The Secular Alcoholic and The Moment of Decision – refusing a drink

The Fullest Expression of the Futility of Self-Harm

By John Huey, February 2019

[ First in a series of Five articles on the Recovery process ]

In Secular AA 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 AA 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, end point or “break point” 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 AA 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 to 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 intersession 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 judgement 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, benefits 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.

Five part RECOVERY series: Making a DecisionMeetingsSharing-Abstinence(coming soon)-Helping another Alcoholic(coming soon)

John H John Huey’s student work of the 60’s-70’s 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

4 thoughts on “The Secular Alcoholic and the Moment of Decision

  1. norm langille says:

    Think you nailed it John for me—-I can’t define what inside of me made me stay sober other than instinct for survival–like you I was to that point and drank like you same number of years to the extreme–when I got sober it was like an unconscious aim to not drink–at this time I don’t really need to know and I haven’t drank since–I’ve never believed or prayed–thanks for this , this morning Norm

  2. David B Bohl says:


    I think you’ve managed to do what few touched by addiction can – speak about it in lay (neutral) terms, as opposed to clinical or “spiritual” or even 12 step language. If ind that very helpful and real.

    My own experience was that “I just cant’d do it anymore.” That was my “moment.” At the time I uttered those words, I’m certain that I didn’t even know what “it” was that I could no longer do. Yet it was the moment I stopped drinking and ceased descending. I later figured out all of the “it’s” I could no longer do, but synthetically altering my reality is something I can no longer return to. Though the ascent from that realization has not been constant, it has, at times, been exponential.

  3. Barry W. says:

    Just got back from a traditional meeting. I got sober in traditional meetings, as an agnostic, and went to traditional meetings for 18 years. I then went exclusively to a We Agnostic meeting for 12 years. Now I go to both. I pass on the message (humbly) that an agnostic/atheist can get sober in traditional AA.

    The topic was “hitting bottom,” what John is calling “moment of decision.” It’s different for all of us. “You can get off the elevator at any floor,” as they say. Many invoked an outside event: spouse, job, courts, etc., a couple said God got them there, and a few said they were just “done,” they were “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I fall into the latter camp. I have no idea why this works for some of us, and most not. It’s heartbreaking watching people bounce in and out of the rooms. What can we do? We pass the message. We’re an example. It just doesn’t work for everybody. Some people’s bottom is death. I’m glad I was desperate enough to stick it out, not be driven away by the religious inanities implicit in the Program. But there is help and love in the rooms. There was when I got here. There is today. I’m helped all the time by “believers.” What do I care the source of their inspiration? As long as there’s a practical application, I’m good. Anyway, thanks, John

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