By Mahala Kephart
LifeRing Board of Directors
A Clever, Reassuring Device
It seems to me that the Higher Power notion can work if you absolutely don’t think about it. It’s a clever, bright, reassuring device. Just shut your eyes tight, believe it, and don’t ask questions. Once you lift the cover and peek at the wiring, you see that the batteries that make the Higher Power light up are in your own head. The Higher Power is nothing and does nothing unless you make it so: it is your own sober desire that supplies its energy.
Once you understand that you are the mechanism that makes it work, you can no longer believe in the notion of the Higher Power. But then, you no longer need it: you have found the sober power within yourself.
Martin Nicolaus, LifeRing founder
How Was Your Week?, LifeRing Press, 2003
Choosing Secular Sobriety
A secular approach to recovery allows individuals freedom of choice in following whatever religious or spiritual paths they wish to explore. Because LifeRing does not promote religious concepts in published materials, and because we avoid religious practices of any sort in our meeting formats, LifeRing provides a safe environment for individuals of any and every spiritual belief system, including, importantly, non-belief.
In the early stages of recovery, it seems especially critical to us that individuals be encouraged to conserve mental energy and focus that energy on making abstinence and sobriety the priority in all aspects of their lives. In the words of one counselor, “Early recovery is hard work enough. When we ask people to also take on the issues of spirituality, oftentimes it’s just too much for them.”
Medical science now offers a wide choice of treatment modalities for most health conditions, combined with an increasing focus on individualized medicine. Doesn’t it stand to reason that treatment for chemical dependency would be likely more effective it, too, were able to offer an array of treatment approaches tailored to meet individual needs and circumstances?
If given the choice, only a small fraction of the American public would choose a faith-based treatment protocol to combat a life-threatening medical condition. At LifeRing, we wonder why addiction treatment should be viewed any differently.
When sobriety is described to the addicted individual in a simple negative construction of “the subtraction of alcohol or drugs from your life” often expressed in ways that carry sinful overtones, the addicted individual, in turn, sees the prospect of sobriety and long-term recovery as nothing but a scary, gaping void.
Which is of course ironic, because it is substance addiction that creates the void as it systematically shackles the human spirit, poisons every bodily system, tortures the emotions, and impoverishes the intellect. It is when alcohol or other mind-altering, addictive drugs are taken out of the equation that what emerges is usually a wonderful, miraculous, precious, and capable human being.
Being the Protagonist of Your Own Recovery
In LifeRing, the recovering person — that miraculous, precious, capable human being — is considered the protagonist of their own recovery. We define abstinence from alcohol and drugs as a practical, doable project and encourage each individual to take this project into their own hands, and with hard work and perseverance, rebuild their life.
Most people begin their recovery journey following a long, painful struggle between their sober and addicted selves. That internal struggle, a series of battles, really, rages on unabated until the sober side acquires a decisive superiority of force and begins winning those battles and, eventually, the war.
Most people also begin their recovery journey somewhat lucky to still be alive. They may have achieved and accomplished many things while in the throes of active addiction, but for many, simply staying alive and being able to begin a recovery journey at all is an achievement of extraordinary magnitude.
In LifeRing, we believe individuals can and must learn to stop ingesting addictive substances before worrying what to call themselves or wrestling with their religious or spiritual beliefs. In LifeRing we are united by the practice of a behavior — abstinence. That we lived long enough to begin the recovery journey at all should probably be accorded more awe and respect than is our societal norm.
To us, the idea of starting out one’s recovery journey by focusing on shortcomings, deficiencies, and lost opportunities seems counterproductive. In LifeRing, we encourage individuals to focus, instead, on cutting their losses, focusing on their assets, and moving forward with their lives. Yes, there may be some messes to clean up, and individuals in recovery may have to make up for lost time, but in that, are we so different from most of humanity? What is different about those of us in recovery is that our internal addictive substance control units are burned out and gone.
Apart from that, we’re pretty much like the ordinary human being. And all human beings need connection. In LifeRing, we encourage conversational engagement, and forging focused, sober, purposeful connections with others. In such an environment, the sober self — with all its potentialities — can surface in a stable, resilient manner.
Conversation Breeds Connection
We believe conversation drives connection. A typical LifeRing meeting might look like a group of friends — relaxed, sober, spontaneous, secure — sitting around a table, or in a circle of some sort, talking about the current concerns in their lives. We encourage individuals to ask questions if something is unclear, or respond to the questions of others if they feel they have something to contribute.
LifeRing participants report greater engagement in this type of meeting than in meetings that do not allow for respectful give-and-take between participants. They report that tool-sharing and collective work fortifies their analytical and intellectual selves, and the supportive conversational atmosphere supplies emotional sustenance. This, they have reported over and over, is a combination that facilitates their all-around growth and competence in sobriety.
The underlying assumption of the LifeRing meeting format is that recovery is a work in progress, and that participation in the group is both a privilege and a mark of self-respect. We provide encouragement and support for each individual to build a personal recovery program that works for them. The Recovery by Choice Workbook, published by LifeRing Press, lays out a series of secular sobriety tools and checklists in the context of nine work areas, or domains. The workbook is used individually and by some LifeRing groups, in both structured and unstructured formats — allowing individuals and working groups to focus on areas of immediate concern and to save others for completion, or reflection, later. Some individuals who participate in LifeRing also choose to participate in other sobriety support groups, including traditional twelve-step groups, because such involvement offers them additional tools and connections that strengthen their sober selves.
Individuals who have become addicted to chemical substances are often said to be a special case, or class, of people, powerless to manage their lives. In LifeRing, we believe the addicted person is not powerless to learn and maintain abstinence. The addicted individual may have to struggle, but so long as they keep addictive substances out of their body, that individual can, and will, prevail.
Addiction research has consistently demonstrated that no treatment modality brings lasting improvement unless it mobilizes an individuals’s own natural, inherent recovery resources. In LifeRing, every individual is encouraged to select and assemble a personal set of sobriety tools appropriate to their particular needs at any point in time; to choose freely from among the ideas and reflections of others; and to discard tools that didn’t prove to work for them, or tools they no longer need.
So it is that in LifeRing, each participant can say, “No one else has a program precisely like this one. It works for me because I built it myself; I know it intimately; I own it and I operate it; I made it; it is mine.” With those feelings come investment, commitment, motivation, and hard work.
The LifeRing approach isn’t — and will never be — for everyone. But once sober — abstinent — we believe we can stop merely surviving and begin to live again, shaking off our inner addict’s plan for our life and forging a new path. In LifeRing, we believe we can do more than just get through the day. We can seize it.
Carpe diem! Sobrietas Contra Spiritus.
LifeRing is an abstinence-based, worldwide network of individuals seeking to live in recovery from addiction to alcohol or to other, non-medically indicated drugs. In LifeRing, we offer each other peer-to-peer support in ways that encourage personal growth, continued learning, and personal empowerment. Our approach is based on developing, refining, and sharing our own personal strategies for continued abstinence and crafting a rewarding life in recovery.
Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area more than a decade ago, LifeRing has grown to include more than 150 face-to-face meetings, and supports several vibrant on-line communities with participants from, quite literally, around the world. LifeRing is a 501(c)(3) organization, governed by a nine-member board of directors, all of whom are practicing sobrietists. LifeRing holds an annual meeting and Congress in May of each year in which board member elections and policy decisions are acted upon democratically, with each meeting and on-line venue represented by an individual elected to vote on its behalf. The LifeRing Service Center is located in Oakland, California.
Mahala is a musician by training. Her career was spent in university fundraising and fundraising management. She is now in active recovery from addiction to alcohol, and credits her involvement with LifeRing for giving her recovery serious traction. She will tell you, without hesitation, that regaining the voice and actions of her sober self has been the hardest work she has ever done. But also the most rewarding. A member of the board of directors of LifeRing, she lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is an active member of the local recovery community.