One of the things you’ll hear in AA pretty frequently if you decide that you should go (which, hey, maybe you should, who am I to judge?) is that AA isn’t a religious organization and that it’s not a cult. The former claim has the virtue of being technically true, while the latter is an open question depending on your definition of “cult.” (I tend to think of it less as a cult and more as a fraternal organization whose members can perhaps be a bit too overzealous at times, but who are by and large mostly harmless.) You’ll hear it pretty frequently because it turns out that AA has a reputation as this weird cult-ish religion-y thing out there in the world of people who don’t go to AA meetings. I’ve been going to AA on and off since 2012 so I’d mostly forgotten that part, but when I moved to Maine, it was as though every meeting had someone who’d mistaken it for a sales call. When this happened — when a person would tell their story about their reluctance to come into AA because of the God stuff, and how it was misplaced because it turns out God was actually there the whole time (!) — I kind of just rolled my eyes and let it slide. Again, I’d been going to AA for six years, so nothing that anyone said in a meeting really surprised me anymore, but it seemed almost counterproductive in a way. Part of it, too, is that I’ve worked in sales in various capacities for most of my adult life, and I don’t like sales people. Or, rather, I like sales people who aren’t pushy, and converts to the cause can be a bit excitable.
With AA, the God stuff never really bothered me. I’m pretty indifferent to the specifics of the belief systems that help people get well as long as they’re getting well. There isn’t some grand utilitarian calculus being figured by a JS Mill in the sky, casting aspersions on AA for not being better than it is. (And if there is, it turns out the AA people were right about the God stuff, after all.) What bothered me was that AA told me to quit drinking. And I loved to drink. All of the things in the world were reasons to drink, and as a consequence there were never enough drinks to sate me. I would get drunk, sure. But I wanted liquor to destroy me. That it was destroying me wasn’t enough, either, because it wasn’t destroying me fast enough. I had it in my head that in order to be a fully realized tragic hero I had to die. If I died, then you would finally understand my suffering, and if you happened to suffer in the process, well, then, the proof was in the pudding.
Why that made sense to me is probably something I’ll never get to the bottom of. I was talking to my sponsor about all this “why” shit one day — why did I drink, why did I want to drink even when it stopped working, why did I do this to myself and to everyone around me — and he said, quite simply, “You drank because you’re an alcoholic.” I don’t know if it was a white light moment or what, but I’ve gone back to that moment over and over again when I start going down the rabbit hole of “why.” Because the truth is, I don’t know why I drank except that I’m an alcoholic. I’m not uniquely tortured, I’m an alcoholic. I’m not a character in a drama, I’m an alcoholic. I don’t really need to figure it all out, I just need to not fucking drink alcohol. Maybe try to own my shit and help out other people when they ask. Boom, that’s the program. That’s your 12 steps.
To the extent that the God stuff bothers me now, it’s because it fits so cleanly into my tendency to structure my life as a narrative — as something that I’m not actively living, as the world-acting-upon-me. It’s partly why I’m wary of sharing my own story at meetings. Early on in AA, way back in 2012, I was telling some dudes outside a meeting that I’d run a book-donation program for a nonprofit and that I’d seen countless copies of the AA Big Book donated in that time. Some guy chimed in, “Ha! That’ll be part of your story one day.” And it could be. I could go through my past and pick up all of the little plot pieces and string them together and tie them up with a bow and maybe convince you, or someone who wanted to believe badly enough, that me being sober today — hell, being alive today — is part of the Plan. I’m living in a cabin in Maine right now because I met some woman in my second rehab after my sixth detox who said that she had a cabin in Maine and I said, “Huh, I’m moving to Maine,” and she said, “You can live there,” and I said, “That’s good.” And I got sober because I had no other choice after years of trying and failing and generally burning my life to the ground. And let me tell you all of the stories about grace and chance and redemption. Let me tell you about how I was made whole again.
It’s convenient, but it’s just the flip side of my original narrative, which also involved the world revolving around me. What I’ve learned is that I don’t know if there’s a God, but I do know that I’m not it. And if that’s the only thing I ever learn, I can live with that.