Higher Power Blues
Like many who got clean and sober in a 12-Step program, I was a satisfied customer for many years. In the years following, my life changed dramatically. My relationships improved, my work productivity skyrocketed, and I eagerly took on service positions, sponsored others and became involved in all sorts of recovery-related activities. I had a great sponsor who was practically a legend in the community, and I could think of no greater honor than paying forward what I had received.
Though it only became clear in retrospect, there was still something missing. I’ve come to call this a plateau or “glass ceiling” of recovery. While things in my life had certainly gotten better overall, I still battled periodic depression and anxiety, for which I sought professional help, as did many of my friends in the program. This being the case, of course I put it down as being part of the “wreckage of the past” that would probably dissipate as I progressed in recovery.
Unfortunately, as I approached 15 years clean and sober, I noticed that these things were not dissipating; in fact, they were getting worse. Many of the areas of my life that I dearly wanted to improve were not improving, despite my best efforts in and out of the program. This culminated in what would probably have been diagnosed as a nervous breakdown, had I bothered to get diagnosed. By then, I was sick of antidepressants (I’d probably been prescribed most on the market at one time or another), mistrusting of those in the mental health profession, and disgusted with the program, wherein the focus always seemed to be placed squarely on what I was not doing or doing wrong.
I shattered completely. It seemed as though all the progress I’d made was swept away. Every resentment I’d resolved flowered anew. Everyone I’d forgiven, I condemned once more. Though I hadn’t been raised with religion, I’d been a member of a religious body for most of my adult life; now, I hated God more than anyone, with the possible exception of myself.
Coming Up: Bottom Number Two!
I didn’t know it then, but I was in the throes of a different bottom, as it is described in another 12-Step program I discovered that’s tailored to adult children of alcoholics and the sufferers of unresolved childhood trauma. This bottom was far scarier than my first, and even included a weekend in the local ICU. I also managed to find a therapist who was well-versed in unresolved trauma, having done their own work in this area. I found it very interesting that during all the time I spent in recovery, I’d never heard this other program mentioned by anyone, despite having run my history past many a mental health professional.
Having been raised by an abusive alcoholic, of course I’d acknowledged being an adult child for many years—but I obviously had no understanding of what that truly meant. Like many of us, I mistakenly presumed that things would be fine once I’d gotten away from my family of origin. Now, in my mid-fifties, I was pathologically hypervigilant, depressed and suffered from crushing anxiety. I was borderline unemployable, and often suicidal.
Some time after I started work in the new program, my therapist diagnosed me with Complex PTSD, which will probably come as no surprise to some readers. Later on, I found it quite curious that web searches for “Complex PTSD” returned nearly identical characteristics to the new program’s boilerplate list of symptoms. I also learned that my alcoholic father, since deceased, had been a malignant narcissist as well as an alcoholic, which had no doubt exacerbated his destructive behavior.
A Crisis of Faith, or a Faith of Crisis?
During most of my tenure in recovery, the godhead of my religious belief had served as my Higher Power. It was also that to which I attributed my recovery. However, when I approached the idea of engaging with a Higher Power in the new program, I balked. I wanted nothing to do with God, nor any ostensibly benevolent celestial being.
In this program, I read that the impediment to our effectively engaging with God was a function of our unresolved trauma, and that once we’ve resolved the trauma (via doing the work in the program), we would finally be able to have the relationship with God that we’ve wanted all along.
Well, I wasn’t buying. Mine wasn’t a case of some spoiled, entitled child who was miffed because they didn’t get to play in the NBA or didn’t win the Powerball. I’d been a committed believer to my faith for decades, someone who had weathered some really hard times and been able to contextualize adversity in a reasonably healthy way, forge ahead and accomplish a few things most people just don’t have the fortitude to accomplish.
The God I’d been taught to honor and worship was all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing and all-loving. Thus, it was self-evident that this being saw fit to watch dispassionately as, in recovery, I approached the gates of gibbering, giggling insanity despite my best efforts. The only accounting for these inconsistencies came from within the doctrine itself; at that point, these amounted to nothing more than empty religious platitudes. Everything that I’d been taught to believe in my religion—and even in the quasi-religious milieu of the program I’d stayed clean and sober in for 15 years—had been proven false in my experience, quod erat demonstrandum.
I was essentially faced with three options:
- God was a cruel, capricious being,
- Everything I’d been taught to believe about God was untrue or,
- God simply didn’t exist.
Recovering adult children often have a great deal of anger, and I had this in spades. Not only was I angry about what had occurred when I was growing up, I was enraged over how it had essentially cheated me out of everything to which I’d aspired for most of my life. On my worst days, I wanted to die. There were days when I thought I might wind up on a rooftop with a rifle, and others when I dearly wished to see the whole world burn.
So there I was—committed to make a go of this new 12-Step program because I knew the Steps worked, but in a sort of spiritual limbo around who or what I’d be relying upon to aid in my recovery.
Now, it’s been pretty well-established that overthinking the whole Higher Power concept can be a serious impediment to recovery, particularly for someone in the early stages of recovering from a chemical addiction. And we’ve all heard the stories of people adopting all manner of obscure things as their Higher Power until they could get their heads above water in their respective program, a method that can actually be helpful. But for someone who’d been around 12-Step for a long time and suffered this deep a crisis of faith, it was a challenging proposition to say the least.
Despite a more generic Higher Power being encouraged in nearly all 12-Step programs, in many meetings, one hears the term “God” and benevolent characterizations of God so often, you’d think you were in a Bible study—and early on, I found this profoundly sickening. As in religious organizations, members take the smallest blessings as “God shots.” If your life sucks in perpetuity however, everyone just shrugs. Try to gain clarity from other members, and their eyes glaze over as they offer what amount to religious platitudes. You’re left with sucking it up as part of God’s “Mysterious Plan” and moving on—or better yet, looking at what you’re probably doing wrong in your program.
At first, I did what a lot of suffering newcomers with a beef against God or religion do: I forged ahead with the Step work, leaving Step Three to “whatever.” In the ensuing months, however, I tried to consider the concept of a Higher Power in the simplest terms I could manage, based upon my own experience.
Belief Systems: Disempowering and Dangerous?
First, I examined the concept of belief systems. The more I studied this, the more I became convinced that belief systems—all of them—are eminently harmful. This may seem like painting with a rather broad brush, but think about it: Any belief a person holds has only a 50% probability of being correct. This is one reason why alcohol and drug counselors, as well as sponsors in recovery programs often admonish their charges to closely examine their beliefs. In the context of recovery programs—particularly those dealing with alcohol and drugs—beliefs truly have the power to kill.
Why then, if they’re so potentially harmful, should we have beliefs at all?
And that’s a very good question…
It seems to me that belief systems simply compound the problems that beliefs present, as well as severely hobbling a person’s intellect. Subscribe to a belief system—whether religious, political or some other—and you suddenly become “certain” of things you might have previously ridiculed. Subscribe to a belief system, and you immediately surrender your ability to think critically to that belief system. Anything arising that runs counter to the belief system must either be summarily denied, or explained away within the context of that very belief system—and that includes hard evidence.
Then, there’s the divisiveness endemic to belief systems. Subscribe to a belief system, and suddenly everyone who doesn’t believe is an outsider, an unbeliever. We’ve seen what this has wrought throughout our history with religion and politics, and it’s been dramatically underscored in our modern society in recent years.
Finally, the kicker: Every belief system invariably claims to be the one true belief system within its class (political, religious, etc.).
After decades of commitment to my belief system, my faith in God seemed about as well-placed as Charlie Brown’s faith in Lucy in the comic strip “Peanuts.” Every single time Lucy offered to hold the football so he could kick it, she’d snatch it away at the last minute, and he’d bust his ass.
But he always came back for more…
Given all of the above, I have become thoroughly convinced that there is nothing which stifles genuine spiritual growth more effectively than religions and their attendant influences. I know that they provide comfort and a sense of security to a lot of people, but in my view, the cost-benefit equation is way out of balance.
Now, I know that there’s a lot to be said for positive thinking, how this relates to maintaining positive energies and the quantum field—the belief that your Higher Power has your back, and so forth. But I also know that the programming, codependency, enmeshments and injunctions from which adult children suffer militate insidiously and very effectively against this.
At this point, my question became: If an omnipotent God can’t or won’t cut through all that (particularly if one is already in recovery), then what good is he?
So Why Do the 12 Steps Work?
We all know that the 12 Steps work regardless of one’s spiritual or religious bent. Discounting autohypnosis (which some atheists and agnostics do claim powers 12 Step recovery programs), this seems to suggest two things:
- Rather than invoking a divine being, the Steps cooperate with spiritual laws with which we have yet to gain an understanding, and
- The Steps may in fact tap into an internal spiritual power, rather than an external one.
We’ve all heard of individuals who demonstrate incredible spiritual, mental and what some would call psychic powers. Here, I am referring to certain Eastern yogis and monks who can do such things as regulating their autonomic bodily functions and exercising influence over the external environment. These things have been documented scientifically. There are even a few dedicated Westerners who have emulated these mystics, and who have been able to achieve similar results. Such people do not achieve these abilities through windy, fervent prayers to a deity—they achieve them through dedicated mental and spiritual discipline, and it starts with meditation.
Today, there are researchers who are making amazing discoveries in the areas of neuroscience and quantum physics. Their data suggests that there are areas of our mental potential that we are only beginning to understand, and that once unlocked, the average human being will be able to accomplish amazing things—things that most people in our society still dismiss as impossible.
And interestingly, like the aforementioned yogis and monks, many of these researchers hold that the first step toward cultivating such power is meditation.
For me, this was nothing short of mindblowing, particularly in light of the following: Despite how strongly meditation is advocated across 12-Step programs (in Step 11), many members of 12-Step fellowships dispense with meditation entirely, primarily because it requires cultivating mental discipline. I literally cannot count the number of people with decades in 12-Step programs I’ve heard share in meetings that they never meditate. They usually claim that they tried it early on, but gave up because they “couldn’t overcome the racing thoughts.”
Which is, of course, why it’s called a practice.
So, what does all this have to do with gods and Higher Powers?
Well, if people can achieve high psychic abilities through the use of meditation, it occurs to me that the healing we receive in recovery programs—which so many attribute to God or other celestial beings—probably is attained through the activation of internal spiritual powers rather than external ones, as I intimated earlier.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have come across some truly powerful resources in the areas of meditation and energy work. Some of these have their foundations in ancient wisdom, while others have only been recently discovered (or rediscovered) by intrepid and forward-thinking researchers. Ironically, I think that science will one day prove the existence of “the Divine”—but it’s not going to look anything like that which religious people might expect.
These days, I meditate extensively, keep a healthy diet and exercise, practice qigong and read quite a bit. I experience things which most Westerners would classify as paranormal or supernatural on a daily basis. I’ve gained a much more intuitive understanding of people, our social systems and how the world operates, which has made the “love and tolerance” aspect of recovery a great deal easier.
This next-level spiritual work has been very difficult; in fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve tackled some pretty challenging things in my day. The good news is that it’s been tremendously rewarding, and it’s enhanced my recovery immensely. Suffice it to say that I don’t know if too many people in our microwave society have the patience for it, in or out of recovery.
I still attend meetings regularly, sponsor members and engage in service work. I don’t discuss my spirituality much, I don’t openly disparage anyone’s beliefs nor do I violate others’ boundaries. It is difficult at times not to bristle when I hear others declare with authority how God has done this or that in their lives, because in my view, they’re misplacing the credit. If it’s helping them recover however, it’s not my business, but if anyone presses me on the topic, they’re sure to get an earful.
Today, there are things that I know with certainty, things of which I’m more or less convinced, things I strongly suspect are true and things about which I simply don’t know the truth. But I don’t “believe in” anything. I don’t call myself an atheist, because atheism tends to presuppose a belief that there’s nothing out there. I’m more or less convinced that there is something out there, but that we just don’t have a clear understanding of it as yet.
I’ve known untreated adult children who’ve died in a hail of police gunfire, others who have been sentenced to prison for acting out antisocially and still others who died by their own hands, either through suicide or via returning to self-medication. The literature in my current program plainly states that many adult children and trauma sufferers commit suicide, and that mental health professionals at large routinely fail us miserably.
Imagine forging such a fate for yourself over years or decades, never knowing what the true issues behind your suffering were…
Life is serious business. In rare circumstances, it can be deadly serious. As such, we simply cannot afford to reduce our lives, our decisions and our all-important spiritual development to the equivalent of a cosmic coin toss, which is precisely what we do when we subscribe to belief systems.
I still have occasional pangs of frustration and anger concerning what I experienced, what I lost and what I never achieved as a result of my experiences—but as we know, recovery is a lifelong deal. In addition to the psychic damage suffered in my early life, to an extent, I see all that as being an outgrowth of a society that is fundamentally dysfunctional in itself. I have become convinced however, that the only way this will change is when people realize that genuine spiritual enlargement is in fact our highest purpose. To this end, all I can do is to actualize that growth in my own life to the extent that I am able, one day at a time.
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