The 12 Steps and Goddess Spirituality

By Kelly Palmer 09/28/17

I identify as a Spiritual Feminist, and my Power Greater is both inherent in Nature and, to me at least, inherently feminine. Sometimes this fits in seamlessly with recovery but other times it bumps right up against prevailing 12 step culture.

As part of a Masters in Feminist Theology I'm currently studying, I read an essay on goddess spirituality and female recovery by Tanice G Foltz (1999). Foltz considers goddess spirituality to be inherently healing; on she states "Since a primary focus of Goddess Spirituality is establishing a spiritual connection with one's self, as well as with all beings, it has at its very core an intention of healing." Traditional 12-step approaches to addiction take the view that addiction is at its own core a "spiritual malady" (AA, 1939) and can only be cured, not just by abstinence and improving emotional and mental wellbeing, but ultimately by establishing "conscious contact" with a personal conception of God.
This focus on filling the spiritual void with a direct relationship to a personal and immanent deity seems at first glance to be wholly in accord with goddess spirituality. In reality however, many women seeking to recover from addiction have not found healing within the 12-step approach but instead or as well as have needed female centred groups and support, including those that are specific to goddess spirituality.
Foltz gives many reasons as to why this is so, both in highlighting ways in which traditional recovery approaches fail to address womens spiritual needs and in demonstrating how goddess spirituality can fill this gap. In spite of the 12 step claim to allow each person their own 'concept of God' in many areas in the West this is patently not the case. Alcoholics Anonymous itself took its steps from the fundamental Christian Oxford Group, and many meetings still use Christian prayers to open and close meetings. God is nearly always referred to in the literature as male; sometimes neutral, never female or gender-inclusive.
Perhaps it is hardly surprising that a movement founded largely on the principles of a patriarchal religion with a male deity may fail to address the spiritual hunger in some women. But for female addicts where recovery may literally be a matter of life and death, simply not participating is hardly an option. Other authors such as Stephanie Covington have explored how women can adapt the 12-step program to support a more feminine view of recovery and spirituality, as well as highlighting the differing experiences and needs of female addicts.
As a recovering addict myself, and also a survivor of abuse and trauma, this topic is deeply personal to me and so I had a very personal reaction to Foltz's essay. Reading this text was very validating for me as it affirmed my own experience within both addiction and 12-step recovery. Although the chapter was written some 17 years ago in the US, it echoes my experiences ten years later and up to the present, in the UK. I credit 12-step meetings with saving my life; they helped me lift myself out of a very dark place into a full recovery.
Nevertheless I saw firsthand some of the problems Foltz and the women she surveyed described. Women told to "stop sitting in self-pity" when they disclose horrific abuse or even to "look at your own part in it" which smacks of victim blaming and shaming. External influences which contribute to addiction such as generational and developmental trauma, family dynamic, and womens experiences of abuse and violence, are often discounted, in spite of the growing body of evidence that shows strong links between trauma and abuse and later addiction. The emphasis on ego deflation is also often detrimental for women whose egos may be fragile to begin with; looking at ones defects is hardly helpful for a woman who is all too aware of her own flaws. Already vulnerable women frequently tell of being preyed on by men who have been in the program for some time and profess to "live by spiritual principles." And of course the assumption in all of the literature and readings is that God is male.
As overt religious fundamentalism is still somewhat rare in the UK, I have never heard of a woman ostracised for her beliefs; however I frequently encounter eye roles and titters when I have referred, in meetings, to God as "She" and "Her." The emphasis also on moral defects can be crippling to women already struggling with low self-worth, as has been my own experience. Ultimately, 12 step groups gave me a way out of active addiction, but to sustain a meaningful and holistic recovery I have needed Goddess spirituality and my womens groups - which I now attend instead of traditional 12-step meetings.
I have also worked through Stephanie Covington's "A Woman's Way through the Twelve Steps" and found this approach infinitely more healing than the traditional, male written and led literature (middle-class white men too; it couldn't possibly get more privileged in its origins!)
Now I no longer introduce myself as an "addict" for I am a woman who is healing and recovering and has not been addicted for over three years. I no longer consider myself powerless (though acknowledge I will quickly become powerless over certain substances if I put them in my body) because my spiritual community and practice empower me and as a therapist I help others find their own empowerment.
Rather than handing over my will to an omnipotent God, as Step 3 as it is traditionally worded asks for, I seek to align my life with the flow and harmony of the All, which I choose to call Goddess. I celebrate my assets rather than bewailing my flaws, while still seeking to take responsibility and hold myself accountable for my actions. I acknowledge the many causes and conditions of addiction and ultimately, honour all of my journey, even the darkest parts.