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Living Stories: Spiritual Awakenings in Recovery

Living Stories: Spiritual Awakenings in Recovery

DeAndra's story:

I came into the rooms and realized after a while that I had the attitudes and behaviors of an addict way before I ever picked up a drug. I remember growing up and being at my family's parties, [where] my aunts and uncles would give me and my brothers beer. There are pictures in our photo albums of us, all under 6 or 7, with cans of beer in our hands. At an early age I learned to manipulate to get what I wanted.

I was molested at a young age by my uncle and felt that something was wrong with me, that it was my fault. When my mother and father separated, my world collapsed. My mother never showed me love; my father was my world. I started to feel so ashamed around other kids. I felt ugly and I felt they all knew I was doing something bad with my uncle. I was lonely and longed to fit in and be a part of something.

I picked up my first drug at the age of 13-marijuana. All the kids were doing it and my best friend convinced me to try it. Once again, I just wanted to be a part of the kids who were having fun. I didn't like marijuana, but I also began to drink a lot of beer around this time. Sometimes I would have a joint and a can of beer for breakfast.

I got pregnant at 17 and had to start working to support myself and my daughter. We were living with my mother, who constantly nagged and put me down. I started hanging out with friends more and more. I was introduced to uppers, cocaine and mescaline. Cocaine was my drug of choice, after using it I became alive, I could dance, joke, party and be one of the guys. Eventually my using started to interfere with work. My mother was complaining all the time. The only solace I got was from using drugs.

My daughter's father introduced me to crack. This was the beginning of years

[spent] losing jobs, desperation, loneliness, degradation, losing my kids to BCW [Bureau of Child Welfare] and living in shelters. I was totally out of control. I was arrested for selling drugs. I also turned tricks and allowed others to use my home as a drug spot.

After losing my kids and being arrested for the second time, I came in for treatment. They forced me to attend NA meetings. I didn't think it would help. I didn't really think I had a problem. But I took the suggestions of old-timers. I kept making meetings and held on. I started to do service, and I got a sponsor. My sponsor pointed out that I had no power over drugs and that's why I did the things I did. I finally felt I was a "part of" [something] and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm learning how to be a better person. Without my Higher Power, none of this would have been possible.

(DeAndra's name and details of her story have been changed to protect her identity.)

For the past year, our research group has collected stories like DeAndrea's. Stories of fear, pain and isolation. Stories of hope, change and personal growth. These are the stories of Narcotics Anonymous (NA), the stories one addict tells another in hopes of saving his or her life.


In 1993, our research group embarked on a journey to understand the spiritual nature of addiction and recovery. We were conducting an ethnographic study of a South Bronx treatment program and were struck by the number of individuals who credited their sobriety to the help, support and guidance of a "Higher Power." People attending the treatment program frequently made reference to their Higher Power and the change that had taken place in their lives. They spoke of this change with ease and comfort. The topic came up spontaneously in meetings. Its importance was underscored by the frequency of such discussions and by the intensity of the emotions that were revealed when it was discussed. Such conversations occurred in both formal and informal settings. It became clear to us that spirituality was an important aspect of recovery.

In order to better understand the nature of spirituality in recovery, we conducted a series of interviews and focus groups designed to delineate the ways in which spirituality played a part in recovery. We learned that there were distinctive teachings about spirituality that were shared in the recovery community (Green et al., 1998). Concepts

of faith, acceptance and surrendering were eloquently described by focus group parti-cipants. To emphasize the importance of these concepts, participants told stories of the changes that had taken place in their lives. The stories were elaborate statements that vividly described the devastating impact of drugs and the circumstances that led them to recovery. These stories were similar in nature to those commonly told in NA meetings.

Twelve-Step Storytelling

One of the most brilliant devices in 12-step fellowships is the use of the shared narrative or story (Khantzian and Mack, 1994). Addicted people tell stories as a way of understanding their own addiction and sharing it with others. Storytelling informs the newcomer about the habits and practices that lead to recovery. It reinforces spiritual messages. The stories underscore the disappointments, failures, separations, losses and abuses endured by individuals.

The telling of these stories helps individuals discover they are not alone in their suffering and that the shame associated with their problem is not unique. The stories remind them that they need the help of others to obtain and maintain their sobriety and to understand their own and others "defects of character that led them to the point where they could not control their addictions or their lives" (Khantzian and Mack, 1994). Storytelling also exposes the storyteller's personal development, allowing those with more experience to make course corrections if the process appears to deviate from the expected pathway of recovery.

The content of these stories assists individuals in tapping into an unexpected inner resource and in identification of this resource as "their own conception of a Power greater than themselves" (Smith, 1994).


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