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On Staying Sober Without Religion

By Beth Leipholtz 08/21/16

“I'm sober because of me, because I finally decided to take control of my life and do what I knew was right."

On Staying Sober Without Religion
No church here.

In sobriety, most alcoholics and drug addicts attend their first 12-step meeting early on, as they begin changing their lifestyle and looking for support. 

But for 31-year-old Kelly Fitzgerald of Cape Coral, Florida, it wasn’t until she was one and a half years sober that she mustered enough courage to walk through the doors to her first meeting. 

For the previous 18 months, one thing had been keeping her from doing so: fear of being unwelcome due to her lack of religion. 

The Concept of a Higher Power 

Like Fitzgerald, many who are not religious struggle with the idea of attending 12-step programs. The concept of a higher power can be daunting, confusing, and even alienating when grappling with one’s own beliefs. 

“That fact actually kept me from going to AA for a long time because I thought it was all about God and I wanted no part of that, which is why I didn't go until I was one and a half years sober,” Fitzgerald said. “I kind of had low expectations going in, and I didn't think I would like it or keep going.” 

However, the meeting was enjoyable and Fitzgerald found herself returning. Though she by no means considers herself religious, she still attends weekly meetings for the support garnered through them. 

“I kept going because everyone was really nice, and basically the number one reason I go today is for the sense of community, and talking, listening and bonding with other women who have struggled with addiction and have been through exactly what I've been through,” she said. 

Thirty-three-year-old Laura Silverman of Washington D.C., now sober nine years, also dabbled in 12-step meetings but ultimately decided they were not for her. 

Before deciding this, she regularly attended meetings for two and a half years. Though she says the program will always be a part of her journey, she eventually realized her views did not align with many in the program, and began seeking other types of recovery fellowship. 

“I really did try to do the whole higher power thing, but it just never stuck with me,” she said. “I tried to do the praying thing, like, ‘Thank you for keeping me sober,’ but it just felt so forced. I know that we’re often told to fake it until we make it—and I think that has a time and place—but I couldn't keep forcing or faking the whole higher power thing.” 

According to Silverman, this was in large part due to the fact that she considered herself responsible for her sobriety, rather than crediting an outside force. 

“I never really felt comfortable with the line between putting your will in God’s hands, whatever that means, and having agency in your own life,” she said. “Every time I wanted to show that I was in control, I would always be directed to the passage in the Big Book about the director of his own show that's basically saying, ‘No you can’t, whenever it’s your way you get into trouble.’ I see the intent of that passage—if you do everything the same way over and over again, chances are the outcome might not be positive. But to me, it felt like saying you can't have any kind of control in your life.”

Finding Spirituality 

Though 12-step programs do welcome anyone and do not require certain religious beliefs, it can sometimes be difficult for those who do not practice religion or believe in God to get past the parts of the programs that reference God as a higher power. If this is the case, they may designate something else as their higher power and replace “God” with whatever they choose. 

For Fitzgerald, who does consider herself spiritual, it comes down to the fact that she believes there is something bigger than herself in the world. 

“I like to think of the universe as my higher power, but my concept has changed a few times over the years,” she said. “I also feel really connected in nature and believe in the interconnectedness of energy.”

This is also the case for Silverman, who says she feels the most at peace in her recovery when she feels small in comparison to the world.  

“I do now believe more in a spiritual force, but I don’t believe it’s something I pray to in a religious sense,” she said. “It’s more [like I'm] trying to feel connected to something bigger than me, and usually that’s nature and feeling small in a big, vast, natural place.” 

Recovery Without Spirituality or Religion

For others, still, recovery has come without any religious or spiritual ties. 

Forty-nine-year-old Chris Aguirre of St. Louis, Missouri, who has been sober 19 years, considers himself an apatheist

“I didn't even know there was a word for what I was until I started doing all these recovery efforts online,” he said. “I never liked the idea of atheist or agnostic, and apatheist really fits because I am apathetic to the notion of religion. I just don't really think about it. It’s basically someone who can't be bothered to think about religion—it just does not come into their thought process.” 

Chris admits that his story of recovery does contain many coincidences that he doesn’t credit to a higher power, but others do. However, he says, this has never bothered him. 

“I would never disparage someone else's beliefs,” he said. “What I do find is there are people who, when they hear parts of my story, want to attribute some parts to a higher power. I don't have any interest in denying them that belief. If someone wants to see it that way, it’s fine.”

Claire Hogan, 41, from Sydney, Australia, also identifies as someone to whom religion and spirituality are irrelevant. 

“I always knew religion would have nothing to do with my sobriety,” she said. “I was almost as sure that it wouldn't be a spiritual thing for me either, and that's turned out to be the case.” 

Like Silverman, Hogan credits herself with her ability to stay sober. 

“I guess because I don't believe in God, I never associate that concept with my sobriety,” she said. “I'm sober because of me, because I finally decided to take control of my life and do what I knew was right—quit drinking. I've had help along the way from friends and therapists, but in the end it came down to me.”

In the end, it seems self-awareness and having the correct tools is what is vital in sobriety and recovery—with or without religion and spirituality. 

“I do believe part of my story involved a ridiculous coincidence or universal wink, but I don’t think it was God keeping me sober because I believe I have the power to keep myself sober, and to have tools and people in my life to keep me on that path.”

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