Sobriety, Without the Sermon

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Perhaps no one in Craig’s rural community suspected he struggled with a drinking problem. 

The 61-year-old book store owner would quit drinking from time to time, but soon enough wade back in, feeling calm and in control. “I would forget and say, ‘No problem,‘” he said. “Especially at Christmas.”

Boozy parties can be hard on people trying not to drink.

Craig thought more than once about joining Alcoholics Anonymous, but the faith piece of the 12-step program alienated him. “AA people think it’s resistance to quitting,“ said Craig. “It’s not. It’s resistance to the program.”

Surfing the Internet, he struck the magic combination of words that brought up a secular recovery program. At, he found LifeRing, which began in the San Francisco Bay Area and has spread since its inception in 1997 to communities around the nation, including the Pacific Northwest where Craig lives. 

In an online group, he finally found the support he needed to put aside alcohol for good in 2001. He's been sober since.

Few argue the need for help peaks at this time of the year. One former drinker calls this “the squirmy season,“ another “an emotional quagmire.”

That celebratory vortex that stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year can pull in those with the best of intentions, and spur many into recovery before the first buds of spring.

“A lot of people drink more heavily and suffer more effects during this time of year,” said Marty, a spokesman for LifeRing. “It’s definitely a crisis time.”

Nearly 14 million Americans suffer from alcoholism, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And recovery isn't a one-size-fits-all matter.

Different Strokes
Some, like Craig, never really liked getting drunk. “I liked being buzzed,“ he said. “Being buzzed holds the world at bay. But problems don’t go away. In fact, they get worse. You can have terrible hangovers in the morning. You feel very isolated. You reach this point of despair. You feel more and more isolated.”

There are no reliable statistics that quantify how many may continue to drink because they cannot find a non-religious recovery program. Judges have routinely referred alcoholic offenders to AA, although a handful of successful court challenges have redirected attention to secular recovery.

AA's approach is described in its “big book,” the guide on getting sober written in 1939 by the program’s founders, stockbroker Bill Wilson and surgeon Bob Smith.  It encourages recovering alcoholics seek the help of a “higher power” in throwing off the yoke of drinking.

"The essence of the AA approach resembles revivalistic Protestantism, with elements of ritual prayer, public confession and surrender of will to a 'higher power,' and dogmatic religiosity reinforces the defensive barrier against innovation," said C. Gary Pettigrew, a forensic pscyhologist quoted by California

The organization calls on its participants to undergo a spiritual awakening: to turn over their lives to the care of God as they understand him to be, “praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” - to admit to God the nature of their wrongs, and to ask God to remove defects of character.

But recovering drinker and 12-step member Maria said that AA is widely misunderstood. While AA is a spiritual program, it is not associated with any faith or sect, she said.

“AA doesn’t care about your religious beliefs, whether you are an atheist, an agnostic or a Mormon,” she said.

In fact, metropolitan areas offer 12-step groups specifically for atheists, freethinkers, Buddhists, and others.

“I’m an ex-Catholic, and I was always very put off by AA, the higher power as a foundation,” said Carl, a 53-year-old science writer. “It seemed like going to church.”

But gradually, that began to feel like just another excuse. Eventually, his resistance fell away.

“There’s a genius in AA that translates into any culture in the world,“ he said. “It’s not dogmatic. The core idea is you have to find something outside yourself. A lot of people talk about a hole inside they’re trying to fill up.”

Here's to the Holidays
Carl’s higher power encompassed “all the knowledge around me, including medical knowledge, including my counselor, Vince - my archangel,” he said. “After you look at the pictures of DNA, you see the double helix. That’s a spiritual awakening. It’s close to religious rapture.”

Many people who are newly sober say holiday events - particularly workplace parties - present a dreaded challenge. The expectation that people should be having the time of their lives, celebrating with others amid much levity is underscored by advertisers.

Recovery veterans offer some tips for staying sober and sane during the holidays:

  • If drinking plays a predominant role in your host’s gathering, don’t feel bad about taking a pass on it. If it’s an office party and you feel you must go, make a brief appearance then duck out early.
  • Give a party of your own, and make activities, such as decorating, caroling, or making packages for the homeless, the central activity.
  • When you go to parties, keep a non-alcoholic drink in your hand at all times.
  • If you start feeling like “just one drink” might put your nerves at ease, call it a night.
  • Give some thought to friends who don’t drink, and seek out their company.

And remember, there are all sorts of programs where you can find help in quitting. You can start by clicking on the links above.