Many of us in our society flirt with addiction. Some addictions seem to be encouraged, like buying stuff. Some addictions are built into algorithms, like in social media. There is no shortage of ways we might be self-medicating. And a surprisingly high percentage of us have seen or experienced the harm substance abuse does to people and their families. The older I get, the more empathy I have with the world. And my heart breaks for people who get trapped or even killed by addictions. So, I share this in the spirit of hope.
This gathering was unquestionably closer to True Church than any other church I have ever set a foot in.
Earlier this year I was at a health retreat – thanks to my very generous mother-in-law. After a very full day, I had an extra hour before dinner and saw an Open AA meeting on the schedule with an invitation to regulars, and to those who were just curious. So, being the curious sort, I went.
It was my first experience with AA, and I found the experience incredibly powerful. Though everything that people share in AA meetings, and even the fact that they are there, is 100% confidential, the Twelve Step movement is widely known through its portrayal in popular media. I would encourage anyone who is nudged for any reason to check it out.
We were a small group, and as we gathered, it felt over-the-top awkward. No small talk, just a flood of self-conscious thoughts. We did introductions, like in the movies. I think I confessed my curiosity, and others told their stories. There were two leaders of the meeting and their faces shone as they shared.
Their faces shone.
There is a Big Book of AA that lays out all the details of the program, but at its core, this is what I observed:
- At the center is a power greater than us, the source of all love and goodness.
- A practice of absolute honesty with self and others.
- An extraordinary commitment to help others.
This gathering was unquestionably closer to True Church than any other church I have ever set a foot in. And friends, I am a seeker. I’ve been in churches of many flavors and places.
At the Center is God / Greater Power / Source
Whatever name works for you will do. Here’s the crux. When we find ourselves in a deep, deep hole, we will need help to get out of it.
The people there told their stories about one addiction morphing into another, of drinking and taking drugs way past the point of oblivion. At one point in the conversation, I asked them “Why? Why the whole way down?” And they all said, simultaneously, “Pain. To numb the pain”. One talked about “having a God-size hole in my heart.”
I have always felt loved by God. Perhaps it was my mother’s doing, or perhaps innate. Age-old question of nature or nurture, who knows?
But relying on God, or a higher power, is a key to this life-saving program. Six of the Twelve Steps explicitly involve God, however you understand the source of all love. Several of the people at the table said they accept this wisdom, even though they were not “God people.”
A Commitment to Absolute Honesty
Much like my experience doing prison ministry, in the gathering people didn’t bother with the normal posturing and judging that we experience daily. That awkward feeling when I walked into the meeting? Completely the result of my inner judge, practicing its usual unhelpful habits.
The design of the program grounds people in the absolute truth. It normalizes a sort of no bullshit zone. In these spaces, being on the road to being clean and being loved is enough.
Five of the Twelve Steps reference complete truthfulness with oneself, others, and God.
An Extraordinary Focus on Helping Others
By the end of the meeting, there were tears of empathy and thanks, and tears of worry and pain. A group of strangers showed up for each other. And here’s when we went to the next level.
One person had been distraught from the beginning. Those that had been clean for years and decades had such deep understanding of the way addictions evolve, and make people think and behave. One of them tore a piece of paper, and wrote his number on it. And said:
“When he is ready …
have him call me.
I will make sure he gets what he needs.”
That final “walk the talk” act was breathtaking. It demonstrated a rubber-meets-the-road commitment, and reflects the spiritual awakening to action that’s at the heart of AA.
The Twelfth step is the “Go and do likewise” step.
The Real Deal
I couldn’t help but feel I had finally experienced, after all these years, the real deal. Church. This was an instant community dedicated to one clear priority. Loving each other with God’s help. I wish that churches could welcome and deeply accept people and offer real help. Often there is too much superficial coffee talk, too much sizing up. Even charity can reinforce hierarchy and separateness.
After this experience, I explored Richard Rohr’s book Breathing Under Water, about the spiritual power of the 12 Steps. I have heard many say it was lifesaving, and they re-read it often. And I was comforted to know my reactions to AA were similar to his.
You can find that book here: https://store.cac.org/collections/all/products/breathing-under-water-tenth-anniversary-edition/
A final note, I’m aware the organization is not perfect. I’ve smelled the lingering cigarette smoke in meeting rooms. That’s an example of the migrating addiction dynamic, and still highly self-destructive. Non-smoking meetings are available. Additionally, not everybody is able to lay down their ego, and so do not experience transformation. But the saving power is there, to choose.
There are lots of resources to find local support for families who are worried here: