I grew up religious and eventually phased out into what I believed to be Atheism. My parents stopped going to church as often themselves, so I didn’t attend on my own. I also began to learn a lot about science and evolution, so I thought I had all the answers on creation, higher powers, etc. Currently, my beliefs fall more into the ‘Agnostic’ category than anything else, since I don’t really know anything for sure – I’m only human after all.
This belief was a major conflict for me when I got sober. I was immediately thrust into the land of 12 Step recovery, where we’re told that only a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity and relieve our alcoholism and addiction. That got me a little dejected because I wasn’t willing to look into any of that spiritual stuff. While in rehab and the transitional living house that I went to after, I was taught about what it all means, why it’s so important, and how I can incorporate it into my already held beliefs.
The views in this article are strictly my own and show only my perspective and opinion on spirituality. I do not claim to have all the answers and remain open minded to other thoughts on the matter.
Spiritual, not Religious
When I looked at the 12 Steps, as many people have, they recoil from them as they see the words ‘God’ and ‘Higher Power’ used in a fair few of them. My perspective was not that God had turned his back on me or punished me for my actions, simply that He wasn’t really there. I hadn’t ever truly seen him or spoken to him in my life, so why would that start now?
Pretty quickly, I was told that these words were not relating to the religious ‘God’ that I grew up with. 12 Step programs use this rhetoric, but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. The God that I celebrated and feared as a pre-teen didn’t have to be the same God that I would utilize for my program of recovery. I found this comforting even though I still didn’t really know what it meant.
Spirituality is Paramount
The people around me told me how important this ‘Higher Power’ was to my recovery efforts and I didn’t exactly understand. I believed that the whole point was just to stop doing drugs. I didn’t realize there was anything else that needed addressing – boy was I wrong! It took me a good while to really comprehend why this spirituality stuff was so important, though.
I soon learned that 12 Step recovery was about much more than fixing the alcohol or drug problem. In fact, in order to fix the substance problem, I needed to fix the ‘me’ problem first. This was only going to be done with some sort of power greater than myself, or so I was told. I needed to do some work that would humble myself. I had to realize that I was not the center of the universe and that I had been incredibly selfish in my life leading up to that point. At the end of the day, if I was the issue, I would need something better than me to fix it.
Agnostic, Not Atheist
I didn’t really know the difference between these when I first stepped into rehab at the ripe old age of 20. Being young and fairly ignorant, I proclaimed myself a devout atheist, only to be mocked by others. These jests came at a fair price, though, because honestly, who did I think I was to believe that I had all the answers.
To clear up the debate, an atheist believes truly that no God exists and that no spiritual being or ‘creator’ could exist. While my current views aren’t drastically different, I can admit that I don’t know for sure that that’s the case. This is the basis of Agnosticism. While an agnostic may have personal views one way or the other, they don’t claim to know the non-existence of a ‘supreme being’ as a fact – and they’re cool with that!
What was told to me was that simply a willingness to believe that something could be out there was sufficient to start working the program. I wasn’t ready to believe, though, that this thing that was potentially out there would help me recover. As this article isn’t aimed at dissuading anyone from being an atheist, we should look at how its possible to still incorporate the fundamentals of these programs into cynical beliefs.
A God of Your Understanding
This was perhaps the biggest lesson on spirituality that I received while I developed my own program. The ‘God’ that I would come to utilize didn’t have to look exactly like anyone else’s. I could use various things from people’s understandings that I liked and could get behind, and discard the ones that just didn’t work for me. While one guy’s God looks eerily similar to the Roman Catholic God, another’s is just a symbol for a better way of living. Finding this out helped me begin the process of molding my own interpretation of the seven or eight different words for Higher Power that were mentioned while in treatment.
The force or being that I ended up calling ‘God’ and still do today comes from a myriad of different perspectives. First, I know my own thinking is bad, and two heads are better than one, so my sponsor and I working together has got to be somehow greater than myself by definition, right? Second, I trusted the ideas of my support group. I knew that getting help from multiple people in my support group would keep me thinking about every possibility, not just the one I thought of. Third, the program of AA and the 12 Steps behind it appear to have helped millions and have never steered me wrong so far, so why not rely on them to be my ‘Higher Power?’ People kept telling me that it didn’t really matter what I used in place of this ‘God’, just as long as I used it often and trusted it.
What Does This Mean in Practice?
So, by this point in my sobriety, I kinda got what people who could believe in a man-in-the-sky type of God were supposed to do. They were told to pray to them often – perhaps even multiple times a day. They were supposed to give this God all their character defects when they were ready. They were to “allow the sunlight of the spirit” to speak through them whenever they were speaking to someone else. The way that these people could practice their spiritual life seemed way less complicated than what I was going to have to do. I didn’t really even know what I did have to do.
I talked to my sponsor about my dilemma and he explained it pretty quickly and easily to me. My practice would look practically identical to theirs, in fact. Whenever they prayed, I prayed. When they let things go to their higher power, I did too. When they spoke with the words of their God, I would too. The only difference was what we were talking to and who we were trusting in.
To make things easy for me, in my prayers, I used the Serenity Prayer, and broke down the different levels of it. It was simple. I could do this multiple times a day. What were the things I couldn’t change and how could I come to accept them? What were the things I could change and how could I go about doing them? Doing this reflection and sharing my thoughts with others granted me the last part: “The wisdom to know the difference.”
When I needed guidance on something in the beginning I felt awkward because I wasn’t confident about resting all my faith in a man in the sky. I was jealous of those that could. Fortunately, I had a very supportive group of individuals around me who would always listen to my fears. Moreover, I had a ‘Big Book’ that provided me with multiple tools I needed to learn which shaped my interactions and thoughts. I attended meetings where I could share about what I was thinking and feeling and was comforted by the fact that others could relate. Utilizing all of these, I found that I wouldn’t necessarily be any worse off than someone that actively believed in a religious God.
A Power That I Could Believe In
Moving through my own journey of sobriety, I was told that I needed to remain open minded, so I did. I never try to claim that I know anything for certain. The only thing that I know is that this conception of a higher power and utilization of spirituality (as well as a few other things not mentioned in this blog) worked for me and continue to work. At the end of the day, this is the most important. My sponsor and other people in my support group have continually told me that this ‘God of my Understanding’ is perfectly acceptable, so long as it never gets tainted by human defects. I try to stay diligent about talking to multiple people about it so that my spirituality doesn’t suffer from my own – or anyone else’s – character defects.
Spirituality in 12 Step programs is a personal journey that everyone should embark on if they truly want to change their life. It’ll be different for everyone which is part of the beauty of it. AA, my support group, and my sponsor are the things I credit for saving my life; Spirituality is what I credit for changing it.