Recovering Without God
Staying Sober Without God
Chapter Three: Recovering Without God
What is Recovery?
Before we start getting into the secular approach to recovery, it’s probably a good idea to talk about what the term “recovery” even means. As far as this book goes, “recovery” is defined as the life-long process of improving your overall mental and emotional health so as to minimize the harm and suffering you inflict on yourself and others. While the goal for many of you is likely to stay sober, I want to emphasize that the absence of destructive behaviors is just one point on an otherwise endless journey of self-improvement. If all you care about is not using, these methods can get you there, but just know that they can continue to benefit you for the rest of your time on Earth, far beyond just achieving a state of not wanting to get high.
Recovery is not an event or a finite process; it’s a lifestyle. It requires fundamental changes to be made to the way you look at and interact with the world and the people in it. Knowing this, it’s understandable to see why so many people think that a drastic spiritual experience is a necessary part of recovery. A spiritual awakening usually changes a person’s priorities, self-image, and beliefs about the world in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, such spiritual experiences often require an act of faith, and even people capable of such acts of faith don’t often experience the “white light” spiritual awakenings that create big change in a short amount of time.
More often, this type of transformative experience takes place slowly as one continues to make small, incremental steps towards improving themselves. It often starts through interaction with healthy people, which is why meetings have a lot to offer. That being said, you can certainly start this work on your own. All it takes is a willingness to try something new and make a small effort every day to engage in new habits and behaviors. Though I believe the 12 steps leave some important things out, they are actually a great place to start, which is why I base this book on them. In the following chapter, I will explain the basic purpose of each of the 12 steps along with the principles that make them effective.
Will I Fully Recover or Will I Always Be Recovering?
If I had a dollar for every time I heard 12-step members arguing about this, I’d have a fair amount of dollars. I’ve overhead (and been involved in) a few arguments about whether recovery is a life-long process or a finite process that we can finish. Some will insist that recovery never ends, while some will tell you that working the steps will get you fully recovered. As you might have guessed, the answer to this question is not so black-and-white. The members of AA who state that we can fully recover are referring to recovering from what is described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as “a hopeless state of mind and body.” The members of AA who state that recovery is everlasting are referring to the fact that we are constantly striving towards abstract ideals that we will never achieve perfectly.
If you think about it, both of these things can be true. We can get to a point in our recovery where we are no longer experiencing certain kinds of suffering, in which case it makes sense to say we’ve recovered from a certain state of mind. We can also never get to a place in our life where we have achieved perfection and have no more room for improvement, in which case it makes sense to say we will always be recovering. The argument of recovered vs. recovering is an unnecessary source of disagreement in the program. We can recover, and we will always be recovering. It’s not as complicated as some people make it out to be, so don’t get caught up on it.
Why the 12 Steps?
You may be wondering why I would choose to stick with a 12-step format rather than just creating my own program from scratch. Despite the problems with 12-step programs and some of the messages in the meetings, the original 12 steps actually have a lot of wisdom in them. The truth is that very few of the ideas outlined in the 12 steps were genuinely new ideas at the time. Many of them were adapted from a group known as The Oxford Group. The steps even share some very common-sense principles with the eightfold path in Buddhism. The psychological and “spiritual” concepts that evolved into the 12 steps have lasted for as long as they have because there is something in them that works. While the religious and supernatural aspects of the 12 steps are not a good fit for many, it’s important not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. If you’re able to look past the less desirable stuff, you’ll see there’s quite a bit of material in the original 12 steps that makes practical sense.
The basic path of the steps goes something like this: you start with admitting you have an issue that needs fixing. Afterwards, you accept that you can’t fix it all by yourself. You then commit to seeking outside help. Once you do that, you begin doing some inner work, starting with looking at all your resentments, fears, and guilt. You confess these to someone you trust, who then helps you look at what personal qualities enable you to engage in these unhealthy behaviors. The undesirable qualities are listed, and you make efforts to be rid of them. After you’ve made peace with yourself, you then make amends to those you’ve hurt. You maintain the results of this process by engaging in regular maintenance behaviors like meditation, self-reflection, and service.
That doesn’t sound so crazy, does it? The foundation of the classic 12 steps is fairly solid. There’s a reason it seems to have helped so many people. Unfortunately, it comes with so much baggage that it turns a lot of people away. In addition to that, it frames some of the changes it creates in a way that is disempowering rather than empowering. The wording of the steps often leads to people believing that all good things in their lives are a result of God, and all (or most) bad things are a result of them not being in line with God’s will for them. It’s not uncommon for people to grow resentful of this message and rebel against it, and I don’t particularly blame them.
Staying Sober Without God is an approach to the 12 steps that empowers the individual, reframes spiritual changes as real-world psychological events, and adds a few concrete actions that can aid in the lifestyle and personality changes needed to bring about lasting recovery. They are devoid of anything outside the realm of the natural world. Rather than requiring the help of the supposed creator of the universe, we are building confidence in our own ability to rewire our brains, establish new behavior patterns, and make the choice to live a better life.
For an excellent review of the book, click here: Staying Sober Without God.
Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.
Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.
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To visit Jeffrey’s website, click here: Practically Sane.