Friday, September 23, 2011

Mike's Equinox

The following is a story related to me by a good friend who I will call Mike for no particular reason.  He has looked it over and agreed that it is an accurate rendition of his story; except for the parts that aren’t. There are many atheists who have drug problems, but due to intense pressure by Christian groups they are often unable to be openly honest about their problem. Since self-deception is such an important aspect of drug addiction any impediments to honesty are particularly damaging to recovery. Mike has been clean for many years, and it was a rare treat to have him relate his conversion to atheism.  This is not simply because of the enviable importance he places on my impact in his conversion. I happen to relate strongly to Mike, and I hope you find something in this severe abridgement of his story. I think you’ll see why I held out till today to publish it. 

Because of flak I will receive I should point out that the VAST majority of Christians are not directly responsible for the pressure I mentioned above.  This is a story about the impact of the pressure not a story about those that apply it.  

This is also the first of a hopefully three-part analysis of atheism in recovery.

Mike’s Story:

It was a couple weeks shy of 27 years ago that a friend [let’s call him Chris] came up to me and asked how long it had been since I had gotten high. I had been hanging out in the back of meetings of some 12-step groups for over a month.  I was attempting a knowing inclined slouch in a folding chair near the door.  I had effectively repelled almost everyone with my non-confrontational disposition , but Chris had known me from Jr High School so the pathetic failure of my attempt to look cool was familiar to him. 

It seemed like everyone in the room that night had some effusive boast about the “tools” they had gotten at a detox, or a sober living house, or some other credible establishment.  I knew that I would be called out for not having gotten the right “tools”; perhaps that was Chris's purpose in confronting me.  I wasn't surprised that my lack of fitting in would become unacceptable eventually.  I had somehow hoped that it would have take longer for them to notice.  I found Chris’s question especially disturbing because I had no idea when I’d last gotten high. No “tools”; no idea when I’d last gotten high…Chris was going to politely ask me to leave, and probably also ask me to pay for all the coffee I had drunk.

I spent a good portion of each meeting wondering where I would be sleeping that night; eventually I knew I would run out of couches. The people in the circle were dressed in freshly-laundered clothes, and looked like they owned their own couches; couches I was sure that I would never be welcome on. I shoved my hands as deep into my pockets as they would go. I had a student ID in one of them. No keys. No money. No wallet.

“I don’t know” I told Chris “I didn’t go through anyplace so I didn’t get an official date.”

Chris twitched an eyebrow slightly. “Did you use today?”


He smiled slightly. “Did you use yesterday?”

“No” I replied

Chris smiled a little more broadly, turned, and walked away. I began slinking out the door. If Chris did not officially give me the polite “don’t come back” talking-to I could pretend I never knew what was coming. And besides ... I didn’t have any cash for the coffee.

Chris caught me just outside. He was clutching a calendar. “We need to figure out your clean date. When did you last get drunk?”

“I was at a Labor day party at the University….” I trailed off in mid sentence. Most of what I remembered about the party was what people had told me, and that it was outdoors. My eyes glazed with a toxic mixture of bewilderment and embarrassment. I had dropped the second half of the sentence, it broke into a million sharp fragments, and glistening shards of it were sent skittering across the floor.

Chris eventually realized I was done. He flipped the calendar to September, and put his finger on Labor Day (September 3rd). “Okay…did you use after then”

“A couple of days later I had a couple of bong hits.”

He moved his finger over to the 5th. “Is this when you used last?” he asked.

“I don’t know” I replied.

I noticed that the calendar had various astronomical events printed on its squares. Monday the 10th of September was a full moon.

“How about I choose that day” I said; pointing at the 23rd of September. Its square was marked “Autumnal Equinox”.

When Chris left I had a date: the autumnal equinox.  Some years it is on the 22nd of September, and some years it is on the 23rd.

I somehow felt like I now had an official endorsement to sit in the circle. I abandoned my back of the room seat (I later learned that those seats near the door were called “death row”). I listened and heard people talking about sponsors and steps.

Apparently I needed to get a sponsor.  I asked this old dude to be my sponsor. He said that our backgrounds were too dissimilar for him to be my sponsor, but that I “Could call him my sponsor till I found a better one”. I never spoke with him again.

I asked another old dude to be my sponsor. When he found out I already had one he told me I should just stick with one sponsor. I was apparently set for both clean date and sponsor.

The steps were another thing entirely. The steps mention a “higher power”, and to be even more specific call it (him) god a couple of times. Chris explained that I could have a free ride on the god concept; I could choose whatever I wanted. I could even choose a doorknob if that worked. I knew he was lying, but if I did not question him on it too deeply I could slip by without anyone questioning it. If anyone asked I could say that: “I was trying out doorknobs”.

Things were going better for me. I was back in school. My mom was letting me crash at her house most nights. I did some odd jobs which earned me enough money to ride the bus wherever I wanted AND take up chain-smoking.

I remained confused on the god issue. Somehow I knew the next step to accepting a particular god was a trip up north to a dirt-farm in New Hampshire where I would spend my days digging roots while dressed only in soiled orange bed sheets. At times I thought this would be a good idea.

Several times I heard the refrain “I’ve heard some people choosing doorknobs for their Higher Power. This makes no sense, and will not work. You need to find a loving god. I know my higher power –whom I choose to call Jesus Christ- loves me.”

What’s this thing with doorknobs? Why doorknobs? I told Chris I thought an ashtray would work better for me. Since I had taken up chain-smoking I caught myself searching for ashtrays all the time. He tried to explain the “concept” of higher power that I was maybe not getting. I told him that ashtrays would make for a better metaphor; for me at least.

“OK” he said tentatively.

By this time I had moved into a group house and actually had a successful semester at school.   

I understood that the idea of a separate frame of reference was needed to handle the self-deception that was such a destructive force in my life. I understood that it was important to create that frame independent of flesh-and-blood people because each person came packaged with their own set of problems. I knew that the limitations of any particular inanimate object rendered it insufficient as a foundation for any robust frame of reference. However, the ashtrays would work for a while. I could use the time to search out some true godhead. I had begun to decide that I would prefer not to end up in New Hampshire marveling at grotesquely shaped potatoes. I devised a plan.

I obtained several religious texts:
  1. A King James Bible (They give these things away)
  2. The Bhagavad-Gita (Free from the Hare Krishnas who also gave away free lunch at school)
  3. The Book of The Law (A book by Aleister Crowley I had lying around)
  4. Naked Lunch (I still cannot explain this one)
  5. Beelzebub’s tales to his grandson (which I had lying around)
  6. A translation of the Dhammapada
  7. A translation of the Sefir Yetzirah
I remember there being nine books, but I can’t remember the other two titles.

Each evening I would lay the books out in my room, strip naked, and read random passages from each. In retrospect I think the nakedness had more to do with my poor laundry skills than any mystical ritualism, but it felt ritualistic so I kept it up. I also enrolled in a Hebrew class at the University. I wore clothes to the class.

As I read more and more of these texts I became less tolerant of the folks telling me to choose Jesus over doorknobs. First of all they did not realize I had already traded my doorknobs for ashtrays. They also did not realize how hard I was trying to figure this whole everything-god-higher-power out.

Now that I was bathing more regularly some people asked me to go to church with them.  When I refused I imagined them giving me reproachful looks. 

I lashed out at times. For a few weeks I would counter the “my higher power who I choose to call Jesus Christ ...” with a “MY higher power who I choose to call the prince of darkness ...”. I was individually lectured for having disruptive ideas, but eventually the excitement I got from that special attention wore off.

I came to understand that the frame of reference I needed to combat my self-deception existed everywhere that I wasn’t. When I let go of the petty fury over inappropriate religious intervention I realized that this inappropriately named god thing was just one of the "tools" I needed. I now had tools, and I effusively boasted about them at meetings.

Clarity and truth became actions that I could practice at.

For a long while I clung to what I’ve come to refer to as a deistic god. I argued that there was some force that permeated everything for some unknown purpose. Its unknowability became an asset when I was called upon to defend my higher power against the legions of Jesus. The ephemeral force stood up so much better than the ashtray-god; especially after I gave up smoking.

Then, a few years ago, I met AOA. Talking to him I began to realize that the deistic god was more of a crutch used to get people off my back. If I actually believed in this deistic creation it was a form of self-deception. If some self-deception worked then why couldn’t more intricate lies?

Chris -who was (and probably still is) a practicing Christian- gave me one rule about choosing a 12 step god; that it couldn't be me.  Despite how much I tried I could not find an imaginary friend who was not simply a part of me who I lied about being something else.  It was the perspective that I needed; not the fantasy.  I've found that god works best for me when it is not god at all. 

Relieving myself of this burdensome construct has been strangely liberating.

There are so many things I can do with an enhanced clarity now that I’ve gone full atheist. I can love. I can trust. I can be more Mike than I would have thought existed.


Anonymous said...

Happy anniversary Mike!

serenebabe said...

This was such a great story. I'm glad you ("Adult Oset Atheist") shared it with me.

I laughed out loud at this, "I think the nakedness had more to do with my poor laundry skills than any mystical ritualism."