“Well,” she said, in a tone I would later learn to describe as patronizing, “sometimes God has plans for you that you don’t know about.”
Um, what? The thought of not having control over getting married—pretty much the biggest decision a girl raised on Disney could conceive of—was terrifying. “I don’t believe that,” I replied, my face growing hot. “God doesn’t control every little thing for me.”
Her eyes bulged. I’d clearly said something wrong. “Have you ever read the Bible?” she asked. “Do you go to church?”
I never had. Nobody in my family, not even my grandparents, seemed to talk about or even really believe in God, and now this 300-pound woman was staring at me like I’d just punched my own face.
“You know what happens to people who don’t believe?” she asked. “They go to hell.”
I stuck to my guns. “I don’t believe in hell,” I responded. (Even though I didn’t fear damnation, I kind of feared Mrs. D.)
“I feel sorry for you,” she said. After that, I saw a lot less of that friend.
As I grew older, my childhood discomfort with God was borne out by the attitudes of his diehard fans who were anti-science, anti-gay and anti-choice. Living in coastal cities orbiting elite universities, most of my adult friends landed somewhere between agnostic and antitheist: TED talk junkies, Hitchens fanboys, queer rights workers, evolutionary biologists—all either overly educated, overly cynical or both. As far as I was concerned, the minute someone mentioned “God’s will” without irony, everything they said was suspect.
The trouble was that I was an addict. Being allergic to God kept me out of active recovery for years. I only needed to read the 12 steps to feel certain I wouldn’t fit in. Turning my life and will over to the care of God, no matter how I understood him, seemed like admitting that Mrs. D. was right after all. It didn’t matter that some of my favorite authors and actors were 12-step veterans. I’d never doubted it worked for some people; I just didn’t think it would work for me. I’d never drink the Kool-Aid, so I didn’t get help. Instead, I hit bottom and spent the next three years fighting to recover on my own. I swapped my drug of choice for one I thought I could control. When that control began to slip, I explored secular alternatives like SMART Recovery and Moderation Management, but they weren’t giving me much beyond what I’d learned in therapy. Eventually, everything I’d been doing stopped working. If I wanted to salvage the life I’d managed to rebuild, I needed something more.
I was apprehensive at my first NA meeting, but kind people gave me their numbers and told me I belonged. Each time I went to a new meeting, I wondered if this one would be the really Jesus-y one that made me feel like a fraud. Strangely enough, none of them did. I kept coming back. And now I love NA, not in spite of the God stuff but because of it. Yep, you read that right: surrendering to a higher power is my favorite part of my program because that’s exactly what makes it different from everything I’d tried for years. It was like I’d been swimming my whole life using only my arms and someone finally showed me how to kick, too.
I can’t overstate how quickly and dramatically this has changed my life. Before coming to NA, abstinence from one substance or another was just another way in which I tried to control everything. But if I could do that, not only would I not be an addict, I wouldn’t be human. Coming to believe in a higher power mainly meant coming to understand that I’m not it. I can’t run the world, but I don’t have to, either. It’s not my job! It’s the job of nature, the universe, the Force, whatever. Sometimes, to stay sane, we have to trust the unknown and have a little faith in that Whatever. That faith is the foundation of 12-step; it’s the part that helps us let go of fear and it’s fear that lies at the root of addiction.
Until they start working steps, most people don’t realize how much they will change and grow in recovery. Things we never thought we could stand to say aloud become palatable when we experience the miracles of the program. The first time I said the Serenity Prayer, thinking about the ocean and geological time, I left off the word “God.” Yet as I developed a humbler, less contentious relationship with the universe, hearing other people call it God started to bother me less. Our differences in beliefs no longer seemed as important. The principles were the same. Even the third step—turning over my will—no longer seemed so scary. It just meant adopting life-affirming practices instead of self-destructive ones. Once I understood that I’d actually turned over my will before—to the care of drugs and alcohol—this higher power thing started to seem like a pretty rational alternative.
I still don’t believe in a God who moonlights as a wedding planner (still waiting on that one, Universe) and I doubt I ever will. I don’t need to. But I do need the faith I’ve found in NA. I can’t promise 12-step will work for everyone, but I promise that it can because it did for me. The rooms are full of people whose higher powers don’t match any religious conception of God. All it takes is willingness, which is really just desperation that’s been out in the sun too long. If you’re still resisting trying 12-step because you’re convinced you’re impervious to spirituality, maybe ask yourself why that is and what you’re holding onto. I was clinging to a hyper-rational worldview and the fear of surrendering control, yet I was constantly acting out the definition of insanity. Sometimes I think nonreligious addicts are the ones 12-step can help the most, precisely because our spiritual muscles are so out of shape. We’ve learned to swim so well without our legs that we didn’t realize they were even there. There’s room in 12-step for as many different strokes as there are addicts, but we’re all in the same pool, and I’m sure glad I started kicking.
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