So, you arrived at rehab for the first time today. You’ve been answering questions and signing forms in a haze of fear, shame and growing physical distress. You know why you’re here but you’re not sure you are in the right place. You’re not sure what to expect, but you’re pretty sure you aren’t going to enjoy it.
You hear that it’s time for the evening meeting, so you obediently take a seat in the room where your new peers are gathered. Somebody gets up front and starts reading things that everyone else seems familiar with. Only half there, you wonder how long the meeting will last. After the day you’ve had, you just want to crawl into a bed and hope tomorrow won’t be as bad as you think it will.
Then you hear that word. Suddenly your ears come fully online. God? Why are they talking about God? Is this place run by a church? What does God have to do with rehab? Looking around in confusion, you see a big poster on the wall. Twelve steps, it says. Okay. Step One–something about being powerless. Step Two–power greater than ourselves…well…hey, they say God outright in Step Three! They even say Him! There it is again in Five! And Six! And Seven…Eleven…are you kidding me?
Uncertain hope begins to change to anxiety, disappointment or anger. You should have known it wouldn’t work. You should have known you didn’t belong here. Time to go to the counselors and explain that you did not sign up to be converted, thank you very much. They nod understandingly, and tell you to give it time and keep an open mind. Maybe they give you the speech about how your higher power can be anything you want it to be.
Maybe–if you’re pretty desperate–you give it a chance. You sit in the meetings, and you think about those steps, but you’re fuming with resentment. You try to mentally translate things into words that don’t annoy you as you hear them, but the mental effort you have to spend on that is annoying.
If you stick around, you learn that you’re not alone in your feelings. Maybe you start to see what the steps are getting at in terms of internal change, and you want that. You hear others share about their process, and listen to the sometimes awkward ways they’ve navigated through it. Repetition makes it all start to seem more normal, and if you work the steps you get a chance to examine your beliefs and start designing your own higher power. If your associations with the word God are not too harsh or traumatic, you might even adopt the word as one generic way to refer to what you call upon. Or you might not. Whatever forms your spirituality ends up taking, you stay in your fellowship because you’ve found something there that’s worth keeping and you’re willing to tolerate the archaic language.
The “G” word, and the phrases associated with it in twelve-step literature, have been a stumbling block and sometimes a deal-breaker for countless people seeking help. The wording of the steps reflects the circumstances of their birth: they were written more than seventy years ago, in Middle America, by a group of Christian men who adapted them from the tenets of a Christian group. They needed something, and they used what they knew. For better or worse, the original wording is so entrenched in the traditions of the programs that a revision is unlikely.
I wish the steps were written in more inclusive language, for the simple reason that I worry about those who find them so completely off-putting that they never give these programs a chance. I hate the idea that even one addict somewhere may have died because they thought this source of help being recommended to them hinged on them belonging to a certain religious culture. That being said, I also know that tradition has its place, and my time with the steps has made their wording dear to me in spite of myself.
After years, I am one of those who have fallen into the habit of using the word “God” interchangeably with my other phrases that refer to a source of spiritual power. When sharing at a meeting, though, I tend to avoid the word in favor of other terms I like, such as the Divine or the Higher Self, or simply the Thing That I Don’t Understand That Somehow Helps Me When Nothing Else Can.
So, to that person in rehab, or to the person who walked out of the door years ago: I hear you. It’s hard enough to adapt your thinking to the idea that your addiction may need a spiritual solution, without also struggling with incompatible language. If you’ve already found something else that works, fantastic! But if you are hurting, I encourage you not to write these breathtakingly imperfect twelve-step fellowships off completely. Don’t write anything off completely. Except giving up.