Mark K. knows he needs more than AA to stay sober. Before attending his first AA meeting, he was receiving professional help from a therapist who he continues to see to this day, and who encourages him to remain open to any activity or resource that supports his recovery. Mark fully embraces this approach, and in this episode, he walks us through his journey, describing the tools and resources that helped him stay sober since May 16, 2013.
Key points and topics discussed
• How diabetes taught Mark the importance of diet and exercise, and how he incorporates that as part of his recovery.
• The value of professional help.
• How the AA Beyond Belief podcast contributed to Mark’s recovery.
• Mark’s views on the religious nature of AA literature.
• How Mark continues to learn and grow.
I went to class one morning, and this strange fellow was sitting at the teacher’s desk, and the teacher standing next to him, and they’re chit-chatting. I’m curious as to what is going on when the bell rings. And the teacher introduces this fellow as a representative of Alcoholics Anonymous. That was 42 years ago, and I remember this guy, I remember how he was dressed, I remember how he looked, I remember some of the things he spoke about, but what I remember most about the guy is that he was not a good speaker. He was not riveting; he was not captivating; he was not a great orator. I could probably describe him by memory. Maybe stoic would be the right word, but that guy held my attention like no teacher ever did.
I couldn’t get sober until I found community, and that was the difference for me, the fellowship, we hear it on AA Beyond Belief all the time. It has always been that way for me.
Diabetes takes some time every day of my life, and I have an exercise program. I go to a meeting every day, before COVID. I have friends in recovery that I connect with, whether it’s a visit or coffee or just a text message. It was the fellowship and finding community and sobriety.
• Kripalu Meditation Center
• Tommy Rosen Recovery 2.0
• Recovery Dharma
• SMART Recovery
• Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for Twelve Step Life
• A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous
• Episode 14: A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous
• Episode 30: AA Freethinkers: Secular Recovery in Japan
This transcript has been edited and condensed to enhance its readability, and while it’s not a verbatim record of the original conversation, its essence has been captured.
John: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by for and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I’m with Mark K. from New Haven, Connecticut, who will share his story of recovery, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him. Hi Mark. Welcome to AA Beyond Belief.
Mark: Thank you so much. I feel like I know you from listening to your podcast, which has been helpful to me. I’m grateful to you for the effort you put into this, and I’m thankful to be here. I never thought I could be a guest, and I feel honored. It’s good to be here.
John: Well, thank you for saying that. Whenever someone tells me they listen to the podcast and how it’s helped them, while it’s great to hear, I often don’t know how to react. I’m grateful to have this opportunity, and I enjoy doing this, but it blows me away how this can reach so many people. I’m glad it has helped you thank you for saying that.
Mark: Later, in my story, I’ll tell you how it’s helped me.
My name is Mark, and I live in New Haven, Connecticut, not far from Yale University. I’m 60 years old, and my recovery date is May 16th, 2013, so I’m about seven and a half years sober now. As most people say, it’s been great, not easy, and not always perfect, but it’s wonderful not to be controlled by alcohol. There’s nothing overly exciting about my drinking story. It’s pretty typical, nothing dramatic. I never went to jail, I never lost a job, I never killed anyone driving drunk, but all of those things could have happened. I was just lucky. A typical start is that I was a shy kid and insecure around people my age. I just didn’t feel right.
John: We hear that a lot, and I’m no different.
Mark: There was some alcoholism in my family on both sides, but not a lot. Most of my family drank but weren’t alcoholics. I guess that gave me the illusion of alcohol being something I wanted. My uncles, and my relatives, who I admired the most, many of them drank. I don’t blame them for my addiction, I don’t, but I couldn’t wait to get started.
I had my first drink at 15. I got sick and felt horrible, but I couldn’t wait to drink again. I just couldn’t wait. Drinking alleviated my inhibitions, and I started a love/hate relationship that I couldn’t divorce myself from, and I drank for about 38 years. So when I was 15, it all changed for me, and I started smoking cigarettes, I started smoking marijuana, I started drinking, and they diagnosed me with type one diabetes.
Within six months, all four of those things changed my life forever. Of the four, marijuana was the easiest for me to deal with as I sort of grew it. Marijuana certainly didn’t bring any good in my life, but it wasn’t a significant problem. Those cigarettes were another matter, and I became seriously addicted to nicotine. I smoked for 18 years before I was finally able to give them up. I couldn’t do it entirely on my own, and I had to find something. I wanted to give them up, and one day I was smoking in the house when my son was about four years old. He was sitting on my lap, and I’m smoking. It sounds horrible to say this now. He was sitting on my lap, watching Nickelodeon, and a breeze came in and blew the smoke in his face. When he started wiping his eyes, he turned around and looked at me, and in an angry voice, said, “When are you going to quit those?” I didn’t quit that day or that week, but that was the kick in the butt I needed. I was able to give them up shortly afterward, and I haven’t smoked in 27 years. But I’ll tell you; they are a part of my story along with the alcohol and obviously diabetes. I couldn’t do anything about it, and the alcohol, I just couldn’t give it up, no matter how much harm it caused me. I just couldn’t do it.
I would frequently drive drunk. God, when I think back, I get the shakes when I think about it, the drunk driving, I did. They should have arrested me so many times, but I never had a DUI. Not because I was smarter than anyone else. I was just lucky. Years later, when seeing a therapist, she would check my blood and my liver function, and when I asked for the results, and she told me they were fine, not that she wanted me to be ill, but I think she was looking for something to kick me in the ass.
John: Interesting, so it wasn’t affecting you physically.
Mark: It wasn’t, and that was kind of surprising, especially with diabetes.
John: I know, I thought it would have impacted your diabetes.
Mark: It should have. I’m on insulin, and the fact that I never overloaded a syringe out of drunkenness is genuinely surprising. I was very fortunate. I could describe myself as a functional alcoholic, even towards the end. After drinking, all that drinking, and I was a scotch drinker, I was in pretty good shape. I play hockey, and I’m a gym guy, and diabetes taught me to be a healthy person with other things, not the alcohol, but with food and such. So, it’s just lucky, but yeah, even at the end, I was in reasonably good shape.
I couldn’t get sober until I found community, and that was the difference for me, the fellowship, we hear it on AA Beyond Belief all the time. It has always been that way for me. It was the fellowship and finding community and sobriety. I’m going to tell you a little story that’s important to me.
So, I started all these things when I was 15, and I was never much of a student in school, I didn’t do too well. I had a lot of trouble concentrating. No matter how hard I tried, my mind would wander. The drinking didn’t help this, but this was in place before I started drinking. I just couldn’t concentrate, so there wasn’t much chance of me going to college.
I was a senior in high school, and well established as an alcoholic at that point. It was the springtime of my senior year. I went to class one morning, and this strange fellow was sitting at the teacher’s desk, and the teacher standing next to him, and they’re chit-chatting. I’m curious as to what is going on when the bell rings. And the teacher introduces this fellow as a representative of Alcoholics Anonymous. That was 42 years ago, and I remember this guy, I remember how he was dressed, I remember how he looked, I remember some of the things he spoke about, but what I remember most about the guy is that he was not a good speaker. He was not riveting; he was not captivating; he was not a great orator. I could probably describe him by memory. Maybe stoic would be the right word, but that guy held my attention like no teacher ever did.
I was mesmerized, I was mesmerized listening to him, and there was such a connection. I remember looking at my watch, wishing the 50 minutes could continue a little longer, so I could listen to him a little longer. After I heard that fellow speak to me that day, I continued to drink alcoholically for 34 more years. I understand how a person would think that the guy failed me. I was in an alcoholic condition, and here comes someone representing a sober society. I listened to him and then I go and drink for all those years. But, when I finally got sober at 53, I started thinking about that guy a lot. He kept popping into my head. It was like he remained in the back of my brain in remission for all those years. I came to realize that he had helped me, it just took me a long time to know it, but he affected me, and I get emotional talking about it. I don’t credit him with my sobriety. Still, I credit him with teaching me about fellowship and teaching me about one alcoholic helping another. He taught me that, and I didn’t know it for a long time, but I came to realize it, and I’m grateful to that guy.
There are some people who stay anonymous for the right reasons, but he exposed himself, and he took a chance, and I’m grateful that he did because it helped me. He played a role in my recovery.
John: It’s like he planted the seed as they say. You know, I had people like that too, growing up. I had an aunt who I loved. She wasn’t an aunt-related by blood, but she was a good friend of my grandmother’s. I called her aunt, and I loved her very much. She was a great person and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Growing up, I never thought much about it, but I always had a favorable impression of AA because of her. She was just one of a few sources that I had growing up, who had provided mew with some knowledge about AA. I knew it was a place to go if I had a drinking problem.
Mark: That makes so much sense because here you have the person you admire and like, and you’re connecting them with sobriety.
Mark: So, I finally did get sober, and I met a wonderful woman, and we got married at 24, and she stayed with me. I have a couple of sons, and thankfully they’ve never had an addiction problem, That could change very quickly, I realize. I don’t know if it’s because they saw me or what, but so far, they’ve been okay. So, I’m grateful for that.
I wasn’t a bad father, I was always the guy coaching the baseball team and stuff like that, but I was still drinking, there ever had to be alcohol. No matter what I did. I don’t regret the past, but I’m glad I’m sober today. I genuinely enjoy sobriety. It’s not always easy.
John: So, what happened? Was there a dramatic incident?
Mark: It was a build-up, and as I said, I was a compulsive drunk driver. I was big time. I felt like between diabetes and my wife losing her patience and my kids losing their patience. I hadn’t lost contact with them, and my sons didn’t stop speaking to me. Still, I could see all these things were going to occur.
My luck was running out, so I started seeing a therapist, and it never worked out, so I finally found the therapist who I connected with, and what I liked about her was that she was open-minded to anything. She did mention that she thought I belonged in AA, but she didn’t shove it down my throat. She was open-minded that we try everything. I tried a form of the Sinclair Method. I didn’t do naltrexone, which I believe is a daily dose, but she gave me injections of something called Vivitrol, which is an opiate blocker. I tried that, and it didn’t work for me. I realize that it helps a lot of people, I’m respectful of that, but it didn’t work for me.
I just drank through it.
John: What ultimately happened?
Mark: I don’t know if I could say, I don’t know, but one day in 2009, I tried rehab. I learned a lot in rehab, but I drank about a month later. I just wasn’t ready, but I started going to meetings, even though I was drinking. I was going to meetings, and then finally in 2013I was drinking at work, things were just out of control. I woke my wife up one night, and I said, I have to go back to rehab. I have to lock myself up somewhere for 30 days and to get a jump start on this. So, I did. I was ready. I went to rehab and tried to do my best. I wasn’t perfect, I did some things wrong, but I tried my best. When I got out, I checked myself into a sober house for four months just to transition back to a somewhat normal life.
I would go home, eat dinner at home, and just basically sleep at the sober house. It gave me a transition, and I guess it worked. I started going to a lot of meetings, got heavily involved in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was sharing at meetings and speaking quite a bit, and most importantly, I made sober friends. That was what AA did for me. It did a lot of things for me, but it’s the most critical thing AA has done is this give me a network of sober people.
John: What are the meetings like in Connecticut?
Mark: I should say that I heard about the Sunday morning meeting you attend.
John: Did you go, and did I miss that?
Mark: I’d been to that meeting. I called in on the live show about a month or two ago.
John: Oh yeah, that’s right. People at the meeting told me that there was somebody there asking for me. I’m sorry, I wasn’t there. That’s the one meeting I didn’t go to that often. When we first started, for the first year or two, maybe I went quite a bit, but then after a while, I didn’t.
Mark: It was the funniest thing. I was getting a service dog to help me with diabetes. The facility with the dog was in Concordia, Kansas, and it just so happened to work out that I was in Kansas City on a Saturday night. We only had a half a day driving left, so I made it to the meeting. It was fun to be there, and it was my first agnostic/atheist AA meeting. I loved it. They welcomed me there.
John: Yeah, that’s an excellent meeting. Did you have a problem finding it? It’s like back in the cafeteria.
Mark: Yeah, well, I was in downtown Kansas City, so I thought I could walk it. I asked the woman at the desk, and she said, “No, it’s several miles.” I parked in the parking garage, and then if I remember right, I had to walk in the building quite a bit, but I found it.
John: Yeah, that is a nice meeting, and it’s really interesting. We’ve got two different groups, and we have six meetings a week now at different locations. That one is in Kansas, and then we also have meetings in Missouri. That meeting is almost like a different group. It should spin-off and become its own group because it’s like it’s in a different state, and some people go to that meeting who don’t go to the other meetings. It’s got a great location, and it’s a good meeting. Now, we’re meeting online because of COVID. So, that was your first agnostic meeting?
Mark: It was, and the only other ones I’ve been to are Zoom meetings. I’m not an atheist, but I sure am a freethinker. I found great help from the meetings and your podcast, and I’m grateful. Do they call them agnostic meetings?
John: For a long time, people called them agnostic meetings, and now they call them secular meetings.
Mark: I looked it up, and there was a secular meeting in Connecticut, but it’s in the northeast part of the State. It’s like an hour’s drive one way. It is just not practical.
John: I met the guy who started that meeting. He was at a conference in Hamilton, Ontario, and a young woman who was going to our meetings in Kansas City moved there and attended those meetings.
Mark: Oh, okay, that’s interesting, yeah. Someday, I’ll get up there, but it’s kind of far.
John: I hear you.
Mark: Something I would like to touch on is that I use multiple pathways to sobriety. Certainly, AA is at the top of the list, but I’m a person who can’t do it with AA alone. I need a lot. So I used a lot of things, and I use AA, I use Dharma Recovery.
John: It used to be Refuge Recovery. Why did they change the name?
Mark: I don’t know the details, but there was some issue with the founder. I don’t know what happened or who’s right or wrong. It’s the same thing.
John: Dharma means community, right?
Mark: I believe that’s right. It’s like a Buddhist term.
John: I have a friend who helped start the Refuge Recovery meeting here. He didn’t start it, but he rescued it because the person who started it left, and it was going to die if no one carried it on. I had him on the podcast, and he talked about it. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.
Mark: There is, and again, Refuge Recovery or Dharma by itself probably wouldn’t keep me sober, but in conjunction with other things, it works. I use SMART Recovery a little bit, not a lot. We have a local meeting. The only problem I had was that the attendance is low at the SMART meeting here.
John: I took the facilitator training for SMRT and passed it. I did it during COVID, so I never actually have been to a physical SMART meeting, I’ve been to the meetings online, and I like it. I like the tools that they have. I like cognitive behavioral therapy, where you think through your feelings, so you don’t just have to react from whatever you’re feeling you are having at the moment. The meetings online go for an hour and a half.
Mark: I went to one meeting, and I don’t remember, I was struggling with something, and when I mentioned it, they really helped me. The facilitators had a whiteboard or a platform or something, and they were showing me all this stuff, and it was quite helpful. So, I use that and continue to on occasion, not a lot. A person I’ve gotten a lot of help from, and I know you had him on a podcast, is Tommy Rosen.
There’s a place in Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, called Kripalu. It’s a meditation center, and I have been there. I think three times now. Tommy does a recovery conference there, so I went there two or three times to meet him, and I got to know him. We’re not best friends, but we text each other occasionally.
John: He’s a good guy, he’s so charismatic. I really like him a lot, and so I talked to him and then I went to a webinar that he did a while back a few months ago. I like the idea that he takes a holistic approach to recovery. He focuses on physical health, and he told me about sugar being his first drug and how that is something that he observes.
Mark: Yeah, he’s extremely healthy. Yeah. Everything you just said, I like him for those same reasons, so I’ve been to his up to that several times. I met another person there; I don’t know if you’re familiar with, a woman named Nicky Myer. She invented or developed this Y-12 it stands for yoga for 12-step recovery. I also attended some of these. It’s usually an hour and 15 minutes. It’s like 40 minutes of beginner yoga, something anyone can do, and then a sharing circle for 40
John: Well, that sounds interesting. You do some actual yoga, and then you do a sharing session, like after you do yoga?
Mark: Normally, you do yoga first. You do about 40 minutes of gently being nothing crazy. Yeah, we do a sharing circle. You go around the room, and you could pass obviously. Yeah, so it’s a good thing. She works with Tommy Rosen at the recovery conference. I use that stuff. I use the exercise, of course, and diabetes diet.
John: Yeah, the diabetic diet is like the most healthy diet you can ever eat.
Mark: Yeah, it is. I’m not a fanatic either. I’m not perfect at it, but yeah, I eat pretty healthily, reasonably healthy. I was going to mention; also, John, I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone else’s recovery. What got me listening to your podcast is I get frustrated with AA, quite frankly. I try to remind myself every day. I need to be respectful of other people’s recovery. What works for them is fine, but I have to find my path, and I identify as a freethinker. The meetings here almost always involve reading from Daily Reflections.
John: Oh, I hate that book.
Mark: I’m not a fan. I’m with your brother. I was going to tell his story about the Daily Reflections. I got out of rehab, and I checked myself into that sober living house. I started a little routine every morning. I’m a pretty disciplined person. I would get up every day and make my bed, and then I would read the Daily Reflections. I did this every day, and I did a lot of other things, but that was the way I started my day out. Now, I got sober, and I stayed. So I’m reading these books every day, and I go through them, and I’m doing this for like maybe three years, so I’ve been through the book three times. One day I said to myself, “I hate this, I can’t stand this book,” so I guess there are certain people in AA, who would say, “Well, you learn to like it,” but I said, “Why should I do that to myself?” So, I looked around, and I found a couple of other daily readers that related to me better, one of them being Beyond Belief.
John: Yeah, that’s a good one. Well, that’s good.
Mark: That’s one of the two I read, and another for men’s meditation. So, I started reading these two, and I stopped reading the religious one. You know, John, I stayed sober. Nothing changed. I stayed sober, and I came to believe and realized that it wasn’t the words in the book that were keeping me sober, it was the act of doing it—starting my day off, reading something in the right direction. That’s what was doing it, and the new books, I’m a much happier reading those, and I have don’t have to tolerate the Daily Reflections book.
John: When I first got into AA, that book didn’t exist. We used to read, As Bill Sees It, and some people would use this little black book that Hazelden put out called Twenty-Four Hours a Day, and that was religious, and it always included a prayer at the end of every reading.
Then AA World Services came out with Daily Reflections, and people started buying it. The group I used to go to stopped reading As Bill Sees It, which was a good book. At a lot of the readings were very secular, and it was an excellent book. Anyway, I never liked the Daily Reflections.
Mark: Yeah, I’m also not a fan of the Lord’s Prayer, and there’s one group I go to, where I like the people, and it’s a great meeting, but they close with the Lord’s Prayer every day. I just want to jump out of my skin. I’m thinking of all the people who are scared away. We read that preamble, and it says very clearly, that we are not aligned with any denomination or sect. I don’t know if people don’t understand what that means or don’t care or don’t realize it.
John: I think it’s a carryover from the early days with Dr. Bob and so forth in Cleveland. I was immediately uncomfortable with it at my first meeting, but I was miserable enough with what was going on in my life, and I knew I needed to stop drinking that I didn’t let it keep me away. It took me a long time, 25 years, or so to realize that I was an atheist. Then all that stuff started bothering me a little bit more.
Mark: Yeah, I also want to mention that your podcast has been a great help to me. I don’t think I’ve listened to every episode, but I certainly listened to a lot of them. One episode, in particular, was one you did early on with John L.
John: Yeah, yeah, I did that with my friend Kevin here in KC,
Mark: I listened to that one several times, and it prompted me to go out to buy the book. I loved it. So John, if you remember, he got sober in a place called the Perry Street Workshop. I’m about 70 miles from the city, so I go down there a lot. I’m retired, and I’m right on the train line. I go down to the city for the day quite a bit and to go to a meeting. After hearing that podcast, I started going to the Perry Street Workshop. I’ve since told my story there were a couple of times, and I made some friends there, and we stay in touch.
John: The next time I go there, I’m going to go to that meeting. The last time I was in New York, which is a while ago now, I went to a meeting that I guess doesn’t meet anymore, but it was cool, and they had a desk there that Bill W. used. They also had the old original Twelve Steps. There’s a lot of history in New York; obviously, there is a lot of AA history in New York.
Mark: Yeah, there are secular meetings, and I wanted to try one, but they are at night, and I’m usually there during the day.
John: The meeting that I attended wasn’t secular, but it didn’t seem that bad. They didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer; they said the Serenity Prayer. They were friendly people
Mark: Meetings here don’t use the Lord’s Prayer too often. Usually, it is the Serenity Prayer.
John: I still use this Serenity Prayer on occasion, even though I don’t believe I’m praying anything, I do like the concept of the prayer.
Mark: We used it as a topic recently, and that was kind of like how I shared. I said, “Even if you’re an atheist, if you just remove God, it’s just practical.
John: I may use it as an affirmation, “I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”
Mark: That makes sense.
John: Anyway, is there anything that has surprised you about being sober?
Mark: I’m not as bored as I thought I was going to be, that’s not to say I don’t have moments.
John: You found ways to use your time.
Mark: Yes, diabetes takes some time every day of my life, and I have an exercise program. I go to a meeting every day, before COVID. I have friends in recovery that I connect with, whether it’s a visit or coffee or just a text message. I also took classes to become a recovery coach. I don’t know if I will ever become a recovery coach, but I got so much out of the learning process that it was worth it.
John: Yeah, I was thinking about doing something like that myself. I did the SMART training, almost for the same reason, I didn’t think I was ever going to start a SMART meeting. I just wanted to learn about it.
Mark: My therapist told me about Recovery Coaching. I procrastinated about taking it, but they offered an online class that I completed. However, to become State certified, they require 500 hours of fieldwork.
John: They have a similar program in Missouri that I considered taking.
Mark: Every little thing I do that helps keep me sober. I feel being on this podcast keeps me sober. I’m not going to drink today because of this podcast.
John: I think you have a modern recovery program. You use a wide assortment of resources available today. So, how have you been dealing with the COVID pandemic?
Mark: I’m okay. Everybody, my family’s okay, health-wise. As far as recovery goes, I was going to the online meetings. I’m back to work now, so my meeting count is down, but when it first started, John, I was doing a couple of them in a day. I prefer face-to-face meetings, but Zoom meetings were really helpful. We hear about acceptance, and I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t go to a face-to-face meeting, and Zoom was a great second choice.
John: It made a difference for our group. We went online in March, and for a while, our meetings were smaller because not everyone liked meeting online. Now, we are getting people from other places coming to our meetings.
Mark: Yeah, I guess I follow a modern program. I just try to stay open. I gave this analogy to someone once. What if I was diagnosed with a stage four lung cancer, and I go to my oncologist and he tells me that there was a small group of people in 1939 who recovered from lung cancer, so that’s the pate I am going to follow. But if that same doctor said, I’ve got a small group of people in 1939 who followed a certain path and it helped with their cancer, so I want to use that in conjunction with everything we have learned since.
John: I think I’ve told the story before, but when I first got into the program and I found out there was a book, I really wanted to get my hands on it because I figured that’s all I needed. If I just had that book, I could figure this thing out. I first saw the book at a library, and I remember being disappointed that it was so old. That was in 1988 when it was about 50 years old. Now, imagine somebody today and they’re given this book and it’s 80 years old. That’s really old! It would be like giving me a book in 1988 that was written in the 1800s. Now, there are people who love the book. That’s fine, different strokes for different folks.
Mark: As long as they don’t try to cram it down my throat.
John: Well, I’m glad you came on. I appreciate it.
Mark: I am still grateful for this, I’m telling you, I feel like a celebrity. I really do. As I said, I found that Perry Street Workshop through your podcast. I also find enjoyment in listening to them. I remember one, in particular, it really had me laugh. His name was Chris, and he was from Canada and moved to Japan. He was telling stories about AA in Japan.
John: He’s an interesting guy, and I still am in touch with him on Facebook. It was fun to learn about in Japan, I remember him telling me that the Back-to-Basics people went to Japan, and I guess they came in from California.
Mark: That surprised me. It was also funny when he first got there, and he found they had beer machines like you would have a Coke machine
John: Well, thank you, thank you so much for coming on.