Sought through prayers and meditation to Improve our conscious contact with God, as we understand Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out—Step 11 of the 12 Steps, AA & Al-Anon
A Friend of Bill W*?
I’m “A Friend of Bill W” who has been working the 12 steps these last 31 years, off and on. If you’re a drunk, an addict, a gambler, an overeater who can’t control his/her addictive behavior, then you may have been or are now involved in a 12 Step program.
And if you find yourself in an airport and the bar seems to tempt you, you can always call for help through the Public Address system: “hello, a friend of Bill W needs help at Gate 11.” Then one or more fellow 12 Steppers—recovering drunks, addicts or ??, will come to your support.
For me, a men’s 12 Step group has given the support I’ve needed these last several years. And I’m looking forward to a Step Meeting this month (November, the 11th month) when we’ll do Step 11. We’ll each tell how prayer and meditation has guided us on the road to recovery and offer suggestions on how to engage with prayer more deeply.
In this article I want to explain how my Catholic faith and the 12 Step Program mesh. To do so, I’ll tell how the 12 Step program led me to the Catholic Church, why I left the program 22 years ago, and why I came back 5 years ago.
Since there are many good web sites on the 12 Steps (see here, here and here), I’m not going to give an outline of how the program works. Rather, I want to focus on why I needed something more than the Twelve Step “Higher Power.” And then I want to talk about how the program, in spite of this lack, does supplement my Catholic faith.
TWELVE STEP SPIRITUALITY
I was in my 40’s when I came to the 12 Step programs. I was in bad shape, physically, spiritually and financially. In order to preserve my anonymity and that of others, I won’t give the detailed circumstances here other than to say a new world opened to me at a time when I needed new perspectives.
One of these new perspectives was the “Higher Power” on which 12 Step programs rely. As an agnostic, one who prayed only occasionally to a God in whom he did not quite believe, I didn’t know what to make of this concept. I did believe there was some intelligent entity who made all this, but I didn’t think he/it concerned himself/itself with my affairs.
Those who welcomed me into the program told me that I didn’t have to think of a “Higher Power” as a personal god (or even as God). It could be the Steps, the group who helped me, whatever I chose it to be..
Reading about the history of the 12 Step programs, I discovered how this vagueness came about. Those who advised Bill Wilson (a founder of the Program) told him to downplay the religious aspect of the “Higher Power” if he wanted to attract atheists and agnostics. Given the Program’s religious origins— the Oxford Group, Church meetings in Akron, Ohio and New York City— I find this advice somewhat incongruous, but it worked for the Program then and it worked for me 35 years ago.
PROBLEMS WITH A HIGHER POWER
As I became more involved with the 12 Step program, got a sponsor, worked through the Steps, I started to pray more often. I didn’t at that time quite know to whom (or what) I was praying, but it was a cry for help.
However, this lack of identity, of structure, bothered me. I began to think that there was some sort of Orwellian double-speak involved. What could this “Higher Power” be, and still be effectively involved with me personally, if not God in the conventional Judeo-Christian sense? I needed a focus for that which was a Higher Power.
HOW I BECAME CATHOLIC
So, I began to explore which God (not god) could be a Higher Power who would know me, and in spite of that, forgive my sins and support me in my troubles. The God of my fathers, Jahweh, had proved unsatisfactory—I won’t give the reasons for that here.
What about a Christian God, one God but yet a Trinity? My wife was Catholic, so I knew a little about the Church. Indeed, at the baptism of my first-born the priest had designated me an altar server, despite my fervent protests that I was an agnostic Jew. Maybe this and Step 11 were the impetus for me to learn about early Christianity, the Church Fathers, the life of Jesus, searching for the truth in what I had previously believed to be fable or myth.
And so the Holy Spirit led me to read “Who Moved the Stone,” which was the next step in the conversion process. I won’t say more about my conversion here other than it was totally rational. Since that time liturgy, prayer and music have made it “in the heart” on several blessed occasions, but there have been no visions, no voices speaking to me.
WHY I LEFT THE 12 STEP PROGRAMS
I had been working the Program for about two years, attending meetings, going through the steps with a sponsor, on the recovery road, when the roof fell in. The guidance counsellor of our son’s Middle School called us: he was frequently absent from class, and there were “anger issues” when he did attend. The psychologist who was helping our son with these anger issues also called with bad news: the son had been drinkng, smoking pot and needed to go to a rehab.
So I entered Al-Anon, the 12 Step world of the co-dependent, a program for those whose family members were drunks or addicts. And thus began a battle of several decades, as I tried to follow the Al-Anon slogans “You didn’t cause it and you can’t control it;” “Let go and let God,” “One day at a time,” “Let it begin with me.”
There’s a book in the story of rehabs, periods of recovery, relapses, not only with this son, but another child. And maybe I will write that book someday. They say alcoholism/addiction is a disease, genetic in origin. Possibly. My mother was a concealed addict (valium, her drug of choice), and my younger brother died early because of his addictions.
But I don’t want to recount that history. Rather, I’ll explain why I found the 12 Step Al-Anon program inadequate. The best and shortest explanation is to show the “Al-Anon Salute.” Since I can’t find a link, let me describe it: picture a woman, scowling, arm extended, forefinger pointing up, arm moving up and down, and you have it. Their problems—drunken/addicted husbands or boyfriends—weren’t my problems.
WHY I CAME BACK TO THE 12 STEPS
After I stopped attending Al-Anon meetings I sought support through prayer, occasional talks with my priest, and reading self-help books for co-dependents. These were bandaids on deep wounds, but worked during times when everyone was sober and clean. When relapses occurred, and they were infrequent at first, more was needed.
What I did need, which prayer and advice from my priest couldn’t supply, was sharing with men who faced the same problems. Let me emphasize that this lack was not a failing of the Church. One does not expect prayer and meditation to cure appendicitis, except in the case of a miracle, and that must be rare if miracles are to be truly miracles. Just as a surgeon is needed to excise a cancer, so the help of fellow sufferers is needed to deal with codependency.
But God does frequently provide minor miracles, which we call “coincidences.” Five years ago while I was doing volunteer work for the Catholic chaplain at a local hospital, I ran into Jim W, a guy I had met 20 years earlier at an Al-Anon meeting. He was also doing volunteer work at the hospital. Jim greeted me with a hug, and told me there was a weekly men’s Al-Anon group meeting nearby. “Why didn’t I come?”
“Why not?” I thought. Maybe this will help me to step outside of my son’s addiction. And with that decision, I took the first step on my second road to recovery.
THE MEN’S AL-ANON GROUP
Were I more talented, I could write a novel about the men’s Al-Anon group. Instead of a novel, I’ll give a very brief account of what these men were like and how they helped me recover from co-dependency and deepen my Catholic faith.
Many of the men’s Al-Anon group are also members of AA. One guy gave an apt metaphor for Al-Anon: “a finishing school for AA.” In the AA program you focus on your addiction; it’s a binary thing: you drink or don’t drink, you use or you don’t use. Al-Anon deals with one’s relations with others, losing the need to control, the dependence on the happiness of the loved one. Codependency is not binary, an either/or behavior. As with eating, there is a continuous change from normal to addictive behavior.
In many cases men have been successful in “detaching,” letting the loved one reach his/her bottom and then start the long climb to recovery on his/her own. And that has been a lesson for me.
This detachment is extreme, even unto not supplying bail for a DUI jailing or lawyer’s fees and notifying probation officers of a relapse. “We didn’t cause it and we can’t control it” is the operative maxim. But such detachment has led to recovery.
To give the full flavor of the group, I should add that the men are an earthy bunch. Lots of jokes, f-bombs, except when the trouble is really deep, as in the overdose death of someone close. All the men believe in a personal God as their higher power. A few are practicing Catholics. More are lapsed Catholics, and that’s a story for another article. Whatever their faith might be, it is deep and a source of strength.
And so, to the 12 Steps and Catholic teaching.
THE 12 STEPS AND CATHOLIC TEACHING
Were I a perfect Catholic, a saint rather than a doubting Thomas, then the 12 Steps would be superfluous. But I am not and so I have learned to engage my faith by following the 12 Steps. Even though all of them are relevant, the one on which I’ve focused is Step 3:
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
This is what a prideful, self-willed character like myself needs to do to recover. Many have written about this. My favorite Catholic how-to-do book about surrendering to God is Jean Pierre de Chaussade’s “Abandonment to Divine Providence.”
In summary I’ll say that the 12 Steps by themselves would not be sufficient for me to “Let go and let God.” Nor, imperfect Catholic as I am, could I be on the road to recovery without the 12 Steps. Let me use the following analogy: if you see someone with a walker, you know that they could possibly walk without that device, but it would be much more difficult and painful. The 12 Step program, as it works in my men’s Al-Anon group, is the walker for my recovery.
*”Bill W” would be the meeting moniker for Bill Wilson, one of the founders of the 12 Step Program. At a 12 Step Meeting you introduce yourself by saying “Hi, my name is John S, and I’m a ______ (fill in the blank: drunk, addict, overeater, co-dependent,…). No last names, please, in order that anonymity be preserved.