have that experience of just bonding with people that were all doing the same thing together. And it was nice because outside the meetings you don’t really talk about… I don’t think anybody was ever talking about God or anything outside the meetings, it was just [laughter] during the meetings.
0:20:16 Doug: Yeah, that’s true, I can relate, yeah. Yeah, it was only in the meeting, you know, where you had to suit up, shirt up and…
0:20:22 John: Right, isn’t that weird?
0:20:23 Doug: These are some of the things you had to talk about in here but outside…
0:20:26 John: Yeah, outside you’re just normally, having coffee, talking about stuff. [chuckle]
0:20:29 Doug: Absolutely. Yeah, it was almost like you were at work and you had to perform with the policy or something like that, right?
0:20:36 John: Yeah. So you had actually had a period of time when you actually left AA and stopped going to meetings, but maintained your sobriety, too.
0:20:46 Doug: Absolutely, yes. I’ll share briefly what happened. I was in Ontario at the time and some thoughts began to come in my head and I don’t know where it began, I don’t know where it ended, but I came to a point where I realized that hey, everybody seems to parrot everybody. There were things that I’ve been hearing over and over again and for a number of years and I’d been through a number of problems due to my work. And boy, this message is clear and seems to be a unified message and in a number of provinces.
0:21:36 Doug: I also had an experience, I’ll go back in time a little bit, I was in another province and I was in a round-up and I heard a speaker by the name of Scott Redman, he passed on. I don’t know if you heard, he was popular in the ’90s and the tape cassettes and I did hear a story, and I was on a committee and we recommended him and he did come down and he spoke and at that time I was in year 12, maybe, of my sobriety and he shared something that made me think. And near the end of this, no, not the end, at the beginning of this talk, he shared that if we had a disaster like a hurricane or a plane crash or something like that, we attribute the miracle to the survivors and we have no mention of others that perish, or what happened. And that stuck with me, and I don’t know why that stuck with me. And looking back now, I wondered, was he part of an early secular group in the Southern California area, or something like that, I don’t know. But I began questioning everything, from that point on I began questioning a lot of things, every belief went on the table.
0:23:00 John: Yeah, yeah, I had that experience too, that was pretty amazing. That was a really cool period, actually, when I did that, everything was on the table, everything was up for debate. I had to decide what I really believed.
0:23:15 Doug: Yeah, exactly. I began sitting in meetings and I discovered we’re giving credit to things that deserve no credit. I found myself in the world, and forgive me for using some of these words that may sound a little harsh at first, but I found I was in a world of hijacking, conformity and parroting. And what I mean by hijacking is if you got shot nine times and the person lives through it, and I recently heard this on a podcast, not an AA one, but another one, the credit would go to God. And we wouldn’t give the credit to the surgeon or the natural healing that was going on or just the nature of the body itself. And I find when I sit in meetings we give credit for things that from an initial point of view, before going to AA, that I would not normally do that, but since I’ve been sitting in meetings for many years, yes, of course you give the credit for the steps or God or whatever for a number of things that are happening. If I got a job, or it wasn’t based on… Or getting sober, it wasn’t based on anything that I was doing for myself. It was based on the other thing that you’re getting from the fellowship and I wasn’t… I began questioning things like this more and more.
0:24:53 Doug: And when I arrived back to Nova Scotia, this is like year 18 in my sobriety. This is where I began my sobriety, I went to many meetings, and I had nothing to say, and I would come home, my wife would ask me, “How was the meeting?” She’d always ask me that, just for a conversation, and I said, “It’s a good meeting, I have nothing to share.” “Did you talk?” “Nope, no, I didn’t.” And there came a point where I just felt like I no longer belonged. I thought I belonged with the original group of people that I started AA from 15, 20 years ago, and all the people were different, of course, and the old timers I knew were different. The same in many ways, but different, and I’m not sure what happened and when I went to these meetings, and I went every day, and if I had something to say I was scared it was going to conflict with others, and if I had something to share, then I feared correction afterwards.
0:25:58 John: See that, that’s where the point I got, after like 25 years I was really walking on eggshells around that group. These are people I’ve known, many of them for many decades, for a couple of decades, and I got to where I just felt like I had to be very careful. Any time I would tip my toe in the water, it seemed like somebody would tell me to get out, it was really a difficult time. But then I got a little bit more bold, but I got to the point where eventually I realized, I don’t fit here anymore, it wasn’t going to work anymore, I could not sit in that room anymore, I just couldn’t do it anymore, I just couldn’t do it. But with me I was fortunate, that was the same time I learned about these secular meetings and I started a new group and just continued on from there, but if I didn’t do that, I would have nothing to do with AA.
0:26:47 Doug: Yeah, I think the same thing happened to me, I think it was about approximately, not quite, but approximately two years I left AA, I didn’t go to meetings at all, and I kind of held my breath, thinking, “Am I going to out and drink?”
0:27:02 John: And you did something similar to me too, you were listening to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists on YouTube, and I did that a lot during that time when I was realizing that I was an atheist, so I read the books and I watched all the videos and all of this, and it was real eye-opening for me, it really helped me think more critically of what I was actually doing, and it put me on a different path, and maybe it even gave me some courage finally to be open about what I really thought, you know?
0:27:37 Doug: Absolutely. These guys weren’t talking about alcohol, but it was the critical thinking skills that you could not avoid, you know, and just substitute church and put in AA and it’s like, wow, and it was mind-opening, it was truly mind-opening. Yeah, I listened to these guys quite a bit on the podcasts and to me that was the final bullet, it absolutely was, it was the final bullet and from there I found myself alone in AA and not knowing who to talk to about some of these thoughts, like I just didn’t belong. I left. I remember driving home from work one day and I celebrated my 20th birthday, I remember stopping, picking up the mail and I said, “Jeez, yeah, it’s today, isn’t it? Wow, no fellowship.” I told my wife when I came in and she hugged and kissed me, and, “Well, congratulations, anyway, you’re not part of AA,” and part of me kind of missed AA that day, to celebrate it with.
0:28:49 John: Yeah, it’s like you don’t have to be in AA to celebrate your sobriety.
0:28:52 Doug: Absolutely, you know what, there were a couple of birthdays I had where friends just came to my house and we celebrated at my house, as opposed to an AA meeting.
0:29:02 John: Yeah, but you did actually go back and were you actually part of starting a secular meeting?
0:29:09 Doug: Well, what happened is I was AA lonely, I guess, and it was definitely my second year of not going to AA and I started going online a lot and saying… And I finally punched in the words, Halifax, AA and secular and I found one and they weren’t listed.
0:29:39 John: Oh, that’s right, that’s right, you mentioned they weren’t listed.
0:29:41 Doug: They weren’t, absolutely.
0:29:42 John: Yeah, it was during that period of time when there was a lot of, I guess, controversy surrounding agnostic groups, especially in Canada, it was like all over Canada, Ontario and British Columbia and I guess Nova Scotia.
0:29:55 Doug: Yeah, that’s absolutely… I’d done some research later on, and evoked a list at one time, and I studied a lot of the American meetings and the Canadian meetings and it’s like 80% of the American meetings they were listed, I’m not sure why. And then about 80% of the Canadian meetings were not listed, and that was just at a point in time that, now, that changed drastically, especially in the last five years. But at that time, I think it was around 2012/13, yeah, there was very little listing of meetings in Canada at the time. And I became aware of what problems they had in Toronto too, getting listed, and I followed that closely. But I met some people who… His name’s Reed and Judy and they started the very first meeting for secular AA in Halifax, and they originally were listed, and then they weren’t, I think that happens quite a lot.
0:31:04 Doug: I guess they were, Oh, my God!”
0:31:04 John: “Oh, my God, you don’t really… We’ve gotta we’re going to take you off.”
0:31:08 Doug: This is not the AA we were thinking of, this is not per the brochure and then… So they were on and then they were off very quickly, and we spent the next three years fighting to get listed again. So I became part of their group and I started going to AA again, and also it reinvigorated my zest for the program and what it means to me and the flexibility it has, if we can just change the word God or just put a big X through the steps, then why can’t we do that with other aspects of our program? Why do we have to follow this rigid program that’s outlined in the book, if not in the meetings. But like yourself, I went to talk with other people, how they did steps, stuff like that, it was never the same.
0:31:46 John: No, it never was the same.
0:31:46 Doug: Never was, and that was a new revelation for me.
0:31:46 John: Yeah, but that, I had the same experience that after I started our group here in Kansas City, the We Agnostics group, it was like I was more excited about AA, I think, than I had ever been, I felt I was really into it, I really, it came to life for me, everything about it, to just have the freedom to think about the steps differently and all the people that I was meeting online, and it was just a real exciting time that I was experiencing.
0:32:37 Doug: Yes, no. I agree.
0:32:39 John: I’m not sure if I’m quite still there, though, mentally where I’m at today. You know, that level of excitement.
0:32:45 Doug: That would describe me as well. Yep, I’m the same, yeah. Because there’s a lot I dropped in the last two, three, four, five years. I will talk about my… I would call the third life-changing moments in AA. And I mentioned that in the email I sent to you, was John H is talking in Toronto.
0:33:08 John: Yeah, when you met him in Toronto.
0:33:11 Doug: I will never forget that, as long as I’m in AA, as long as I live. And I mentioned to you, it was the first time that I heard somebody spoke like that about the steps. One thing my sponsor, original sponsor whose long passed as well, he instilled in me was the concept of service and if there was anything more that I was doing in the program or staying sober or hanging out with people, it was service. I’ve been part of service for many years now. Not looking for a pat on the back. That was just the kind of guy that I was. We had to keep things going, and there was no thanks for what you did, you just had to do it and that was that. That was his attitude, and that was the attitude he instilled in me. But when I went to these meetings, we’d always talk about a concept or tradition. No one ever spoke negative about them.
0:34:10 John: Right, right.
0:34:12 Doug: And when I… Now, this was the steps, and I heard John for the first time talk about it. Oh my God, I was floored, but I loved it, I loved it. He spoke about… You know what, I at the time I even disagreed with him on some of the stuff, but not so now. Again, it’s an evolving process, you know, with some of them.
0:34:34 John: It is, it is, it is.
0:34:37 Doug: It truly was, I disagreed with him, but I loved it that he shared some negative stuff. After being in this program for 20 years plus, and to hear somebody talk that way, I knew I was in an environment of well, new friends, and a new freedom and a new happiness. And because even at that conference I met somebody from San Francisco. He said his first conference was in Austin, Texas, he said that when he first went to his first meeting he went back to his hotel room and he cried. He had the same experience I had, long-term being in the program, and then suddenly knowing that, hey, it’s different today and here’s a bunch of people in front of you that think different, and we no longer have to keep our mouths shut in the meeting.
0:35:39 Doug: That authenticity, because a lot of the last couple of years before I left AA, I said nothing, I just sat in the back and I was quiet, and the only conversation I was having, was people afterwards, when you could let your guard down and be yourself. And rather than talking in the program or God or whatever, right. I also, after the conference in Toronto, I read John Lauritsen’s book, and I soaked it all in one afternoon, I read it all and I devoured it. And he said some things that really changed my mind about what I thought of the steps. What I originally disagreed with John H, I now agree. Thanks to that yellow book.
0:36:37 John: Yeah, the first time I ever heard somebody say something negative about the steps and they were in AA and it was somebody from within the secular AA community, I was shocked, I’d never ever heard it before. I mean, I was literally shocked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I was, in my mind, I was thinking, “Why are you even in AA?” because I did equate AA with the steps. I didn’t realize I was doing that, but now, I don’t mind it. I can hear that criticism and I have even rethought what they mean to me and it’s just, I guess it’s good to be exposed. I guess what I’ve learned, it’s good to be exposed to somebody who you might not agree with. And it’s good to be shocked sometimes, and sometimes it takes to be shocked for you to begin to maybe think about something differently.
0:37:28 Doug: Yes, absolutely. All of the progress of mankind was based on a set of challenges. You’d mentioned you went to university, so have I, and I worked in a chemistry department and on Friday afternoons, we would sit there and we would listen to somebody’s thesis or somebody, they’re going to put an article in a journal. And I will never forget my first time, this guy presented something and all… It seemed like all the professors were all over him, and it’s like, well, no, they’re going to put their name on this journal… They’re going to be challenged on some of these ideas that they’re going to present, right? And we have to look at all these angles, and I feel AA lacks that. I think we just sit there and we say, well, this is good, this is great and then you’re here for 20 years and then… So what really stands out and just like you mentioned if somebody says something negative, I’m like, “Wow!”
0:38:40 John: Yeah. [chuckle]
0:38:42 Doug: That grabs my attention. Or if you just spoke about it a positive manner then I’d probably miss all the words, [chuckle]
0:38:50 John: But it’s also freeing to… I do feel like I’ve been freed from, I guess, free from dogma, I can, I’m free from all of that. I don’t have to think like that, I don’t have to believe that. And if somebody throws crap at me like that, like someone says, “You need to do this step, or that step,” I just let it slide off my back. It doesn’t even apply to me, I’m okay with that, but I’m not necessarily anti-steps either. I see that they have a place for a lot of people, and hell, I’ve been in AA for 30, I’m going on 32 years, and so they’re kind of ingrained in me anyway, I can’t get them out. One thing that John gets pissed off at me about, John H, because he hates the steps, he has nothing to do with them, but he writes out his experience and I can look at his experience. [chuckle] That’s this step and that step… [chuckle]
0:39:42 Doug: Yeah, yeah, I’m the same way, I look at everything. It’s like the rose-colored glasses you put on, right? And you can only see the world in that frame.
0:39:56 John: True. [chuckle]
0:39:58 Doug: And it’s only our own experience, it’s how we look at the world and how we look at the steps. So I did start a group and that was after I went to the conference.
0:40:12 John: Okay, oh, interesting, after the 2018 Conference.
0:40:15 Doug: After the 2018 Conference. It was no disrespect to the original group. I love these guys and girls and I mentioned Judy, and she went to Toronto with me and she was transformed from the experience as well, and so when her and I came back, I just said, “Well, I’m going to start a second group,” and starting the second group was like we only had one meeting to go to throughout the week and everybody else had to go through traditional meetings. So my impetus for this was, “Well, how about a second?”
0:40:52 John: Right. Yeah, it was a good idea.
0:40:54 Doug: Yeah. So, I did, I’ve been watching your podcast, quite a bit. And you said something that you have a meeting every night of the week.
0:41:04 John: We do, here in Kansas City, Missouri. [chuckle]
0:41:06 Doug: I can’t believe that. So I looked up the computer, I looked up Kansas City [chuckle] and I compared the populations. It is about the same, so why not us?
0:41:14 John: Right, right.
0:41:15 Doug: And so… because you do… Yeah, your population’s about the same as here. So I, I didn’t see why not, so I made all the mistakes [chuckle] with starting a secular AA meeting, my first mistake is, I did it, I can’t say it was just myself, I did have others that were helping, but one by one, most of them were traditional AA members and friends of mine, they left. Probably within a month, they were gone one by one, and it was just myself and maybe one or two other people, holding the fort, but eventually, it grew. One person stayed and then it grew to three to four and then afterward five to six, and we recently had a birthday, and it was way above average, we probably had about 30 people for…
0:42:08 John: Yeah, that’s nice to see. I like to see that, I like to see the room filled, because I remember our group started and it would be the same thing, there’d be three or four of us and now, it just warms my heart to see the room full of people celebrating their sobriety or whatever, and yeah, it’s great. It’s also interesting to watch the group change over time. The group that we have today, because we’re going on now, in our sixth year, and it’s a completely different group from where we started. I mean, some of the people are the same, but there’s a lot of new people too, and there’s been a lot of people who have come and gone in between, and they have all brought something to the group and left it with us, and so it has really taken a different personality, I guess.
0:42:51 John: And what I like now about my group is that we’ve got really a whole new generation of people that are taking care of the group, and I love that, I love to see that, and they’re bringing a different spin on things than I did. Because I came from the traditional AA background, they come from no AA background, so they’re a clean slate, you know?
0:43:19 Doug: I have the same experience.
0:43:20 John: Yeah.
0:43:22 Doug: There’s only just a few of us in here that have traditional AA background, but the rest are all new, and what they share in the meetings, just scraps of other meetings they’ve been to and most of them haven’t heard of the AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. You mentioned that too, I think. And they don’t, a lot of them don’t know what’s going on outside of their group.
0:43:47 John: That’s right, that’s absolutely true. I think that’s always been true, I think, in AA because of the groups being so autonomous, they don’t really care, people don’t really care so much about what happens at the General Service Conference, or anything like that. And the same thing with my secular group, they don’t really, they’re just focused on their friendships within the group and so forth, and they’re not really interested in anything outside of that. There are some that listen to the podcast, but sometimes, and I try not, I don’t like to talk about this podcast or my website or anything a lot when I go to meetings, but it does surprise me sometimes that there’s absolutely no interest at all.
0:44:27 Doug: I know. It’s the more older conventional members that are interested.
0:44:35 John: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
0:44:35 Doug: All the new people were not interested at all.
0:44:37 John: Right. [chuckle]
0:44:38 Doug: So, I’ve mentioned the odd time the Washington DC Conference coming up and I mentioned Toronto at the time, and I’m also, if interested in podcasts, I’ll mention it in the announcements, I will, just to pique some interest, anyway. And there is, there are a few, but I would say the majority, no.
0:45:00 John: Yeah, yeah, same here, I have too… I’ve met a couple of people who actually found the group through YouTube or something like that, and yeah, but yeah, for the most part, and that’s fine, otherwise it would be annoying, I think, if… [chuckle]
0:45:19 Doug: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I can’t sit there and demand that we watch this old movie over and over…
0:45:26 John: Right, right.
0:45:27 Doug: Everybody’s got to find their own… Which is something I had to do. We had to find our own niche, because some people work these 12 steps, some people don’t, and some people work secular steps. The people are finding… Hopefully, if there’s anything we achieve is that people are finding their own experiences and their own journeys in here, rather than having a mandated orthodox one. And sometimes we get a little orthodoxy and we have the… [chuckle] If someone just shares their experience, that they don’t do the steps, sometimes we get somebody who’ll be afterwards and say, “Well, I had to do the steps because… ” And what am I going to say? Am I going to say otherwise, or… I find it’s a very dicey thing to speak up, whether you should or you shouldn’t, other than sharing your own experience.
0:46:32 John: And you know what I find really interesting about the people that are attending meetings at my group, and I haven’t really been going to very many meetings lately, but they don’t make a big deal about working steps or not working steps. It’s almost like it’s a private thing. It’s almost… [chuckle] It’s like between them and whoever they’re talking to about the steps and I kind of like that. It’s not made a big deal. And when we do have meetings, the topics are always now something that the person who’s chairing the meeting just comes up with. Nobody reads anything, it’s just whatever they want to talk about. And that’s not the background I come from. I come from, “You gotta read something and talk about what you read about.” But…
0:47:15 Doug: Absolutely, yeah.
0:47:16 John: Yeah.
0:47:17 Doug: Yeah, at first we had to do a little bit of God-bashing at first, but we got that out of our system, and today we talk just about alcohol subjects and the odd time the program will come up, whether that’s steps or lack of, but… Well, what I like is, we do have a freer atmosphere to share our other ideas, which is what I was looking for for a long time. [chuckle]
0:47:48 John: Yeah, yeah. People can be a lot more honest about things. At some groups, you feel the pressure to conform, that you wouldn’t necessarily say that you don’t work the steps, or whatever. You’d be afraid to because you’re going to be offending people, whereas here, people say, “Yeah, I don’t really work the steps, I don’t do that,” and that’s fine. And honestly, I think that the same percentage of people who don’t work the steps in a secular meeting is the same as at a traditional meeting. I really think that’s the truth, but people don’t really come out and say they don’t work the steps, but they really don’t have anything to do with them, really.
0:48:32 John: No, I used to sponsor people a lot in my first 10 years or so, and for whatever reason, people don’t want me as a sponsor. [chuckle] No one asks me to sponsor them. And that’s fine, I’m okay with that. If I do sponsor somebody… I think one reason that it doesn’t really last for any length of time is, I don’t have any structure. I don’t lay down like, “This is the path you must follow.” And some people early on, they do want that, they do want that structure and that path to follow. And I just say, “Find your own path and let’s be friends.” That’s basically my approach and that’s the way I am and I offer my friendship to whoever might want it.
0:49:22 Doug: Yeah, I suppose I do sponsor a couple of individuals at the moment. My experience, in the last five or 10 years… Yeah, I don’t want to lay some kind of orthodox program in front of them either. However… You and John, actually, not that long ago, had a talk on sponsorship. And I think we need more discussions on that, but I think both of you just kind of rejected outright because of what it stood for, especially from a traditional sense.
0:50:06 John: I do. I think it’s a bad idea to have a formalized system of sponsorship where someone thinks that they’re obligated to have a sponsor, that they must have a sponsor. And I really hate the idea that the sponsor has any sort of expertise or… I really don’t like that and it can be dangerous. And I’ve seen it abused at other groups, especially these Clancy, cult-like groups, this whole thing of sponsorship. I’m not totally against it. I see people that have… In my home group who have sponsors, it’s a very loving, close relationship and the sponsor isn’t dictatorial and the person doesn’t feel like… It’s, I think, a healthy relationship and I’m okay with that. But I’m not okay with where you’re in an AA group and you’re being pressured to get a sponsor or somebody imposes themselves on you as your sponsor and then begins acting as if they know what’s best for you. And they might even speak to you in a kind of a derisive way that, “You’re just a little newcomer, you don’t really know.” I just really don’t like that at all. So…
0:51:21 Doug: Yes, yeah.
0:51:22 John: Yeah.
0:51:23 Doug: Well, I think we agree on a lot, though I’m stuck with the title. [chuckle] And a couple of examples. I think of the two individuals that I sponsor now, they approached me, and I think they were interested in some structure at first with the steps or whatever, but they slowly learnt really quickly [laughter] where I stand with that, and there’s no structure at all. And there’s probably initial disappointment, I know one shared, “I expected you to call me up and you to tell me what we had to do with the steps.” So I said, “No, not at all.” And hopefully what they have learned or I hope if there’s anything they got out of me is that don’t believe anything I’d say, this is more or less your journey, you could share with me if you want. I’m more interested if you have the ability to free-think some of the stuff.
0:52:37 Doug: I’m more interested in the free-thinking side as opposed to a structured, orthodox mandated side on this, right? And so they learnt that and then they kind of stepped back a little bit but didn’t… Now, today, we just share and we just talk, really and that’s all it is. So I think it fell together that way, in spite of how it may have started over the expectations that…
0:53:06 John: Yeah, so coming up to modern times, how is your group handling the COVID-19 pandemic?
0:53:13 Doug: Oh, well, we have a very energetic bubbly person by the name of Pam. And we had a meeting just before the ax fell. And what I mean by that is, when everybody was secluded in their homes, and this is our last meeting and we all knew it, our last meeting was going to be here and we predicted by next week we were not going to be meeting, and that’s exactly what happened. And so we had a chance to organize as a group what we were going to do. And so I mentioned this to lady, Pam, and she said, “Hey, I just happened to have an account with Zoom.” And so we were the first sites to develop in the Halifax area for meetings and a lot of groups just followed that pattern. And I know, I’m looking around now, that’s happening everywhere now.
0:54:05 John: Oh, yeah, it’s amazing.
0:54:06 Doug: Yeah, so I’m trying to look around and see what’s going on in Toronto, or even in the States, some of the groups that started. I just like to sit in and listen to meetings far away but…
0:54:20 John: I might actually do that. The Toronto group actually posts a link to their meetings on Facebook and so forth. I should check one out some time, but I’ve been going to all of my group’s Facebook, I mean, Zoom meetings because I have to help start the meeting and everything, although now I’ve got two people who I think can take over doing that, so I won’t have to be at every single one of them, but I’ve been at every single one of them and it’s been good. I’m surprised at how much I like it, and I think one reason I like it so much is that I do spend so much time just me and my wife in the house now that it’s great to see them and talk to them and laugh. It’s needed, really, right now.
0:55:09 Doug: Right, yeah. Well, there was a meeting that started in Fredericton, not that we helped, but they came down to our meeting to see what was going on and a couple of months later, they started a meeting, so we developed a friendship with a meeting in Fredericton, a secular meeting and we’ve been on one another online meeting, and this crisis created a positive. We’re getting to know one another more online. Instead of traveling four or five hours to another secular meeting, we’re meeting one another and getting to know one another online. So that’s definitely a positive.
0:55:58 John: It’ll be interesting when all this is all over, that it’ll be interesting to see how many of these online meetings continue and if there’s some new groups coming out of it, online groups. This might be a kind of a new thing. There’s a lot of people now in AA who are attending meetings online, who never would have done it before, and they’re probably discovering, “This is kind of cool.”
0:56:20 Doug: Yeah, I’m thinking along the lines of what you’re saying, I’m thinking, yeah, a lot of this is going to still remain. I haven’t yet, but I want to talk with some other people from the secular meetings around the other provinces, because I know there were some instances where a secular group wanted to start in another province, but they haven’t for whatever reason, maybe they didn’t have the numbers or something like that. I’m thinking the online meetings could be a solution and we just need to reach out to these communities. A long distance that may not have enough people to start an online meeting, but it could be an opportunity to attend a secular meeting in that area.
0:57:07 John: You know, something interesting that’s happening also is there’s now, because the secular AA website they have a lot of secular meetings online and they always have, and those meetings were usually like 20 people, whatever, but now they’re like 100 people show up. And they’re not all people from secular AA meetings, they’re from all kinds of meetings. They’re from all.
0:57:29 Doug: Same problem here, yes. Same problem.
0:57:29 John: And it’s kind of nice, though, because it’s like it’s introducing all these people to a secularly formatted AA meeting and it seems to work for them just fine.
0:57:36 Doug: Yes. Yeah, yeah, there’s definitely positives and negatives in this, but that’s definitely the positive. More people are going to get exposed to secular AA.
0:57:36 John: And you wonder if there’s going to be some of these people who have a traditional background, whether they are a believer in God or not, are going to say, “I kind of like having a meeting that starts without having to read how it works and without having to pray all the time.” I kind of like that.
0:57:36 Doug: Yes. That’s right, that’s right. So I think this is going to produce some changes in what we see today, and I’m looking forward to them, we’re just beginning to talk about some of them.
0:57:36 John: Well, I sure have enjoyed this conversation, Doug, I’m glad that we had this opportunity. I’m glad that… Glad that you reached out to me in that email, that was great. I wonder if I met you when we were in Toronto?
0:58:31 Doug: I did briefly. I remember seeing you. You probably don’t remember seeing me. You were in the room where John H was having that talk, were you not? You were recording, right? because you played around with it. Yeah. You played around with his microphone a lot.
0:58:44 John: Oh yeah. Yeah. I was really busy at that. I think I kept myself busy as a way to avoid having to actually socialize with anybody. I’ve been doing social distancing for a long time.
0:58:56 Doug: Right. I can relate.
0:59:00 John: It kind of comes natural to me.
0:59:01 Doug: Yeah. Yeah.
0:59:02 John: Okay.
0:59:02 Doug: But I didn’t get a chance to meet with you, but I did talk with John H for about 15 minutes after. I don’t know if he remembers me, but it was great about that conference. I got to meet a lot of people that I’ve never met before. And just like when you arrived in AA, you didn’t feel alone. And then suddenly, I’m alone in AA. Then, I go to a conference, I’m not alone again. We got to meet others, at least, that think like us. We went for… So, I’m in debt to it. And to the new friends that we’ve met in secular AA. I’ve felt like I’ve known you for longer, because I listen to your podcasts a lot. And in my email, I wanted to engage you in a conversation. In the back of my mind, I knew, “He’s probably going to ask me to come on.
0:59:55 John: Yeah. Yeah. I’m really bad about conversing by email. I just like… because I email all day long at work. And it’s like I don’t know, man, I just… But I love to talk on the podcasts.
1:00:10 Doug: Yeah. And I could see it. I’ve seen some of your live shows. I haven’t worked up the nerve to call in, but I will. I’ll definitely help out, because I… Especially your new area, My Secular Sobriety, I’ve been following that quite a bit. And we never had a chance to talk about some of the stuff.
1:00:32 John: Well, that’s a fun podcast. And I started that because I wanted to be able to talk about things that I don’t necessarily talk about on this podcast, because this podcast is so closely aligned with AA and a secular interpretation of AA. And I wanted to talk about recovery writ large, and all kinds of different ways of recovery, and all kinds of different things to recover from, and just to do that. But I always have to bring the AA part with me, but I really try to tamper that down on that particular podcast. And I also like on that podcast, I don’t have to be anonymous because I’m really not speaking as an AA member on that podcast. So, I like not having to be anonymous. That’s one thing I’ve really changed my… I’m not as a big fan of anonymity as I was before, but I still practice it within AA out of respect for that tradition. I do that.
1:01:36 Doug: That’s right. I kind of follow along. But you gave a talk on anonymity at one point. Again, another experience, I never thought of it in that angle. And when you let it sit in me for a week or two, it was like, yeah. Yeah, I agree.
1:01:52 John: Yeah. A lot of people disagreed with me on that, but that’s fine. I disagreed with myself at one time, so I’m going to…
1:02:01 Doug: Well, there’s nothing wrong with talking out loud.
1:02:05 John: No. No.
1:02:07 John: So, that’s another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you, Doug, for talking with me. It was a lot of fun.
1:02:16 Doug: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
1:02:18 John: For those of you who would like to support our site and podcast, you can do so by visiting our website and clicking on the donate button. You can also go to our Patreon page at patreon.com/AAbeyondbelief, and you can make recurring contributions. And if you can’t, that’s okay. We just do this for the fun of it. We’re not trying to make any money. So anyway, thank you for listening, everybody. This is John S signing off.
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