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Book Review: The Essence of 12 Step Recovery

By Damian McElrath

Foreword by Richard Solly:

In The Essence of Twelve Step Recovery, Damian McElrath defines spirituality as “relational.” That is, spirituality is not found alone in the desert, isolated on the snowy peak of a mountain top, or even in solitude on the shore of the Aegean Sea, but surprisingly, it can be found at home in our relationships with each other. This view of spirituality is an unusual one to come across today in our American culture of wanderlust, self-sufficiency, and independence.

McElrath believes that the spiritual path is best understood in the context of “the world of dialogue” with others. He even views the deeper Self as an a priori relationship, the first relationship upon which others are built, which in recovery we can develop or not. In fact, McElrath defines a triad of key relationships: self, others and a Higher Power. These relationships create our spiritual center or “ultimate concern”; and as theologian Paul Tillich says in his book, The Meaning of Existence, it is “the loss of a spiritual center” that arouses anxiety and meaninglessness, which are so characteristic of addiction.

Nor surprisingly then, McElrath, a spiritual care provider for addicts and alcoholics, defines “the essential character of addiction” as “anti-relational,” an isolation of intense magnitude that prohibits any kind of deep relationship. Disconnected from everything, everyone and every place, the addicted person has truly lost his or her home – an inner landscape and fundamental relationship to the community that otherwise could normally help, nourish and sustain a person. As a result, the chemically dependent person tumbles into an abyss of egotism or a “a world of monologue” where only his or her voices, opinions, decisions and wants matter. The alcoholic has no communication with anyone other than with his or her own obsessive need for intoxication; itself like a “voice”,” it is the only one the addict listens to. Cut off from the deeper self, the addict’s only relationship is with an object, his or her drug.

I especially appreciate the author’s all-inclusive definition of relationships. Whomever we meet, wherever we are, we are in a world of dialogue with others on our spiritual path. Spirituality is defined, McElrath says, by our ability to connect to a Higher Power through this community. To further emphasize its importance, the author draws our attention to the first word in the Twelve Steps: We.

The most critical community for the person in recovery is the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. There he or she first learns (or relearns) that others bring, not hell as existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed, but help. Here, with others in the fellowship, the recovering person shares his or her experiences, strengths and hopes. The stories told by others in the group help the recovering person learn that he or she has story to share, and in its telling lies the healing.

McElrath makes clear that abstinence alone is not spirituality; and spirituality isn’t easy to come by. Most often, he says the addict goes kicking and screaming to the death of his or her old intoxicated self, and only later through some intervention, experiences “a rising (discovery) of the true self” – one of the three critical relationships. This discovery is a “spiritual awakening” that is achieved, sometimes dramatically and sometimes slowly, through education. In either case, what McElrath describes as a falling then a rising reminds me of the words of Nobel Prize poet Czeslaw Milosz, who writes in his poem “On Prayer” that in crisis sometimes a “reversal” happens and what takes us down, what takes an addict down, can mysteriously reverse and now lifts us up, “where everything is just the opposite; and the word “is” unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.” The meaning may be the very restoration of the falling back from isolation into the healing world of others.

Of course, the resulting gratitude an alcoholic and addict can feel for this reversal or discovery is important. So much so that McElrath quotes Meister Eckhart, reminding us that if we say only one prayer in our lives it should be “Thank you.” However, I would argue that the addict really needs two prayers, the other one just as simple as the first: “Help me.”

The author discusses how his triad of relationships (self, others and Higher Power) is the key to understanding the Twelve Steps. In Step One, by admitting defeat, we find ourselves (or the self). In finding ourselves, we find the path back to others. And in this community or fellowship of others we find our Higher Power. In this way, the Twelve Steps help the recovering person heal all three main relationships at once.

The author’s reference to Chardin that we are “spiritual beings having a human experience” emphasizes our relationships and being-in-the-world as truly the treasures of recovery. In the dependence on alcohol or drugs, relationships to others are buried, but sobriety unearths them. But how do we begin this spiritual journey forward into the new sobering light and life in our communities? To start is simple, says the author. Besides abstinence, and all that is required is “a change of heart.” And isn’t that the essence of Twelve Step recovery?

Foreword by Richard Solly
Author of From Where the Rivers Come


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