Today, I’ll be speaking with Tomas L., from Gothenburg, Sweden. I met Tomas in the secret Facebook group for AA Beyond Belief. One day, we were all posting comments about the use of the Lord’s Prayer in AA meetings and Tomas posted something that I found really funny and clever, so I thought that I would have him on a podcast. That interaction from several months ago resulted in this conversation between Tomas and me.
00:12 John S.: This is Episode 94 of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast, and I’m your host, John S. Today, I’ll be speaking with Tomas L., from Gothenburg, Sweden. I met Tomas in the secret Facebook group for AA Beyond Belief. One day, we were all posting comments about the use of the Lord’s Prayer in AA meetings and Tomas posted something that I found really funny and clever, so I thought that I would have him on a podcast. That interaction from several months ago resulted in this conversation.
00:43 John S.: Tomas, how’re you doing today?
00:44 Tomas L.: I’m doing okay.
00:46 John S.: Well, why don’t we get started? Can you introduce yourself through your AA story, and let us know what got you started in the program?
00:57 Tomas L.: Yeah, it started back in ’09 when my boss found out that I had a problem with alcohol, so I started in outpatient treatment in a Minnesota-based rehab,for a year and it was a good year. But at the same time, my marriage was collapsing, I had totally wrecked my economy on internet poker and drinking. That’s a devastating combination. So, all in all, it ended up that I lost my job anyway. I took a relapse too many. Then around about 2011, I finally went to my first AA meeting, and it was a really great experience. Like many others, I had the feeling of finding my people and finding a place to belong. As far as religion was concerned, I found AA to be accepting and inclusive.
01:58 Tomas L.: I remember a one-liner at one of my first meetings from an old-timer who said, “Well, some of us believe in God, but if you believe in a cup of coffee at an AA meeting, that’s okay.” To me, that was just a perfect summary of the Third Tradition, and I decided to stop drinking. That’s it and whatever you believe aside of that—anything goes. The trouble I had was finding some faith that being sober could be a good thing. I did realize that me and alcohol was a completely devastating combination, especially as I had lost my job and had just been through a divorce. Believing that my life could be worth living anytime was really difficult.
02:46 Tomas L.: So, I had a few years of relapsing and coming back to AA, maybe say a few years’ sober, a year of drinking. Then finally in 2015, I was lagging behind three months’ rent and I started getting this feeling that the last ship was about to sail. If I lose my apartment, then that’s the end of my life in any… I mean being homeless and alcoholic and wrecked economy. I just couldn’t see a way to ever get back from that. So, I managed to get myself together to make one last try at sobriety, and it worked. I have been sober since.
03:32 Tomas L.: I think, it I started with a really horrible first year of sobriety because I drank myself to a depression as I saw it back then. I drank because I had the depression, but looking back, I think it’s more true to say that I was depressed because I drank. I decided to go on antabuse because I was thinking back on my history of relapses. I just felt that I can’t afford trusting myself. I need some sort of crutch to stay upright until I get a stable sobriety. So, after a little more than a year, I was really surprised that I could sort of feel this feeling that, “How did this happen?” I just started to get a self-image that I was the sort of person who could not possibly stay sober for more than about six months.
04:32 Tomas L.: One of my mental tricks to keep me sober was to try to pretend that I didn’t know how long I’ve been sober, because I was so scared about that. I had sort of built up some notion that after six months, that’s when I relapse. It was a kind of constructive self-delusion to pretend that I didn’t know how long I was sober. After about a year, I thought maybe I should dare have a look in my calendar and, well, it’s actually a year. So, I proved to myself that, well apparently I am not the kind of person who automatically relapses after half a year, and it was about then that I realized that it wasn’t destiny or anything magical about relapsing. I realized that I choose if I pick up the first drink, so if I want to be the kind of person who stays sober, that’s my choice.
05:45 John S.: It sounds like you use the 24-hour plan, just don’t take that first drink one day at a time.
05:50 Tomas L.: Yeah, I leaned very hard on that during the first year. I even had a kind of a dark variety of it. There’s a Swedish comedian who once said a really good one-liner that, “It’s never too late to give up.” I think, it was sometime in the ’90s that he said it. At the time, I just thought of it as a joke, but being in the place I was, I realized that, “Yeah, it really makes very profound sense.”
06:19 John S.: It does make sense, doesn’t it?
06:20 Tomas L.: Maybe I will give up and just drink myself to death, but what the heck, I can at least postpone it until tomorrow. If I fall asleep sober tonight, maybe I’ll decide to start drinking tomorrow, but just put it off until tomorrow— and I kept putting it off long enough for sobriety to last.
06:40 John S.: So are you still involved with Alcoholics Anonymous?
06:46 Tomas L.: Yeah, I’m active in maybe three or four groups because Gothenburg, where I live, it’s really good. I think there’s about 50 or 60 meetings a week within reach to me, but I have started to think about starting a secular group because last summer, I realized that it actually looked like sobriety was going to last, and I started daring to look forward to what I wanted with the rest of my life. Although my experience with AA has been inclusive, there was still a feeling of good but not great. I mean there is talk about God and finding a God of my conception. I don’t believe in God, so it really doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t get me anywhere.
07:46 John S.: I guess it’s just inherent with the program because of all the higher power written throughout the Steps.
07:52 Tomas L.: Yeah.
07:52 John S.: In the meetings in Sweden, do they make a big deal out of The Big Book and the Steps?
07:57 Tomas L.: Well, I think, not as much as… I’ve been exploring the web on what people in the US and other countries experience, and I don’t think there’s that rigid book-thumping, and treating the Big Book as some sort of Holy Scripture. It’s not quite that bad, but still there is a sort of “Don’t tell” policy. I mean, nobody says outright, that you’re not allowed to criticize it, but there’s some sort of silent agreement that we don’t complain, we don’t criticize the Big Book too much. I want to find someplace to express myself more freely. I think I’m certainly not the only atheist to see the We Agnostics as useless. That’s the one chapter that’s actually been more of an obstacle than a help to me.
08:51 John S.: Sure.
08:53 Tomas L.: Especially that notion that, well, “Get God or die.” I realized I have a peculiar take on the Second Step because finding faith is an awkward concept to an atheist.What I realized after about a year, a year and a half, was that I needed faith just that my life could be worth living, and to get that faith, I really needed to consciously debunk that idea of “Get God or die.” For many years, I saw my atheism as a problem, but I realized the only problem that I had was that I thought my atheism was a problem. I’ll probably just accept who I am, then it’s not a problem anymore.
09:44 John S.: You know, I think when I first started out in the program, I experienced everything on an emotional level. Although I wasn’t ever a religious person, I did follow the program in I guess the traditional way, and maybe there was a part of me that liked the mystery involved with religion. But now that I’ve been sober for a while, and especially since I’ve embraced atheism, I have kind of intellectualized it in a way. I focus more on what actually happened to me and the things that I did, and I’m not concerned about what I was feeling or what I was believing.
10:27 John S.: It’s hard to explain, but when I look at that Second Step, I just look at what actually happened to me at the time. And for me, it was essentially that I just came to understand that I needed help. I came to understand I could be helped. I was at the point in my life where I realized a little bit of hope that things could change. You know, we get stuck when we’re drinking. Like you were describing, you just imagine that’s the way it is going to be. Having hope means a lot.
11:01 Tomas L.: It’s kind of a natural follow up from the First Step. You need to start realizing that there is a problem, but if you don’t find any hope that the problem can actually be solved, then you just beat yourself on the head.
11:17 John S.: That’s right.
11:17 Tomas L.: Then you go from knowing there is a problem to believing that there can be a solution and trying to find that solution.
11:24 John S.: I think when Bill was writing those Steps, he wasn’t really writing them in a way that they were supposed to be taken as dogma or anything of that sort. He was just describing what actually happened to him and the people in the group. Now, they were taking it from a religious perspective, there’s no doubt about it, but that was their situation. They gave up on the idea that they could drink. They came to believe they could find help, and they threw themselves into the program. However, they were seeing it through the lens of the Oxford group at that time.
12:01 John S.: It’s interesting how in this part of the country where I live, we do have Big Book dogmatism and worship of the Big Book. There are some groups where it’s almost comical the extent that they go to worshiping it. So, why do you think you would like to start a secular AA meeting? I can see where it could be helpful, but it sounds like you live in a pretty secular environment, and the meetings aren’t as dogmatic as they are here. There seems to be a quiet understanding that you just don’t criticize the Big Book, and people just expect you to have a higher power of some sort. Is that pretty much the way it is in AA in Sweden?
12:49 Tomas L.: Yeah, it is. There’s a few different reasons why I’ve started to think about starting a secular meeting. One is that I sometimes have a feeling of good but not great, and now that I’ve started to think that, well, maybe I could be one of those old geezers who talk about what it was like back in the day, and then I just feel “Why should I settle with kind of good if it can be great?”
13:20 Tomas L.: I think I’ve been fortunate that the rehab I started out with was very clear about God. You can choose to interpret God as a group of drunks, and very clear that there’s no requirement for any religion. I heard so many others talk about how when they first came, they were cautious because AA was religious. Some of them saw God all over the walls, and drank a few more years. I think for those who are still out there and thinking that AA is too religious for them, it could be a help to people who are more allergic to God than I am. [chuckle]
14:04 John S.: I think you’re right. You know, the truth of the matter is that when anybody is thinking about going to AA anyway, they’ll do a little bit of research online. If they see God all over the place, they might just say, “Oh, not for me, I’ll try something else.” So, having a secular option would be valuable. We have the same thing here. A lot of people just won’t go to regular meetings and they come to our group. So yeah, it’d be good to see a group start up over there.
14:32 Tomas L.: I think to actually do the Twelve Steps, it would be so much easier with a secular group, because I never had a sponsor or did the Steps in any conventional way. Most meetings are about one or another step, so I had done most of the Steps some way or another. One of the early things I realized in AA was the need to be honest to myself, to let that talk about “I like to party. I might have a drink too many.” Just let go of that nonsense and start calling a spade a spade. Doing the Steps like they were originally written, clashed with that. Getting ready to pray, pray to God. If I would do that literally, it would just be an empty charade. I really need to find my own way of seeing it. So, I think it could be helpful to me and to those who could actually find some value in the Steps if you take away the God bit, and then look at the core of them and the essence of them after removing the religious language.
15:42 John S.: Yeah, the Steps are actually about the things that you do, they’re about what we experience, what we’ve done, what’s happened. Do you find the Steps personally useful?
15:56 Tomas L.: Many of them. The First Step is the most obvious one. Realizing that there is a problem and having a decent grasp of what that problem is. I think that’s the most universal step. I mean applying the steps to all our affairs. I couldn’t even fix a flat tire on my bike if I don’t start out with realizing that I have a flat tire. Of course finding out to believe that there can be a solution. So many of the Steps I’ve done by going to meetings. The Fourth and Fifth Step is pretty much what I do when I share. I have done the substance of them without following the letter.
16:41 John S.: Absolutely. That’s how I see it too. I’ve come to realize that a lot of what’s written in those Steps are pretty much taken care of just by going to meetings, by getting honest and sharing with whatever was going on. I think going to the meetings was a big, big thing to help my sobriety at the time. So how did you learn about secular AA meetings? I guess you got online, I suppose?
17:07 Tomas L.: Yeah. I just looked around online. I was pretty close to giving up because the first site that I found was just a lot of AA bashing. They went on with how AA is a cult, and a lot of nonsense that was just crazy. Finally, I found AA Beyond Belief. That was the first site that made sense to me, and once I found the first site, it was so much easier to start exploring and finding places. I’d belong in a minute.
17:42 John S.: Well, that’s cool. I can’t remember who I was talking to, but we were talking about the site, AA Beyond Belief, and the person told me, “You know, John, you guys could have done this in a bad way. [chuckle] You could have decided that you wanted to be anti-AA and bash everything. We didn’t, and it was just natural for us, I think, to focus on the sharing of personal stories more than anything else. I think a lot of the articles on the site just deal with the personal stories of people sharing their experience. Often they talk about what it was like as an atheist in AA, and sometimes they don’t even mention it. We nonbelievers have a different perspective, I think, that is welcomed from another way of looking at things. Not that the other way is so bad, but… So, I’m kind of of proud about that. I’m glad you were able to find the site and that it was helpful to you.
18:45 John S.: In my case, I didn’t really know anything about secular AA meetings. When I first started searching for atheists in AA, this was before 2014. I had a gradual descent into atheism, so this may have been around 2009, 2010, maybe when I started searching online. There really wasn’t a lot out there. In fact, I remember trying to search YouTube for an atheist AA speaker and I couldn’t find anything. We’ve taken care of that now. We are all over YouTube now. I think that we’re growing so quickly because we are so accessible online, and people can find us and learn that there’s another way of viewing things, and doing things, and experiencing things.
19:31 Tomas L.: Yeah, same for me.
19:33 John S.: Well, that’s cool. It’s been fun, getting to know you online. We started that Facebook group for AA Beyond Belief, oh I don’t know… Actually we started a long time ago, but I wasn’t really doing anything with it, and then we started really getting more active, actually through the old-fashioned resentment and a coffee pot situation. I got a little pissed off with another Facebook group, so I said, “I’m going to start getting this one going.” It’s been fun getting to know you and other people through that group.
20:04 Tomas L.: Yeah, I think it often feels a bit like a digital home group.
20:10 John S.: Yeah, it does, it does. I guess I’m the only person who moderates the group now, and I don’t even worry about it anymore. I was a little heavy handed in the beginning because I was afraid that it was going to get out of hand. I would just throw, [laughter] I would throw people out. You know, [laughter] without any warning whatsoever. I feel bad about that. Now I just let it go, and it looks like it’s doing okay. That’s how this podcast came about with you. You had written something on Facebook that we are going to post.
20:48 John S.: Doris didn’t know quite what to do with it and I’m sorry that I was so late getting back with you on that. But I loved it. It was a satirical piece. We were talking about the Lord’s Prayer, and you wrote this really hilarious piece. It was funny, but really made a good point.
21:16 Tomas L.: Yeah.
21:16 John S.: It’s kind of funny. We’re going to post that with this podcast, so people will know what we’re talking about.
21:22 Tomas L.: Yeah.
21:24 John S.: So, thank you. Thank you very much.
21:25 Tomas L.: Thank you, John.
21:26 John S.: All right. Take care, Tomas.
22:16 John S.: The song Recovery performed by Daily Chaos was used for the intro and outro of this podcast. Thank you everybody for listening to another episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast.
Read Tomas’ Article: Narnialcoholics Anonymous
Email John to join the AABB Secret Facebook group: firstname.lastname@example.org
The song “Recovery” by Daily Khaos delivery used in this podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License. Based on a work at http://www.blocsonic.com