A Spiritual Journey In Recovery

By Christopher Dale 11/27/15

How travel helped me abandon atheism and, in doing so, aided my recovery from alcoholism.

Christopher Dale
via Author

Four years ago, when I stumbled into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous an abject atheist, I had a huge problem with the G-word. And though my own stubborn ego posed the highest hurdle to spiritual growth, my skepticism was, unfortunately, reinforced by the cookie-cutter concept of God espoused by many AA members. Many ascribed to an all-powerful, white-robed God who closely controlled absolutely all that occurs, however seemingly insignificant.  

I found this “there are no coincidences” mindset infantile, even a bit insulting. By claiming God’s direct intervention in saving my life, I would, conversely, be blaming God for not saving others. One of AA’s key tenets is humility, which runs wholly countercurrent to the notion—childishly unsophisticated at best, condescendingly arrogant at worst—that I am somehow “special,” that God chose to spare me while smiting others. God didn’t kill my grandfather at age 55; cirrhosis of the liver, earned over decades of active alcoholism, did. 

In the ensuing years, I would learn that the spiritual path sought through the 12 steps is broad—and that it’s normal for newcomers to struggle with the Higher Power concept. By no means was I tragically unique.  

But in late 2011, as a defeated, baffled and altogether volatile newcomer, I knew I needed…something. It was a roadblock that, sooner or later, would have gotten me drunk, and I don’t think I had another recovery in me. 

And though I still wholeheartedly reject the notion of an Almighty God, I’ve found a Higher Power equally awe-inspiring. I found this Higher Power, in all its magnificent omnipotence, largely through my love of travel. 

In mid-2012, my wife and I (I was, somewhat incredibly, still married) took a 10-day trip to Costa Rica. AA newcomers are, appropriately, warned that idle hands reach for bottles and cans, and since Day 1 of sobriety I had taken that message to heart. I was getting up, getting to work, getting to AA meetings, even getting to the gym. I was getting things done, but I was getting exhausted. And I wasn’t getting God, which was getting me fed up – both with myself and with AA.  

The vacation was my first real break in this frenzied routine in my eight months of sobriety. I needed the respite. 

At this point, you may be expecting a tale of cliché conversion—bracing for some long-winded, eye-rollingly florid passage about how Costa Rica’s pristine, golden-sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs teeming with marine life and awe-inspiring, mountainous inland rainforest turned me into a believer in less than a fortnight. Oh, the splendor of God’s creations!

But despite the temptation to show off my heavily-thesaurus-aided vocabulary, what actually happened was more muted, more subtle. Call it the first few flashes of a more sustainable spiritual spark.

Let’s start with the wholly uncontroversial assertion that Costa Rica is a beautiful tropical destination. Its beaches are clean, its waters warm and clear, its reefs abundant and accessible. And once you’re thoroughly bronzed (or burned, if you “tan” the way I do), Costa Rica has a milder inland jungle region with just the right amount of infrastructure to feel comfortable without feeling touristy. Nature hikes, zip-lining and swimming under and through waterfalls are experiences that would be hard-pressed to roundly disappoint. 

It hadn’t even been a full year since I had woken up in a jail cell, the result of blowing a .18 —more than twice the legal blood alcohol limit—into a cop’s breathalyzer. Suffice to say, there were times, especially near my alcoholic bottom, when I didn’t think I’d be seeing something as picturesque as Costa Rica anytime soon. 

So after eight months of a necessarily packed but nonetheless taxing schedule, the first thing Costa Rica allowed me to do was to slow down, to take a deep breath. My wife would be with me 24/7, so there would be no chance of relapse. I could relax, reflect, recharge. And more than anything else, Costa Rica evoked gratitude for these freedoms. 

And this, I think, is where the particulars of travel matter immensely. Had this respite come, for example, in the form of a staycation or even an AA retreat, I don’t think I could have sufficiently unplugged from everyday life enough to press a personal reset button and, in doing so, become mentally malleable to my surroundings.  

And what surroundings they were. A few highlights: 

• Snorkeling near Tamarindo amidst the widest variety of ocean life I’ve ever seen, including a nurse shark docile enough to pet and a full-grown hammerhead which, luckily, we encountered while on the boat rather than in the water.

• An eight-inch walking stick—one of the world’s largest insects—just chilling out on the steps of our ecolodge at Arenal Volcano. 

• Crocodiles and howler monkeys from afar, and hummingbirds from up close. 

• Ziplining over rainforest canopy, swimming in thermal springs, and body surfing on a deserted beach. 

And it wasn’t just the wilderness. As I made my way through Costa Rica, I had the pleasure—and, another unique aspect of vacation, the motive and the time—to meet coffee farmers, small business proprietors, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, roadside peddlers. I got to watch the people who made my vacation possible ply their crafts with both deftness and humility. Humanity can be pretty amazing when you’re in the mood to witness it. Costa Rica did that for me.  

These experiences, aligned in the condensed timeframe of a 10-day trip, had the effect of chipping away at my cynicism just enough that the inkling of a thought began to not only cross my mind, but actually make sense:

“Maybe something,” I allowed myself to ponder, “turned all of this on.”

Just maybe, four billion+ years ago, some being—perhaps not all-powerful, but certainly more powerful than I—flicked the light switch on what has since become a truly awe-inspiring world. Maybe this Higher Power’s limited influence on Earth and everything on it is a message—part love, part warning—that we’ve been given a sacred gift and must honor rather than desecrate it. And maybe that’s why it feels right to do right. 

Maybe. I really don’t know.  

But I no longer dismiss that possibility. And what I do know is that whatever humble spiritual beginnings Costa Rica helped inspire aided mightily in removing my obsession to drink myself into another rehab, another jail cell, or worse.  

I had to be shown, in vibrant colors and at a safe distance from everyday life, that the world is too big and too beautiful to spend life in dark bars and darker moods.  

I had to get away to get a God. That’s how important travel can be for the soul. 

Christopher Dale is a freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues. He is the founder and sole contributor to www.ImperfectMessenger.us, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Chris & Nicholas Dec 2017.JPG

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.