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Do You Need God to Stay Sober?

Some say you have to have a relationship with God if you want to stay sober. Rachael Brownell has other ideas.

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By Rachael Brownell

09/16/11

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I have a big problem with God. We’re not connecting, seeing eye-to-eye, or even talking much these days. And yet I’ve stayed sober nearly four years, in a program that teaches the importance of a strong relationship with a Higher Power. 

So I wonder: do you need God/god/Higher Power to get and stay clean and sober?

For some, absolutely not. Yet the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is foreboding on the subject: “The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink,” it says. “Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.” 

In other words, Dude. You gotta get an HP. 

According to most followers of the 12-step way, God can be what and whoever you choose—a doorknob, the group, Cousin Sue, or a hot neighbor who favors outdoor naked yoga. You can be an atheist, an agnostic, a confused Liberal Arts grad, or a practitioner of one of the many world religions —even a dirty failed Mormon such as I, and be at home in a 12-step group. And yet even with this permissive, do-it-yourself approach, many of us still find the God thing a major sticking point in our recovery. Given that alcoholics are (kindly put) on the resentful side, plenty of us walk into recovery with a big ole chip on our shoulder against God, the judge, our mamas and papas, ex-boss, ex-spouse, the dog. You name it, we don’t want to submit or apologize, much less pray to it. Recovery people throw around terms like “Higher Power” and “God as you choose to understand God”—both because it’s written in the literature that way and, I think, in order to keep folks from being frightened away because of the “God thing.” 

For the God-weary, there are several big God problems that surface—both in our overly Christianized culture and in recovery meetings themselves—that keep us from buying the concept of a Higher Power.

The God Wants You in the Winner’s Circle Problem

If some folks are to be believed, God is a sort of free Dairy-Queen Drive Thru. You place your order. He answers “Yes!!” and waves you right on through. You recognize these people because they talk like this: “Hey guys, it’s a great day for me and my Higher Power! I found a parking place right in front of the school! My kid got picked for the varsity squad! I lost that last five pounds!”  Which makes me wonder what God is doing or not doing for citizens of war-torn villages in Afghanistan? Doesn’t God love them? God as the arbiter of good and bad luck sounds too much like predestination.

The God as BFF Problem

Equally troubling is the God as best friend approach. “Hey God, how’s it hanging?” these people may ask. “Isn’t it a drag about teachers going on strike this year?” I like my friends to have skin (or fur) and answer in some way when I talk to them. God as BFF seems too much like a psychotic break—and also a little cheeky. Doesn’t one have to be rather righteous to feel like God has her/his back? Also, it seems incredibly rude that God doesn’t have the good manners to answer (not in code, mind you, but in real live language) when called upon. Also, it is markedly easier to believe God is one’s BFF when one is not, say, living in a war zone, terminally ill, impoverished, or watching ones’ children’s teeth rot from lack of proper dental care.

The God Thinks I’m Right Problem

Maybe my self-talk is more negative than yours, but sometimes all I can think when someone sounds too right with God is that they’ve cut ahead of me in line, that they are standing straight in the sunlight of Jesus or Buddha or whoever while I’m busy biting my nails and worrying about what to fix for dinner. This scenario seems to go something like: Life before recovery: festering sinkhole of doom. Life after recovery + one with God = Happy beyond wildest dreams. 

The God Plays Favorites Problem 

If God is President of Heaven and only certain people get to go there and hang out, I’m pretty sure the counterpoint, Hell, is an awful lot like Middle School —we’ll all shuffle around with low self-esteem, wearing ill-fitting jeans, and coaching ourselves into total darkness. Learning to relate to God under this pretext is like trying to get a toddler to listen: you can capture their attention for a minute, but as soon as something sparkly appears in their field of vision, whoosh! They’re gone. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in believing in a Higher Power if it’s going to be like trying out for the cheer squad: you’re welcome to hang out as long as you’re skinny, pretty, never swear, and have oddly flexible hamstrings. 

What’s God Got To Do With It?

Sometimes people preach God rather than recovery, and it’s hard not to get irritated. What about those of us who don’t know—who are pissed at God or who cannot fathom picking our own concept of a Higher Power? 

When it comes to finding a Higher Power or a God to help get sober and stay sober, I remain thoroughly confused. Sometimes I imagine an HP that is Lily Tomlin alone on stage, riffing about her carbuncle, or my friend Frank who died a few years ago who used to talk about praying to Jake, or my friend Paul who used to sit with me at meetings. Other times, I picture my older brother telling me in his calm soft voice that everything will be all right. And isn’t that the point? All of us want to believe that eventually everything will be okay. Some of us need God to feel that. Others need good friends, an active imagination, and a daily reprieve from the obsession to use or drink.

I don’t know what the hell to make of the God thing. But I know that I’ve stayed sober for nearly four years now without figuring it out. And if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her sexy boyfriend, her kids, her books and her closet that is no longer full of skeletons. She has written about the importance of humor and what motherhood is really like in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.

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