Pagans in Recovery

(Version 2.7)

Copyright © 1996, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Like many people in the helping professions, I grew up in a dysfunctional family, the child of parents who grew up in severely dysfunctional ones. I had a number of unpleasant things happen to me as a child and became an anorexic (yes, it happens to boys too). I’ve got most of the personality characteristics of people from such backgrounds: low self-esteem, a fear of both failure and success, a tendency to attract and be attracted to people from similar backgrounds, compulsive rescuing, a terror of making mistakes (which leads to thirty years of writer’s block), an unwillingness to ask for what I need, a habit of reinacting my childhood abuse and my parents’ dysfunctional behaviors, etc. For a few years, my co-dependent, enabling behavior towards a best friend’s alcoholism almost destroyed A.D.F. In 1990, my son Arthur was born and I became determined to break the cycles of dysfunction.

I would guesstimate that if we added up all of the Neopagans who are current or recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, adult children of alcoholics and/or drug addicts, adult survivors of childhood abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual and/or sexual), have eating disorders (such as anorexia or compulsive overeating), who are sex and/or love addicts, etc., that we would wind up with 95% of the entire Neopagan community — and 150% of our clergy. Of course, these figures are true for many American religious communities, we probably just tend to hide it less. I know someone who used to teach a workshop at Pagan festivals called, “Why oldest daughters of alcoholic fathers become high priestesses.” She said that she had modified it only slightly from one she had done previously for women who become nurses or social workers.

I suspect that most of us in our overlapping subcultures — Neopagans, science fiction fans, renn-faire roadies, medievalists, computer techies, Mensa members, etc. — suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome (“A.S.”). This is a multi-syndrome subtype of mild autism, characterized by:

  • high intelligence and creativity,
  • mild to severe Attention Deficit Disorder (which I prefer to think of as “Attention Dynamic Difference”),
  • usually with “Hyperactivity,”
  • often with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ( “O.C.D.”), and
  • perhaps most importantly, “dysthemia,” which is a difficulty in understanding the non-literal content of human communication, such as facial expressions, body language, voice tonalities and other social cues.

When you combine all those characteristics, A.S. seems to equal I.N.S. (or “Incipient Nerd Syndrome”) and much of the bizarre personal behavior and miscommunication that plagues our communities suddenly becomes understandable — not to mention the oh-so-common “cluelessness” that characterizes many of our best known members!

Many people with A.S. (or just plain A.D.H.D.) do what’s called “self-medicating” with alcohol, drugs, or other endorphin-raising activities, because they have no access to (or no understanding of the need for) appropriate medications that could be administered under the supervision of a healing professional. Unfortunately, that self-medicating can be a very slippery slope indeed, often leading to addictions and/or obsessions that can destroy lives. A major irony, of course, is that other forms of self-medication include meditation, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines.

Here’s some definitions I’ve found useful: “addictive behavior is the compulsive use of destructive substances or behaviors to relieve, temporarily, the psychological pain that arises from abuse, or deprivation of basic needs, in early childhood” (from a group called W.E.B.S.) “Toxic shame is the core of addiction” and compulsive/addictive behavior is “a pathological relationship to any mood-altering experience that has life-damaging consequences.” (both from John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You.)

Our community’s Dionysian reaction against the Apollonian asceticism of the mainstream religions has been used by many of us to excuse substance abuse and compulsive/addictive behaviors. This reaction was justified, but the dualistic extremes which many of us reached have caused great pain to ourselves and our loved ones.

Before Matthew Fox, the heretic Roman Catholic priest who invented Creation Spirituality, was officially “silenced” by the Vatican, he wrote and published a brilliant open letter to Grand Inquisitor Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) called, “Is the Catholic Church Today a Dysfunctional Family?” (Creation Spirituality, Nov./Dec. 1988). He showed just how easy it is for a religious organization to become as crazy as an alcoholic family, when its leaders and members don’t pay attention to their personal power and control issues. It’s not surprising that they defrocked and purged him later, and it’s even less surprising that the Catholic Church’s reaction to current scandals has been primarily denial and the blaming of their victims.

Dealing with these issues has become increasingly important, not just to me, but to the entire Neopagan community. Thinking about all of this finally got me to join a “Twelve Step” group. I’d been familiar with the Twelve Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon and Alateen, Sex Addicts Anonymous, etc., for several years, having some friends involved in them. Participating from the inside was a revelation. I discovered many other people who couldn’t remember most of their childhood, who were filled with inexpressible emotions, who could never find the right Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card to send because they all seem inappropriate for the dysfunctional parents they remembered, etc.

There are definite problems with the Twelve Step programs as they currently exist. Perhaps the major one for a Neopagan is the fact that, despite an officially “nondenominational” position, most interpretations of the program use mainstream monotheistic language when talking about the divine. The overwhelming majority of Twelve Steppers talk about an omnipotent, transcendent, single, male deity as their “Higher Power.” The underlying theology is guilt-based and emphasizes the powerlessness of the individual in the face of addiction and/or obsession. Most programs end meetings with Christian prayers, despite the fact that, officially, they aren’t supposed to. These problems have long been used by some Neopagans to avoid getting the help they need.

I won’t go into a missionary trip about the Twelve Step programs. They have their weaknesses (mostly polytheological), but they are nevertheless the most powerful and effective systems I have seen for healing the inner child and giving the adult appropriate life skills. I believe that all of us, especially the clergy, could learn a lot from them. In time we will create our own versions that are more in keeping with Pagan principles and beliefs. Meanwhile, there is nothing better available for those of us who are in pain from addiction, obsession, and/or victimization issues.

There are plenty of Pagans working with the programs now. In fact, just about every festival I’ve been to in the last several years has had Pagan Twelve Step meetings. These are usually multi-program meetings (people from A.A., O.A., N.A., Al-Anon, etc.) devoted to discussions of how the Twelve Steps can be adapted by Neopagans. There are even support groups meeting in local occult stores. Anodea Judith, author of Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System (which I highly recommend), has done much research and writing on “A Pagan Approach to the Twelve Step Programs.” Many Neopagan organizations are now dealing with issues of addiction and obsession, and/or requiring their clergy to learn about these issues.

So I can’t recommend highly enough an unfairly obscure (one might almost say “Anonymous”) Neopagan publication called Pagans In Recovery. This quarterly newsletter is now defunct, but carried many articles and stories of value to the Pagan 12-Step community. I hope to set up a P.I.R. section here someday on where the best of their publishing run will be available online, along with new materials--yet another plan that needs an intern!

Here is a group I just learned about in August of 2006:

The Healing Grove is the oldest and most comprehensive website for Wiccan and Pagan survivors of rape, incest and abuse and their allies. We have articles, resources, international hotlines, and a poetry anthology by survivors. We are currently accepting new articles and poetry. Our online support group accepts survivors and allies of all genders and orientations. We are open to friendly nonpagans who enjoy our nonjudgmental atmosphere as well. The Healing Grove has an associated Yahoo Group of the same name. For women who prefer an all-female support group, we recommend the Yahoo! Group Daughters of Demeter.

If you know of other Pagan-based recovery groups and publications, be sure to let me know about them. If any of you would like to write an article on how Neopagan polytheology can work with a recovery model, send it in to your favorite Neopagan publication, and to me. To those of you who are struggling to resolve these issues in your lives, remember: you are not alone.

12 Steps for Pagans

  1. Honesty: Admitting we were powerless over our addictions, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Hope: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Faith: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to a higher power, as we understand it.
  4. Courage: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Integrity: Admitted to a higher power, another, and ourselves the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Willingness: Were entirely ready to have a higher power remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humility: Humbly asked a higher power to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Truthfulness: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Justice: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Perseverance: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Spiritual Awareness: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with a higher power, as we understand it, praying only for knowledge of the way for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Service: Having been enlightened as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Higher Power is anything that the addict accepts, be it a God, Goddess, the Tao, Nature, and/or even the group; it is to be used in such a way that the addict is getting away from the self and selfishness.

Five States of Mind or The Death of the Old Way of Life

  1. Denial: I don’t have a problem, I only use on the weekends, etc.
  2. Anger: Everyone is after me, it’s their fault, why me?
  3. Bargaining: I’ll cut down my use, I won’t buy it, I’ll only use when..
  4. Depression: I’m a bad person, I can’t do anything right, life sucks.
  5. Acceptance: First step in the healing process.

Healing for Family and Friends of Addicts

  1. Addicts don’t use on purpose, they can’t help it. There is something wrong with the addict both mentally and physically, they have no control.
  2. Don’t take the addiction personally. You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure the addiction. You can’t even help the addict, unless they want help first.
  3. Be willing to confront the addict in a descriptive manner. Don’t shame or nag them, but be firm and gentle.
  4. Be willing to lose your relationship with the addict if the addict repeatedly refuses to seek help for himself or herself.
  5. Don’t cover up, enable, or shield the addict from their behavior.
  6. Arm yourself with understanding, knowledge and education about addiction. Know that denial is not the same as lying, the addict often times cannot see the obvious because it hurts too much

Signs of Addiction

  1. Compulsive — the person begins to lose control over the behavior.
  2. Repeated negative consequence, yet progressive inability to stop the behavior.
  3. Increasing obsession with or thinking about the behavior.
  4. Behavior creates problems in the person’s relationships, family, work, school, and/or social life.
  5. Increasing ‘tolerance’ or the need for more.
  6. Behavior becomes progressively more destructive, risky, and/or damaging.
  7. Secrecy and deception.
  8. Increasing isolation.
  9. Behavior is used to hide or cope with problems and/or unpleasant feelings.
  10. Behavior causes feelings of shame, remorse, guilt and/or regret.
  11. Engaging in the behavior at inappropriate times.
  12. Withdrawal, physical and/or psychological, when behavior is stopped.


Ways of becoming an Addict

  1. Susceptibility/Availability: Dose, frequency, and duration of use
  2. Purity/Method of use.
  3. Psychological factors: mood imbalances/mental disorders/ belief systems
  4. Developmental and/or social factors
  5. Traumatic events: Grief, loss, chronic physical pain and/or trauma issues

Pagans in Recovery (typical group rules)

Meetings every-other Thursday, 8pm-9:30pm at the XXXX community office space. No alcohol or drugs, those under the influence are ask to declare it, so that it may be determine if your presence would be harmful to the group. Participation is encouraged by all, we all have something to teach and learn from one another.

The goals of the covenant range from support and healing, to educating ourselves about the sickness that we are powerless over. Families and friends are important to this never-ending battle with addiction, their understanding about this disorder can and do help them to heal also. It is important to note, there is no magic pill to cure addiction it must be faced everyday, and if you are willing to work for it, a happy, fulfilling life is waiting. The hardest step to take is the first one.

There is only one pact that all addicts in the group must follow a desire to quit the addictive behavior.

All faiths and believes are accepted, none will be shunned or slighted for the path they have chosen.

There is no set policy on how a group meeting will start, that will be decided according to those present, as not to offend. Topics will very from week to week. After opening, it is asked, but not mandatory, that all introduce themselves and briefly say why you are there.

The speaker will ask if there is anything important that someone would like to share. Many times afterwards, a topic is chosen or decided upon by the group.

It is important to note that this is your group, your meeting; you will only get from it what you put in.

I can’t remember who sent this to me. Credits will apear someday, I hope.

Non-12 Step Recovery Groups

Not everyone finds that the 12 Step paradigm works for them. One reader tells me: “I offer the following links as alternatives to 12-step programs. I have serious qualms about 12-step programs, beginning with the requirement to self-identify as the problem (I’m an alcoholic) instead of as a person dealing with a problem (I have a problem with alcohol). The belief that the person is powerless is also problematic--and so forth. The efficacy of such programs is also suspect, both in the aggregate (when data can be found) and in the individual (the recovered addicts I know weren’t in 12-step programs and those who lapsed are/were).”

He sent me links to the following websites which may be of assistance to Pagans seeking alternate means of recovery from addictive and/or obsessive behaviors. The quotes are from the sites’ opening pages.

SMART Recovery® offers free face-to-face and online mutual help groups. SMART Recovery® (Self-Management And Recovery Training) helps people recover from all types of addictive behaviors, including: alcoholism, drug abuse, substance abuse, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, gambling addiction, cocaine addiction, and addiction to other substances and activities.

SMART Recovery® is an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. SMART Recovery® sponsors more than 300+ face-to-face meetings around the world, and 16+ online meetings per week. In addition, our online message board is an excellent forum in which to learn about SMART Recovery® and seek support.”

Moderation Management (MM) is a behavioral change program and national support group network for people concerned about their drinking and who desire to make positive lifestyle changes. MM empowers individuals to accept personal responsibility for choosing and maintaining their own path, whether moderation or abstinence. MM promotes early self-recognition of risky drinking behavior, when moderate drinking is a more easily achievable goal.” The primary idea behind this system seems to be to teach addiction-prone drinkers how to control themselves before they get to the full-blown alcoholic stage.

Rational Recovery is the original and only resource on self-recovery, providing inspiration and guidance in every community through the internet, bookstores, and libraries. This website is a comprehensive resource which will allow you to proceed to full recovery in as short a time as you like -- without the use of any other resources such as recovery groups, professional counselors, or addiction treatment centers.” The key concept used is that of the “Addictive Voice Recognition Technique® (AVRT®)” which is “an approach to addiction recovery based upon the experiences of people who have actually recovered independently, as an expression of moral judgment and free will. ... someone without the desire to quit an indulgence or activity altogether is not addicted, but simply engaged in risky behavior. In AVRT-based recovery, addiction is not a diagnosis, but a condition evident only to oneself. Accordingly, AVRT® is not a source of moralism for judging other people's personal conduct, but only a means for constructively judging your own conduct.” Who knows, it might work for you if the other ones don't.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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