religion in recovery

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step Two

This is the third in a series of posts, in which we hope to inform our readers about some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend. There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.  Today, we're considering Step Two of the 12-step programs.

Step Two reads “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” The principle behind the second step is Hope — the driving force behind early sobriety.

The second step was an early stumbling block in my recovery. I had no difficulty with the “restore us to sanity” part. What I remembered of the insane ways I tried to live my life when I was using had already taken care of that. If I wasn't insane, why did I regularly drink until I was comatose? Why did I use drugs? Why did I allow my moral standards to slip? Why did I run roughshod through the lives of others, leaving carnage behind? Why did a guy with my brains and education do all that stuff? A sane person doesn't reach a point where he needs to be sitting in a room with a bunch of ex-drunks and -druggies, drinking bad coffee, smoking too many cigarettes, and worrying if he can stay sober and get his life straightened out. Did sane behavior get me there? Puh-leeze!

However, I was unwilling to admit that there was a power greater than myself.  When I was in treatment I told my therapist that he said, “OK. I want you to grab that chair over there (a lightweight folding chair) and carry it with you everywhere you go for the rest of the day.”

I lasted for about two hours, then went back to Ron and said, “OK. This thing’s driving me nuts. What’s your point?” He pointed out two things. The first was that I was powerless over the chair. It was clumsy to carry around, hard to get through doors, and a general pain in the butt no matter what I did, until I put it down. (A little first step lesson, there.) Then he made the real point: that I had done as he asked without question, proving that I was quite willing to perceive someone else as more powerful than myself, and to take suggestions.

Ron was a wise man, as well as a wise guy. In the simplest way possible, he made step two a walk in the park for me — without a chair. He made me understand that simply acknowledging that I couldn’t achieve what I needed to do alone, was accepting that I needed help from a higher power, and that my higher power could be the people who had already succeeded in doing what I needed to do.

So recovering people became my higher power. I kicked and yelled and left fingernail marks, but I let them show me how to stay sober. I believed that I couldn’t do it by myself, and that they could help me. I wanted what they had, and I was willing to go to the necessary lengths to get it. And it worked.

Accepting help, and the hope that comes with it, are pretty hard to avoid if we want to recover. If we are comfortable praying to a Higher Power, that’s fine, but the willingness to accept the folks who went before us as His or Her tools is still necessary. By the same token, lack of faith in God is no excuse (or, more accurately, an excuse is all it is). A higher power can be whatever we are willing to accept, as long as we admit that our best efforts got us to where we are, and that we have already proven that we can’t go it alone.

Questions from Newcomers: Will it be harder to recover if you don’t believe in God?

If we believe in a loving god who cares what happens to us, looks after us, and answers prayers, the peace that our belief brings will unquestionably be a great support in recovery.  On the other hand, if we believe that a god will take care of us simply because we ask, without our putting any effort into our recovery process, then it is quite possible that believing could hinder our recovery.  Likewise, if we were raised to believe in a harsh, punishing god who will make us pay for our transgressions, we may find that we are emotionally unable to deal with the implications and may so totally reject the “God Thing” (as many of us call it) that we end up throwing our recovery out with our religious beliefs.

We tell newcomers that their god can be a tree, doorknob or the group because, in reality, religion is a non-issue when it comes to the nuts and bolts of recovery.  In order to have a shot at recovering, we need to acknowledge that “our best thinking got us here,” (to quote another recovery cliché) and accept that we really don’t know how to do it.  That, in turn, leads to the inescapable conclusion that we need to stop trying to do things our way and let someone else help us.  This can be really hard for addicts and alcoholics who spent years defending their every behavior, but it is absolutely essential if we are going to escape our active addictions.

If we decide that “God as we understood Him” is the god of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, or one or more of the many gods associated with the Hindu faith, or the Wiccan goddess, that’s fine.  We can turn our will and our life over to the care of that entity, in the sense that we become humble enough to trust the recovery process, and listen to people who know what they’re talking about.  The comfort that we get from our beliefs will be a help as long as we don’t think that religion is all we need.

Recovery is about being honest with ourselves and those around us, open — both in the sense of accepting input from others and letting them know a little about who we are — and willing to “go to any lengths” to develop the qualities we need in order to recover.  It is about learning forgiveness, compassion, tolerance (even of people who believe differently from us), humility, acceptance, and the other things that are involved in living with and around other people.  It is about eventually becoming able to re-enter society and live a functional, productive life.  The “spirituality” that we talk about in recovery is not religion, it is the development of the human spirit.  It is about becoming comfortable in our own skin — about not needing to turn our brains off in order to achieve a reasonable degree of comfort, happiness and, occasionally, joy.  It is about learning that we don’t have to feel good all the time, and appreciating the times that aren’t so good along with the better ones.  After all, aren't most of them — even the bad ones — better than when we were using alcohol and other drugs?  The difference is that, like the rest of humanity, we're actually present in our lives, not hiding from them.

We can see that it is quite possible to achieve the qualities needed for recovery without believing in a metaphysical presence.  That is not to say that belief is not desirable or helpful, if that’s where our head is coming from, but many of us have recovered successfully without religious beliefs.    We also need to be really careful to insure that our objection to the beliefs of others (which are really none of our business) doesn't become an excuse to avoid the recovery process.  That's killed a lot of addicts.  Denial isn't a river in Africa.

“To thine own self be true” is the key.  Most of us were square pegs.  We need to learn that it’s OK — that we don’t have to fit into openings made for other shapes, and that we don't need chemicals for lubrication.  Learning that, and appreciating ourselves for who and what we really are, is what recovery is all about.