A Journey from Traditional to Secular AA

By Julie K.

This article was originally given as a talk by the author at a recent anniversary celebration of her home group.


In the early 1970s, I was married, living in Michigan and pregnant. I had a secret, I was gay. I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t know what to do. My obstetrician prescribed one to two drinks before bedtime. So, this began my process of using alcohol to cope.

Growing up, I was raised Catholic; my father was a dentist and we had a very comfortable life. I then married a doctor. But In 1975, I divorced my husband and moved back to Kansas City with my son, suddenly finding myself alone to raise him with no emotional support or help from my family. I was weighed down with guilt and internalized homophobia from my staunch Catholic upbringing. By the late-70s my drinking became more frequent as a way to cope with self-hate.

Throughout my drinking years, I had access to prescription tranquilizers, which eliminated withdrawal symptoms during the day. I changed jobs and relationships fairly frequently. As my drinking escalated, my self-esteem dropped precipitously to the point that in the early 80s I found myself in an abusive relationship. At least I had the wherewithal to protect my son by sending him to live with his father; yet I remained in that relationship for another two years and my drinking increased. At that time, I became scared for my safety and tried to quit drinking in order to stay alert. But I repeatedly failed to control my drinking.

In 1985, I was in an auto accident and suffered a severe head injury. For a year I couldn’t work and I began to drink around the clock. My self-esteem was shot!

Eventually, I began to realize that I couldn’t go on like this. I was going nowhere in life but down. In 1987 a binge-drinking friend suddenly seemed to have her act together. She told me she was going to AA. It impressed me to see how she had changed her life and I thought AA might be an option for me as well. She told me about the meetings and about the Big Book, so I went to the Central Office to get one for myself. I kept it on my bedside table to read each night while I drank. I even went with her to an AA meeting, after I took a couple of drinks to settle my nerves. I think about that now, and how I must have reeked with booze!


Months later I decided to give AA a real try. I was desperate to make this work! Now, 30 years later, I am glad I was.  

I decided to go to AA on New Year’s Day 1988 but didn’t actually make it until January 6. I remember that day; it still feels like yesterday. Before I walked into the building that housed the Live and Let Live meeting, I knew I was about to make a huge change in my life. I was so nervous that I don’t remember if they had a First Step meeting or what was shared, but only that I said nothing but my name and that I was an alcoholic. I was scared to death and did exactly what I was told to do. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days.

I found a sponsor and we started working the steps. I was like a sponge at the meetings and soaked up everything I heard. I read anything related to AA that I could get my hands on. I just became a little AA robot, although I DID NOT get down on my knees to pray (I had enough of that growing up). I did not say any of the AA prayers in the Big Book either.

During this time my biggest fear was relapse – not as a planned event, but I imagined that something beyond my control would cause me to drink. This fear was present through my first year. One thing helped me – my son was a great motivation. I needed to be able to look him in the eye, because I never wanted to let him down again or put him through any more of my crap. I became aware of my triggers because of the times I tried to stop and could not. I was always on the lookout for a relapse. 

Sobriety eventually had an inverse effect on my self-esteem. I began to change. I was able to be honest about who I was and begin to love and accept myself thanks to a gay AA group. This group of people understood my experience. There was a lot of discrimination toward gays in the country during this time. I could lose my son and/or lose my job. But I felt so good because I had NO MORE SECRETS!

I met someone early on in AA who really inspired me. We became very close. We never missed getting our coins together that 1st year. During our second year, he developed AIDS and was hospitalized for the insertion of a central line, which was a fairly simple procedure. I worked at that hospital and so knew when he developed serious complications.

It soon became apparent that he would never leave the hospital. We spent a lot of time talking about AA, life, and his death. He often talked about how grateful he was for the program that helped him embrace his dying. He died before our 2nd year birthday. During this time, I wasn’t going to meetings (I’ll explain why in the next section) and would merely go to pick up a coin at the Live and Let Live or Unity groups. Eventually, though, I felt guilty going to the meetings just for a coin, so I found an online site where I could design and order my own. 

Difficulties with AA

My difficulties with AA’s religiosity began early in my program. I had told my home group that I didn’t believe in god but they assured me that was okay and to use the group for my higher power. The group worked for my first year, but I kept feeling pressure from members to find a god in order to stay sober. I even went back to the religion of my roots, Catholicism, and tried to find this god. But I left because of its teachings about divorce and gays. I had a double whammy because I was both.

Another difficulty occurred when I quit smoking after my first year and couldn’t tolerate meetings because of the smoke. In those days they were all smoking meetings. I would go back occasionally, but the smoking was a deal breaker for me. At the area assembly this weekend I said to a friend, who was there during this time, how difficult this was for me and she said that’s right, YOU were the one who tried to get us to have non-smoking six o’clock meetings. I was unsuccessful.

In the 90s, I made some moves to continue my education and professional advancement. Every city I lived in I would find a gay AA group. I would go to meetings for a while in the different cities, but stopped because I felt pressure to put god into my program. They wanted me to be like them. I read daily meditation books, began exercising on a regular basis, and spent time with other alcoholics I had met at meetings.

Over time in sobriety, I began to feel strongly that separation of church and state should apply to AA; in other words, separation of god and AA. And my discomfort over the god thing kept me from attending meetings. Although I remained sober, there was always something missing.

Four years ago, I went back to traditional AA at Unity so that I could sponsor a woman I knew. She relied on god heavily to get through the steps and become sober. This helped me realize how important it was for me to be accountable for my sobriety.

Benefits of Sobriety

Taking accountability for my sobriety led to accountability in other areas of my life. I rebuilt my relationships with my son, my parents, and my siblings. I was also able to be with my parents through their aging and deaths. In addition, I have now been in a long-term relationship for 17 years. During this time I also returned to school to earn a PhD in nursing. I could have done none of this had I not been sober.

About three years ago I went to the Unitarian Universalist church because there was no dogma or doctrine. I was reading the bulletin and noticed they had We Agnostic AA meetings in the building. I was thrilled at the thought of this type of AA and went to their next meeting. There I found my home group. I had been uncomfortable in AA for so many years because of the assumption that everyone in the program is Christian. This group doesn’t make that assumption. Quite the opposite, it allows us the option for an AA program without god.

Benefits of Secular AA

Since I started attending We Agnostics, I have rethought and developed a different relationship with the steps. Even though the steps have always been my framework for living, now the emphasis is off god, and the steps have become more personal for me.

Attending secular meetings has re-energized my commitment to AA. I am in a group that I love, where I am mentoring and being mentored. I am involved in service work at the group, district, and state level. I have met many in traditional AA who have enriched and informed my program. I am also able to educate the broader AA community about secular AA, what it is and what it is not

Since I now have a secular focus, I don’t feel the same discomfort about traditional AA.  We have more similarities than differences, which I have become more aware of since working from a secular standpoint with those in traditional AA.

Finally, I feel fortunate that I have this fellowship that grounds me and provides me with so many valuable insights. I have found a comradery in our secular groups that was absent for me before. And for that, I am so grateful.

About the Author

Julie K. lives with her spouse, Anita, in Kansas City, MO, and her two cats, Buddy and Sissy. She is retired from a career in administration.


Thank you Kathryn F. and Skye E. for creating the artwork used in this article. 


Listen to the recording of the anniversary meeting where Julie celebrated thirty years of sobriety and Mary K. celebrated three years.

We Agnostics KC Sobriety Anniversary: Julie K. and Marty K. 

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thomas B

    Wonderful essay Julie  — thank you !~!~!

    I especially appreciate your suggestion that we have more similarities with traditional AA than differences.

  2. Mary Beth H.


    Stories like yours is why I receive AA Beyond Belief news! How free and happy you are, and thank you for sharing your honesty, strengths and such a beautiful journey with us.  I too, believe in separation of church and state, and I respect the Traditions and the miracles AA has brought to me.  My first meeting I thought I was attending another religious organization, which was not what I wanted (not that I knew what I wanted!).  I soon learned to keep an open mind, pick and choose my Higher Power and strive each day for sobriety and a better life. Thank you!

  3. Galen T.

    Thanks for your excellent essay, Julie. I am glad to hear about your openness toward traditional AA and your involvement in AA organizational structures.  If enough of us get involved in district and state AA, believers in divine beings are bound to notice that nobody has two heads and that we are all working toward the same objectives.

  4. Theresa

    In 1983: my second detox I went to: “ POLICY”: no PREGNANT WOMAN: they mad a appointment for an ABORTION,,,,NO WAY; I wii NOT GO TOMTHEIR “ any length “!( I had walked out on my first 4 children on CHRISTMAS DAY……not knowing I had a disease!!!
    I said, “” Higher Power” get you “”BIG BOY” pants 👖 on!!! My HIGHER POWER, ROCKS!!! I met someone in DETOX, “”CHAPEL” and he adopted that son and I got my other 4 children back, and birthed two more!!! We are married now for 36 years!!

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