I’ve never been a member of any religion. My Dad grew up Catholic and my mom grew up Protestant and they were both disenfranchised enough that they didn’t want to raise my sister and me in any religion. I remember when I was young, my mom offered to take me to church if I really wanted to go, to see what all the fuss was about. I went with my grandparents a few times and I felt awkward and out of place. I had no clue what they were talking about and didn’t know any of the music. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out what a monopoly religion has on the world. I learned about the extreme views of the Catholic Church and heard my parents speak often of “Catholic guilt.” It wasn’t until I was 16 months sober that I began to think about my resentments toward the concept of God and what I consider to be religion; it was because I started going to 12-step meetings.
I had heard all the usual things about AA: that it was a cult, that it was religious and that you had to believe in God to be a member, etc. Now that I’ve attended meetings for a few years, I understand what these allegations mean and I also feel like I finally have an idea of what it might feel like to be a member of the Catholic faith. I think I finally understand what my mom meant by “Catholic guilt” because I now have 12-step guilt.
What the heck is 12-step guilt, you ask? I am in a constant state of believing I’m not doing something right or not doing something well enough. There is guilt about my anonymity (especially since Tracy Chabala, a fellow sober writer, recently received an official “stop talking about us” email from AA headquarters). Why the heck is there anonymity? Am I doing it right? Will I be scolded? Should I care if I’m scolded? Should I feel so stressed about this?
Then there’s the guilt about not working the steps enough or in the right way. There is guilt about not praying. There is guilt about service work—am I doing it right? Is it enough? Am I actually helping people? I see other women who sponsor with just a year of sobriety, and now with three years, I still feel like I don’t really have much wisdom to give. Am I telling my sponsee the right things? Am I doing harm? There are so many unknowns.
I suppose this is what it’s like to be Catholic: thinking you’re not going to church enough, not being a good enough Sunday school teacher or not confessing your sins in the right way—thinking that the Almighty God will strike you down if you do something wrong or sub-par. This thinking adds a lot of unnecessary stress. And yet, I keep going back to my 12-step church.
I’m still not sure I believe in God. I almost never pray. I chuck my anonymity up as a loss, even though I’m frightened by the AA Gods and their imaginary wrath. But I still enjoy going to the meetings, being a member and interacting with my fellow alcoholics. It serves me, but am I serving it? Is the guilt I feel worth it? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that it’s not “their” way or the highway. I took my heart and my mind into the 12-step community with me. It’s never been my style to blindly follow anyone or anything. This guilt thing is new for me, but it’s something I’ve accepted in order to gain what I need from those meetings: experience, strength and hope. I guess that’s what Catholics do too; they endure the guilt and stress for their own type of hope.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the 12-step guilt I remember one very important thing: the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking. That line helps me keep my sanity and helps me remember that there isn’t a competition for best 12-step member. There isn’t a rule book that you must follow. There isn’t a 12-step God that’s going to strike me down. The program is merely suggestions, every single one of them. I’m a member when I say I’m a member. I don’t have to sponsor anyone, play by the rules or even work the steps. I don’t have to live up to unrealistic expectations of some holy AA prophet that doesn’t exist. I can take what I like and leave the rest.
My sponsor offered me her own wise words of advice the other day. She said, “the only thing you can offer is your own experience. What people do with that is their own thing.” It’s not my job to do anything perfectly. I can only be myself.
If I’m being honest, I felt much less guilt before I entered the 12-step rooms. But today I have a community of other women who not only build me up, but also show me what has worked for them. They understand me in their own unique way and are willing and able to share their own experience and hope.
I don’t need my 12-step program to look like everyone else’s program because everyone else isn’t me. I don’t need to let 12-step membership look like the Catholic religion. To me, it’s much different (despite some similarities). As they say in the rooms, all I can do about the guilt is work on cleaning up my side of the street. If I waste my time feeling guilty, the wisdom of the steps isn’t working in my everyday life. The reality of recovery for me is being the best version of myself I can be. Even 12-step guilt can’t stop me from doing that.