Alcoholics Anonymous, Luanne, and a God in the Clouds

Wherever You Understand It To Be
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Even though AA is not technically supposed to be a religious organization, and they refer instead to a Higher Power to represent a God “as [each person] understands him,” you will find in Texas that there are many AA groups that don’t try too terribly hard to disguise the fact that they are all really just talking about the Christian god, and by extension, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t especially fault them for this— why go through the motions of a charade if almost every single person in that room just walked across the street from their Baptist church service the hour prior..?

Luckily, however, the rehab facility I attended was pretty good about shutting this kind of blatantly Christian talk down. And thank "God" for that, otherwise, who knows how long my stay there would have lasted, or if it would have had such a positive outcome.

When someone accidentally veered into blatant Christian rhetoric, or “accidentally” started talking about Jesus, they would be reprimanded and reminded that this was open to anyone with any Higher Power, whatever that might be. Maybe it's Jesus, maybe it isn't.

My favorite entertainment at rehab was a stern southern lady named Luanne. If we had an awards ceremony at the end of rehab the way we always did at summer camp, Luanne would have easily received the award for "Most Times to be Reprimanded for Mentioning Jesus." She had been threatened with expulsion from the group by the meeting Chair on more than one occasion, and told if she continued to yell out "Jesus!" in the opening and closing prayers instead of Higher Power, as it was written, she would be asked to leave.

“But Jesus is my higher power,” she’d insist, and then we’d all get sidetracked into a twenty minute discussion about proper group structure and etiquette and Jesus.

More than once, I facetiously offered to yell out “Satan” during the opening and closing prayers instead of Higher Power, so that it would cancel out her Jesus, and we’d be back to a zero-sum game. Then we could move on, rather than arguing in circles about why Luanne couldn’t say Jesus.

Even though she wasn’t Catholic, eventually Luanne took to quietly (but dramatically) making the sign of the cross on her chest each time she said Higher Power, to still communicate who the real God was and who she was really referring to (we know, Luanne), and I guess that became our group's tacit compromise.

I hate to sound cliche or bitter, but I honestly stopped caring about any of the semantics long ago, right around the time I realized that the whole thing falls apart around Step 3 anyways.

Initially, you are told that in order to work the AA program, you must have a Higher Power. The good news is, that higher power can be anything you want it to be! People in AA love to enthusiastically bring this up any time you mention that you are agnostic. As if agnostic just means that you don’t like the Christian God, but will be appeased so long as you can make up your own. I have 2 major problems with this.

1. Agnosticism means you believe there is no way of knowing whether there is, or is not, a God. It doesn’t matter one bit what God we are talking about or who made it up. Unless you can prove its existence, the whole concept of God is a nonstarter for us. We aren’t saying there isn’t one, we are just saying let’s prove it, then we’ll talk. And we certainly aren’t saying that we will believe in a God so long as we can birth it from our own imaginations, that's incorrect on so many different levels.

2. From an existential perspective, if God can be “as we understand him,” and each person is able to define what that is, then they are essentially the creator of whatever God they come up with. Creator always trumps creation in the hierarchy of things, so what did we gain by letting everyone invent their own God? That seems even more preposterous and difficult to work with than letting everyone use an established, agreed upon God.

At least with Christianity, there’s a textbook and you know that everyone here in our little group is working with the same mythology and delusions. But now everyone gets to create their own God from thin air? Now we don't even know what the rules of their individual delusional constructs are. This sounds like a logistical nightmare! (And it was, but I’ll loop back to that later).

AA has helped millions if not billions of people worldwide and done so for many decades, and it undoubtedly helped me too; but on this particular point, I had to test the waters.

“Fine,” I told my counselor at rehab. “My god is a four-toed purple people-eating Vampire-werewolf.”

“And that’s perfectly fine, Ryan. Each of our higher powers is our own God, as we understand him.”

“No, that’s not fine, I just made that creature up just this second! It’s ridiculous! How could I possibly take that seriously?”

“Then make up something better and more serious.”

“But you’re missing the point. Regardless of how good or serious it is, the very fact that I made it up makes it invalid. As the creator, I’m more the God in this scenario than my creation is. I’m the higher of the two powers here!”

"Are you saying you are God?"

"No! I mean, I don't know... Maybe? Although saying that 'I am God' is a very sensational way of putting it..."

And we’d go round and round in circles like this, probably no more maddening to listen to than the lady who couldn’t understand why she couldn’t keep yelling out "Jesus!" in our meetings; and she even had a big historical book to back her up. What did I have? Most people's understanding of agnosticism seems to come from whatever they hurriedly read on Wikipedia, after they Googled "agnostic" on their phones.

In rehab, it eventually became clear that unless I was able to come up with something I could conscionably call my Higher Power, I was going to be the only person leaving this rehab in 30 days, still on Step #1. My drive to be a good student kicked in, and after much soul searching, I came up with what my Higher Power would be, something that I could live with and even take seriously, something that at the very least, could get me off Step 1:

I decided that my Higher Power would henceforth be "The Universe," and everything in it. I could, with few qualms, refer to "The Universe" in a sentence without bristling, and I could even picture it in my mind as a sort of swirling vortex, the kind of nebulous gaseous ball you might see on a science documentary.

Done! I had a Higher Power.

Except, sadly...Not Done. While it was applauded as a major breakthrough by my counselor and the rehab group, and certainly good enough to get me off of Step 1 and onto Step 2 (Believing in a Power Greater Than Ourselves), the whole thing immediately falls apart when you try to progress any further. So unfortunately, although I am still very much sober today, Step 2 is as far as I ever got in rehab (or in AA, for that matter), and it is where I remain to this day.

Unless I wanted to just blatantly lie, and fake it, I never could bring myself to progress to Step 3. On my rehab exit paperwork and evaluations, I saw that my counselors claimed that I got much further than Step 3, which surprised me, because I know in my heart that I never did.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

You might notice that even in the above quote, they have started using a human pronoun, Him, and now we are even capitalizing it (very reminiscent of The Bible, wouldn’t you say?) But forget all that, my beef isn’t that it starts sounding biblical. Let’s just focus on what the text is actually saying, it's saying that now I am supposed to turn my will and my life over to this new God, the God I made up just a few days prior and dubbed "The Universe."

Well, that sounds pretty darn serious! And I realize that unless I am willing to keep pretending for the next month of rehab that I am okay turning my life and will over to a cloud of gas, and letting this big, nebulous, gas-ball make decisions for me, then I’m pretty much f*cked. My “Universe” concept of God worked for all of one step. Gaseous Vortex, why hast thou forsaken me?!? Now, I’m back to square one; and I’m finding out that to get to Step 3, unless I can anthropomorphize my god (and do it quickly!) then I can’t play along anymore.

Essentially, I was being asked to add a more conventional, humanistic, God to that gas cloud of mine.

Huh. The voice of God coming out of a cloud? Now why does that sound familiar?

Oh yeah. It seems familiar because it sounds like every single classic, mythological or religious conception of God in the history of ever and ever, Amen.

I say let the Texas AA groups drop the charade of halfheartedly pretending that their Higher Power isn’t really just Jesus. If that's what it is for all of them, go ahead and let them say the word. Let JoAnne from rehab say Jesus, too, because it doesn’t really matter. Not so long as we keep pretending that this Higher Power can be anything other than a traditional textbook God. One that involves faith and all the other trappings of religion. Because as you skim down the other steps in the AA program, and you start having to confess your sins to this Higher Power and then ask "Him" to do things like "remove your shortcomings," I think you’ll agree that clearly a big, swirling, vortex of blinking quantum lights is not what they had in mind.

When I arrived at "The Universe" as my higher power, I wasn’t even planning on having my vortex be able to speak, much less make complicated decisions and grant wishes; but sure enough, many of the next steps in AA begin mapping out how you are going to need to start praying to your Higher Power, and listening to the advice and knowledge that "He" gives. Huh. And I'm sitting over here with a Gaseous Vortex.

Please don’t come away from this thinking that I don’t believe in prayer, because I very much do, so long as we don’t call it that, and so long as we don’t pretend that the answers are coming from anywhere other than within our own minds. Prayer is just Focused Thinking, nothing more, nothing less; and once we acknowledge that, I believe it can be a powerful and wonderfully beneficial mental tool. This is somewhat similar to the "I am God" sentiment I mentioned earlier, just presented in a much less sensationalized way.


There is a WATCHMAKER analogy that I want to share with you, as it the most convincing argument for the existence of a God that I have ever found, and the reason I consider myself agnostic and not atheist. It is also how I was able to pragmatically arrive at "The Universe" as my Higher Power in AA, instead of throwing in the towel immediately. However, I feel that it bogs down this present story too much, so I moved it elsewhere, but I invite you to read about it HERE.


Back to AA. A funny thing happens in AA meetings when you have given people the power to create their own Gods, and then also given them carte blanche to put whatever words they want to into this created God’s mouth. Can you believe it, their God starts giving them the exact advice they want to hear! It’s a miracle. And the rules of AA dictate that you can’t criticize or diminish anything anyone says, no matter how transparent or preposterous it might sound.

“What’s that, Doug? You say you received a message from God? And that he told you to leave your wife and kids and go run off with your young, hot, carefree mistress instead? No shit?! Just to leave your wife and responsibilities behind? Well that’s amazing! Especially since it’s exactly what you said last week that you were thinking about doing anyway! What a serendipitous message God had for you, Doug! Yep, it sounds like God had some great advice, and not at all like you are just saying exactly what you'd like to do -- but attributing it to God -- so that no one here in this group can argue with you! Well done, Doug!

“But uh-oh, it sounds like we need to move on to Marjorie, who has also had a vision from God since our last meeting and— what’s that? Well congratulations, Marjorie, that’s even more unrealistic than Doug’s message from God! Why your God would want you to stop paying child support and use the money instead to get liposuction (rather than just exercising) is anyone’s guess. It's idiotic, but of course, we can’t say that, can we? Because them's the rules of AA, nor can we tell you how selfish it sounds, because this was "your God speaking," the God of your own understanding (and invention), and how can we argue with the fact that you understood him to be in favor of liposuction?”

"If you had faith, you'd understand that God has a plan for all of us," both Marjorie and Doug might proffer as a retort.

Hands down, the most maddening thing someone can do, in my opinion, is insert their "faith" into an otherwise authentic argument. Because it's a dead end.

I had a childhood friend, Jenny. When Jenny was caught in a lie or faulted for having her facts mixed up and espousing incorrect bits of information, she would immediately default to the ironclad retort, "Nuh-uh, it's the truth, MY TEACHER TOLD ME SO."

The reason I'm calling one of the most unworthy, hole-ridden, and frustrating retorts in the history of mankind "ironclad" is for the simple reason that when you're on the opposing side of the argument, you can't go anywhere with it; it's a veritable dead end. You simply can't win, unless you are willing to go on record as calling Jenny's teacher a liar. Jenny would remind us of this constantly.

"So are you calling Mrs. Bradshaw a liar?"

"No Jenny, I'm just saying that I don't think she told you that dinosaurs were all transexuals, I think you misheard her or wrote down the wrong word."

This was well before the internet, and I'm pretty sure this was the main reason my parents decided to spend all that money on a set of Encyclopedias -- so they could look things and rub Jenny's face in it. I know it was what I primarily used them for.

But wait! Even when you prove Jenny wrong you don't win, because she wasn't arguing whether or not a statement was TRUE or not, she was simply "repeating" what her teacher supposedly said. Therefore, short of calling that teacher on the phone, at home, at night, and asking them if they told Jenny that dinosaurs were all transexuals, you have nowhere to go argumentatively, that doesn't boil down to calling either Jenny or her teacher a liar.

This is the same with a faith-based argument. Anything you say that contradicts your opponent's faith-based beliefs means that you are either attacking their religion, or you are calling that person a liar. And we all know one of the quickest ways to render a discussion futile is to call the other person a liar. Now no one’s listening to anyone, you might as well just slap that person in the face and then immediately ask them to listen to what you have to say. No one is ready to listen if they’ve just been slapped.

By letting everyone create their own version of a Higher Power, and then talk ambiguously about faith to justify whatever their agenda is at any given moment... well what a maddening little world we’ve created here in AA. Suddenly it's a place where everyone has their own God and can manipulate that God’s purported will with complete impunity.

It makes me miss good ol’ Luanne from rehab, because even though she wasn’t supposed to say his name, her Jesus often had some pretty solid advice. Plus, when you’re working with an established deity whose morals and virtues are all established and very well known, it’s much harder to shove absurd advice in their imaginary mouths, and tell the group that Jesus is advocating for someone to run off with their mistress or stop paying child support.

I do have a final story featuring Luanne that I’d like to leave you with, mainly just because it amuses me every time I think about it.

Ever since she was threatened with expulsion from the group in rehab, Luanne had obviously been making a concerted effort not to talk about Jesus quite nearly as much. Even her signing of the cross had become much less bombastic, although she was still very passionate and long-winded in group discussions. She used my least favorite word “faith” with such regularity that I could barely listen to her talk without cringing. Somehow, I found all the unabashedly religious words and Christian platitudes she’d work into her speeches even more irritating and overtly biblical-sounding than when she used to just talk blatantly about Jesus. If that's even possible.

You feel guilty thinking it, but there are some people you meet in rehab, that you instantly know would have been a blast to hang out with and party with on the outside, had you encountered them just mere days or weeks before coming to rehab.

Luanne was not one of those people. I can imagine no scenario where I would have had a fun time with Luanne.

By the way, I don't know if I mentioned this before, but don’t worry, I’m not using this woman's real name. I mashed up the names of two chain businesses that remind me of her. One is a now defunct cafeteria establishment, and the other a popular fabric store that’s oddly still going strong.

Luby’s Cafeteria was about as close to going to church as I ever got in my adult life. All the elderly people eating there would sit in large groups, and regardless of what time of day it was, they were all dressed up. They always looked as if they were going to, or had just come from, church. The conversations you’d overhear were all about God and Jesus. There was always someone in the dining room playing a grand piano, and it was always a pianist with the distinct ability to make every song they played, pop or otherwise, sound like a hymnal. The religious conversations, the solemn piano music, and everyone’s advanced age combined to create an eerie funereal vibe that made me feel like I was eating in heaven’s waiting room.

The other chain business in my mash-up is a fabric store called Joann’s, and this is because the lady I’m calling Luanne was always dressed in something I suspect she made herself. I got the impression that she made her own clothes because she wanted to simultaneously use fun prints, like what you might find on a newborn baby's blanket, but also wanted to make sure that her garments were assembled in a more modest way than anything you could find available off the shelf in a clothing store. What an odd reason to sew your own clothes— because you want to guarantee that they fit improperly and cover every inch of your sinful body but are also "fun" in a childlike way, for Jesus.

Or maybe someone else packed the suitcase Luanne ended up with at rehab, and they thought it would be hilarious to dress this sour, pious, woman in loud, playful prints. One of her outfits was covered in a repeating pattern of dinosaurs and looked as if it was made from the leftover curtain fabric of a small child’s bedroom. I wonder how Luanne and her Jesus felt about dinosaurs? Isn’t that a contentious topic for some Christians? Also, I know that all dinosaurs are transexuals (my friend Jenny told me so) and Luanne certainly didn't like transexuals.

It was very important for Luanne that her chosen religion condemn certain other people's behaviors and beliefs. That way, she could pour all her hatred and anger into whatever that behavior or belief system might be. For Luanne, it was homosexuals that really got her goat, and all the other "sexual deviants" as well. For obvious reasons, I found her extremely unpleasant to be around.

So. Luby’s Cafeteria + Joann’s Fabric is how I came up with this woman’s pseudonym = Luanne.

But of course, we never learned who packed Luanne’s suitcase or whether there was a child in Luanne's life that she had recently made curtains for... we never learned much of anything about Luanne, actually, because Luanne primarily just quoted scripture from the Bible and spewed forth all the other vaguely religious platitudes and mantras that I have come to associate with AA. She rarely talked about herself, her past, or anything real.

AA meetings, and by extension any rehab facility, are both institutions that are simply dripping with slogans and platitudes. Even if you’ve never been to an AA meeting a day in your life, and know next to nothing about the AA program, chances are, you will at least still recognize some of the cute little sayings that are so pervasive and frequently quoted in the AA world. Our rehab resident halls were lined with dozens of such posters featuring these cute little sayings, and every day as you walked down one of these long hallways, you’d pass them by like billboards on a highway. Needless to say, I knew them all by heart. I assumed everyone else did too, since each evening, we had to wipe the Covid virus off of each and every one of them. (???)

Along with all the doorknobs in the entire building, too. (???)

It was a weird task, for sure, but these were weird times; and if the rehab wanted to continue staying open during the pandemic, this was just one of the many peculiar tasks that they had agreed to perform each day, in order to avoid being shut down. So every night I would have to wipe down posters that said things like:

One Day at a Time

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Let Go and Let God!

Easy Does It!

Progress, Not Perfection

Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes!

And so on and so forth, all the way down each hall. There were 10 if there were 100.

One day, our counselor gave our group an assignment: we were given 30 minutes (like we needed that long) to locate one of these ubiquitous posters, any poster of our choosing, and then return and explain to the group why we chose it and what we thought it meant. I didn’t even need to get up, I had every poster in that entire building memorized, but I decided to get up anyway, and go lift weights in the gym for half an hour.

(There were inspirational posters in there, too, by the way... there were posters everywhere).

My workout ran long, and so when I returned to the group and sat down, Luanne was already talking. I usually zone in and out of her pseudo-religious speeches, but this time, having missed the initial setup of which poster she chose, I was tuned in more acutely. I was trying my darndest to figure out which poster she was talking about, but for the life of me, I couldn’t. Looking around at the faces of other people in the group, apparently, they couldn’t figure it out either. She was talking a lot about how we needed to let God do the heavy lifting in our lives and help us out when the weight of life became too much for us to bear. She kept using the words “lifting” and “weight,” neither of which were words on any of the posters I knew. Even though I was certain of this, I found myself doing a mental inventory of all the posters in the building, traveling down each and every hallway in my mind. I was coming up blank.

A cowboy man in our group, I’ll call him Dan, was usually pretty quiet, but today he looked especially confused, and even like he wanted to speak but was restraining himself. You’ve heard of work wives and work husbands? Well, I always thought of Dan as like Luanne’s rehab husband. I think they both came from the same small, religious, Texas town, and even though they’d supposedly never met each other before rehab, they seem to know a lot of the same people and places. They even kind of talked the same. They both had a twangy country accent, but then also spoke in a slow, condescending way as if they were talking to children. Or as if they’d come here to rehab to teach us, rather than to learn and get better with us. No surprise here, Dan is also a person that I would have never wanted to hang out with or party with on the outside.

Luanne is continuing to talk about letting God carry the weight of a heavy load, and I’ve run out of poster candidates for which one this could be. Having just come from the gym, it’s fresh in mind, and I’m thinking, did Luanne maybe choose the small sign above the dumbbells that reads “Rack Your Weights?” That’s all that I could come up with. And as it turns out, I was close.

I’m mentally lapping the halls for like the 5th time, trying to find a poster I missed, when I’m startled out of my reverie by Dan’s louder than usual southern voice. I guess he couldn’t stay quiet any longer and finally burst.

“Jesus Christ Luanne, you’ve been rambling on for about 5 minutes now, talking about God and all sorts of things, but what poster is this? Are you by any chance talking about the laminated poster that’s hanging up behind the orderly’s desk? The one put there by OSHA that says, “Lift with your Legs, Not with your Back?”

I can tell instantly from Luanne's face that she was -- she was talking about that poster, and now it kind of looks as if she might cry. Dan doesn’t normally talk to her this way. I assume she’s attempting to hold back tears long enough to ask, “What is OSHA?” but someone else beats her to it, and Dan explains. He loves to teach.

“OSHA stands for Occupational Safety and Health, they’re like a workman’s comp organization that helps you file lawsuits when you get hurt on the job. They put up workplace posters in break rooms and such, and they have nothing at all to do with AA.”

Now Luanne actually is crying in earnest, which I can only assume is a mix of emotions ranging from the embarrassment of having imbued this OSHA poster with five rambling minutes of spiritual nonsense, and the indignity of having to learn something new from hometown Dan, but when she finally pulls herself together, and manages to choke back sobs long enough to speak, what she wails out in a heart wrenching screech is, “Why does Dan get to say Jesus Christ!? Is it okay to talk about Him now?!?”

I actually feel sorry for her in this moment, but quickly realize that she isn’t embarrassed at all. Every poster and sign in the world is probably a special sign for Luanne, each and every one imbued with a special message from The Lord. The counselor is already assuring everyone that there’s nothing wrong with the poster Luanne chose, and that all of what she said is still very valid— you should let God help you do the heavy lifting in life, instead of using your back, and risking injury or having to file workplace lawsuits. Normally I would be unable to stop myself from calling "bullshit" on all of this, but I’ve zoned out. I’m too busy trying to think of what I’m going to say when it’s my turn. What am I going to talk about now that I have spontaneously decided to change my poster choice at the last minute? I have a lot to say, now that I’m going to explain to the group all the latent wisdom and deep meaning that is hidden in the gym sign telling us to “Rack Your Weights.”

Luanne is going to hate this. There's lots of homosexuals at gyms. Also, I love the visuals of a four-toed purple people-eater Vampire-werewolf trying to put dumbbells back on a weight rack at the gym. Using its legs, not its back, of course, Luanne.

Yep, I'm back to that God again, it would seem. Since no God other than an anthropomorphized deity closely resembling the classic Christian God-construct actually works for Alcoholic’s Anonymous's purposes, I figure my chosen/invented God might as well be SUPER FUN AND CRAZY.


Although... now that I'm thinking about it... even though "Gaseous Vortex" certainly didn't make for a very personable or AA-suitable God, anyone who's ever worked out next to an especially farty dead-lifter I think will agree with me, "Gaseous Vortex" would make a hilariously accurate name for a new GYM.


Not ready to go home yet? Want one more little drink? Click HERE to read about how God and an alcoholic created the Corona Virus together.