If you’ve been through recovery, I’m wondering – how has your recovery been impacted (positively, negatively?) when the recovery culture dialogue turns to the almighty? It seems to happen a lot, and there’s a lot of faith-based stuff out there. And if that helps you recover, then I’m all for it! Everyone’s recovery will look a little different and be unique to them, and hope can be found in many different forms.
But for nonbelievers, the prevalence of religious language in recovery can present an additional hurdle – I know it did for me. Early in my recovery, before I got into more structured group therapy with a counselor, I was attending Twelve-Step groups that focused on eating disorders/disordered eating. I couldn’t recommend them for everyone, but it was what I needed at the time. I had hit an all-time low, and a friend told me about a group that met less than two miles away from where I lived downtown. I went the very next day, desperate for anything that might assuage the constant misery and physical discomfort I was in.
I honestly thought that I was going to go there, they would tell me what to do, I would do it and I would get better – just like going to the doctor and getting a prescription. I quickly found out that that wasn’t the case. But what I did find was a new perspective and a sense of hope – the people there spoke about their struggles with honesty and clarity, as well as an unexpected humility. One of the things emphasized in all Twelve-Step fellowships is admitting you don’t have control over everything, and as you work through that it can really give you some room to breathe. However, part of that admitting you don’t have control everything (a notion that often clashes with our Western sense of independence and individuality – but I challenge you to sneeze with your eyes open or to prevent the sun from setting) is turning that control over to a “Higher Power.”
At least, that’s what I said back when I was 19. It was less of a hurdle and more of a brick wall. I had never been comfortable with the personified notion of God. Just typing the word God I feel conflicted. As I write this, I debate if I should put it in quotes or make the ‘g’ lowercase. And back then, when the word ‘God’ was invoked in meetings or by friends, I would feel myself tune out because it’s something I just couldn’t relate to.
The concept of a Higher Power (HP for short) is intentionally vague in the fellowship groups to allow for as broad an interpretation as you like. Those who already had an established faith took the idea quickly, fitting HP into their Christian or Islamic traditions and finding additional insight into their struggles as they tapped into years of religious practice and understanding. Others found creative, non-religious ways to regard their HP. It could be anything, really. But no one can figure it out for you, because it’s quite personal.
I think that extreme personal nature of it is one of the reasons I was and am so resistant to even using the word ‘God’, because I don’t know that it’s possible for anyone to have the exact same definition or understanding as someone else. I was always afraid if I said it, someone would hear it through the understanding of their own religious practice and interpret what I said through that.
This is especially an issue in the West. The dialogue among atheists most often seems to be in reference to Christianity – which is somewhat understandable since it’s the predominant religion. But even if you completely reject Christianity, I’m not sure that all notions of spirituality or a higher power have to go out the door with it. Just like how if you have some life-changing moment and your belief in an HP is confirmed, I honestly don’t know what leads someone to attribute it directly to Jesus, Allah, or Zeus. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way – I just think there’s a bigger distance than we often acknowledge between a seemingly miraculous event and the embracing of a particular faith in response.
When I was younger and friends would talk about things they felt when they would pray or while they were in church, I used to envy them, because no matter how hard I tried, I never felt anything. Those dots never connected; the light switch never flicked on. I just felt silly. And I would envy those who said they did feel something because it felt like there was something wrong with me.
Never feeling any personal connection to it, I settled on agnosticism for awhile. But like the word ‘God’, I think agnosticism often means a little something different for everyone. It’s a vague term and is more a matter of negation – it does a good job of saying what you don’t believe, but doesn’t really do much in figuring what you do believe. I think I also settled on agnosticism because there is often stigma attached to outright rejecting religion and using the word ‘atheist’ to describe oneself. For those whose religion has a big influence on their lives, such a concept must seem so foreign and empty that they can’t even fathom it. And, even if you’re an atheist, I think there’s value in figuring out what you do believe. I also think that hope is universal and can be found in many different ways.
Hope for me is about finding intrinsic value in living, and finding ways that you can have a positive effect on others no matter how much things might not happen the way you want them to. Everyone suffers. Some of us suffer far greater than others, and some of us have very comfortable lives. But we all still suffer, and we all will eventually die. Some might think that’s a depressing thought, but I don’t. On the contrary, our common existence in those two things outweighs any superficial differences we might fight over. If we could all recognize our desire to avoid suffering as a universal desire in others, I think the world would be a much better place.
It’s that line of thought that helped me work towards defining a HP. If I didn’t care for myself first, I couldn’t be of any use to other people. And the people I met in those meetings gave me hope that I was capable of recovery too. If I didn’t believe in myself, then I never would have recovered.
It makes me wonder how religious language and faith-based programs influence recovery – particularly if you don’t regard the word ‘God’ as a proper noun. Have you ever found yourself held back when the G-word gets dropped, as though someone hit the breaks and suddenly you feel completely out of place? How have you dealt with it?