I am an atheist because of Alcoholics Anonymous. My mom is an alcoholic, and had been in the group and sober for as long as I can remember. AA was my religion growing up, even more than Christianity. While I would go years without setting foot in a church, I sat outside of AA meetings and listened to everyone share and repeat the twelve steps and the Lord’s Prayer several times a week. I learned all of the twelve steps and all of the slogans. I was taught my mom had a disease, and that her disease would kill her if she didn’t attend these meetings. I was taught that while I was important, god and AA had to come first in her life. I was also taught that alcoholism was a family disease, that it was genetic, and that I was doomed to either become alcoholic myself or marry an alcoholic.
But don’t worry, there was hope. There’s a 12 step group affiliated with AA called Al-Anon, which is for the friends and family of alcoholics. There’s also Alateen, for the teenage children of alcoholics, and Ala-Kid, for children age 6 and older. We didn’t have an Ala-Kid in our city, so it wasn’t until I was 12 that I was really pressured to join a 12-step program myself. I was again told that this was a family disease, and that unless I also was in a 12-step program, I could cause her to drink again. Around the same time, my mom married my step dad who was also in AA, and we started going to a lot of AA functions as a family. I sat in on speaker meetings, where AA members would tell their story of how alcohol had destroyed their life, and how only with the help of AA and god were they able to quit and regain a stable and happy life. For me, the fear of becoming or marrying an alcoholic was far worse than the fear of hell. I started attending a few Alateen meetings too, where we talked about how alcoholism had affected our lives, and looked at how the twelve steps could help. The twelve steps taught us we were powerless. Only God or our “Higher Power” could help us, and that he would if we worked the steps, got a sponsor, went to meetings, and passed the message on to others.
A few years later, I had a bad teenage day and my parents convinced me I needed to join Alateen in earnest – get a sponsor, and work the steps. And so I did. At first the meetings really helped and I learned some great things. However, they were things I think most teenagers learn on their own: you can’t control or “help” others unless they let you, leave a situation and cool down or talk to someone if things aren’t going well, and just because someone tells you you’re crap doesn’t mean you really are. Other than this, the group started to get scary. I got a sponsor (just a woman in Al-Anon in her 30′s), who I had to call every day at the same time to the minute. If I was late or missed a call, I had to make amends to my sponsor. On the phone, I told her everything I had done in the past day, and we would go over situations where I might have done something wrong, and she would tell me how to do it better. I started to work the 12-steps. I gave my will and life over to god, because if I didn’t I was told and believed I would go insane and die. My own will would kill me. I made amends to my mom and all of my relatives for being a bad child (my mom never made amends to me). I went to 3 meetings a week, prayed for my will to be taken away, and read AA literature every day. I started sponsoring other girls too.
And I loved it. My mom was pretty unpredictable, and often got extremely upset over small mistakes. Because of this I was a huge perfectionist as a teenager. I loved that here I had a set of rules to follow and make my life better. I was a part of something big, I was a part of my own family, and I felt I was better than everyone else. I imagined myself spending the rest of my life in the program. At conventions the people with the most time, the old-timers, would get the most praise. I wanted that to be me. This continued for five years – through most of high school and college. During this time, I rarely made a decision on my own. If I disobeyed my mom, I would always tell my sponsor who would just tell me to turn myself in, and I would. When I went to college, I would take the bus for an hour and a half each way to get to meetings, and spend around 40% of my budget on transportation and donations for these meetings.
Finally, it got to be too much, and I quit. My success in college taught me I could be OK on my own. I also saw that most people were not in a 12-step program, and their lives were still perfectly OK. This was a huge revelation. My friends in Al-Anon tried hard to convince me to stay. They suggested I should drop credits and get a job so I could afford a car and afford to go to more meetings. They told me without Al-Anon, specifically without a decent relationship with god (which I could only get by working the 12-steps) I would go insane, destroy my life, and die. Only a few of my old friends from Al-Anon have spoken to me since I quit, and each time it was a thinly veiled attempt to get me to join back up.
After I quit, I started going to bible studies on campus to fill the gap left by all the meetings and time spent on Al-Anon. My realization that these twelve step programs, the most important thing in my life and my family’s life, could be wrong caused me to be skeptical of the bible too. The more I looked into it, the less I believed. It was like AA was the thread that caused the rest to unravel too. I love science and learning, and I just kept at it until I came to a state near deism. A year or so after I quit Al-Anon I picked up the God Delusion. I was cringing through the first half of the book, but in complete agreement by the end. It’s been several years since then, and I’ve never been happier. It’s still scary sometimes to take responsibility for and control of my actions instead of praying for god to live my life for me. Sometimes I make mistakes, and they make me feel horrible. But more often I accomplish things, and I get to take full credit and I feel great.