What An AA Meeting Taught A Former Atheist About Prayer

In March 2015 I moved back to Rhode Island after living and teaching in Taiwan for two years. The international move had been rushed, triggered by my dad’s sudden suicide. My parents’ house was hoarded, so I was home both to plan the memorial, and also to embark on the Herculean task of cleaning out the house. 

During one of my first weeks at home, my best friend invited me to an AA meeting. They had recently become sober and spoke highly of the meetings and community. Because of my current circumstances, making small talk with “normal” people was painful; I had no idea how to answer the question, “How are you?” without bursting into tears. The thought of being in a room of other people who truly understood rock bottom felt oddly comforting. 

The night of the meeting was bitterly cold, and four-foot piles of snow were closing in on us from every direction. Walking towards the church with my hands in my pockets, I could see my breath. The red jacket I wore seemed unfamiliar. After two years of living in a subtropical climate, I had forgotten all about my winter clothes left behind at my parents’ house. Now I had the eerie feeling of living someone else’s life, wearing someone else’s clothes. 

We made our way down the wide stairs into the church basement, and I was surprised to see how crowded it was. I felt vaguely worried that I’d have to introduce myself, but I never did. The crowd was big enough that we could take a seat towards the back and remain unnoticed. 

After a brief introduction and some announcements from the leader, people started sharing. They stood up and said how depressed they were and how hard this winter had been. As they talked, I wondered if the harsh winter had played a part in my dad’s choice to kill himself. These people sure seemed extra depressed.

Then a woman in her 30s  stood up. You could tell by her voice and personality that she had probably been a class clown in her day. She made the room laugh almost immediately. Our shared relief and joy at a break from the negativity made us laugh even harder than we otherwise would have. She talked about how the harshness of the winter and the bleakness of her mental state had recently pushed her to explore prayer. She said she had been afraid to pray before because she thought she didn’t know how. She thought it had to be really complicated. 

“If my frontal lobes weren’t glowing, I thought I was doing it wrong.” 

We all laughed. 

“But then someone gave me some good advice. They said, ‘It doesn’t have to be complex. In the morning just ask for help, and at night just say ‘thank you.’’’ 

The morning after the meeting, I carved out a small space in the clutter of my parent’s living room to exercise in. After my workout, I laid down on my yoga mat, hands by my sides and eyes towards the peeling plaster of the ceiling.

And then out loud, because there was no one around who could hear me, I said “Please help me.” Tears started rolling slowly down the sides of my face and into my ears as I repeated “Please help me. Please help me. Please help me. Please help me.” With each one, a tiny bit of space opened up within me. I felt a sliver of relief. 

That night, after a full day of sorting, organizing, and dragging things to the dumpster, I looked up at the ceiling and quietly said, “Thank you.” I was shocked to realize I actually meant it. 

I have never identified as a religious person, but looking back now 7 years later, I can see how powerful a role that surrender played in getting through my grief and turning my life around. If you are like me and prayer has never been your thing, I challenge you to try this out. 

In the morning say, “Help me” and at night say, “Thank you.” Whether you believe anyone is actually listening to your prayers or not, the effects of this type of surrender may just surprise you. No glowing frontal lobes required.