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.