Pagans in Recovery

(Editor's note: This article was written in 1990, so many of the resources it recommends may be out-of-date. Be sure to verify that any newsletters or organizations still exist before sending any funds!)

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 child and became an anorexic (yes, it happens to males 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 writer's block), an unwillingness to ask for what I need, etc. For a few years, my co-dependent enabling behavior towards a best friend's alcoholism almost destroyed ADF. Last year my son, Arthur, was born and I've become determined to break the cycles of dysfunction before I start repeating my parents' patterns.

I 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, 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 99% of the entire Neopagan community - and 150% of our clergy.

Here are some definitions I've stolen from the W.E.B.S. material (see below) "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." (Various sources) "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." (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 Catholic priest who invented Creation Spirituality, was officially "silenced" by the Vatican, he wrote and published a brilliant open letter to Grand Inquisitor Ratzinger, called "Is the Catholic Church Today a Dysfunctional Family?" (Creation, 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 (see my open letter to Selena Fox last DP, and the responses in this and next DP). Dealing with these issues has become increasingly important, not just to my personal life, but ADF and the entire Neopagan community.

All of this finally got me to join 'Twelve Step" group. I'd been familiar with the Twelve Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc., for several years, having many friends involved in them. Participating from the inside has been a revelation. I've discovered many other people who can't remember most of their childhood, who are filled with inexpressible rage, who can never find the right Mother's Day or Father's Day card to send because they all seem inappropriate, etc.

There are 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 male deity as their "Higher Power" (and for them it works). The underlying theology is guilt-based and emphasizes the powerlessness of the individual in the face of addiction and/or obsession. These problems have 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, especially since I'm just a beginner at them. They have their weaknesses (mostly polytheological), but they are nonetheless the most powerful and effective systems I have ever 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 (see recent issues of Green Egg magazine). 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 couple of 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 stores.

Other Pagans have been trying to invent entirely new approaches, such as the W.E.B.S. (Women Emerging and Becoming Sane) material coming out of Berkeley, California (write to Starwhite, c/o Lifeways, 2140 Shattuck Ave., #2093, Berkeley, CA 94704 - enclose a few bucks and a large SASE). Many Neopagan organizations are starting to deal with issues of addiction and obsession, and/or requiring their clergy to 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 costs only $8.50 per year ($2.50 for a issue). Make out and mail your checks to: "Church of Earth Healing," 22 Palmer St., Athens, OH 45701. Everyone planning on becoming ADF clergy or on becoming counselors any sort inside the Neopagan community, should subscribe if they want to be able to help their fellow Neopagans (let alone themselves) deal with these issues.

If you know of other Pagan-based recovery groups and publications, be sure to let us know about them. If any of you would like to write an article on how ADF polytheology can work with a recovery model, we'd love to see it! To those of you who are struggling to resolve these issues in your lives, remember: you are not alone.

Author Information

Rev. Isaac Bonewits

Author's Bio:

Isaac Bonewits (10/1/1949 - 08/12/2010) was the founder of ADF and was our Archdruid for ten years, and a contributor to ADF until his death. He was very active and well-known in the Neopagan community at large.

Articles by Rev. Isaac Bonewits

2017 Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, Inc.

Please consider Donating to ADF

Technical Difficulties? Email adf-webmasterat_signadf.org