We live in an age where the addictive use of drugs, and drug-related deaths, are at an epidemic – it has even been declared as such in the U.S. recently. And there are plenty of international campaigns working hard to change the stigma attached to substance abuse, increase access to treatment, and improve resources.
These campaigns work to raise awareness about chemical dependency, treatment options, and life in recovery. While we’re progressing by addressing stigma, are we still adhering to one misconception when it comes to getting clean and sober – the notion that we must find God to succeed in recovery?
It’s a well known fact that, if you suffer with a substance abuse problem, a meeting isn’t far away. After all, 12-step meetings are now global. In 2017, there were an estimated 117,000 meetings world-wide, with an approximate membership of over 2 million. They’ve helped save a lot of lives by providing a program of recovery: the 12-Steps. In fact, they helped me save my own life.
There’s no denying a 12-step modality works for many. But it will only work if you find a higher power – what they describe in their literature as God. While supposedly a non-religious program, the founding members of AA were Christians; God (and related words) are mentioned 400 times in the Big Book.
Fake it Until You Make it…
Unfortunately, many think having faith in a “Higher Power” is the only way; they somehow feel their recovery falls short if they’re unable to summon the belief in something which simply isn’t aligned with their views. I’ve seen people wince at those words, while others put the words to one side in a last-ditch effort – where all other efforts have failed – to try anything that works.
I’ve been in recovery for over five years. During that time, I began a 12-step fellowship. I was desperate, sick, and willing to do anything that stopped me from killing myself. I was one of the ones who put the ‘god part’ to one side – I overlooked the words. But I struggled to swallow them as I read the words repetitively while working through the program. It made me uncomfortable, to say the least.
But, in the insanity of my early recovery, I tried to embrace the idea of God. I even went to church and wholeheartedly tried to like the idea of having a universal support and He knew what was best for me. However, as I awakened and gained a sense of sanity, some uncomfortable feelings bubbled to the surface. I felt stupid and easily swayed. My feelings were compounded by an internal sense that the Steps just weren’t for me; I felt there was too much emphasis on amending bad/addictive behavior. I believed I needed to improve my self-esteem, rather than conform to a set of steps written by men in 1939. They lacked real-life relatability.
My A-ha Moment
It was only after speaking to friends in the online recovery community that I gained awareness of the millions of people out there who don’t utilize the 12-steps. There are people in long-term recovery with five, ten, even 20 years of sobriety under their belts that don’t use the Steps. That blew my mind.
I’d felt so confined and had, to some extent, thought my recovery would be stuck in that model for the rest of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the 12-steps lifted me up and helped me help myself. But there came a point where I had to empower myself and my recovery. I began to make choices; I began to realize I choose my actions and behaviors, not some elusive Higher Power that I didn’t believe in.
With the knowledge there were people in successful long-term recovery without God, I broke free from the 12-steps. I educated myself about substance abuse, the biology of my brain, and how I could re-wire addictive behaviors. I formed a holistic approach to my recovery, which includes:
Alternatives to the 12-Steps
I missed one element though – perhaps the most powerful of all: community and the empathy found within. I’m not alone in this; an atheist friend of mine, who chooses an empowered means of recovery, finds the most helpful thing for her recovery is to remember whatever she’s feeling, someone else has felt the same thing. “Me too” has been the most powerful and helpful phrase for her. I completely relate to this; community and empathy are a fundamental aspect of my recovery.
I began to do some research into other recovery group modalities and found several options, such as:
SMART: Self-management for addiction recovery
LifeRing: Secular, peer-run support groups
Refuge Recovery: A non-theistic approach to recovery – based on Buddhist principles
I looked at availability in my area and what resonated with me the most. I decided to check out a Refuge Recovery meeting. I fell in love with their approach. While not intended as the sole source of my recovery, it provided me with community, empathy, a support group format, a quiet space dedicated to recovery, a meditation I can commit to, and some really valuable lessons.
The more I talk about this subject, the more I see (and celebrate) the fact that everyone recovers in their own way. I respect that. It has become glaringly obvious there are millions in recovery without God.