Back to the Basics in Recovery

by Dale S. Ryan

"Now I am really confused," said Jerry. "I'm doing all the things I think I'm supposed to do. I've been in therapy for a year and a half now, and I've been going to the 12-Step group at church. But somehow I have lost track of things. What is this all about? And why is it so painful?" Like Jerry, many of us have experienced times in the recovery journey when we 'lose track' of things. Why are we doing this? What is the point?

Sometimes when we are in the middle of painful transitions it is particularly difficult to see clearly what's really going on. The changes can seem disorientingly fast and then, moments later, frustratingly slow. The changes can seem too good and too painful at the same time. In times like this, it makes a lot of sense to focus on the fundamentals. Afterall, there really isn't much in the way of 'advanced recovery.' If there is a graduate level recovery course, I haven't found it yet. I find myself returning again and again to the most basic and fundamental of truths. It is in Recovery 101 that I find renewed clarity, hope and determination to "keep on keeping on". I am quite fond of the old AA slogan "KISS" which stands for "keep it simple, stupid". That is precisely what we need.

But are there fundamentals common to all recovery journeys? Not every one thinks so, but I am convinced that there are. This is not to say that there aren't an enormous variety of journeys within recovery. Recovery is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. For some people recovery revolves around working the 12-Steps in a supportive community. For others, therapy is the key discipline of the recovery process. For some people, the heart of recovery is dealing with the past, for others the heart of recovery is living a-day-at-a-time in the present. Nor are we all recovering from the same thing. Recovery from sexual abuse is not the same thing as recovery from religious addiction. Recovery from alcoholism is not the same thing as recovery from bulimia. It would be a serious mistake to ignore the diversity within recovery. Diversity does not mean, however, that there aren't some very basic, common foundations for all recovery. Let me suggest six fundamentals which I think we need to return to again and again no matter what the specifics of our recovery journey may be.


1. There is a problem

You have to recover from something. If there is no problem, there can be no recovery. Now, this doesn't seem like it should be a very difficult pill for Christians to swallow. Haven't we Christians always believed in 'sin'? Well yes, and no. I have always believed in a kind of abstract, hypothetical 'idea' of sin. It was, for me, a forensic, legal kind of problem that God, the gracious Judge, had completely solved. Even though I understood sin as a 'theological concept', I did not experience myself in practical ways as a person who was effected by this problem on a daily basis. It was, after all, a problem that had been completely solved - my spirituality revolved around a sense of gratitude that the only problem I had, had been solved by God. The idea that my problems were present and unresolved - the idea that I had burdens that had not been 'rolled away' - was very confusing to me at first.

We seem to have a knack for coming up with clever ways to avoid the fact that we have problems. Some of these defense mechanisms can sound quite spiritual (e.g. "I left it all at the foot of the cross" or "God has delivered me"). I remember resisting any practical conception of sin because I thought that, if I had any practical problem with sin, it would make God look bad - we called it 'having a bad testimony'. I apparently thought, at the time, as astonishing as it now seems, that I was responsible enough to be in charge of God's reputation. Talk about denial! The net effect of all of these denial strategies - no matter how spiritual they may sound or how much Christian language they contain - is simple: 1) we end up hiding the reality of our continuing brokenness from ourselves and others 2) we deprive God of the opportunity to work within us to bring healing and 3) we spend phenomenal amounts of energy trying to look good. We try hard to look good, we try harder to look good, we try our hardest to look good and, eventually, the burden of the pretense overwhelms the strongest of us.

Recovery begins with the painful recognition that there is a problem. It is a real, present-tense problem. It is only here that the healing can begin.

2. The problem is my problem

The second fundamental which is common to all recovery is acceptance of the problem as my problem. Most of us have little difficulty in seeing all kinds of problems - some of us enjoy working on other people's problems, some of us do this professionally. But no one ever recovered from anything by working on other people's problems. The core of recovery begins when I start to face my issues, my struggles, my brokenness. Jesus summarized it well when he asked "why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3 NIV). The changes that constitute recovery are changes in me - not changes in my parents, my spouse, my friends, or my boss. The change process which we call recovery is a change that takes place in me. Even if it is very clear that my struggles are the direct result of someone else's abusive behavior, it is when I begin to work on my resentments about that abuse and the way my character has been shaped by it that recovery begins.

It is amazing to me how much pain I can be in and still believe that the problem is not my problem. My pain always seems at first to be the-pain-you-have-caused-me. Until I take full ownership of my pain, however, I cannot begin to work on it. I will simply wait for you to behave differently, nourish my resentments about how long it is taking you to change your behavior, and dig myself deeper and deeper into denial about my own role in the struggle.

Recovery begins when the problem becomes my problem.

3. Recovery takes time.

Changes which take time are not usually well received in this culture. Twelve days after Clinton took office [twelve days!], Sam Donaldson of ABC News said on a weekend talk show "This week we can talk about it, 'Is the presidency over?'" Clearly, we want change and we want it right now. We like things that change in about the length of time between commercials on TV - preferably changes which resolve things happily for all concerned. In our spiritual lives, this same passion for quick change can be seen. We like to 'come forward', or pray a little prayer, or rededicate our lives, or read a book . . .or anything, really. . . .as long as we can get it over with quickly and move on. When I was at the depths of my own religious addiction, I would have done anything to please God. At least I would have done anything that would have 'fixed' me right now. I wanted a spiritual 'hit' powerful enough to make the pain go away. But I desperately wanted to do it and get it over with. The one thing I didn't want to hear from God was "you are invited to take a journey which will last for the rest of your life".

The truth is that we have practiced being the way we are now for a long time. Learning new and healthier ways of being in the world will also take time. There are no secret shortcuts, magical insights, no hidden keys to happiness, no new ways of praying that will instantly unlock the mysteries of spirituality and make the changes come easy and fast. There is, rather, a difficult, daily struggle. A struggle, however, that is worthy of a life's investment and full of rewards along the way.

Recovery takes time.

4. Recovery needs relationships

If we could recover by ourselves, we would probably all be better by now. If we could stay home and read books - even really good recovery books - and see change take place, we would all have been better a long time ago. We have tried this. At least many of us have. It didn't work. There are several reasons why this doesn't work. First, we learned how to be the way we are now in relationships. The only place we can learn a healthier way of being in the world is in healthier relationships. We got sick in community and we must also recover in community. Second, recovery is not merely an educational or cognitive process. You can 'learn' a lot on your own, you can gain a lot of insight. It may be helpful to spend a good deal of time in the library, but there is a laboratory requirement that comes with Recovery 101. It is a lab course. There are some things you cannot begin to learn until you do them. Third, we are not independent observers of our lives. We are very biased. We tend to either see ourselves as monstrously evil, worthless worms or as astonishing innocent, virtuous angels. We are not able, on our own, to find the balanced self-understanding that is a necessary part of the recovery journey. We need other people.

So recovery means investing in relationships, in community. It may begin simply - building, for example, a relationship of safety and trust with a therapist or with the members of a support group. But the goal of recovery is not merely to learn how to have a good relationship with therapists or with other people in recovery. The goal of recovery is to learn a set of skills and to become a kind of person who is capable of having an appropriate, healthy relationship with anybody. I find Step 12 of the Twelve Steps to be a very helpful reminder that part of recovery involves investing in relationships with people who are not in recovery. There's a reason why this comes at Step 12 rather than earlier, it may sound impossible to you now, but the changes which are taking place during recovery can prepare you for dramatically different kinds of relationships than you have experienced in the past.

5. Recovery is a spiritual journey

Recovery is not some new kind of psychological technique, it is a spiritual journey. Groups like Secularists for Sobriety who have criticized AA for being too spiritual have recognized something very important. The 12 Steps of AA, like any recovery program, has an inherently spiritual agenda. If alcohol were the problem, then abstinence would be the solution. But alcohol addiction is the symptom of a deeper spiritual disorder. People who think that abstaining from their drug of choice is the solution to their problems typically find another addictive substance or process to help them deal with the pain of abstaining from their prior drug of choice (e.g. alcoholics become sex addicts or work addicts). This vicious cycle of addiction swapping is not what recovery is about. Abstinence is only a small portion of what is involved in recovery. Recovery involves becoming a different kind of person, a person connected in deep and practical ways with God.

For Christians, the spiritual nature of the recovery journey can be confusing. Like many of us, I wanted my existing spirituality to be all I needed. I did not welcome the thought that my spirituality was distorted by my addictive process. But it was just this kind of spiritual grandiosity, combined with the spiritual reinforcement of denial, that made my own addictive processes so resistant to change. It turned out that I had a great deal to unlearn about spiritual things. Under the best of circumstances, recovery is full of this kind of spiritual distress - full of struggle with difficult questions about God and difficult questions about our own faith. This is not a comfortable part of the recovery process but, through the struggle, we eventually come to terms with the fact that we are not God and we start to develop a deep and powerful connection with the Living and True God who has been revealed to us through Jesus.

Recovery is not about putting bandaids on symptoms. It is about God's work at the spiritual core of our lives, it is about giving up our idolatrous attachments to not-gods, and finding a deep security in our relationship with our Creator.

6. Recovery is possible.

Finally, in spite of how it might seem today, recovery is possible. It might seem too painful today, or too demanding, or too hopeless. But it is possible. Why? Let's be clear about our fundamental grounds for optimism about our recovery. Recovery is possible because God is committed to us, for however long it takes. It may take longer than a lifetime, it may take a new heavens and a new earth to fix some of what is wrong with us, but God is committed to us for however long it takes. God's love for us and the resources of his grace have been demonstrated clearly in Jesus and they are not a limiting factor. We can recover because when we come to the end of pretending to be God ourselves, there really is a good, loving and gracious God who can be God for us. Recovery is possible because God has made promises to us, committed himself to us, involved himself in our lives and is at work even when we think all hope is gone. Recovery is possible because, in the end, it is God at work in us that makes recovery happen.

Like Jerry, who experienced confusion and disorientation during all the changes that came during his recovery, we all need to return again and again to the fundamentals of recovery. I have a problem. It is my problem. There is no quick fix. I can't fix it by myself. Recovery is a spiritual journey. And the journey is possible because God is a wise and gracious Guide.

May God grant you the wisdom to see how far you have already come and the grace to grow through another day in recovery. And may your roots sink deeply in the soil of God's love.

Reproduction in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited.

Reproduction in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited.