Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. — David Foster Wallace
I think it was about halfway through my rehab stay when I started getting resentful about the message I kept hearing. The message went something like this:
1) You have a chronic, progressive disease for which there is no cure.
2) The only way to manage this disease is to pray to a magical sky-daddy who will exert mystical forces upon your life which you will breathlessly describe as “God shots.”
3) Not a believer? Well, good luck with the inevitable relapse. Too bad you weren’t willing to TRY hard enough.
That’s how I interpreted the higher power stuff, anyway. Assurances that my higher power could be anything I wanted — the ocean! A forest! The infinite cosmos! A bent paper clip! — weren’t particularly helpful either. I slogged through the “We Agnostics” chapter of the Big Book, where people without spiritual faith are described as “biased and unreasonable,” and the following is stated:
As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction …
The chapter ends with a “miracle of healing” in the form of a story about a man who thought he was an atheist until he had a spiritual awakening, tumbled out of his hospital bed to his knees, and the Almighty Presence of God took away his desire to drink forever and ever amen.
“I’m really struggling with this whole insistence that sobriety can only be achieved through a higher power,” I said. Totally normal, they said. Just give it time. Go to the meetings. It’ll come to you eventually. Keep-coming-back-it-works-if-you-work-it!
Everything got harder when I came home: now the training wheels were off and I was supposed to start working the program in earnest. I went to meetings and listened to people talk about letting go and letting God and how there’s not a spot where God is not and if God seems far away, who moved?
I told my outpatient counselor I wasn’t sure if AA was right for me. “It’s just …” I floundered for words. “I feel like an imposter in these groups. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, everyone sees something I don’t.”
We talked a lot that day, but it was her parting comment that stuck with me. “You can’t do this by yourself,” she said. “None of us can. That’s why we need each other.” I remember immediately thinking, well, maybe YOU can’t. I remember thinking, I can’t need anyone.
Not I don’t need anyone. I can’t need anyone.
What would it mean to admit that I need people? I’d have to stop isolating. I’d have to let go of the notion that anything outside of self-reliance equals weakness. I’d have to be vulnerable. I’d have to deem myself worthy of other people’s time. I’d have to risk rejection, which is the thing I am most scared of, because rejection proves that every bad thing I’ve ever believed about myself is true.
What if there’s a mess of fear that lies below the surface of my knee-jerk opposition to the spiritual stuff, and I never acknowledge it because I’m so busy tuning out every time someone says the word god?
While I pondered all this, I worked up the nerve to ask someone to be my sponsor. She is a whip-smart woman with a steady calm demeanor, a knack of listening with her entire body, and she’s both a faithful devotee of AA and an agnostic. She doesn’t sugar-coat or rhapsodize, she shares her perspective and helps me find my own. We sit in coffee shops and have uncomfortable conversations and I thought it would be the worst thing in the world and it turns out I really kind of like it.
I still don’t know what to think about the notion of a higher power. I’m still stubborn, skeptical, and more than a little close-minded. I doubt I will ever leave for a meeting without life-coaching myself out the damn door, the same way I get myself to the gym. But I can say this about where I’m at with AA: I’m not unwilling.
“That doesn’t feel like much,” I said to someone recently.
“It’s everything,” she said.