recovery, skepticism, and my "higher power"


I'm going to try to blog some of my recovery process. I'm doing it for two reasons. One is that there's value to me in writing it down, and hearing from others about the process. The other is that there's precious little out there in the way of personal stories of recovery, outside of the meetings themselves.

(I know that I don't owe this to anyone--I'm doing it because I want to, not because I feel obligated. But Anil's right that people in a semi-anonymous medium can sometimes turn nasty. I'll delete comments that I consider to be destructive or meanspirited, and I will close comments on all the recovery entries if that happens regularly.)

Last night I went to my third Al-Anon meeting; each has been in a different location, and each has had a very different overall "personality." Rochester isn't an enormous city, but it's large enough to support more than 60 different meetings each week, and I decided I wanted to try several of them before deciding which one I'd make my "home" group. (Unlike AA, which typically has many groups that meet daily, the Al-Anon groups all seem to meet weekly.)

I liked the meeting I went to last night, for a couple of reasons. In part, it was the size and layout of the meeting room. (User experience matters even when you're not sitting in front of a screen.) The first two meetings I went to were on the large side (20-25 people), with chairs set in a large circle. Last night was a smaller meeting--more like a dozen people--sitting around tables that formed a square. Another factor was that there was someone at the meeting I already knew--someone I'd become friends with online in another context, and who had told me that this particular meeting was reasonably accepting of people with non-traditional religious beliefs. It helped me a bit to have a familiar face in the room, even the face itself was only familiar from Orkut photos.

The part about the religious beliefs was important, because a critical component of all twelve-step programs is the acknowledgment of a "higher power." While many (if not most) participants in these programs seem to conceptualize their higher power as a traditional judeo-christian "god," often with sentient characteristics ("my higher power won't give me anything that I'm not able to handle," "my higher power is a compassionate power who loves me and supports me," etc), the literature emphasizes that each person can have their own sense of what that higher power is.

I spent a little time after the meeting talking with the person I knew from online about these "higher power issues." I had fully expected that this would be the most difficult part of a twelve-step program for me, because--like this friend--I don't subscribe to a standard theological model. I don't believe in a "god," not in any traditional sense. I do, however, believe that the universe is not random, and I believe that I am not the center of it. I believe that there are flows of positive energy, that there are patterns, and that there are ways to fight against those natural patterns and ways to flow with them. I can feel when I'm out of balance, and when I'm not. And it turns out that it hasn't been difficult for me to use this sense of natural order and energy in the context of "higher power" in most of the 12-step literature.

I'm planning to buy a couple of books from Amazon soon--The Zen of Recovery, and A Skeptic's Guide to the 12 Steps (which Amazon thoughtfully bundles together).

The meeting yesterday was the first one where I actually talked--at the previous meetings I'd only listened to other people. But the daily reading from one of the Al-Anon books had hit home for me that day:

The First Step tells me that I am powerless over alcohol, which is admittedly stronger than I am, since there was no way for me to keep the drinker away from the bottle. It also suggests that the confusion resulting from this helplessness has done things to my life that are not easy to endure. Then, going on to Step Two, I find that the Twelve Steps are a closely-linked chain that will give me a clear understanding of my situation.

It says "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." This means that although we cannot help ourselves, there is help at hand. I am required to admit, also, that my own behavior was not sane. This is an invitation to humility, without which there can be no progress.

Hard stuff for a self-professed control freak to swallow. But it's becoming clear to me how important it is for me to let go of my long-held belief (or need to believe) that I can protect the people around me from the consequences of their own actions.

It's also important for me to admit my own confusion and irrationality. There's a lot of denial that goes into supporting an alcoholic's choices, and a lot of guilt. For me, the guilt is that I didn't keep the alcoholic from drinking. I worked hard at denying that the problem existed, and my first reaction during the past few weeks was to beat myself up about that--why didn't I realize how bad the problem was? How could I have been so blind? Someone who cared would certainly have recognized and addressed the problem! But a close friend said to me recently "You didn't know because s/he didn't want you to know, that's all." She was right. For me to have known would have meant sacrificing trust--checking up on details, assuming the worst. That would have been far more destructive in the long run.

So yes, I was powerless over amount of love or support or concern or intervention on my part could have kept an active alcoholic away from the bottle. I'm clearly not the boss of them. There's a lot of relief and room for healing just in that acknowledgment. As to the higher power restoring my sanity...that's not hard to acknowledge, either. I think about the healing effects of sitting on a beach watching the waves, or hiking up a mountain trail, or just sitting on my front porch watching a thunderstorm roll past. It's when I pay attention to the natural powers in the world around me--the ones I can't control, but that I can acknowledge and connect to--that I start to feel peaceful and strong again.


This is one of the most generous weblog posts I have ever read. Generous because you are revealing your vulnerability. I applaud you for being generous to all of us and to the person that you obviously care very deeply about.

I hope that you and your loved one pull through this.

I know several people that have. And the reason they were able to was because of the support they received from AA and their families and friends.


Thanks for having the courage to write about this. It couldn't have been easy - and we're all the stronger for it.


Guilt over bad things that happen to other people seems to be ubiquitous; at least, that appears to be the case in all of the (four, all of them Western) societies I've ever lived in for any length of time. I still ask myself whether I could've helped my family more during the four years that my father was battling lung cancer and I was 3000 miles away. I ask myself the same question with regard to my grandmother, also ill, who is living with my mother.

The answer is, inevitably: there's nothing to do. Nothing will make it all better, not because it's impossible for things to get better, but because key people don't want to be helped. Or else they're not (yet) willing to take the necessary steps.

I don't know what my point is. I guess, I heard echoes in your post of my own search for balance, for responsibility without guilt, for being an active part in someone's life while at the same time acknowledging that they need to be part of their own life as well. Good luck, Liz.

You have great courage. Setting a strong example. Thank you for being so open.


I stumbled across your blog during your 24 hours of fame (don't ask me how) and found it so chock full of knowledge, wisdom and genuineness (did I mention really well written?) that I stuck around and did some reading.

Its no accident. After reading your "eating" words today, I felt compelled to write and thank you for your candor.

I also want to share my take on the "higher power" thing you wrote about...whenever I read or hear the phrase "...G-d as we understand him..." in my head they become "G-d, even if I don't understand G-d." Thank goodness that understanding and "in the image of" are not required.

Know that your blog is appreciated and valued.


P.S. Thanks for your palpable authenticity, regardless of subject; yours is definitely not a blahg!

Hello Liz,

I am pleased that you chose to write about your experience on stepping into Al-Anon.

Our oldest son, Doug (40 this year) has been in recovery for over 10 years. When I visited him in Portland at the start of that time (ending an estrangement of 10 years), he showed me his 12 step book for Narcotics Anonymous. Step 3 was one he was baffled by and he didn't know what he would do with regard to a higher power. What stuck in my mind on reading the step myself was the example of community as one access to a higher power. I have since seen him rely on that, whether in conversations with sponsors, calling help lines, or intimate conversations with me about his experience and how he deals with addiction and schizophrenia. He has lately accepted Jesus as part of his own deepening spirituality. That's not my path. I am touched that it is his avenue and that he gives up having to go it alone.

I marvel at Doug's journey. He has an affliction that can kill him, and every moment of every day he chooses life. I am privileged to know him and I am honored that he chooses to call me Dad.

Thank you for the courage to allow us this glimpse of you and your honoring of the human spirit. We are enriched by you.

You didn't owe this to anyone, but we all owe you for letting us read it.

It is never easy to admit when we're having problems, but it is even more difficult to admit that this was ever the case when things are better. I hope you will continue to post - not only is it helpful to those who are going through the same: It is also giving us who don't know how this must be like an opportunity to understand better. Very important!
I don't know if you ever read Caroline Knapp's incredible book Drinking, a Love Story - a true story where Caroline gives us a window into what it is like to drink, and how much it took to break out of it. I could not put it down.

Liz - Your eloquence and open-hearted honesty is such a compassionate addition to a blog that I continuely find touching and inspiring! The 12 step experience will rock your world, for the better - although some days it may not seem like it! Often things get messier before they get better, yet the only way out is through. Welcome, and thank you for bringing this most touching aspect of yours/Self to your blog. And, your Higher Power is where you find it! peace and blessings, Phoenix

Everyone has already said basicall what I wanted to say.

You are not an anonymous person, and your sharing will help people, real people. And when it is coming from someone who doesn't have anonymity it is much more valuable.

Thank you for having the courage, the spirit to do this.

Knowing is half the battle. Your courage to peel back the layers of your mind and soul for the others to see is amazing to me. So many of us lack the courage to let others see us for who we are. To let others see the "True" being. I applaud you.

Liz - I sat at your feet at the Internet Librarian Conference last November and read your blog about once a week - with envy that you are so knowledgeable and I paddle as hard as I can to keep behind you!! :) I've very recently thought that I might start my own simple blog as a way to jump into the technologies and I imagined writing about my own recovery issues.

How very touching it was to see your own writing today when I checked in! I appreciate your openness and I wish you the very best in what is often and ultimately an exciting journey - even if the original motivation is heartbreaking.

Liz -

I've been wrestling a lot lately with how to describe my own spiritual yet not really conventionally religious beliefs, and I think your descriptions of your "higher power issues" are the closest thing I've seen yet - thank you for giving voice to that.

I wish you wonderful success with your recovery journey.

Many thanks to all of you who've left these encouraging comments--and those who've contacted me privately. Your support means a lot.

"The part about the religious beliefs was important, because a critical component of all twelve-step programs is the acknowledgment of a “higher power.” While many (if not most) participants in these programs seem to conceptualize their higher power as a traditional judeo-christian “god,” often with sentient characteristics (“my higher power won’t give me anything that I’m not able to handle,” “my higher power is a compassionate power who loves me and supports me,” etc), the literature emphasizes that each person can have their own sense of what that higher power is."

Not to intrude, but notice a couple/few things that may be interesting of this thread...

It seems to me that you are, in actual fact, not the least bit powerless against the alcohol, but icbw. Not that it'll be easy, but the alcohol started losing it's power, by your observing/understanding that it was effecting you for your own ill...

So you have the power to observe, at any time, that it might seem like a drink isn't gonna hurt, in the whole scheme of things.. but know that appearances will sometimes deceive. I'm looking for some observations of this kind myself, in regards to smoking.. but my there's a haze in front of my eyes and I haven't so far observed much...;-D

Btw, it is also my understanding that it was this "Higher Power" within you that made the initial recognition that there was a problem. And you can follow your "better judgment" or not, wrt alcohol and any other thing(s).

And also btw, I cannot help but ask, although I won't get into a long conversation in this regard, Liz..


....and this is sort-a awkward to discuss..

..uhhhhhh... I'm not a-tall sure now why I prayed for you, not long back (and also your Sister...)-; I almost never do that. (Meaning: last time before that was Dave Winer's Dad).. So if you have no interest in a "Higher Power", then who was I praying for??

Anyway, as far as recovering..

Yes, those are good questions with tough answers...


I'm not the one who's drinking. I'm attending Al-Anon meetings, not AA. Al-Anon is for people who have family members or friends who are alcoholics.

And I have never asked for anyone's prayers for myself; I have asked people to offer prayers for people whom I care about who do indeed believe in a traditional religious god--my sister, and my stepdaughters' brother Marshall.

However--if you believe in a god to whom you pray, why would it matter to you if the person for whom you were praying believed in that god?


I commend your engagement with Al Anon groups... it is something that I can only wish that I did within my own familiy before it was too late. As a professing Christian, I do have a name for my higher power...and I will include you, your family, and the community that you choose in my prayers. I commend your courage for sharing in an open prayer for you (and yours) is for peace, patience, strength, and endurance.

"I’m not the one who’s drinking. I’m attending Al-Anon meetings, not AA. Al-Anon is for people who have family members or friends who are alcoholics."

My apologies. I almost never reply to a post I've only skimmed, but in this case I tried to catch the gist and reply to a specific point. I may try to read thoroughly (and comments as well), but no time at present.

"And I have never asked for anyone’s prayers for myself; I have asked people to offer prayers for people whom I care about who do indeed believe in a traditional religious god—my sister, and my stepdaughters’ brother Marshall."

That was my recollection of the post I referred to. However, when you asked for prayers for your Sister, I don't recall you saying you did NOT want any prayers for yourself. My "theory" was that it would be of benefit for both you and your Sister if you had the strength and wisdom to seek and find whatever needed (and needs) done to help Her.

"However—if you believe in a god to whom you pray, why would it matter to you if the person for whom you were praying believed in that god?"

I'm sorry, but I am more similar to the views and experience of "Paul", (just from what I've read in comment, not having visited site of the presumed Male above,) I believe.

Lemme put it this way, inadequately:

When you and I see the color red, do we see the exact same thing?? I am doubtful, because Science has determined that some people are totally and completely color-blind (and there are varieties and degrees of color-blindness). So I contend that it is possible, and likely, that we see something red and can both identify this thing as being red, although our emotive experience of the "actual redness" of this thing may be somewhat (or entirely) different.

So when you say "why would it matter to you if the person .. believed in that god?"

Well, I guess I would say that I don't believe in praying to a thing in the first place, (or for things much either for that matter)... Iow, I don't see where it could matter, and looking at these things (and thinking one can perceive One) from pov of "my G-d" vs. "your G-d" is a misrecollection of the Highest Order, imv...

But thaz jes me, and my limited view of this vast subject-which-is-not-limited-to-being-conceptualized/verbalized...


All that to say, I don't pray to a G-d that I can fully say I fully believe in.. anything I would believe in would be, imv, a rather crude misrepresentation of that-which-I-believe-in, to being with....

..if "yaknowhaimean, Vern"...;-D

Not that I'm muchuva "prayin' man", as I stated above. And I don't consider myself very religious, afaik.

So perhaps should not have commented on thuh subject, in the first place.

(However, I do "try" to do most-whatever I do as an act of "prayer", in a sense of the what-I-know-of-term..)

Congrats to you on your recovery. If it helps you to blog it, I say go for it!

Good for you to share your story, Liz... it will help others follow their own paths to health.

Hi Liz,
Just wanted to wish you well.

Emily (of September momdom)

My path to recovery started with getting kicked out of public school for drinking... Maybe even before that, being exposed to alcoholism and the entire family disease with my parents.

Recovering from the "control freak" - at least for your alcoholic - is not an easy road.

All lay load on the willing horse...




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on May 25, 2004 8:24 PM.

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