I've been reading "Lit" by Mary Karr, about her descent into alcoholism and the break up of her marriage. Karr wrote the classic memoir "The Liar's Club." "Lit" is her third memoir. So she's no novice to the genre. But I read that it took her something like four years and three tries to get this one right.
I find myself drawn to memoirs of addiction. With each one, I gain a little more understanding, a little more compassion. It's a popular genre, too. It's interesting to me that no one writes memoirs about Al-Anonism. Why is that?
Anyway, being something of a student of the genre, it strikes me that the biggest obstacle to recovery initially is the inability to believe in a higher power.
I was fortunate that I had a God when I became a member of Al-Anon for real. But it wasn't always that way.
As a very young child living in the home of my devoutly Roman Catholic grandmother, I believed in a God. That God was loving and resided in picture books and in my grandmother's Bible, which was illustrated with gorgeous reproductions of famous Renaissance paintings. But my mother didn't attend church and after I went to live with her, I gradually lost faith.
It wasn't that I didn't want to believe. I did.
I envied people with faith. They seemed happier, more at peace somehow. But I didn't know how to do it.
I tried to intellectualize my way to a belief in God. In college, I took a survey class of Western Philosophy. It seemed that proving God's existence was priority number one among the philosophers I was studying. I read with intensity, looking for the proof that would allow me to finally believe. But faith always eluded me. There was always some leap of faith I couldn't follow. Rene Descartes, for example, went from "I think therefore I am" to therefore there must be a God.
I just couldn't make the leap.
Then one day, I found myself in the fallout from another failed relationship. I was miserable. I knew something was broken, but I didn't know what. All I knew was that all my relationships turned to dust. I couldn't find any pattern in the men I had been seeing, so I could only conclude it was me. I made up my mind to figure out what was plaguing me and fix it.
Ironically, this was also the first time I attended Al-Anon at the suggestion of a friend. With my upbringing, I certainly felt like I qualified to be there. But at the time I wasn't living with an alcoholic, so I felt like I was cheating to be there. I didn't think my problem had anything to do with the family disease of alcoholism (how little I knew!), so I didn't get a sponsor or work the steps. After a few meetings, I quit going.
But a friend invited me to church. For some reason, I went.
I don't remember a thing about the service, except that I felt foolish because I couldn't stop crying. I started crying at the first note of the first song and struggled to regain my composure as people filed out around me at the end of the service.
I had no idea what was happening. I only knew something was. Until I figured it out, I had to stick around. I kept coming back, as we say in the program. All I knew was that I felt good in church. And eventually--and I mean years--I realized I did believe.
I believe so completely that I often forget that there are many people in the rooms of AA and Al-Anon who are still struggling with the idea.
Here are some suggestions I've heard in the rooms:
Your higher power can be anything. It just needs to be a power greater than yourself.
For many people, that higher power is the program itself. That would have worked for me. I can't deny the mysterious power the program has or how it seems to work so well for so many without anyone being in charge.
Some people have "fired" the God of their former understanding. This was often a mean and punishing God or a neglectful God. One technique I've heard is to write down all the characteristics of your ideal God and "hire" that God.
In "Lit," a speaker at a meeting tells Mary: "Faith is not a feeling. It's a set of actions."
The line reminds me of a time in my own early recovery when my husband and I were on vacation and I was worried that I would not be able to attend a meeting. We were staying at a resort in a remote part of Costa Rica. As fate, or God, would have it, I signed up for Yoga. I was the only student.
What seems obvious to me now, though I didn't realize it at the time, was that my Yoga instructor was in program, and he talked program to me every day. "It doesn't matter what you practice," he said. "It only matters that you practice."
In "Lit," the speaker tells Mary: "Pray every day for 90 days and see if your life doesn't get better." Even if you think you are praying to the air. "Call it a scientific experiment... You can make up your own concept of what to revere. Like Nature..."
Another AA member tells her: "Get on your knees and find some quiet space inside yourself... Let go. Surrender, Dorothy, the witch wrote in the sky. Surrender, Mary.... Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet. It's a cathedral. It's an empty football stadium with all the lights on."
She did, and her life did get better. Like so many others before her.
I don't know how electricity works. But I know I flip a switch and there is light. I don't know how prayer works. I just know it does.