Paganism and Alcoholics Anonymous: There is Another Solution

This post was originally published in 2014 on a blog of my own. References to the present moment refer back to that time period, but I felt it was important to re-publish this in an unedited form.

“If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help. This we did because we honestly wanted to, and were willing to make the effort.”

 

Excerpted from Alcoholics Anonymous Chapter 2: “There Is A Solution.”


 

My name is D.E. Numen, and I am an alcoholic.*

Speaking more broadly, I’m actually an addict, and I have been all my life; I can be, and have been, addicted to just about anything that makes me feel good: Drugs, alcohol, food, video games, orgasm, spending money, Facebook, coffee, television, and more. I gambled once and that experience was enough to demonstrate to me why I should never do it again.

Some of the above things are inherently habit-forming, and many of us may think of ourselves as “addicted” to things we simply like doing a lot, but that is not the same as addiction. When we are tuly addicted to something, we set that thing before many or even all other considerations in our lives, to our great detriment, despite a deep inner desire to do otherwise. My various and sundry addictions have adversely affected my life to differing degrees, but my addiction to drugs and alcohol is unequivocal: I spent much of my high school years in emergency rooms, on psych wards and in rehab facilities, and my life was in serious danger many times as a result. Coffee and television I can sometimes indulge in, but for me, there is no such thing as “recreational” drug or alcohol use, even if I may be able at times to fool myself and others into believing so. People who can nurse a beer over the course of a meal, smoke a joint now and then, or keep a bottle of wine on hand for special occasions, simply baffle me. I have made stentorian efforts to moderate such things; I can maintain the facade of casual use for a time, but in the end I always find myself in a sorry state of needful, torturous thralldom, all other aspirations shoved off to either side of a wake of destruction. This is a reality that I must face if I don’t want my life to wind up a spectacular waste. The only sane approach to drugs and alcohol, for me, is abstinence.

I am now nearly three months sober, having spent several years prior to that trying again and again to bring my substance abuse into moderation. Although I managed to stay out of the hospital, I burned more bridges than I care to count. I should have known better, as prior to that, I had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for years. I knew the drill, and defiantly denied my condition out of an obsession to overcome my demon through sheer brute force. Because things never got quite as bad as they had once been, I rationalized, I had reason to believe that I was making steady progress towards mastery of moderation. After a long, stagnant stretch of many months, however, I was forced to concede that if I had indeed made permanent progress towards my goal, such advancement had ceased and I was not getting any better. As deeper aspirations took root in my heart, as personal gnosis from Hekate drew attention to my inner obstacles, and as I began to realize that my clinging to the dream of moderation was keeping me from doing what I knew I was being called to do with my life, I gave up the fight and decided once again to take up abstinence.

Though it had never seemed pressing enough to cause me to falter in my renewed conviction to sobriety as a way of life, a potential problem began to coalesce in the back of my mind, one I’d never had to contend with in my previous stint in Alcoholics Anonymous: My Paganism. In all honesty, my comprehension of the deeper implications of Pagan theology had not sufficiently matured in my teenage mind to appreciate some of the potential conflicts between the program of A.A. as it was originally conceived and a Pagan worldview. This time around, however, I realized that at the very least, I would have to be very careful what I openly shared regarding my spirituality if I didn’t want to butt heads with some of A.A.’s hardliners. This began as a wholly instinctive sense, implicit and incipient, which was a good sign in a way, as it meant that witchcraft was finally truly in my bones. Over time, these embryonic inklings would come into ever-increasing coherence, crystallizing into a constellation of consternating conundrums. Verily, I was vexed.

Obviously, it wasn’t the Big Book‘s insistence on employing a spiritual solution to the problem of addiction that troubled me; I believe in the existence of Goddesses, demons, elementals and all sorts of things, and personally have no quarrel with that aspect of the program (although, on a wider scale, I recognize this as an issue that needs to be reckoned with because I don’t believe in denying atheists a viable approach to the Twelve Steps, and I don’t think that either Chapter 4, “We Agnostics,” or Appendix II, “Spiritual Experience,” deal adequately with this obstacle). Believe it or not, the inherently Christian bent to the wording of the 12 Steps never bothered me, either, as I was always quite willing to read between the lines and interpret various terms in such a way as to render their meaning compatible with my own worldview; a solid grounding in Hermetic Qabbalism and Thelema made that a piece of cake, and also took care of any grievance I might have with saying The Lord’s Prayer at the end of a meeting (hell, I enjoyed turning the last few lines of it into an opportunity to perform the Qabbalistic Cross mentally. Bam!) It probably didn’t hurt that my very first sponsor turned out to be an avid practitioner of astral projection and pseudo-shamanism who reminded me a lot of Merlin…

In truth, the pitfalls I was most concerned about had to do with the inherent difference in stance between, on the one hand, the emphasis on self-reliance, independence and claiming of personal power so deeply interwoven with the Pagan perspective, and on the other hand, the emphasis on powerlessness, dependence and surrender of the personal will that runs through every aspect of the A.A. program. I came to realize that quietly applying an esoteric spin to the wording of the 12 Steps was not necessarily enough to resolve these conflicts. It worked for me when I was a teenager, but a growing dedication to standing openly in my truth, to working towards change in the world, and to applying both of these towards the service of others forced me to confront these issues on a much deeper level. Besides, I am on a trajectory leading towards Pagan clerical work and an ever-more public expression of that aspect of my life; hiding in the shadows and covering my own ass simply won’t do.

Besides, even once one gets past the surface-level Christian leanings of A.A., there are more deeply-ingrained social norms in the program that make life very unpleasant for many Pagans in Alcoholics Anonymous; like any other long-standing institution, there are gatekeepers in A.A. who work tirelessly to maintain the status quo, which often results in subtle, if not explicit, exclusion and castigation of those whose ideas and practices run counter to the established dogma. Such derision can be blatant and mean-spirited, but more often it is the result of sincere, albeit misguided, efforts by true-believing hardliners to help those who stray too far from the flock. If this sounds quite a bit like the way evangelical Christians operate, that’s no accident: A.A.’s 12 Steps were based on the tenets of The Oxford Group, a Lutheran missionary organization that churned out many a born-again Christian in the 1930’s. In fact, many A.A. members to this day make reference to its “Four Absolutes” of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love—indeed, this problem runs deep. Evangelical Christianity has left its mark on A.A., bringing with it such excess baggage as a form of “original sin” (as manifested in the idea that an alcoholic’s thinking is inherently flawed and always suspect, sometimes even after decades of sobriety—I’ve seen it happen), reconciliation and penance (confessing one’s alcoholic sins) and missionary evangelism (once “saved,” an alcoholic must make great efforts to carry the message to others).

Fortunately, as I would soon learn, there are already various leaders and groups within the Pagan movement addressing these concerns. Selena Fox, founder of Circle Sanctuary, wrote “When Goddess is God: Pagans, Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous” and conducted the study found therein. At Circle Sanctuary’s annual festival, Pagan Spirit Gathering, there are Pagan-based A.A. meetings and an alcohol and drug free alternative to the annual revels of Pan’s Ball celebrated as part of the proceedings. There is a Pagan version of The Twelve Steps, which I was incredibly heartened to discover one night as I sought solutions to the problems I felt descending upon my plan for sobriety. The Trollwise Press offers several books about recovery from a Pagan standpoint, written by a man who has been sober for 24 years. Pagans do not stand alone in the program.

While Alcoholics Anonymous is incredibly controversial, with many irate former members desirous of dismantling the entire program, I myself am interested in a more moderate approach. Like any person or any organization, there is much light and darkness alike to be found at A.A.’s tables. As flawed as it may be from the perspective of an atheist or a Pagan, however, I think there is much of value to be found in the program. The problem is more a matter of degree or application, and of dogmatic thinking, all of which are unfortunately the norm in a program that has its roots planted so firmly in the soil of fundamentalist Christianity. Pagans, who generally embrace magical transformation and self-empowerment, will not thrive in such soil and will find the need to adjust its pH, so-to-speak.

Although my sobriety is admittedly quite young at this time, I am inspired to one day work towards reform in A.A., perhaps by establishing a Pagan-friendly recovery group in my area. Until then, despite my lack of substantial sober time, I will begin writing a series of posts that examines each of the 12 Steps as they are written in the Big Book, with an eye towards challenging some of the basic dogmas they espouse; I may be newly-sober at present, but I am not a stranger to the program by any stretch of the imagination and I have observed a lot over the years. Granted, with so little sobriety time, I can’t claim to be an expert on sobriety, but with nearly 20 years of magical studies and practice behind me, I can definitely bring something to the table in terms of relating the 12 Steps to a Pagan viewpoint, and indeed, as a Pagan in A.A., it is imperative to my recovery that I do so. That being said, let me state clearly that it is in no way my intention to present here a guide to sobriety; that is a very different matter from a deconstruction of the 12 Steps themselves. It is not my place to recommend any course of action for others. Rather, writing these posts will be very much a part of my own evolving recovery process and is a way for me to work through some of the issues I am confronting as I take charge of my sobriety in a way no potential sponsor that I know of is competent to do. I’ve met many who know A.A., but I have yet to meet a person at my meetings who knows Paganism. When it comes to advice for staying sober, I would be foolish not to defer to those who have proven that they can walk the walk. I suggest some of the links mentioned above for those who are interested.

 

*Throughout this series of posts, I will be keeping things simple by referring to “alcoholism,” and alcohol abuse, but this is a placeholder for addictions/compulsions of any kind.

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