From the start, God has been with me. Since that is rather unremarkable, because God is with everyone, perhaps I should start another way: I have always believed in God’s presence. God made his mark on my childhood for sure. My mother worked in a Christian bookstore; we attended church faithfully every Sunday. I had Christian pencils, knotted like a pretzel at the end that proclaimed, “Sin is KNOT in!” I had me some Jesus.

The God I believed in growing up scared me a bit. He seemed capricious; if I didn’t ask for salvation in the right way, if I didn’t mean it enough, then I might quickly be cast into the firey pits of hell. I grappled deeply with the idea of meeting Jesus in heaven one day; if heaven was my true home, like they told me at church, why bother with this meaningless charade called life, I wondered (I was 9 years old).

Thankfully, childhood doesn’t last forever. I grew up. I went to college, where my New Testament class systematically dismantled many of what I believed were core tenets of my faith. But really, what that class allowed me to do was shed the faith of my childhood and to begin the long process of discerning what I believed. Because an angry, jealous God who might cease to love me based on a somewhat arbitrary list of behaviors seemed too human, too small. The God I was sure was there (even when I was too angry to admit it) was much bigger than that.

Over the course of the next decade, I explored many faiths, many spiritual paths. They all intrigued me; I found each of them beautiful and mysterious in their own right. Yet, I was constantly drawn back to the faith of my childhood. I didn’t really want to be. I wanted something more esoteric, something that played better in intellectual circles. “Christian” wasn’t really the label I wanted to stick on the me I was busily crafting.

But for all of my searching, I had to admit that the teachings of Jesus resonated in my soul. And when I finally gave in, finally walked back into a church after all those years, sung the hymns with a reverence that shocked even me, I did what I least expected: I jumped back into church life whole-heartedly. In retrospect, it makes sense; I am an all or nothing sort of girl. I went to church on Sundays; I found an intensive Bible-nerd class that required at least an hour of reading a night. If I was going to be into Jesus, I wanted to to be a Jesus expert.

I feel like maybe, since this is a recovery blog, the spoiler is kind of evident. But here it goes: I was doing all this pious searching and studying while I was still drinking. Not just drinking, but drinking alcoholically. The result wasn’t pretty. I had full blown panic attacks in church, because I was hungover from the previous night. I’d finish Bible study on Wednesday night and meet my friends at the bar afterward; because one night without alcohol simply would not do. I tried desperately to rebuild my spiritual life while I was destroying my very self, night after night after night. I often cried late at night, after my 12th beer, after my partner had fallen asleep; I would put on music, lay in my bed and sob. I didn’t know why. But at my core, I was unbearably sad; only at night, when the alcohol had stripped me of my ability to fend of the encroaching sorrow, could I admit how broken I really was.

The drunk surrounds herself with Jesus but remains broken. This baffles people. Shouldn’t God have helped me? Totally. But here’s the catch: I never asked.

A.A.s talk a lot about conscious contact with a higher power. That conscious contact, the openness and willingness changes us. Just opening the door a crack allows the miracles to begin. But I had not opened the door; in fact, I had deadbolted it. I read about Jesus and God ad nauseum. I talked a lot about theology. I never prayed. Never. God and I didn’t powwow. I did not supplicate myself. We did not have jam sessions. God and I did not talk.

Here’s my truth: I knew if I prayed, if I asked God for help, that he would indeed help me. I had no doubt that God was bigger than my addiction. But just like I avoided A.A. for so many years because I believed it could offer me hope of a life free from alcohol, I avoided God because I knew that he would relieve me of my intense desire for oblivion from alcohol. And, really, I didn’t want that. I wanted oblivion. Change seemed so daunting. I had no idea how to live without alcohol. So I didn’t invite God to be part of the solution; in fact, I didn’t even tell him there was a problem.. And since God isn’t known for going where he isn’t invited, I continued to suffer my own dark night of the soul: desiring God, seeking him, yet refusing to allow him in.

This profound spiritual confusion might be best exemplified with a story: During Lent, I gave up alcohol. On Easter, I went to church hangover free to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Then I went to brunch to celebrate the Resurrection… with beer! I had 2 or 3 or 6… somewhere in there. Just as I was getting ready to kick into some real drinking, I remembered that I was supposed to be back at church soon. And that I was scheduled to serve communion. So, the close of that Easter Sunday found me in church, serving communion… coming to experience the presence of Jesus… offering one of the most sacred rites… drunk.

Despite the cringeworthiness of the communion story, and the absolute horror with which I look back on it now, serving communion drunk wasn’t my rock-bottom-I-have-to-change-my-life moment. One day, I just decided I no longer wanted to feel worthless, hopeless, empty. And I changed. I finally attended those A.A. meetings that I feared would fix me. They did. But really, I didn’t change on my own. I believe that God chipped away at my stubbornness enough to help me find my willingness. And when I did, I could let the A.A.s show me how to get sober and how to live. And one of the very first things they told me to do was to pray. I did. And that is where I found God.

Staying with the Herd

True Confession: I don’t really do A.A. the right way. In fact, if A.A. & I listed our relationship status on Facebook, it would be “it’s complicated.”

Maybe I should start closer to the beginning of the story: I like to be the valedictorian of everything I do. When I first set my sights on getting sober, A.A. proved to be no exception to the valedictorian rule. I bought the primary A.A. text (a.k.a. The Big Book) before I ever hit my first meeting. The first year of sobriety, I behaved like a model I went to meetings. I got a sponsor. I did steps, all 12 steps to be exact. In fact, I was making the rounds through the steps again with a second sponsor… and then I quit. My own version of riding off into the sunset. No hard feelings. It’s not you, it’s me. I found myself in what I considered a complete conundrum: I didn’t want to go back to meetings. But I still wanted to be sober. I had been told over and over, often with a hapless relapsed drunk as the object lesson, what happened to people who didn’t go to meetings. And I was scared of meeting that same fate. But on the back of A.A. medallions, it says “To thine own self be true.” And if I was going to follow that advice, I had to admit that it was time for A.A. and I to see other people. So, we parted ways.

The split happened over four years ago, and still people react to my incredibly infrequent attendance at meetings in the same way they might react if, say, I had spinach stuck in my teeth. At first they seem vaguely uncomfortable. They seem to WANT to help, really they do. But it is so AWKWARD to tell someone that they have something in their teeth (or that they are going to wind up drunk under a bridge if they don’t haul themselves to a meeting soon). Soon they start looking everywhere but at me. And then they fidget a bit. Then they remember that their paper clip collection needs to be reorganized… and we part ways. Amicably, of course. But I am always bewildered and a bit put-off.

Animal Planet finally helped me decipher this puzzle. Turns out our pastor watches his fair share of Animal Planet, and, this past Sunday, he went into great detail about stalking prey. Wait… please note that HE isn’t stalking prey. No, he described the way animals, specifically lions, stalk prey. If lions plan to make their next meal out of a herd animal, their mealtime strategy involves separating one lone animal from the herd. Once they achieve separation, then the animal is vulnerable. All the lions gang up on the animal and WHAMMO! The animal becomes a lion entree. Most of the time.

The only chance the lonely, separated animal has for salvation is the return of the herd to rescue it. And sometimes the herd does return. They reintegrate the lost one, protecting it and reasserting the strength of the herd. The lions skulk away, hungry and defeated…and the 8 year olds watching Animal Planet make it through one more day without needing therapy.

As the pastor eloquently tied his lion/herd example back to how the church treats its members who have strayed away from the community, things began clicking in place in my head. Not things about lions and prey, but things about my interactions with A.A.ers. Here’s my revelation: The A.A.’s weren’t concerned about meetings, so much as they were concerned about my straying from the herd! They cared about me! And they didn’t know that I wasn’t isolated, that my church community helped me stay spiritually fit, and that recovery remained top on my list of “to dos,” like breathing and checking facebook. The A.A.s and I weren’t at odds; we simply had a breakdown in communication!

If, as Johann Hari posits in this new book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, addiction stems from isolation rather than the addictive substance itself, the A.A.ers are right to be concerned. One of the things A.A. does best is fostering connections between people. In A.A. meetings, people reach out to help each other. Members reiterate time and time again the dangers of isolating; they insist that reaching out to help others who are suffering breaks the cycle of self-centered obsession. They insist that connection heals.

Unfortunately, when someone walks away from the fellowship of A.A., they often become victim to their own broken way of thinking, trapped in a mindset that breeds self-absorption and lends itself to epic ego trips. If they do not replace the A.A. fellowship with another kind of community, they are left vulnerable. But some of us DO have communities that support our recovery other than A.A. And, unsurprisingly, those of us who remain successful at staying sober often pick communities where the higher power is something other than ourselves (faith, yoga, meditation).

When I stopped going to A.A. meetings, I became more involved at church (in intensive small group Bible studies, to be exact). The folks in those groups committed to experiencing life together, to sharing joy & pain, to talking through what we might otherwise hide from the outside world. This worked for me. I wasn’t isolating; I was integrating into another herd. It is also worth noting that I spent a lot of time in my groups talking about recovery and A.A.

But just like when people return to church and they get the sideways glances, the curious “what sin have you been in” looks, the passive aggressive questions, folks get that when they’ve been absent from A.A. meetings, too. Although those sentiments are well-meaning (sometimes), they aren’t very helpful. They make people defensive; they imply that some of us are in, and some of us are out.

But just like God needs to be a “We are ALL in!” proposition, so does recovery. I may do my recovery differently. And I may do it in a way that some people don’t like. But I am doing it. I am putting in the work, and it works for me. We need to champion recovery, freedom from addiction, for everyone, no matter how they choose to obtain it. We can’t push people out of the herd for not doing it exactly our way–there is strength in numbers, especially if we encounter any lions.