"No matter how long you stay sober, you will continue to evolve."

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Episode 118 -- May 31, 2021

Grace and Growth: There's No Finish Line to Recovery

In her book, Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice, Dr. Ingrid Mathieu explores the spiritual aspects of Twelve Step recovery and the ways we use spiritual bypass—relying on certain beliefs and practices to avoid unfinished emotional business—to skip the hardest parts of being human and sober.

In this excerpt, Dr. Mathieu describes the cyclical nature of learning and growth. There isn't a straight line through our development from beginning to end. We learn in a more circular fashion, on a path where we experience things again that we may have seen before with new eyes and new results. This insight about how learning works underscores the hopeful and freeing reality that there is no finish line when it comes to recovery. Our spiritual practices—including working the Steps—can evolve and adapt to the changes in our lives, helping us become more deeply and authentically whole and at home in our humanity.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

The most prominent theme revealed in my research was that spiritual development in AA is experienced as cyclical rather than linear. Development often begins with an initial surrender to the program or to one's Higher Power, or with a commitment to abstain from drugs or alcohol with or without the intention for spiritual or psychological growth. As a person progresses in recovery, he experiences additional opportunities to surrender, let go, accept, or turn one's will over to a Higher Power. This is sometimes in response to "taking one's will back," discomfort with feelings, a continued obsession with drugs and alcohol, or a tendency to use other things such as money, food, sex, or relationships, to cover up emotional pain.

Quite frankly, life is a cause for continual surrender, whether one is in a program or not. Regardless of the impetus, surrender as we've defined it here is never a singular event. It, therefore, needs to be revisited many times in the cause of furthering one's evolution. This cyclical process will continue for as long as the recovering person is participating in a Twelve Step program.

For all of the participants in my study, cyclical development did not mean that there wasn't growth or change over the years or that freedom from certain patterns wasn't achieved. In fact, it is because we are forever moving into different places in our lives that are truly new that the pattern itself is not the same as it was experienced before. The fears or anxieties that one experienced before recovery look and feel different when one gets sober. These same issues have a different flavor and influence in a person's twenties than they do in his thirties, forties, fifties, and so on. We are forever discovering nuances that were unavailable to us before. We have a multitude of insights that affect our experience of our patterns. And the patterns are the very things moving us forward, keeping us engaged, and creating the story of our lives.

This theme of cyclical development resonates with physician Charles Whitfield's notion that "what we resist, persists." Although this may seem an ominous warning, the inherent gift in this message is that, if something is not acknowledged or integrated at one stage of life, we will have the opportunity to address it again and again.

One positive aspect of cyclical development is that there is no finish line in the program and, therefore, no standard of perfection to achieve. No matter how long you stay sober, you will continue to evolve. This attitude can be heard in the AA adage "Progress, not perfection" and in meetings when old-timers speak to the idea that everyone in recovery has only one day of sobriety, the twenty-four hours in which he is currently living.

One way to actively engage in your own cyclical development in the program is to continue working the Steps. Having gone through the Twelve Steps once reveals only what you were conscious of at that time. As the quote at the beginning of this chapter would proffer, we never step into the same river twice. Looking at powerlessness in the first ninety days of recovery is different from looking at powerlessness at five or ten years of recovery. What a person recalls in his first Fourth Step inventory —perhaps before marriage, or the new job, or the loss of a parent, etc.—cannot act as a blanket inventory for the rest of his journey. Just as prayer and meditation are daily practices that evolve and change over time, so too are the rest of the Steps.

A client of mine, Denise, recalls going through the Steps for a second time when she was five years sober. She had a new sponsor who wanted to start at Step One to establish the new sponsor/sponsee relationship. One day Denise was complaining to her sponsor about all of the things that were not going well in her life. She was about to lose her job, her boyfriend had broken up with her, and she was afraid that she could no longer afford her home. Denise was angry that recovery had not yielded her a more stable, fulfilling life. She looked around at meetings and saw other women in recovery who had wedding rings on their fingers, enjoyed a host of friends, and went on extravagant vacations. Denise felt as though she were being left behind. She had worked as good a program as any of these other women, so why was she not getting the same results?

Denise's sponsor, Laura, invited Denise to read the Big Book out loud together. Laura could see that Denise had lost sight of where she had come from and all of the gifts that she did have in her life. Denise was clearly experiencing spiritual bypass in her thinking that staying sober in AA would deliver every dream that she had for herself. The pair took turns reading one paragraph at a time; they would stop along the way to reflect on what stood out in the reading and to have a brief discussion on that section.

At some point during the reading, Denise started to cry. She was overcome with gratitude for the fact that she was an alcoholic who had not had a drink for more than five years. Denise came from a long line of alcoholics and was the first in her family to get sober. Upon realizing the enormity of this fact, she was relieved of her anger and fear about what she didn't have. Revisiting her powerlessness to stop drinking, in the context of her current sobriety, was such a miracle that she felt ashamed for thinking that the program should have given her more. If Denise hadn't been working with her sponsor, she may have missed this opportunity for profound spiritual growth and renewed gratitude for her recovery.

Denise was able to move through her bypass—the hopeful but unrealistic expectation that AA would make all of her dreams come true—by continuing to work the Steps. Another adaptive use of revisiting the Steps is that the journey can provide an opportunity to redefine one's conception of a Higher Power. One of the great gifts of Twelve Step programs is the ability to establish your own conception of a Higher Power. The longer you are sober, the more you might seek to establish a new conception. What worked for you in early recovery may not be what works for you to stay sober or to be comfortable in your sobriety. As one's life progresses, it stands to reason that sobriety would need to shift to accommodate the growth.

About the Author:
Ingrid Mathieu holds a master's degree in transpersonal psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California. As a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, she specializes in treating individuals who are in recovery.

© 2011 by Ingrid Mathieu, PhD
All rights reserved