Oh No, Is He Talking About God Again?

By James Brown, Patrick O’Neil 08/09/21

An excerpt from Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives, an extraordinary collection of personal stories and creative writing exercises designed to help others achieve lasting sobriety.

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Man leans hand against cave wall, looks serious.
Okay, so it’s not god. It’s not religion. It’s... oh shit, I don’t know what the hell it is.

One of the bigger issues in the recovery community is the idea of god. Is a belief in one necessary to getting clean and sober? If so, does that god have to be one spelled with a capital “G,” as it is in The Big Book, or a lower-case “g” that allows for a more open dialogue? 

The following is excerpted from Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives.

Chapter Six
Oh No, Is He Talking About God Again?

My sponsor hates it when I talk about feeling like an agnostic, or an atheist, or just conflicted and confused. He definitely believes in God, capital “G” and all. But you know I’m not so sure about god. In truth I had, and sometimes still do have, a lot of trouble with the concept of a higher power.

For a lot of us the god part of A.A. was a roadblock we had to navigate around if we wanted to remain in the fellowship and stay sober. Unfortunately quite a few of us had religion shoved down our throats as children, typically of the sort that damned you for being who you were. Then we showed up at our first meeting, and boom, it’s god all over again. Not so oddly the statistics say A.A. loses a large percentage of newcomers due to its thinly veiled Christianity.

I grew up in a very conflicted household, especially when it came to religion. My mother was a quasi-Catholic-sometime-Protestant that would force us kids to go to church on a not so regular basis. My father was a Marxist. On Sunday, he’d say, “you can go to church if you want, but I’m going out to hike in the woods and then eat doughnuts and drink hot chocolate. You want to go, too?”

I’m laying odds you could easily guess what a six-year-old wanted to do more than go to Sunday school. So every time I read “God” in the Big Book I’d think of my dad. Which brought up all those old conflicting feelings of wanting to please an authority figure as opposed to rebelling.

In the beginning I had a sponsor I would later learn was what they called a “Big Book Thumper,” and he didn’t really care or understand my issues with religion and god. Anytime I expressed doubt and a lack of faith he would tell me to read, “We the Agnostics” because he said, “A.A. is a spiritual, not a religious program.” But then two seconds later he was telling me I had to pray.

As a newcomer it seemed impossible to separate religion and spirituality.

So what does all this talk of a higher power and spirituality have to do with writing your way to recovery? Well if you read a lot of addiction memoirs, or just memoirs in general, you’ll notice there’s a connecting tissue that most of them have. Memoir often embraces seemingly un-embraceable subjects such as death, loss, illnesses, catastrophes, squandered opportunities, horrific events, addiction, broken dreams, and then chronicle the protagonist’s ability to overcome adversity and persevere.

But the memoirs that really resonate are when the authors reflect on their “journey” and use their story as an opportunity to look inside themselves. It’s not just everything that they have experienced, but how everything has helped change them into who they are today — the person that is writing the memoir. That “internal change” is by definition spirituality, “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul.”

Whew, that took a long way to get here, right? Okay so again, you may be wondering, what the hell is he talking about now? And if I haven’t lost you yet, here it is. Spirituality is not just what we need in a memoir; it’s also what we need for our program of recovery.

Yet for me the concept of spirituality was a bit too ambiguous. Okay, so it’s not god. It’s not religion. It’s... oh shit, I don’t know what the hell it is.

Then one sunny afternoon I was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles and I passed a broken down and very overloaded station wagon on the side of the road. The hood was up, gray smoke billowing out, and a family huddled together on the shoulder. For a nanosecond I locked eyes with the mother as she hugged her child and I swear I could feel her sadness and absolute despair.

I was hemmed in between two lanes of speeding traffic and I couldn’t stop to help. Yet the fear in that woman’s eyes haunted me and I remember thinking, let those people be all right. Let that woman get her kids home safely.

Now that might not seem like a big deal to you, and I understand. But for someone that used to drive by similar situations and think, better you than me, sucker, it was a huge departure. And in that moment I came that much closer to understanding spirituality. It wasn’t that I had to attain nirvana, or make some magnanimous gesture, or even perform a miracle. I just had to give a shit about someone other than myself.

Chapter Seven
God? Not God?

Like Patrick, I had trouble with God. Since the ripe old age of seven, when my mother was arrested and thrown in jail, I sat on the lawn outside our apartment complex, looked up at the sky, and cursed Him. Or Her. Or It. I think I actually said “fuck you,” fully expecting to be struck dead by lightening. It didn’t happen. And in the mind of a child this was only further proof that He didn’t exist. And if He did, as my older sister firmly believed and tried her best to make me believe, then what sort of God was He to allow our mother to be taken from us?

So began my life as an atheist, or, at best, an agnostic.

Believing or not believing in God didn’t seem to present any problems for me until my forties. I got by just fine on my own, or so I thought, because by then I was a total mess. Nevertheless, when I first walked into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, the “God thing” almost sent me running. By now I’d come to accept that I was “powerless over alcohol,” and when push came to shove, though I resisted it for as long as I could, I also eventually had to admit that my life had “become unmanageable.” Of course this is the First Step in A.A. and there’s no point in attempting the next if you honestly don’t think that you’ve fucked up just about everything in your life because you couldn’t stop drinking and drugging.

But that Second Step?

It says that we have to believe in a “Power greater than ourselves,” and it capitalizes the P in power, which is a dead giveaway that it’s referring to God, thereby assuming that God exists. And that, as I said earlier, was a problem for me. Actually it’s a problem for a lot of people, and I’m not just talking about A.A.

Patrick wrestles with this same issue, empathizing with those who had “religion shoved down [their] throats as children,” predisposing them to later reject god. Especially the one spelled with a capital G. Even today, with 20 years of sobriety, his definition of spirituality continues to evolve.

I understand that. I respect that.

In time, however, I changed, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t or can’t still identify with those who either downright don’t believe in a God or are struggling to embrace one. For me the change occurred slowly, over a period of a couple years, when my sponsor kept after me to pray, to whom or what didn’t matter, just pray, even if I only saw it as a one-sided conversation with myself.

“Open your mind to the possibility of a God,” he said. “That’s all I’m asking. And when you pray, keep it simple. At night, if you got through the day sober, hit your knees and say ‘thank you.’ And in the morning, when you wake up, hit your knees and ask for ‘the strength’ to do it again. What’s that take out of your day? Thirty seconds? A minute? Don’t tell me you can’t do that.”

Allowing for the possibility of a God involves an openness toward faith, and as the sober days began to accumulate, the simple act of prayer combined with a little faith eventually turned into a belief in God. Once that happened, the conversation was no longer one-sided. Obviously it’s more complicated than this, requiring much soul-searching and willingness, confronting looming questions and doubt, but it’s how the process began for me.

But that’s just me.

What about you?

Is there a God, and, if so, who is He or She or It?

***

In two-to-three pages, describe the God of your own understanding. Do you picture Him as Christians picture Jesus? Is He or She or It different than the God of traditional world religions? Do you see this Power in terms of Mother Nature? The Great Spirit? The Collective Consciousness of Human- kind? Does It defy personification? What strengths, virtues and qualities does your God possess? Kind- ness? Love? Is He forgiving or punishing or both?

For the non-believers, for the sake of argument, if you were to have a God, what would you like Him or Her or It to be? Again, you don’t have to believe in a God, but you do have to pretend that if by some chance there was one, what might He or She or It mean to you? What would be Its strengths, virtues and qualities?

What we’re after with this exercise is nothing more than a better grasp of a God of our own understanding. And we do it by articulating and describing who and what He or She or It means to each of us.

 

Writing Your Way To Recovery: How Stories Can Change Our Lives, by James Brown and Patrick O’Neil, is now available on Amazon and elsewhere.

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James Brown is the author of the addiction memoirs, Apology to the Young AddictThe Los Angeles Diaries and This River. He has received the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. His writing on addiction, suicide and madness has been featured in Words Without Walls, The Fix, Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. Brown is an English Professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

(Author image by Nate Brown)

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Patrick O'Neil is the author of the addiction memoir, Gun, Needle, Spoon. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles where he is an adjunct faculty member for their Continuing Education Program. He is a practicing Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor and is on the Board of Directors for REDEEMED, a non-profit Criminal Record Clearing Project that brings lawyers and professional writers together to help others move beyond their past. In 2016, for his exemplary work in the recovery community, O'Neil received a Governor's Pardon by California Governor Jerry Brown.