Recovery Notes #9

Stumbling onto a spiritual quest

I was introduced to the 12 Steps at my first meeting and the only reason I didn’t run screaming in the opposite direction at the references to “God” and a “higher power” is that I was so defeated by alcohol I had a tiny willingness to see things differently. Even so, in the first months of my sobriety, I took comfort in what Jen (and others) said: everything was a suggestion, not a rule, and I was free to “take what I could use and leave the rest.” I ignored anything that smacked of spirituality and that included most of the steps.

I have always had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of God. Even though I grew up in a time when it was assumed that everybody went to church, I was brought up in a secular household by parents who had no use for religion. That meant that I was the only person I knew who couldn’t fill in the box for “religious affiliation” on school forms. It was another way that I didn’t belong. For a time, I went to church with my girlfriends but, other than making me feel less alone, religion didn’t take. When I was 15, a friend told me that “God did not create man. Man created God.” It was a powerful idea. I wrote it on the cover of my school composition notebook and adopted it as my motto.

Depending on how militant I was feeling at any particular time, I defined myself as either an atheist or agnostic.  I agreed with Karl Marx that religion was “the opiate of the masses” and felt that I belonged to a special cadre of people who were open-minded enough to challenge traditional beliefs (but not open-minded enough to truly examine those beliefs). Yet, as my drinking career proceeded, an unfathomable yearning for … something … grew in me. One miserable drunken night near the end, I shocked myself by falling on my knees in inarticulate prayer, to what or whom I didn’t know. I tried to ignore it by calling temporary insanity, but the memory of it never left me.

Now in recovery I was part of a group where people talked about God as though he was their best friend. I found this so simple-minded that I was more afraid of people finding out that I was part of a God-focused group, than I was of them finding out that I was an alcoholic. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only alcoholic for whom religion was a loaded subject. While there were those with strong church connections, many more were skeptical of organized religion. Some had turned their backs on the churches of their youth because they had been hurt by them, either through the imposition of unforgiving dogma, outright abuse or both. Others had merely strayed.

What made the program possible for me was its flexibility. The basic idea was that alcohol had defeated us so we were powerless over it and our lives. We, therefore, had to find a “power greater than ourselves” to “restore us to sanity.” This could be “God as you understand God” or merely a “higher power.” The emphasis was not on what you believed but that you believed in something that was greater than you. The alcoholics liked to point out that it was a “spiritual” but not a “religious” program and for me, and many others, the higher power became collective wisdom of the group of alcoholics who had succeeded in recovery.

My vague spiritual hunger continued to grow. I eventually realized that I had never really been an atheist, and that the spiritual journey was a process of discovery, not an intellectual decision. I began to see alcoholism as a low-grade spiritual quest in which I was eternally chasing the moment when I’d had exactly enough to drink to feel fully alive, present and connected in the world, a moment that never lasted and became increasingly elusive. The effort to recapture and prolong that moment fueled my drinking for years.

Now I stumbled onto another kind of spiritual quest, this time in companionship with people to whom I was connected through wounds and imperfections. Many had beliefs that I found bizarre and some undoubtedly found my beliefs equally bizarre. None of that mattered. We held on to each other and we walked together. And in so doing, we learned that even though our theology may be different, the spiritual experience is the same.