Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
I am well over ten years sober, and I have two questions:
What happens if you lose your Higher Power?
What happens if you realize you may never have really had one?
Some years before recovery I was working in a third world country. I had gone down there both as a service to others and as a scenery change. During those years in the country I had seen some pretty amazing and terrible things. For most of the job I "self medicated" (as did many of the others working with me) to help keep my mind from the "terrible" part.
Now, years later and sober, I felt I was missing something, something that was nagging at me, so I decided to try counseling for once. that was when it all started coming back to me, all of the events that transpired, both the great and the awful times in that country came to the surface.
It hit me hard a couple of weeks ago. I lost my sense of a Higher Power. My idea of God, of a divine sense of a powerful nature being controller of all things, just vanished. I felt like I was left alone right after a tornado came and swept everything away from me.
My recovery has depended on a Higher Power. I always knew in a small way that things were not right, but I managed. I am a sponsor and have a sponsor. I have been invited to speak all throughout my recovery. I have spoken about the importance of the spiritual base of this program, but now all of it sounds empty.
I am a little scared and have an intense feeling of grief. Any suggestions?
First: I understand. Deeply.
Over the years my own faith has been a fitful thing; from bulwark to bullshit by turns. And it certainly resulted in the kind of psychic whiplash you describe, causing me to not only feel lost and Very Alone, but to question all that I had ever felt -- and shared with others in AA -- before.
I think it was Thomas Merton who said "All great men of faith doubt." And certainly, if you scratch the surface of almost any religion you will find much writing on the topic, from the New Testament's other Thomas (he of the topical nickname) to Muhammad on the night he received the revelation of the Koran.
(I mean no disrespect to any faith when I say that I have often imagined, from Moses to Joseph Smith, from Joan of Arc to "Joan of Arcadia," a universal moment of human emotion which transcended language and era in which each of those who received a revelation stopped, looked into the Light from which their Message came and basically said, "Seriously?")
So buck up. You're in great good company.
I have had more than one crisis of faith as I have stayed sober, and each one has been experienced through a lens both personal and global, offering some surprising gifts along their dark and seemingly empty paths. I tell you this because I understand not just your doubt but your fear -- most especially your fear regarding a crisis of faith and being able to stay sober through it (the serious subtext of your email's conclusion).
So I am going to give you some very direct answers to your questions, and then try and share some more general experiences I've had which I hope will provide, if not a rowboat to climb into, then at least a buoy to cling to.
What happens if you lose your Higher Power? Nothing.
Oh, certainly it is dark and lonely and your eyes may show a little too much white around the edges for a while as harsh reality and hard questions wash through your mind like cold waves from a rising sea. You may be uncomfortable. Tears are probable. Anger inevitable (for what is Anger but Fear with its dukes up?) But you got and stayed sober through doing sober actions. Uncomfortable, frightened or bereft of faith, if you keep doing those sober actions you can keep staying sober.
I can pray without feeling. I can meditate and let it be an exercise in stillness. I can be of service to get out of myself. I can write without writing a letter to God (though when you wind up writing letters to a God you don't believe in it will be a moment of high personal comedy, I assure you). I can go to meetings. I can share honestly about what I'm going through, both one-on-one and at group level. I can pick up the phone and talk to other alcoholics about what is going on and find out how they are doing. I can take a newcomer to coffee and listen, and draw from AA's wealth of common sense, practical suggestions should they ask for help. I can do all those sober actions without feeling any connection whatesoever to a Higher Power.
I know this is true because I have done it. Every single one of them.
I do not want to, when my faith tank is on "E," but as I have learned the hard way, "want to" and "willing" are two different things.
What happens if you realize you may never have really had one? Stop. Literally, stop. Don't do that to yourself. Today's doubt will always try to look back and erase whatever faith came before. Neither you, nor I, were stupid or foolish or simple or duped or blind or in denial or anything else along the course of our spiritual development. What I felt and believed then was valid for then. My doubt now is valid for now. A building's foundation is not the roof. Each part of an edifice is its own part to make a structure as a whole.
A few last things:
Stick with therapy. See this through. AA and common sense both suggest that we make good use of all the healing tools available to us in the world.
The first drink gets me drunk. If you don't pick up the first drink you won't get drunk. Talk frankly with others about what is happening with you. Keeping this a secret is not only dangerous to yourself, it denies others the opportunity to watch someone walk through a crisis of faith and stay sober.
Hang in there. My spiritual deserts now are painful but not frightening. I have been there before and I will in some fashion be there again. St. Therese (the little flowers saint) had some wise insights into this: After feeling a literal ecstasy of faith for years she experienced the other end of the spectrum and fell into a deep (what we might call clinical) depression. What she decided was that, just as she had offered her joyous faith to God, she would offer her overwhelming grief and emptiness to God. A sort of, "Okay, first you wanted me to serve you through joy, now you want me to serve you through sorrow. Not really feelin' it, but okay. I give this to you as I gave the other." (As you can imagine I am broadly paraphrasing here.)
I believe that, as I have used my other difficult experiences to be of service to others (whether there's a God involved in that or not) I can use my lack of faith to show that I can be sober through practicing AA's principles one day at a time regardless. And thus, there is a point to what I am going through -- which then in turn makes it easier to go through.
You saw first hand in the third world some hard truths about the Universe, and when you shake it down you are coming to "Why?" As in, "why, if there is a benevolent God..." I will let you fill in your personal memories at the end of that question.
You may or may not find a "because" to satisfy you. This is the part of the Big Book (my least favorite part, in fact, as the metaphor hijacks the point) which talks about the bridge of logic and the shore of faith and how logic alone cannot get us to a working faith. For me, that means, I must find a belief which leaves room for some of my unanswered "Why's?"
While I may not always find a "because" through prayer, I always find a "how." Even if you do not believe, and the words are sand in your mouth and you feel the Universe is a much scarier place than it was when you had the faith you used to have, if you pray "how can I use this dark, doubtful time in which I do not even believe in You to be of service to others?" then you will get an answer.
And it will be a good one and it will help you.
And you don't have to believe that as you read it. As with anything in sobriety, you only have to try. And also, while I understand what it is like not to believe, you can count on the fact that today I do.
Good luck and please keep in touch.
There are more essays like this one in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download a Kindle reader for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone, and enjoy eBooks anywhere you have time to read.