You Don’t Have to Be Religious to Feel the Power of Spirit in Recovery
By Julie Bakley, MSW, LCSW, Primary Therapist, The Ranch
There are different ways to get sober and live life free from addiction, but many people who quit alcohol or drugs stumble and falter early on in their sobriety. Often this is because they don’t respond to the religious or spiritual aspects of 12-step meetings or other support groups they are attending. Perhaps they don’t consider themselves to be religious people and don’t feel comfortable engaging in prayer and meditation.
The good news is that there are ways to achieve recovery without ascribing to a religious or spiritual approach. Yet, in my experience as an addiction therapist and as a person in long-term recovery, I have learned that to sustain recovery you need to connect to something greater than yourself, and greater than your drug of choice.
Finding a Higher Power Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Finding Religion
When we talk about making a connection in recovery, we are usually referring to finding your higher power. I know that the term “higher power” makes some people cringe, because it can have religious connotations. Really, though, finding your higher power boils down to finding your connection to something bigger than you. In my work, I use the terms “connection” and “higher power” interchangeably.
Although I am talking about the power of spirit, I am also talking about the power of connection, and this can mean very different things for different people. In other words, each person’s higher power is different. While one person’s higher power is love, another’s could be science. Some people in recovery choose their 12-step community as their connection. Others choose the universe or one of our great teachers of the past. This is what makes each of us unique. It is our personal belief, our own connection to something somewhere that will help us in our recovery.
Case studies. Years ago, I had a client who had been in and out of recovery. He was following a 12-step program, but could not get past the “higher power” steps. This man identified as an atheist and he was struggling. His mother had died when he was 8. Although he was then in his 40s, he could still feel the love they’d had between them. He saw how that love was something very powerful to have lasted so long. He could not explain why, but he realized that the love between him and his mother was his higher power. This realization allowed him to successfully move on with the steps.
Another client who was an atheist had a different kind of epiphany about the meaning of his higher power. He said, “Oh, I see your point. Spirituality is anything that takes you outside of yourself!” Both of these paths to a higher power were spot on, and both led to successful recovery.
Why a Person in Recovery Needs to Find Connection
You need to find a connection or higher power in recovery because, while you have been in active addiction, it has been your drink or drug that you worshiped and gave your life to. It is much easier to give up your drink or your drug if you can now turn your focus toward connecting with something else.
I have heard a statement that goes something like, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” I don’t necessarily agree with all of this statement, but I agree with the necessity of connection in order for sobriety to be successful and long-lasting. I would alter the statement slightly to say, “The road from addiction to recovery requires finding a higher power that replaces drugs or alcohol, that motivates you and to which you feel a very strong connection.”
The Journey to a Higher Power Is a Journey to Yourself
As every addiction counselor will tell you, it won’t work if I give you my beliefs. You will need to find your own, because you need to experience your own awakening. Finding a connection, spiritual or otherwise, is a personal thing that occurs from your own essence. It is not a mental thing that someone else has created for us, and that we adopt. In my work I encourage clients to explore many things until they find a connection that has meaning to them — and choosing your own path to that awakening is important.
This message is conveyed by several different groups or philosophies. For example, if we look at the 12-step literature, we learn that “spiritual life is not a theory, we have to live it.” Similarly, the Christian Bibles read, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Perhaps author and anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, PhD, put it best. When referring to his study of Shamanistic beliefs and the teachings of Don Juan, he wrote, “Any path is only a path, and there is no affront to oneself or to others in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you.” He also wrote, “For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have a heart, on any path that may have a heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge for me is to traverse its full length.”
We all have to travel our own paths. I believe we are all created equal, which does not mean we are all the same, even within the recovery community. Let’s offer the people we are working with many paths to recovery, but let us also expect and accept any new paths they bring with them.
My Own Story: An Illustration of One Recovery Journey
I was raised in a church that practically destroyed my faith in a loving God and, although I never gave up on the concept of God, I lost hope and was dying spiritually. Fortunately, as I traveled the recovery road I found a loving support group from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Yet, I was still struggling after two years of sobriety. I was still thinking of it as “not drinking” and, after two years, I was still wanting to drink and asking people what I was supposed to replace alcohol with — all of my past activities had revolved around alcohol. Obviously, it was taking me some time to find my connection or higher power!
Finally, someone opened AA’s Big Book and pointed to a passage. “It’s right here,” he said. “You replace drinking with fellowship.” This was a “lightbulb” moment for me. I had been going to AA meetings throughout my early sobriety, but I don’t think I had really thought about it or approached it as fellowship.
So, I did that! I started going to meetings early and staying late. I started going to all the AA coffees, dances and camping trips. I got more engaged in connecting with other group members. By fellowshipping with other people in recovery, I was connecting — filling my time with meaningful interactions. I was having more fun and soon realized that life is great without alcohol or drugs. This experience illustrated for me that there is a difference between going to a support meeting and engaging in fellowship with other people in recovery.
My deepest passion is my spiritual growth. As I see it, this has nothing to do with religion, and it is an amazing journey. Many of my clients tell me the best high they can ever get is from a drug. Based on where I am in my own journey, I have to disagree with this. Loving life as it is and walking on a spiritual path is a high that some people never get to experience. However, if you can open your mind to the possibilities and the power of spirit, it changes everything. The high you get from alcohol and drugs is merely a synthetic version of the high you can get from life.
As you travel along your sober journey, you will likely find something that moves you and motivates you to continue, even if you don’t consider it to be religious. This is your higher power, even though all of us experience it, and name it, differently.
I tell my clients, “I don’t know what your higher power is, but I am willing to walk with you as far as I can while you search for it.”
Julie Bakley, MSW, LCSW, Primary Therapist, has worked professionally in mental health and addiction treatment for over 15 years. Before joining The Ranch Pennsylvania, she served as a therapist at several well-known outpatient/inpatient addiction treatment centers in Pennsylvania. Julie believes there are many paths to healing and introduces clients to a variety of traditional, holistic and spiritual approaches so they can heal and find their unique purpose in life. Some of the tools she uses include prayer/meditation, chakras, mindfulness, reality therapy, CBT, DBT and aromatherapy. Julie holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from Bloomsburg University and a master’s degree in social work from Marywood University.
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