Penny Mary Hauser has been a psychiatric/mental health nurse for 30 years. Penny's personal recovery began in 1976. She continues to value the journey. She believes a continuing conversation with God is the core of the peace that comes in recovery.
Penny, please come to my office.” The nursing supervisor’s voice was ominous, and fear clutched at my insides. She asked about my slurred speech, my inappropriate laughter during shift report. She asked if I’d been drinking. I denied it, of course. The next time she confronted me with her suspicions, I sobbed—and continued to make excuses. She sent me home, and I was filled with overwhelming guilt and shame. My life was teetering on an abyss.
My own recovery began within a year of that last confrontation at work. Through God’s miraculous grace came an increasing awareness of how my alcoholism was affecting my family and my life. As I look back on my experiences, I am able to see how they led to my recovery from addiction and, more important, how they taught me about God’s abundant gifts.
While addiction can bring us to the point of emptiness and despair, it can also be an opportunity to experience the transformative power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. It is in the helplessness of our addiction—in the darkness and fear it creates—that God meets us with his offer of hope and grace. Openness to these gifts changes our lives and frees us from the slavery of our addiction.
A gender-specific approach
In the years since the miracle of my own recovery, I’ve worked with many women challenged with addiction and in various stages of recovery. I’ve watched as many relapsed: some went on to reenter recovery with new strength, some continued to struggle with the disease, and some have died. As I watched these women struggle, I frequently asked, “What is missing? What makes a difference?”
The Stone Center at Wellesley College encourages a recovery process that focuses on a gender-specific approach to clinical issues. This process takes into account the importance of mutual and empowering relationships for women’s growth and healing.
Beyond the importance of healthy human relationships, a spiritual process in which a woman embeds her recovery in her relationship with God has proven essential for helping her move into the peace and joy of sustained recovery. Her relationship with God gives her the strength to continue on the journey to recovery and leads to an acceptance of the incredible gift of grace.
The social stigma of being a woman addict can be the greatest barrier to a woman’s acknowledging her disease. Understanding this stigma and overcoming fears related to it are important for a woman’s path to recovery. In my clinical work I use a helpful acronym—STIGMA—which outlines the issues women identify as primary traps in their addiction and triggers for relapse:
G=Grief and loss (or) Guilt and shame
A=Anger and abuse
These issues are best explored with a supportive and empathetic therapist, a support group, or a knowledgeable minister. It can also be done as part of personal reflection in conjunction with other treatment. We are powerless over our addiction but not over our recovery.
Naming, transforming, sustaining
A woman beginning the path to recovery should explore each STIGMA issue with reflection, openness, and awareness. This is accomplished in a three-stage process in which she names the issue, transforms her thinking and behavior, and sustains that transformation in her relationship with God.
Though it is critical to name and transform to move into long-term recovery, the most important stage in the process is sustain. This stage really begins the first time a woman utters the prayer, “My God, what am I going to do about this?!” This cry leads to the gift of grace, to spiritual willingness to be open to a new way of thinking and being in a relationship with God. Openness begins in name and transform. It is our knock on the door. The door opens and leads to a sustained recovery that is no longer a struggle, but one in which we have moved from fear and darkness to peace and light.
To move closer to peace and light requires that a woman acknowledge her loneliness and the God-shaped void that lies at the core of her addiction. Most of us like to think we are open to new ideas and experiences, but when it comes to a new relationship with God, we don’t know how to begin. If a woman is willing to examine each of the STIGMA issues in light of her relationship with God, if she is open to reflection, then there is hope for her sustained recovery.
Assessing issues in light of spiritual wisdom
A woman’s self-image can be deeply affected by the messages she has heard about God and about human beings’ relationships with God from important people in her life. Was God loving and full of forgiveness and grace, or was God seen as one who keeps a list of our sins and is slow to show mercy? It is important to overcome negative images and to understand that even in her addiction, a woman can move from broken to blessed. Some women have never heard that they are beloved daughters of God who will be welcomed home with open arms, however “prodigal.” On the path to recovery, each must begin to understand that God has unconditional love for her. Each day she should take a few moments to thank God for that love…for calling her his “beloved.”
Sometimes traditional roles, with their gender-specific responsibilities and relationships, can feel like they have us in a trap: wife, mother, daughter, friend, employee, cook, laundress, volunteer, childcare provider. Each of these roles makes demands of women and can distract them from their primary role: building and maintaining mutual, life-giving relationships.
In the new awareness of recovery, a woman gradually begins to recognize the sacredness of her life and of each of these roles as they flow from her primary role. She begins to pay attention to the miracle of the day, to the miracle of her many roles and relationships. These are sacred, and bring the mystery of faith into her daily life, because through them God gives her the grace to live out those roles and foster those relationships. God wants her to have the freedom of recovery, to free her from the trap of demanding roles that lack meaning and open up the reality of the moments of grace they can present.
Ineffective communication in one’s relationship with God can often be found in a recovering woman’s prayer life. Prayer is much more than saying the rote prayers of childhood; it is about communicating with God in both silence and listening. It is about taking the time to meditate, to listen to what God is telling us in our daily lives. Without this communication, a woman in recovery will not be able to find the inner silence and peace she is looking for as she heals from her addiction. Prayer is giving God permission to help us in our journey to recovery. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8). When a woman is struggling on her path to recovery, bringing her into the presence of God—through prayer—will help her learn to trust in God’s promise of happiness and life.
Ultimately moving through the process of grief related to a woman’s losses in life and through her addiction means coming to a spiritual acceptance of those losses. This spiritual acceptance does not erase all feelings connected with the losses. It is a transformation of the thinking that frames her recovery into hope for new life and new freedom. In addiction, the ultimate loss a woman has suffered is her relationship with God. In many ways, she has turned her back on him. But as a loving Father, God has not done that. In recovery, a woman repents of her loss of relationship with God. She cannot forgive herself. Forgiveness is the gift God lavishes on us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—a gift that overcomes all human grief and loss.
To spiritually sustain her recovery from a medical point of view, a woman learns to pray for healing and hope. Kathleen Norris says prayer isn’t asking for what we think we want, but it’s asking to be changed in ways we can’t even imagine. The psalmist says, “If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol [the addiction], you are there.…You knit me in my mother’s womb” (139:8, 13). God knit each person once, and God will heal each one now. Through prayer and meditation, a woman in recovery can bring God into her daily life and come to believe his promises. That is God’s gift of hope.
Abuse is so often part of the stories of women with the disease of addiction. With abuse comes an overwhelming sense of anger and powerlessness. Even without abuse, women in recovery are often full of anger from losses and betrayals—her own and that of others. In considering her anger and its place in her relationship with God, she experiences freedom from the trap of anger and embraces God’s promise of forgiveness by extending it to others. She may remember the abuse, but it is how she chooses to remember it that brings healing. With the beginnings of forgiveness, she feels the divine mystery of this shift to compassion. In authentic forgiveness, bitter feelings dissipate and the thirst for revenge is replaced with a feeling of freedom. The perpetrator no longer controls her feelings or her life. When she is able to forgive, she becomes the hero in the story instead of the victim.
In forgiveness, we are given the freedom to move beyond our shame and guilt—to move from broken to blessed and to see recovery as held in our relationship with God. And as our recovery progresses we have the promise that we are firmly held in grace and love by God, who wants us to experience his healing touch in our daily lives.
Penny Hauser has worked in the mental-health field for thirty years. Since 1985, her clinical practice has focused on substance abuse in women. For more information on her book Broken by Addiction, Blessed by God, visit liguori.org or call 800-325-9521