Episode 276: My Story for the 34th Time

Today, July 20, 2022 marks thirty-four years since my last drink, so in the spirit of sobriety anniversaries, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my recovery story. It’s a story I’ve told many times over the years, but each telling is a little different as I continually gain additional insight and learn from my past. In this talk, I didn’t spend a lot of time on my drinking years, but instead I focused more on my experience with recovery.


I used to put more weight on recovery stories and my own personal story than I do now, but I still think there’s some value to be had from these stories. It’s good for me to think about where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and where I’m going. Hopefully, someone will hear something in what I say that will be useful. I hope that’s the case. Thirty-four years is a lot of time to cover, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about my drinking years, nor will I give a blow-by-blow description of each of the past 34 years since I’ve been sober. What I will do is briefly describe my background, so you can have an idea of how I grew up, and I’ll break my time in recovery down into three phases, each lasting roughly a decade.

My family of origin

I grew up in a military family, and I think that’s important because there are certain issues with Army, Navy, and Air Force brats that are unique. One of those things is that I don’t have a strong connection with a place in my past. We moved around a lot, which was always a great experience, but I don’t have a strong connection with the past. I can’t tell you who I went to kindergarten with, or who I went to first grade with, or who I went to fourth grade with, I don’t have those kinds of memories like a lot of people. There were advantages to growing up this way as well. One thing that I appreciate is having been exposed to different cultures and experiences early in my life.

I am fortunate that my father learned to appreciate diversity from the Army, and he instilled that in me, my brothers, and my sister. Our family was very adventurous. When we moved to a new place, we always wanted to go out and explore the area. I spent four years of my childhood in the Netherlands, and while we lived there, we went camping all over Europe. Like I suppose anyone, there were certainly problems in my family. Most of those stemmed from my mother who suffered from serious depression. Mental illness ran through her family, and still effects the present generation. When she was in high school, her father committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. That trauma undoubtedly had a significant impact on her life and was passed on to her children.

Like her father, my mother suffered from depression. When I was growing up, I was exposed to her mood swings, and dagger-like attacks on my self-esteem. Yet, she could also be loving and fun, so there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding my relationship with her. Much of the time, she was under the influence of drugs that kept her sedated, and she spent hours sleeping.

My father was an officer in the Army. He was a veteran of the war in Vietnam, and he was a tough person. He could be a lot of fun and he took a real interest in his kids. I enjoyed talking with him about current events as he had coffee in the morning. On the other hand, this engaged and fun father, was also a very strict disciplinarian. Any punishment was severe and physical. This caused me to fear him. I still remember the stress and fear that I felt simply from hearing the car door close when he came home from work.

My Drinking Years

My childhood was a mixed bag and if there was any trauma, it would have been the unpredictability in my household. I never knew what to expect and I didn’t always feel safe. My mother’s many mood swings and my father’s anger would often erupt into loud arguments in the house that would cause me to hide, wishing I could just make myself invisible. I think that’s what may have attracted me to alcohol. I started drinking young. I was eight years old when I had my first drink. My mother allowed me to have a glass of wine at Thanksgiving, and I immediately liked it. I liked it a lot.

I soon learned the vanilla extract in the kitchen cabinet had alcohol in it, and after the many parties my parents would give, I would sneak down the next day to drink the booze that was left in half-filled glasses. Alcohol was giving me the comfort I craved. When I was twelve, I got drunk for the first time. I was walking by my parent’s bar and noticed a bottle of liqueur. I drank most of the bottle and got smashed. The next day, I was hungover, depressed, and I swore I’d never do that again. I managed not to drink for two years, but by the time I was 14 and in high school, I started drinking with my friends. It didn’t take long for it to get worse, and by the time I was 19, I thought I needed to go to AA. Quickly dismissing that thought, I continued drinking.

When I was 21 years old, I was living at home when my mother died from a drug overdose. It was suicide which I think made her death even more traumatic. Worse still, is my family didn’t acknowledge what I had witnessed. Nobody would admit it was suicide. She was stigmatized in death, just as she was stigmatized throughout her life. Then, in the days after her death, someone gave me a shot of whiskey. They gave it to me as if it were medicine that would make me feel better. It did too. It took away my pain, and I think I chased that feeling for the next four years.

My drinking was completely out of control between the ages of 21 to 25. I received three DUI’s during that period and by the time I was 25 years old, I found myself standing on a bridge, ready to jump and end it all. Instead, I walked across the bridge, found a phone and called Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve been sober ever since.

Abstinence and Stability

Okay, enough of the drunk-a-log. Now, I will talk about my recovery, which has made up most of my life. I’ve been in recovery for 34 years, which is incredible to me. I’m grateful that’s been the case. It could have been much different. My life could have easily taken a different turn, so I’m happy with how things turned out. Three decades is a lot of time to cover, but I can break it down into three phases.

The first phase lasted from about 1988 to 1999. During that time, my life revolved around AA. I went to an AA group that was steeped in the Big Book and the Twelve Steps, and they described the recovery process as a spiritual experience. I didn’t have any experience with religion, so the God bit in AA was strange to me. Being a good Army kid, I knew how to adapt to the AA culture. I saw AA as another foreign country with a culture and language I needed to learn to navigate, and that’s what I did. I learned to speak in a way that would elicit approval from the group. Maybe that’s what we all do, but I think I happen to be particularly good at conformity.

In the beginning, I rationalized the religious practices in AA, figuring there must be some psychological benefit from them. After a while, I stopped rationalizing and just wen through the motions. I did that for ten years and my life was okay. During that time, I had a low paying job and lived in a rough neighborhood. I had a lot of friends and plenty of support, and I was staying sober. Things were okay, my life was good, but I wasn’t trying to live to my fullest potential. Looking back on this time, I wish I would have done more with my life, but it took a shock to my system before I would be motivated to do anything more than what I was doing.

Finding Purpose

That shock occurred in 1999 when my father died unexpectedly. I was 35 years old and sober for 10 years. His death caused me to reflect on my life. I compared my life to his and there was no comparison. There was nothing I could look back on with any pride. I hadn’t accomplished anything other than not drinking and staying out of jail. There wasn’t anything my father could be proud of me for, other than the fact that I was sober. I had no goals for my life, no dreams, no real purpose. I took a hard look at my life, and recognized that I had given up on my dreams, but that I could now reclaim them. I could get them back.

I think to a great extent that is what recovery is about. The word ‘recovery’ means to get something back, so what do you want to get back? What do you want to recover? You can recover your health, your dreams. There are probably many things you can recover to live your best life. Ideally, you can start early. You can decide what you want your sober life to look like. You can set recovery goals and work to achieve them. There is no reason for you to wait 10 years, like I did.

From 1999 to about 2006, I was busy with the work of achieving my life goals. I went back to college and got a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree. I bought a house and got married. I was now living the life I dreamed of before alcohol took over. When I was drinking, I couldn’t accomplish anything. I failed at everything I tried. I think during that first decade of sobriety, I must have just settled for what I could get. I must have seen myself as a loser. A loser who could at least stay sober.

I’m lucky that I was still relatively young. From the ages of 35 to my 40s, I was able to create a nice life for myself. During this time, AA was no longer the center of my life. I started to experience more of my life outside of the rooms, and I think that’s important. It’s too easy to hide in AA, or any recovery group. It’s easy to stay in a place where you’re comfortable and to stay there and not challenge yourself by going out in the world and meet people who may not be in recovery. I think living life in the real world should be the goal of everyone in recovery.

Rethinking the God Bit

While I was busily working to achieve my life goals, I began to think more critically about everything, including AA. I went back to my original way of thinking that the god stuff had some psychological benefit to it? In AA, it is usually suggested to pray morning and night, and I did that for quite a while, but stopped at some point because I simply didn’t believe in God, and I didn’t find the practice particularly helpful. However, I was reluctant to tell anybody that I wasn’t praying so I kept that to myself. I continued to speak the AA language in meetings to conform with the group, but I was rethinking everything. After listening to atheist podcasts and reading books about atheism, I concluded that I’m an atheist. This frightened me at first because I didn’t think I could fit in with AA anymore.

In reviewing my experience in AA, and I could see practical action in the Steps. It was easy to remove the religious language and uncover what even the AA Big Book calls a practical program of action. I found the courage at last to speak my truth in meetings and started talking openly about my new practical approach to recovery that didn’t require a Higher Power. This wasn’t welcomed at the Big Book loving group where I attended meetings, and I was becoming uncomfortable at that group. After learning that there have been agnostic AA meetings since 1975, I started such a meeting in Kansas City. That group is still meeting now, eight years later.

This was an exciting time for me. I was learning to express myself with my own words. I didn’t feel obligated to conform to the AA speak that I had known for so much of my life. Then, in 2014 I attended the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Conference in Santa Monica, California. That was a game changer for me because I met people from all over the world who were experiencing AA in a secular way. They came in different stripes and shapes. Some were militantly anti-God and didn’t have any room for spirituality or the 12 Steps. Others found value in secular interpretations of the 12 Steps. I was learning so much and I was excited about recovery, and I found a new purpose. I wanted to make AA more inclusive and modern, so I got involved with AA service work, locally, at the State level, and online.

AA Beyond Belief

In September of 2015, at the urging of Roger C. from AA Agnostica, I started the website AA Beyond Belief. Roger was retiring AA Agnostica and he wanted me to start a website to carry on his work. The website was a lot of work. We would ask agnostic, atheist, and freethinking AA members to submit articles that we would post on the site. It was like a secular AA Grapevine. At the same time, I started this podcast which was called AA Beyond Belief. Our early episodes focused on the personal stories of secular people in AA, and secular interpretations of the 12 Steps.

The podcast and website were a huge amount of work that took up a lot of my time, but on top of this, I was also involved with service work locally and online with the Secular AA organization. I was overcommitting myself and by 2020, I was completely burned out on AA service work. I recognized that I needed to start to let things go and learn how to set boundaries.

I loved the podcast and out of all my extracurricular recovery activities. The podcast was my one true love and passion. Through the podcast, I met people from all over the world with all sorts of experiences and ideas. I love that. I also enjoyed learning the craft of podcasting. This is the perfect creative outlet.

I knew the time had come to let go of AA Beyond Belief and get out of my service positions, so I could spend my time on what I enjoyed and pursue new interests. I closed down the website, donated the articles to the Secular AA organization, and changed the name of the podcast to Beyond Belief Sobriety.

A New Relationship with AA

The podcast opened my mind and my interests in recovery and expanded beyond AA. Changing the name of the podcast to Beyond Belief Sobriety was freeing in a way. Having ‘AA’ in the name of the podcast made me feel a little trapped. The 12 Traditions might be a great way to run the fellowship of AA, but they are useless when it comes to podcasting and posting videos on YouTube. It feels wonderful to not have to be anonymous about my recovery. I like being me and I don’t mind if you know who I am. I have something to say, and I want you to know the person behind the microphone.

In 2020, I became a certified to facilitate meetings for SMART Recovery, and in the last year I did a few episodes about the SMART Recovery tools. I attended more of the meetings and started reading the SMART Recovery Handbook. I also became a Certified Peer Specialist in Missouri, and this opened me up to the world of recovery advocacy and introduced me to people from around the state who are working for the benefit of people in recovery or who are struggling with addiction.

Between the podcast and my other interests, I wasn’t going to AA meetings as much as I had in the past. In fact, I go to very few anymore. My relationship with AA changed to the point that I stopped thinking of myself as an AA member. Talk about freedom! I can go to an AA meeting if I want and not feel any burden of membership. I can do whatever I want and talk about my recovery however I want. I’m not anti-AA, but my recovery is in a post-AA phase now.

For most of my time in recovery, the 12 Steps were important to me. I used to think they were critical to my recovery. Then, I started to think about them differently. The Steps are nothing more than how some men in the 1930s described their recovery. They just happened to number them and couch them in religious language, but I think the process they described is a human experience and I see it in almost all recovery programs and support groups. They aren’t so important to me anymore. What’s more important is to recognize that everyone needs to find their own path to sobriety, and they need the freedom to describe the experience in their own words. I haven’t abandoned the Steps completely, and I will still talk about them on the podcast. I find them interesting, and I know the structure is good for a lot of people. It was helpful to me at one time to secularize the Steps and I know it’s equally as helpful to others, but not everyone.

Creating My Own Recovery Community

It’s important to me to have a supportive recovery community, so this year I created one that centers around this podcast. I love the connection that I’ve been able to make with listeners. Every week, we have a recovery meeting for listeners where we will either have a guest from a past episode speak or we will play a clip from a previous episode and use that as the topic of conversation. In addition to the weekly listener meeting, I also make my calendar available so you can book time to speak with me one-on-one.

Along with the the weekly listener meeting and one-on-one meetings, Mary C. and I resumed the livestreams that Angela and I had done for a couple of years. These are a lot of fun. Mary and I will discuss a topic and invite listeners to participate through the live chat on Facebook and YouTube or by calling our toll-free phone number.

When all is said and done, I’m happy with my life today and where I am in this journey of recovery. Getting to know you better and building on the connection we have through this podcast is an incredible experience, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. Thank you so much for being part of my recovery community.

Our sponsor

Many thanks to Soberlink for sponsoring this episode of Beyond Belief Sobriety. Visit https://soberlink.com/bbs for more information.