My agnostic AA

My sponsor fired me, and this made me wonder: should AA be adapted to fit the demands of its newer members?


This article originally appeared on The Fix.

My sponsor fired me—for, essentially, not believing in God. For those of you who don’t speak 12-step, this means that the person who was there to guide me through my recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous decided that she no longer wanted to do that. This is not the first sponsor I’ve parted ways with but it is not uncommon for people in AA to go through more than one sponsor. The reasons for these relationships ending are as varied and as many as for any relationship ending—different goals, personality clashes, “cheating” (with a bottle, with another sponsor). In my case, it was irreconcilable differences: I’d started to attend the agnostic group of AA and my sponsor didn’t recognize this group as part of AA. I was happy in my new group for the first time in my seven years in AA, no longer dragging myself to meetings but rather looking forward to them. My sponsor told me that if I was happy, she was happy for me and we parted ways. She was a good sponsor but our vision of AA was not the same.

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The recent controversy in Toronto, Ontario is about the agnostic AA groups being de-listed from the meeting book in the city as well as getting thrown out of Toronto’s AA Intergroup. This was supposedly and mainly because of the agnostics’ amendment of the 12 steps (done mainly to remove the words “Higher Power”). The main argument of traditional AA is that you cannot change the text of The Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous, which is, essentially the proverbial Bible of AA.

I’ve heard the argument that if we were to let agnostics adapt the 12 steps, then we should do the same for groups with different sexual preferences or genders. Except that we already do that.

The Big Book was first published in 1939. It was written by the first 100 members of AA (99 men and one woman). It was written around a 12-step program that suggests that members of AA admit powerlessness over alcohol and needing help from a “Higher Power” to recover—as well as pray, meditate, take an inventory of resentments and past hurts (committed and received), redeem those if possible, and help other alcoholics to recover. You don’t graduate from AA. You stay in AA and hopefully stay sober while you go through the 12-step cycle over and over. The agnostic groups of AA took out the words “Higher Power” from the equation, choosing to remain ambiguous about their own beliefs in what is helping them to recover and stay sober.

Should people be allowed to change what’s in The Big Book, specifically the 12 steps, to adjust for that problematic “Higher Power” idea? That depends entirely on how you decide to see this book. Is this book meant to evolve with its members and demands of the changing world? Or is it a literary work along the lines of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the change of wording will be seen as sacrilegious and artistically offensive?

Recently a friend from the traditional AA group said to me, “What if someone took your book and changed the wording of it and still published it under your name? Would that be right?” No, it wouldn’t be right. Especially since I didn’t write a book telling people how to recover from a deadly addiction. And unlike Bill Wilson, I won’t suggest anyone take anything from my book to use how they please. In 1957, Bill wrote, “We must remember that A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the 12 Steps just as written.”

The same friend said that if the group wants to adapt the 12 steps, they are welcome to do so in the tradition of Narcotics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous, for example. Those fellowships adapted the 12 steps and the readings from the Big Book to fit their particular addiction. Don’t call yourselves AA, the friend said. Because you’re not. He said that’s what the traditional AA members argue when explaining the need for the division between the types of meetings. I kind of liked this idea. Would we call ourselves Agnostic Alcoholics Anonymous then? (The Triple As for short?!)

And many other people (including my former sponsor) asked, Why is this Agnostic meeting so gung-ho on staying in AA anyway? I almost agree with this sentiment. If this was up to lazy me, I’d take my AA toys and go to another sandbox right away and stay there. That’s what Narcotics Anonymous has done, that’s what Cocaine Anonymous has done. Except that I do feel that I am a member of AA and AA is where I belong (despite the fact that I’m breaking the 11th tradition right here).

I’ve heard the argument that if we were to let agnostics adapt the 12 steps, then we should do the same for groups with different sexual preferences or genders. Except that we already do that. There are gay meetings. There are men’s and women’s meetings. Women frequently read the AA-approved literature by changing “his” to “her” and nobody seems to argue with that. And that’s technically adapting and changing the original text of the untouchable, unchangeable Big Book, isn’t it?

Why is my belief or lack thereof an issue? My problem is not agnosticism—it’s alcoholism. I am a member of AA because I’ve fulfilled its one and only requirement: A desire to stop drinking. And I think that this split between Agnostic AA and AA here in Toronto is a great potential for change. I know that this may be a local issue for now but AA is a global entity and what’s affecting us here, in Toronto, reflects global need for change.

They haven’t changed the Big Book for female members, officially (women have just gotten used to changing the wording as they go along. Sigh). For years now, women have sat in meetings learning to ignore the sexist, outdated language as well as the frequent mentions of Him and His in the text when talking about God. For years now in AA meetings, people have read the hilariously offensive chapter “To The Wives” in the Big Book, rolling their eyes and offering their own interpretation of making it fit into their lives if asked to share about it. And in Toronto, I know that when the Lord’s Prayer is recited at the end of meetings, Jewish and Muslim and Agnostic members get up to join hands; I’ve only seen one instance where a Muslim member opted to sit during the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t suggested anywhere in the Big Book yet the Toronto Intergroup allows it as if it were written and prescribed in the sacred, unchangeable text of the Big Book. There are slogans, too, which are not mentioned in the book. There are celebrations of continuous sobriety (despite AA’s emphasis on the slogan of “One day at a time”). There are sponsors in AA (sponsorship is not mentioned anywhere in the Big Book). These are all potentially good, healthy formats of conducting AA meetings (I reserve judgment on the Lord’s Prayer) because they establish a routine and precedent for doing things, which is crucial for recovering addicts. And the constitution of AA, the Twelve Traditions, keeps the members in check as much as it can keep in check a group of millions that doesn’t call itself an organization.

Perhaps AA is a country then. Is then the Agnostic AA controversy in AA the beginning of a revolution to re-consider the country’s constitution? The constitution which reads: For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern. My conception of God is that God is inclusive. He/she/it exists only in the capacity that he/she/it includes. My God gave me a brain to use and I am using this brain to suggest that now it is time to make AA (in Toronto and otherwise) a united country rather than a divided one—not by kicking out one of its provinces but by adapting the map (the 12 steps) to fit it in. The US permits amendments to its Constitution. In Canada, the Canadian Constitution was changed in 1982, when it was “repatriated” (brought to be a part of Canadian law rather than British law). There was a very long section added called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It spelled out the civil and human rights of Canadians and was a welcome and necessary inclusion to the Constitution that did not change anything fundamental about the Constitution; it was simply an adaptation to modern times. It was an update—Constitution 2.2, if you will. It did not spell the end of Canada or its fundamental values. It spelled change. My name is Jowita and I’m an alcoholic, a member of AA, and I am moving with change.

Jowita Bydlowska is a Toronto-based writer who has previously published articles about such topics as addiction, motherhood, sex, mental illness and healthy eating in various publications such as Salon, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, Oxygen and more. She has a book coming out in 2013 about being a drunk mom. This is her first piece for The Fix.

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