Frying pan, meet fire: recovery in a post-Jehovah's Witness life
Photo credit: Allison Achauer
By Joel Gunz
Let's be honest. None of us were disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witnesses because we were perfect in every way. Whether the judicial action was right or wrong, just or unjust, it's a safe bet that we'd committed some kind of "sin" that we swore on the dotted line we'd never commit. For some of us, that "sin" might have been part of a deeper addiction. If so, then it's also possible that we sought help through a recovery program. I know I did. I found that, as a former Witness, my relationship to 12-Step programs and therapy to be a complicated and evolving process.
First off, I believe that all of us are addicted to something, no exceptions. Whether it's cocaine, exercise, coffee, meth, or comic books, we all have what we euphemistically call our "vices." How many Witnesses struggle with alcohol, overeating, TV watching or Internet use? Though she would never admit it, my mother (a pioneer and elder's wife) is an alcoholic. And how many might actually addicted to the religion itself?
I think the addictions we fall into say a lot about us. Alcoholism is often associated with external frustrations, e.g.: "my partner/job/neighbor drives me to drink." Conversely, sex addictions often revolve around internalized issues, e.g.: “I'm not good/beautiful/worthy/desirable/spiritual enough.” Less destructive addictions—TV watching, shopping, Internet surfing—also speak volumes about the architecture of our psyche. For that reason, I agree with psychologist David Bedrick, who wrote in a Psychology Today blog post that “people use substances for hundreds of different individual, almost idiosyncratic, reasons.”
The 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is arguably the best alcohol treatment program yet devised for mass consumption. But it seems to work only for a specific type of alcoholic: the person who has reached a desperate "rock bottom" condition, possibly accompanied by homelessness, job loss, divorce, etc., because only then, it is assumed, will one finally be willing to engage in the total surrender to a higher power it takes to overcome his or her addiction. In fact, AA literature sees alcoholism, not as a problem of willpower, but as a disease of the Will itself. And until you've hit that existential wall, the program won't work for you: AA members who relapse are dismissed as having not reached that anti-grail. Those who are mandated into the program, such as by law enforcement, fare even worse. Still, that smaller, narrowly defined group of bottom-liners reports a high success rate.
When you add the extreme moralism drilled into us as Witnesses, it's easy to see how we might beat ourselves up a bit too much for our failings. When I was in the religion, I "struggled" with masturbation/pornography all my life. Although I was hardly alone, it seems I was one of the few people who regularly confessed to this "secret fault." Over the years, well-meaning elders offered to support me in "overcoming" the habit. It would be years before I figured out that the more I resisted temptation, the more it would fight back. And then it would be a while longer before I realized that my real battles lay elsewhere. (I can be a little slow on the uptake.)
When I was disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witnesses, I was convinced that I was a sex addict. (I was, I have to admit, looking at a lot of porn.) So I joined Sexaholics Anonymous. Then, concerned that my glass-or-two-of-wine-a-day habit was too much, I also attended AA meetings. Because my finances were a shambles, I attended Debtors Anonymous. 12-Step groups often recommend that newcomers attend 30 meetings in 30 days. Always an overachiever, I did a 180 in 180. In addition to all that, I enrolled in one-on-one and group psychotherapy. In fact, for nearly two years, hardly a day went by that I didn't attend some kind of recovery meeting and frequently I attended two or three. because I was trying to get reinstated, I was also attending all of the Witness meetings, sitting mute in the back row of the Kingdom Hall like a stuffed giraffe.
I learned a lot and grew from the experience; I wouldn't trade it in for anything. (Except for maybe more sex.) In the long run, however, practicing the 12 Steps didn't change my behaviors much. True, I actually got a one-year chip from SA for abstaining from masturbation for a year, but afterward I quickly made up for lost time. My drinking was never really a problem to begin with. My finances are still in chaos. For me, the problem was one of perception: believing I had these addictions actually fueled a Slinky-storm of downward spirals. Once I learned to cut myself a little slack and stop trying to please a legalistic, finger-wagging Jehovah, the destructive fury of these compulsions was diverted to more productive endeavors.
AA books reject such behaviorist or relapse-prevention approaches outright and emphasize the need for surrender to a spiritual higher power. This approach was actually recommended to one of its founding members by Carl Jung, who insisted that relief from alcoholism can only be found in a deep spiritual conversion. (Ironically, it's just this kind of God-talk that prevents many Witnesses fro availing themselves of the program.)
While that’s what AA literature teaches, too often, AA—as a fellowship—isn't much more than the same-old same-old behavior accountability group found in recovery and high-priced treatment centers and Kingdom Halls everywhere. As Alfred Hitchcock wisely observed, “everything’s perverted in a different way.”
All of which is to say, my life is about as manageable as a sloppy joe is for an amputee, but I've never loved myself more—not in spite of these imperfections, but because of them. For instance, I still have a bona fide monkey on my back. He has a red demon face that's permanently twisted into a rictus of anger. Off and on throughout any given day, he gets up in my face and says, "You're a failure! A fucking failure!!" I've learned to love even him—after all, for better or worse, he is part of me. I quit fighting him and now he gives me the motivation I need to get up in the morning and put on my bigboy pants when I'd rather bury my head under a mountain of pillows. But that clarity didn't come through any 12-Step program. (Full disclosure: it was the result of a conversation with David Bedrick.)
As a result, I'm ambivalent about the efficacy of 12-Step programs. Many of my friends are convinced that working the AA program keeps them sober. I applaud that. And to these friends who might be reading this post, I say hey man, whatever works. I honor and support you 100 percent. In addition to these benefits, 12-Step programs offer something that most other approaches don't: they're free.
But 12-Step programs have become a huge part of the recovery landscape in this country and I feel the need to raise a critical question or two.
Every AA member knows the Serenity Prayer by heart:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, this prayer was originally untitled. Then someone (probably a reformed drunk) dubbed it the Serenity Prayer, which was unfortunate—that title throws the whole thing off balance, emphasizing "acceptance" over "courage." Such a lopsided reading might help some, but it doesn't help all.
AA certainly preaches only the first half of the prayer: members are urged to humbly accept the flaws of others and imperfections in the systems in which they live. Very little consideration is given to incite courageous acts of change in one's circumstances. That might be right and good for some alcoholics, but I have hard time believing it is true for all. And other types of addictions operate on a very different level. Some addicts might be better off applying the second half of the prayer, seeking ‘courage to change the things they can.’ For instance, in SA, I encountered members who continue to beat themselves up for sexual transgressions committed years ago. Consumed with guilt and shame over their past misdeeds they remained unable to find—much less hold—a healthy sexual relationship in adult autonomy even as they attended meeting after meeting to confess to lustful thoughts about the bare midriff they caught themselves gazing at on Hawthorne Boulevard. For them, the courageous change might be to leave their 12-Step program and try living life in its terrifying glory.
The point is, with a 12-Step group for just about every vice imaginable, including alcohol, hard drugs, soft drugs, gambling, debt, sex, overeating, cluttering (?), underearning and workaholism and beyond, it seems to me that at least some of these programs render a disservice to those they would try to help. AA principles just don’t translate that easily.
AA really is geared for the specific—i.e. narcissistic—issues many (but not all!) alcoholics deal with. It emphasizes the need to take one's own "moral inventory" and avoid taking the inventory of others. For them, such an intervention is often helpful. Sex addicts, by contrast, know their own weaknesses all too well and ritualized self-inventory could actually contribute to the shame cycle that fuels their addiction. Such an individual might actually be better off doing the exact opposite of what AA prescribes, taking critical stock of the character flaws of the people or institutions (church, employment) around them, with a view to 'changing the things they cannot accept.'
TV, video game or Internet addicts, on the other hand, might want to take an honest inventory of the quality of their real-life relationships. (Am I the only person who finds it both interesting and ironic that all successful video games involve the acquisition and exercise of power?)
True, 12-Step programs didn't help me deal with my behavior issues all that much, but they were by no means a waste. The way I see it, the real problem with humanity isn't addiction, but our weird push me-pull you relationship with Reality. Most of us claim to be realists or claim to be inclined in that direction. But as that purveyor of nightmares, A. Hitchcock, once said, "reality is something none of us can stand, at any time." The real insanity—the real addiction—is that retreat from reality. Some withdraw with a needle; others use that meta-drug, reality TV. 12-Steps' true raison is that it methodically and—if you work the program—relentlessly pushes its members to confront reality. It forces you to see your life as it is. No wonder its favorite locus is the purgatory of the church basement, with a libation of shitty coffee. It was in such basements that I caught fleeting glimpses of my true self and, just as important, saw, really saw, for the first time, the reckless beauty of my fellow hairless bags of humanoid flesh. 12-Steps' report card for addiction recovery might be a mixed bag. But as a spiritual path for the secular, western mind, it's almost without parallel, and it's these benefits that hit you like a sneaker wave.
As a Jehovah's Witness, I was indoctrinated from an early age with the belief that I and my fellow door-to-door ministers were the only possessors of spiritual truth and divine love. My paleomammalian brain was marinated in the religious arrogance of such canards as "We worship the Only True God!" and "Only Jehovah's Witnesses have love among themselves!"
And then I fell among 12-Steppers.
In that world, I witnessed (and was the recipient of) extraordinary acts of selflessness and love made all the more remarkable because they were offered routinely, without any expectation. I encountered members from a variety of faiths who'd had soul-shaking spiritual experiences. This wasn't supposed to happen. I'd joined these 12 Steps so I could become a new and improved Jehovah's Witness. Instead, I found that the tools I'd been given as a Witness fell short of my need, and where those needs ended and my behavior began was an enormous void that I'd been trying to fill with the styrofoam of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia.
I broke. And then I began to heal. I got what I needed from 12 Steps. And then I left. I still look at porn. I still drink, sometimes to excess. I really need to get caught up on my bills. I discovered that what Hemingway said wasn't necessarily true: you're not always stronger in the broken places, and the acupunctural meridians of my psyche can cough up surprising and poignant pains when I least expect it. That said, I'm not really a fucking failure. I just play one in the TV of my mind. I manage to find time to write and create and build businesses and otherwise make myself useful to my kids and those I love.
And make no mistake. AA members are just as prone to fundamentalism and cultishness as are Jehovah's Witnesses. There is a strong belief that sobriety depends on "working the program," which includes meetings, readings and, well, a lot of stuff that smacks of the Witness life.
But what, exactly, is an addiction? I have a friend who is a very gifted artist. She feels compelled take time to draw every day and insists that this is compulsive, essentially unhealthy, behavior. For her, it doesn't much matter that her artwork is astonishingly beautiful, because it’s a compulsion; presumably, she would like to have the freedom to be able to draw less. Other people are addicted to reading and, sure, if the books are good, this behavior will boost their IQ, but it may take them further from other, more valued, connections. In these cases where do we draw the line between good and bad, healthy and unhealthy?
For that reason, I'm wary of the term "addiction" itself, just as I view conditions such as ADD and Asperger's Syndrome with suspicion. The human mind works in mysterious ways, and who are we to pathologize behaviors that might actually serve a very useful purpose? As Bedrick points out, “people want to use [drugs] for very important and powerful reasons.” I would add that those reasons are deeply personal and that a one-size-fits-all solution is antithetical to what the situation calls for. Rather than squelching the individual’s voice through interventions, perhaps a better strategy would be to listen to the addiction. It seems to want to be heard anyway.
In fact, it's quite possible that our "addictions" (or whatever you want to call them) are actually a by-product of Witness life. Viewed in that light, I see hope, not only for recovery from our "addictions," but also in healing from the wounds inflicted on us by religious abuse. Stay in touch.