Can religious based recovery actually work?
Can an alcoholic “find” religion and be transformed by it, effectively “curing” that person of alcoholism or drug addiction?
The answer is “yes,” absolutely.
But this comes with a few stipulations, and some things that everyone should realize.
Disclaimer: A religious approach to alcoholism recovery is not for everyone
First of all, you should realize that religious based recovery is not for everyone.
There is a very strong bias that people have when they get clean and sober. This bias is very difficult to overcome because of the way our addiction has evolved.
What happens is that the typical alcoholic will struggle for years and years to stop drinking. They will fail many times and they will usually try many different methods by which to control or stop their drinking.
After much failure, the alcoholic will finally reach a point of surrender and they will succeed. Victory at last!
Now then, what finally worked for the alcoholic?
It will be different things depending on the situation. It is not that the alcoholic finally stumbled on “the one true method of recovery,” though that is what they will believe. Instead, the alcoholic finally got sober because they finally reached a point of true surrender.
But because of their lifelong struggle with addiction, and because they had tried so hard in the past to get sober, this creates an incredible amount of bias for the individual. Whatever they finally tried as far as their recovery was concerned is what they will continue to preach on to others as being “the ultimate solution.”
For example, maybe the person went to AA meetings for years but continued to relapse because they were not yet ready to surrender. Then they surrender and they just happen to go to a religious based treatment center. It would be almost impossible for such a person to not give all of the credit to the idea of religious based recovery in this case.
Bias happens a lot in recovery. And of course it works the other way too. Many people are exposed to religious recovery and continue to relapse, then later they find AA when they have finally surrendered. Such people will give the religious recovery a bad name and praise the secular approach of AA and the 12 step program instead. But ultimately it had more to do with timing and surrender than it had to do with what works and what doesn’t.
This is a really important point so it is vital that you are aware of how this bias works in recovery. Realize that there are many valid paths to recovery, regardless of what the person in front of you may be telling you.
The idea of a replacement strategy is very powerful, and mirrors AA
Can an alcoholic recover without going to AA? Sure they can, but they need to replace their addiction with something.
You can’t just quit drinking and expect for your life to change and everything to fall into place. That is not realistic.
The idea that recovery requires some sort of “replacement strategy” is very real.
Take an alcoholic who just quit drinking yesterday. What is that person going to do with himself each day? How do they spend their time? How do they avoid the corner bar? How do they avoid falling into the trap of relapse?
If they do nothing different in life then they are destined to relapse. They have to change their routine, they have to do something different, they have to take action and make real changes.
Part of the AA program is this idea of a replacement strategy. You go to meetings every day instead of the corner bar. You hang out with peers in recovery and go to coffee instead of drinking with your drinking buddies. You read a book big instead of getting drunk. And so on. You replace the old unhealthy activities with new behaviors.
The same can be done with religious based recovery. So maybe you go to a Christian based rehab center, then you get out and join a church. This may not be all that different from AA. Instead of attending meetings you can go to church or prayer study groups. Instead of having a sponsor you might have a mentor in the church who is guiding you through their faith. You will have community in the church and peers who may help and support you. You may even find other people in the community who are in recovery so that you can relate directly to that. In the end, going the religious based route is very much a replacement strategy as well.
Is this better or worse than AA? Wrong question! It is just different. If it works for you, then obviously it is better for you than AA might have been (and vice versa may have been true as well).
If you can’t stop drinking on your own then you may need a replacement strategy in your life. You can’t just walk away from alcohol and have everything turn out OK. You have to “fill the void” with something if you want to avoid relapse in the long run.
Experiment and do what works for you, but be open minded
The key with all of this stuff is that you keep an open mind.
In fact, open mindedness is one of the key fundamentals of recovery from addiction. This is true whether you are in AA, in religious based recovery, or getting sober in some other way. The method doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you surrender and stay open to new ideas.
I once met a guy in recovery who had a very positive attitude in early recovery. He was living in a long term treatment that was religious based. I met him at an outside AA meeting and he had a very positive attitude. He later told me that he was not really that religious, but that he was extremely grateful for the religious based treatment center and how they had extended their hand to him. He tolerated and respected their religious based program without being offended by it.
This is rare in my opinion. So many people today have a different attitude towards their “beliefs.”
People get offended when it comes to their beliefs. Most people today would not even think of being in a religious based recovery house if they are not aligned with that religion. They would be far too “offended” and they would demand some alternative.
But this friend of mine and his attitude of tolerance and respect was really an eye opener for me. I was shocked at how well he was doing in recovery and I was genuinely surprised at the way he was handling his situation. This was true open mindedness. Instead of complaining about “religion that was being forced on him” he was grateful for the situation and forced himself to stay open to the possibilities.
I could have taken a cue from him the first time I went to rehab and was put off by the AA meetings. In my case it was not religious intolerance but instead was a general fear and anxiety about the meetings. But in a similar way I could have used the idea of tolerance, respect, and open mindedness to try to find the positive in the situation and realize that these people were willing to try to help me.
It is easy to pay lip service to the idea of being open minded. It is quite another thing to actually take action and to take suggestions from other people and to really be open in early recovery.
Positive action every day is the overall goal of recovery
Whether you end up going to AA, going to religious based recovery, or doing something else entirely, the outcome is much the same: You have to take positive action every day if you want to rebuild your life.
Recovery is a personal journey of growth. You have to take action in order to change things. And you have to do so over and over again on a consistent basis.
My contention is that a sponsor in AA can only help you so much, and eventually you have to learn how to leave the nest and fly yourself (so to speak). That is not to say that you need to get rid of your sponsor some day, it just means that you have to find your own path in recovery if you want to stay sober in the long run. You have to find your own motivation for personal growth, and learn how to push yourself to keep rebuilding and reinventing yourself.
This path of personal growth can happen in a 12 step program just as well as it can happen in religious based recovery.
The key is that you keep moving forward, making progress. People get stuck in recovery because they believe at some point that they have “arrived.” They kick back, get lazy, put their feet up. They get complacent.
In order to overcome an addiction in the long run you can’t allow that to happen. Therefore the biggest key to relapse prevention in my opinion is personal growth. If you are continuously reinventing yourself in recovery then you are well protected against relapse. On the other hand if you fall into a pattern and you get bored and you stop pushing yourself to make changes then you can get into serious trouble. The real threat with this is that it will not feel dangerous at all, it won’t feel like anything at all if and when you get complacent.
There is no way that a person in recovery can “react” to complacency after it happens. If you do that then you are too late. You won’t know that you are complacent until you are lifting the booze up to your lips in some cases. Obviously that is a threat that we want to avoid.
Before you relapse physically by taking a drink you relapse in other ways. Many people would argue that you must first have a “spiritual relapse” and then later you will relapse emotionally. This is when you get to the point where you say “Screw everyone and everything, I am just going to get hammered!” This is an emotional relapse and once you reach this point it is probably far too late to call your sponsor and try to talk yourself out of drinking. Your brain has already made the decision at this point that it wants to get drunk. Your body is just along for the ride at this point and it may not even realize that your brain has hatched a plan to get you to relapse.
Now in order to prevent this from happening due to complacency you have to have a proactive strategy. When things are still good in your recovery journey you have to make a decision that you are going to guard yourself against complacency. Like I pointed out above, if you choose to wait until it reveals itself as a problem then you are probably going to be too late. You will relapse before you realize that you have already “snapped” emotionally.
So the question is: “How do you prevent complacency?”
How do you live in such a way to protect yourself from relapse?
There are suggestions for this in AA, such as working with others in recovery, sponsoring people, doing 12 step calls, and so on.
There are also strategies in religious based recovery that can keep you on the path of personal growth.
The key of course is not in just having blind faith in such programs, but in actually applying the principles in your every day life.
You can’t just show up to AA meetings and try to get sober through osmosis. Just sitting there and listening to people talk about recovery is not going to lead you to happiness and sobriety. It takes real work in order to recover and you are going to have to put in some serious effort.
The same is true if you are in a religious based recovery program as well. Just sitting in church once or twice a week isn’t going to do a thing by itself. You have to apply the principles, get involved, take real action. Recovery is not based on what you hear and what you say, it is based on what you do and what actions you follow through on. Your intentions don’t really matter in recovery if you do not follow through with them.
The finger pointing at the moon
There is a great Zen parable about “the finger pointing at the moon.” I think it has great application to the idea of alcoholism and recovery.
The parable is this:
A zen teacher asks his student while pointing at the moon: “What is that?”
The student says “that is the moon.”
The teacher then corrects the student and says “no, that is but a finger pointing at the moon.”
The idea here is not to confuse a thing itself with something that is pointing at it.
Now, how does this parable apply to recovery?
AA is a finger pointing at the moon.
Religious recovery programs are the same thing–they are but a finger that points at the moon.
In this case, “the moon” is actually recovery. It is a lifetime of sobriety and personal growth.
Don’t confuse this lifelong sobriety with the finger that points at it.
Recovery is not AA. Recovery is not religion.
AA and religion are just things that point at recovery. And they are not even perfect pointers–not by a long shot!
In other words, even if you ask two different people who have worked their recovery through the AA program, you are going to get two very different pictures about what helps them to succeed in recovery. One may focus on daily meetings, the other may not go to meetings hardly at all, but is heavily involved in sponsorship. Or one may do a lot of “hands on step work” and the other may be all about writing in the steps. Just because you believe that there is an objective standard of the recovery process, there isn’t one. We all recover in different ways, even though we may attend the same recovery programs. Real life is far too subjective and we all take something different away from what is essentially a self help program.
Religion can absolutely help you to overcome alcoholism if you are willing to put in the work. You can’t just cherry pick the parts of the religion that seem nice to you, or that fit into your particular lifestyle. Instead you have to surrender completely and adopt something as a new way of life. You can do this in AA, you can do this by attending rehab, you can do this through religious based recovery, and you can do this by living in long term treatment. There are many different paths. There are many different fingers that point to the moon. It is up to you to find the path that works for you, and then to put in the hard work and the effort in order to change your life.
Successful recovery is all about change. Most alcoholics find it very difficult to change slowly. When they try to do so they end up failing. You cannot quit drinking a little bit at a time. This is the idea behind complete surrender to a recovery program. You abandon all of your ideas, you kill your ego completely, and then you dive into a new way of life. This is the only way that most people can really turn things around.
If you don’t do this then you will find yourself hanging on to old pieces of your life. Old ideas. Old behaviors that can threaten your sobriety.
You must let go absolutely. You can do this with religion or you can do it with AA. And you can probably find an alternative path to both of these in the end as well (as I have done essentially). Total surrender can bring you a new life in recovery if you are willing to work hard for it.
Therefore my suggestion to you is that you experiment and stay open minded.
Your goal is to quit drinking and to rebuild your life.
You want to be happy and free. But simply acting on your impulses and drinking as much as possible has not made you happy. You need a new path in life, a new model for living.
Depending on how much structure you need and what your core beliefs are, you may find the help that you need at:
1) AA meetings.
3) A religious based recovery center.
4) Long term rehab.
And so on. The key is that you take action.
Make a decision. Surrender to your disease.
Ask for help. Above all, ask someone for help, and then trust in the process.
They may present to you any number of different paths (as listed above). Be open to whatever path they present. See if it works out for you.
It has to be better than what you have been experiencing in addiction, right? Anything is better than chaos and misery, even if you have to sacrifice your ego!
What about you, have you found religious based recovery to be helpful to your sobriety? Did you stick with AA and avoid all religious based help? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!