Recovery is Relative to the Individual
By Zarina Macha
Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most incredible things I’ve done. It has given me much joy, love, peace, clarity and goodness and I am in great awe to the original founders of this life-changing program. It has captured the hearts of millions, saved many from a life of misery and addiction, and brought us back to ourselves.
This doesn’t mean that it is perfect and cannot be amended in any way. The very reason this website exists is due to the vast number of AAs who struggle with the theological elements of this program. AA is amazing, but the one-size-fits-all-approach does not apply to everyone. It needs to be tailored to the individual, otherwise it can result in feeling out of place, uncomfortable and in my case, even unhappy.
I know surrendering to an interventionist Higher Power is essential to many in the rooms, and I went through phases of trying to ‘fit in’, pretending to care deeply about the HP concept. I tried to call my HP air, nature, the universe, writing, humility, reason, my inner conscience. Truthfully, I thought AA would just be my HP and that would be enough – I could then get on with the actual important stuff like making amends, changing my self-destructive behavioural habits, meditating daily, avoiding unnecessary drama, all those good orderly doings.
But while most say your Higher Power can be anything, even AA, they do encourage it to ‘develop’ into an actual ‘God of your understanding.’ A sentient, theological entity that you communicate with in your head. What is described as a ‘spiritual experience’ is really a re-wiring of the brain and a new outlook on life due to not having a mind-altering substance polluting our neurons. I see ‘spiritual’ as a fancy word for inner peace and staying connected to a greater sense of being. I call it oneness, love, universal energy; some people see it as a literal, personified God that they communicate directly with. I can see the comfort in that (I used to believe that myself years ago) and I can see how it is less ‘abstract’ than simply believing in an intangible ‘force.’
So when I look at people in the rooms who discuss their spiritual experiences and the joy gained from this program, I think to myself; ‘does it matter how we define our levels of spiritual oneness, whether it be through a theological personified ‘God’ or simply a universal energy that flows through us all? Aren’t we all really describing the same thing anyway; we were all broken in some shape of form, and this program helped mend us?’ My sense of spiritual oneness is not that different from most in the rooms. I connect to it when I meditate or close my eyes and have quiet time, or look up in wonder at the trees and the sun and stars and think how beautiful our natural world is.
To criticize and mock other people’s beliefs would make me callous and intolerant, thus going against my program. But I don’t want to succumb to the ‘peer pressure’ of trying to adhere to beliefs and ideals that make no sense to me. It’s not because I am ‘rigid’, or ‘closed-minded’, or because I don’t particularly want to. I just don’t. I believed in a deistic god for fifteen years until I realised it was just me talking to myself – and I think I knew that all along. Ironically, I became more interested in self-help and spiritual wellbeing after I called myself an agnostic atheist and accepted a greater force in our universe as opposed to an interventionist ‘Creator’.
For those struggling with the HP aspect of the program, I would say not to worry too much about it. If you find it uncomfortable or odd or struggle to see the relevance of it, I advise not to make too much out of it. As long as you accept help from others outside of you (the people in the rooms, the steps), that is enough. You don’t have to surrender your life to a god you don’t believe in; the steps are suggestions only and they were written by middle-aged Christian white men in 1939 America. I’m sure Bill would have welcomed updates to his amazing program by simply saying ‘we accepted help from an outside source; some of us call it God, others simply the power of others in the rooms, or the power within us.’
And thinking of the founders of AA and the context by which this program was built; these were men who were broken from years of drinking, who lost all will to live. I’ve noticed AA can mirror a person’s lifestyle and attitude before and after drinking. Those who were consumed by alcohol, who came in utterly broken, who had never so much as dabbled in any kind of spirituality before and had no idea they were alcoholics, tend to flip (for the better!) once in recovery.
The Twelve Steps form the backbone of their lives, and they believe they were saved by the love and care of their Higher Power. These are some of the happiest, most loving people and when they speak of ‘God’s love’, they just want everyone else to feel what they feel because they were so broken beforehand. Thus, it is no wonder surrendering all their will to an interventionist God is so important for them.
But my drinking was an extension of my depression and anxiety which affect me far more severely than alcoholism ever did. I have felt broken and empty inside regardless of being drunk or sober – alcohol made me feel worse, but it did not swoop down and destroy every part of my life (although I understand it would had I continued). My time in AA has mirrored my drinking (which lasted from mid-2015-to-late 2016 – I was nineteen when entering the rooms, eighteen when I was an active alcoholic). Uncertain, tentative, unsure of wanting to continue, aware of the effect it had on me. (I tried to stop many times by myself or ‘control’ my drinking).
The key difference is that while drinking had an extremely negative effect on me, AA has had an extremely positive effect on me. My chronic drinking habit stopped once I worked the Twelve Steps; (and after a couple of brief relapses) realising I don’t need alcohol; all it did was numb me out and I feel much more alive when sober. However, depression and anxiety are problems I still battle with, and while it’s easier to deal with them sober, it hasn’t made them vanish.
Nevertheless, these steps do work, and they work whatever your drinking. AA has shaped me as a person and as a woman. It has taught me how to handle life; how to not sweat the little things, how to stay on my side of the street, that resenting others for little things is a waste of time, that it’s important to consider and tolerate all points of view, that there is no ‘right’ answer or one correct way of doing things, that so much happens outside of our control, that my ‘best’ judgement is not always correct, that I do sometimes know what’s right and can make rational and level-headed decisions, and the heavy importance of looking at your part in things.
Bill W. was very progressive and would gladly have welcomed any modern amendments to the Big Book or indeed the Twelve Steps. The core messages of the Steps are very simple: acceptance, gratitude, humility, forgiveness and letting go. Learning that love comes from within and shines outwards, and that everything has its place. I definitely believe we are all connected and everything happens for a reason – and I had lots of these beliefs before I came to AA, they just perhaps weren’t as clearly defined or understood.
To thine own self be true. Listen to your heart, do what works for you, and try not to worry too much about pleasing others. This is YOUR program, and you must do what works for YOU. Many need to go forever, but not all of us do, and it’s perfectly fine to seek help outside of the rooms through therapy, SMART Recovery, LifeRing, yoga, or anything else that helps. I have my whole life ahead of me and who knows, maybe a time will come when I won’t need to go to AA every week. I know it will always be there for me and has given me the basis to live a healthy life. But your inner self – your real inner ‘power’ – keeps you going, day by day. So listen carefully.
Zarina Macha is a musician, author and blogger from London, England. She started attending AA at the age of nineteen in late 2016, after worrying that drinking would ruin her musical and literary aspirations. She studied Songwriting and Creative Artistry at university in Guildford while embarking on the journey of the twelve-step recovery program.
She lives in London and currently attends only secular meetings and occasionally SMART Recovery meetings. She identifies as an agnostic/atheist, or secular humanist, and supports the addition of more literature aimed at non-believers to be brought into AA, especially to help young people struggling with the patriarchal and theological aspects of the Big Book.
She has written three books; one book of poetry and two books of contemporary young-adult fiction that deal with mental illness, domestic abuse and teenage struggles. More information about her can be found on her website and blog: Zarina Macha.
Un gran saludo a todos, yo tengo la certeza y creo en Dios, No en un Dios de religión, sino en un Dios de espiritual, como yo lo entiendo, pero me da gusto leerlos y créanme que respeto mucho su manera de pensar y sobre todo cuando hablan de Recuperación, Unidad y Servicio. Yo les de deseo todo corazón que sean felices así como son. Gracias por compartir sus experiencias. Un enorme abrazo.
My first meeting was in 1972; sobriety began in 8/26/89. For the 1st 15 years I was a devout Catholic. In the course of my spiritual journey, that faith failed rigorous examination, leading to exploring all other religions. They also failed the evidence tests. So I was agnostic for approximately 3 – 5 years, and am now an atheist whose Higher Power is reality, small “r”.
While the assumption in the Big Book is that sobriety leads to a supernatural god, the opposite occurred for me during this journey.
The program is NOT limited to 164 pages in any book. A reading of Bill’s essay ‘On Faith’ in either The Language of The Heart, or The Best of Bill shows that at least one of the founders (actually both of them) was also on a spiritual journey. Tolerance grew. Understanding that beliefs in supernatural interventions were unneeded occurred.
Were it not for this, and other later writings, I would have left the AA program for another method of maintaining my sobriety.
My home group, a beginner’s meeting Thursday nights in Hornell, NY, closes with the Responsibility Statement. Instead of How It Works, we read the first 3 paragraphs of More About Alcoholism. My sponsees have a wide variety of HPs and beliefs. It’s one alcohol addict working with another one. It works. Works well, ODAAT.
BTW, I love this site. Thanks for all the work involved.
Wow, thank you so much for these wonderful comments! I’m so pleased this article resonated with all of you. Let’s keep passing on the message!
If the steps are as simple as five key concepts, why are there 12 of them?
Ron, I kind of like 8 myself: honesty, openmindedness, willingness, humility, service, living by the golden rule, acceptance, and gratitude, but there could be 5 or 10 or 16. I think 12 goes nicely with the 12 disciples and such, 12 hours in the day, It’s one of those numbers that lend weight to the program in a way that 11 probably wouldn’t. That wouldn’t have been lost on Bill, he was a salesman.
Thank you for this well written article, and it is really good to see a young person here. And such a good writer too, we need that, not only us old folks repeating ourselves.
Excellent article! Thank you and best wishes. You are fortunate to have come in so young.
We should always remember that the steps are the program within the fellowship.
Great read Zarina! My feelings and thoughts in relation to recovery and AA are very similar to yours. It’s fantastic that you’ve chosen a sober way of life and found meetings/people/principles that support this. I also live in the UK, but in market town up near Manchester. Check out my recovery blog I’m sure you’ll find plenty that resonates with you… 12 Step Philosophy.
Excellent article. Not everyone in AA realizes just how ahead of his time Bill W was. I don’t think mainstream America was doing much meditating in the nineteen thirties. Bill’s genius was hiding the eastern philosophy behind the curtain. AA invariably ends up being whatever a member wants it to be… for some it’s a lifelong luxury cruise for others it’s dragging a cross up a hill. Personally I like sitting on the deck near the pool.
Good stuff, this! Thanks for the honest clarity!
Thank you for a very well-written and thought out essay on the importance of honoring individuality in 12 Step programs. The Steps as written are a description of the experience of those people in the 1930’s who met up in the Oxford group for the purpose of staying sober and helping others. Of course, they would write out their experience influenced by their environment. It is also important to remember that the page in the book is static, but the human who put those words to put was not. People evolve and their beliefs often change over time.
I have come to the conclusion that the process of recovery when we come together for that purpose is essentially the same for most of us, but we all have unique perspectives that we bring when we communicate the experience to others.
I’ve evolved over time. If the things that I said in AA meetings 30 years ago were written in a book, I would hate for people to believe that I 30 years later still describe my experience in those terms.
When a person shares their experience in AA, I respect that as their experience. I listen to them and I’m there in the room to support them in their desire to stop drinking.
Personally, I no longer use spiritual language to describe my recovery, but I don’t criticize those who do. What I have experienced in the States unfortunately is that people have not respected my experience as I now understand it and describe it. Again, like you say, which is why sites like this exist.
Thanks again for a really well-written essay. It’s an important contribution to the library here at AA Agnostica.
Bill Wilson wrote that AA is an imperfect program filled with imperfect people. It cannot be everything to everybody. I consider myself an atheist but I just change the words in AA to fit me. As you wrote it can be amended, I do that in my head and to people I sponsor who aren’t into God.
When I found this website I was excited to find a group of like minded people but I don’t hear tales of recovery all I keep reading is the perceived flaws of AA, how bad some not well recovered AA people are, and how the book needs to be changed. Cant we direct the articles on this site more toward recovery!
WOW SIMPLY PUT, MY EXACT THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. CHEERS.
JOHNNY. NEVADA USA
Thank you so much for this! You articulated exactly how I feel, sometimes I have difficulty expressing it, especially when people say things like: I used to be like you but I found god, or CS Lewis used to be an atheist, I accept other people’s beliefs but just wish people would simply accept mine.
I drank copiously to deal with anxiety and depression as well. I’ve found myself thinking (well, I read it somewhere) that I have a higher purpose to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. I also like to say resource instead of higher power, that AA is a resource I can draw on to help keep me sober.
Good word – “resource”. Thanx.
Thanks for the level headed sharing. I just turned 60 and have been drug and alcohol free since 19 years old. I attended a variety of meetings. I like to share that I’m a born again cosmic naturalist / agnostic / part time Buddhist & Taoist. Also have attended meetings from Argentina, Churchill Manitoba , Singapore, Israel, France and Finland just to name a few.
Peace Bill G. Traverse City Michigan. Love this site. 🤓
So beautifully and wisely written, Zarina. Thank you.