When Religion And Recovery Collide

There are two major 12-step based groups for alcohol. One is, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous. The other is Celebrate Recovery, which is Christian based. In order to comply with the “11th Tradition” (which I find both outdated and ridiculous, but that’s for another time), I will simply state that I am not in Celebrate Recovery. You can draw your conclusions about my recovery program from there.

June 2007: Two months into my sobriety. Sitting at a table at the normal Sunday morning post 12-step meeting gathering at the Corner Bakery. I’m angry. Agitated. Combative. Worried. I have no interest in the “spiritual” aspect of 12-step, which to me feels more like pure religious indoctrination, even if there is no specific faith to it.  It feels like it suffocates me in every meeting. Everyone joining hands to recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer to close each meeting (I stay silent during its recitation.) Talk of God. Talk of the “god of my understanding.”  Is there a difference? Read the Big Book. Work the Steps. It will all become clear to you. It sounds like jargon to me. I have to remember that even in 12-step, people are still people. There are competing views of what spirituality means. To some, it is inextricably tied to religious beliefs. There’s talk from a few in the groups about how no one can get sober if they don’t believe in God. My blood pressure goes up. I look at the clock, then the door. Talk of how the chapter in the Big Book entitled “We Agnostics” will make everything clear does not soothe me.  I don’t want to be told about any “god of my understanding” as a necessity to getting sober. It makes me feel sometimes as if 12-step isn’t right for me. But I have to look at the upside, and the upside is that I am two months sober. I can’t remember the last time I strung together two months without a drink. I try to focus on that. I focus on the support of my family and girlfriend who had stuck with me, despite the brutal betrayal of her trust.  I have to focus on the support of the group itself, of people who have been through some of the same things I’ve been through, and who have the power to make me feel less alone in my struggle.

The coffee is ordered. I’m sitting with two old timers. Let’s call them Zed and Emma. They have well over 50 years of sobriety between them. Zed also happens to be an attorney and retired judge with a very long and successful career. As I start to dig into my vegetarian omelet, Zed walks over to me and says in a near whisper, “Brian, Emma and I would like to speak to you privately.”

“Sure, let’s sit over here away from the group.”

Emma says, “Brian, if you want to stay sober, you need to accept god into your life.”

Cue the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. My body temperature rises, my temples pulse. The room is cool, but all of a sudden I’m sweating as if I’ve just done a couple of lines of blow.

“I’m not going to say that, Emma. It’s not what I believe. I’ve made that very clear in group.”

Zed says, “Brian, yes, you have, but you need to read and study the Big Book. Read the chapter entitled ‘We Agnostics.’ Brian, you’re a lawyer correct? So am I. Let’s approach this from a legal standpoint.”

“What does my being an attorney have to do with my belief or lack of belief in god? It’s no one’s business but mine.”

Brian, you understand how to logically approach things, and I’m telling you logically you need to acknowledge a god, any god. Just pick something, anything, and then say, ‘. . . otherwise known as god.’”

I swivel my head side to side to see if anyone else is catching this and wonder if I’m on some type of hidden camera reality show.

“I’ll consider it. Please feel free to finish my breakfast. Have a good day.”

There are certain moments in the trajectory of my addiction descent and recovery that I’ll always remember. The moment the bullies physically assaulted me because of my heavy weight and tore my pants off. That moment in the parking lot the psychiatric hospital when I decided that I was probably going to die and was going to lose my family if I did not take that first step toward recovery. The moment when two people who truly insisted that a belief in god was necessary to have long-term sobriety tried to shove religion down my throat as a prerequisite to recovery. It was a moment that felt like a threat to my whole plan of recovery, since 12-step was seeming like maybe an imperfect fit. But it was an important moment, because I pressed on anyway. Eventually finding a place in the room where I was able to calmly tune out that part and make recovery my own despite attempts of others to conform me to their version of recovery at a time when I was at my most vulnerable and in pain.

To be clear, that story is a criticism of the approach of two people, not 12-step. Recovery programs are programs of people, and when you’re interacting in recovery groups, regardless of type, there will be all kinds of personalities and agendas beyond just getting sober. Sides of the street become blurred and some cross over to tell others what your recovery should be without being asked, instead of working their own side of the street.

I get setbacks, and I understand dropping out from recovery programs. Whether it’s some self-righteous person in the 12-step group, the 12-step philosophy and mantra, family discord, stress, trauma, there is always a reason to not stay sober. It’s what happened in that moment when I could have used it as a reason to quit that defined me. I don’t go to that group anymore, but I did keep going back. Of course there are those whose religious faith is of extreme importance in their recovery, in and out of 12-step. There are those who find it a huge stumbling block and hypocritical.  Let there be no mistake, in my opinion. AA is a religious program.  I frankly don’t see how a group can recite the Lord’s Prayer and say it’s not religious with a straight face, but many do find ways to breach that type of institutional intellectual dishonesty. To be fair, there are secular AA groups in some cities such as Dallas, but it’s not a position endorsed by the organization which has been accused of de-listing such meetings. A position seemingly more concerned with protecting the mantra than improving the outcomes. I am a humanist. I will continue to attend meetings. I will not join with the group in reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity prayer. It’s how I live and pay it forward that matters to me, not dogma handed down over 70 years.  My anecdotes are not science, but regardless, recovery must evolve. I hope one day 12-step will evolve with it, at a minimum, by doing away with the intellectual dishonesty that at least anecdotally, I know has driven people out of the program and kept some looking for recovery from going in. Religious conflict has a way of doing that. “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” or “look how many they help” are not justifications for stagnancy. Look at the numbers of people dying from both alcohol and opiates. We should always be looking for ways to improve outcomes. Every moment. Every minute. Every second. 12-step included.