The first time I said I was an Atheist, it was to a psychiatrist.
I’ll back up here. It was nearly four years ago that I had the biggest mental health crisis of my life. It had me off work for seven weeks, during which I was in a state of being completely unable to function. I had crippling anxiety that rendered me unable to read. I didn’t eat because the act of putting cereal in a bowl was needlessly complicated, so I opted out. I drove recklessly when I probably shouldn’t have been driving at all. I was also drinking two bottles of wine every single night, which compounded everything.
One of the core challenges with a mental illness combined with substance abuse is that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two. Fortunately, the easiest strategy (or hardest depending on who you are) is to first eliminate the substance, then to address any mental illness, if any issues do remain. I imagine that there are a good percentage of people that discover they don’t have any mental health problems once they dry out.
I agreed with the approach and let the doctor sign me up for a substance abuse program. He was surprised to hear that this was the first time that anyone had told me to stop drinking. He came close to using the word “alcoholism,” but stopped short.
The program was Tuesday through Thursday for three weeks, for three hours per day. It ran on a rotating schedule, so if you missed a day you would just pick it up later to complete the three weeks. The premise was that you either graduated from the program with a little certificate and speech or moved on to a more intensive day program that ran seven days per week.
I dutifully went through it without missing a single day. I drank no alcohol the entire time. It wasn’t hard. We created vision boards and had group discussions and drew our feelings in crayon.
The glaring difficulty I had with the program was its wholehearted dedication to the framework of Alcoholics Anonymous. Everyone in the group was going to meetings except me. Sobriety chips were shown off more than a Gucci handbag. When it came time to talk about what step we were all working, I had nothing to contribute. I just sat there aghast that a “higher power” was a prescription made in a medical setting.
I voiced this opinion in the group and was both shamed for trying to “take away” someone’s progress, and encouraged to make my higher power, “like a tree in your yard, or a rock, or whatever.”
A professional with an degree in psychiatry was actually suggesting that I that I change my behavior to please an inanimate object of my choice. What the actual fuck?
Anyway, I completed the program, received a certificate that some in the group saw as a lifetime achievement, and threw it on the floorboard of my car along with my vision board and growing collection of Taco Bell wrappers.
My psychiatrist asked me about my experience in the program and was surprised to hear that not only did I not have any problems with not drinking, but that I was profoundly irritated to have to pass through a god filter in order to reach that conclusion. I suppose that’s uncommon in his line of work.
He asked why an AA-based program would be such a problem for me. I told him then, for the first time out loud, with a clear voice, “I am an Atheist.”
He blinked once in surprise and looked down at his watch.
“Okay, let’s schedule your next appointment.”