The Secular Alcoholic and The Moment of Decision

This is the first in a series of five articles originally published at atheisticaa.com and reposted here with permission. 

In Secular Recovery it can become possible, while never completely losing sight of it, to relegate our primary purpose to a secondary position while debating the future of the organization.

Within the recent context of some serious internal debates about who and what we are I caught myself up short and asked, quite seriously, what are we, personally and collectively, doing to clarify the origins of our own continued sobriety for the newcomer?

The longer I am sober in Secular Recovery the more mysterious the process, particularly for the atheist, becomes. By “mysterious” I obviously do not mean anything that might be possibly construed as coming from the so-called “spiritual” realm. What I am talking about are the all too human attributes of guilt, shame, self-loathing and disgust that bring us, literally, “on our knees” sometimes, to our first hours as sober women and men.

What makes one bad night worse than all the others?

As a longtime observer of both the successes and failures associated with Conventional AA and our rational, Secular alternative, I have come to some conclusions, anecdotal in nature, about what I have noted about the inception of this process we refer to commonly as “sobriety”.

As with all my other Secular recovery talks and writings I am speaking for myself only and can only express an individual opinion informed by the long-term personal observations I mentioned.

It appears, to me, that in many “success” stories in the program there is a shock of recognition, a point in time, that I will call the “moment of decision”. In an instant, internal circumstances combine with illness and necessity to force a commitment to quit drinking that comes from within and has little to do with outside forces and pressures that, while possibly dragging us to the edge, are not the things that prove decisive in a true start on a life without alcohol and drugs.

In my own case that “moment” came at the close of a catastrophic holiday season in December of 1986 which left me, in the first days of January 1987, at a “life and death” impasse that took me right up to the brink of self-extinction. Fortunately, since that nearly fatal hour, I have not had the occasion to drink or use drugs and the personal benefits that have accrued have been nothing short of remarkable.

As a person who deeply reveres accurate representations of fact and the scientific methodologies that have brought us modern physics and medicine, I remain intensely interested in the reasoning behind my own “moment”, in my own life, that brought me such tremendous personal benefits.
Despite there being no real science behind any of this what I do know is that while there was no external, specific, endpoint or “breakpoint” in the personal story that leads to my first sober day, that my “moment”, when it did come, was definitive and in no way provisional and that, if there had been anything tentative about that moment, that my own prospects would have been very dim.

A real challenge to the Secular person is to transmit the essence of his or her own recovery without recourse to the formulations, lists, and proscriptions contained in the Oxford Group 12 Steps and the religiously inspired text of the Big Book of Conventional AA.

Those formulations are applied there (and sometimes even in Secular Recovery by the “Agnostic Spiritualists” amongst us) to many newcomers in an indiscriminate manner and tend to obscure and minimize this most vital part of this initial process which is this “moment of decision” I have been referring to.

The conventional program elements tend to ascribe this purely personal moment of final insight into some sort of commonly adopted miraculous intervention sometimes known as “grace.” In its most extreme manifestation, you get the full Bill Wilson treatment with “white lights” and all as the trumpets of heaven play and the rapture is at hand.

To the contrary, it has always seemed to me, as framed in my own tale, that this is the moment of crystallization where the net results of long-established patterns and habits become obvious at last and leads, for some, to the “breakpoint” where a decision that can influence real outcomes, over the long term, is made.

Someone very close to me recently referred to being “tired of being stupid” and this insight really struck me as also being critical to evolving to a point in time where new actions and associations become not only necessary but vital. And though this recognition may partially come about through the intercession of outside forces and events, such a statement is also truly an “inside job” as well as being another way to articulate what I am laboring to describe here.

Sometimes there is a gasp, an intake of breath that, upon exhalation, is the first clear breath we take after years or decades of alcoholism and/or addiction and the reality of our situation is truly upon us. In my own experience, mere insight was not enough and most certainly was not the precipitating event that engendered a real change in behavior.

I knew full well by my 25th year that alcohol had become far more of a destructive than a constructive force in my life, but I still drank till just after my 38th birthday. There was absolutely no dealing with me, no argument or entreaty from anyone else regarding my drinking till that final moment arrived.

So, what, after all, is that “moment” that finally asserts itself?

As we refine our version, as Secular people, of what is referred to as the “program” by the mainstream, I see all too well the challenge of sharing any sort of universal insight into this “moment of decision” because, obviously, there can no be universally applicable expression of such a thing. However, some sort of stab at a definition might possibly be of use to some “newcomers” who are genuinely looking for a solution to our common problem that does not encompass any religious doctrine or implied article of faith.

It was in some ultimately satisfying realization of the true futility of self-harm that I think I found my “moment” where the path was clear and abstinence the only answer. I not only “knew” I had to stop (I had actually “known” that for some years) but it was in the believing in that, as the only plausible alternative, where the journey finally began for me.

Refining the idea that self-preservation was, in fact, conditional upon abstinence led me to that first meeting and my own desire to hear, at depth, the stories of others that are the foundations, the reinforcements, that allow us to re-create our “moment” over and over as we see the clear benefits of our early sobriety pile up day by day.

To be a deeply addicted person is to accept despair as the norm. The rejection of that despair is, in the end, the “moment” every addict/alcoholic longs for I think and our challenge, in the Secular world, is to convince the addicted atheist that there is no necessity for a “spiritual” guide that gets us there and that the initial solution is truly within each of us if we grasp firmly, with determination, the promise that a life without despair is at hand on that first sober day.

Tired of being stupid”, having had enough, we can point the chronically relapsing or still drinking atheist toward a moment of their own where they can trust in themselves and their own judgment long enough to step back from the repeated self-harm and value themselves enough to “make a decision” of their own that will stick.

Perhaps its something as simple as the power of example, a helping hand, a kind word after a meeting or sometimes just a smile, but after decades of observation I do know we can do a better job of helping others freely get to the point, to that day, that we reaped and continue to reap, our own, longer-term, benefit from.

As I strive to develop these ideas further, I will continue to struggle to figure out, at last, some more definitive reasoning behind why I know this to be so. As perhaps, along with at least some of the readers here, I acknowledge that those first sober hours and the events connected to them can appear to be the most significant while being maddeningly difficult to define.

I intuitively know the importance of this to be so as we all shadow box, as we always have, with the enigma of our still suffering sisters and brothers and the low successes rates we experience in dealing with chronic relapse and transmitting the essence of our own “moment of decision” to others, in a convincing and rational way, that may assist them in those first hours and days of a lasting recovery.


About the Author

John HJohn Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017.

Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Robert B

    “… What makes one bad night worse than all the others?…”

    We spoke of this a bit at a first step meeting recently at Fitchburg. I didn’t know that my last drink of alcohol was going to be my last drink of alcohol. I certainly didn’t intend for it to be and yet it was. I go back to that physical location annually on April 20 to give that day, the time and place its due.

    I’m grateful for the stories that we share; the moments or series of moments that catalyzed our shared recovery. Regardless of the depth or degree of consequences, they collectively stand as turning points in my mind.

  2. Beth Houck

    A simple explanation that I like is, it happens when the pain of staying the same becomes great enough to overcome the fear of change.

    1. Neal Montgomery

      I like that explanation. I just heard it at a meeting this morning.

    2. Diana Ritter

      I really like that explanation also. Drinking had become very painful and although I was scared to stop, I knew I needed to and that change was coming, ready or not.

  3. Donald

    thank you John
    good piece.
    thinking about it .. for me.. it was the moment.. that supporting the denial became untenable, and I was confronted with the truth I had so aggressively denied for so long.
    those moments are important! but probably not as important.. as the continued choice to be responsible for my condition.
    surrender to win. I dont surrender to an invisible man in the sky, I surrender to the truth, the plain fact, “I can not drink or use safely”. I recommit, just for today, to not allow the lie to takeover again.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Donald..
      Personally I never use the word “surrender” in regard to my recovery because of its conventional, theological implications but I do try to reinforce my initial decision over and over again over time.
      Anyway, it’s the actions that ensue from the decision that are important not the exact verbiage used to describe it.

      1. Bob K

        Bill Wilson “borrowed” liberally from the 1931 publication “The Common Sense of Drinking.” Richard Peabody was a hard-case alcoholic who got sober around the age of 30, and set up a business as a lay therapist helping the well-heeled to get sober and stay sober. Peabody was an atheist, and his methods were entirely secular, but he used the term “surrender” in an interesting way. Much as represented by Donald’s remarks, the therapist-author talks of surrendering the notion of ever drinking again — surrendering the idea of moderate drinking of any sort.

        For an idea of how much the AA founder took from Peabody, here’s an essay from this site:

        https://aabeyondbelief.org/2016/02/07/the-common-sense-of-drinking

        1. Donald

          thanks John, Bob. ya, the surrender term can invoke theism.. but as a veteran.. for me… it’s the battle with the denial, the delusion.. that I can drink and use successfully, if I only found the right combo, etc. that is what I surrendered. that fight. was lost.. long before I finally accepted the outcome.

  4. Joe

    I don’t know if it was a different time or if it was geography but I never sobered up into a book based or particularly dogmatic AA. But, I have been back to my roots of Montreal and there is more of that book based recovery and automaton chapter and verse blathering. Now I don’t begrudge those who found solace or direction in the AA books or any books; I relate to that; where would I be without books and music?

    I remember the talk of the power of example and I knew what they meant. And a sober brain does point me in a different, healthy direction. My early AA was a mix of rationalization and minimizing followed by feeling like a loser and what a shit life sobriety would be. Only later did so see that drugs were poison and wanting to live a meaningful life was a natural consequences of sobriety-a codified process may offer structure but a lot of better living organically happens.

    There does remain some mystery to sobriety but it’s good to seek more clarity. At least, I’m driven to do so, also.

  5. Chris C

    For me it was the sleepless night I first considered the possibility I could live my life without ever drinking again. It was a thought that had never occurred to me, despite the long list of escalating trouble that marked the first thirty years and the utter debauchery and degradation that marked the last five years of of my drinking career. It took another three or four years for drinking to change from something I never ever got to do again to something I never ever had to do again. I arrived there, eventually, with some help– listening to other people’s stories and telling my own.

    I have arrived at the notion that it takes what it takes for each person to experience their moment of clarity. Some get there quickly. Some get there slowly. Some get there after a hard fall. Some get there after a fairly gentle stumble. Some never get there. Everyone is different. It’s all wrapped up in personalities, family circumstances, social circles, luck (both good and bad). As you say, it’s a mystery.

  6. Bob K

    Excellent essay.

    In the summer of 1977, I experienced a “moment of decision” after a late-night drunken car accident. Wrecked car, potential legal consequences, etc. Further to that, I was a newlywed, so WHY??? was I out drinking with the boys? I stopped drinking.

    A month later, the tragic night was an entertaining bar story, as the car crash was acted out with the salt and pepper shaker. In Bill’s Story, he writes: “The remorse, horror and hopelessness of the next morning are unforgettable. The courage to do battle was not there. My brain raced uncontrollably and there was a terrible sense of impending calamity.” Of course, Bill got drunk several times after that. Part of the problem, and I agree that there are elements of mystery, is that the devastating circumstances that precipitate cessation of drinking seems to be forgettable. Over the years, lots of people have arrived in AA with more dramatic “precipitating events” than those that propelled me to seek help. Within a month, a week or a day, many are gone. The WHY of who gets it, and who doesn’t continues to mystify me.

  7. Denise

    I really enjoyed this article, thank you.
    I call them “ah ha” moments. Moments of insight. It’s always interesting to hear the words that go through the mind at these times with the moment.
    My first moment was when after attending Al-Anon for several months secretly hoping for a way to control my drinking, i suddenly saw all the denial, delusion and.rationalisation. The words were
    ” youve been lying to yourself ” But that didn’t last.
    Then some months later, sat in a cupboard with a glass and a bottle, drinking against my will , it was ” “you thought you were so clever but you cant do this on your own”
    My step one. and two.
    9 months later. having obsessively tried and failed to find a God…..the obsession to drink returned but something stopped me. The thought was, ”
    Well if you are going to drink, nothing will stop you. give up the searching for an answer. .. What will be will be, life on lifes terms”……
    For me step three.
    Step 6&7 came at a Time when in such pain, (as an atheist) I sat in a church and suddenly realised ” you dont have to be perfect to be useful.”

    To me these were my ” Spiritual awakenings” nothing to do with a god but more to do with my becoming aware of the world outside. my head and my obsessions.

    Everybody has thier own moment.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Denise,
      Though personally I would never use the word “Steps”, or refer to them as milestones of any kind for me, awareness is awareness and, by definition, a good thing. We are all, I think, looking for results regardless of the general framework used, in a personal way, to achieve them.

  8. Bobby Freaken Beach

    The reference to “the Oxford Group 12 Steps” is unfortunate. Obviously, Buchman’s group influenced Bill Wilson and AA, but the Oxford Group had no steps — 12 or otherwise.

    1. John H Huey

      Hi “Bobby”..
      I beg to differ. My widely available talk at ICSAA 2018 on the “Steps” recently re-posted here (you may have given it a listen in the past) goes into some detail about how the “holy of holies” was indeed lifted directly from the Oxford Group. See the Oxford Group “Four Practical Spiritual Activities” of 1933 as reprinted as Appendix B (pages 334-335) and reflected in the Akron Alcoholic Squadron thereof in Mitchell B.’s well researched book, ‘How It Worked’, Second Edition, from Amazon Press 2018. Its something I think you are familiar with. Steps directly in spirit, and almost word for word in some cases, from the Oxford Group. I’m surprised this history escaped you.

      1. Bobby Freaken Beach

        The Oxford Group had nothing called “steps.” I think accuracy is important. Of course, there’s an Oxford Group–AA connection, but referring to “the Oxford Group 12 Steps” perpetuates misinformation.

        1. John Huey

          In 1933 the Oxford Group had “Four Practical Spiritual Activities” which were published by them at that time. These “activities” include many elements found in the 1939 Steps. According to Bill Wilson, in his 1953 Texas talk, he referred to the pre AA Alcoholic Squadron of the Oxford Group in Akron and jotted down what he said were their Six Steps directly analogous to what is in the Big Book.

          Being pedantic about it only serves to give some “cover” to Conventional AA when they inaccurately allege that they are “spiritual not religious”. They are directly connected to the Oxford Group in their every word and deed. Just last week The Grapevine published a quote from Wilson that was pure Oxford Group that was written in 1960 after his so called “enlightenment” of the late 1950’s.. Here it is…

          From January 5, 2020

          “Beaten into complete defeat by alcohol, confronted by the living proof of release, and surrounded by those who can speak to us from the heart, we have finally surrendered. And then, paradoxically, we have found ourselves in a new dimension, the real world of spirit and of faith. Enough willingness, enough open-mindedness — and there it is!”

          AA Co-Founder, Bill W., June 1960, “The Language of the Heart,”, The Language of the Heart

          I rest my case…

          1. Bobby Freaken Beach

            If “being pedantic about it” means telling John Huey he is wrong, then I’ll cop to that. There’s a mythology that the Oxford Group had steps. They didn’t. Referring to the “Oxford Group 12 Steps” perpetrates that misinformation. My first comment included “Obviously, Buchman’s group influenced Bill Wilson and AA.” You’re wasting a lot of effort trying to convince me of what I’ve already stated.

            Now show reference to the 12 Steps in any Oxford Group literature, and I’ll buy you an expensive steak. Otherwise, all that’s on your plate is the crow that you refuse to eat.

          2. John Huey

            I explained the reasoning above and Wilson’s own depiction of those steps in the Texas talk. . Struggling with the passive aggressive denial of Conventional AA thought process is mostly a “no win” situation. One day I will learn but not yet apparently. . .
            ” Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in”

            https://youtu.be/UneS2Uwc6xw

    2. Dean W

      Bobby and John, this is an interesting thread. The Oxfords had a “program,” if you want to call it that, but it certainly didn’t consist of 12 Steps. Whether it contained all the principles that later became AA’s 12 Steps is debatable, but calling it the “Oxford Group 12 Steps” is simply inaccurate.

      1. John Huey

        Let’s add a word and see if we can make everyone happy.. When I stopped being a “Militant Atheist” and became a “Determined Atheist” everyone seemed to like that despite my being exactly the same person.. What about “Oxford Group Influenced 12 Steps” or “Oxford Group Derived 12 Steps”.. I aim to please.. You all tell me…

        BTW.. Despite the disputes surrounding Bill writing down the Six Oxford Group Steps of the Akron Oxford Group Alcoholic Squadron (printed by AA in Bills own words on page 160 in the official, still in print, AA volume of 1957 ‘Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age’) what can’t be disputed is the 1933 Oxford Group Four Practical Spiritual Principal Activities quoted from ‘The Layman With A Notebook, What is the Oxford Group?’ (London, Oxford University Press, 1933) .. Here You Go..

        “To be spiritually reborn, and to live in the state in which these four points are the
        guides to our life in God, the Oxford Group advocate four practical spiritual
        activities:
        1. The Sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian life
        given to God, and to use Sharing as Witness to help others, still
        unchanged, to recognize and acknowledge their sins.
        2. Surrender of our life, past, present, and future, into God’s keeping and
        direction.
        3. Restitution to all whom we have wronged directly or indirectly.
        4. Listening to, accepting, relying on God’s Guidance and carrying it out
        in everything we do or say, great or small.
        These spiritual activities have proved indispensable to countless numbers who
        are living Changed lives. They are not new ideas nor inventions of the Oxford
        Group. They are the simple tenets of simple Christianity. ”

        So, there you are…

        1. Dean W

          John, if you desire to make everyone happy, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you desire positive feedback on this website, admitting obvious mistakes would probably be helpful, as would not submitting intellectually sloppy work in the first place. So, there you are …

      2. John Huey

        And even more from Bill in ‘AA Comes of Age’ Page 38-39

        “It was from him (Sam Shoemaker) that Dr. Bob and I in the beginning had
        absorbed most of the principles that were afterward embodied in the Twelve
        Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of A.A.’s way of life.
        Dr. Silkworth gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker
        had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it. One showed
        us the mysteries of the lock that held us in prison; the other passed on the
        spiritual keys by which we were liberated. (not in the original)
        “…many a channel had been used by Providence to create Alcoholics
        Anonymous. And none had been more vitally needed than the one opened
        through Sam Shoemaker and his Oxford Group associates of a generation before.
        The basic principles which the Oxford Groupers had taught were ancient and
        universal ones, the common property of mankind.
        “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit,
        neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”
        Certain of the former O.G. attitudes and applications had proved unsuited to
        A.A.’s purpose…But the important thing is this: the early A.A. got its ideas of
        self-examination, acknowledgement of harms done, and working with others
        straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former
        leader in America and nowhere else.”

        1. Dean W

          I see plenty of quantity, John. I’m still looking for quality.

          1. John Huey

            Quality? I gave relevant quotes from primary sources to support the essence of what I was saying. If that does not work for you that’s fine with me. I get plenty of “positive feedback” when I post my articles and talks but not everyone is going to like what I say or do. That’s just the way of the world. I think I’ll give this particular thread a rest for now.

          2. Dean W

            Citing original sources to support a bad argument doesn’t make the bad argument good.

  9. John L.

    When drinking alcoholically, I had what ought to have been “moments of decision” — many of them. But I kept drinking. There was a moment when, fighting for my life in delerium tremens (DTs), I suddenly had an intense desire to live. But my moment came later, when a good friend found me, barely alive, and told me about alcoholism and DTs and recovery in AA. My “moment of decision” was realizing that I had only one chance to survive, total abstinence. My second “moment of decision” came at my first AA meeting, when I identified completely with the speaker and knew that this was where I belonged.

  10. Elaine

    Well said.

    The way I describe what happened to me is that I suddenly could hear & and understand the consequences of my drinking. A therapist said, “I haven’t seen a single bit of growth in you in 4 1/2 years. Is there a drug or an alcohol problem?” And I could HEAR what she was saying and INTERNALIZE what than meant. I have not had a drink since. 30+ years. A moment of clarity or grace. I can still feel what that felt like.

    I go to regular AA. Go to meetings without cross talk and where people get to say what they need to say. If the topic of the higher power comes up, I usually share that the first word of the first step is a perfectly good higher power.

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