Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Came to Believe

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.


  1. Kathy,
    Great Post! God love touches our heart and we cry..... I have had the same experience. Your post is so encouraging.


  2. "God of my understanding" mislead me for a while. I thought it meant I had to understand God. Then I read that I didn't have to understand God, just TRUST God. That makes more sense for me. Awful lot easier, too!

  3. Appreciate your post Kathy, thank you!

  4. This is a wonderful post Bug. I have had many sponsee's that have struggled with this very thing. It's a blessing when they finally find a God of their understanding. I am overpaid!
    Much love!

  5. Anymore I don't know if AlAnon brought me to God, or God brought me to AlAnon. I used to only pray when I needed help, now it is a daily part of my life. It has changed everything. Mysterious, indeed...

  6. However you get there, God changes you. I'm thankful to know He cares.

  7. wow, i LOVE this post, kathy. for many reasons. if i wasn't already following your blog this post would have made me start doing so.

    thank you for bringing this up. both for talking about religion and god at all (one of my favorite topics), but addressing what a barrier not believing is for those of us who are drawn to alanon and the 12 steps. i have always had a problem with the notion of a higher power. i don't believe in god and find the idea that we need to think of something "higher" kind of insulting even.

    so your post really got me thinking about this in a good way. i think what might help me is to think of a power outside of me, or beyond me. not above me or stronger than me. i think it's the whole greater/lesser thing that bothers me. not that i think i need to handle everything or that i don't realize i'm small. i know i am. i guess i just grew up feeling so small, it's been a struggle to get to feeling big enough. so the concept of needing to believe in something better or bigger or stronger than me has always been unappealing. for other reasons too.

    but i like the idea of nature or the universe and sometimes i "pray" to it. but it's more me sending out my feelings and thoughts to the rest of the world. it helps me feel more connected. and it's a good meditation practice. and i love that idea you found in your yoga teacher, that it doesn't matter how we practice, just that we do.

    oh, and i love mary karr. i haven't read this one yet, but it sounds good. thanks!

    thanks again for this post. and for your blog in general. :)