Posted by: innerpilgrimage | July 14, 2013

Waiting for Nobody: Atheism and Higher Power

      I’ve been reading a pretty challenging book on recovery: Waiting by Marya Hornbacher.

      First of all, I am still food abstinent. Oh, hey, and it’s also the 14th of the month, so this is a milestone day–three years and nine months food abstinent today. I am struggling with the body dysmorphia, still, looking at myself with loathing. I keep forgetting where I started from, likely 275 lbs., and I still complain that I “feel fat”. I look at myself with the eyes of someone who has forgotten what surrender to OA did for me. The struggles I face currently are Step 1-2-3 struggles. I can’t go back to the sleep of addiction; I can’t find comfort in eating, in isolation, in sexualizing myself (and fantasizing that I am young again–I am 43 and time is simply being time), in codependent boot-licking of others to gain their approval. My life? Is a mess of crisis, and I appreciate that the book by Marya Hornbacher is challenging me.
      The biggest challenge is that she doesn’t give me a Higher Power to cling to so I can do more of the same.
      I have just finished Chapter Three. The chapters are broken into months and steps together, each month having a small personal story about her experience. She goes on to write about the challenges of atheism in the step, including potential walls that atheists hit in the AA Big Book. It is a hard program to work as an atheist, secular humanist, agnostic. Her awareness of her own struggles over her first few years of program has shed awareness on my own struggles, from working the program intellectually instead of spiritually to seeking an external Higher Power to wanting to have a neat and clean answer to my struggles with the search for a Higher Power outside of me and besides my willful self. The book? Exhausting, because she writes what I already know but do not wish to surrender to. The worst of it is that I see clearly what I have avoided looking at for so long.
      1. I can believe there is no God; I refuse to give up belief in my “all-powerful, all-knowing self.” I am still a control-freak and I am still my own Higher Power even as I use program language and concepts to pretend I am not.

      2. I have tried to travel the 12 Steps intellectually, which may be why I keep tripping over myself–I am fully aware that going through the program by trying to find concrete answers to gain a perfect and pain-free life is not realistic. This is part of the fantasy, along with hoping and wishing I can undo the past.

      3. I fight surrender, acceptance, and gratitude–whether it is to an anthropomorphized Higher Power or to nothing at all. This exhausts me, makes me long for the days when I believed with all of me that acting on my addictions made me feel alive and happy, that the answers were in attempting to do addiction so perfectly that I unlocked a perfect life with no fear, no grief, no doubt, no anger. I do the same with program, and I have waited for “God” to reward me with an effortless recovery. Surrender-plus-effort: I know it, but I refuse to do it because I am my own Higher Power, still–a dry compulsive eater and sex addict. What I am not dry on? The codependency and the ceasing sense of longing to gain approval from everyone (inferiority) even as I disdain humanity (grandiosity).

      4. I don’t trust that trust is the solution for the doubt I am distressed over. I sit in doubt all of the time, wanting answers set in stone, even as I choose to forget that stone, itself, is weathered by time. Doubt is where I can get my best spiritual growth–if I am willing to let go. Letting go? Well, if I refuse to surrender, accept, and be grateful? I certainly am not letting go of the white-knuckle control that I can control the world, despite the paradox that when I go out in nature, the beauty all around me was not guided by me whatsoever.

      5. I am impatient, and I indignantly refuse to wait for the promises, the miracle. I long for that “pink fluffy cloud” which was recovery when I first reached a state of clarity after starting abstinence. I want that high-on-recovery feeling back, and it’s not coming back. I am in the real work zone, and intellectually working the steps and surrendering to an external, transcendent, anthropomorphized entity is as useless as surrendering to candy, cookies, or salty snacks.

      Being between Step One and Step Two is agony. I can’t go back, and I fight going forward. I want a quick answer, an easy answer, one I can cling to even as I still keep myself my Higher Power. Program slogans jump out at me during these times. “Progress, not perfection”; “Surrender plus effort”; “It’s simple, not easy”. I know, intellectually, what I need to know. I just won’t take the leap of faith; I doubt that without a sure answer as my net, I will fall into the void and become nothing instead of a humbled human who is spiritually opened by wonder.
      Now, regarding an external Higher Power, I struggle with the anger at not being rescued when I was a child. I can believe that the two addicts who raised me were in such distress that they turned toward their addictions and created a home life for me and my siblings which was traumatic. It was. Looking at my sisters’ and my lives, we have all been deeply affected, survivors of a two-alcoholic-parent and deeply codependent home. Intellectually, I have a litany of how I am a PTSD survivor of long-term trauma. Emotionally, I have rage and unresolved grief that I thought that was normal. I just have no spiritual answer . . . except that I do: The Twelve Step Program works, has worked for a long time.
      For me? It just doesn’t work precisely as written, and I have a wretched time beating myself up for not being able to follow the recipe for recovery precisely as written. However, I know I am not alone. I feel hope when I come across others like me in program who struggled because the western culture monotheistic monolith was part of the foundation and formation of the 12-Step program. I feel fear, anxiety, anger when I see the male gender pronoun capitalized in program literature. I feel deep resentment at Chapter Four of the Big Book (“We Agnostics”), which makes it clear that those of us who won’t drink the Abrahamic religion Kool-Aid are deluding ourselves by not giving into a potential illusion. Of course, that is part of my self will demanding that I am my Higher Power, still. Humility is the path, not toward a being which is not provable or disprovable, but toward accepting I don’t know, surrendering to never knowing, and being grateful that I (as a human) am not expected to know everything and control everything.
      So, what about a Higher Power? Well, Ms. Hornbacher tossed out some great philosophical questions on spirituality that she, herself, struggled (and may still struggle) with. This isn’t at the end of the chapter, like a, “Review my expert opinion in the pages prior to get your answers.” The questions are part of the text, are questions which require real effort (and even more surrender) to kick-starting a spiritual existence out of that spiritual dead zone within which addicts crawl into program. These are generally questions that we ask ourselves in crisis, though a few are “program crisis” questions for those of us who have left program euphoria and have landed in despair and doubt as the unattainable promise of a perfect life we told ourselves would come true once Step 12 was reached (versus the attainable and realistic promises of program) evaporates.
      That said, I do have some hope and some gratitude.

      I am grateful that I can’t go back to the addiction-as-it-was. Relapse? That I definitely can do, and I veer around as a dry addict, waiting for the moment that I just give up and again see the truth I saw when I first entered program: Not one of my substances of choice relieves the doubt, fear, hurt, self-loathing, or anger. Not one of my addict substances has ever made the inner judge quiet down or even go away. I can binge eat or starve myself to punish myself, but I can NEVER return to that time when I was in denial that the layered food-sex-love-approval-isolation addict acting-out was a cure instead of the cause for my unmanageable life. So, I can’t be an addict ever again; I can be a relapsed addict, which means that I can return to program the moment after I relapse and start a new 24 hours of recovery. So, I am grateful for the nearly 4 years of recovery and program that has come before.

      I am grateful that others have not only worked program as atheists, they have found real peace in sobriety. Real recovery doesn’t require an external transcendence, and it doesn’t require a Higher Doorknob to talk to. These secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers are not just dry addicts white-knuckling sobriety while spouting the party line just to keep a community. They really are having spiritual experiences without a transcendent being to attribute those experiences to, without a religion, without an unseen mystical or magical source of answers. Real people embracing the reality that program asks us to embrace, and they have been strong enough to share their experience, strength, and hope with others who look at the 12 Steps and see “Abrahamic Cult–BEWARE!” To be blunt, atheists have found real and lasting recovery in 12 Step programs–without a God as we understand Him.

      I am grateful that I am not alone as I travel a deity-free 12 Step journey. I found out about Waiting from a wonderful AA site which is filled with experience, strength, and hope from and for non-theists. is a great resource, even if one is not an alcoholic. At that website, I learned about one of the program founders, Jim Burwell (Jimmy B.) who fought for at least some representation for those who are non-theistic. His efforts created the possibility that AA and other 12 Step programs could be worked without God as Higher Power. Though the Big Book still shows its age and the culture in which it was written, it is open to interpretation for those of us who want recovery yet do not believe in God. These are suggestions, the Big Book tells us, and when we contemplate and meditate on the 12 steps and their deeply spiritual meanings for us, we atheists can find real and lasting recovery in the 12 Step program.

      I am grateful that the struggle I face currently is a spiritual journey, a crisis which can lift me into a strongly-worked program. This doubt that program can work for me has led me to seek guidance in the wisdom of those who have come before me. The easy answers aren’t there in atheist spirituality, which is actually a relief even as it’s a frustration. Simple, not easy. Looking for God as I understand God comes down to looking within for answers which evolve and change as I am supposed to in program. This crisis is good, it’s the hallmark that I am not just floating along in a cult mentality with my easy answers to profound questions which humanity has asked itself since the beginning of humanity–the questions which brought forth religion, itself, to keep our limited consciousnesses from breaking under the strain of trying to encompass it all.

      I recently visited the Grand Canyon for the first time, and I think this is a pretty good metaphor for what I am dealing with in the struggle to surrender to atheist spirituality, the journey to center in order to expand and grow. I experienced when visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon a geological wonder which honestly broke my mind for the grandeur of it. The difficulty I had was the throng of people around me. Some people took self-portraits in front of the backdrop, not contemplating the vastness of it. “Here I am with the Grand Canyon,” with the same attitude as, “Here I am with Mickey Mouse.” I saw people get close to the edge, and I got vertigo, fretful of the lack of control I had as I was terrified these people would slip and fall thousands of feet to where no one could retrieve their bodies. That terrified me, made me white-knuckle harder, made me turn inward to that self-will. I wanted to control people, save them from themselves. I saw no one plummet in, but it was terrifying to see (in my mind) that people just didn’t take seriously how small and fragile we are as people. With the hundreds of people around, I switched manically from broad awe of the Grand Canyon to my own powerlessness at the mass of humanity around me. It vacillated from unfathomable to a painted backdrop in my head, the canyon being too big for me to consider with my limited mind. One person, a woman, tailor-sat on a rock and faced the canyon. I wish I could have done that with all of those people I doubted around me. I’m not sure if she was contemplating or was simply irate waiting, but I wished I could do that, to draw myself out of the throng and let the wonder wash over me.
      Program spirituality is like that for me. I have expectations (like I did before I even saw the Grand Canyon) about spirituality, based on what I was told by others. Confronted with the reality of a spiritually worked program, I was overwhelmed, and I retreated into illusion that I could work it mentally. However, I also have come out of program experiences with the reality that individuals work program in many ways. Some come in and do the footwork and have a physical and mental experience which emulates a spiritual one. Some, however, wait, surrender, contemplate, meditate, and humble themselves in action. They live in the program moment, the spiritual moment. Something so vast to ever be fully understood, and they surrender to a saying I learned from a CODA member: “Be. Here. Now.”
      Be. Here. Now.
      Is there anything simpler about spirituality than that in program? Be. Here. Now. It’s the “splitting seconds” we talk about in OA, the moment of choice to either binge or to reach out. It’s the 24 hour record of sobriety AA-ers talk about, that when I look at three years and nine months of food sobriety (a measurable “success” which I can use in program to prove my worthiness and walk myself straight to relapse), I am missing the beauty of the past 24 hours of food sobriety. Release the grandiosity that I have almost 4 years of food abstinence; release the inferiority that I didn’t stay in ACOA 25 years ago and learn I was a food and sex and love addict who acted those out because I am a codependent trying to get others to make me their Higher Power so I can pretend I am safe. No God, no religion, no answers are needed for spirituality. It is a come-as-you-are process, and the closer I can get to being in that split second, in the silence between the manic notes that border on the Wall of Sound that is modern life, the closer I can get to closing my eyes and leaping and trusting that surrender, acceptance, and gratitude–even without a target and direction to send it toward–are going to lead me to the letting-go necessary to be awed by that which I cannot control instead of fearful of it.
      So, it’s been a long, long road where I’ve tried to go to sleep and pretend I never walked into the door of OA. Like real life, there has been good and there has been bad. There have been more tears, and there has been more honest laughter. I have also been challenged to find a relapse rock bottom, the dark night of doubt and fear which I have tried to drown out. Honestly, I am overwhelmed by CoDA. The list of codependent traits is so long and so familiar that I am facing, well, a Grand Canyon of addiction. It is too big for me to work mentally; my mind just can’t fathom it. But like the Grand Canyon, CoDA is very real to me. Also like the Grand Canyon, I’m avoiding it because I am having trouble being around people, and I would rather gripe that no one cares whether I live or die, whether I return to addiction (“Oh, won’t YOU be sorry when Jess-the-Higher-Power is gone!”) or not. I feel abandoned by others just like me in program (irony? Not lost on me) who don’t reach out because they’re isolating like me. Is my life a mess? Oh, yes. I am wholly and utterly powerless over the unmanageability that my life always had, yet I was (and often am) still trying to deny. Step One? I accept. Now, I have seen people get recovery, and most are not part of the monotheistic trifecta. I have also seen people who can follow the 12 Steps exactly as written find no relief from the addiction, have no food abstinence, get no relief from love or sex addiction, find no hand out from codependency. But I have seen the program work. I have read how agnostics, atheists, and religious people from all social stratae come together and . . . work it. 12 Step really is like the Grand Canyon for me, that it’s something which is real yet defies being fully answered, labeled, and set aside with its check-mark in the box. Step Two? I believe something greater than myself–and I do not even need to know what it is–can restore me to sanity.
      And now? I am trying to open my mind to Step Three as surrender to nothing and everything. Acceptance of my place in the Universe and that I am a living being, however big or small. Gratitude that I even made it to 43 and am getting physically healthier and stronger so I can see more of it (I devastated myself with the anorexia, and I’m building up after tearing down), that the world is amazing enough without me trying to explain it away intellectually and move on. So . . . atheist spirituality is the consideration of my current Step Three workout. I have philosophical questions to meditate and contemplate, and I have the bold assertion that it is actually OKAY not to know. Not only that, it’s part of this “spiritual being having human experiences”, to borrow the 12-Step jargon. Even that I don’t know. What I do know is that I am at a crossroads. I haven’t gone to any meeting in three weeks, pretty-much giving up on all program because I am tired of walking in and hoping someone will want to be my friend. Have I tried to make friends? Not really. Part of being a distressed damsel, wanting people to say I am worthy of walking out in the sunlight. I just fear becoming enmeshed with those people, which is a very real possibility, since I want to avoid my own spiritual journey and keep doing what doesn’t work.
      However? I have awareness of many new things after fighting to stay unaware. That, potentially, could be seen as a spiritual experience. I felt the spiritual hunger and opened myself up to spiritual sustenance. It may not be what I fantasized, but it is nourishing. Paradox of falling down into the shadowy depths is that one gets launched into the bright illumination when it’s time. Truths, however, do bring me to the battlefront between myself and myself–the part of me that wants to pretend I never considered recovery and the part of me that knows recovery is the path to a lived life. That part of me which wants to pretend I never considered recovery, however, can’t obfuscate the despair I felt back then, that the pain was so great that death was an option. Death is NOT an option any more; it hasn’t been since I entered program and chose to live. And that choice to live–even as I am doubting and hurting and angry and fearful–has meaning. What? I don’t know. It just does, and I don’t want to give up the chance to recover a life that was sidetracked so early.
      My name is Jess. I am a binge-arexic of food, sex, love, approval. I usually have some clever wrap-up here, but I guess . . . I’m waiting.



  1. What you have written here is confirmation of my observation that those who struggle with the god question often develop a deeper understanding of the recovery process than those who just take AA’s theology at face value.

    • I appreciate your comment. I am hoping that this journey will help me reach the spirit behind the steps-as-written. They work for atheists and agnostics. I know they do. It just frustrates me that it’s like we’re just returning from a Recovery Dark Ages, where the agnostics and atheists were silenced and still are today. Speaking out . . . well, I’m glad AA has atheist/agnostic meetings. I wish for that to spread outward some day like it did before. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see an atheist/agnostic OA meeting, but the people willing to speak out and create non-conference literature make a whole lot of difference to people like me. I only hope some day I can have helped someone with my own journey. I am not cured. I am just trying to let go of an insane life of addiction and embrace a sane life of recovery–like I think everyone in program (theist, agnostic, atheist) is trying to do.

  2. I plan to go back and read your words more deliberately and thoughtfully. For now, I want to thank you for sharing about the difficulties on your journey to wellness. I see that it was written a couple of years ago, so I hope this finds you in a healthy place.

    This morning I felt as if I’d reached the end of my rope. In desperation I googled what I was feeling and ran across your contribution. So much of what you have written could have been my own words. I have so much anger at myself, thinly disguised as anger toward my sponsor and the program. Simply knowing I’m not the only person in the universe with difficulties such as you discussed gives me some peace.

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