I attended my second "Unity Conference" yesterday, which is a gathering of sexually addicted individuals (SA) and their impacted family members (S-Anon). It is a 12-step program based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model and has been around for nearly 25 years in my part of the country. Last year at this time, I wrote about the "yuck" factor and my reaction to being in a conference with so many "perps." But this year was different for me, because I have changed.
As a member of the planning committee for this year's conference, my event responsibility was to plan and facilitate the annual "Birthday Party" for S-Anons. S-Anon birthdays are calculated from the date we entered the program, not from the date we first became sober. We are not the addict but rather have our lives incredibly impacted by the addiction of another so we celebrate the date when we first washed ashore on the banks of recovery.
Nearly one hundred women, and a few men, were guests of honor for our celebration and in the glow of candlelight and flowers we shared our journeys of recovery. Newcomers and old-timers alike shared about the most important element of their recovery journey. And the overwhelming majority indicated that it was the power of the group that had most positively impacted their recovery. It was in their local group that they found empathy, understanding and unconditional positive regard, often for the first time in their lives. It was in their S-Anon group that they shared their whole stories and found acceptance and validation. It was the group that kept them growing as human beings and connected or reconnected them to their Higher Power.
As I stood and listened to each story, I thought of the parent-child relationship and the impact of mirroring on a child's development. Mirroring or empathetic responsiveness between the child and her primary caregiver is critical to the infant's development, particularly in the area of emotional self-awareness. It is the infant's first exposure to human emotional connection and it validates or gives reality to her experience and her existence as a separate human being. And that is exactly what the group does for the partner of an addict--it validates her reality--normalizes it and offers understanding, empathy and compassion.
Today is Sunday--the day I normally attend church. But today, I am giving my body, spirit and soul a rest and am staying home. My shame-based "religious" training kicked in this morning and I heard Paul's admonition to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves," ringing in my ears. And the thought occurs to me, that yesterday was church in the truest sense. So much of what I heard--actually almost all of what I heard was about spiritual growth and transformation as a result of the pain of addiction and as a consequence of working the steps. One after another, individuals shared from the podium, at the lunch table and in our small groups about how recovery has connected or reconnected them to God. This was not a religious gathering but a truly spiritual one. These are people who have been betrayed, have behaved in ways they are too ashamed to talk about and yet have found grace and mercy and a new love and connection to the God of their understanding.
And let's face it, it is generally quite unsafe to go into a church gathering and be vulnerable, transparent and honest about the struggles we face everyday with real problems. Church folk tend to be too "nice" to talk about the gritty, dirty parts of the human condition on a personal level. We can talk about sin in a global sense but certainly not in a personal sense. Church tends to be the place we go to with masks firmly in place. And as a card-carrying, life-long member of organized religion, I know this to be true.
So as I stood before the group yesterday to share my journey of recovery, I talked about how I am finally able to live loved. While I have cognitively known that God loves me and delights in me, I have been unable to get that knowledge to move 18 inches from my head to my heart. Participation in my precious Saturday morning 12-step group with its endless supply of love, compassion, empathy and validation has helped me learn to live in the glow of my Papa's steady, unfailing and overwhelming love for me. I feel joy, contentedness and security in a way I could only dream of prior to entering recovery. My spiritual life has been completely transformed in ways I could only imagine before. My heart beats gratitude for this life I have been given and love for a God who has mirrored love to me since my birth. I just couldn't see it. But it was in the rooms of a 12-step program that I saw Him--with eyes of love and acceptance and with tears flowing down His face for the pain I was experiencing. It was in the faces of other broken and wounded men and women that I saw my own pain and experienced a human connection unlike any others I have known. Like a mother, holding her infant child, they held me close, soothed my fears and calmed my troubled heart. They whispered words of encouragement and didn't let go, even when I was inconsolable. I can live loved because I have been loved by these incredible men and women. Happy Birthday to us one and all!