St. Ignatious and the 11th Step
My journey out of codependence began in contemplative prayer. At a weekend prayer retreat, a minister introduced me to the Ignatian Examen. His recommendation after introducing it to our group was to practice the prayer for at least 30 days and to journal our experiences. At the end of that 30 days, I reflected on my daily examinations, only to realize that almost every consolation I experienced was the result of a compliment or affirmation given to me by someone with some authority in my life: a boss, a close friend, or a family member. What first seemed like a confirmation of my lifestyle quickly turned into a reality check: was I really so dependent on the approval of others that I only experienced happiness when they expressed their approval of me?
In 2009, as I defended my dissertation and earned my PhD, I embarked on a journey of recovery. Out of a desire to minister to struggling students on our campus, my husband and I committed to a 12-step process auspiciously in preparation for leading a recovery group on our campus. In God’s way, we encountered ourselves on the journey and realized our own need for recovery from addictions that were well-received in our Christian circles. For me, that addiction was codependence.
Codependence is no stranger to Christian women: the more I learned of its insidious ways, the more it sounded like the role models I had followed as a cradle believer raised in the Church. In the circles I traveled in as a child and adolescent, I saw myriad examples of women who I thought exemplified the Christian life of sacrifice. But increasingly, I wonder how many of them were actually putting the needs of others above their own in order to manipulate and find satisfaction in the acceptance and approval of the Church. There is a fine line between the taking up of the cross Christ calls for and the desire to find the approval of others in a self-imposed martyrdom.
Several months later, my codependence was brought front and center. In the circle of accountability of my recovery group, I realized that indeed my desire for the acceptance of others, particularly those whose affirmation and approval I craved, had become all-encompassing. It was what I lived for.
Filling the Void of Codependence
Codependent behavior is particularly debilitating for those of us who serve in positions of leadership. As an administrator at a large research public institution, my work world is full of populations that depend on my decisions, on my wise counsel, and on my leadership. To act in ways that are tainted by codependence can be particularly hurtful to the students and staff I serve on my campus. My struggle with codependence remains a central feature of my spiritual journey. While completing a 12-step program did bring freedom from approval addiction, the most difficult part of the journey lay in front of me. During a business trip, sober for several weeks, I experienced debilitating panic and anxiety attacks. A concern about two of the staff members on the trip with me resulted in an anxiety filled time that lasted over 24 hours. A few months later, on another business trip to Denver, I had the same experience. This time, a concern arose after I received an email from my office. My mind flew off in all directions, and the anxiety and debilitating panic returned…this time for two full days.
In a session with my spiritual director, I began recounting these incidents. I continued various contemplative prayer practices, and slowly I realized by newfound freedom had created within me a total identity void. The biggest fear of my newfound recovery had become: “Who am I if I’m not the person always helping, always striving for approval, always pleasing?” I’ve heard other addicts describe the same identity crisis: “Who will I be if I’m not drinking? Who will I be if I’m not (fill-in-the-blank) practicing my addiction?” The void left by addiction is cavernous. It is an abyss within you, and you’re afraid you will fall into it, be swallowed up by it, and lose your most basic sense of self. And within the recovery process itself there is nothing deep to fill it. The wound is too new. You have worked for months to find this measure of freedom, to break the chains of bondage. And once you do, you are left with a space that is so vast, you are overwhelmed by it and frightened of it.
The easiest way to fill the void is to substitute another substance or practice for what you left behind. Drive by any AA meeting and count the number of chain smokers out front. What’s the story? The alcohol has been replaced by the nicotine: a different addiction, but still an addiction that attempts to cover up the newfound spaciousness deep within. A new substitution addiction also allows you to remain in the program, defined by addiction and struggle. It’s just too frightening to leave. Being defined by your addiction is not so bad. You at least have a family to turn to. But if you are always defined by addiction, then relapse is inevitable, even though your identity at least feels safe. In my experience, the 12-step experience is not enough for permanent sobriety if we end it without a conscious commitment to contemplative prayer.
Just as the Examen had in the early stages of my recovery, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius now provided a safe and grounded practice for experiencing that freedom in the deepest possible level through deep felt communion with the Trinity. Identity…true self identity…is found in contemplative prayer and particularly in the Spiritual Exercises. The entire premise of the exercises is to come to a realization of the purpose for your very existence: to be loved by and to know God. This purpose is the only thing deep, basic, and safe enough to satisfy the canyon that exists after experiencing recovery. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius introduced me to a holy community and the Spirit of Love that permeates everything. The practice of the exercises brought deep community into my soul and provided a way to make the recovery permanent. Addiction has covered true self with layer upon layer of diversion, medication, and denial. The Spiritual Exercises brought me back to the deepest part of self…God within me.
Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, knew that sustained sobriety was only possible through a connection to a power greater than ourselves. The 11th step clearly articulates the only thing that will ultimately defeat the addiction is our “conscious contact with God…praying only for his will” and seeing that will take root in our lives, just like the addiction did. He knew that his freedom came in a deeper relationship with God and in coming to a completely new identity in that God, deep enough to fill the void the addiction had left.
In his commentary on the prodigal son, Pope John Paul II wrote: “[The Father’s] joy indicates a good that has remained intact: even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father’s son; it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself.” That is the recovery–followed by the contemplative–journey in a nutshell for me. I have returned to the truth about myself that I can only find in contemplation with God. Recovery initially gave me the tools for finding the freedom to even be open to the truth about myself. That truth had become so convoluted, so hidden, so distorted by my addiction that there was no way I could even see it. As the layers of addictive behavior were peeled back, I realized more and more there was a true self deep within me that had been silenced and hidden by these addictive behaviors. Once I dug past that behavior and embraced freedom, I was ready to know God more fully, ready to have unbroken communion with God in the fullness of all that can mean. Ready to experience freedom as God’s gift of true self given back to me.